Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4782

Douglas Cole
[Cole outlines the major elements of Romeo and Juliet that have typically generated the most commentary in an attempt to explain both the play's significance and its enduring appeal. The critic discusses the tragedy in relation to Shakespeare's other writings; how the playwright adapted the drama from the sources and traditional dramatic and poetic models available to him; the play's language, structure, and themes; and its adherence to conventional tragic dramaturgy, or theatrical representation. In addition, Cole analyzes three principal thematic readings of Romeo and Juliet —(1) a tragedy of character in which the lovers are punished for their reckless passion; (2) a tragedy of destiny in which fate is responsible for Romeo's and Juliet's deaths; and (3) a tragedy of divine providence in which God sacrifices the lovers to reconcile the feuding families. The critic then asserts that the play presents a synthesis of all three issues in its emphasis on the idea that tragic disaster is an inescapable consequence of the precarious balance between good and evil in the world.]

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How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance, a love story already rehearsed in prose and verse in several languages? How does one turn a pair of young lovers into figures of such imaginative stature that they will fire the emotions of audiences for centuries to come and even obscure the competing images of lovers from classical mythology and medieval legend? Shakespeare never had to ask such questions of himself when he began to write Romeo and Juliet, but the response of the world audience to his play since that time has made them inevitable. No case has to be made for the continuing vitality of Romeo and Juliet. Its stage history (outmatched only by Hamlet's) reveals a nearly unbroken chain of performances for more than three and a half centuries. It has inspired music, opera, ballet, literature, musical comedy, and film. Modern criticism, taking the play's impact for granted, attempts to elucidate some of the things that made Shakespeare's achievement possible (his source materials, his era's literary and dramatic conventions, and his own earlier writing, for example); to define the qualities of its structure and language; and to explore its relationships to Shakespeare's later tragedies. The results of this critical effort help us understand some of the answers to our opening questions, but not yet all. (p. 1)

Transformation of Sources and Conventions
It was common dramatic practice in Shakespeare's day to draw upon known history, legend, and story for the plot material of plays. Shakespeare did not have to invent the basic story of Romeo and Juliet. Nor did he have to invent a totally new kind of poetic language for handling the theme of love. Such a language lay at hand in contemporary love poetry, with its stock of characteristic metaphors, paradoxes, and conceits derived from Petrarch's famed Italian love poems. Neither was the combination of a lyrically developed love story and dramatic tragedy altogether novel, although it was far more common in the early Elizabethan theater to find love themes treated in comedy. Whatever hints were provided for Shakespeare by all these traditions he was able to refashion into something uniquely superior.

The story of Romeo and Juliet was already an old one when Shakespeare decided to dramatize it for the Elizabethan stage. There were at least half a dozen versions circulating earlier in the century in Italy and France, and two of them had been adapted by English translators. Shakespeare apparently relied chiefly on Arthur Brooke's long poetic version, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, first published in 1562 and reissued twenty-five years later. (pp. 2-3)

Many modern readers of Shakespeare may be unaware of the immense difference between the ordinary verse of the Elizabethan age and Shakespearean poetry. They are likely to be even more unfamiliar with the usual quality of dramatic speech written for the developing Elizabethan stage. (pp. 3-4)

The lyricism of Shakespeare's play lifts it far above the stumbling verse of other Elizabethan playwrights, and places it closer to the more literary traditions of love poetry, especially to the flourishing cult of the sonnet. The verse in Romeo and Juliet borrows heavily from sonnet conventions of metaphor and feeling, but manages also, as critics never tire of pointing out, to move beyond the conventions to something still more impressive. When Romeo and Juliet at their first encounter share the lines of a sonnet, Shakespeare shows us how a poetic convention can take on entirely new life in a dramatic context.

There is new life as well in Shakespeare's approach to the subject of young love itself. When the Elizabethans wrote tragedies of love, they were likely to emphasize the more lustful and obsessive qualities of passion, aspects which Shakespeare also had taken up in his long poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The fashion in Italian tragedy, imitated both in France and in England, was to stress the mastery of the god Cupid, who was often portrayed as a malevolent, gloating tyrant. Some of this feeling filters into Dido, Queen of Carthage, the love tragedy written by Shakespeare's influential contemporary Christopher Marlowe. In Dido the heroine is more a victim than a celebrant of love, and the pattern of action stresses frustration and the pains of love denied or abandoned. The predominant strategy of Elizabethan dramatists was to present characters who were "love-crossed" rather than star-crossed. Their figures lack the sense of mutual dedication and individual purpose that inspires Romeo and Juliet. The love of Shakespeare's characters is conveyed with more compassion and innocence than can be found anywhere else in Renaissance drama.

Although Shakespeare's lovers are more idealized than those found either in Brooke's poem or in Elizabethan love tragedies, and although they speak with a language more lyrical than that of their counterparts in these earlier works, they never become ethereal fantasies. One major reason for this (and another distinguishing element in Romeo and Juliet) is the way in which passion and sentiment are modulated with both comic gusto and tragic irony. Mercutio and Juliet's Nurse, for example, are original comic developments of characters mentioned in the source story; in the play they not only become vital and amusing in themselves but also help to link the romance of Romeo and Juliet with an earthy sense of reality. On the tragic side, Shakespeare establishes thematic patterns of greater subtlety and paradox than the usual irony of "destructive passion"; his patterns suggest that even the virtues of loyalty, peace-making, and total personal dedication can unwittingly cooperate to bring about disaster.

Perhaps even more important is the way Shakespeare uses both comedy and tragedy to enhance each other in one play. His earlier Titus Andronicus had relied all too heavily on the sensationalistic devices of the neo-Senecan fashion in tragedy: wholesale slaughter, severed hands, rape, children's bodies cut up and served as part of their parents' meal. In Romeo and Juliet, thankfully, Shakespeare was trying something new. The tragic pattern he employed was imposed on materials, characters and moods appropriate to comedy and fashion: a comic nurse and clown, obstructing parents, duels of wit and parodic banter, the playful humor of hero and heroine. Shakespeare seems characteristically intent on stretching the range of tone usually assumed in early tragedy. He gives us not a comic play that somehow turns out tragically, but a more complex experience that weaves together intense, lyrically celebrated young love, vivacious and often bawdy wit, and the threatening, obstructive forces of ignorance, ill will, and chance—a combination which expresses the human impulse to affirm what is precious and beautiful in life in the very midst of a more pervasive hostility and baseness in the conditions and circumstances of life itself.

When compared with Shakespeare's later tragedies, the play may reveal a certain lack of profundity, a less far-reaching and momentous drive to open up the disturbing depths of human conduct and capacity. For some critics Romeo and Juliet is not yet "mature" tragedy; but we must remember that their norm is based on what Shakespeare himself did afterwards, not on what anyone in the Elizabethan theater had done earlier. It is perhaps fairer to say that the kind of tragic experience Romeo and Juliet offers us is different rather than immature, an experience less morally complex than others, but no less valid as an image of deeply moving aspects of our own awareness of life's promises and betrayals.

Poetic and Dramatic Language
If Romeo and Juliet marks Shakespeare's first original movement toward serious tragedy, it also marks a movement toward a dramatic language of increasing flexibility and expressiveness. The play shows the poet trying to integrate his skills of verse structure, rhyme, metaphor, and ingenious wordplay with dramatic skills of characterization through style of language and gesture, exposition through action as well as declamation, and imagery patterns that function to blind a diversified scenario into a unified thematic order. Shakespeare's work here displays a texture of marked formality, notable in the abundant rhyme, extended conceits, and above all in a wide range of "set pieces"— among them Mercutio's Queen Mab passage, Friar Lawrence's sermons, Juliet's epithalamion [a song or poem written to celebrate a wedding], Paris's elegy, the sonnet shared by the lovers at their first meeting, and the aubade [a song of lovers parting at dawn] at their farewell. In patterning so much of the dialogue on these very literary models, Shakespeare was clearly stretching his medium to see what it could do. He was writing this play in the period that included the highly elaborated language of Love's Labour's Lost, the extended complaints of Richard II, the lavishly decorative erotic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and his own contribution to the sonnet-cycle fashion. In Romeo and Juliet we find Shakespeare's virtuosity with formal poetic language extended not only by the demands of dramatic contect, but also by an awareness of how easily formality may slip into artificiality. Shakespeare seems to have delighted in trying his hand at many different kinds of verbal play, but always with some tact about crossing the boundaries of what is truly acceptable. More than any other dramatist of the period, he is capable of inserting near-parodies of the conventional themes and devices he is exploiting. By such means he seems to remind his audience, as Juliet reminds Romeo: "Conceit [i.e., true understanding or invention], more rich in matter than in words, / Brags of his substance, not of ornament" "[II, vi. 30-1].

[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge was perhaps right when he claimed that in this play the poet had not yet "entirely blended" with the dramatist, implying that these elements of poetic formality do not always seem to work effectively in dramatic context. Samuel Johnson much earlier had complained that the characters were always left with a conceit [i.e., an elaborate parallel or metaphor] in their misery—"a miserable conceit"; and actors and actresses in every generation have had their problems with the labored lamentations of Juliet and Romeo in Act Three. Critics move from such examples of awkwardness (only awkwardly justified by the Elizabethan taste for that sort of thing), to matters of tired convention or excessively developed imagery, such as we find in Romeo's first speeches on love or Lady Capulet's comparison of Paris to a book. Here there is more room for argument that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in supplying the love-sick pup Romeo with the most familiar catalogue of Petrarchan oxymora [a combination of contradictory terms] ("O brawling love, O loving hate, . . . O heavy lightness, serious vanity, . . . Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health. ..." [I. i. 176, 178, 180]), or giving Lady Capulet such artificially toned sentiments, or providing such a bathetic chorus of grief in the Capulet household when Juliet's "death" is discovered. One can sense in the kind of language used at such points a corresponding emotional or imaginative immaturity in the character, a weakness which will help define later a strength or intensity somewhere else. In a play that works so well with contrasts in theme and mood, contrasts in language have a fit place.

Most critical skepticism disappears in response to the lyrical language of the balcony scene or of the farewell at dawn. Many playgoers know the purple passages from these scenes by heart, but what is often forgotten is the way Shakespeare has rendered his poetry effective by constructing the scene which contains it so that theatrical dimensions (setting, timing, entrances and exits, interplay between characters, etc.) provide the real foundation for the charm and power of the words. There is a "language" in the scenario itself, and in the sequence of actions and reactions within a given scene, which enables the poetic language to convey its maximum meaning and feeling. (pp. 4-8)

Structure
Critical commonplaces regarding the structure of Romeo and Juliet tend to emphasize a handful of its characteristics: the swift pace of the action, which Shakespeare compresses into a few days' duration dramatized in two dozen scenes, many of which center on sudden reversals and the need for quick decisions; the emphatic juxtaposition of comic characters and attitudes with foreboding and destructive situations; the heightening of the young lovers' purity of feeling by contrast both with the lustier attitudes of the Nurse and Mercutio and with Romeo's studied infatuation with Rosaline; the more obvious contrasts between love and hate, youth and age, impetuous action and helpless wisdom; the efficiency and impact of the central reversal scene of Mercutio's death; and finally, for critics with allegiance to Aristotelian tragic formulas, the excessive reliance on sheer accident or chance in order to move the events toward a disaster which seems less inevitable than tragedy demands.

Qualities of pace and contrast are best sensed in performance, where it becomes clear how increasingly masterful Shakespeare's theatrical skill is becoming. He is able to convey more by the pace and proportion of action than he had been even in the violent early history plays. "Proportion" is perhaps a vague term, but it does cover the skill by which Shakespeare shapes his presentation of the lovers' destiny. We are never directly aware, for example, that Romeo and Juliet are actually together to share only 330 lines throughout the whole play, about one-ninth of the play's length; but that proportion helps nevertheless to accent the intensity and rarity of feeling embodied in their encounters, as well as to impress upon us the weight and complexity of the outside world's "doings" which obstruct the couple and aid in destroying them. (pp. 10-11)

The comic texture of the play is also kept under a fine control. Roughly one-sixth of the total dialogue can be called comic, and practically all of it is confined to that part of the play before Mercutio's death. It helps to build, even within the more threatening outlines of the family feud, a hearty atmosphere of comradeship, wit, gaiety and high spirits—an atmosphere which seems to hold out a promise for the budding love of Romeo and Juliet, but which turns out to be explosive. Each comic character or event is made to harbor an ironic counterthrust: the gaiety at the ball is marred by a vengeful Tybalt; the witty Mercutio harbors a fatal itch to fight; the sympathetic Nurse betrays her drastic lack of sensitivity when she urges Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris. The unifying symbol for these comic people and events, as well as for the lovers themselves and the bustling world about them, can be found in the Friar's osier cage: those flowers, plants, and weeds—some beautiful, many capable of both healing and destroying, all very natural and part of the mortal earth.

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, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied.
And vice sometime by action dignified.
[II. iii. 9-22]

That comedy and tragedy lie down together in this play not only points up the reversal in mood that takes place with the killing of Mercutio and Tybalt, but illustrates again the inner paradox of our mortal nature.

Theme
I take that paradox, as stated by the Friar, to be at the heart of this play, and also a foreshadowing of a theme given further embodiment in Shakespeare's later tragedies. Others have suggested differing central themes for Romeo and Juliet, ranging from a literal insistence on the lovers' star-crossed fate, to a Freudian view of their experience as an embodiment of the death-wish; from a neo-orthodox-Elizabethan lesson in the dangers of passion, to a providential triumph of love over hate.

The reasons for such diversity are discoverable in the play, which seems to hold out a number of keys to interpretation. If we look only at the conclusion, with the reconciled parents and the promise of a golden monument, we may be inclined to see the mysterious ways of Providence working toward good. If we listen chiefly to the Friar's moral admonitions, rather than to his reflections on the natural condition cited above, we may agree that haste and lack of wise forethought bring about the disaster. If we catalogue all the tricks played by chance (particularly Friar John's undelivered message and the unhappy timing of arrivals and awakenings in the final scene), we may see it all as the workings of a hostile external Fate. Tragic theorists become disheartened at the lack of a more highly developed moral consciousness in the central figures and the corresponding lack of close cause-and-effect integration between such characterization and the destructive outcome. And students of Elizabethan piety (both familial and religious) are inclined to feel more harshly about Romeo and Juliet themselves than even Friar Lawrence does at his most chiding moments. The interpretive problem is a problem involving proportion and balance: a balanced view of the play must rest on an awareness of the delicate balance of its diverse elements. To emphasize one to the exclusion of the rest will not give us a theme worthy of the play's actual structure or the dramatic experience it yields in performance.

It is undeniable that the strategy of the play generates strong sympathy for the lovers, heightens their superiority in richness and purity of feeling, and awakens our compassion for their plight. It is also undeniable that Romeo in particular is both reckless and desperate at the wrong moments; partly because he is in love, partly because he is young, partly because he is the histrionic Romeo. By the end of the play Shakespeare makes more of a man of him than the miserable boy (of Act III) grovelling in tears on the Friar's floor, but he also gives him a cruel power with that added strength and determination: the slaying of Paris is the dramatic proof. The combination is deliberate: Shakespeare's sources contain neither the heightened sense of the lovers' innocence nor Paris's murder. The play does not prove that Romeo and Juliet should not have yielded to their love for one another, or disobeyed their parents, or been so quick to marry or to kill themselves. It does suggest that the flower of an innocent love, because of the earth in which it was planted, could foster its own destruction. Shakespeare hints at a natural disaster rather than a moral one, but his conclusion urges something beyond disaster: that such a destruction may in turn foster the reconciliation ofthe elders who do not understand love. The beauty and harmony of the lovers does not die with them. (pp. 11-13)

The envy, ill will, and aggressiveness that characterize the feud do not represent the total threat to the love of the central figures. The feud is always present as a dangerous obstructing condition; it is a reason for keeping things secret which if known would resolve many complications. But it is not of itself a villainous thing that destroys the lovers intentionally. To understand its limitations as an element in the whole balance is to realize that the play cannot be summed up as a conflict between the forces of young love and old hate. Tragic destruction results from a pattern which includes as well the unaccountable element of chance and the more pervading element of unawareness. So many incidents in the play exhibit people who do not know what they are really doing, people who are both agents and victims of an unthinking impetuosity. The spectrum ranges from the vulgar servants of the opening scene through Mercutio's duel, Capulet's marriage-planning, the murder of Paris, to Romeo's suicide and the Friar's fear of being discovered at the tomb. Clearly this kind of unawareness leads to an irony often associated with tragedy (although it is also a standard tool of the comedy writer who builds a complication out of interlocking misunderstandings), but in the context of Shakespeare's play it does more than heighten suspense and trigger an agonized "If only he knew!" audience reaction. It serves to impress upon us a basic condition of human interaction— our unconscious limitations in understanding the motives of others (and of ourselves), our ultimate helplessness in the face of the multiple possibilities of things going awry. Once this quality is fully felt, we cannot be content with condemning either stupidity or "rude will" as the basis of destructive evil. We are led once more to an insight or a perception of the mortal world which is broader than the strictly moral one: tragic destruction, though often the consequence of human decision, is beyond that an irremediable aspect of the natural world and man's limited consciousness. That perception is somewhat muted by Shakespeare's concluding reconciliation, but because it is grounded in the conditions of human interaction in the play, it cannot be an element totally "resolved" by this or any other kind of ending.

Fate and Coincidence
Two final problems related to this quality or insight remain. One is the problem of Fate. The other is the feeling that Romeo and Juliet lacks tragic inevitability precisely because so much of the action turns on ignorance that might have been remedied and on sheer mistiming. The prologue, the foreboding dreams and intimations of death, and the futility of the elaborately planned attempts to restore Romeo and Juliet to one another all tend to stress that the destiny of the lovers is fated. Each move that they make toward each other is matched by some counterthrust; and though there is no villain or human agent behind the opposition, some readers have felt that Fate itself takes on the quality of a destructive agent, moving events and characters in cruel combination to produce the disastrous outcome. Romeo may want to defy the stars, but in that very defiance he is unwittingly cooperating in his own doom. The trouble with this interpretation again lies in what it must leave out or ignore. If we are to judge the reconciling conclusion of the play as inappropriate to the major design of the tragedy, as a last-minute excrescence that does not fit well with earlier motifs, then perhaps we may rest content with the vision of inimical Fate. But if we see the ending as purposeful, and as an evocation of the paradoxical good that can spring from a lamented destruction, the simple view of Fate will not satisfy. Nor can we ignore what Shakespeare characteristically stresses in all his tragic drama: the connections between the character of men and the disaster that may befall them. In this case, we have only to recall the care Shakespeare has taken to show us Romeo in an unheroic and desperate hysteria after he has killed Tybalt: a scene frequently embarrassing to actors but nevertheless integral to the play. It shows us the emotional proclivity in Romeo without which the external misfortunes and mischances would not have culminated in his death. If Shakespeare had wanted to put full strength into the Fate motif, he could also have employed such allegorical devices as had appeared in the contemporary play Soliman and Perseda [by Thomas Kidd], in which choral figures called Love, Death, and Fortune debate the relative power of their influence on the human lives in the story. The personification of a hostile Fate or Fortune was a fashionable convention in the neo-Senecan tragedy of the Elizabethans; the theme was equally conventional. In Romeo and Juliet however, Shakespeare was moving in another direction. His developing vision of a tragic universe was not to be defined by hostile fatality, but by a paradoxical and all too precarious balance of good and evil. (pp. 14-16)

Time is the enemy even more than chance; it presses in upon the lovers in countless ways—the dawn brings the threat of discovery; a bare second enables the envious sword of Tybalt to fell Mercutio; the marriage date foreshortened by a capricious Capulet demands swift counterplans and decisions, which bring, in turn, disaster. The fast-paced world that Shakespeare builds up around his characters allows little possibility for adherence to Friar Lawrence's counsel of "Wisely and slow" [II. ill. 94]. In such a world to stumble tragically is surely no less inevitable than it is for Lear to go mad in the face of human ingratitude. In a vivid performance of the play, things happen so swiftly and suddenly that issues of probability hardly arise. Add the fact that the emotions behind the catastrophe have been made probable, and we readily see why we do not look upon the death of Romeo and Juliet as merely a terrible accident.

It is possible to step back from the immediate emotional grip of Romeo and Juliet and discover that we have somehow been taken in, that the swiftly moving world of sudden love and sudden death has been arbitrarily contrived, that the mechanism of the plot and the ingenious conceits of the language display a rather self-conscious artistry. At this second level of response, we may become aware that, for all its virtues, the play does not exhibit the power, range, and deeply probing qualities of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth or Lear. Its reflective, philosophical dimensions are confined rather tightly to a few discourses by Friar Lawrence, where they remain detached from the emotional intensity of the chief characters; in Hamlet and Lear those who question the dignity of man and the nature of the gods are those who also suffer the greatest torments. Romeo and Juliet is surely a more honest expression of human tragedy than the grotesque Titus Andronicus or the melodramatic Richard III, but it has not yet found the most potent articulation for the paradox of good and evil in the natural world. If we feel finally that the play is not major tragedy, it is for such reasons rather than for defects in probability. A moving and compassionate expression of intense and vital passions, it burns with a flame more luminous than searing.

To a certain extent, it cannot do otherwise, granted its subject. As a close-up study of a breath-taking young love, it has little time or place for the probing inner conflicts of Shakespeare's more mature and deeply disillusioned characters. Indeed, one of the marks of the lovers' innocence is that they remain untouched by the experience of disillusionment, the experience that sounds the bass note of tragic anxiety from Julius Caesar on and echoes throughout Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays" and later romances as well. Romeo and Juliet are all in all to one another; the radiance of their shared love illumines them with glowing beauty, but casts little light on the world around them. Their experience, and ours as an audience, is thus intense but circumscribed. Shakespeare's structure of contrasts and paradoxes sets off that experience in a rich and colorful design, but he does not choose to emphasize in it the more disturbing deeper shadows that he was soon to explore with such comprehension. Here he was content to temper extremities with extreme sweet, and in view now of the world's reaction to his play who is to say he chose wrongly? (pp. 16-18)

Douglas Cole, in an introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Douglas Cole, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 1-18.

Tragic Design

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11071

Franklin M. Dickey
[Dickey asserts that fate, divine will, and the lovers' passion are inseparably linked in Romeo and Juliet and all of these agents contribute to the catastrophe. According to the critic, the work is "a carefully wrought tragedy which balances hatred against love and which makes fortune the agent of divine justice without absolving anyone from his responsibility for the tragic conclusion." In this sense, Dickey contends, Romeo and Juliet reflects the Elizabethan concept of moral responsibility, a tenet which stressed that all sinners must endure the punishment of God, whose will is carried out through the operation of fate.]

Romeo and Juliet, above everything a play of love, is also a play of hatred and of the mysterious ways of fortune. Although love in the first part of the play amuses us, in the end we pity the unhappy fate of young lovers, a fate which critics find embarrassingly fortuitous or, in the Aristotelian sense, unnecessary, the accident of chance to which all human life is subject. Despite the compelling poetry of the play and Shakespeare's skill at creating the illusion of tragedy, the play is said to succeed "by a trick." Whereas Aristotle demanded a "glimpse into the nature of things" beyond theatrical sensationalism and required of tragedy "an overwhelming sense of inevitability," Romeo and Juliet die, critics often tell us, only as the result of a series of mistakes and misunderstandings. In this light the lovers' death is pathetic rather than really tragic.

Critics are also embarrassed by Shakespeare's paradoxical treatment of the three great themes of the tragedy. On the one hand it can be demonstrated that the catastrophe develops from faults of character: Romeo's impetuous nature leads him to despair and die. On the other hand the text also gives us reason to believe that the love of Romeo and Juliet comes to a terrible end because of the hatred between the two families. And yet a third view makes fate the main cause of the final disaster: Romeo and Juliet had to die because they were "star-cross'd."

The seeming conflict of these themes and the division among critics has given support to the belief that Shakespeare reveals no consistently moral view of the universe in this tragedy but gives us a slice of life without comment, standing apart from the great guiding ethos which dominates both Tudor philosophy and literary criticism. If the play has any final meaning it is to be found in the passionate rhetoric of love with which Shakespeare expresses his own youthful ardor.

Against these prevailing views... [I] propose that Romeo and Juliet is a true mirror of the Elizabethan concept of a moral universe although Shakespeare does not preach morality. Judged by Elizabethan standards, the play is not merely a gorgeous and entertaining melodrama but a carefully wrought tragedy which balances hatred against love and which makes fortune the agent of divine justice without absolving anyone from his responsibility for the tragic conclusion. Unlike his source Shakespeare attempts a solution to the problem of evil by fitting the power of fortune into the scheme of universal order. Although Shakespeare's viewpoint is not Greek, Romeo . . . is an agent of God's justice but remains responsible for his own doom. (pp. 63-64)

One of the most solid features in the unchanging ground of Shakespeare is the belief in a just Providence. Mysterious as the ways of this Providence are, the pattern remains visible. Although the innocent suffer, the guilty are always punished. Not fate but the corrupt will makes men the agents of their own destruction. . . .

There is no blind fate in Shakespearean tragedy nor in the Elizabethan universe. Behind what looked like chance stood God in control of his creation. Fortune was a figure of speech devised by men to explain the inexplicable operations of the Deity, (p. 91). . . .

[A] belief in individual responsibility forms the philosophical background of mature Elizabethan tragedy. The Renaissance God used fortune as the instrument of his vengeance. In Shakespeare the wayward passions of men subject them to the whims of fate. Thus Hamlet, praising Horatio, equates fortune and the will:

blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled.
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core. . .
[Hamlet, III, ii. 68-73]

While viewing drama, especially Romeo and Juliet, we often respond passionately as the doomed heroes respond, and this is, as critics have always known, one of the secrets of tragic catharsis. But beneath these passions the ground bass of an unshakable system continues to move, adding harmonies which we who have rejected that ethic no longer hear. Tragic tension results from the contest between human passion and will which work with and against fate in the elaborate Elizabethan harmony.

This condition humaine [human condition] helps to explain what otherwise are glaring faults in the progress of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare has promised us at the very beginning that we are to see a pair of star-crossed lovers. Romeo himself first dreads the influence of the stars and then curses them for his misfortune. Both he and Juliet have forebodings of the sorrow to come. Again and again the characters gropingly predict the course of the future. Accident and coincidence add to our feeling that blind fate dominates the action.

But to offset this feeling Shakespeare has provided two commentators to remind us that the terrible things we have seen are all the work of divine justice. When Friar Laurence cries,

A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents . . .
[V, ii. 153-54]

it seems most natural to suppose that the holy Friar is invoking God rather than blind fate, for he has denied that fate is the cause of Romeo's wretchedness. Earlier he has warned frantic Romeo that his fortune depended upon his own virtue and moderation, that the man who flies in the face of fortune is to blame for his own misery. "Why rail'st thou," he asks Romeo after Tybalt's death,

Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once, which thou at once wouldst lose.
Fie, fie...
A pack of blessings light upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehav'd and sullen wench,
Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love.
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
[III, iii. 119-22, 141-45]

And when he discovers Juliet in the tomb, we learn that he has begged her to come forth

And bear this work of heaven with patience.
[V, iii. 261]

According to the Friar Romeo's actions must determine his ultimate felicity or doom, and yet at the end he finds Romeo's death to be the "work of heaven," It would seem that. . . the Friar does not dissociate human actions and the power of fortune which represents God's will.

The second commentator Shakespeare gives us to point up the meaning of the tragedy is Prince Es-calus, who at the ending of the play and at the point of greatest emphasis, sums up the significance of all that has happened:

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That Heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
[V, iii. 292-93]

After hearing these words and contemplating the evenhanded justice which has leveled parent with parent, child with child, and friend with friend, would not the audience sensitive to providential fortune and its use in tragedy understand without any tedious explication that fortune has operated here to punish sin and that this avenging fortune is the work of heaven? Such an audience would not have stuck at applying pitiful Rosamond's words to the lovers [in Samuel Daniel's The Complaint of Rosamond],

fate is not prevented, though foreknown,
For that must hap, decreed by heavenly powers
Who work our fall yet make the fault still ours.

In Romeo and Juliet then fortune may be considered not the prime mover but the agent of a higher power. If fortune is not the independent cause of the catastrophe, then we must look behind fortune for the actions which set it in motion. Friar Laurence warns Romeo that his own folly in love will doom him. Prince Escalus, speaking as chorus, attributes the tragedy to hate. Both are right, for it is the collision of these passions which dooms the lovers.

Of these two forces love overshadows the other dramatically, since it is the passion of the protagonists and since Shakespeare has lavished his most moving poetry upon the love scenes. But the fact remains that this is not a play centered on one passion but a play of carefully opposed passions. The prologue informs us that we are to see a drama of love and hate. Hatred is the first passion to threaten tragedy in the comic opening of the play; hatred brings about the actual climax of the action, Mercutio's death; and hatred is the theme which Shakespeare introduces with love at the end of the play to explain the workings of fate.

The theme of hatred involves more than the opposition of two private families; because of the street brawls, because of the murderous intrigues of the two opposed parties, it involves the whole state. Romeo and Juliet, whose love would unite the two houses, are forced apart by the quarrel which they seek to avoid. Thus the love story in the play, as in Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida, is more than a tale of love, and the problems of the play are not only ethical but in the broadest sense political. (pp. 92-5)

Thus, although our main interest is in Shakespeare's handling of love, we must also inquire into Shakespeare's use of the complementary theme of hatred. Romeo and Juliet is built about two passions traditionally opposed, and the interweaving of these two themes, like the ambiguous balance between comedy and tragedy, adds to the peculiar irony which pervades the play. (p. 96)

The full power of hatred comes out ... in Escalus's speech which sums up the meaning of the action. He calls the miserable fathers from the crowd:

Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That Heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.
[V, iii. 291-95]

This speech does not make sense unless we take into account the close interaction of fate, hatred, and love in the play.

