Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5612
'And All Things Change Them to the Contrary': Romeo and Juliet and the Metaphysics of Language
David Lucking, Università degli Studi di Lecce, Italy
While the fact that oxymoron is the most pervasive rhetorical figure in Romeo and Juliet is unlikely to escape the notice of any reasonably attentive reader,...
(The entire section contains 5612 words.)
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'And All Things Change Them to the Contrary': Romeo and Juliet and the Metaphysics of Language
David Lucking, Università degli Studi di Lecce, Italy
While the fact that oxymoron is the most pervasive rhetorical figure in Romeo and Juliet is unlikely to escape the notice of any reasonably attentive reader, the significance that is to be attributed to this predominance is by no means equally apparent. Critics have evinced widely varying views as to whether the frequency with which this device recurs is to be regarded as a key to character or to the stage of development attained by Shakespeare's own art at the time of composition, and whether in either case its use is indicative of control of the verbal medium or of domination by it. It has been suggested on the one hand that the predilection for this and other figures is symptomatic of an initial immaturity which the protagonists of the tragedy outgrow through their experience of authentic love,1 and on the other that it reveals their verbal dexterity and hence their intellectual superiority to the various other characters surrounding them.2 At a somewhat more distant remove from the play, attention has been directed towards the issue of the playwright's personal commitment to oxymoron, the question, that is, of whether his insistent utilization of this device in Romeo and Juliet should not be interpreted as an index of his own rhetorical propensities rather than of any particular trait in his personages. Although many such discussions of the rhetorical fabric of the drama appear to imply that oxymoron is a wholly artificial, self-indulgent, or otherwise inferior device, and that its prevalence betrays a want of taste or judgment on the part either of the characters or of the playwright himself, it has been pointed out by more sympathetic commentators that oxymoron is an eminently suitable choice of figures in a play which seems deliberately concerned to dramatize the paradoxical identity of opposites. Taking my cue from proponents of the latter view, I propose in the following analysis to examine the manner in which oxymoron functions as a sort of figurai paradigm for the structural dynamics operating throughout Romeo and Juliet as a whole, enacting in terms specific to itself the tensions rendered on a more comprehensive scale at the levels of plot and theme.3
That oxymoron should be the rhetorical device most frequently resorted to by Romeo himself is entirely to be expected in view of the premises of the play, and might therefore appear at first to be adequately explicable in those terms alone. Romeo is cast in the role of a lover from the moment we first hear of him, and oxymoron is traditionally regarded to be a congenial figure for people in his plight for the reason that it can function as a sort of verbal correlative to the paradoxes and dilemmas supposed to be intrinsic to their condition. Love is an illness, though an illness of which the victim is unwilling to be cured; the mistress is a tyrant, but a gentle tyrant and perhaps even a docile one; the relationship is sweet and bitter at the same time, a source of simultaneous anguish and delight, and so forth. More particularly, it was part of the stockin-trade of Renaissance love poets to represent the beloved woman as an enemy undergoing a protracted siege in which the poetry itself was deployed, with greater or lesser expectation of success, as a weapon. Perceived in the light of this metaphor, which depicts the process of wooing as a military campaign of incalculable duration and indeterminate outcome, the poet's mistress assumes the paradoxical character of beloved antagonist, passionately adored even as means are relentlessly sought to subdue her.
What at one level is merely a literary convention, however, contains in Romeo and Juliet a significant component of literal truth from the beginning. If love and hate are generally understood to be diametrically opposed forces contending against one another in the human world, in this play they reveal themselves to be potential manifestations of one another. Part of the reason for this is the ambivalence of erotic love as such, what M. M. Mahood describes in her illuminating discussion of the drama as 'the odi-et-amo duality of passion',4 thematized by amatory poets from Catullus to Petrarch. But this ambivalence does not confine itself to the contradictory currents of feeling flowing within the individual psyche alone. The relation between the sexes in Romeo and Juliet is in actual fact, and not only metaphorically, implicated in a broader pattern which is overtly conflictual in character, and which is objectified in that perennial enmity between the Capulets and Montagues which constitutes the most fundamental datum of the drama. The connection between violence and eroticism is made apparent as early as the first scene of the play, when two of the Capulet retainers, Samson and Gregory, engage in an exchange of obscene banter that, however fatuous in itself, is representative of a prevalent attitude and so more than a little sinister in implication.5 Part of the dramatic function discharged by the heavy-handed jesting about maidenheads and naked weapons in which they take such puerile delight is that it invests violence with a sexual connotation from the beginning, the feud between the two houses being conceived among other things as a pretext for rape. Thus when the initial fray begins it is already endued with associations that give literal point to the oxymoronic conjunction of love and hate that will be developed subsequently. Sex is conceived merely as a mode of aggression, the vehicle of love as an instrument of hate.
