Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 76)


Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular and well-known plays in the Shakespearean canon, centers on the ill-fated romance of two adolescents, each a member of one of the prominent, feuding families of Shakespeare's medieval Verona. Defying social custom and the dictates of their parents, the passionate young lovers perform a secret marriage ceremony, but a string of misfortunes ends the affair in tragedy. Written circa 1595, the play was an immediate success and has remained one of Shakespeare's most influential works. Critical consensus has tended to view the play as a poetic triumph but a dramatic failure in comparison with the playwright's later tragedies. Confronting this seeming paradox in his 1970 survey of the drama, Douglas Cole (see Further Reading) asks, “How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance?” This question in its myriad forms has preoccupied a host of critics. Cole's answer touches on many of the principal areas of recent interest in the work: its transformation of sources, originality of poetic language, skillfully realized characters, quickly paced fusion of comedy and tragedy, and blended themes of fate and chance. James Black (1975) highlights another element of critical interest: the play's exquisite attention to visual artistry, which has contributed to its sustained popularity on stage. Many critics, including Gerhard W. Kaiser (1977), maintain that what the play lacks in tragic intensity it replaces with lyrical beauty.

While character-centered criticism of Romeo and Juliet has traditionally focused on the drama's title figures, Romeo's friend Mercutio has also attracted a fair share of attention. The near-mythic critical status of Mercutio, who meets his demise midway through the drama, has its origins in the famous remark, attributed to John Dryden, that Shakespeare had to kill this brilliantly realized character “to prevent being kill'd by him.” Whether Dryden ever made such a statement is a matter of speculation, but there is little doubt that Mercutio tends to steal all of the scenes in which he appears. Contemporary interest in Mercutio often reflects on his status as a significant structural or thematic element in Romeo and Juliet. Herbert McArthur (1959), after first surveying Dryden's and other prominent historical assessments of Mercutio, claims that Romeo's close friend, despite his short life span on stage, is a fully developed and consistent dramatic character who helps define both Romeo and Juliet by his presence. Similarly, Raymond V. Utterback (1973) sees Mercutio as an integral component in Shakespeare's depiction of tragic causation, and maintains that the pattern of events leading up to his death becomes an organizing principle in the drama and prefigures a corresponding tragic resolution in the fate of the young lovers. Viewing Mercutio as a youthful trickster figure with symbolic links to the Roman god Mercury, Thomas Browne (1989) argues that the bawdy adolescent draws misfortune upon himself for his actions and helps focus Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy of character rather than of chance. Another figure selected for recent character study is Mercutio's slayer, Tybalt. Jerzy Limon (1995) suggests that while Romeo and Mercutio have received considerable critical attention, few have bothered to adequately analyze the nuances of Tybalt's character. Limon contends that Tybalt's actions appear to be properly motivated by a desire for honor, rather than by anger or cowardice as others have maintained. Turning to the figure of Romeo, Marvin Krims (1999) provides psychoanalytic commentary on the drama's male lead. According to Krims, Romeo fits the psychological profile of a neurotic child exposed to a sexualized trauma in his formative years, one in which he possibly confused innocent lovemaking with a violent assault. In his reenactment of this trauma during the closing scene of the play, Krims contends, Romeo once again confuses an act of love, this time with Juliet, and sublimates it into a tragedy of self-destruction.