Escalus's gloomy judgments give us a true criticism of the whole tragedy. The phrase "your joys" must refer to the lovers, the hope of each of the two warring houses. Their death through love is the punishment of heaven, working through fate, upon the families who have carried on the feud. (p. 100)

When we look back over the course of hatred, we see the truth of Escalus's sentence, "All are pun-ish'd." Fate has worked to produce an evenhanded justice. The force of Mercutio's dying imprecation on the houses appears at the end of the tragedy in the mysterious death of Lady Montague on the night of her son's suicide. Her death, Shakespeare's addition to his source as are the deaths of Paris and Mercutio, evens the score between the families. Partisan pays for partisan and kinsman for kinsman. Just as love holds families and nations and indeed the whole universe together, so hatred breaks up families, destroys commonwealths, and, represented by Satan, constantly works to unframe God's whole handiwork. It is precise and ironical justice that quenches the one passion by means of its opposite. Romeo and Juliet, no less than Shakespeare's mature tragedies, celebrates the great vision of order by which the English Renaissance still lives. (p. 101)

The play is uniquely constructed in that the same passions which make us tearful or indignant before the action ends, do amuse us with little interruption for almost half the acting time. Even the events leading up to Mercutio's death promise comedy rather than tragedy, and it must have startled the first audience to see laughter so quickly turn to mourning. Yet the play is an exceptionally powerful tragedy, even if it sometimes embarrasses critics. Where the first half delights us with love comedy, the last three short acts explore the tragic potentialities of young love. Fortune and hatred threaten to turn the lovers' bliss to ashes, but the immediate cause of their unhappy deaths is Romeo's headlong fury and blind despair. Thus in both the beginning of the play and at the end Shakespeare's view of love remains sound philosophically and dramatically. (p. 102)

Throughout Romeo and Juliet Romeo is precipitate in love. Juliet, who loves as faithfully, is much less subject to the gusts of passion which blind Romeo. Romeo never examines the consequence of his actions, but Juliet fears that their love may be "too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden" [II, ii. 118]. Romeo never shares Juliet's insight. After they have pledged love at Juliet's window, his only concern is that the love he feels seems too delightful to be true. It is Juliet not Romeo who thinks practically of arranging for marriage and who remembers to ask what time she is to send her messenger in the morning.

On Romeo's inability to control either his passionate love or his passionate grief, his death and Juliet's depend. The boundless love which Romeo felt at the sight of Juliet turns as suddenly to despair, just as any well-versed Renaissance philosopher might have predicted, for the man in the grip of one passion was easily swayed by another. (pp. 105-06)

Romeo therefore is a tragic hero like Othello in that he is responsible for his own chain of passionate actions. When we first see him he is already stricken with love. This first love is comic, but nevertheless it is a real attack of the sickness of love, as his father makes clear when he complains that Romeo's humor will turn "Black and portentous" [I, i. 141] unless checked.

Since the man stricken with passion could not readily defend himself against new onslaughts of passion, Romeo's sudden passionate about-face when he sees Juliet would have seemed realistic to an Elizabethan audience. Romeo's transports for Juliet differ from his first melancholy because she returns his affection. For a time he is cured and conducts himself so reasonably that even Mercutio comments on the change in his temper.

But with Mercutio's death Romeo casts aside all reason and begins a chain of passionate action which leads to death. Rejecting the reasonable conduct with which he had first answered his enemy, he attacks and kills Tybalt. It would certainly have spoiled the play for Romeo to have waited for the law to punish Tybalt, but the fact remains that this reasonable action would have turned tragedy into comedy. In this choice between reasonable and passionate action lies one great difference between the genres. Forgiveness produces the happy ending of comedy; revenge produces the catastrophe of tragedy.

Romeo's next passionate mistake is to fall into frantic despair after the Prince sentences him to banishment. When Romeo cries out against his lot, Friar Laurence, the consistent voice of moderation and wisdom, warns him that he is truly unfortunate only in giving way to uncontrolled grief.

The next step in Romeo's march to destruction is his sudden and complete despair when he learns that Juliet is dead. The direct result of Romeo's frenzied desire to kill himself is his killing of Paris, an incident which Shakespeare adds, like the death of Lady Montague and the death of Mercutio, to his source. Thus Brooke's Romeus dies with less on his conscience than does Shakespeare's hero. In Brooke Romeus kills Tybalt only to save his own life, not to revenge a friend, and at the end of the play dies guiltless of any additional blood save his own. In our play, however, Shakespeare is careful to make Romeo guilty of sinful action under the influence of passion, while at the same time making us sympathize with Romeo's agonies of despair. In his encounter with Paris Romeo announces both his own mad desperation and the fact that in bringing the chain of passionate folly to its close, he puts one more sin upon his head.

Romeo's last passion-blinded act is to kill himself just before Juliet awakes, and her suicide may be thought of as the direct result of his. Although Shakespeare does not preach, the Elizabethan audience would have realized that in his fury Romeo has committed the ultimate sin. (pp. 114-16)

[The] tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is a true tragedy, preserving the ambiguous feelings of pity and terror which produce catharsis. Romeo remains a free agent even though he scarce knows what he does. Those who allowed passion to carry reason headlong were guilty of the very fault that Elizabethan ethics were designed to prevent. It is exactly because love could unseat the reason that few men who loved excessively could look forward to a virtuous life and a happy death. (p. 116)

Does this mean that. . . the spectators in [Shakespeare's] day, or that Shakespeare himself, looked upon the play as an edifying lesson in how not to conduct oneself in love? I hardly think so. The pattern of the action, given shape by Friar Laurence's warnings, Mercutio's satiric ebullience, and the Prince's scattered judgments, revolves around two of the most attractive young lovers in all literature. But the patterns of moral responsibility are necessary to give the action its perspective, and it is these patterns of the destructive as well as the creative force of love and the dependence of fate upon the passionate will which most contemporary criticism neglects or denies. We, who have moved so far from Shakespeare's world, need to be reminded of these things. They would have touched his audience far more deeply than they touch us today. (p. 117)

Franklin M. Dickey, in his Not Wisely but Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies, The Huntington Library, 1957, p. 161.

Lorentz Eckhoff
[Eckhoff maintains that Romeo's and Juliet's tragic deaths result from their own impulsiveness. The critic then provides several examples from the play to substantiate this claim.]

Romeo and Juliet are in a precarious situation, like two children playing with fire near a barrel of gunpowder. They should be careful, prudent, mindful of the future, but they are all too prone to be the very opposite. They are too strongly infected with the hectic spirit of Verona, they have the hot blood and the hot temper of their race. They are like two flames which merge into one.

Romeo is lyrical, ecstatic, a man who approves of his emotions and revels in them, goes in search of them, exaggerates them almost. He is what we should call one of Love's lovers. He allows his feelings to direct his actions, as he proves, when despite his many forebodings about a premature death, he sets off for the feast at Capulet's house:

But he, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.
[I, iv. 112-13]

At the beginning of the play we hear that he is in love with Rosaline, but this love affair is not really to be taken seriously, it is … something he has invented, or possibly imagined. At any rate we find it difficult to believe in it. He speaks in outworn antitheses and forced, artificial similes. The truest word he speaks about it is the very passage which shows how airy and artificial it is.

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs. . . .
[I, i. 190]

Romeo is the born lover who has not yet found the real object of his affections, and is wandering about, conscious or unconscious of the fact, looking for it.

In Juliet's eyes Romeo is not only the lover but the liberator. She is only fourteen years old, but she has been waiting for him even before she meets him. She has yearned to get away from a house which is no home, merely an uncongenial place of residence, sometimes almost a prison. She has no one to love, there is no human being with whom she has any intimate contact, neither her nurse, whose broad remarks and stories make no impression on her, nor her subdued mother, nor her hot-tempered father, jovial, fond of festive occasions and brutal to boot, a domestic tyrant, who is convinced that it is the child's duty to love and the parent's duty to command; a father who threatens her with chastisement and expulsion, if she refuses to obey his orders on the instant.

Juliet has preserved all the tenderness of her feelings, and has learnt to conceal those feelings when occasion demands. She is beautiful and wise, courageous and quick to act—admirably equipped, in fact, to play the role which circumstances force her to adopt.

Romeo and Juliet are made for one another, dearer to one another than life itself, and instinctively know this the very moment they meet. They are carried away by the force of fate, they burn and glow with a new intensity, every moment they are tensed and proved to the uttermost of their beings, and in the course of a few summer days they blossom and develop from callow youth to the maturity of man and woman, to an all-conquering and all-besetting passion.

Their very words become music, poetry, fancy. As scholars are quick to remind us, the first words they exchange are in the form of a sonnet, and Juliet's soliloquy on the eve of her bridal night is a nuptial hymn, while their conversation the next morning is a hymn to dawn, an aubade. Their life, pulsing hotly, beats to a hectic rhythm. Practically every word Juliet utters in the balcony scene marks a step forward, an action, a decision. She is brisk, and anxious at the dizzy whirl of events:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say "Ay"
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my haviour light:
But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange. . . .
Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say "It lightens." Sweet, goodnight!
This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good-night, good-night!
[II, ii. 90, 98-101, 116-23]

She is impatient when she is waiting for the nurse to return with an answer from Romeo, and for that reason a highly comic effect is achieved by the irritatingly dilatory manner of the nurse, and the stream of irrelevancies with which she crams her reply. She is more impatient still before the bridal night, as she waits for Romeo:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging, such a waggoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night!
That rude day's eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen!
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unman'd blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night! come, Romeo! come, thou day in night!
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night,
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo!
[II, ii. 1-21]

Friar Laurence, who is most likely the poet's mouthpiece, tries in vain to brake the headlong speed:

Romeo:
O! let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.

Friar Laurence: Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
[II, iii. 93-4]

Friar Laurence:
These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so.
[II, vi. 9-14]

Romeo too tries to check his ardour. As we have seen, he refuses to fight with Tybalt, and when Mercutio is wounded he is at first calm, and hopes the wound is slight:

Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.
[III, i. 95]

But when Benvolio returns, and tells him of Mercutio's death, and Tybalt returns in triumph, there is an end to Romeo's patience, and his wrath floods his being, like a river that has broken its banks. It is worth noticing how he approves his own wrath:

Benvolio:
Here comes the furious Tybalt back again.

Romeo:
Alive! in triumph! and Mercutio slain!
Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-ey'd fury be my conduct now!
Now, Tybalt, take the villain back again
That late thou gav'st me; for Mercutio's soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company:
Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him.
[III, i. 121-29]

Once again the mood of the moment runs away with him. When he hears, after Tybalt's death, that Juliet calls his name and Tybalt's in her despair at what has occurred, he exclaims to Friar Laurence:

O! tell me, friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion.
[III, iii. 105-08]

And once again he draws his sword; but this time his impetuosity provokes Friar Laurence's wrath in the shape of a sharp rebuke.

Hold thy desperate hand:
Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art:
Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast:
Unseemly woman in a seeming man;
Or ill-beseeming beast in seeming both!
Thou hast amaz'd me. ...
[II, iii. 108-14]

There is a break of a day and a half between Act III and Act V, but in the course of those forty odd hours Romeo has aged many years. Reverie has gone and given place to grim determination. There is a crude vigour in his words to the apothecary who sells him the poison, and even more so in the last scene by the vault in the graveyard, when he sends the servant away:

. . . therefore hence, be gone:
But, if thou, jealous, dost return to pry
In what I further shall intend to do,
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint,
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.
[V, iii. 32-9]

And again when he opens the tomb, and bids Paris retire:

I must (die); and therefore came I hither.
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
Fly hence and leave me: think upon these gone;
Let them affright thee. I beseech thee, youth.
Put not another sin upon my head
By urging me to fury: O! be gone. . . .
[V, iii. 58-63]

Romeo and Juliet are in a hurry even when it comes to dying. There is no shadow of doubt in their souls that they would rather die than live apart. But had Romeo been in less hurry to die, he would have found a living Juliet.

We may be sure that Shakespeare loved Romeo and Juliet and their love as much as we do, but it is just as certain that he wished to warn young people in his very discreet way not to follow their example. (pp. 51-6)

Lorentz Eckhoff, "Passion," in his Shakespeare: Spokesman of the Third Estate, translated by R. I. Christophersen, Akademisk Verlag, 1954, pp. 48-86.

Irving Ribner
[Ribner provides a Christian interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in which he contends that the lovers' deaths are ordained by God to reconcile the feuding families. The critic notes how Shakespeare altered the play into something more meaningful than both a traditional Senecan tragedy, where arbitrary destiny causes the catastrophe, and a tragedy of character, in which the lovers are punished for their reckless passion (the term Senecan tragedy derives from the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca, who in the first century A. D. wrote a number of violent, catastrophic dramas that later became models for Renaissance tragedy). According to Ribner, Romeo and Juliet mature as they experience evil, ultimately realizing that the world is in fact ruled by a benevolent God. Further, the lovers' suicides reflect their acceptance of death, resulting in the restoration of order and a "rebirth of love" in Verona.]

Critics have usually regarded Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as . . . a Senecan tragedy of inexorable fate; some have emphasized the sinfulness of the young lovers. We cannot deny the role of fate and accident in Shakespeare's play; it is established in the prologue and it runs as a constant theme through all five acts. We would not expect this to be otherwise, for this was the formula with which Shakespeare began. But Shakespeare's play is far more than a tragedy of fate. It is, moreover, not at all a story of just deserts visited upon young sinners, although some critics have found it so. The fate that destroys Romeo and Juliet is not an arbitrary, capricious force any more than it is the inexorable agent of nemesis, which in Senecan tragedy executed retribution for sin. Shakespeare's play is cast in a more profoundly Christian context … ; the "greater power than we can contradict" [V. iii. 153] is divine providence, guiding the affairs of men in accordance with a plan which is merciful as well as just. Out of the evil of the family feud—a corruption of God's harmonious order—must come a rebirth of love, and the lives of Romeo and Juliet are directed and controlled so that by their deaths the social order will be cleansed and restored to harmony. Shakespeare uses the story of the lovers to explore the operation of divine providence, the meaning of a fate which in the ordinary affairs of life will sometimes frustrate our most careful plans. ... It is in Shakespeare's departure from the Senecan tradition he inherited that the particular significance of Romeo and Juliet as tragedy lies. Here we see him groping for a tragic design to embody a view of life far more significant and meaningful than what the Senecan stereotypes could afford. (pp. 273-74)

In [the] emphasis upon youth which runs throughout Shakespeare's play, but which is not so evident in his source, we may find a clue to the philosophical pattern Shakespeare imposed upon Senecan tradition. Romeo and Juliet are children born into a world already full of an ancient evil not of their own making. The feud is emphasized in the opening lines of the prologue, and in the opening scene of the play—before either hero or heroine is introduced—the feud is portrayed in all its ramifications, corrupting the social order from the lowliest serving man up to the prince himself, for just as it breeds household rancor, it disturbs also the very government of Verona.

There is a universality in this situation; Romeo and Juliet epitomize the role in life of all men and women, for every being who is born, as the Renaissance saw it, is born into a world in which evil waits to destroy him, and he marches steadily towards an inexorable death. It is a world, moreover, in which his plans, no matter how virtuous, may always be frustrated by accident and by the caprice of a seemingly malignant fate. It is this universality that gives the play its stature as tragedy, for Romeo and Juliet in a sense become prototypes of everyman and everywoman. They attempt to find happiness in a world full of evil, to destroy evil by means of love, for with Friar Lawrence they see their marriage as the termination of the feud, but evil in the world cannot be destroyed; their fate cannot be escaped, and thus, like all men and women, they suffer and die. This is the life journey of all, but Shakespeare's play asserts that man need not despair, for he is a creature of reason with the grace of God to guide him, and through his encounter with evil he may learn the nature of evil and discover what it means to be a man. The ultimate message of Renaissance tragedy is that through suffering man grows and matures until he is able to meet his necessary fate with a calm acceptance of the will of God. The tragic vision and the religious vision spring ultimately out of the same human needs and aspirations.

Shakespeare saw in the legend of Romeo and Juliet a story which illustrated neither retribution for sin nor the working out of a blind inexorable Senecan fatalism. He saw a story that might be used to portray the maturation of youth through suffering and death. Romeo and Juliet may thus be called an "education" play, drawing upon the established morality tradition of such plays as Nice Wanton and Lusty Juventus. Romeo and Juliet learn the fundamental lessons of tragedy; the meaning of human life and death. Their education can culminate only in death and then rebirth in a world in which evil has no place. We can thus see Shakespeare in this play combining a story already cast for him in Senecan mold with a quite alien medieval dramatic tradition, which in its origins was based upon peculiarly Christian assumptions.

Romeo and Juliet are foolish, of course. They are hasty and precipitous and they make many mistakes, but to speak of a "tragic flaw" in either of them is to lead to endless absurdity. The impetuosity, haste, and carelessness of the lovers are the universal attributes of youth. Their shortcomings are what make them the ordinary representatives of humanity that this type of play must have as its tragic protagonists. Their errors, moreover, are all committed with a virtuous end in view, the same end that leads the wise and mature Friar Lawrence to marry them in spite of the dangers he sees both to them and to his own position. Unlike a later Othello or Macbeth, they are guilty of no deliberate choice of evil.

Both Romeo and Juliet mature greatly as the play unfolds, but to demonstrate the particular progress of the human life journey, Shakespeare concentrates upon Romeo. The exigencies of drama required that he concentrate upon one figure, and Romeo, of course, was the natural one. The Renaissance generally held that woman's powers of reason were somewhat less than those of man, and the design of the play called for a free-willed rational acceptance of the Christian stoic view of life to which Romeo comes at the end of the play.

How can a man live in a world in which evil lurks on every side and in which the inevitable end of all man's worldly aspirations must be death, a world in which the cold necessity of Fortune cannot be avoided? The Renaissance had a very simple answer which it carried over from the consolation philosophy of the Middle Ages, itself a Christian adaptation of the classical creed of Stoicism. Good and evil are in the world together, but the entire universe is ruled by a benevolent God whose plan is deliberate, meaningful, and ultimately good. The paradox of the fortunate fall taught that evil itself contributed to this ultimate good. Man, bearing the burden of original sin, had evil within him, but as the chosen creature of God, he had good also. When the evil within him predominated he was ruled by passion, but he had the gift of reason, which by proper exercise could always keep passion under control. Reason, of course, lay in an acceptance of the will of God. This central core of Renaissance belief is perfectly expressed by Friar Lawrence:

For naught 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:. . .
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.
[II, iii. 17-20, 27-30]

Grace, of course, is reason, and rude will is passion. Man can live happily in the world if he allows his reason to guide his actions, to show him that the plan of the world essentially is good and just and that evil itself is designed to further the ends of a divine providence. With reason thus guiding him, man can become impervious to the blows of Fortune. He will accept his fate, whatever it maybe, as contributing to a divine purpose beyond his comprehension but ultimately good and just. Through his encounter with evil Romeo learns to accept his fate in just such a manner.

We first meet Romeo as a lovesick boy assuming the conventional role of the melancholy lover, playing a game of courting a Capulet girl who he knows can never accede to his suit. We may well believe that it is because Rosaline is a Capulet that Romeo pursues her, and that because she knows the basic insincerity of his suit, she spurns him with her supposed vows of chastity. This is the boy Romeo, not yet ready to face the responsibilities of life, unaware of the real sorrows that are the lot of man, but playing with a make-believe sorrow that he enjoys to the fullest. We usually think that at his first sight of Juliet he abandons this childish pose and experiences true love. This may be so, for the dramatist is forced to work rapidly even at the expense of character consistency, but it is not really the sight of Juliet that causes him to change. It is his own precipitous act of leaping out from the dark beneath her window with his

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
[II, ii. 49-51]

With this hasty speech the game of make-believe love becomes no longer possible. The hasty act of impetuous youth is the means to maturity. Romeo must now face the realities of life with all its consequences both for good and evil. There may be a double meaning in that final line. Never again will he be the same Romeo who had pined for Rosaline. Juliet too can no longer be the same once she has poured her heart out into the night. She too must now face the world as it is. Her unpremeditated outpouring of her love parallels the precipitous speech of Romeo.

Like all young people, Romeo and Juliet are uncertain and hasty in their first encounters with the problems of reality. Their plans at best are foolish ones. The force of evil had already intruded into their world immediately following Romeo's first sight of Juliet. His first poetic rapture [I. v. 44-53] had been echoed by the harsh voice of Tybalt:

This, by his voice, should be a Montague.
Fetch me my rapier, boy.
[I, v. 54-5]

This is Shakespeare's unique poetic way of showing the ever-present juxtaposition of love and hate, good and evil. Before the marriage may be consummated, Romeo must now face this evil force in the world. He is not yet, however, able to accept it as he should. When Tybalt lies dead at his feet and a full awareness of what he has done comes upon him, Romeo cries out in despair: "O, I am fortune's fool" [III. i. 136]. This is a crucial line and all its implications must be understood. "Fool" had two common meanings in Shakespeare's age. On the one hand it had the connotation of "dupe" or "plaything," and thus the word usually is glossed. On the other hand it was a common word for "child." In three other places in the play it is used with this meaning. When Romeo calls himself the "dupe" or "plaything" of Fortune, he is asserting a capricious, lawless Fortune, and thus he is denying the providence of God, of which in the Christian view Fortune was merely the agent. Romeo here sees the universe as a mindless chaos, without guiding plan; he is proclaiming a philosophy of despair.

With this view of life the secondary meaning of "fool" is in complete accord. As long as man sees Fortune as capricious and the universe as without plan, he must be the slave of Fortune. Romeo is the child of Fortune at this point because he is governed by it as the child is governed by his father. He is constrained to blind obedience. He has not yet learned the way of acceptance by which the control of Fortune maybe thrown off. When Romeo's own will is in accord with the universal plan of God, he will no longer be the child of Fortune in this sense. He will be the master of Fortune in that it can never direct him contrary to his own will. In this secondary sense of "child" there is also the implication that Romeo is more fortunate than he himself perceives, that he is protected as the child is by his father. The divine providence whose "fool" he is will lead him, in spite of his present ignorance, to a self-mastery and wisdom, and it will use his present seeming misfortune to restore harmony and order to the world.

From this low point Romeo must make his slow journey to maturity, and Shakespeare shows his progression in three stages. First we find him in the friar's cell, weeping and wailing, beating his head upon the ground and offering to kill himself. This abject surrender to passion is the behavior not of a rational man but of a beast, as the friar declares:

Hold thy desperate hand:
Art thou a man?
Thy form cries out thou art:
Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast.
[III, iii. 108-11]

Romeo's education now begins at the hands of Friar Lawrence, who in a lengthy speech [III. iii. 108-54] teaches him to make a virtue of necessity, that to rail on Fortune is foolish and fruitless, that careful reason will demonstrate to him that he is indeed far more fortunate than he might have been. When rather than kill himself he stops his weeping and goes to comfort Juliet, he has taken the first step toward maturity.

That his growth is a steady one from that point forward we may perceive from a bare hint as Romeo climbs from Juliet's window to be off for Mantua. "O, think'st thou we shall ever meet again?" [III. v. 51] asks Juliet, and Romeo replies:

I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.
[III, v. 52-3]

What is significant here is that Romeo has thrown off despair and can face the future with some degree of hope in an ultimate providence. It is but the barest hint of a change in him, and we see no more of him until the beginning of Act V, where in Mantua we perceive by his first words that he is a new man entirely. All of Act IV had been devoted to Juliet. The dramatist has not had time to show in detail the growth of Romeo. The change must be made clear in Romeo's first speech, and it must be accepted by the audience as an accomplished fact. We immediately sense a new serenity about him as he walks upon the stage at the beginning of Act V:

My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
My bosom's lord sits lightly in his throne;
And all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
[V, i. 2-5]

He expects joyful tidings, but the news Balthazer brings is the most horrible of which he can conceive. Shakespeare gives his opening speech to Romeo, I believe, so that it may emphasize the shock of the news of Juliet's supposed death coming when happy news is expected, and in the face of this shock to illustrate the manner in which the new Romeo can receive the severest blow of which Fortune is capable. (pp. 274-81)

The design of the tragedy does not call at this point for a Byronic defiance of fate by Romeo, a daring of Fortune to pour its worst upon his head. . . .The design calls for an escape from Fortune's oppression through an acceptance of the order of the universe, and this meaning is implicit in "I denie you Starres" [V, i. 24].

We may ask first what the word "deny" means in the context in which Shakespeare here uses it. We do not have far to look, for in the second act we find a significant clue. Here Juliet speaks:

0 Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou
Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
[II, ii. 33-4]

She is asking wistfully that Romeo not be the son of his father, and her wish falls naturally into two parts: that he give up the name of his father and that he break the bond which ties him to his father. To "deny" his father is to negate the natural relationship of son to father, one, as the Renaissance saw it, of subjection and obedience. It is thus, in Shakespeare's sense, to cast off his father's authority, to refuse to be ruled by him. "I denie you starres," the line editors have consistently refused to accept as Shakespeare's, is the very line with which Romeo attains the victory over circumstances which is the sign of the mature stoical man. It is probably the most crucial single line of the play. To deny one's stars is to throw off the control of a hostile fortune, just as a son might throw off the control of his father. To Renaissance man there was only one means by which this might be accomplished: by an acceptance of the way of the world as the will of God, and by a calm, fearless acceptance of death as the necessary and proper end of man, which releases him from all earthly evil and assures him of a true felicity in heaven. For Romeo this will be reunion with Juliet.

It has been argued, of course, that since the Anglican church taught that the punishment for suicide was damnation, Romeo and Juliet in killing themselves are merely assuring the loss of their souls. We are not dealing here, however, with Shakespeare the theologian illustrating a text, but rather with Shakespeare the dramatist using symbolically a detail inherited from his sources in order to illustrate a greater and more significant truth. The Senecan tradition in which the story came down to Shakespeare endorsed suicide as a means of release from a world full of pain and as a means of expiration for complicity in the death of a loved one. It was in these terms that suicide was so essential a part of the Romeo and Juliet story. There was in the Renaissance, moreover, much respect for the classical notion of suicide as a noble act by which man fulfills his obligations and attains a higher good than life itself, and on the stage suicide was often portrayed in such terms. Only the most insensitive of critics could regard Romeo and Juliet as destined for damnation; their suicide, inherited by Shakespeare as an essential part of the story, must be regarded as a symbolic act of acceptance of inevitable death. Dramatically it is the most effective means by which such acceptance may be portrayed. The results of the act are not damnation, but instead, the "destruction of evil by the ending of the feud. Out of the self-inflicted deaths of Romeo and Juliet come a reconciliation and a rebirth of good, a catharsis that would be well-nigh impossible were it bought with the souls as well as the lives of the young lovers.

Shakespeare might easily have written "defy" instead of "deny," for that word might have conveyed a similar meaning. It need not be taken to indicate a Byronic challenge to Fortune. To defy Fortune is to assert one's independence of it, and that is what Romeo does. … Shakespeare might have written "defy" had he been a lesser artist, but he wrote "deny" because of the deliberate echo and reminder it might furnish of that earlier and equally crucial line, "O, I am fortune's fool" [III, i. 136]. The fool, or child of Fortune, has now thrown off the authority of Fortune. These two lines mark the two poles of Romeo's development from creature of passion to man of reason. In the meaning of the latter line there is a deliberate echo of the earlier one.

It would, of course, be foolish to measure Romeo's conduct in the final act against a consistent classical ideal of stoicism [a philosophy founded by the Greek thinker Zeno in about 300 B.C. which holds that wise men should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law]. A true Stoic would not have committed suicide, but Shakespeare's brand of Christian stoicism was rarely consistent philosophically. The simple point Shakespeare wishes to make is that Romeo has grown to maturity, has learned to accept the order of the universe with all it may entail, that he is ready for death, and that he can accept it bravely and calmly as the necessary means toward the greater good of reunion with Juliet. He will, as he puts it:

shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.
[V, iii. 111-12]

When Paris says to him in the graveyard, "for thou must die," it is not merely to Paris that Romeo replies: "I must indeed; and therefore came I hither" [V, iii. 57-8]. In that simple line is a summation of Romeo's development. He has come willingly to embrace the necessary end of life's journey.

The world of Romeo and Juliet is a somber, realistic one in which youth is born into evil and must struggle against it ceaselessly until the conflict is ended by inevitable death. But Shakespeare's tragic vision is not one of resignation or despair; it is one of defiance and hope, of pride in those qualities of man that enable him to survive and achieve victory in such a world. It is this tension between pride in man and terror of the world's evil which Clifford Leech [in his Shakespeare's Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth-Century Drama] has called the essence of the tragic emotion; and Shakespeare goes far toward achieving this tension in Romeo and Juliet. There is a design for tragedy in this early play, a conception of man's position in the universe to which character and event are designed by the artist to conform. There are, of course, inconsistencies in the design; Shakespeare has not yet been able entirely to escape the limitations imposed upon him by his sources, but we can nevertheless perceive, governing and shaping the matter that Shakespeare took from Arthur Brooke, the idea of tragedy as a portrait of man's journey from youth to maturity, encountering the evil in the world, learning to live with it, and achieving victory over it by death. Like the tragedies of Aeschylus, Romeo and Juliet proclaims also that man learns through suffering, but even more strongly than in Greek tragedy, there is affirmation in Shakespeare that the ultimate plan of the universe is good, for out of the suffering of individuals the social order is cleansed of evil. The deep-rooted family feud is finally brought to an end. (pp. 283-86)

Irving Ribner, "Then I Denie You Starres: A Reading of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall, Jr., eds., New York University Press, 1959, pp. 269-86.