Inasmuch as the identification of sex and violence underlying the coarse double-entendres of the first scene is implicit also in the extravagantly oxymoronic language that Romeo habitually employs, it affords a possible perspective within which we can evaluate that language. It is not only symptomatic of Romeo's preoccupied state of consciousness that the spectacle of the aftermath of the street brawl should evoke to his thoughts the turmoil of his feelings for Rosaline. What is to be suspected instead is that there is an indissoluble association in his mind between the concepts of love and violence, an association that extends well beyond the poetic convention of the beloved antagonist as such:
. . . O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
While it is true that, as critics have frequently remarked, Romeo's revelling in ornate paradoxes of this sort betrays the essential insincerity of his sentiments—or at least their contrived nature, their status as a function of the language used to register them—the darker implications of the situation should not be overlooked. What is perhaps worth observing in this connection is that the object of Romeo's infatuation, Rosaline, is apparently a Capulet herself. So at least we might infer from Capulet's invitation list (which includes 'My fair niece Rosaline' [I.ii.70]) and—lest it be surmised that Verona boasts more than one damsel of this name—Benvolio's confirmatory reminder for Romeo's benefit that Rosaline will be present at the festivities (I.ii.84-5). Even before meeting Juliet, then, Romeo seems almost instinctively to gravitate towards women belonging to the rival household. If this is so, then his initial obsession with what appears to be a totally unresponsive woman, his publicly proclaimed desire to overcome her resolute chastity, might after all have something in common with the aggressive fantasies of the Capulet servants, however circumspectly he cloaks his ambitions in the language of courtly passion. And there would thus already seem to be a dimension of submerged but literal truth to the elaborately wrought paradoxes with which he formulates his feelings.
The close interdependency of love and aggression manifests itself again, though in somewhat different guise, in the feast scene. It is significant that it is in the very moment in which Romeo first glimpses Juliet that Tybalt should conceive the personal animosity that will eventually culminate in the fatal duel between the two men, focussing onto a single individual the generic antagonism he feels for the entire Montague clan. Love and its opposite come into being simultaneously, both kindled by the identical event.7 But there is more to the matter than this. Enjoined by Capulet to refrain from quarrelling, Tybalt snarls:
I will withdraw; but this intrusion shall
Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt'rest gall.
Here we are no longer in the essentially static realm of oxymoron as an exclusively verbal phenomenon, but in a world in which things are literally transformed into their opposites, in which paradox reveals itself to be an active principle operating in human affairs. Juliet articulates such a dynamic conception of paradox when she learns the name of the young man to whom she has already emotionally committed herself:
My only love sprung from my only hate.
Too early seen unknown, and known too late.
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.
Thus hate transmutes itself into love in the private world of Juliet's experience, at the precise instant in which, in the external domain of public events, the quickening of love in Romeo engenders Tybalt's implacable hatred.
Another conspicuous instance of the process whereby things are transformed into their formal opposites appears in the recurrent allusions to light and darkness which in their ensemble constitute one of the dominant image patterns of the play. In this case as well what manifests itself as oxymoron at the strictly verbal level becomes fundamental to the action and thematic development of the drama. The manipulation of words and concepts in such a way that light and darkness each become, or can be represented as, the other, is a linguistic strategy frequently encountered in Shakespeare, assuming notable thematic relevance in such plays as Love 's Labour 's Lost and Othello. Often the word heavy as a possible antonym to light is used to complicate the relation between the two terms still further, at least at the level of linguistic play, and this is what in fact occurs in Romeo and Juliet as well. Benvolio's report that he encountered Romeo 'an hour before the worshipp'd sun / Peer'd forth the golden window of the east' (I.i.116-17) prompts the observation on the part of Romeo's father that at dawn
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night.