The robust performance history of Romeo and Juliet attests to the enduring popularity of the drama, as well as to the modern stage director's prerogative to alter, revise, adapt, and abridge. Theater productions of Romeo and Juliet around the turn of the twenty-first century have demonstrated both the pliability of the drama and the perennial appeal of its emblematic lovers. Reviewing director Michael Boyd's 2000 production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon, Russell Jackson comments on the “austerity” of this staging of Verona, which was devoid of warmth, community sentiment, or religious sensibility. Nevertheless, Jackson finds David Tennant's Romeo and Adrian Schiller's Mercutio well interpreted and effective, and additionally approves of Boyd's fine handling of the erotic subtexts in the drama. Anita Gates (2001) reviews a very different Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City. Contemporary clothing and a hip-hop motif pervaded director Rob Barron's ninety-minute abridgement, which Gates finds to be skillfully molded to please the tastes of modern-day adolescents. In Wilborn Hampton's (2001) review of Terrence O'Brien's Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, he contends that the staging was “uneven” in terms of both individual performances and directorial acumen, but praises Nance Williamson's “genuinely comic” Nurse. In Bruce Weber's assessment of a 2001 production at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, he commends the youthful and energetic cast. Weber asserts that director Emily Mann's extensive text deletions enlivened the play and quickened its pace during a generally lighthearted first half, but blames such cuts for purging the performance of much of its tragic pathos in the grave and serious closing segments of the drama. Two popular cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's love-tragedy, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, have continued to elicit critical interest. Jennifer L. Martin's 2002 analysis offers a comparative look at these works, contrasting Zeffirelli's depiction of innocent youth destroyed by an undeniable fate with Luhrmann's technique of “postmodern montage” and reliance on visual suggestion and allusion to tell Shakespeare's story.

Among the major threads of thematic criticism that have dominated study of Romeo and Juliet is the question of whether the drama should be viewed as a character-driven tragedy of fate or one that relies on fortune or chance as its guiding principle. D. Douglas Waters (1992) contributes to this discussion, contending that the play is a tragedy of fate and fortune influenced by the writings of Ptolemy and Seneca. According to Waters, Shakespeare demonstrated that fate sometimes acts “through chance, human contingency, and accident.” A number of contemporary critics have also studied ideological or cultural factors that contribute to Shakespeare's depiction of society, including late-twentieth-century commentators who have considered the rebellion of Romeo and Juliet as a tacit subversion of patriarchal culture. Kirby Farrell (1989) interprets the actions of the young lovers in disregarding their parent's wishes and following their destructive passions as a direct assault on the symbolic power of patriarchy. In a distinct but complementary assessment, Nathaniel Wallace (1991) analyzes the theme of family conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Verona, concentrating on the process of semiotic revolt in which new cultural metaphors appear to replace the old. Dueling is the subject of Jill L. Levenson's (1995) essay, which emphasizes violence as a “constant theme” in the play, and one coded into the conventions of the culture it endeavors to depict. Robin Headlam Wells (1998, see Further Reading) looks at the satirical element in Romeo and Juliet, suggesting Shakespeare's unrelenting attack on sentimentalism in the work as it critiques the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry and the masculine ideal of the martial hero. Continuing another line of scholarly inquiry, several recent critics have regarded time as a central theme in Romeo and Juliet and have commented on Shakespeare's complex application and manipulation of temporality within the play. G. Thomas Tanselle (1964) points out that the action of Romeo and Juliet is compressed into roughly four days and that references to time and its passing saturate the work. In surveying these references, Tanselle remarks that this perception of time serves to strongly distinguish young and old, and suggests Shakespeare's “peculiarly modern” preoccupation with relativity as his characters attempt to define where they stand in relation to the past, present, and future. G. G. Heyworth (2000) distinguishes between two modes of temporal reckoning in Romeo and Juliet: tragic and romantic time. For Heyworth, the drama foregrounds “the generic insufficiency of time” in romance, and illustrates Shakespeare's power to desynchronize, dilate, and condense time in his drama in order to transform romance into tragedy.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

James Black (essay date spring 1975)

SOURCE: Black, James. “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15, no. 2 (spring 1975): 245-56.

[In the following essay, Black traces patterns of visual pairing, duplication, and opposition in Romeo and Juliet.]

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The first-act prologue to Romeo and Juliet invites the audience to use its eyes as well as its patient ears. “Our toil”—the actors' efforts—will try to compensate visually for anything that may elude hearing. There is a more confident note here than can be found in Shakespeare's other...

(The entire section is 4777 words.)

Gerhard W. Kaiser (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Kaiser, Gerhard W. “Romeo and Juliet.” In The Substance of Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy under Special Consideration of Shakespeare's “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet,” pp. 179-208. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Kaiser presents an overview of the plot, central characters, and themes of Romeo and Juliet, viewing the drama as not only a tragedy of misfortune and explosive passion, but also one of reconciliation.]

After having discussed three of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, we propose now to have a look at...

(The entire section is 9484 words.)