Harold S. Wilson
[Wilson regards Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy of fate involving "two lovers whose destiny it is to be sacrificed to the healing of their families' strife." Furthermore, the critic claims, the feud is the central concern of the play. Wilson argues that Shakespeare marred this design, however, by making his hero and heroine so attractive that the audience loses interest in the dramatic action once they are dead, thus ignoring the true culmination of the play in the resolution of the feud.]

The tragic conception of Romeo and Juliet is simply stated for us in the opening sonnet-prologue. By thus announcing his theme and describing the central action, Shakespeare prepares us for the method he will follow throughout the play. We are to watch a sequence of events as they move towards the catastrophe in the full knowledge that they are tragic, that the tragic culmination is somehow inevitable. The tragic effect is to be one of anticipation and its realization. The Greek tragedians … could count on their audiences' familiarity with the story of the play. Shakespeare uses his opening prologue in Romeo and Juliet to establish the same condition.

The action concerns not simply two lovers but two families. An ancient feud breaks forth anew, involving in its course two lovers whose destiny it is to be sacrificed to the healing of their families' strife, "which, but their children's end, naught could remove" [Prologue, 11]. The pathos is that the lovers' sacrifice is inescapable; their love is "death-mark'd"; they are "star-cross'd" [Prologue, 9, 6], fated to die in the fifth act. But the tragic outcome is not quite unrelieved. There is to be a kind of reconciliation at the end, though we are not to expect a "happy" ending. Thus, carefully are we prepared to understand and anticipate the ensuing action.

This method of foreshadowing the outcome is carried through the play, in the premonitions and misgivings of the two lovers. "I dreamt a dream tonight" [I, iv. 50], says Romeo, as he goes with Benvolio and Mercutio towards the Capulet party. Mercutio at once takes him up, rallies him, makes his melancholy remark the occasion of his elaborate fancy of Queen Mab. Yet as Benvolio tries to hurry them on: "Supper is done, and we shall come too late!" Romeo reflects,

I fear, too early; for my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!
[I, iv. 105-13]

As we are later to realize, Romeo's foreboding is all too well justified. Ere another day passes, Romeo will have loved another maiden than the lady Rosaline who now has all his thoughts; he will have married Juliet, anticipating only happiness; but Mercutio will be slain by Tybalt, Tybalt slain by Romeo, Romeo banished from Verona; and the lives of Romeo and Juliet will be eventually sacrificed. (pp. 19-20)

All of these echoes and foreshadowings emphasize and reemphasize a single theme, a single conception: the seemingly inscrutable necessity of the whole action, a necessity imposed by some power greater than men. (p. 22)

The play culminates with the reconciliation of the rival houses, as the prologue states. Old Capulet and Montague, confronted by the terrible results of their hatred in the deaths of their children, are at length brought to recognize their responsibility. The Prince sums it up:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen; all are punish'd.
[V, iii. 292-95]

The parents are truly penitent, and from this time forth, we are to understand, their hatred was turned to love.

The importance of this ending in Shakespeare's design maybe seen by contrasting the culmination of the story in his principal source, Arthur Brooke's poem called Romeus and Juliet. In Brooke's version, the various instruments of the outcome—the apothecary who sold Romeo the poison, the Nurse, the Friar—are punished or pardoned, but neither the parents nor the enmity of the two houses is even mentioned in censure. Shakespeare's revision of Brooke's ending and his different emphasis are eloquent of his different conception of the point of the tale.

From another point of view, we may test the importance Shakespeare must have attached to the idea the play is designed to express by observing the very arbitrariness with which he manipulates not merely the plot but the characterizations as well, in the interest of working out his total design. The arbitrary insistence upon ironic coincidence in the successive stages of the action is evident. But equally arbitrary is the lack of coherent motivation in Friar Laurence's crucial role. Granted that Friar Laurence is timid and unworldly, and proud of his herbalist's resources, besides; he is still an odd kind of spiritual adviser, without confidence in his authority with the two families, and, we must surely add, without elementary common sense. In real life, any man of sense in Friar Laurence's position would have reflected that the proposed marriage of Juliet with Paris was impossible. Juliet was already married to Romeo. And he would have used this circumstance to force a reconciliation upon the two families—a motive which he professed in marrying the young people in the first place. It is evident that he could count upon the Prince's support in thus seeking to reconcile the feud, and Romeo's pardon, and his own, would easily follow upon the achieving of this worthy end.

This sort of speculation is obviously not relevant to the play as we have it; for such a solution would have given comedy, and Shakespeare was here intent upon tragedy. We must allow the author such arbitrary means; the tragic idea, and the tragic effect, are more important than any mere question of psychological verisimilitude. In observing the arbitrariness of the contrivance, however, we are able to gauge the more accurately the author's central concern. It is with the idea of the play, and the artificial means are an index of the length he is prepared to go in expressing it. Shakespeare neither blames Friar Laurence for his romantic folly, nor allows the common sense solution of the lovers' difficulties to occur to him or to them; and we must not consider that any such point is worth making in our criticism of the play except in so far as our consideration of it may help us the better to understand what the play is about.

If the cumulatively parallel episodes of Romeo and Juliet may be called the warp of the play's structural design, the woof is a series of contrasts. It is a drama of youth pitted against age. … Correspondingly, youth stands for love, and age for continuing hate. Most fundamental of all is the contrast, which is not fully revealed until the end, of accident and design.

Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet is a translated version of a familiar folk-tale rather clumsily worked up as a popular romance in Pierre Boaistuau's Histories tragiques; in Brooke's version, as in Boaistuau's, the ironic succession of reversals is attributed casually to "Fortune"—the customary resource of the romancer intent only upon the turns of his plot. Shakespeare more ambitiously undertook to comprehend the relations of chance and destiny in his tragic design.

Carefully, then, the responsibility of the lovers for their catastrophe, in Shakespeare's play, is minimized, as it is not in Brooke's version. The fact of the feud is emphasized at the outset, and the involvement of Romeo and Juliet is not only innocent but against their will. Even in the catastrophe itself, their self-destruction is hardly more than their assent to compelling circumstance. Romeo, it is true, buys poison to unite himself with Juliet in the grave; but before he reaches the tomb, Paris intervenes to seal with his death the one chance of Romeo's pausing in his resolve. [Harley] Granville Barker oddly remarks that Paris's death "is wanton and serves little purpose." Actually, it is calculated to enhance our sense of the pressure of circumstance upon Romeo. He was distraught before he met Paris at the tomb of Juliet, but not utterly desperate, perhaps. Now, with the blood of Paris upon his hands (again contrary to his will and his anguished protest), he has no remaining ground of hope, no reason to delay his purpose. The death of Paris at Romeo's hands is Shakespeare's own addition to the story and hence an especially significant clue to his conception. It is another irony that prepares us for the most poignant irony of all, as Romeo, in his rapt intentness upon joining Juliet in the grave, fails to interpret aright the signs of returning animation in the sleeping girl. … Juliet, as she plunges the knife in her breast, thinks only of joining her lover. Shakespeare, of course, is not excusing their self-destruction; but it is no part of his design to blame them. Their deaths are a donnée [known fact] of the story; the point of it lies elsewhere than in their responsibility.

The blame lies with the families, with the elders. But what of the role of chance, of the fate which so evidently has crossed the love of Romeo and Juliet from beginning to end? They fell in love by accident. Romeo went to the Capulet party expecting to indulge his unrequited passion for Rosaline; Juliet came for the express purpose of seeing and learning to love the County Paris. Amid their later difficulties, if Friar John had been able to deliver Friar Laurence's letter; if Friar Laurence had thought to use Balthazar as his messenger, as he first proposed to do [III, iii. 169-71], or if Balthazar too had been delayed; if Friar Laurence, even had been a little quicker in getting to Juliet's tomb—if anyone of these possibilities had occurred, the outcome might have been very different. We are meant to reflect upon this chain of seeming accidents, for they are prominently displayed.

Here, then, in the play as we have it, is the design—an arbitrary one, to be sure—of "a greater power than we can contradict" [V, iii. 153], that finds means to humble the rival houses "with love." It is a stern conception of Providence, to the working of whose purposes human beings are blind, which fulfils the moral law that the hatred of the elders shall be visited upon the children—"poor sacrifices of our enmity" [V, iii. 304], as Capulet describes them—yet whose power turns hatred in the end to love. The design of the tragedy has been a Christian moral, implicit but still sufficiently manifest to the thoughtful. Herein lies the rationale of the play's structure. The three entrances of the Prince mark the three stages of the action intended to show a chain of seeming accidents issuing in a moral design adumbrated in the sonnet-prologue, implicit from the beginning. The final entrance of the Prince marks the logical climax of a tightly built narrative scheme. This concluding stage of the action reveals, in recapitulation, the significance of the whole design, a design in which the catastrophic deaths of the lovers contribute but a part; the punishment of the elders, and still more their reconciliation, complete the pattern.

But if the logical climax of the play's conception lies in this denouement, the emotional climax comes before, with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. In this, the world's favourite love story, Shakespeare has endowed his young lovers with all the riches of his earlier lyrical style, with the music of his sonnets which echoes through the play; and he has given them a grace and a purity of motive, in keeping with his larger design, that ensures our complete sympathy from beginning to end. As we follow their story, we cannot help taking sides with them against the elders—against the blind selfishness and perversity of their parents, against the stupid animality, however amusing, of the Nurse, against the absurd ineptitude of Friar Laurence; and as we see them hasten unwittingly to their destruction, we can only pity their youth, their innocence, and their ill luck. They themselves have no awareness of a tragic misstep, of a price justly exacted for human pride or folly, and neither have we: their story is full of pathos, but is has in itself little or nothing of tragic grandeur.

The tragic irony of the story, as Shakespeare tells it, lies in the blindness of the elders to the consequences of their hatred until it is too late, in the reversal brought about by the power greater than they. Yet despite the dramatist's efforts to direct our attention to this larger significance of the action—through the prologue and the structural foreshadowing of his whole scheme; through the chain of unlucky coincidences and arbitrary motives; through the reiteration of the theme of fortune and ill chance and fate—our feelings remain linked with the story of the lovers throughout the play; and audiences and actors alike notoriously feel that with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet the interest of the play is at an end, that the subsequent explanations are prolix and anticlimactic and may well be abridged. This feeling is manifestly contrary to what the dramatist aimed at, but he himself is chiefly responsible for our feeling, in having made his young lovers the centre of our regard.

Thus the play misses its full unity of effect because our sympathies are exhausted before the tragic design is complete. The story of a young and idealistic love thwarted is not enough to make a great tragedy; but Shakespeare, trying to place it within a grander conception, has not been able to achieve a larger unity. There is no failure in any detail of execu

Adherence to the Rules of Tragedy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6524

G. H. Durrant
[In the following excerpt, three students (A, B, and C), guided by their teacher (Lecturer or Mr. X), debate whether or not Romeo and Juliet adheres to the guidelines of Aristotelian tragedy; that is, in the instructor's words, "does it show the fall of a good and great man, brought about by a flaw in his own nature, enforced by Destiny or by the law of Nature, and arousing Pity and Terror, and so bringing about a state of tragic purgation?" Students A and B consider the question in light of scholarly essays by H. B. Charlton, A C. Bradley, Edward Dowden, Thomas Marc Parrott, Muriel C. Bradbrook, and G. B. Harrison, who generally agree that Romeo and Juliet is not tragic in the Aristotelian sense of the term because the hero is ordinary and the idea of an all-controlling fate is unconvincing. Student C, however, disagrees with the scholars and offers an impressionistic Aristotelian debate is pointless because Shakespeare was not concerned with sustaining an overall tragic design.]

Lecturer [Mr. X). As I told you, we are today to begin the study of Romeo and Juliet, a play that enjoyed a great popularity both in Shakespeare's own day and throughout the following centuries. But since I have frequently impressed upon you the need to consult the best critical opinion before forming your own judgment, perhaps you will tell me now where you have sought for help in reading the play, and what the result of your researches has been.

Student A. Well I've read Professor Charlton [Shakespearean Tragedy], and Professor Dowden [Shakespeare, His Mind and Art] and Dr. Bradley [Shakespearean Tragedy] and Professor Parrott [William Shakespeare, a Handbook], and they all speak very highly of the play. Only I'm not quite sure why they like it . . .

Student B. So do Professor Harrison [Shakespeare's Tragedies] and Dr. Bradbrook [Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry], and the others I've read. But I must admit I'm still somewhat puzzled, too. I suppose that is because I have always taken the play in a very simple-minded way as being a love-story with a sad ending. But now I am beginning to realise that it isn't as easy as all that. You see, Romeo and Juliet is a Tragedy—it was called so by Shakespeare. 'An Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet'—that is what it was called in Shakespeare's own day. Now it's all right so long as you simply think that a Tragedy is a story that ends unhappily—I mean anyone can understand it then—that is what Dr. Bradbrook calls 'a tragedy in the newspaper sense'. But it seems that, according to the best academic minds, Shakespeare was trying to do something rather different.

Student A. But how can they know what Shakespeare was trying to do? Isn't it all guess-work, after all? I mean, what evidence have they got?

Student B. Well, of course they haven't any direct evidence, but they can infer from what they know of Shakespeare's later work. You see, if Shakespeare first of all wrote a Tragedy called Romeo and Juliet, and later on wrote some other Tragedies that were very successful and yet quite different in some important respects from Romeo and Juliet, doesn't it seem likely that he was really trying to write something like the later tragedies at the time when he actually wrote Romeo and Juliet? I mean, isn't it probable that Romeo and Juliet was a first shot that didn't quite come off?

Student A. Well, I must say I think that is pretty far-fetched. I can't see why we can't get on and read Romeo and Juliet with Mr. X and see what we think of it. After all, Shakespeare has been dead for a long time, and these guesses about what he was trying to do can't help us much.

Student B. Well, I think we ought to ask Mr. X first of all what he thinks of the ideas we found in the critical works. . . .

Lecturer. I'm glad you're coming round to that. It won't do to go off on your own, spinning fancies about the play out of your heads. A little contact with sound scholarship is essential if you are to get to the heart of the matter. But as I want to be sure that you have really read the authorities, I'll ask you to tell me what they say. Well, B. . . . ? (pp. 23-4)

Student B. . . .[The] worst feature of the play, according to Professor Harrison, is that it 'lacks the qualities of deep tragedy.'

Lecturer. Now at last we are beginning to be really serious. Obviously, we can't simply go ahead and read the play in a hopelessly unscientific spirit. We must begin by considering what Tragedy really is. Then when we have decided that, we can find out whether Romeo and Juliet displays the quality of true Tragedy. If it doesn't then obviously there must be some defect in it.

Student A. Yes, Mr. X, I think that must be right. At any rate, all the best authorities seem to think that's the right way to study a play. Look what I've written down in my notebook. I spent Saturday morning in the Library making notes of what the scholars say; and they all seem very doubtful about the play as a tragedy. Here is what Professor Charlton says: First of all, he points out that there are a great many premonitions of disaster in the play. He gives a good many examples of them; and he says that this is Shakespeare's way of giving us the 'sense of an all-controlling Fate' so as to make the play tragic, and not merely a result of the inconstancy of Fortune.

Student B. But Shakespeare does make Romeo say he is 'Fortune's fool' after he has killed Tybalt. And doesn't Juliet cry out on 'fickle' Fortune when Romeo has gone? In the last scene the catastrophe is described as a 'mischance', a 'misadventure', 'some ill unlucky thing' [V. iii. 136]. Would Shakespeare have put those words in if he had been anxious to put the stress on an 'all-controlling Fate' and not on the 'inconstancy of Fortune'?

Student A. I suppose Charlton would say that these were relics of [Arthur] Broke's poem, from which Shakespeare took the story of the play. He says: 'Instead of letting his persons declaim formally, as Broke's do, against the inconstancy of Fortune, he endows them with tragic premonitions.' But, as you say, it isn't quite true. Shakespeare does add the 'tragic premonitions'; but he doesn't remove all the references to 'fickle Fortune.'

Lecturer. But you can see what Charlton is getting at. He wants to show how Shakespeare added, or tried to add, a feeling of inevitability to the events of the play, so as to add tragic Terror to the pity you feel for the unlucky lovers of Broke's poem.

Student A. Yes, but Charlton thinks that it wasn't a success. He says that Shakespeare 'gives to the action itself a quality apt to conjure the sense of relentless doom.' But he doubts whether 'the sense of an all-controlling Fate is made strong enough to fulfil its tragic purpose.' He shows that the events in the play in themselves provide no real basis for the 'sweep of necessity.' In the end he comes to the conclusion that the play is radically unsound. It won't really bear careful examination, even though we may be carried away by it when we see it on the stage. He says: 'And so, stirred to sympathy by Shakespeare's poetic power, we tolerate, perhaps even approve, the death (of Romeo and Juliet). At least for the moment.' Then he goes on: 'But tragedy lives not only for its own moment, nor by "suspensions of disbelief." Our sentiments were but momentarily gratified. And finally our deeper consciousness protests. Shakespeare has conquered us by a trick: the experiment carries us no nearer to the heart of tragedy.'

Lecturer. Yes, you see judged by the criteria that Aristotle and Bradley lay down for tragedy, the play hardly succeeds. There are too many accidents in it. But what does Dowden say? He was a follower of Bradley, too.

Student A. He says: 'Thus it came about that Shakespeare at nearly forty years was the author of but two or three tragedies. Of these, Romeo and Juliet may be looked upon as the work of the author's adolescence, and Hamlet as the evidence that he had become adult, and in this supreme department master of his craft.'

Student B. But just a minute; doesn't Dowden give the earliest date for Romeo and Juliet as 1591?

Lecturer. Yes, I seem to remember that he does.

Student B. Well then, Shakespeare must have been at least twenty-seven when he wrote the play. Surely Dowden didn't really think Shakespeare was still adolescent at that hoary old age?

Student A. Don't be silly—he only means that Romeo and Juliet is immature. It's unripe, compared with the 'true tragedies.' It was written in Shakespeare's salad days, when he was green in judgment.

Lecturer. Don't waste time quibbling. What else does Dowden say?

Student A. He also says that he thinks Shakespeare worked on the play for five or six years— there's the answer to your question about his age—and that in the end 'there still appeared in the play unmistakable marks of immature judgment.'

Student B. What marks?

Student A. Well, I suppose he relied on the good sense of the reader to spot them. ... He goes on: 'It is not unlikely that even then he considered his powers to be insufficiently matured for the great dealing with human life and passion, which tragedy demands; for, having written Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare returned to the histories, in which, doubtless, he was aware that he was receiving the best possible culture for future tragedy. ..."

Student B. In other words, Shakespeare wasn't yet equal to the job, and was thoroughly disappointed with the play when he'd finished. It does seem that if he had written it for an examination in Tragedy he wouldn't have been given top marks by the professors. Of course, it's their job to judge by the very highest standards. … But didn't people like it when it was produced?

Lecturer. It seems that it was a great success … ran into four editions before the First Folio, besides being produced very often. But, of course, mere popular success has nothing to do with the artistic conscience.

Student A. I somehow can't see the Elizabethan audience putting up with the leisurely charm of stilted poetry …, but we can always suppose that it was cut in Shakespeare's day, can't we?

Lecturer. Yes, that is what some scholars do suppose. It is the scientific method, you see. Go on, A.

Student A. Professor Parrott (he is or was at Princeton) has a book—this green one—on Shakespeare. . . . William Shakespeare—A Handbook he calls it. He seems to agree with the others. Where am I? Oh, here it is:

Romeo and Juliet lacks the depth, the power, the tragic intensity, of the great plays of the third period, and it may well be that Shakespeare, no doubt his own severest critic, felt he was not yet ready to deal competently with great tragic themes. At any rate, in spite of the success of Romeo and Juliet on the stage and with all lovers of poetry, he turned his back upon tragedy.

Student B. I see—poor chap—he knew the play was no good. It must have been maddening for him to have everybody praising it when he knew in his heart all the time that future Professors of English would consider it a failure. I wonder he didn't blow his brains out.

Lecturer. That will do, B. We don't want unnecessary facetiousness. The only thing to do now is to go to the fountainhead. What does Bradley say?

Student A. Well, perhaps they all got it from him. It's a bit difficult, because he doesn't deal much with this play in Shakespearean Tragedy, which is what I read. But he does make some remarks about it, and they agree with those we've heard so far. He says that Romeo and Juliet is a 'pure tragedy,' but in some respects, an immature one. As far as I can make out, what he means is that the play is meant to be like Othello, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth—to be a 'pure tragedy,' in other words, but that it doesn't succeed because Shakespeare was still too immature for successful 'pure tragedy.' But Bradley talks of Romeo as though he was a tragic hero of the same kind as the heroes of the later tragedies. He says:

How could men escape, we cry, such vehement propensities as drive Romeo, Antony, Coriolanus to their doom? And why is it that a man's virtues help to destroy htm, and that his weakness is so intertwined with everything that is admirable in him that we can hardly separate them even in imagination?

Lecturer. Now we are beginning to see the light. Of course Bradley is considering whether the play is truly tragic—does it show the fall of a good and great man, brought about by a flaw in his own nature, enforced by Destiny or by the law of Nature, and arousing Pity and Terror, and so bringing about a state of tragic purgation? That is the real question, and if we can answer that, Bradley realised, we have the answer to the problem of Romeo and Juliet.

Student A. But Romeo isn't a great man. He's just an ordinary young chap who falls in love. . . .Oh, now I see … that is one reason why the play isn't 'deep tragedy.' The hero isn't a representative figure.

Student B. And there is also this other business about the bad verse. All that tedious stuff about Rosaline, and all those long speeches by Mercutio and the Friar. Most of the writers I've looked at think they can forgive Shakespeare, because after all he was a poet, and poets can't always be businesslike. Professor Harrison, you see, even finds a 'charm' in it, though he thinks it ought to be 'cut' in an acted version. But Dr. Bradbrook—she's a Cambridge don, isn't she?—is very severe. Where are my notes? Here we are: 'Parts of the play are in a manner so rhetorical as to be emptied of all feeling. Romeo like Titus moralises on a fly at the height of his laments.' Incidentally, she thinks that the Elizabethans knew all the time that the play wasn't a 'full tragedy.' She says that 'if any Polonius [in Hamlet] had essayed its classification' (I wonder why she says that?) he would have decided that the play was 'an amorous tragicomedy.' It seems that, according to Dr. Bradbrook, the play wasn't really an attempt to write Tragedy at all, it was the beginning of Shakespeare's comic style. And Mercutio and the Nurse are to be understood as comic characters.

Student A. Now you are getting me thoroughly mixed up. If we don't even know whether to take the play as immature Tragedy or as immature Comedy, we are simply lost.

Lecturer. Well, we had better sum up, and see where we've got to. The general view is that Romeo and Juliet is a good play, but that it is immature, and contains bad verse. It isn't truly tragic, because the hero is too ordinary, and because we don't see any necessity in the action. It sometimes rings hollow, and Shakespeare was probably disappointed with it. The only problem left is whether it is the beginnings of true Tragedy or the beginnings of true Comedy. There is no reason to feel confused.

(A knock on the door. Enter Miss C.)

[Lecturer.] Oh, Miss C, there you are; you are very late.

Miss C. I'm very sorry, I didn't notice the time.

Lecturer. I see. Well, we have just been discussing the views expressed on Romeo and Juliet by informed academic critics. Would you like to give us the benefit of your own studies?

Miss C. Oh! I'm very sorry. You see I've not really looked into that very carefully. I mean to say, I've been reading the play again.

Lecturer. And what did you make of it? Can you help us with the problem?

Miss C. The problem? Is there a problem? I'm sorry, I seem to have been, so busy this week. . . .

Student A. We have been trying to decide why Romeo and Juliet is a comparative failure.

Miss C. But it isn't a failure is it? I mean I think it's simply a wonderful play.

Lecturer. Well, since you have some views after all, Miss C, perhaps you will expand them a little. But try not to be too much carried away by enthusiasm. Impressionistic criticism is never really sound.

Miss C. Well, I expect this sounds very silly, but it seems to me that Shakespeare was writing a play about Love. I think [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge says that he intended it to be a sort of love-poem—he doesn't quite say that, but that is what he obviously means. So Shakespeare shows us two lovers; they have to be young because it is their first love— their first serious love, I mean—and it has to take place very suddenly so that the whole passion can develop to the fullest intensity. And then they must be unlucky and die—not to create Pity and Terror, but simply because their death, and their foreseeing of it, add to the intensity of their love.

Student A. Ah, but you see it all depends too much on bad luck. Juliet's message goes astray by bad luck, and she wakes up just a little too late, and there are lots of other examples. How can that be truly tragic?

Miss C. Well, does it matter whether it is 'truly tragic' or not? The question is: does it work in the play? Surely it does. The lovers are unlucky (though of course they are rash too) and they die. Shakespeare doesn't need to demonstrate that they had of necessity to die, because he isn't concerned with the laws of the Universe, and with the tragic terror that these arouse. He only wants to make us realise the love as intensely as possible. And the whole play is coloured with the sense of death so as to heighten the ectasy of love. There is no need for tragic necessity. And Romeo isn't meant as a representative tragic hero, who has a 'flaw' and is punished for it by the inexorable hand of Fate. He is a boy who is transformed by love into a man; he is unlucky and he dies. He illustrates the nature of Love, not the nature of the Moral Law. I should have thought that anybody would take the play in that way.

Student A. Ah, but you haven't read the critics. It all seems simple to you. It did to me too, before I read Bradley and Dowden and Harrison and Charlton. But let me ask you one question. Wasn't the play called a Tragedy? I mean by Shakespeare, or whoever published the Quarto?

Miss C. Yes, but I don't suppose that the Elizabethans were quite so well up in Aristotle as we are, and of course they hadn't read Bradley or Charlton. It probably seemed quite simple to them, too. I suppose that they regarded almost any story with a sad ending as a Tragedy. Anyway, what's in a name? Though I must say it seems to have brought a great pother on Shakespeare's head. (pp. 24-9)

Student A. It seems to me that your way of looking at it is hopelessly uncritical. (p. 34)

Miss C. No, that isn't quite true. I think there may be weaknesses here and there in the play. …But the main thing is that I am convinced that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet at great speed, and with the fullest knowledge of what he was doing. It isn't the sort of play that is written by a struggling adolescent mind. Doesn't the play ring with triumphant poetry, and doesn't it all move with the greatest sureness? I think that the critics who imagine Shakespeare giving up Tragedy in despair after experimenting with Romeo have allowed their own ideas to muddle them. They approach the play by way of King Lear, and they measure it by Othello and by Macbeth. It won't fit on that bed of Procrustes, and so they start to cut and bend, stretch and twist it: and when they have finished they blame Shakespeare. They worry fearfully about Shakespeare's development, but I don't believe that he himself worried so much. If he didn't write any more plays like Romeo and Juliet for a time, it's more likely, to my mind, that he felt he had really done what he wanted to do and could go on to something else.

Student B. Well, its your opinion against theirs.

Miss C. No it isn't. It is common sense and the almost unanimous opinion of readers and play-goers over three hundred years against a few apostles of Bradley's. Everybody knows what Romeo and Juliet is about until he has read these books. And I doubt whether we should take the academic critics so seriously if they wrote in plain direct English. It's a kind of fog that gets into the mind of writers and readers. (pp. 34-5)

Lecturer. Well, Miss C, you seem to have very decided opinions. I hope your own essay, which is overdue, will show none of the faults you find in the works of Shakespearean scholars. But you must not allow your distaste for scholarship to make you arrogant. Humility is the best approach to literature. (p. 35)

G. H. Durrant, "What's in a Name? A Discussion of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in Theoria, Pietermaritzburg, No. 8, 1956, pp. 23-36.

Clifford Leech
[Leech discusses Romeo and Juliet in terms of what he views as the three principal elements of dramatic tragedy: (1) the events of the plot proceed from no discernible cause; (2) the story focuses on an agonizing situation that cannot be corrected; and (3) at least one of the central characters represents humankind's capacity for evil and the destruction it engenders. Romeo and Juliet cannot properly be termed "tragic," the critic argues, because it violates all three of these conditions. Specifically, the drama diverges from tragedy because it fails to fully establish an element of "mystery" in the action, thereby forcing the reader to attribute the progression of events to the operation of fate; the play suggests, through the "moral lesson" at the end, that the lovers' deaths will reconcile the feuding families; and finally, it presents only "ordinary" individuals, none of whom are truly evil.]

[Romeo and Juliet concludes with] a kind of "happy ending." The feud will be ended, the lovers will be remembered. We may be reminded of the commonplace utterance that we have two deaths: the moment of actual ceasing to be, and the moment when the last person who remembers us dies. These lovers have their being enshrined in a famous play. So they are remembered in perpetuity, and their lives, according to the play itself, will be recorded in their statues. Certainly this is a sad affair, like that of Paolo and Francesca in The Divine Comedy. But we may ask, is it tragic?