Under the influence of his sterile infatuation for Rosaline Romeo shuns literal light, preferring to stimulate a night in day, an oxymoronic space in which he can indulge his melancholy without interference. At the same time, Romeo makes the ambivalent relation between light and dark, or black and white, one of the themes of the rather convoluted wordplay in which he engages at every opportunity: 'These happy masks that kiss fair ladies' brows, / Being black, puts us in mind they hide the fair' (I.i.228-9). Perhaps inspired by his example, his companions adopt the same idiom. Benvolio urges Romeo to attend the feast so that he can compare Rosaline with other fair ladies of Verona, promising that if he does so ''I will make thee think thy swan a crow' (I.ii.89). Benvolio's hope is that white will seem black when contrasted with other instances of what Capulet himself has earlier described as 'Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light' (I.ii.25). And this is of course exactly what happens when Romeo is transfixed by the metaphoric light emanating from Juliet herself, a radiance which to his enraptured vision overwhelms all other sources of illumination. It is ironic that the words with which he registers the impact of this effulgence—'O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright' (I.v.43)—should be those that provoke Tybalt's dark enmity.
Shortly afterwards, having taken refuge in the Capulet garden in order to escape his rowdy companions, the young man who has earlier shrunk from daylight and cultivated an artificial night in day now finds himself being irresistibly drawn towards the source of a spiritual illumination propagating itself through physical darkness. His celebrated solo beginning 'But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!' (II.ii.2-3) is a metaphorical adumbration of the process by which darkness transforms itself into light, a physical night into a spiritual dawn. What is important in this connection is less the fact that 'each of the lovers thinks of the other as light', as Caroline Spurgeon puts it,8 than that the light that each associates with the other represents the metamorphosis of darkness, and hence a reversal of one of the most fundamental of natural polarities. Juliet, although she is in many respects the more practical and down-to-earth of the two lovers, testifies in her speech to a perception of mystic transformation identical to that of Romeo. As she is awaiting Romeo on the evening of their marriage she summons darkness not only because it ensures welcome privacy but also because it will arrive attended by its own opposite:
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back.
What might legitimately be inferred, however, is that if night can be converted into day when it is transfigured by love, then the converse can also occur, and light transform itself into darkness. This is precisely what would seem to happen as the tragic impetus asserts itself with increasing force in the action of the play. When Juliet announces on the morning that Romeo's sentence of exile must begin that it is growing lighter, Romeo replies: 'More light and light: more dark and dark our woes' (III.v.36), and later, after the simulated death of Juliet, the Nurse laments that 'Never was seen so black a day as this' (IV.v.53). There is an ironic anticipation of such a reversal even in the garden scene, for Romeo's observation that 'Her eyes in heaven / Would through the airy region stream so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night' (II.ii.20-22) presages the lovers' conversation on the morning following their wedding night, much of which revolves around the question of whether a bird heard singing in the garden is a lark or a nightingale, harbinger of day or of night. On this occasion Juliet attempts briefly to duplicate her triumph in the garden, when she seemed for a while to be the arbiter of language and its meanings, attempting desperately to incorporate literal light into her universe of metaphor:
Yond light is not daylight, I know it, I.
It is some meteor that the sun exhales
To be to thee this night a torchbearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
But although Romeo is once again willing to acquiesce in her imaginative appropriation of reality, as he has earlier acquiesced in her imaginative manoeuvre of unnaming him in the garden, he remains aware of the very literal price he will have to pay for succumbing to the seductions of metaphor.
Although the principle governing the events of Romeo and Juliet is one of irreconcilable opposition, then, it is a paradoxical opposition the terms of which are, in various ways and for various reasons, interchangeable. In the social sphere, the Montagues are locked in perpetual strife with the Capulets, yet because both families proceed according to the identical rules of conduct, and pay homage to the same value system, their antagonism appears as a largely formal one in which roles can be reversed without in the least affecting the essential structure of the relationship. On the plane of human emotion, love and hate not only generate each other but in certain respects are indistinguishable from each other, so that a character such as Romeo seems uncertain on occasion which of the two he is in fact experiencing. In the world of images darkness can turn into light and light into darkness, while at the level of rhetorical figures formulas such as brawling love and loving hate make perfect sense. It is even arguable that the notorious instability of the play as regards its generic affiliations—the fact that it gestures unmistakably in the direction of comedy before deviating into tragedy—can be subsumed beneath this pattern.9 If this is indeed the case, then the instructions Capulet issues to his household when he is confronted with what appears to be the lifeless body of his daughter after a night of feverish preparations for her marriage assume a special relevance:
All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral:
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast;
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.
