Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 51)
Romeo and Juliet
See also, Romeo and Juliet Criticism.
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the ill-fated romance of its two young lovers. Set in medieval Italy, the drama details the clandestine love of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, members of two feuding Veronese families. Because of this feud and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choosing, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage culminates in tragedy for both the couple and their families. Historical commentary on the work has focused on a variety of stylistic and design issues, and particularly its status as a successful tragedy. More recent scholarship has carried on another principal line of inquiry by concentrating on the tragic love between Romeo and Juliet. Attempts have been made by critics of the latter half of the twentieth century to understand Shakespeare's representation of love in Romeo and Juliet, especially in its social contexts. The significant juxtaposition of sexual desire and death has also been studied by scholars, as have the roles of language and gender in constructing the love affair.
Contemporary critics have offered numerous approaches to the passionate romance of Romeo and Juliet, assessing this subject as the central element in the play. Geoffrey Hutchings (1977) considers love as a force beset by social predicaments, human foibles, and the vicissitudes of fortune. He emphasizes Romeo's role as a sensitive, at times ridiculous, lover whose shared passion with Juliet is thwarted by the lovers' isolation and leads to disaster. R. Stamm (1986) examines the pivotal scene of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting, which Shakespeare presents in the form of a love sonnet. In addition to considering the importance of the words spoken during this encounter, Stamm highlights Shakespeare's use of gesture and touch to reveal the magnitude of passion between Romeo and Juliet. Barbara L. Estrin (1981) portrays the young couple as dreamers whose love stands as an ideal vision that awakens the self and transcends death.
The related nature of death and desire has been further investigated by critics of Romeo and Juliet who maintain that the work is a dramatic depiction of the Liebestod myth—a juxtaposition of romantic passion and death. Contradicting the point of view of many recent commentators who consider the deaths of Romeo and Juliet ironic or somehow justly deserved, William C. Carroll (1981) contends that the ending of the play—in which golden statues of the now-dead lovers are erected by their apparently contrite families—reveals the triumph of their passionate love over death. Lloyd Davis (1996) considers the rhetoric and poetic discourse of desire in Romeo and Juliet. According to Davis, the idealized romance in this tale of desire unfulfilled reveals itself to be tragically fatal, furthering the Renaissance theme of sex and death as inextricably intertwined.
The relationship between the action of Romeo and Juliet and the social components of love, desire, gender, and romance also figures prominently in contemporary criticism of the work. Catherine Belsey (1993) offers a cultural perception of the drama, in which she views the inherent contradictions of desire represented in the play's tragic outcome. Carolyn E. Brown (1986) observes the imagery of falcon and falconer as indicative of a unique gender dynamic, with Juliet adopting the role of master and Romeo that of her trained servant. Robert Appelbaum (1997) examines a related subject, that of masculinity in Romeo and Juliet. Appelbaum envisions the family rivalries as a violent and masculine assertion of the patriarchal symbolic order, to which Romeo offers an alternative in the form of erotic desire, but from which he cannot escape. Susan Snyder (1996) also closely examines the feud between the Montagues and Capulets as a central concern. According to Snyder, this feud may be interpreted as a metaphor for ideology, which seems to pervade the drama of Romeo and Juliet's love.
Love And Romance
Geoffrey Hutchings (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Love and Grace in Romeo and Juliet" in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 20, No. 2, September, 1977, pp. 95-106.
[In the following essay, Hutchings considers Romeo and Juliet "a study of love and passion " in a social context.]
In the Prologue Shakespeare summarizes his plot; we know what to expect. He also tells us what sort of play he is writing: a story of love overthrown by misadventure in the context of social hatreds, and not an Aristotelian tragedy.1
Shakespeare was beginning to exploit the idea that lovers are essentially vulnerable in a wicked world. Paradoxically, just because love "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things", those who love are vulnerable. Indeed, if I may, in discussing so punning a play, make my own very serious word play, love bareth all things in both senses of the verb; and what is bare is vulnerable. In later plays, whether the outcome is comic or tragic or delicately ambivalent, this vulnerability accompanies love; and often true love itself is most vulnerable to the counterfeit emotions with which the unwary may confuse it—mere physical passion, lust for power, narcissistic self-indulgence. All of these counterfeits are powerfully presented in Othello, for example, or in the single character of Malvolio in...
(The entire section is 18096 words.)
Death And Desire
William C. Carroll (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "'We Were Born to Die': Romeo and Juliet," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 54-71.
[In the following essay, Carroll explores the juxtaposition of love and death in Romeo and Juliet, viewing the ending of the play as "positive" in that it eternalizes the title characters' love rather than ironically presenting their demise.]
While Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage offstage, their one night in the sheets of love is shaded by the ghostly presence of winding sheets. Tybalt's death hangs over Verona, as old Capulet says to Paris:
Look you, she lov'd her kinsman Tybalt dearly,
And so did I. Well, we were born to die.
'Tis very late, she'll not come down to-night.'
Indeed she won't, for she is dying sexually above even as her father pronounces his platitudes and arranges her hasty marriage to Paris. Juliet governs her own comings and dyings to the end.
Capulet's sententious wisdom, bracketed between a bow to a dead loved one and transactions with a new suitor, reminds us of Romeo and Juliet's constant association of birth, love, and death, from the Nurse's proleptic obituary of Juliet's parallel, Susan (I.iii.18), through the image clusters...
(The entire section is 21448 words.)
Gender And Society
Susan Snyder (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Ideology and Feud in Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49, 1996, pp. 87-96.
[In the following essay, Snyder contends that the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet is a metaphor for ideology, arguing that social "norms themselves bring about the tragedy" of the play.]
Romeo and Juliet are very young. They are young to be married, and also young to be protagonists in a tragedy. Shakespeare made a special point of Juliet's extreme youth, first subtracting two years from the already tender age of Arthur Brooke's heroine (instead of sixteen, just under fourteen), and then having the characters disagree more than once over whether she is old enough to marry.1 Romeo, presumably somewhat older than Juliet, is nevertheless not yet grown up: still in the family home, fussed over by his parents, free to roam about with his friends but apparently not seen as ready for adult responsibility.
Why did Shakespeare insist on his tragic lovers as adolescents? To be sure, their youthfulness accentuates the generational conflict implicit in the story, the tragic disjunction that Franco Zeffirelli exploited so well in his compelling film version. But the extreme youth of Romeo and Juliet opens up a possibility beyond the...
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Brown, Carolyn E. "Juliet's Training of Romeo," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 333-55.
Brown discusses the element of power in the love relationship of Romeo and Juliet, examining imagery of Juliet as a falconer and Romeo as her well-trained falcon.
Cox, Marjorie Kolb. "Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet." The Psychoanalytic Review 63, No. 3 (Fall 1976): 379-92.
Argues that the tragic outcome of Romeo and Juliet derives from difficulties its characters have in dealing with the problems of adolescence.
Franson, J. Karl. "'Too soon marr'd': Juliet's Age as Symbol in Romeo and Juliet." Papers on Language and Literature 32, No. 3 (Summer 1996): 244-62.
Considers the theme of premature marriage in Romeo and Juliet.
Goldstein, Martin. "The Tragedy of Old Capulet: A Patriarchal Reading of Romeo and Juliet." English Studies 77, No. 3 (May 1996): 227-39.
Contends that an internal disagreement between the patriarchal Capulet and Lady Capulet, rather than the public feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, provides the "driving force of the play."
Hays, Peter L. "The Dance of Love and...
(The entire section is 723 words.)