Tragedy seems to demand a figure or figures that represent us in our ultimate recognition of evil. We need to feel that such figures are our kin, privileged to be chosen for the representative role and coming to the destruction that we necessarily anticipate for ourselves. The boy and girl figures in Romeo and Juliet are perhaps acceptable as appropriate representatives for humankind: after all, they do grow up. What worries us more, I think, in trying to see this play as fully achieved "tragedy," is the speech of the Duke at the end, which suggests that some atonement will be made through the reconciliation of the Montague and Capulet families. We are bound to ask "Is this enough?" It appears to be offered as such, but we remember that the finest among Verona's people are dead.

Shakespearean tragedy commonly ends with a suggestion of a return to normality, to peace. Fortinbras [in Hamlet] will rule in Denmark, Malcolm [in Macbeth] in Scotland, Iago [in Othello] will be put out of the way. But these later tragedies leave us with a doubt whether the peace is other than a second-best, whether indeed it is in man's power ever to put things right. In Romeo and Juliet the ending of the feud is laboriously spelled out.

But there is also the matter of Fate and Chance. Romeo kills Paris: at first glance that was a quite fortuitous happening. Paris was a good man, devoted to Juliet, who unfortunately got in the way of Romeo's approach to Juliet's tomb. At this point Romeo's doom is sealed: he might kill Tybalt and get away with it; he could not get away with killing an innocent Paris, who was moreover the Prince's kinsman. Now it is inevitable that he will die, whatever the moment of Juliet's awakening. There is indeed a "star-cross'd" pattern for the lovers, there is no way out for Romeo once he has come back to Verona. But perhaps Paris's important function in the last scene is not sufficiently brought out: the spectator may feel that there is simple chance operating in Romeo's arrival before Juliet wakes, in his killing himself a moment too early, in the Friar's belated arrival. Later I must return to the matter of the play's references to the "stars": for the moment I merely want to refer to the fact that tragedy can hardly be dependent on "bad luck."

Even so, though simple chance will not do, we may say that tragedy properly exists only when its events defy reason. The Friar thought the marriage of the young lovers might bring the feud to an end, and that was a reasonable assumption. Ironically, it did end the feud but at the expense of Romeo's and Juliet's lives, at the expense too of Mercutio's, Tybalt's, and Lady Montague's lives. The element of non sequitur in the train of events common to tragedy—despite the fact that, with one part of our minds, we see the operation of "probability or necessity," as Aristotle has it—is well described by Laurens van der Post in his novel The Hunter and the Whale:

I was too young at the time to realise that tragedy is not tragedy if one finds reason or meaning in it. It becomes then, I was yet to learn, a darker form of this infinitely mysterious matter of luck. It is sheer tragedy only if it is without discernible sense or motivation.

We may balk at "luck," as I have already suggested, but "mysterious" is right indeed (as Bradley splendidly urged on us in the First Lecture of Shakespearean Tragedy), for what "sense" or "motivation" does there seem to be in tragedy's gods? The sense of mystery is not, however, firmly posited in Romeo and Juliet. Rather, it is laboriously suggested that the Montagues and the Capulets have been taught a lesson in a particularly hard way.

Thus we have several reasons to query the play's achievement in the tragic kind. Do the lovers take on themselves the status of major figures in a celebration of a general human woe? Is the ending, with its promise of reconciliation, appropriate to tragic writing? We have seen that the lovers grow up. and they give us the impression of justifying human life, in their best moments, more than most people do. But the suggestion that their deaths will atone, will bring peace back, seems nugatory: no man's death brings peace, not even Christ's—or the Unknown Soldier's. The play could still end tragically if we were left with the impression that the survivors were merely doing what they could to go on living in an impoverished world: we have that in Hamlet and the later tragedies too. Here the laboriousness with which Shakespeare recapitulates all the events known to us, in the Friar's long speech, is surely an indication of an ultimate withdrawal from the tragic: the speech is too much like a preacher's resume of the events on which a moral lesson will be based. We can accept Edgar's long account of Gloucester's death in King Lear, because we need a moment of recession before the tragedy's last phase, where we shall see Lear and Cordelia dead, and because no moral lesson is drawn from Gloucester's death; but at the end of this earlier play, when Romeo and Juliet have already eloquently died, we are with difficulty responsive to the long reiteration of all we have long known through the play's action.

Shakespeare has not here achieved the sense of an ultimate confrontation with evil, or the sense that the tragic figure ultimately and fully recognizes what his situation is. Romeo and Juliet die, more or less content with death as a second best to living together. Montague and Capulet shake hands, and do what is possible to atone. The lovers have the illusion of continuing to be together—an illusion to some extent imposed on the audience. The old men feel a personal guilt, not a realization of a general sickness in man's estate. But perhaps only Lear and Macbeth and Timon came to that realization.

We can understand why Shakespeare abandoned tragedy for some years after this play. It had proved possible for him to touch on the tragic idea in his English histories, making them approach, but only approach, the idea of humanity's representative being given over to destruction, as with the faulty Richard II, the saintly Henry VI, the deeply guilty yet none the less sharply human Richard III. He had given his theater a flawed yet impressive Titus Andronicus and in the same play an Aaron given almost wholly to evil but obstinately alive. But in these plays the main drive is not tragic. The histories rely on the sixteenth-century chronicles, Titus on that tradition of grotesque legend that came from both Seneca and Ovid. The past was to be relived and celebrated in the histories; Titus was more of a literary exercise in antique horror than a play embodying a direct reference to the general human condition. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare for the first time essayed tragedy proper— that is, by wanting to bring the play's events into relation to things as they truly are—and he used a tale often told but belonging to recent times and concerned with people whom the spectators were to feel as very much their own kin. He may well have been particularly attracted to the story he found in Brooke's poem for the very reason that its figures and events did not have the authority of history and belonged to the comparatively small world of Verona. No major change in the political order can result from what happens in this play's action. No individual figure presented here is truly given over to evil. Without any precedents to guide him, he aimed at writing about eloquent but otherwise ordinary young people in love and about their equally ordinary friends and families. Only Mercutio has something daemonic in him, in the sense that his quality of life transcends the normal level of being. (pp. 68-71)

[If] Shakespeare had no useful dramatic precedents in this task, he had a manifold heritage of ideas about the nature of love; and many parts of that heritage show themselves in the play. The immoderateness and rashness that the Friar rebukes seem, on the one hand, to lead—in the fashion of a moral play—to the lovers' destruction. On the other hand, not only is our sympathy aroused but we are made to feel that what Romeo and Juliet achieve may be a finer thing than is otherwise to be found in Verona. Both views are strongly conveyed, and either of them might effectively dominate the play. Of course, they could coexist and interpenetrate—as they were to do much later in Anthony and Cleopatra—but here they seem to alternate, and to be finally both pushed into the background in the long insistence that the feud will end because of the lovers' deaths. The "moral" is thus finally inverted: the lovers' sequence of errors has culminated in the error of suicide, but now we are made to turn to their parents' error and to the consolation that Romeo and Juliet will be remembered through their golden statues. And it is difficult for us to get interested in these statues, or to take much joy in the feud's ending.

Yet the deepest cause of uneasiness in our response to the play is, I believe, to be found in the relation of the story to the idea of the universe that is posited. We are told in the Prologue of "star-cross'd lovers" [1. 6], and there are after that many references to the "stars." So there is a sense of "doom" here, but we are never fully told what is implied. Many coincidences operate: Romeo meets Tybalt just at the wrong moment; the Friar's message to Romeo about Juliet's alledged death goes astray; Romeo arrives at the tomb just before Juliet awakens; the Friar comes too late. I have already drawn attention to Shakespeare's device by which Romeo has to kill Paris, so that, even if he had arrived at the right time, there would have been no way out for him. We may feel that a similar sequence of chances operates in Hamlet. If Hamlet had not killed Polonius in a scared moment, if he had not had his father's seal with him on the voyage to England, if he had not managed to escape on the hospitable pirates' ship, if the foils had not been exchanged in the fencing bout with Laertes, if Gertrude had not drunk from the poisoned cup, things might indeed not have been disposed so as to lead him to Claudius's killing at the moment when it actually occurred. Even so, we can feel that, after all, the end would have been much as it is. Hamlet was a man in love with death, far more in love with death than with killing: we may say that only in the moment of death's imminence was he fully alive, freed from inhibition, able to kill Claudius: somehow or other, whatever the chances, this play demanded a final confrontation between the uncle-father and nephew-son. In Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, we could imagine things working out better: the lovers are doomed only by the words of the Prologue, not by anything inherent in their situation. It is not, as it is in Hardy's novels, that we have a sense of a fully adverse "President of the immortals": there is rather an insufficient consideration of what is implied by the "stars." Of course, in King Lear, in all later Shakespearean tragedy, there is a sense of an ultimate mystery in the universe: "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" [King Lear, III. vi. 77-8], Lear asks in his condition of most extreme distress. Bradley recognized that this mystery was inherent in the idea of tragedy, as is implied too in the passage from Laurens van der Post I have already quoted. But in Romeo and Juliet, we have to accept the lovers' deaths as the mere result of the will of the "stars" (the astrological implication is just too easy), and then we are exhorted to see this as leading to a reconciliation between the families.

The final "moral" of the play, as we have seen, is applied only to Old Montague and Old Capulet: they have done evil in allowing the feud to go on, and have paid for it in the deaths of their children and of Lady Montague. But, largely because Romeo and Juliet are never blamed, the children themselves stand outside the framework of moral drama. They have, albeit imperfectly, grown up into the world of tragedy, where the moral law is not a thing of great moment. They have been sacrificed on the altar of man's guilt, have become the victims of our own outrageousness, have given us some relief because they have died and we still for a time continue living. … To that extent, Romeo and Juliet is "tragic" in a way we can fully recognize. But its long-drawn-out ending, after the lovers are dead, with the pressing home of the moral that their deaths will bring peace, runs contrary to the notion of tragedy. There is a sanguineness about the end of it, a suggestion that after all "All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well," as Eliot quotes from Julian of Norwich in Little Gidding, and we can hardly tolerate the complacency of the statement. (pp. 71-3)

[In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare] attempted an amalgam of romantic comedy and the tragic idea, along with the assertion of a moral lesson which is given the final emphasis—although the force of that lesson is switched from the lovers to their parents. But tragedy is necessarily at odds with the moral: it is concerned with a permanent anguishing situation, not with one that can either be put right or be instrumental in teaching the survivors to do better. When Shakespeare wrote "love-tragedy" again, in Othello and in Antony and Cleopatra, he showed that love may be a positive good but that it was simultaneously destructive and that its dramatic presentation gave no manumission from error to those who contemplated the destruction and continued to live. Nowhere, I think, does he suggest that love is other than a condition for wonder, however much he makes fun of it. But in his mature years he sees it as not only a destructive force but as in no way affording a means of reform. That Romeo and Juliet is a "moral tragedy"—which, I have strenuously urged, is a contradiction in terms—is evident enough. It is above all the casualness of the play's cosmology that prevents us from seeing it as tragedy fully achieved: we have seen the need for a fuller appreciation of the mystery. As with Titus Andronicus, the nearest play to Romeo and Juliet overtly assuming a tragic guise in the chronology of Shakespeare's works, the march toward disaster is too manifestly a literary device. (p. 73)

Clifford Leech, "The Moral Tragedy of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeline Doran & Mark Eccles, Standish Henning, Robert Kimbrough, and Richard Knowles, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1976, pp. 59-75.

Time and Haste

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4504

Tom F. Driver
[Driver examines Romeo and Juliet in terms of the necessity of condensing "real" time into stage time in such a way that the audience will believe the events of the play have actually taken place. The critic points out that Shakespeare compressed the action of Romeo and Juliet in two ways: first he considerably shortened the length of the action as it appeared in his source, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet; second, he used very brief scenes to account for longer periods of time. This compression, Driver asserts, underscores the theme of haste in the play. The critic also notes how Shakespeare varies the rhythm of the drama, slowing down or speeding up the action to match its meaning.]

In Romeo and Juliet the young Shakespeare learned the craft of creating on stage the illusion of passing time. The Prologue is a kind of author's pledge that we are to see something that really happened. At least, and for technique it amounts to the same thing, it could have happened.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
[Prologue, 1-4]

The story is further summarized, and the Prologue ends with this couplet:

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
[Prologue, 13-14]

Once such a beginning is made, the author is under obligation to be as faithful to the clock as possible. He must show one thing happening after another, according to its proper time, and he must keep the audience informed as to how the clock and the calendar are turning. Shakespeare was well aware of the obligation, Romeo and Juliet contains no less than 103 references to the time of the action—that is, 103 references which inform the audience what day things take place, what time of day it is, what time some earlier action happened, when something later will happen, etc. In every case but one Shakespeare was thoroughly consistent.

It is not enough, however, for the dramatist to be consistent. He also must be able to make us believe that in the short time we sit in the theater the whole action he describes can take place. He must compress the action of his story into the length of a theatrical performance.

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,...
Is now the two-hours' traffic of our stage. [Prologue, 9-10, 12]

Faced with a dramatic necessity, Shakespeare decided to make capital of it. If he has much business to set forth in a short time he will write a play about the shortness of time. In Granville-Barker's words, Romeo and Juliet is "a tragedy of precipitate action." No little part of the attraction of the play is due to this frank exploitation of a dramatic necessity.

Come, Montague; for thou art early up
To see thy son and heir more early down.
[V, iii. 208-09]

In addition to the 103 chronological references noted above, the play contains 51 references to the idea of speed and rapidity of movement.

I shall mention only briefly the two ways by which Shakespeare has achieved the uncommonly tight compression of action in this play. His first stratagem was to shorten the length of the action, as found in his source, from nine months to four or five days. With this he achieved two results: he heightened the sense of "o'er hasty" action considerably, and he enabled himself more easily to appear to account for all the "real" time in the story. He did not, of course, account for every hour, but he came nearer to a correspondence between stage time and "real" time.

His second stratagem was to make very short scenes on the stage account for comparatively long periods of "real" time. This effect, which has been called "double" time, was mastered by Shakespeare in the course of writing Romeo and Juliet. The play has two notable scenes in this respect: I. v, the feast at Capulet's house, and V. iii, the final scene. In both, the technique is to focus attention upon a series of small scenes within the major scene, one after another, so that we are forgetful of the clock, and then to tell us at the end that so-and-so-much time has gone by. Because the story has advanced, we are willing to believe the clock did also.

So much for the problem of compressing "real" time into stage time and for Shakespeare's use of the resulting rapidity as a theme in his play. There remains a further complexity owing to the drama's being a performed art. That is the problem of tempo. The sense of rapidity in the movement of the action must be varied. The play must have a rhythm different from the movement of the clock, however that clock may have been accelerated. There must be a fast and slow, and that fast and slow will account for much of the subtle form which the play assumes under the hand of the dramatist. Here is a major difference between art and life. In life, time is constant. The dull days last as long as the eventful ones, if not longer. In a drama time speeds up or slows down according to the meaning of the action. The excitement of dramatic art lies very largely in the tension thus established between chronological tempo and artistic, or dramatic, tempo.

Roughly speaking, Romeo and Juliet has four periods or phases—two fast and two slow. It opens in a slow time. True, there is a street fight to begin with; but that is in the nature of a curtain-raiser skillfully used to set the situation. Basically, the first period is the "Rosaline phase", and it moves as languidly as Romeo's mooning. The second period, of very swift action, begins to accelerate in I. iii. with talk of Paris as a husband. It rushes headlong, with only momentary pauses, through love, courtship, and marriage until Tybalt is impetuously slain. Here there is a pause, while the audience waits with Juliet to see what will happen, and while Friar Laurence cautions Romeo to be patient until he can "find a time" to set matters straight. It is important to notice that this pause accounts for only a very small period of "real" time. The pause is purely psychological—or rather, dramatic. In the midst of it Shakespeare prepares to accelerate the action once more by inserting between two of the lovers' andante [moderately slow] scenes the very remarkable staccato [abrupt and disjointed] scene iv of Act III, in which Capulet arranges with Paris for Juliet's marriage. In this short scene of 35 lines there are no less than 15 specific references to time and haste. The scene is all about how soon the marriage can take place—counterpoint to the mood of the lovers, who would turn the morning lark into a nightingale. In the final phase of the play, speed takes over again and we rush to the catastrophe.

It is in the last phase that the most interesting relations between dramatic rhythm and chronological clarity may be seen. Two or three days of "real" time are required to pass in order to make sense of the action: Romeo must be exiled, Friar Laurence must put his plan for Juliet's false death into effect, messengers must travel, family must grieve, and a funeral be held. But the drama, once Juliet takes the sleeping potion, requires a swift conclusion. Therefore, after that event, references to exact time, which hitherto have been profuse, almost entirely disappear from the text. There is no way for an audience to know when any of the scenes in Act V begins. There are no clues as to what day it is, let alone what time of day, until line 176 of scene iii, when the Watch informs us that Juliet has been buried two days. The vagueness is deliberate. The "real" time is comparatively long, but the play wants to move swiftly. Therefore the audience is given an impression of speed, but specific time references are withheld.

The foregoing remarks should make it clear that in such a play as Romeo and Juliet, where the story demands a setting more or less realistic, Shakespeare strings his art between two poles: on one side, accurate imitation of what would really happen; on the other, bold shaping of events into an aesthetic pattern. We may say that the play results from a tension between these two. The actual technique is to move from one to the other. Tension, however, expresses our feeling about the play. Imagination and reality seem to be combined in a system of stresses and strains. Time is real, and to imitate action is to imitate time. But there is also in men a capacity for transcending time, which the playwright-artist and his audience know well. Time and its events alone do not produce an action; the imagination, transcending but not escaping time, may do so. (pp. 364-66)

Tom F. Driver, "The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Tempest'," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, Autumn, 1964, pp. 363-70.

Brents Stirling
[Stirling offers a detailed analysis of numerous elements that contribute to the theme of haste in Romeo and Juliet. Concentrating on Acts I, II, and III, the critic shows how Shakespeare underscores the theme through such devices as the characters' dialogue, the chorus's commentary, the effect of sound and movement on stage, and plot development.]

The unguarded haste of youth as a tragic motive of both Romeo and Juliet appears repeatedly in their lines and in those of characters who describe them. Our common understanding of this needs to be accompanied, however, by an understanding of the haste theme as it marks all aspects of the tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps unique in its clear-cut and consistent expression of theme through character, choric commentary, and action.

The opening scene of the play establishes the pace at which tragic fate will unfold. In little more than a hundred lines the Capulet-Montague feud is introduced with the thumb-biting scene, is extended by infiltration of the gentry, and is dramatically stayed with choric judgment by the Prince of Verona. This quality of events hurrying to a decision is expressed, moreover, by incidental dialogue: in the beginning, Sampson's line, "I strike quickly, being mov'd" [I, i. 6], and Gregory's response, "But thou art not quickly mov'd to strike" [I, i. 7], comically introduce the theme of impetuous speed, and at the conclusion of the brawl even the interviews decreed by Escalus appear in terms of dispatch: "You, Capulet, shall go along with me; / And, Montague, come you this afternoon" [I, i. 99-100].

Scene ii now presents haste as a theme governing the betrothal: Capulet declares that Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years" and urges Paris to "let two more summers wither in their pride, / Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride" [I, ii. 9-11 ]. From this is derived the well-worn exposition device of tragic irony which points significantly at a misfortune which will come "too soon."

Paris. Younger than she are happy mothers made.
Capulet. And too soon marr'd are those so early made.
[I, ii. 12-13]

In scene iii the headlong quality continues both in plot movement and thematic dialogue. The question is put to Juliet: "Thus then in brief: / The valiant Paris seeks you for his love. / . . .What say you? Can you love the gentleman? / This night you shall behold him at our feast" [I, iii. 73-4, 79-80]. Twenty lines later, the feast is not only shown as imminent but as characterized by the haste and confusion through which comic characters will express the theme. A servant enters:

Madam, the guests are come, supper serv'd up, you call'd, my young lady ask'd for, the nurse curs'd in the pantry, and everything in extremity. I must hence to wait; I beseech you, follow straight.
[I, iii. 100-03]

Scene iv opens with lines which continue the theme ingeniously in terms of a masking. The maskers reject slow and measured "prologue" [I, iv. 7] entries as "prolixity" [I, iv. 3], and propose to give their performance "and be gone" [I, iv. 10]. … (pp. 10-11)

Here also is the first entry of Mercutio who both as a character and as a name will point up the quick, the mercurial, mood of the play. And now a scene which began with the maskers as symbols of dispatch ends with a further thematic turn; a feared lateness of arrival at the feast is first made suggestive and then direct in disclosing untimeliness as a tragic theme:

Benvolio. This wind you talk of blows us from ourselves.
Supper is done, and we shall come too late.
Romeo. I fear, too early; for my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He that hath the steerage of ray course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!
Benvolio. Strike, drum. They march about the stage.
[I, iv. 104-14]

The theme appears clearly here in exposition which goes beyond dramatic irony into conscious prophecy, and becomes a formulation of the tragedy itself: in the "consequence yet hanging in the stars" the passage echoes the "star-cross'd lovers" line of the Prologue [1. 6], and it expresses Christian elements of tragedy through Romeo's reference to his "despised life" and his ascription of "steerage" to God's will. Romeo's lines are thus plainly designed for choric purposes, and any thematic material in them may be taken seriously. So it is notable that the passage arises from a quip implying haste (Benvolio's line) and adds earliness, untimeliness, to the conventional tragic themes of fate, contemptus mundi [contempt of the world], and divine providence. A concern over exposition as a "validating" factor should not, however, obscure the art by which Shakespeare supports his prophetic lines with dramatic action: as Romeo, sensing untimely death, consigns the steerage of his course to God, his sudden final words, "On, lusty gentlemen!" evoke Benvolio's command, "Strike, drum," and the march about the stage. Choric comment upon speeding fate is thus succeeded instantly by the peremptory drum and a quick-time march of maskers which present the theme in sound and movement.

As scene iv closes with this expression of the haste theme, the next scene continues it with a comic device already noted in scene iii—servants hastily preparing for the feast:

First Servant. Where's Potpan, that he
helps not to take away?
He shift a trencher! He scrape a trencher!

Second Servant. When good manners shall lie all in one or two men's hands, and they unwash'd too, 'tis a foul thing.

First Servant. Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane; and, as thou loves me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell. Antony and Potpan!

Second Servant. Ay, boy, ready.

First Servant. You are look'd for and call'd for, ask'd for and sought for, in the great chamber.

Third Servant. We cannot be here and there too. Cheerly, boys; be brisk a while, and the longer liver take all.
[II. 1-15]

In Elizabethan staging this passage would come immediately after the close of scene iv and hence would follow Romeo's speech and the lively exit march begun with Benvolio's "Strike, drum." Thus, in the sequence, I. iv. 104 ff. through I. v. 1-17, actual, physical pace issues from Romeo's lines on tragic pace, and this in turn is expanded into lines and action presenting haste on the comic plane. It is also interesting, whether Shakespeare "meant it" or not, that the servant who ends the passage just quoted comically modifies Romeo's speech on swift, untimely tragedy: "be brisk a while, and the longer liver take all."

In the next portion of scene v old Capulet and his kinsman who are met for the feast immediately supplement the theme with dialogue on the rush of time since their last masking; over thirty years it has been since the nuptial of Lucentio whose son's age thus points to the unbelievable passage of a generation. Plot movement then extends this statement of theme with a quick sequence composed of Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet, Tybalt's threat of violence which is restrained by his uncle, and the meeting of the lovers which brings discovery that one is a Montague, the other a Capulet. In attending to verbal expressions of theme it is easy to forget that plot structure can thus silently do its work. In Macbeth, for example, the compressed action leading to Duncan's murder parallels the quality of rash obsession which is so dominant in the lines. The structure of Romeo and Juliet is similar; from Act I, scene ii onward, audience attention is centered upon a progressively imminent event, the Capulet feast, which in scene v is suddenly presented for a casting of the tragic die. Here Romeo and Juliet meet, their fate becomes implicit in the discovery of their lineage, and prophetic Death in the person of Tybalt is barely restrained from a harvest before the seed is planted. The action itself embodies Romeo's choric lines on fated, fatal dispatch.

The Prologue of Act II continues the theme in its opening passage,

Now old Desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young Affection gapes to be his heir,
[Prologue II, 1-2]

suggestive lines which are translated into action by the pursuing of Romeo, who "ran this way, and leap'd this orchard wall" [II, i. 5]. The balcony scene now brings a necessary lull or resting point in the fast pace, but the famous exchange between the lovers continues the theme of haste. In II. ii Juliet implies it:

My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue's uttering, yet I know the sound.
[II, ii. 58-9]

And her lines presently become explicit:

Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight;
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens.
[II, ii. 116-20]

As before, plot supplements thematic statement; events become imminent as calls by the Nurse end the tryst and induce dialogue which expresses haste compounded with a desire to linger:

Juliet. What o'clock to-morrow
Shall I send to thee?
Romeo. By the hour of nine.
Juliet. I will not fail; 'tis twenty year till then.
I have forgot why I did call thee back.
Romeo. Let me stand here till thou remember it.
Juliet. I shall forget, to have thee still stand there,
Rememb'ring how I love thy company.
Romeo. And I'll still stay, to have thee still forget.
Forgetting any other home but this.
Juliet. Tis almost morning, I would have thee gone;—
And yet no farther than a wanton's bird. …
[II, ii. 167-77]

If it is to give the illusion of pace, episodic action must have fluidity, a quality Shakespeare maintains here by beginning II. iii on a note carried over from II. ii. Romeo and Juliet have closed the later scene with lines on morning and the haste it brings. Then, as the next one commences, we hear Friar Laurence:

The grey-ey'd morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequ'ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels.
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer and night's dank dew to dry. . . .
[II, iii. 1-6]

It is important to note that this is the first appearance of the Friar and that his role is a distinctly prophetic one. After the lines just quoted he moralizes aptly on tragic symbolism in the herb which "strain'd from that fair use, / Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse" [II. iii. 19-20]:

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometime's by action dignified.
[II, iii. 21-2]

Then as Romeo silently enters, Friar Laurence produces the plant which delights when smelled but kills when tasted. After thus establishing the Friar's role as chorus for the tragedy, Shakespeare then makes him spokesman of the haste theme: his greeting dwells solely upon Romeo's "earliness" and the "distemp'rature" from which it arises:

Benedicite!
What early tongue so sweet saluteth me?
Young son, it argues a distempered head
So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed.
Care keeps his watch in every old man's eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie;
But where unbruised youth with unstuff'd brain
Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign;
Therefore thy earliness doth me assure
Thou art up-rous'd with some distemp'rature.
[II, iii. 31-40]

Friar Laurence's thematic moralizing now extends to Rosaline, "so soon forsaken" [II. iii. 67]:

Lo, here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash'd off yet.
[II, iii. 75-6]

And as scene iii closes, the Friar's admonition by indirection changes to an outright statement of the haste theme:

Romeo. O, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.
Friar. Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
[II, iii. 93-4]

The next scene presents dialogue between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio, in which an accelerated badinage continues the theme of oppressive haste: at the end of the exchange, as Mercutio complains that his "wits faint" [II, iv. 67-8] from the quick give-and-take, we hear Romeo exclaiming, "Switch and spurs, switch and spurs, or I'll cry a match" [II, iv. 69-70], and Mercutio observing, "Nay, if our wits run the wild goose chase, I am done..." [II, iv. 71-2]. Then, as the scene ends with Romeo's urging of speed in arranging the lovers' meeting, we hear the Nurse commanding Peter, "Before and apace" [II, iv. 217].

Again, as Juliet introduces II. v by reference to the overdue Nurse, there is a lively "run-on" from the exit lines of one scene to the entry lines of another. Juliet's soliloquy and the Nurse's appearance then combine to assert the haste theme fully and impressively:

The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse;
In half an hour she promis'd to return.
Perchance she cannot meet him; that's not so.
O, she is lame! Love's heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams
Driving back shadows over louring hills;
Therefore do nimble-pinion'd doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day's journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, yet she is not come.
Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me; But old folks, marry, feign as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.
[II, v. 1-17]

The Nurse enters here with comically labored breathing (a device also of scene iii) which accompanies here exclamation of "Jesu, what haste!" [II, v. 29] and the scene shifts back to the cell of Friar Laurence who plays a "slowing" role opposite Romeo analogous to the Nurse's role with Juliet. But the lovers meet in the cell and their marriage is arranged with the dispatch which is now coloring all aspects of the play; Friar Laurence speaks:

Come, come with me, and we will make short work;
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till Holy Church incorporate two in one.
[II, vi. 35-7]

Act in, scene i now brings the street fight in which Mercutio is killed, and speed in the action is again accompanied by lines which express the haste theme. Mercutio's challenge comes in such terms: "Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out" [III, i. 80-2]. And at Mercutio's death the lament of Romeo points to the rush of events within a single hour:

This gentleman, the Prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf; my reputation stain'd
With Tybalt's slander,—Tybalt, that an hour
Hath been my cousin!
[III, i. 109-13]

Even the notion of death appears in a metaphor of souls ascending in quick succession:

Now, Tybalt, take the "villain" back again
That late thou gav'st me; for Mercutio's soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine. …
[II, i. 125-28]

At this point citizens enter in pursuit which results in an episode similar to Li as the Prince, with full retinue, quiets the disorder and pronounces judgment on it. One might expect here a speech which would slow the movement, but at this stage of the play all characters, even those rendering judicial decrees, are given lines which carry the theme of immediacy and hurry. Escalus closes the scene:

And for that offence
Immediately we do exile him hence. …
Let Romeo hence in haste,
Else, when he's found, that hour is his last.
Bear hence this body and attend our will.
Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.
[III. i. 186-87, 194-97]

Once more, as a scene is closed with the haste theme, the next one is begun on the same note. The transition, moreover, contains irony which has the Prince's decree which ends III. i. He has banished Romeo "hence in haste" and Juliet, unaware of this, calls for Romeo's return with all speed and urgency:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging; such a waggoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway's eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalk'd of and unseen! …
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night,
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night. …
So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.
[III, ii. 1-7, 17-20, 28-31]

The Nurse then enters and increases the effect of haste by maddening the impatient Juliet with confused quibble in reporting Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment.