There is another character who comments in more explicitly philosophical terms on these relationships of irreconcilable but potentially reversible opposition, although the fact that he does so proves in the end to be as much a source of irony as it is of insight. This is Friar Laurence, whose disquisition on the beneficent and baneful properties of the selfsame herbs is a clear statement not only of the simultaneous presence in the same object or phenomenon of radically opposed qualities, but of the propensity of those qualities to transform themselves into their own opposites. The Friar begins, characteristically enough, with yet another identification of apparent opposites, those of the womb and the tomb, and goes on from there:
The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb:
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find.
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain'd from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified.
This speech might be construed as a sequence of expanded oxymora, ranging from uterine tombs and sepulchral wombs to vicious virtue and virtuous vice, but once again rendered dynamic inasmuch as the polarized extremes actually transform themselves into one another: 'Virtue itself turns vice'. The Friar seems to qualify his view somewhat when he goes on to apply his perception of simultaneous contrariety to the moral state of man, offering his version of the metaphor of the two steeds of the soul that Plato develops in thePhaedrns: 'Two such opposed kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs: grace and rude will' (II.iii.23-4). The conceptual distinctions operating here are once again rigidly dualistic in character, and in view of what has gone before it might be expected that even 'grace and rude will' might somehow transform themselves into one another as do virtue and vice. In this case, however, the Friar adopts a more orthodox position, rather lamely concluding that 'where the worser is predominant / Full soon the canker death eats up that plant' (II.iii.25-6).
Notwithstanding this apparent reversion to a less complicated vision at least as regards the rival forces contending in the human soul, however, the Friar continues to act on the assumption that opposites can be converted into one another in the world at large, aspiring to be an agent whereby this process can be exploited for the good of all. He agrees to officiate at the marriage of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that the general principle he has enunciated might apply in this case as well, and that 'this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households' rancour to pure love' (II.iii.87-8). He is successful in the long term, in the sense that it is the destruction of the lovers through his unintentional agency that ultimately makes possible the reconciliation of the two families, but his triumph is quite obviously an ironic one. And in the meantime he becomes the unwitting means by which other reversals, unforeseen and even more ambiguous, occur. Juliet's early declaration concerning Romeo that 'If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed' (I.v. 133-4) turns out to be no less than perfect truth, a lethal drug is deemed to be 'cordial, and not poison' (V.i.85), the elevation of Juliet's chamber is succeeded by the subterranean depths of her tomb, Romeo wreaks vengeance upon his cousin Tybalt's murderer by killing himself (V.iii.97-101). In an ironic fulfilment of Friar Laurence's metaphorical assimilation of telluric womb and tomb, the Capulet monument is perceived by Romeo as a 'womb of death' (V.iii.45), and although it is at one point described as a 'palace of dim night' (V.iii.107) it is also a temple of light in which Romeo is briefly vouchsafed one final time the epiphany he first experienced in the garden scene:
A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughter'd youth.
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence, full of light.
The concealed flaw in the Friar's strategy is that he seeks to accomplish the transformation of one extreme into the other through a process of mediation which, according to his own tacit theoretical premises—which I have been arguing are also the structural premises of the play—is impossible. His intention is to 'turn your households' rancour to pure love' by effecting another conversion of conceptually opposed terms, that of plurality into unity, through the mechanism of a ceremony which will 'incorporate two in one' (II.vi.37). Precisely by assuming the role of agent, however, and envisioning the possibility of a mediating term in the form of a couple who will unite extremes and occupy a middle ground between the two warring families, the Friar is implicitly invoking a principle that is formally extraneous to the oppositional logic he has himself earlier adumbrated in his botanical metaphor. In the Prologue to Act II the Chorus remarks that notwithstanding the various obstacles to the union of Romeo and Juliet, 'passion lends them power, time means, to meet, / Tempering extremities with extreme sweet' (13-14). But tempering extremities would seem to be precisely what is not possible in this play. Opposites can be transformed into one another, but no negotiation between them can occur. As Richard Fly points out in his perceptive discussion of the drama, what appear to be mediatory figures are introduced onto the scene, but they conspicuously fail to fulfil the function they assign themselves, thus leaving the antithetical structure of the situation ironically intact.10 The attempt to intercede, as Mercutio discovers to his cost—'why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.' (III.i.104-5)—can have disastrous consequences. Indeed, the pointed elimination of a character whose name would seem expressly calculated to evoke the possibility of intercommunication between disparate realms might be regarded as symbolic of the destruction of the principle of mediation itself,11 and the 'plague' that he repeatedly calls down on both houses an intimation of the only means through which the conflict between them can ultimately be resolved (III.i.92-110).12 For as Juliet herself suggests in the desperate comments she addresses at one point to the Friar, the only intermediary that is likely to prove successful in the final reckoning is death:
Give me some present counsel, or behold:
'Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife
Shall play the umpire, arbitrating that
Which the commission of thy years and art
Could to no issue of true honour bring.
Whereas the Friar aspires to be an active agent turning the logic of reversal to his own benign purposes, then, he ends by being no more than an instrument whereby that logic continues inexorably to determine the course of events, until at last it reaches its terminus in the catastrophe with which the play concludes. The deaths of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and Romeo and Juliet themselves are all directly or indirectly attributable to his interference. The play that begins with an unsheathing of Capulet swords that are linked through broad humour to aggressive male sexuality, ends with the sheathing of a Montague dagger in a Capulet breast in what looks suspiciously like a parody of the sexual act: 'O happy dagger. / This is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die' (V.iii.168-9). The initial threat of violence is thus fulfilled, and the oxymoronic conjunction of sex and death actualized in the unfolding of events, precisely through the attempt 'To turn . . . rancour to pure love'. When the Prince enjoins Montague and Capulet to 'See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love' (V.iii.291-2), he omits to mention that the means that heaven has found is, ironically enough, the loving intervention of the Friar himself.
Various critics have argued that the phrase 'O brawling love' sums up the dramatic movement of Romeo and Juliet.13 I would suggest instead that it is not so much the words as such as the relationship implicit in the figure exemplified by this phrase that reflects both the underlying dynamics and the controlling metaphysics of the play. Oxymoron elides the predicative syntax of such statements as 'The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb', but nonetheless makes the same assertion in compressed form, thereby becoming a sort of linguistic paradigm for the paradoxical coexistence in the same object of opposites.14 It probably does not very much matter in the end whether we say that oxymoron represents a figurative crystallization of the tensions worked out discursively in the drama, or that the drama constitutes a discursive projection of the tensions contained in encapsulated form within the figure. What does matter is that a play which has often been criticized for its divided inspiration, for an alleged want of congruence between the lyrical and the dramatic impulses at work within it, exhibits on the contrary a remarkably high degree of formal integration, the aesthetic cohesion that results when each element reflects the whole. What unifies the play in all of its aspects is, as I have tried to show, a metaphysics of irreconcilable but reversible opposition, a metaphysics rendered as much in the deployment of language as in the dynamics of plot. If there is a single phrase in the play that summarizes this metaphysics with anything resembling thematic precision, it is perhaps to be found in Capulet's strangely haunting remark, itself ambivalently formulated both as an observation and an imperative: 'And all things change them to the contrary'. It is a poignant but deeply ironic fact that this phrase should be pronounced over the body of a girl who, at once both living and dead, has herself become an incarnate oxymoron, a visible emblem of the conjunction of opposites; a girl who has confronted all the horrors of death in order to attain to a richer life, and who will subsequently be restored to life only in order to die.
1 See for instance Harry Levin's assertion that in the course of the drama 'the leading characters acquire together a deeper dimension of feeling by expressly repudiating the artificial language they have talked and the superficial code they have lived by'. 'Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960), 3-11 (this quotation p. 6).
2 Robert O. Evans for instance argues that 'both Romeo and Juliet are masterful manipulators of figures. It is the measure of their intellects and a mark of the transcendence of the intellectual portions of their souls above the others'. The Osier Cage: Rhetorical Devices in Romeo and Juliet (Lexington, 1966), p. 41.