It is unnecessary to discuss the full extent to which dispatch appears as a theme in Romeo and Juliet. Interpretation need not cover an entire work if it adequately suggests a way of perceiving it. The last half of the play [also] shows a wide range of action, character, and line devoted to the haste theme. … (pp. 12-21)

Brents Stirling, "'They Stumble that Run Fast'," in his Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character, 1956. Reprint by Gordian Press, Inc., 1966, pp. 10-25.

Aspects of Love

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6902

Leonora Leet Brodwin
[Brodwin studies Romeo and Juliet in relation to the courtly love tradition in Elizabethan romance. Courtly love is a philosophy that was prominent in chivalric times and had a significant influence on Renaissance literature. Though the precise origins of this tradition are not known, the ideas on which it was based were summarized by Andreas Capellanus at the end of the twelfth century in his The Art of Courtly Love. Capellanus explained the doctrine of courtly love in thirty-one "rules." In essence, it is illicit and sensual and is accompanied by great emotional suffering. The lover, usually a knight, falls in love at first sight and, until his love is reciprocated, agonizes over his situation. Once his affection is returned, he is inspired to perform great deeds. Moreover, the lovers pledge their fidelity to one another and vow to keep their union a secret. The ideas of courtly love, were frequently expressed by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch in his love sonnets. His exaggerated comparisons and oxymora (the pairing of contradictory terms) describing the suffering of the lover and the beauty of the lady have come to be known as "Petrarchan conceits." In the excerpt below, Brodwin details the aspects of Romeo and Juliet that conform to the conventions of courtly love: Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight; their love is intensified by the feud that threatens it; they meet secretly; and, although they marry, they see each other only at night lending an illicit dimension to their love. In addition, they quickly resolve to commit suicide upon learning of each other's death. The critic stresses, however, that Romeo and Juliet transcends these stock conventions through its dramatization of the "spiritual mystique" of the hero and heroine's passion. Shakespeare depicts Romeo and Juliet's love as divine, Brodwin asserts, for the protagonists approach death cheerfully, confident that they will at last achieve peace and freedom from the restrictions of mortal existence. Furthermore, their faithfulness in love is virtuous because their deaths bring about an end to the feud.]

Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece of Courtly Love was written in 1595, when the vogue of courtly sonneteering was at its height. In considering "the fearful passage of their death-mark'd love," critics like E. E. Stoll have been at considerable pains to show that the love of Romeo and Juliet was the normal product of youthful innocence, that "not because there is anything wrong with them do the youth and maiden perish but only because 'love is strong as death,' and 'fate unfriendly' [see Sources for Further Study]. Granville-Barker has written with greater insight into the specific characteristics [in his Prefaces to Shakespeare] of the youth and maiden which have made their love "strong as death," but he, too, misses the fuller implications of this love. At the opposite extreme is Franklin Dickey who argues, from the vantage point of the Renaissance moralists, that Romeo and Juliet are afflicted with a love disease the evil consequence of which is death: "fortune has operated here to punish sin and … this avenging fortune is the work of heaven" [see excerpt in section on Tragic Design]. While Dickey performs a service in stripping the play of its romanticism and showing that the quality of its love leads inevitably to death, he is untrue to the tone of the play. Romeo and Juliet is not a tract against Courtly Love, but a supreme expression of its spiritual mystique. Of this Paul N. Siegel is clearly aware for, in relating the play to the conventions of a courtly "Religion of Love," he has indicated the literary tradition through which this extraordinary work must be approached and so come closest to an understanding of the precise nature of this love.

The love of Romeo and Juliet, while ever in fatal interaction with the feuding world of Verona, yet exists on a plane of experience totally divorced from its normal expectations. The capsular quality of this love, which can run its complete course without betraying its secret existence, is, in fact, the subject of much of the play's dramatic irony, Romeo's confidants patronizing his love for Rosaline while his true love for Juliet is flowering and Juliet's father bustling about her marriage while still believing that it is an honor that she dreams not of. While this counterpointing of the brawling, bawdy, and festive and practical world with the lovers' poetic night world is meaningful, the vitality of the naturalistic presentation tends to obscure the poetic symbolism. The quasi-comic treatment of much of the play puts readers on their guard against taking the lovers' utterances with too much seriousness, and the lovers' occasional playfulness seems to confirm the impression of youthful impetuousness, singing bird-like of its joy.

But if Shakespeare has endowed romance convention with an unusual naturalism, he, no less than the romancers, is vitally concerned with "the allegory of love." Though his lovers react with greater psychological realism to their dilemmas than do the cardboard lovers of romance, they follow as un-questioningly an implicit code of love and, in their poetic utterances, point to its symbolic implications. Although the psychological and symbolic levels are often interpenetrating, there are moments when the symbolism becomes completely divorced from naturalistic presentation. When, for instance, Romeo refers to Juliet as his "conceal'd lady" [III. ill. 98], the rhetoric of human love has been completely displaced by one appropriate to a mystical religion of love.

The tragedy which is to so transcend the ordinary conventions of romance begins with a caricature of them. Romeo's love for Rosaline has been "rais'd with the fume of sighs" [I. i. 190] and "nourish'd with lovers' tears" [I. i. 192]. He has carefully conformed to all the prescribed rules of Courtly Love, spending the night with tears and making "himself an artificial night" [I. i. 140] with the coming of day. But this stylized behavior is not so different from the convention which allows Romeo and Juliet to fall irrevocably in love at first sight and for Juliet quite naturally to say: "Go ask his name.—If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed" [I. v. 134-35]. These two loves are not different, then, in kind but in the quality of the poetry in which they are expressed, the earlier a patchwork of conventional Petrarchanisms, the later a profoundly mystical exploration.

Through this conventional behavior, however, suggestions of character do emerge. Romeo is a youth in search of an infinitely thrilling love, a love for which he is prepared to face suffering and even death. Though the indulgence of his feelings for Rosaline causes him to feel slightly ridiculous— "Dost thou not laugh?" [I. i. 183]— he cherishes "the devout religion of mine eye" [I. ii. 88] and longs to put it to the test. Hitherto sinking passively "under love's heavy burthen" [I. iv. 22], he is suddenly jarred from a purely imaginative to an active role by the suggestion that he compare his beloved's beauty with that of others at the Capulet feast.

Although he had only wished to view his love and prove the constancy of his heart, a sudden premonition of the danger of thus venturing into the enemy's camp elicits from him his first profoundly personal utterance:

. . . my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!
[I. iv. 106-13]

In this speech the character of Romeo emerges from the role of conventional courtly lover to reveal a deeper quality of doom. In terms of the action Romeo rightly fears that in so venturing to see Rosaline he may be forfeiting his life to fate, for it is from Tybalt's recognition of him at the feast that the fatal consequences of his exile are to issue. But however eager he was to nourish his "lover's tears," the prospect of possible death for the love of Rosaline is another thing. Suddenly faced with this prospect, he recognizes that such death would be a "vile forfeit." If he nonetheless continues his fatal voyage, it is no longer the desired sight of Rosaline but the challenge of fate which spurs him on. If fate has marked him out, he will not be "fearful" but hold his "despised life" in as much contempt.

Although it was earlier acknowledged that his immediate love for Juliet was a stock romance convention, this crucial speech, which just precedes his first sight of Juliet, may suggest a motivation for the fatal urgency with which he approaches his love. As he is risking his life in the name of a love which has not inspired him to the point where he can consider his life's loss as more than a "vile forfeit," his need for a truly inspirational love becomes urgent. Having accepted fate's challenge, he is now concerned to transmute this "vile forfeit" into a glorious surrender.

And this inspiration comes to him at the radiant sight of Juliet:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
[I. v. 44-7]

Where Rosaline's beauty had left him in the utter darkness of an unhappy human love, Juliet's beauty, because it seems to him too precious for the usages of life, can truly illuminate the night. From this first encounter, however, Romeo conceives of his lady not as an ordinary mortal but as a symbol of divine beauty, which, in the "touching," can make him "blessed" [I. v. 51]. His earlier premonition of death has been displaced by this intimation of heavenly blessing; but the close association of these two in "this night's revels" is significant.

From what has just been shown, we can see the way in which Shakespeare invests a stock convention of romance, 'that of love at first sight, with suggestions of both human motivation and symbolic implication. And what he has done for Romeo he does in lesser measure for Juliet: if Romeo meets Juliet at a fateful moment in his life, the same is true for her. She had just been informed by her mother that she must "think of marriage now" [I. iii. 69]. And, although she had said that "it is an honour that I dream not of " [I. iii. 66], she is forced for the first time to consider marriage as a real and imminent possibility. In doing so, her maiden heart gains a new susceptibility which will cause her to look at men differently this night: "I'll look to like" [I. iii. 97].

As Romeo had come to the feast to behold Rosaline, feeling that in venturing thus into the enemy's camp he was forfeiting his life to fate, so does Juliet come to inspect the man to whom her parents would likewise have her dedicate her fate. Both, however, instead of looking where they had intended, seem compelled to make a last desperate comparison before their fate is irrevocably sealed.

Under a similarly fatal urgency, Romeo finds in Juliet's radiant beauty the inspiration he had been seeking; and Juliet suddenly finds herself inspired by Romeo's passionate prayers. This love at first sight, then, is not simply a submission to fate but a choosing of their fate. When Romeo learns that "my life is my foe's debt" [I. v. 118] and Juliet the same, they can therefore accept their fate with a commitment that redeems it from being a "vile forfeit."

Their love has been born in the heart of obstruction, and if their knowledge of this crucial fact was "muffled still," the passionate need by which they found each other out could "without eyes see pathways to his will" [I. i. 171-72]. For this central obstruction to their love, rather than deterring their passion serves only to intensify it: "Temp'ring extremities with extreme sweet" [II. Pro., 14]. Romeo had chanced such an extremity in coming to the feast and Juliet in choosing another than the one her parents had appointed before they were aware of the true extremity they had embraced, and, when they do become aware of the obstruction to their love, they accept its necessity without question. Though Romeo and Juliet marry, their marriage so approximates the adulterous union of night that it even borrows from the troubadours the traditional verse form of the aubade or dawn song, which celebrates the adulterous lovers' hour of parting. "More light and light—more dark and dark our woes" [III. v. 36] is not the language of marriage but of lovers who "steal love's sweet bait from fearful hooks." [II. Pro., 8]. The marriage of Romeo and Juliet... in no way changes the obstructed situation which makes the necessity of their partings "such sweet sorrow" [II. ii. 184].

If their meetings can only take place in the night, night has for the lovers a special significance. They do not covet night for itself but because it is only then that the power of love can be truly illuminating. As has been seen, it is Juliet's radiance which first strikes Romeo. Again, as he stands beneath the balcony, she appears to irradiate the night:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! … her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night. …
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven …
[II. ii. 2-3, 20-2, 26-8]

Juliet converts the terrors of night to glory. It is for this reason that Romeo can say:

I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight;
And but thou love me, let them find me here.
My life were better ended by their hate
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.
[II. ii. 75-8]

In a night containing Juliet's love, death need not be dreaded and is far preferable to his otherwise uninspired life. He eagerly ventures into the night since it is only in "the dark night" that Juliet's "true-love passion" [II. ii, 104-06] can be revealed. But if Juliet's love robs death of its terror, it nonetheless is in intimate association with death. As Juliet informs Romeo, in a statement loaded with symbolic as well as practical meaning, the place where she abides is "death, considering who thou art" [II. ii. 64]. Though Romeo faces a practical danger in approaching thus close to her feuding kinsmen, it is also true on the symbolic level that the approach to a Juliet who is heavenly "light" and "bright angel"—that is, to a love object beyond the mortal condition—must ultimately be made by way of death.

Realizing that the way to his "bright angel" is barred by his name, Romeo exclaims:

Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo. . . .
Had I it written, I would tear the world.
[II. ii. 50-1, 57]

Though Romeo feels that the receipt of Juliet's love would be a rebirth for him, the rebirth in the heavenly love which Juliet represents requires not simply the tearing of his name but of the mortal self which that name identifies. Yet however much it may be symbolic of death, he embraces the night in which the infinitude of Juliet's love has been disclosed as a "blessed, blessed night!" [II. ii. 139].

As Juliet symbolizes a divine love to Romeo, even answering him with a celestial accent, so he assumes a similar role to her. In Juliet's invocation to night, the full implications of this worship of night are revealed:

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.
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-brow'd night;
Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
[III. ii. 17-25]

Romeo is a creature of night, and, as such, Juliet coaxes night to loan her Romeo until such time as he shall die and be returned to night, arguing that when such a true lover should be returned by death he would impart a special glory to the love of night. Though night and death are here seen to be interrelated and Romeo in their power, it is yet his special virtue to irradiate their darkness. As Juliet had emblazoned the night for Romeo, so he to her is "day in night." While disdaining "the garish sun," that which exhibits all the concreteness and limitations of terrestrial life, it is not the annihilating darkness of night in itself which they worship but the special radiance of the limitless which shines for them in the heart of darkness. If night is symbolic of death, death itself is but the other face of the Infinite, (pp. 44-50)

While Romeo has shown no hesitation in pursuing his love, he soon finds it not such a simple matter to tear his name. However fully his spirit may assent to the aims of his love, his human situation does cause some resistance to it.

This is fully brought out in the duel between Romeo and Tybalt. Romeo first counters Tybalt's overtures in the conviction that he is "new baptiz'd" by love. With Mercutio's death on his hands, however, Romeo realizes that he is a Montague still and that, in wishing to deny this fact, he had proved false to himself: "O sweet Juliet / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soft'ned valour's steel!" [III. i. 113-15]. Juliet had called her place "death, considering who thou art." and now Romeo once again has a premonition that, being Romeo, his pursuit of love into the enemy's camp will prove fatal: "This day's black fate on moe days doth depend; / This but begins the woe others must end" [III. i. 119-20]. And again he accepts his fate and challenges Tybalt. Having killed him and understood that the consequences will be disastrous, however, his old fear arises once more and causes him to cry out: "O. I am fortune's fool!" [III. i. 136]. As before he had feared, when accepting fate's challenge, that his "untimely death" would be a "vile forfeit," so, now that fate lowers once again, the prospect of his death seems inglorious. The Prince will immediately ask: "Where are the vile beginners of this fray?" [III. i. 141]. And this is Romeo's fear, that his death will not be a glorious martryrdom for love but the vile execution of a street brawler. Even so, he would prefer vile execution to banishment: "Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say 'death'; / For exile hath more terror in his look, / Much more than death" [III. ill. 12-14].

In his discussion of the implications of banishment, the essential quality of his love is again revealed:

"Tis torture, and not mercy. Heaven is here.
Where Juliet lives. . . . More validity,
More honourable state, more courtship lives
In carrion flies than Romeo. They may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet's hand
And steal immortal blessing from her lips …
|III. iii. 29-30, 33-7]

Although viewed from one aspect, the place where Juliet lives is death, from another it is "Heaven." the source of purity and "immortal blessing." In the "courtship" of this "immortal blessing" Romeo sees the only basis for "validity" and "honourable state." "Death, though ne'er so mean" [III. iii. 45], would be preferable to the continuance of a meaningless life, exiled from even the possibility of "immortal blessing," this indeed a fit symbol of hell: "'banished'? / O friar, the damned use that word in hell; / Howling attends it:" [III. iii. 46-8]. (pp. 53-4)

Exiled from his love, he sees no alternative but to "fall upon the ground, as I do now. / Taking the measure of an unmade grave" [III. iii. 69-70]. Juliet, likewise, does not distinguish between his exile and his death. Thinking he is dead, she says: "Vile earth, to earth resign; end motion here, / And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier!" [III. ii. 59-60]. Learning he is exiled, she nonetheless exclaims: "I'll to my wedding bed; / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!" [III. ii. 136-37]. Rejecting her life as "vile earth," she immediately leaps to the thought of lying with Romeo in death. Like Romeo, she is "wedded to calamity" [III. iii. 3], and in her decision to fulfill her wedding not with Romeo but with death, the meaning of this wedding becomes clear. It becomes yet clearer after the wedding's earthly consummation. Romeo's alternatives, "I must be gone and live, or stay and die" [III. v. 11] exist not only for this dawn but for as long as their love shall last. A premonition of this causes Juliet to see even the departing Romeo "as one dead in the bottom of a tomb" [III. v. 56]. (pp. 54-5)

Upon learning of Juliet's supposed death, Romeo resolves with conventional promptitude upon his own. But it is in his treatment of Romeo's confrontation with death that Shakespeare most fully illuminates the accepted conventions of Courtly Love. Though Romeo is dying in order to be united with Juliet, it is with a Juliet who has at last discarded all earthly vestiges to become pure symbol. And now the supreme symbolic function of Juliet becomes clear; she is the means which permits Romeo to confront his fate as a man with joy. If he has made "a dateless bargain to engrossing death" [V. iii. 115], this steadfast commitment to something beyond all mortal contingency raises him above the normal human condition. Juliet had earlier said of him:

He was not born to shame.
Upon his brow shame is asham'd to sit;
For 'tis a throne where honour may be crown'd
Sole monarch of the universal earth.
[III. ii. 91-4]

As in his dream love made him an "emperor" [V. i. 9], so does the honor of his love make him the universal monarch, raise him to godhead. It is through love of a Juliet symbolically raised to divine status that he redeems his own divine birthright from the "shame" of mortality's yoke.

But the paradox of this desire for the Infinite is that it can only be fully embraced in death. … Death for him is "love-devouring," "engrossing"; it is a final fact but a finality irradiated by joy. It is the infinite freedom experienced in the ecstatic instant of self-annihilation. But to this note of ecstasy, Romeo now adds a deeper note of defiance: "Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!. … Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night" [V. i. 24,34]. Romeo defies the stars and all mortal contingency by accepting the worst they have to offer, thereby transmuting it into a spiritual triumph.

The love-death as a defiance of fate becomes the dominant note as he approaches the tomb:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorg'd with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.
[V. iii. 45-81]

Romeo here reveals what is probably his truest attitude toward death. Whereas before he had interpreted every symbolic identification of his love with death as a sign of its infinite glory, betraying no anxiety toward the actual fact of death, he now reveals a deep revulsion toward death. Far from glorious, death here is profoundly felt to be "detestable" and "rotten," and this not in reference to a death vilely brought about through insufficient inspiration or irrelevant accident but chosen by himself under the greatest of inspirations.

Why then, we may well ask, has he been so fatally hasty in choosing his present death? Paradoxical as it may seem, the source of his headlong rush toward death appears to lie not in a love of death but a horror of death so extreme that it has poisoned his life. Unable to accept the anxieties of a contingent mortal existence, he has advanced upon hateful death, daring it to do its worst. Rather than appear fearful of death and give death the victory, he triumphs over death by bringing it upon himself. Not in love of death, but, as he says "in despite I'll cram thee with more food." The ecstasy of self-annihilation at its profoundest level, then, is not due to a feeling of surrender to death but to the triumph of the unconquerable spirit over death, achieving the Infinite in its assertion of ultimate freedom.

It is in this spirit that he views not only his own approaching death but the death of Juliet:

I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave.
A grave? O, no, a lanthorn, slaught'red youth,
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light.
[V. iii. 83-6]

Juliet's irradiation of the night has been but a prelude to her radiance in death. When Romeo had earlier said that "her eyes in heaven / Would through the airy region stream so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night," he did not think that such irradiation made the night less real but that it converted its terrors to glory. So is it now with death. To Romeo, Juliet has rot outlived death but she has overwhelmed its horror in radiance. Romeo's exhilaration at the radiance of his love in death produces a "lightning" [V. iii. 90] of his antagonistic mood. In Juliet's triumph over mortality, Romeo sees his own, her excessive beauty in death proving an irresistible goad to his own triumphant conquest of death. (pp. 57-60)

Juliet's death speech has not the poetic grandeur of Romeo's but, as she was ever "light a foot" [II. vi. 16], so she has that "lighting before death" [V. iii. 90] of which Romeo spoke. Seeing Romeo dead, all previous fears are overcome and she moves to death with cheerful alacrity:

O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them
To make me die with a restorative. . . .
Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.
[V. iii. 163-70]

Meeting death with a kiss, she dies "with a restorative," the joyous restoration of her initial freedom from constraint and contingency.

The play ends on this final note of the redemptive quality of a death so amorously embraced. Romeo and Juliet had both embraced death as the redemption of their ultimate freedom from mortality's "yoke"; in so doing, their deaths prove to be redemptive as well for the living. In love with the infinite peace they could find only in death, they had spurned the world of strife that gave them being. Now, in the radiant light of their pure sacrifice, the petty futility of that strife is seen. Their deaths not only restore the peace of Verona but confer upon them the special glory of being forever upheld as the city's most shining example of admired virtue. The city immortalizes the "Poor sacrifices of our enmity" [V. iii. 304] who, almost as in a religious ritual, have vicariously atoned for the multiple sins of the populace. The example of their heroic transcendence of the compromises of life and the terrors of death illuminates the more humble path of the ordinary citizen as he attempts to justify, by a more consecrated life, the martyrdom of the gloriously "faithful" [V. iii. 302]. Thus does Shakespeare conclude his great tragedy of a love that has throughout been vehicle and symbol of the "immortal blessing" conferred in the kiss of death. Though the character and reactions of the lovers have been explored in all their earthly reality, they … have embarked on a spiritual journey which finds its promised haven only in a death transfigured by their religious devotion to the dictates of Courtly Love. (pp. 61-2)

Leonora Leet Brodwin, "The Classic Pattern of Courtly Love Tragedy," in her Elizabethan Love Tragedy: 1587-1625, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 39-64.

Mark Van Doren
[Van Doren contrasts Romeo and Juliet's attitude toward love with that of the other characters. While the hero and heroine view love as holy and solemn, the critic observes, Mercutio considers it pornographic, the Capulets prudent, and the Nurse practical, though, unlike the Capulets, with a "certain prurient interest." According to Van Doren, the Friar comes closest to sharing Romeo and Juliet's perception of love, though he speaks of it in terms that are foreign to them.]

One of the reasons for the fame of Romeo and Juliet is that it has so completely and clearly isolated the experience of romantic love. It has let such love speak for itself; and not alone in the celebrated wooing scenes, where the hero and heroine express themselves with a piercing directness, but indirectly also, and possibly with still greater power, in the whole play in so far as the whole play is built to be their foil. Their deep interest for us lies in their being alone in a world which does not understand them; and Shakespeare has devoted much attention to that world.

Its inhabitants talk only of love. The play is saturated with the subject. Yet there is always a wide difference between what the protagonists intend by the term and what is intended by others. The beginning dialogue by Sampson and Gregory, servants, is pornographic on the low level of puns about maidenheads, of horse-humor and hired-man wit. Mercutio will be more indecent … on the higher level of a gentleman's cynicism. Mercutio does not believe in love, as perhaps the servants clumsily do; he believes only in sex, and his excellent mind has sharpened the distinction to a very dirty point. He drives hard against the sentiment that has softened his friend and rendered him unfit for the society of young men who really know the world. When Romeo with an effort matches one of his witticisms he is delighted:

Now art thou sociable, now art thou
Romeo, now art thou
what thou art, by art as well as by nature.
[II. iv. 89-91]

He thinks that Romeo has returned to the world of artful wit, by which he means cynical wit; he does not know that Romeo is still "dead" and "fishified" [II. iv. 38], and that he himself wil soon be mortally wounded under the arm of his friend—who, because love has stupefied him, will be capable of speaking the inane lines, "I thought all for the best" [II. i. 10-4]. (pp. 70-1)

The older generation is another matter. Romeo and Juliet … will be sadly misunderstood by them. The Capulets hold stiil another view of love. Their interest is in "good" marriages, in sensible choices. They are match-makers, and believe they know best how their daughter should be put to bed. This also is cynicism, though it be without pornography; at least the young heart of Juliet sees it so. Her father finds her sighs and tears merely ridiculous: "Evermore show'ring?" [III. v. 130]. She is "a wretched puling fool, a whining mammet" [III. v. 183-84], a silly girl who does not know what is good for her. Capulet is Shakespeare's first portrait in a long gallery of fussy, tetchy, stubborn, unteachable old men: the Duke of York in Richard II, Polonius [in Hamlet], Lafeu [in All's Well that Ends Well], Menenius [in Coriolanus]. He is tart-tongued, breathy, wordy, pungent, and speaks with a naturalness unknown in Shakespeare's plays before this, a naturalness consisting in a perfect harmony between his phrasing and its rhythm:

How how, how how, chop-logic! What is this?
"Proud," and "I thank you," and "I thank you not;"
And yet "not proud." Mistress minion, you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints 'gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter's Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
[III. v. 49-55]
(pp. 71-2)

The Nurse, a member of the same generation, and in Juliet's crisis as much her enemy as either parent is, for she too urges the marriage with Paris [III. v. 212-25], adds to practicality a certain prurient interest in love-business, the details of which she mumbles toothlessly, reminiscently, with the indecency of age. Her famous speech concerning Juliet's age [I. ill. 12-57], which still exceeds the speeches of Capulet in the virtue of dramatic naturalness, runs on so long in spite of Lady Capulet's attempts to stop it because she has become fascinated with the memory of her husband's broad jest:

Nurse. And since that time it is eleven years;
For then she could stand high-lone; nay, by the rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow;
And then my husband—God be with his soul!
'A was a merry man—took up the child.
"Yea," quoth he, "dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?" and, by my holi-dame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said, "Ay."
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it. "Wilt thou not, Jule?" quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said, "Ay."

Lady Capulet. Enough of this; I pray thee, hold thy peace.

Nurse. Yes, madam; yet I cannot choose but laugh,
To think it should leave crying and say, "Ay."
And yet, I warrant, it had upon it brow
A bump as big as a young cockerel's stone;
A perilous knock; and it cried bitterly.
"Yea," quoth my husband, "fall'st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age;
Wilt thou not, Jule?" It stinted and said, "Ay."

The Nurse's delight in the reminiscence is among other things lickerish, which the delight of Romeo and Juliet in their love never is, any more than it is prudent like the Capulets, or pornographic like Mercutio. Their delight is solemn, their behavior holy, and nothing is more natural than that in their first dialogue [I. v. 93-110] there should be talk of palmers, pilgrims, saints, and prayers.

It is of course another kind of holiness than that which appears in Friar Laurence, who nevertheless takes his own part in the endless conversation which the play weaves about the theme of love. The imagery of his first speech is by no accident erotic:

I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.
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.
[II. iii. 7-12]

The Friar is closer to the lovers in sympathy than any other person of the play. Yet this language is as alien to their mood as that of Capulet or the Nurse; or as Romeo's recent agitation over Rosaline is to his ecstasy with Juliet. The lovers are alone. Their condition is unique. Only by the audience is it understood. (pp. 72-4)

Mark Van Doren, "Romeo and Juliet," in his Shakespeare, Henry Holt and Company, 1939, pp. 65-75.

Maurice Charney
[Charney places Romeo and Juliet in the context of love and lust as it is traditionally represented in Shakespeare, ultimately arguing that love in itself does not produce the tragedy in the play.]

The introduction of inauspicious signs sometimes seems not only inappropriate but also mechanical and artificial. After Mercutio's magnificent Queen Mab oration, Romeo is troubled by unmotivated forebodings. His anxieties precede his meeting with Juliet in the next scene:

my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death. (1. 4. 106-11).

Why does Romeo have these fears—only to help Shakespeare out in his heroic effort to inject a feeling of tragedy into this play? Likewise, Juliet surprises us with her trepidations in the magnificent Orchard Scene:

Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens. (2. 2. 116-20)

But love in Shakespeare is traditionally represented as sudden, immediate, and lightning-like. It comes at once and is not the product of mature deliberation. It is hard to know, therefore, what Juliet's fears are based on, unless, like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, she has already read the play and knows how it will turn out. She has no way of discerning at this point that the comedy of love culminating in marriage will take a bad turn and end in tragedy. Admittedly, there is the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, but that seems to be dissipating, so it seems another comic plot device to prevent the course of true love from running smooth.

Friar Lawrence also does much to develop the sense of fatality in the love affair. In the scene before Mercutio's death in 3.1, the lovesick Romeo comes to ask the Friar to perform the marriage ceremony. Already Romeo is speaking of "love-devouring death" (2. 6. 7), as if his love for Juliet were naturally associated with death. Friar Lawrence continues in the same vein:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (9-15)

"Love moderately" is surely bad advice in the context of all the love affairs in Shakespeare before Romeo and Juliet. It is a contradiction in terms. Shakespeare is making such a strenuous effort to pull the play into tragedy that the many portentous statements about the love of Romeo and Juliet seem misconceived. The tragedy of the lovers seems generated by their intense and abrupt passion rather than by the feud between the houses. This is an idea that the play is promoting in many different, misguided ways.