3 Two previous studies that have approached Romeo and Juliet from points of view analogous to my own are Evans, op. cit., especially pp. 18-41, and Joseph S. M. J. Chang, 'The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967), 22-42. Evans argues that 'In a real sense the structure of the play is mirrored in Shakespeare's choice of oxymoron as his dominant rhetorical device. The macrocosm (in this case the play) is mirrored in the microcosm (the dominant rhetorical figure). Shakespeare extended, it would seem, the doctrine of correspondence into the very rhetoric of the lines' (p. 32). Chang makes the similar point that 'whether or not we care for oxymorons, their function in the play . . . is development of theme, not character, and to this end they are consistent, using the same polarities despite fluctuations in poetic quality. The effect sought by the use of oxymorons and paradoxes is . . . to indicate the irreconcilable oppositions of love, or, indeed, of life itself (pp. 23-4).
4 M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (1957; rpt. London, 1988), p. 61.
5 The relevance of this exchange to the conventional topos of the 'dear enemy' is touched on by Jill L. Levenson in her paper 'The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982), 21-36 (this reference p. 23).
6 All references to Romeo and Juliet are to the Arden Edition edited by Brian Gibbons (1980; rpt. London, 1983).
7 T. J. Cribb, who believes this play to have been inspired by the tenets of Renaissance Platonism as filtered through the teachings of Ficino, argues that Tybalt actually personifies the principle of hatred, and is therefore the counterpart to Romeo in his character as the embodiment of love. 'The Unity of "Romeo and Juliet'", Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981), 93-104. While I regard this to be somewhat schematic, Cribb's interpretation does have the merit of drawing attention to the paradoxical parallelism obtaining between diametrically opposed forces.
8 Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935; rpt. Cambridge, 1965), p. 310.
9 In his fine Introduction to the Arden Edition of the play Brian Gibbons argues that 'the two modes of tragedy and comedy are opposed, so generating the central dynamic of the action, but there are subterranean connections between them which make an antithetical structure complex like a living organism' (ed. cit., pp. 62-3).
10 Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst, 1976), pp. 3-26. Fly argues that 'the basis of the Friar's faith in the efficacy of human actions is his conviction that a middle ground of moderation exists, which, if conscientiously pursued, will allow for a human control of destiny. He repeatedly expresses his sense of an operative via media . . . Thus, he is the most likely person to arbitrate as the clashing extremes of the play close in. Shakespeare means him to represent the only course of action open to the distraught and harried lovers in the play's second half, and his eventual failure should suggest not so much a personal inadequacy as a general inadequacy in the play itself: a recognition that there is finally no viable middle ground in the polarized world of Romeo and Juliet' (p. 20). Although I agree with Fly's conclusion, my own view is that, far from being an exponent of the via media, the Friar enunciates what is perhaps the most explicit statement that the play contains of the radically dichotomized conception of reality, and that his effort to constitute himself intermediary represents a fatal compromise with that conception.
11 Mercury is of course the god of boundaries and messenger of the gods. I do not wish to suggest that Mercutio's role in this play is actually mediatory or even potentially so, but only that it is significant that it is the death of a man bearing this name that spells the destruction of any prospect of reconciliation between Romeo and the Capulet family into which he has married. It might be noted that Mercutio's jocular entreaty to Benvolio to 'Come between us, good Benvolio, my wits faints' (II.iv.69) during a duel of wits with Romeo would seem to be a deliberate anticipation of his death in consequence of a bungled attempt at intercession.
12 In a certain sense Mercutio's malediction does in fact work itself out in the action of the play, since it is the suspicion that he has been exposed to the plague that causes Friar John to be quarantined within a sealed house before he is able to deliver Laurence's letter to Romeo, an accident that contributes to the destruction of the two lovers and (since they apparently have no siblings) to the eventual extinction of their families (V.ii.5-12).
13 See for instance Chang, who describes the phrase as 'the most succinct statement of the play's action, which is so contrived that for every moment of love, there is one of hatred' (op. cit., p. 24).
14 The pun can accomplish the same thing in even more radically concentrated form, but depends for its effect on the coincidence in the same word of contrary, or at least contrastable, meanings. This is what in fact occurs in the case of the verb 'die', the final word pronounced by both Romeo and Juliet, the Elizabethan connotation of which turns their deaths into an ironic consummation.
Source: "'And All Things Change Them to the Contrary': Romeo and Juliet and the Metaphysics of Language," in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 8-18.