Romeo too is made to fear the absoluteness and suddenness of his love. Shakespeare makes a continuous association of love and death — the Liebestod — in this play despite a comic context of search and fulfillment. Inauspicious astrological signs are inserted into Romeo and Juliet like the portents in the early scenes of Julius Caesar. Even before he meets Juliet, Romeo fears that "this night's revels" shall inevitably lead to "some vile forfeit of untimely death" (1. 4. 109-11). There is no real basis for his feelings, except that we onlookers know the play will take a sudden turn toward tragedy. I am arguing that this turn, or peripeteia, is overprepared, as if Shakespeare were worried that the audience would not properly accept the way the play moves into tragedy. Romeo and Juliet love each other deeply and truly, and they want naturally to get married and consummate their passion as soon as possible, like all the other lovers in Shakespeare's comedies. There is nothing wrong with any of this.

What we have to fall back on is the fact that love in itself does not produce the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. The protagonists are always represented as pure and innocent and devoted to each other. They are clearly victims of the feud between the houses. This explanation is explicitly set forth in the Prologue. In his didactic sonnet, the Chorus begins with the "Two households" in fair Verona and their "ancient grudge" whose causes are never explained. It is "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes" that "A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life." "Star-crossed" means astrologically fated or unlucky; it doesn't imply that there is any thing wrong with the lovers or that they do anything to incur disastrous consequences. According to the Chorus, the death of the lovers is necessary to end the feud between their families. Their "misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents' strife," "And the continuance of their parents' rage, / Which, but their children's end, naught could remove." It sounds as if Romeo and Juliet are specifically marked as scapegoats.

This idea is taken up again at the end of the play. Capulet announces that Romeo and Juliet are "Poor sacrifices of our enmity" (5. 3. 304), and the Prince deals with the love death as a sacrifice:

Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. (291-93)

So the tragedy by rights belongs to Capulet and Montague rather than to Romeo and Juliet, who are required to die for love because true love is not possible in a world of senseless blood feuds. They are "Poor sacrifices" of the feud, victims and scapegoats, rather than tragic protagonists.

(From Shakespeare on Love and Lust by Maurice Charney ©1999 Columbia University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

Imagery and Language

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3519

E. C. Pettet
[Pettet examines how imagery reinforces two of the central concerns of Romeo and Juliet: the role of fate in determining the lovers' tragedy and the feud between the families. The influence of fate, the critic argues, is developed through the use of star imagery, in which stars serve as a metaphor (an implied analogy which imaginatively identifies one object with another) for destiny, and through the "pilot" imagery which is used to describe Romeo's maturation and attempts to control his own destiny. Pettet also demonstrates how the paradox (a statement which while seemingly contradictory or absurd may actually be well-founded and true) of Romeo and Juliet's love arising out of the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets is accentuated by the repeated references to opposition and contradiction, particularly the contrasts between love and death and between light and darkness.]

With so much emphasis on Fate [in Romeo and Juliet] there is nothing surprising in the fact that Shakespeare makes frequent use of the time-old symbol of the stars in his imagery. Nor, in such a story of romantic love, is it remarkable to find the star-image employed in a second conventional way—as a metaphor for feminine beauty (especially for the eyes of the Lady) and for the attraction of lovers. What is, however, of interest is the way in which Shakespeare subtly fuses these two sorts of star-image; and perhaps the most striking example of this interpenetration is to be observed in some of the lines spoken by Romeo as he watches Juliet at her balcony:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy regions stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
[II. ii. 15-22]

No doubt this passage could be dismissed as yet another typical conceit [an elaborately fanciful idea or metaphor] of the time. But the scene in which the lines occur is singularly free from the extravagant conceits and artificialities of Petrarchan love-poetry, which Shakespeare appropriately reserves for the early Romeo, the youth in love with love; and if we submit our imagination to the full effect of the scene, this sustained star-image transcends the mere conceit to assume a new meaning. Juliet is now Romeo's star, his fate; and, as his star, she has the magical power of transforming night into day, of changing his wretchedness into radiant joy and the bitter hatred of their families into love.

There is a similar, though slighter overtone earlier in the play, when old Capulet says to Paris:

At my poor house look to behold this night
Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven bright.
[I. ii. 24-5]

Here, too, it is of course possible to skip the image of 'earth-treading stars' as a familiar cliche for beautiful women; but, taking it in conjunction with the phrase 'dark heaven', we may perhaps catch in it a faint announcement of one of the fundamental themes of the play—of the hardness and misery of human destiny, sweetened, if but for a brief moment, with beauty and love.

In the star-imagery of Juliet's speech when she is waiting vainly, after the killing of Tybalt, for Romeo to come to her—

And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun
[III. ii. 21-5]

we certainly have, so far as Juliet herself is concerned, a playful, fanciful conceit, for in her passion and fulfilment she cannot really think of her lover as dead. Yet—once more merging into the symbol of the star as fate—how intense this apparent conceit is, with its irony and prophecy. Little as Juliet knows it, heaven and its crossing stars are in reality soon to lay claim to Romeo; and their way will be just that cruel way of violence that she hints, and Romeo will be nothing but a symbol of the lover, a bright, remote star.

Side by side with these delicate combinations of the star-image we should note, as another effect of the Fate motif on the imagery of the play, the triple 'pilot' image, which, emerging at three key-points, illuminates and focuses the development of Romeo.

The first instance of this image is to be found at [I. iv. 112-13]. Though there is something that warns Romeo that it is perilous to accompany Mercutio and Benvolio to the Capulet banquet, he decides at last to follow them:

But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

Here, without experience or thought as yet, and certainly without any religious conviction, Romeo vaguely believes himself to be under the guidance of some exterior force; but he submits to his destiny without resistance, even confidently. Later, when he is assured of Juliet's love and is growing to a rapid maturity, he is bolder and more self-willed, active rather than passive. So, when it occurs for the second time, the pilot-image changes:

I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I would adventure for such merchandise.
[II. ii. 82-4]

Once more there is the lack of complete self-possession: he will dare anything, but still with a modest, hesitant doubt of his own powers to shape a course entirely to his own determination—'I am no pilot.' And indeed, in the first rapture of Juliet's avowed love, why should he think of rocks and insidious currents? But, transformed by harsh experience, Romeo continues to grow, and when the pilot-image recurs for the last time, just before his death, the pilot is at last himself: the determining force that challenges and defies his stars is something within:

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot now at once run on
[V. iii. 116-18]

This image is the exact antithesis of the first version, as Romeo is the antithesis of his old self.

Another salient characteristic of Romeo and Juliet, is the simple, single, and all-pervading nature of its conflict. Its basic theme is that of love arising out of family feud, challenging it, momentarily triumphing over it, and ultimately destroyed by it. From beginning to end the play reflects the eternal struggle between Eros (Love and Life) and the forces of Death.

This being so, it is not surprising that the play abounds in images of strife, contrast, contradiction, and paradox. Most of these arise directly and inevitably from the story and its situations, while. . . much of the tedious antithesis and paradox of Romeo's speech in the first Act springs inevitably from Shakespeare's representation of him as a typical lover of contemporary, mainly Petrarchan, love-poetry. But beside these straightforward conflict-images there is another group in which Shakespeare, often subconsciously no doubt, uses the poetry of the play to reinforce and illuminate its themes and motifs.

The most impressive concentration of these strife and contradiction images occurs in Friar Lawrence's speech shortly before the marriage ceremony, which emphasizes, in a resonant Chorus manner, some of the essential implications of the play. To begin with, there is the detached and generalizing, though no less impressive, restatement of the eternal life-death struggle, which is represented as something absolute:

The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb.
[II. iii. 9-10]

Nor, possibly, is this statement entirely general, for 'womb' suggests love, procreation, perhaps Romeo and Juliet, while 'tomb', once we come to know the play, is a key-word with a charged, peculiar significance: it is the 'detestable maw', the 'rotten jaws' [V. iii. 47], that is soon to swallow Romeo and Juliet, and it is to be noticed that in the last scene 'tomb' is once more associated with 'womb':

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death. . . .
[V. iii. 145]

Then, both deepening and extending this theme, follows the Friar's meditation on the contradictory properties of nature's fruits and products, leading, through an inevitable transition, to the contraries and contradictions of human life—the good that may change into evil and the vice that may change into virtue, and the intermingled stuff of man's nature:

Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

While the words 'canker death' are still ominously echoing in jtsur ears, Romeo enters.

There are several other passages where the incidental imagery serves to illuminate the contradiction or paradox of the situation from which it arises. For instance, the bold conceit struck out by Romeo at the opening of the Balcony scene—

What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!—
[II. ii. 1-2]

concentrates the essential meaning of the whole scene. In truth a miracle has taken place: the warm, life-giving sun of love has broken unexpectedly, through the dark night of family hatred and strife. But, next to the Friar's soliloquy, the most striking example of imagery that crystallizes the spirit of conflict and contradiction in the play is the recurrent association of bridal-bed and grave, Death and the lover:

I'll to my wedding-bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!
[III. ii. 136-37]

I would the fool were married to her grave!
[III. v. 140]

O son, the night before thy wedding-day
Hath Death lain with thy wife: see, there she lies,

Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law,
Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded.
[IV. v. 35-9]

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour.
[V. iii. 102-05]

The tone and the immediate purpose of these passages of course vary considerably; but at the core of them all is the powerful, paradoxical image of the play's basic motif—the passionate, interlocking wrestle of love and death. The 'lean abhorred monster' is the ultimate lover; the final wedding-bed is the grave.

Lastly in this poetic elaboration of the play's fundamental motif we may notice the highly evocative use that Shakespeare makes of light and darkness, though this is as much a matter of setting and stage-properties as of imagery. To suggest the first dramatic movement, of love arising out of and challenging family feud, he creates the illusion of light irradiating and finally shattering darkness. First, faintly and remotely anticipating the Capulet feast and its aftermath, we have old Capulet's

At my poor house look to behold this night
Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light.
[I. ii. 24-5]

A little later we see Romeo as the torch-bearer and hear old Capulet raising his cries (the more impressive because they are widely separated) for 'More lights' [I. v. 27] and 'More torches' [I. v. 125]. But the effect of such torches as these is slight compared with the light-drenched imagery, the contrasts of brightness and darkness, in Romeo's first entranced vision of Juliet:

O, she doth teach the torches to shine bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear …
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows.
[I. v. 44-8]

This brilliant radiance of imagery completely floods the following scene, so that the darkness of night is utterly negated. In this scene, apart from the incidental images of the moon and the lightning, there are the sustained images of Romeo's magnificent opening speeches. First Juliet is the dazzling sun of dawn—then two brilliant stars— then his 'bright angel' [II. ii. 26],

As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals.
[II. ii. 27-30]

As he leaves, assured of her love, day begins to break, and the image of it is memorably fixed for us by the vivid opening lines of Friar Lawrence's soliloquy:

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels.
[II. iii. 1-41]

The central image of this passage, of dark-dispersing sunlight, is repeated a little later by Juliet:

Love's heralds should be thoughts.
Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams
Driving back shadows over louring hills.
[II. v. 4-6]

The second movement of the play consists of a violent recrudescence of the Capulet-Montague feud, leading to bloodshed, in which the lovers are whirled helplessly apart: 'black fate' suddenly overshadows the bright day of love and sunshine. This development, too, is partly suggested by the imagery, through the invocation of night and darkness, especially in Juliet's soliloquy in the orchard. Here, because of its echoes and lyrical fervour, her speech reminds us of Romeo's rhapsody at the opening of the Balcony scene; but where Romeo's words had been drenched with images of light, Juliet's are, in contrast, sombre and portentous with images of darkness:

such a waggoner
As Phaethaon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night. …
Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black. …
Hood my unmann'd blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle. …
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night.
[III. ii. 2-5, 10-11, 14-15, 20]

The wonderful aubade [a song of lovers parting at dawn] of Act III, Scene v, also turns on the lovers' desperate longing for the continuance of the night and darkness, and though in both instances the imagery derives to some extent from the situation since Juliet wants the night to come because it will with the help of Friar Lawrence's drug, 'Or bid me go into a new-made grave / And hide me with a dead man in his shroud' [IV. i. 84-5]. An ugly image for any youngster to dream up and utter, isn't it? I had to take a chance on that grotesqueness because I was setting up my big dress-rehearsal scene for the actual deaths of both youngsters in the Capulets' tomb."

"Which is that, the dress rehearsal?"

"When Juliet is found by her parents, and thought to be dead, I produce a kind of ritual mourning sequence—from father to fiance to Mom to nurse and round again—which I don't suppose you in your laconic times could be expected to appreciate. It probably even sounds humorous to you, but the thing to look out for is that image of Death returning as Juliet's partner in sex: my grotesque linking of what should be life-producing and exalting with its opposite, in mortuary decay. The foolish old father starts things up (and if you still believe that puns have to be entertaining and amusing, listen in), in such a way that not even the gentility could miss it.

O son, the night before thy wedding day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded."
[IV. v. 35-9]

"Now I see the significance of the speech that old Capulet made just before that. It's sexual again, isn't it? 'Death lies on her like an untimely frost / Upon the sweetest flower of all the field' [IV. v. 28-9]. Poor Juliet. So this was the rehearsal for the actual death scene between our lovers, you say?"

"That's so, but don't leave the fake-death quite so fast, good friend. If you listen closely, you'll hear the culminating oxymoron in my whole play, coming from the unlikely source of the old gaffer's mouth":

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 bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse;
And all things change them to the contrary.
[IV. v. 84-7, 89-90]

There you have it: and all things change them to the contrary. Can you think of a more succinct description of my play? The flames of sex turn to the ashes of death. My oxymorons would have made my old grammar school instructor in rhetoric proud of me. But I've gone beyond my oxymoronic device to a kind of macabre reality in these two young people's lives, notice. I've given them destinies in which the very seeds of their physical attraction to each other (and observe that Juliet hasn't even seen Romeo's face clearly until they meet to marry in Lawrence's cell: just his 'gracious self,' in becoming hose) are all along ripening to their blighted, inevitable climax together in that tomb. The big death grows inexorably from out of the little death that we spoke of when I first joined you at this pleasant table. And by now you certainly ought to recognize that not all of my puns are for laughter among the penny-admissions."

"All right, so when Romeo is about to buy the poison and says 'Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight' [V. i. 34], he, too, like her—but unlike her mother and evidently many in your audience—has come to understand the inextricable blending of sex and death in their story."

"Yes, precisely. And you can point out to your classes that there really couldn't be a more appropriate ending to my love-death drama than Juliet's reaching there to kiss the poison she prays remains on Romeo's just-stilled lips. 'Haply some poison yet doth hang on them' she hopes [V. ill. 165], and Death can now take them both—my famous youthful lovers—into his eternal embrace. I've made a special sort of tragedy out of the very materials of comedy, don't you see? They die, and then they die."

"Just think of it! Those kids of yours met at the Sunday dinner-dance and were dead in each other's arms by Thursday midnight. Four brief days in which they hardly had time to be wedded and bedded, much less get to know each other— except in the Bible's sense. Not so much 'love in terms of purity and innocence' as sentimental oldsters would like to think [in the Pelican Shakespeare edition of Romeo and Juliet], was there, Will? For that matter, both the compactness and the raciness of the action put me in mind a few years back of the limerick, a verse form that we speakers of English invented after your day but which you would've found delightful. Since the first half of your play, up to the sudden death of Mercutio, is like one super limerick, an unending series of bawdy jokes using sexual slang and double entendre, I've encouraged students to write limericks on what's going on, according to their perceptions, in Romeo and Juliet. I find that I get some pretty honest and pretty good ones."

"I'll need an exemplum, since I don't know the form of this limerick as you call it."

"It's hard to remember a limerick verbatim when you've been drinking (unlike everyday dirty jokes, which are almost all content and no form), but I think I can give you the idea with one or two here. Let's see:

There once were a couple of teens
Who aspired to commingle their genes
But, in trying to mate,
Were the victims of fate
And succumbed in the saddest of scenes.

Some of my students really pick up on the punning side of your poetry, Will, which I figured would please you. They miss being as nimble-witted as Mercutio, of course, but that also means that they truly miss him as a character once he's gone from the piay—miss his ribald intelligence, which they've been learning how to listen for.

At the Friar's the kids tie the knot.
And it puts Juliet on the spot:
Will the feuders unite.
Or continue to fight—
And is Romeo coming, or not?

Because Tybalt, her cousin, was dead
And her Romeo now banished.
Juliet could have cried
That her lover had died.
But she kept, after losing, her head.

Well, we've been enjoying ourselves, as you can see. And the students turn out to have been right all along about Juliet and her teenage boyfriend, whom she helps to become a man, as they say. overnight. 'Stand, and you be a man. / For Juliet's sake, for her sake, rise and stand!" [III. iii. 88-9], as the nurse so happily puts it. Now, there's a woman! Why, when . . .

"Oh, you have to be on your way: no time for another round? That's too bad; I've enjoyed your company. Well, thanks, and I'll be, uh, hearing you around." (pp. 70-3)

C. Webster Wheelock, "'Not Life, but Love in Death': Oxymoron at the Thematic Heart of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in English Journal. Vol. 74, No. 2. February, 1985, pp. 70-3.

Romeo and Juliet

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7869

Clifford Leech
[Leech views Romeo and Juliet's love as a maturing experience for the hero and heroine and demonstrates how the development of their language, in particular, marks their entry into adulthood. Although the critic notes several humorous elements in the couple's declarations of love, he points out that they also frequently speak with authority, suggesting the seriousness of their commitment to one another. In Leech's opinion, Juliet's language displays both her inexperience and her newfound maturity as she struggles to find images to express her love for Romeo. Her maturation is more pronounced than Romeo's, the critic asserts: Juliet's language firmly establishes her adult status in Act III, and it is not until Act V that Romeo's language approaches hers in terms of maturity.]

Romeo and Juliet has proved a problem for Shakespeare critics. Franklin M. Dickey (see excerpt in section on Tragic Design) has seen it as exhibiting a simple moral lesson: to be taken up wholly by one's passion for another human being would, he argues, be seen by an Elizabethan as a moral imperfection, as likely to induce a general disregard of the moral law: so Shakespeare's play, despite its sympathy with the lovers, must be seen in relation to the contemporary idea of moral responsibility. But to argue in this way is to take Romeo and Juliet as Roy Battenhouse has taken [Christopher] Marlowe's Tamburlaine [in his Marlowe's Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy]: Battenhouse tries to disregard the grandeur that goes along with the evil in Marlowe's hero; Dickey misses the sense of an enhanced degree of life which Shakespeare's lovers experience along with the danger they freely encounter. Nicholas Brooke is aware of the problem that faced Shakespeare: he suggests that the love of . . . Romeo and Juliet is tested against the presentation of the normal current of life … . [T]he insistence on [the] wish for darkness, with its reiterated images, has the effect of emphasizing the precariousness, the desperation, and--circumstances being what they are--the unnaturalness of Romeo and Juliet's love. Their love cannot—which is the mark of its doom—exist in the sun, its natural element; and something of this contradiction, is brought out by the paradox of Romeo's line

More light and light; more dark and dark our woes!
[III. v. 36]

The climax of the play takes place in darkness, the darkness of night, the tomb, and—for we cannot fail to sense his presence—of black, shadow-casting Death. Once again the darkness is challenged ana momentarily broken by the small, flickering light of torches; and the torch image instantly recalls the Romeo who first went through the night to Juliet as a torchbearer. But this time darkness is triumphant, and even the dawning day is ominously overcast;

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
Tile sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
[V. iii. 305-06]

Yet light and the love of which it is the symbol are not completely extinguished, even in the catastrophe. A faint radiance lingers. In Juliet's memory there is to be raised a shining statue—'in pure gold' [V. iii. 299]. (pp. 123-26)

E. C. Pettet, "The Imagery of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in English, Vol. VIII, No. 45, Autumn, 1950, pp. 121-26.

C. Webster Wheelock
[Wheelock cites numerous passages in support of his theory that the paradoxical blending of sexual love and death is the central theme in Romeo and Juliet. (A paradox is a statement which while seemingly contradictory or absurd may actually be well-founded and true.) Wheelock's essay is written in a humorous vein and is structured as a conversation between himself and Shakespeare in an English tavern in 1598.]

The figure who filled the doorway of the Mermaid Tavern wasn't the man I'd been expecting. Since I don't teach Ben Jonson's poetry to my high school students, I'd calculated that an evening spent with the dapper, rather acerbic chief of the famous "tribe of Ben" would be social: no business talk, just good wit and good ale. But this fellow now crowding up against my table in the corner snug still carried the surprised look of the countryside on him, something I would not have anticipated for 1598.

He surprised me with the rough edge to his speech, a kind of midlands burr which I won't be able to duplicate in recollecting all he said that night. He broke the awkward silence.

"I came over from the Boar's Head because I heard that one of you teaching types from the far future was around. You the man I'm after?"

I confessed that I must be the one, but that all I'd wanted was a quiet evening of talk, some drinks, no trouble.

"I've just come from a performance of my Romeo" he said, "and what beats me is that nobody up in the galleries seems to understand the thing, or not hardly, at all. I know that I took some chances with it, upset the usual business they're looking for in comedies, but you'd think that all of that grotesque image-making would've smoked out my meaning, wouldn't you?"

"Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift" [II. iii. 55], I ventured.

"You know the piece? You teach it to young people, too?" he asked. "Then maybe you can help. The young don't turn a deaf ear to what really interests them. Mine don't, at any rate; yours, too? Here, let me get you another of those pints. Stay put. You've got some thirsty listening to do, my friend. I don't begrudge a tuppence or two for a pair of good ears."

I sipped appreciatively at the dark-brown, vaguely sweet liquor in the fresh glass before me.

"We both know what the young people are interested in most of all. Well, I thought to give it them in my story from Verona. The trouble is, though, I know their elders wanted a wordplay at least as much as, shall we say, swordplay—if you take my meaning—so I let out all the stops. I did too good a job with all that light and fire imagery, and everybody thinks that all I was after was what you might call the ardor of young love. Damn! Somebody is even supposed to have counted 80 or 90 images of fire or light or astral bodies, all sorts, which adds up to 'the beauty of young love. Except that nobody seems to have noticed who my main, my triumphant lover really is in the play. Maybe it was too grotesque an idea to begin with."

"Look, Will—I may call you Will, mayn't I?—what are you driving at? What is it about Romeo and Juliet that disappoints you? Now you've gotten me curious."

"All right. Since you seem to know the play well enough, I'm going to throw a few quotations at you, like an exercise we go through with our prompt books. Let's begin with one of our erotic puns, since that's where my weirdest idea came from anyway. I think you still use, in your time, the old verb, 'to die' to mean the little death, a sexual climax, isn't it so? Well, I started from there, since I was going to be using other bawdy slang to keep the groundlings amused, and I came up with the idea that Death—I mean in person, as a spectral figure—would have to come into my comedy of young lovers and, finally, replace Romeo as the physical lover of darling Juliet. Not on stage, of course, but in the minds of the characters, all of them, young and old. So I started putting in clues in the most incongruous places I could find so that they'd be noticed."

"Wait a minute, Will. You say you made Death the lover of Juliet: actually I do remember that, from the final scene in the Capulet tomb. I was a bit shocked at the idea, I'll admit, but that late in the play I didn't really pay too much attention. Let me remember. Romeo says to Juliet,

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
[V. iii. 102-05]

Then he drinks the apothecary's poison."

"Yes, but didn't you notice, before that, all the times I linked death with having sex? And didn't you pick up the oxymoronic nature of the young lovers' reality? Why, I brought Romeo onstage for the first time spouting absolute rot as the first clue: 'Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,' etc. [I. i. 180]. Juliet, too, although she had better reason to be distracted and babbling after hearing Romeo had skewered her cousin Tybalt, she was given her share of oxymoronic nonsense. 'Dove-feathered raven! wolvish-ravening lamb! … , A Damned saint, an honorable villain!' [III. ii. 76, 79]."

"That's right. 'Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st' [III. ii. 78]. She was indicting Romeo for blowing their whole scene, just when it seemed that they might have a chance to get their parents to come around."

"Right, my teacher friend. The oxymoron—the yoking of two contraries, two apparently contradictory ideas—rules my play from almost the start. And the main oxymoron is the linkage of death and sexual love—just as in the pun, remember? I intended to have Juliet stop the whole scene at the end of the Capulet dance, after she's fallen for the masked boy in tights, when she asks her nurse for Romeo's name:

Go ask his name.—If he is married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.
[I. v. 134-35]

Maybe you didn't pick that one up because it was so short—and everybody likes the lovers' doing their sonnet together just before that. Well, look again: 'my grave my wedding bed.' This from a smitten 13-year old?"

"Okay. I see that better now. And I remember that Romeo had a premonition just before crashing the party: we say that we feel someone walking across our grave—it's a kind of chill. But did you put in any longer hints than Juliet's one-liner?"

"Here, let's fill that up again …

"What did you ask? Oh, yes. Do you recollect when Juliet is waiting for her wedding night and doesn't know yet that the two young hotheads have been killed on the streets? Listen to what she says. She goes on for a while with some delicious puns on night / knight and so forth ('Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night' [III. ii. 20]). Hah! And then she switches terms as abruptly as I could make it; really, it's a shocking incongruity if you think about it.

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stare,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine.
[III. ii. 21-3]

and so forth. Die? Cut him out in little bits? Unless you're buying oranges or something, you've got to be hit by this little bride, dreaming about the bliss of her first night with Romeo, suddenly seeing him dead and scattered about in little pieces. What sort of sense does that make? Unless you go back to my fundamental pun, my oxymoronic double entendre, you're going to have a certain amount of trouble with that one, eh?"

"Yeah, and not long afterwards Juliet does it again, if I remember. She finds out about the killings of Mercutio and Tybalt and that her groom of only hours has been banished, and she says to the nurse (who's too dim to pick it up, anyway), 'come, nurse. I'll to my wedding bed; / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!' [III. ii. 136-37]. Am I right?"

"Good on you. That's right, and the next time I used what I call my love-death theme was something of a con. I put it in the mouth of a character who didn't mean what she was saying, and whom as a consequence you couldn't really believe at the time. Recall that when Lady C, who doesn't know what you do—that Juliet can't marry him— encounters opposition from her daughter to the proposal that she wed that man of wax, Paris, she turns to her husband in exasperation and seems to curse Juliet grotesquely: 'I would the fool were married to her grave!' [III. v. 140]. Not 'I would the fool were dead,' mind you, but married to her death. Note that. Then in the same scene poor Juliet's reply completes the curse:

Delay this marriage (to Paris) for a month, a week;
Or if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.
[III. v. 199-201]

Or, as the bewildered bride somewhat later directs, having desperately resolved to dissemble death itself acceptable as an achieved good [Shakespeare's Early Tragedies]. Indeed, when we remember the likely date of Shakespeare's play, we shall not be surprised at this. In Love's Labour's Lost he had made fun of the devotion that the King of Navarre and his three lords had manifested to the Princess of France and her three ladies: the men are made to endure a year-long penance, and Berowne's required sojourn in a hospital is, Berowne himself recognizes, almost an impossible demand. Can love outlast the waiting-time? Can it be related to the agony of the sick and the dying? In any event it must, the ending of the play suggests, be put into a total context, not being capable of replacing that context. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona love is juxtaposed with the idea of friendship, which, being as it was alleged purely altruistic, had a high standing indeed in the Renaissance, and love was there mocked through the figures of Launce and Speed, who took a more commonplace view of relations between the sexes. At the end it is the sympathetically opportunistic Julia who gets things straightened out. If the heroic lover and friend Valentine had been solely in charge of the play's termination, only disaster would have been possible. In writing a play in which the love of a young man and a young woman was to be considered a proper motive for tragedy, Shakespeare was bound to draw on his earlier treatments of love in comedy, but he would need to make a major departure too.

Certainly there is plenty of comedy here. Were it not for the declaration of the Prologue, with its references to "star-cross'd, lovers" [1.6] and to the ending of the feud through their deaths, we might well take the first two acts as moving toward a fortunate issue for the young people. The atmosphere is here generally one of pleasurable excitement, although Shakespeare has given Juliet a moment of premonition in the first balcony scene:

Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy in this contract to-night.
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say 'It lightens.'
[II. ii. 116-20]

More of such premonitions will be noted later. But, until the moment when Mercutio is killed, the threat is not anywhere heavy. When Romeo and Juliet declare their love, there are moments of pure comedy. Thus Romeo compares himself to a schoolboy, reluctant to go to his books as Romeo is reluctant to leave Juliet: "Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books; / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks" [II. ii. 156-57]. And there is a touch of absurdity, which we shall applaud when we remember what we all have done in distantly comparable circumstances, when Juliet says she has forgotten why she called him back, and he says he is ready to stay till she remembers:

Jul. I have forgot why I did call thee back.
Rom. Let me stand here till thou remember it.
Jul. I shall forget to have thee still stand there,
Rememb'ring how I love thy company.
Rom. And I'll still stay, to have thee still forget,
Forgetting any other home but this.
[II. ii. 170-75]

We may remember too that Romeo has wished to be the glove on Juliet's hand, a mildly ludicrous idea, and that both lovers would like Romeo to be Juliet's pet bird:

Jul. Tis almost morning. I would have thee gone— .
And yet no farther than a wanton's bird,
That lets it hop a little from her hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves.
And with a silk thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty.
Rom. I would I were thy bird.
Jul. Sweet, so would I.
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
[II. ii. 176-83]

They will speak differently in the second balcony scene, but even there they will only dimly apprehend the world that threatens them.

Before this, of course, Romeo had been almost totally a figure of fun when he was giving voice to his love for Rosaline, and after meeting Juliet he is in a situation of some embarrassment when he goes to tell the Friar of his new love and of his wish for a secret marriage. When he admits that he has not been in his bed during the night that has just passed, he has to hear the Friar exclaim "God pardon sin! Wast thou with Rosaline?" [II. iii. 44], and there is a particularly ludicrous touch when the Friar claims to see on Romeo's cheek a tear shed for Rosaline's love and not yet washed off. Even so, Shakespeare makes it plain that the new love is a thing of true moment. This is made evident not only in the authority of language that the lovers are sometimes allowed, during their interchange of words at their first meeting in the Capulet house and in the first balcony scene, but also in Romeo's premonition of disaster when he is on his way to the first meeting:

my mind misgives
Some consequences, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!
[I. iv. 106-13]

Because we have hints enough that disaster lies ahead, we cannot see the love merely in terms of comedy.

Moreover, Romeo's behavior when he meets Mercutio and Benvolio again after he has talked with the Friar shows him as a young man ready to cope with danger for his love's sake and also ready, as now an adult lover, to give over affectation and to feel able to parry Mercutio's jests. Then, after the marriage, he has dignity both in his first refusal to fight with Tybalt, his new kinsman, and in his entering into the fray because he has by ill luck been responsible for Mercutio's death. At least, it may at first seem like ill luck, but we are made to see that Romeo's refusal to fight, Mercutio's indignation, and Romeo's revenge for his friend's death all arise, by necessity or at least probability, out of the nature of the characters and their situation in Verona. "O, I am fortune's fool!" [in. i. 136]—Romeo's cry after Tybalt's death—is comment enough on his inability to cope with the situation engendered by the feud, which previously he had been overconfident about. How precarious is his hold on his new adult status is underlined in the scene in the Friar's cell, where his love is expressed again in ludicrous terms:

More validity,
More honourable state, more courtship lives
In carrion flies than Romeo. They may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet's hand
And steal immortal blessing from her lips,
Who, even In pure and vestal modesty,
Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin;
But Romeo may not—he is banished.
This may flies do, when I from this must fly;
They are free men, but I am banished.
[III. iii. 33-42]

The poor girl, with those flies on her hand and lips; those lips, so beautifully red because they are kissing each other; that shocking pun of "flies" and "fly": Romeo had uttered no more immature lines when the thought of Rosaline was on him. His extravagance here is similar to that of Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, who was similarly banished from the town where Silvia lived. And the mocker or rebuker is present with both; Launce the clown makes fun of Valentine; Romeo is described by the Friar as "with his own tears made drunk" [m. iii. 83]. He will recover dignity before the play's end, but he has lost hold of it here.

Juliet, on the other hand, has not Romeo's initial disadvantage of a previous, and ludicrous, love-attachment. We see her first as the dutiful daughter, ready to prepare herself to fall in love with Paris, as her parents would like her to. But Romeo is her first true commitment, and if she expresses herself comically at times in the first balcony scene, that is only a reminder of her extreme youth. And she is much more practical than he is: it is she who suggests how the wedding shall be arranged. Shakespeare has, moreover, given two almost parallel scenes in which she is the central figure: II. v, when she awaits the Nurse's return from her mission to Romeo, and III. ii, when she is looking forward to the coming wedding night. In both instances we have first a soliloquy from Juliet, expressing impatience that time goes for her so slowly, then the Nurse entering and delaying the news she has to give, and finally the Nurse's assurance that things after all will be well. But the differences between the scenes are remarkable. The news that the Nurse withholds is good in the first instance: everything is in order for the secret wedding. In the second instance it is bad news: Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished. The Nurse's delay, moreover, is a matter of teasing in the first scene, the result of incoherent grief in the second. And, although at the end of the second scene the Nurse promises to find Romeo and bring him to comfort Juliet, there is now true darkness here. Act II, scene v ended with Juliet's cry "Hie to high fortune! Honest nurse, farewell" [II. v. 78]. The pun is evidence of pure excitement, and we can imagine Juliet giving the Nurse a quick and affectionate embrace as she goes off to her wedding. The second scene ends also with words from the girl: "O, find him! give this ring to my true knight / And bid him come to take his last farewell" [III. ii. 142-43]. The echo of Courtly Love in "true knight" has something forced and pathetic in it, and "last farewell" will prove to be a fact. Now, too, it is the Nurse who goes. Juliet must wait.

Yet in both scenes Juliet's youth is most poignantly brought out. Her impatience in II. v is of course amusing: for the moment we forget the omens, and know that the Nurse will truly impart her good news. And III. ii opens with one of the most famous speeches in the play, Juliet's soliloquy beginning "Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds. / Towards Phoebus' lodging!" [III. ii. 1ff.]. Here we find Juliet trying out image after image to give appropriate expression to her love, her desire to be wholly at one with Romeo. There is an overelaborateness in her invocation of Phoebus and Phaeton, of the "sober-suited matron," "civil night" ("civil" because she gives privacy to her citizens), who will teach Juliet "how to lose a winning match, / Play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods"/; there is a playing with the idea of contrast when she sees Romeo as lying "upon the wings of night / Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back"; and she reaches a grotesque extravagance in the famous lines:

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
[III. ii. 21-5]

The extravagance is, of course, understandable: we do not have to forgive it. Juliet has seen Romeo only at night: she will never see him by daylight except for the brief moment of their wedding and that half-light of dawn in the second balcony scene. So she can reject the "garish sun" that has never shone on them out of doors. Something more mature immediately follows: "O, I have bought the mansion of a love, / But not possess'd it; and though I am sold, / Not yet enjoy'd" [III. ii. 26-8]. … The change of sex is interesting here: Juliet knows that the man is possessed by the woman while he merely penetrates her. Yet we still feel that this inexperienced girl is straining after an appropriate image, trying to be more "grown up" than she really is. Suddenly the speech ends with an image wholly fitting this character who so recently was heself a child:

So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.
[III. ii. 28-31]

She is no longer a child, but her childhood memory is here linked with the new experience. Because the memory is now only a memory (yet a vivid one), because Romeo's body will be so startingly her new clothes (Donne said: "What needst though have more covering than a man," Elegy XIX), she is using this image from childhood [and] grows suddenly mature as we hear her speak. It will take a good deal longer for Romeo to produce any comparable utterance. Doubtless Shakespeare realized that he had gone further with the girl than with the boy: it was convenient therefore to give the whole of act IV to her concerns, Romeo leaving for Mantua before act III is over and not entering the play again till act V begins. (pp. 61-6)

In act V of Romeo and Juliet Romeo at once shows signs of a new status. His response to the false news of Juliet's death has a directness very different from his behavior hi the Friar's cell when he was lamenting his banishment: "Is it e'en so? That I defy you stars!" [V. i. 24]. And he at once gives directions to Baithasar on the journey he plans to Verona and Juliet's tomb. Of course, he could have explored the matter more fully. It occurs to him to ask if no letters from the Friar have come with Baithasar, but when he receives a negative answer his "No matter. Get thee gone / And hire those horses" [V. i. 32-3] shows the rashness we have seen in him throughout Left alone, with the desire for poison in his mind, he turns his attention to the apothecary's shop and to the situation of poor men. This is psychologically true, for in a moment of anguish we naturally tend to take refuge in a thought of something other than a demand that is immediately on us. After that, Romeo's recognition that the gold he gives is a worse poison than the one he buys is largely a Renaissance commonplace, but the eloquence with which he expresses it gives him an authority he has previously lacked:

There is thy gold—worse poison to men's souls.
Doing more murther in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.
Farewell. Buy food and get thyself in flesh.
[V. i. 80-4]

Earlier Romeo had to face the distinction between "loving" and "doting" [II. ill. 82] that the Friar insisted on: the young man "doted" on Rosaline, which the Friar could not approve, and he must love Juliet "moderately" [II. vi. 14]. Yet of course he did not follow the Friar's advice, though he thought that his love for Juliet was something the Friar could understand. Shakespeare suggests another distinction between love and love: the kind you simply like to maunder over, the kind that ultimately commits you. We do not, as Romeo does, usually kill ourselves for love, but we remember to the end a girl that truly mattered. The utterances from the sympathetic Friar, who thinks the Capulet-Montague feud may come to peace through the marriage, are an echo of the church's view of love in the Middle Ages. The total commitment to another person is, we have seen, in that view a dangerous thing if not kept properly subordinate to one's love of God. Romeo cannot follow the Friar in this: he is so totally committed to Juliet that he will kill himself in her tomb. There is indeed a threefold presentation of love here, not a dichotomy: there is the affected, superficial concern with Rosaline, there is the fatal commitment to Juliet, and there is the "moderation" counseled by the Friar and illustrated in the play's older married couples. Shakespeare gives utterance to the church's counsel, neither endorsing nor rejecting it. If the play's lovers could have lived, some different things would have conditioned their relations to each other … (pp. 67-8)

Clifford Leech, "The Moral Tragedy of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeline Doran & Mark Eccles, Standish Henning, Robert Kimbrough, and Richard Knowles, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1976, pp. 59-75.

Alice Shalvi
[Shalvi asserts that although Romeo and Juliet appears to be a tragedy of fate in which the protagonists are "helpless, innocent victims of arbitrary powers," the play can be more properly regarded as a tragedy of character. In the critic's opinion, Shakespeare designed the tragic outcome to be the result of the lovers' "passionate rashness," and particularly Romeo's "passionate nature and his lack of moderation." Noting that Elizabethans considered moderation essential to balancing one's passion and maintaining one's rational senses, Shalvi discusses Romeo's failed attempt to follow this course after his marriage to Juliet. Once he abandons restraint and avenges Mercutio's death by killing Tybalt, the critic observes, he is governed by passionate recklessness throughout the rest of the play. As a result, Romeo's "lack of moderation, the readiness with which he succumbs to all forms of passion, his failure to guide and protect his young wife, bring both of them to their untimely death." Despite Romeo's flawed nature, Shalvi continues, both he and Juliet have our full sympathy, for their experience ultimately conveys the beauty and sincerity of young love.]

[Romeo and Juliet] appears to be a tragedy of fate, showing its protagonists as the helpless, innocent victims of arbitrary powers. Several incidents in the play contribute to this impression. The Prologue refers to 'a pair of star-crossed lovers' [Prologue, 6]. Romeo's misgivings, aroused in him by an ominous dream, are not wholly dismissed by his friends' jesting mockery as they urge him on to the feast at the house of Capulet. Intuitively he fears the outcome of the evening's adventures:

my mind misgives
Some consequences yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail!
[I. iv. 106-13]

Explicitly, Romeo surrenders himself to the guidance of God and the imagery which he employs stresses his view of himself as entirely helpless in determining his own destiny. So, when his awkward attempt to intervene in the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio leads to the fatal wounding of his friend, Romeo despondently asserts 'I thought all for the best' [III. i. 104]; the implication is that man's motives and plans fail to bring about the desired end where Fate decrees otherwise. After he has killed Tybalt, Romeo refers to himself as 'fortune's fool,' the helpless victim and plaything of Fortune, and after killing Paris he speaks of both himself and his victim as being 'writ in sour misfortune's book' [V. iii. 82]. Finally, Romeo refers to suicide as the shaking off of 'the yoke of inauspicious stars' [V. iii. 111].

Indeed, an inimical Fate does seem to guide the lovers' lives. It is by unhappy chance that Romeo happens to meet Tybalt and it is unfortunate that his movement to part the duelists results in Mercutio's being wounded. It is unfortunate that old Capulet decides to move Juliet's marriage to Paris forward by one day, thereby making it necessary for her to take Friar Laurence's potion a day earlier and thus shortening the time allowed for bringing Romeo news of the Friar's plan. It is by chance that the Friar's messenger is delayed by the plague while Romeo's own servant reaches Mantua safely to report the supposed death of Juliet. It is unfortunate that Romeo finds Paris at Juliet's tomb, that Friar Laurence trips over the tombstone and arrives too late to prevent Romeo's suicide by revealing the truth. It is unfortunate that the Friar leaves Juliet alone in the tomb upon her awakening, thus giving here the opportunity to kill herself. Fate or Chance do seem to have a hand in determining what happens to these two young lovers and we may well find ourselves futilely wishing 'If only. . . , if only..."

But not only Fate determines the events and outcome of the play. It is noteworthy that in adapting his plot from The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet, a poem by Arthur Brooke published in 1562, the major change that Shakespeare made was drastically to reduce the duration-time of the action from two months to five days. Shakespeare takes great care to impress the speed and swiftness of the action upon his audience and he does this in two ways. Firstly, the days of the week are several times mentioned, so that we may never for one moment forget how quickly the lovers fall in love, marry and are forever parted. The play opens on a Sunday and that same evening Romeo, hitherto infatuated by the fair Rosaline, meets Juliet at the Capulets' ball. Their love is instant and mutual and before dawn they are betrothed. The next morning, Monday, the Nurse comes to Romeo at 9 o'clock and by her he sends word to Juliet, bidding her meet him that same afternoon at the cell of Friar Laurence. Here they are secretly married and on his way home from the ceremony Romeo becomes involved in the quarrel with Tybalt. Having killed Juliet's cousin, Romeo flees to his father-confessor, Friar Laurence, and it is at the Friar's cell that the nurse finds him and bids him come to Juliet that night—their wedding night. The next morning, Tuesday, Romeo leaves for Mantua and Juliet's parents tell her that she must marry her suitor Paris on Thursday or else be turned out of their house. She seeks for counsel in her dilemma from the Friar, who gives her a potion that, if taken on Wednesday evening, will enable her to feign death until Friday, by which time he will have sent for Romeo to take her in secret to Mantua, there to await the pardon of the Prince of Verona. Juliet is so much cheered by the Friar's plan that she returns home, blithe and gay, to consent to the proposed marriage with Paris. Her change of mood so overjoys her father that he moves the wedding forward to Wednesday and Juliet therefore has to drink the potion on Tuesday evening, waking up on Thursday. Meanwhile the Friar's messenger to Romeo is delayed and he hurries off to smuggle Juliet away, not knowing that Romeo, believing his wife dead, has himself hastened back to Verona. On Thursday night—four days after their first meeting—the two lovers are united in death.

The swiftness of the action is emphasised by the tremendous mobility facilitated by the open stage of the Elizabethan playhouse, with its several levels permitting incessant movement from one location to another. The action moves from the front of the stage to the curtained recess at the back, from the lower recess to the upper, with such wonderful fluidity and continuity that there need be not a single pause in what the Prologue refers to as 'the two-hours' traffic of our stage' [Prologue, 12].

The whole effect of the play, then—an effect produced both by the plot and by the stagecraft—is of speed, a speed which is itself in accord with the sudden, swift passion that is being enacted before our eyes. What the play describes is a fierce, passionate love that leads the two young lovers to defy the long-standing feud between their houses, a love that leads both of them to death.

Despite the explicit stress on fate, Romeo and Juliet is more a tragedy of character than is generally realised. It seems to me that Shakespeare is here showing the tragic outcome to be the consequence of the passionate rashness of the lovers and, particularly, the result of Romeo's passionate nature and his lack of moderation.

At the opening of the play Romeo is deeply in love with Rosaline, but since she has vowed to remain chaste his love is a hopeless one and we find him indulging in the traditional excesses of the forelorn lover: he is melancholy, shuns company, walks in the woods by night and locks himself in his darkened room by day. To cure him of his love his sensible kinsman Benvolio suggests that he attend the Capulet ball in order to see for himself that Rosaline is not the only pretty girl in the world. Romeo accepts the challenge and Benvolio is proved right. No sooner does Romeo see Juliet than he falls in love with her:

Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
[I. v. 52-3]

Overhearing Juliet's soliloquy, as she stands on her balcony after the guests' departure, Romeo learns that his love is requited. It is at this point that the fact of Juliet's youth emerges as so important; she is not yet fourteen and her youth, innocence and naivete are what emerge most clearly from the famous balcony-scene. Partly because she has no experience of, or desire for, the formal ceremonies of flirtation and courtship, the lovers are contracted even before there has been any wooing. And yet it is the youthful Juliet who has her doubts about the speed of the betrothal:

I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say 'It lightens.'
[II. ii. 117-20)

Romeo, however, seems to have no such fears or presentiments of ill and he hastens off to Friar Laurence to make arrangements for their immediate marriage.

It is now, in Act II, scene iii, that there occurs one of the play's key scenes, a scene which, though it is often excised in modern productions or else performed so as to evoke a response of laughter in the audience, nevertheless affords important clues as to how we are to interpret the play and judge its major protagonists,

Friar Laurence, who has been gathering herbs, comments upon the paradoxical duality of Nature:

The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave that is her womb.
[II. iii. 9-10]

All the creatures upon the earth are of an equally mixed quality:

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor nought so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
[II. iii. 17-20]

As an example, he points to one of the flowers in his collection, the scent of which has cordial powers even though to taste of it is fatal. The human parallel is then explicitly stated: grace, the divine power of goodness, and 'rude will', man's natural desire for evil, both exist within man, eternally at war with each other,

And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.
[II. iii. 29-30]

When Romeo bursts in, full of his new tempestuous passion, Friar Laurence's remarks first remind us of the old infatuation for Rosaline, now so startingly and suddenly cast off in favour of a newer love, and then stress the conclusion to be deduced from this change of heart:

young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.
Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine
Hath wash'd thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!
How much salt water thrown away in waste,
To season love, that of it doth not taste!
The sun not yet thy sighs from heaven clears,
Thy old groans ring yet in my ancient ears;
Lo, here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash'd off yet:
If e'er thou wast thyself and these woes thine,
Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline:
And art thou changed? pronounce this sentence then.
Women may fall, when there's no strength in men.
[II. iii. 67-80]

Nevertheless, aware that an alliance between Romeo and Juliet may bring about a reconciliation between their families, he consents to marry the lovers, only chiding Romeo's 'sudden haste' once more with the warning counsel 'Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast' [II. iii. 94]. That last line, reminiscent of Juliet's own qualms, should remain in our minds throughout the rest of the play, for the lovers fail to heed the Friar's warning, even though he repeats it in II. vi, where, trying to temper Romeo's almost manic joy, he says:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder.
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
[II. vi. 9-15]

Moderation is what the wise Friar counsels; moderation, which the Elizabethans considered essential in all of life because it balances the passions and maintains the rule of reason, the rational will which is the divine element in man that distinguishes him from the beasts.

The scene that follows [III. i] stresses the need for moderation in social transactions, switching away from the love of Romeo and Juliet to the family feud which serves as its background. Meeting the quarrelsome Tybalt, Romeo exercises admirable self-control and obstinately refuses to be drawn into a senseless quarrel. But his fiery friend Mercutio, unable to bear such an insult to his friend's honour, challenges Tybalt and is killed. It is then that Romeo decides to dispense with moderation—and the decision, the choice, that leads to Romeo's action is explicitly stressed as he says:

Away to heaven, respective lenily,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
[II. i. 123-24]

Romeo explicitly dismisses 'respective levity',— sensible, considerate moderation—and allows himself to be guided by the 'fire and fury' which are associated with Hell. Though it is at this point that he refers to himself as 'fortune's fool', it is precisely here that he has chosen his own course of action, giving way to the angry passion which leads to revenge.

It is by senseless passion that Romeo continues to be ruled. Learning that his sentence is to be banishment rather than death, Romeo is neither grateful nor happy at his prince's mercy. Dismissing 'Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy' [III. iii. 55], he rants and raves in suicidal despair, refusing rationally to consider how his situation may be unproved. Again it is the Friar who urges moderation, chiding Romeo's 'womanish' tears and the 'wild acts' which denote the 'unreasonable fury of a beast' [III. iii. 110-11], stressing the grounds for hope and optimism. Though Romeo is temporarily moved to heed the Friar's advice, he remains, essentially, the 'slave of passion', for when he learns of Juliet's supposed death his spontaneous, unreflecting action is to purchase poison and hasten to a romantic death in the arms of his beloved.

The tragic end that befalls the lovers is more the outcome of Romeo's character than the work of a cruel, senseless fate. Romeo's lack of moderation, the readiness with which he succumbs to all forms of passion, his failure to guide and protect his young wife, bring both of them to their untimely death. Just so is it lack of moderation, a senseless pursuit of passion's dictates, that causes the drawn-out family feud, which Shakespeare so brilliantly mocks and satirizes in the opening squabble of the families' servants and in the fiery valour of Tybalt the 'courageous captain of compliments' [II. iv. 20], but the full horror and severe social implication of which he nevertheless brings out in those scenes [I. i; III. ii and V. iii] in which the Prince appears, threatening and reprimanding the culprits. Here, as elsewhere in his plays, Shakespeare sees the lot of the individual in a total social context. To a large extent, the foolish family feud is responsible for the death of the young lovers and the same immoderate passions are responsible both for the feud and for the disastrous outcome of the love-affair. Friar Laurence's hope that the love of Romeo and Juliet will bring peace to their warring parents is fulfilled in all too bitter a manner and 'All are punished' [V. iii. 295].

Despite Romeo's flawed nature, both Romeo and Juliet have our full sympathy. We neither despise nor reject Romeo because of his flaw of passion. It is primarily by conveying the beauty and sincerity of young love that Shakespeare wins over sympathy for the doomed lovers; clearly the lyrical poetry of their exchanges and the intensity of feeling revealed in their final speeches are intended to stress that the love of Romeo and Juliet is not a shallow infatuation like that of Romeo for Rosaline. In fact, it is almost the nature of young love to be as ungoverned by reason as is the love of Romeo and Juliet. But we should not let our sympathy for the lovers blind us to the ultimate moral of the play, to the positive values which Shakespeare here reasserts. And that ultimate moral, here as in others of Shakespeare's plays, is the paramount need for moderation in every aspect of life—the need for man to follow not the dictates of his 'rude will' but the dictates of that 'grace', that divine reason, which God has implanted within him. Reason is most easily upset and distracted by love and this is what we see happening in the case of Romeo. It is not the stars that bring about the lovers' death but rather their passion and the passion of their kinsmen—the destructive passions of unreasonable, immoderate, excessive love and equally unreasonable, immoderate and excessive hatred. (pp. 120-26)

Alice Shalvi, "The First Tragedy: 'Romeo and Juliet'," in The World & Art of Shakespeare by A. A. Mendilow and Alice Shalvi, Israel Universities Press, 1967, pp. 119-26.

The Nurse

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4743

Harley Granville-Barker
[Granville-Barker praises the Nurse as a well-conceived, rich, and natural character and compares her with Falstaff (in 1 and 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor), one of Shakespeare's greatest comic creations. Remarking on the consistency of the Nurse's portrait the critic notes that all facets of her personality fall into perspective at III. v. 212-17 when she advises Juliet to marry Paris and forget Romeo.]

The Nurse ... is a triumphant and complete achievement. She stands four-square, and lives and breathes in her own right from the moment she appears, from that very first

Now, by my maiden-head at twelve year old,
I bade her come.
[I. iii. 2-3]

Shakespeare has had her pent up in his imagination; and out she gushes. He will give us nothing completer till he gives us Falstaff [in 1 and 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor]. We mark his confident, delighted knowledge of her by the prompt digression into which he lets her launch; the story may wait. It is not a set piece of fireworks such as Mercutio will touch off in honour of Queen Mab. The matter of it flows spontaneously into verse, the phrases are hers and hers alone, character unfolds with each phrase. You may, indeed, take any sentence the Nurse speaks throughout the play, and only she could speak it. Moreover, it will have no trace of the convention to which Shakespeare himself is still tied (into which he forces, to some extent, every other character)— none, unless we find her burlesquing it; and then we might fancy that he himself, in half-conscious mischief, is thus forecasting his freedom. But the good Angelica—which we at last discover to be her perfect name—needs no critical expanding, she expounds herself on all occasions; nor explanation, for she is plain as daylight; nor analysis, lest it lead to excuse, and she stays blissfully unregenerate. No one can fail to act her well that can speak her lines. Yet they are so supercharged with life that they will accommodate the larger acting—which is the revelation of a personality in terms of a part— and to the full; and it may be as rich a personality as can be found. She is in everything inevitable; from her

My fan, Peter,
[II. iv. 106]

when she means to play the discreet lady with those gay young sparks, to that all unexpected

Faith, here 'tis; Romeo
Is banished; and all the world to nothing
That he dares ne'er come back to challenge you;
Or if he do, it needs must be by stealth.
Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the county.
[III. v. 212-17]

—horrifyingly unexpected to Juliet; but to us, the moment she has said it, the inevitable thing for her to say.

This last turn, that seems so casually made, is the stroke that completes the character. Till now we have taken her—the 'good, sweet Nurse' [II. v. 21]— just as casually, amused by each comicality as it came; for so we do take the folk that amuse us. But with this everything about her falls into perspective, her funniments, her endearments, her grossness, her good-nature; upon the instant, they all find their places in the finished picture. And for a last enrichment, candidly welling from the lewd soul of her, comes

O, he's a lovely gentleman;
Romeo's a dishclout to him; an eagle, Madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were
As living hence and you no use of him.
[III. v. 218-25]

Weigh the effect made upon Juliet, fresh from the sacrament of love and the bitterness of parting, by the last fifteen words of that.

Juliet. Speak'st thou from thy heart?
Nurse. And from my soul too,
Or else beshrew them both.
Juliet. Amen.
[III. v. 226-28]

It is gathered into the full-fraught Amen. But best of all, perhaps, is the old bawd's utter unconsciousness of having said anything out of the way. And when she finds her lamb. Her ladybird, returning from shrift with merry look—too merry!—how should she suppose she has not given her the wholesomest advice in the world?

We see her obliviously bustling through the night's preparations for this new wedding. We hear her—incredibly!—start to stir Juliet from her sleep with the same coarse wit that had served to deepen the girl's blushes for Romeo's coming near. We leave her blubbering grotesquely over the body she had been happy to deliver to a baser martyrdom. Shakespeare lets her pass from the play without comment. Is any needed? (pp. 42-4)

Harley Granville-Barker, "Romeo and Juliet," in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1930, pp. 1-66.

Martin Stevens
[Stevens examines the Nurse's role as a messenger who acts as a go-between for the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet. Initially focusing on the humorous aspects of the Nurse's errands, the critic maintains that her encounter with Mercutio in Act II, scene iv provides one of the comic highlights of the play. The two characters reflect vastly different comedic properties—the Nurse embodies romantic comedy whereas Mercutio represents satire—and the meeting sparks a hilarious conflict between their opposing temperaments. Stevens also compares the Nurse to her counterpart in Shakespeare's source, Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, noting that tidings before the lovers' tragic separation. The critic further traces the Nurse's role as messenger by closely examining three key passages— II. v, III. iv, and IV. v. According to Stevens, this triad of "messenger scenes" reflects the progress of love in the play, and the Nurse plays a central role in this development, for she acts as love's herald first to arrange the marriage, second to promote its consummation, and third to lament its expiration. Contrary to many scholars' perceptions, the critic concludes, it is the Nurse's exit in Act IV, not Mercutio's death in Act III, which marks the end of romantic comedy and the beginning of tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.]

It is well known that the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet has her ancestry in Roman comedy. … It is not to the point to trace this ancestry in its particulars here, but it is important to recognize its presence. Significantly, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is a liaison character much like her Roman ancestor, and her humor arises from her role as an inarticulate messenger who acts as go-between for the young lovers.

A close examination of the play will reveal that the Nurse is on stage or audibly off stage in twelve scenes. In no less than nine of these [I. v; II. iii, iv, v; III. ii, iii, v; IV. ii, v] her primary function is to convey information or warning, while in two others [IV. iii, iv] she lends her presence, uncharacteristically silent, to the domestic settings inside the Capulet household. The one remaining scene [I. iii] is primarily concerned with introducing her as Juliet's devoted guardian who is spontaneously given to effuse and ribald outpourings. It's opening line, however, spotlights her customary function as messenger with Lady Capulet's command: "Nurse, where's my daughter? Call her forth to me." The Nurse replies with an immodest oath and the verbal blunder we come to expect of her (in this case on ladybird which can mean "a pretty creature" and "a tart"):

Now by my maidenhead at twelve year old,
I bade her come. What lamb! What ladybird!—
God forbid!—Where's this girl? What Juliet!
[I. iii. 2-4]

Thereupon Juliet appears and the stage is set. The Nurse, hereafter, serves as the aged herald to the impetuous young lovers. Hers is the Dyonesian errand; she is there to assure that Juliet will "grow by men" [I. iii. 95]. The humor of her role arises in large part from the contrast between the reality of her earthbound lameness—she is "unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead" [II. v. 17]—and the lovers' fancy of Cupid's wind-swift dispatch. It arises further from the contrast between expectation and performance: between the demand for the messenger's precise and lucid tidings and the delivery of an aged gossip's prolix ramblings.

Several scenes in which the Nurse appears as messenger are simply designed to carry forward the progress of the action. In Act I, Scene v, she serves to identify each of the lovers to the other. Later, in the two balcony scenes [II. ii. and III. v.], she is present to protect Juliet from discovery, adding on both occasions a note of urgency to the parting of the lovers. (I shall speak later of Juliet's repudiation of the Nurse at the conclusion of the second scene.) In two other instances, the Nurse serves primarily to bear tidings and hence to advance the action: once when she brings news of Juliet to Romeo at Friar Lawrence's cell [III. iii] and another time when she heralds to Capulet the arrival of Juliet from shrift [IV. ii]. Though most of these scenes give edge to the characterization of the Nurse as love's herald, especially as they reveal her complicity in the consummation, they do not especially focus attention on her comic qualities. These qualities are emphasized in the remaining scenes in which she takes part: the first meeting with Romeo which is also the only meeting with Mercutio [II. iv], the two scenes in the Capulet orchard in which she brings news to Juliet [II. v and III. ii], and her last appearance, the lamentation [IV. v].

The meeting of Mercutio and the Nurse provides one of the comic highlights of the play. As Thomas Marc Parrott has observed [in his Shakespearean Comedy], Mercutio is the play's embodiment of "conscious wit" while the Nurse, in striking contrast, is its "unconscious humorist." The scene which brings them together thus sparks the inevitable conflict between the two antithetic comic temperaments, the satiric and the romantic, of which Mercutio and the Nurse, respectively, are the figureheads in the play. Mercutio, from the beginning, is the critic of stale custom: his wit stabs into many conventional respectabilities, from the absurd stance of the bookish melancholic lover to the pretentious pose of the Italianate fencer. He epitomizes the comic spirit which governs Romeo's first and false love, just as clearly as the Nurse personifies the wordly comic spirit which presides over Romeo's second and true love. Like all satire, Mercutio's wit is analytic; and as such it serves to break up, in the words of Northrop Frye, "the lumber of stereotypes, fossilized beliefs . . . oppressive fashions, and all other things that impede the free movement of society" [in "The Nature of Satire," University of Toronto Quarterly, XIV (1944)]. In contrast, the Nurse's humor is synthetic; in her province lies the happy union of the lovers with all its traditional life-cycle overtones. It is right, therefore, that Mercutio must perish when Rosaline and Tybalt, the two figureheads of "oppressive fashion," have surrendered their tyranny. So too is it right that the Nurse must be absent when the lovers are brought to their tragic separation. With Mercutio's death, satire comes to an end; with the Nurse's exit, all comedy quits the stage.

The meeting of Mercutio and the Nurse is, consequently, a culminating moment in the play. As must be the case, high comedy is nourished by the low: Mercutio's wit flashes, but the laughter that it provokes derives more from its object than its source. It is the Nurse's outrage—"What a man are you" [II. iv. 114]—which turns Mercutio's obscenities—"the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" [II. iv. 12-13]—into sheer hilarity. The Nurse is thus unintentionally "the cause that wit is" in others; in fact, as a loquacious messenger she is consistently the butt of other people's jokes. But where most others will gently amuse themselves at the expense of the Nurse's outer nature—her garrulity, for example—Mercutio cuts deep. He alone is able to goad her into pretentiousness. With his string of obscenities, he bullies her into self-deception; she cannot stand by listening to his "man-talk" without considering her respectability assailed. And so Shakespeare has her resort to that most hilarious verbal device of affectation, the malapropism [a frequently humorous misapplication of a word]. It is testimony to Shakespeare's dramatic skill that he allows the Nurse to utter malapropisms only during the scene in which Mercutio maligns her character.

After Mercutio exits, the Nurse, now provoked to act the grande dame [great lady], reprimands her man Peter for failing to come to her defense. Peter lickerishly assures her that his "weapon should quickly have been out" [II. iv. 158] had he seen his mistress used at another's man's pleasure! She is, however, still so angry at Mercutio that she remains ironically oblivious to the similar taunts of her servingman. Mercutio's spirit thus continues to dominate the stage even as the Nurse, quivering with vexation, comes to state her business with Romeo. Here Shakespeare follows Arthur Brooke's account rather closely, though in Shakespeare's version the Nurse is more apprehensive for the honorable treatment of her "gentlewoman" and more concerned for the need of secrecy. In both versions, she takes a liberal tip from Romeo, but in Brooke's she appears more mercenary in accepting it, partly because she is less concerned over her mistress' welfare and partly because she deliberately neglects, in her report to Juliet, to mention "the taking of the golde." The emphasis Shakespeare places on the Nurse's selfless good will thus helps to sustain her role as a catalyst in the consummation of the romance.

At this point, it may be well to compare and contrast other details of characterization and narration in the two versions of the story. Source studies have made clear that Shakespeare is directly indebted to Brooke's poem, which, in fact, is his only known source. One study specifically concerned with Shakespeare's use of Brooke's poem concludes that in almost every scene involving the Nurse, "Shakespeare is merely following the details of Brooke's story" [Robert Adger Law, "On Shakespeare's Changes of his Source Material in Romeo and Juliet," University of Texas Studies in English, No. 9 (1929)]. While, on the surface, most details do indeed derive from Brooke's poem, the total effect that Shakespeare creates with the Nurse's part is in fact quite different from that created by Brooke. Shakespeare sharpens the impact of the messenger function by making the Nurse the bearer of all tidings prior to the lovers' tragic separation. In Brooke's version, not the Nurse but an unnamed person discloses Juliet's identity to Romeo. Later, again, it is not the Nurse but general rumor that informs Juliet of Tybalt's death. The Nurse, moreover, is absent from the first balcony scene. In Shakespeare's play, then, the Nurse's role as messenger and herald is noticeably expanded.

Another change is the reduction of servants and confidants who attend the two lovers. Brooke sends not only the Nurse but also another maid "almost of equal trust" to accompany Juliet on her way to the Friar. He also makes a larger part of Romeus' servant Peter, who becomes Balthasar in the play and who bears no relation to the Nurse's servant. Moreover, Shakespeare quite clearly restricts the intermediaries in the love plot to two: the Nurse and the Friar. These two characters, however, serve two entirely contrary philosophies. The Nurse is a worldly figure; her interests are immediate and material. Her commitment is to eros, and, therefore, toward the physical union of the lovers. She is in the age-old sense queen of misrule and priestess of fertility. The Friar, in contrast, is spiritual father, the bestower of holy matrimony. The love he serves is agape; it is "pure" [II. ill. 92], intransitory. pious. It exists outside the limits of Verona's fleeting time and enveloping space. The Nurse and the Friar, therefore, are each necessary confidants of both lovers, and it is thus that Shakespeare depicts them. In contrast, Brooke emphasizes in his portrayals of the Nurse and the Friar their separate, more intimate allegiance to Juliet and to Romeus, respectively. Thus, after Tybalt's death and Romeus' banishment, Brooke's Nurse entreats Juliet and not Romeus—as in Shakespeare's version [in. iii. 88|—to stand up against the force of adversity. The Friar in like manner exhorts Romeus to forbearance, and hence leaves the impression that each of the lovers has his own minister of consolation. In fact, Brooke makes clear this division of roles:

The old mans woords have fild with joy our Romeus brest,
And eke the olde wives talke, hath set our Juliets hart at rest.

Later in the poem, moreover, Brooke's Friar makes special reference to his very close bond with Romeus, a bond that implicitly finds its parallel in the affectionate and life-long relationship of the Nurse and Juliet. Before giving Juliet the potion, Brooke's Friar explains:

Even from the holy font thy husband have I knowne,
And, since he grew in yeres, have kept his counsels as myne owne . . .
And sith thou art his wife, thee am I bound to love,
For Romeus frinships sake, and seeke thy anguish to remove,

Shakespeare's Friar, in contrast, does not refer to any special bond, nor does he act in Juliet's behalf simply for the sake of friendship with Romeo.

It is well to bear in mind then that Shakespeare changes his source to highlight the intermediary function of the Friar and, even more pointedly, that of the Nurse. Both characters are made to appear less subjective in their relations to the lovers, and both, in consequence, become more effective manipulators of the plot. Though it is risky to make guesses about Shakespeare's reasons for effecting these changes, it does seem clear that the limitations of the stage and the need to hold down the number of supernumerary parts must have been partially responsible for his concentration on the Nurse as the messenger figure in the love plot. (pp. 195-200)

Up to the end of the third act, Romeo and Juliet might well be considered a romantic comedy in the medieval sense of the word: namely as a rising action culminating in the good fortune of the principal characters. It is, significantly, at the end of the third act that Juliet repudiates the Nurse with the malediction "Ancient Damnation" and the vow "Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain" [III. v. 234-40]. Up to that point the main action of the play has to do with the bringing together of the lovers, an achievement which owes its success in large part to the labors of the Nurse. As long as she is on stage in her role of intermediary, there is the prospect of "basic harmony," the assertion of which Nevill Coghill finds central to Shakespeare's comic version ["The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy," Essays and Studies, New Series, III (1950)]. The rejection of the Nurse thus occurs at the moment when the romantic comedy has come to its fruition and the repudiation serves as prelude to the ensuing tragedy. The Nurse's ultimate disappearance adumbrates the tragic separation and demise of the lovers. (pp. 200-01)

There remains yet a consideration of the Nurse's role in three focal scenes—II. v, III. iv, and IV. v—which highlight her part as inarticulate messenger. In their related structures, one traces a descent from the high ribald humor of the successful matchmaker to the tragicomic pathos of a rejected confidante. The first of these scenes arises from the frenzy of unspeakable anticipation and the last, from the sobriety of ineffable recollection. It is customary to regard two of these scenes as parallel actions. Much like the two riot scenes [I. i and III. i], those in which the Nurse brings tidings to Juliet [II. v and III. iv] have been called "twin-born scenarios." There is justification, however, to regard the latter set, if not the former, as part of a triad which serves to accentuate the progress of the dramatic action.

In each of the three scenes, apprehension or consternation results from the delivery of a message by the Nurse. In the first of them, it is only the manner of the delivery, not the news itself, which creates disturbance. At the beginning of II. v, Juliet feverishly awaits word from her lover. The Nurse enters, winded and aching from her errand, and there follows an amusing exchange in which the Nurse's prolixity is matched only by Juliet's eagerness to hear the news. This verbal tug of war is prompted by Brooke, but Shakespeare, as he does in many other passages, intensifies it. Notably, Brooke's Nurse, unlike Shakespeare's, is neither out of breath nor weary from her "jaunce"; she simply toys with Juliet for a fleeting moment. In Shakespeare, the situation arises wholly from the Nurse's human limitations in the part of Cupid. Coming as it does, at the height of youthful expectation, the delay of the news simply provokes mirthful anxiety in Juliet. Shakespeare takes the opportunity to let love's aged herald stammer the wedding banns.

The second scene of the triad [III. iii] has much in common with the first. In it, Juliet again opens with a soliloquy revealing her feverish excitement; again the Nurse returns from a "jaunce" with news for Juliet; and again consternation results from the delivery of her tidings. The main difference, of course, is in the news itself, which, in sharp contrast to that of the first scene, is unhappy and ominous in what it forebodes. To sharpen this contrast, Shakespeare provides close verbal parallels as the Nurse appears on stage. In the earlier scene, Juliet greets her with happy exclamation:

Oh, God, she comes! O honey Nurse, what news?. . .
Now, good sweet Nurse—Oh, Lord, why look'st thou sad?
Though news be sad, yet tell them merrily:
If good, thou shamest the music of sweet news
By playing it to me with so sour a face.
[II. v. 18-24]

The second scene echoes the first in the framework of its greeting, though it is stripped of Juliet's commentary, which, ironically, would have been more appropriate here than in the context in which it was uttered. Juliet anxiously inquires:

Now, Nurse, what news? . . .
Ay me! What news? Why dost thou wring thy hands?
[III. ii. 34; 36]

This time the news is indeed sad, and the Nurse, true to her nature, makes it even sadder by her inept report. Unable to make a forthright statement, she so misleads Juliet that even after thirty lines are spoken, Juliet can still ask "Is Romeo slaughtered, and is Tybalt dead?" [in. ii. 65]. All the time, Shakespeare treads the dim boundary between joy and pain. The news that Juliet eventually hears is indeed dire—Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished—but it is not so dire, she and the audience come to realize, as it might have been. The heavy rhetoric and the elaborate punning ease, from the first, the burden of the sad news. The courier of romance is thus able to bring bitter news without totally destroying the comic tone. Juliet responds to false death with the same ornate and artificial rhetoric with which Romeo had responded to false love earlier in the play. One can see the similarity vividly in the string of oxymorons that each utters in the two scenes: Romeo's "O brawling love! O loving hate" and Juliet's "Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!" [I. i. 176; III. ii. 75].

The last scene in the triad [IV. v] is sometimes known as the "Lamentation." In it, once more, the Nurse bears adverse tidings, though this time to the elder Capulets and not to Juliet. Once more, too, her report misleads its hearer to express heavy grief. But it misleads in a way different from that of her previous report, as indeed that report had differed, too, from its antecedent. In the first scene there was only momentary anxiety prompted by the messenger's blissful though frenzied pursuit of love's tidings, in the second, there was consternation, grief, and anger caused by the inept report of bad news made worse in its hapless iteration. In the last, there is horror and despair occasioned this time not by the messenger's infelicitous report but by the semblance of grief-laden reality. It is, of course, manifest to the audience that Juliet is not dead, just as it was apparent that Romeo was not dead in the earlier scene. One is reminded of that fact by the similarity of the elaborately rhetorical laments in the two scenes:

Ah, welladay! He's dead, he's dead, he's dead.
We are undone, lady, we are undone.
Alack the day! He's gone, he's killed, he's dead.
[III. ii. 37-9]

Alas, alas! Help, help! My lady's dead!
Oh, welladay that ever I was born! …
She's dead, deceased, she's dead, alack the day! …
[IV. v. 14-15; 23]

The appropriateness of the Nurse's comic lament has often been questioned. Alfred Harbage, for example, feels that the scene "is the least successful in the play" and that it might better have been relegated to a messenger's report [see Sources for Further Study]. There is no denying that the scene contains a difficult dramatic problem: namely, for the actors to play out a comic lamentation. Yet Juliet's false death is a dramatic fact, and, as such, it gains impact from dramatic treatment. With its acknowledgment through the lamentation, the Nurse can be dismissed as a catalyst in the romance plot, in Brooke's poem, where the Nurse is less directly linked with the progress of the romance, her exit can be less effusive (in fact, she is unable, at first, to speak a word, and finally she can only choke out the plain lament: "Dead is my childe").

The triad of "messenger scenes" reflects the progress of the love plot. In each scene, the Nurse plays a central role. She is there as love's herald first to arrange the marriage, then to promote its consummation, and finally to lament its expiration. The humor of her part arises largely from her personal involvement in the affairs which she ought to conduct with detachment, and the result is that she cannot deliver a straightforward, neutral report. In the first instance, her message misleads only momentarily, and she alone is responsible for the sweet anxiety that its delay occasions. In the second, the message misleads more seriously, and she shares with the conspiring events the blame for the resulting misapprehension. In the last, the message misleads egregiously, but only false circumstances—and not the Nurse—are responsible for its effects. The Nurse is thus seen declining as an agent of the dramatic action; gradually she must, along with all others, give way to the ineluctable power of Fortune.

In a recent article, Stephen A. Shapiro observed that "up to Mercutio's death Romeo and Juliet is a romantic comedy. After it, it becomes a tragedy" ["Romeo and Juliet: Reversals, Contrarieties, Transformations, and Ambivalence," College English, XXV (April 1964)]. I believe otherwise. In Mercutio's death, I see the culmination of comedy of manners; it is not until the Nurse makes her exit in Act IV that romantic comedy comes to an end. Her exit thus properly comes at the end of the plot unit which Renaissance commentaries called the epitasis, after which the stage is cleared for the enactment of the catastrophe. It is in this last unit, the catastrophe, that the lovers are left to their own devices and that their worldly fortunes are hopelessly reversed. Tragedy comes with the absence of intermediaries and the failure of messengers, e.g., the unsuccessful mission of Friar John. Harry Levin has said that "tragedy tends to isolate where comedy brings together, to reveal the uniqueness of individuals rather than what they have in common with others" ["Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Quarterly, XL (I960)]. It is this uniqueness of individuals, their social isolation, which gives substance to the tragedy of Act V in Romeo and Juliet. With the Nurse silent, and the Friar rendered ineffective, Juliet's earlier words ring as prophecy for the chilling tragic end: "My dismal scene I needs must act alone" [IV. iii. 19]. (pp. 202-06)

Martin Stevens, "Juliet's Nurse: Love's Herald," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 195-206.

Mercutio

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2422

Harold C. Goddard
[Goddard declares that Mercutio, like the Nurse, is an extreme sensualist and heathen. The critic concentrates primarily on Mercutio's crude sexual humor, noting that the character's obscene language underscores the purity of Romeo's passion for Juliet. Goddard then addresses the issue of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech (I. iv. 53-103), which several critics have considered out of character because of the beauty of its language. The critic asserts that the speech is in fact representative of Mercutio's style because compared with the imagination and delicacy of the lovers' verse, it appears superficial. According to Goddard, the Queen Mab speech is a device used by Shakespeare to show what constitutes true poetry.]

Mercutio and the Nurse are simply youth and old age of the same type. He is aimed at the same goal she has nearly attained. He would have become the same sort of old man that she is old woman, just as she was undoubtedly the same sort of young girl that he is young man. They both think of nothing but sex—except when they are so busy eating or quarreling that they can think of nothing. (I haven't forgotten Queen Mab; I'll come to her presently.) Mercutio cannot so much as look at the clock without a bawdy thought. So permeated is his language with indecency that most of it passes unnoticed not only by the innocent reader but by all not schooled in Elizabethan smut. Even on our own unsqueamish stage an unabridged form of his role in its twentieth-century equivalent would not be tolerated. Why does Shakespeare place the extreme example of this man's soiled fantasies precisely before the balcony scene? Why but to stress the complete freedom from sensuality of Romeo's passion? Place Mercutio's dirtiest words, as Shakespeare does, right beside Romeo's apostrophe to his "bright angel" [II. ii. 26] and all the rest of that scene where the lyricism of young love reaches one of its loftiest pinnacles in all poetry—and what remains to be said for Mercutio? Nothing—except that he is Mercutio. His youth, the hot weather, the southern temperament, the fashion among Italian gentlemen of the day, are unavailing pleas; not only Romeo, but Benvolio, had those things to contend with also. And they escaped. Mercury is close to the sun. But it was the material sun, Sol, not the god, Helios, that Mercutio was close to. Beyond dispute, this man had vitality, wit, and personal magnetism. But personal magnetism compined with sexuality and pugnacity is one of the most dangerous mixtures that can exist. The unqualified laudation that Mercutio has frequently received, and the suggestion that Shakespeare had to kill him off lest he quite set the play's titular hero in the shade, are the best proof of the truth of that statement. Those who are themselves seduced by Mercutio are not likely to be good judges of him. It may be retorted that Mercutio is nearly always a success on the stage, while Romeo is likely to be insipid. The answer to that is that while Mercutios are relatively common, Romeos are excessively rare. If Romeo proves insipid, he has been wrongly cast or badly acted.

"But how about Queen Mab?" it will be asked. The famous description of her has been widely held to be quite out of character and has been set down as an outburst of poetry from the author put arbitrarily in Mercutio's mouth. But the judgment "out of character" should always be a last resort. Undoubtedly the lines, if properly his, do reveal an unsuspected side of Mercutio. The prankish delicacy of some of them stands out in pleasing contrast with his grosser aspects. The psychology of this is sound. The finer side of a sensualist is suppressed and is bound to come out, if at all, incidentally, in just such a digression as this seems to be. Shakespeare can be trusted not to leave such things out. Few passages in his plays, however, have been more praised for the wrong reasons. The account of Queen Mab is supposed to prove Mercutio's imagination: under his pugnacity there was a poet. It would be nearer the truth, I think, to guess that Shakespeare put it in as an example of what poetry is popularly held to be-and is not. The lines on Queen Mab are indeed delightful. But imagination in any proper sense they are not. They are sheer fancy. Moreover, Mercutio's anatomy and philosophy of dreams prove that he knows nothing of their genuine import. He dubs them

the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.
[I. iv. 97-81]

Perhaps his are—the Queen Mab lines would seem to indicate as much. Romeo, on the other hand, holds that dreamers "dream things true" [I. iv. 52], and gives a definition of them that for combined brevity and beauty would be hard to better. They are "love's shadows" [V. i. 11]. And not only from what we can infer about his untold dream on this occasion, but from all the dreams and premonitions of both Romeo and Juliet throughout the play, they come from a fountain of wisdom somewhere beyond time. Primitives distinguish between "big" and "little" dreams. (Aeschylus makes the same distinction in Prometheus Bound.) Mercutio, with his aldermen and gnats and coach-makers and sweetmeats and parsons and drums and ambuscadoes, may tell us a little about the littlest of little dreams. He thinks that dreamers are still in their day world at night. Both Romeo and Juliet know that there are dreams that come from as far below the surface of that world as was that prophetic tomb at the bottom of which she saw him "as one dead" [III. v. 56] at their last parting. Finally, how characteristic of Mercutio that he should make Queen Mab a midwife and blemish his description of her by turning her into a "hag" whose function is to bring an end to maidenhood. Is this another link between Mercutio and the Nurse? Is Shakespeare here preparing the way for his intimation that she would be quite capable of assisting in Juliet's corruption? It might well be. When Shakespeare writes a speech that seems to be out of character, it generally, as in this case, deserves the closest scrutiny.

And there is another justification of the Queen Mab passage. Romeo and Juliet not only utter poetry; they are poetry. The loveliest comment on Juliet I ever heard expressed this to perfection. It was made by a girl only a little older than Juliet herself. When Friar Laurence recommends philosophy to Romeo as comfort in banishment, Romeo replies:

Hang up philosophy!
Unless philosophy can make a Juliet. . .
It helps not, it prevails not. Talk no more.
[III. iii. 57-60]

"Philosophy can't," the girl observed, "but poetry can—and it did!" Over against the poetry of Juliet, Shakespeare was bound, by the demands of contrast on which all art rests, to offer in the course of his play examples of poetry in various verbal, counterfeit, or adulterate estates.

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him, only lacks a cover.
[I. iii. 87-8]

That is Lady Capulet on the prospective bridegroom, Paris. It would have taken the play's booby prize for "poetry" if Capulet himself had not outdone it in his address to the weeping Juliet:

How now! a conduit, girl? What, still in tears?
Evermore showering? In one little body
Thou counterfeit'st a bark, a sea, a wind;
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs;
Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,
Without a sudden calm, will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body.
[III. v. 129-37]

It is almost as if Shakespeare were saying in so many words: That is how poetry is not written. Yet, a little later, when the sight of his daughter, dead as all suppose, shakes even this egotist into a second of sincerity, he can say:

Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.
[IV. v. 28-9]

There is poetry, deep down, even in Capulet. But the instant passes and he is again talking about death as his son-in-law—and all the rest. The Nurse's vain repetitions in this scene are further proof that she is a heathen. Her O-lamentable-day's only stress the lack of one syllable of genuine grief or love such as Juliet's father shows. These examples all go to show what Shakespeare is up to in the Queen Mab speech. It shines, and even seems profound, beside the utterances of the Capulets and the Nurse. But it fades, and grows superficial, beside Juliet's and Romeo's. It is one more shade of what passes for poetry but is not. (pp. 122-24)

Harold C. Goddard "Romeo and Juliet," in his The Meaning of Shakespeare, The University of Chicago Press, 1951, pp. 117-39.

Harley Granville-Barker
[Granville-Barker characterizes Mercutio as a supreme realist and egoist, commenting on his individuality and his freedom from affectation. At many points throughout the following excerpt, the critic refers to Mercutio as an Elizabethan version of a "young John Bull." The term "John Bull" is derived from a character of the same name in John Arbuthnot's satire Law Is a Bottomless Pit (1712); over time the phrase came to represent an individual Englishman who best typifies the favorable qualities of England.]

Mercutio, when Shakespeare finally makes up his mind about him, is in temperament very much the young John Bull of his time; and as different from the stocky, stolid John Bull of our later picturing as Capulet from the conventional heavy father. There can be, of course, no epitomising of a race in any one figure. But the dominant qualities of an age are apt to be set in a pattern, which will last in literature, though out-moded, till another replaces it.

We learn little about Mercutio as he goes racketing to Capulet's supper, except that John Bull is often a poetic sort of fellow, or as he returns, unless it be that a man may like smut and fairy tales too. But he is still in the toils of conventional versifying, and a victim besides, probably, to his author's uncertainty about him. The authentic Mercutio only springs into life with

Where the devil should this Romeo be?
Came he not home to-night?
[II. iv. 1-2]

when he springs to life indeed. From now on he abounds in his own sense, and we can put him to the test the Nurse abides by; not a thing that he says could anyone else say. He asks as little exposition, he is what he is with perfect clarity; the more so probably because he is wholly Shakespeare's creation, his namesake in Brooke's poem giving no hint of him. And (as with the Nurse) we could transport this authentic Mercutio into the maturest of the plays and he would fall into place there, nor would he be out of place on any stage, in any fiction.

A wholesome self-sufficiency is his cardinal quality; so he suitably finds place among neither Capulets nor Montagues. Shakespeare endows him. . . with a jolly sensuality for a set off to Romeo's romancings; and, by a later, significant touch, adds to the contrast. When their battle of wits is ending—a breathless bandying of words that is like a sharp set at tennis—suddenly, it would seem, he throws an affectionate arm round the younger man's shoulder.

Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
Now art thou sociable, now art thou
Romeo, now art thou what thou art. ...
[II. iv. 88-90]

Mercutio's creed in a careless sentence! At all costs be the thing you are. The more his—and the more John Bullish—that we find it dropped casually amid a whirl of chaff and never touched on again! Here is the man. No wistful ideals for him; but life as it comes and death when it comes. A man of soundest common-sense surely; the complete realist, the egoist justified. But by the day's end he has gone to his death in a cause not his own, upon pure impulse and something very like principle. There is no inconsistency in this; such vital natures must range between extremes.

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw,
When honour's at the stake.
[Hamlet, IV. iv. 53-6]

That is a later voice, troublously questioning. Mercutio pretends neither to greatness nor philosophy. When the moment comes, it is not even his own honour that is at stake; but such calm, dishonourable, vile submission is more than flesh and blood can bear. That the Mercutios of the world quarrel on principle they would hate to be told. Quarrel with a man for cracking nuts having no other reason but because one has hazel eyes; quarrel, with your life in your hand, for quarrel-ing's sake, since quarrelling and fighting are a part of life, and the appetite for them human nature. Mercutio fights Tybalt because he feels he must, because he cannot stand the fellow's airs a moment longer. He'll put him in his place, if no one else will. He fights without malice, not in anger even, and for no advantage. He fights because he is what he is, to testify to this simple unconscious faith, and goes in with good honest cut and thrust. But "alia stoccata carries it away" [III. i. 74]; and he, the perfect realist, the egoist complete, dies for an ideal. Extremes have met.

No regrets though; nor any hypocrisy of resignation for him! He has been beaten by the thing he despised, and is as robustly angry about it as if he had years to live in which to get his own back.

Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death!
A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic.
[III. i. 100-02]

He is brutally ingenuous with Romeo:

Why the devil came you between us?
I was hurt under your arm.
[III. i. 102-03]

He says no more to him after that, quite ignores the pitifully futile

I thought all for the best.
[III. i. 104]

He dies with his teeth set, impenitently himself to the last. (pp. 48-51)

Harley Granville-Barker, "Romeo and Juliet," in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1930, pp. 1-66.

Friar Lawrence

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3071

Bert Cardullo
[Cardullo focuses on Friar Lawrence's actions to demonstrate that the play's catastrophe results from the rash behavior of several characters. The critic argues that had the priest acted with less haste, the lovers' tragic deaths might have been prevented. Cardullo also contends that Friar Lawrence's rashness is underscored by the Nurse's hesitation in informing Juliet of the arrangements of her secret marriage and of Tybalt's death. Furthermore, the impulsiveness of Romeo, Capulet, and the Friar was bred by the feud, which, according to the critic, accounts for the characters' failure to recognize their flaw.]

"It has been objected," writes Frank Kermode [in his introduction to Romeo and Juliet in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans], "that [Romeo and Juliet] lacks tragic necessity— that the story becomes tragic only by a trick. … [There is a conviction that] Shakespeare offends against his own criteria for tragedy by allowing mere chance to determine the destiny of the hero and heroine." We learn of the "trick" when Friar John, whom Friar Laurence has sent to Mantua with a letter telling Romeo to come and take Juliet away when she awakens from her long sleep, returns and says:

Going to find a barefoot brother out,
One of our order, to associate me,
Here in this city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Seal'd up the doors and would not let us forth
So that my speed to Mantua there was stay'd … ,
I could not send it—here it is again—
Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,
So fearful were they of infection.
[V.ii. 5-12, 14-16]

The trick, supposedly, is the plague that has afflicted Verona and delayed Friar John, because he just happened to choose for a traveling companion a brother who had been attending the ill. R. G. Moulton is one of those who argue that "the … tragedy has all been brought about by [chance, by the] accidental detention of Friar John" [The Moral System of Shakespeare]. Brian Gibbons [in the Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet] argues similarly of Romeo's discovery that a feast is to take place at Capulet's house: "[Here] Shakespeare emphasizes the element of chance in the action. The servant Capulet has chosen [to deliver invitations] happens to be illiterate, a fact which his master has forgotten. … The meeting with Romeo is sheer accident and after the servant turns away, by chance Romeo regrets his off-hand answer and takes the list."

Character, not chance, is at work at this point in the play. Capulet, in his typically rash manner, sends an illiterate servant on an errand that requires reading. The servants meeting with Romeo may be an accident, but Shakespeare undercuts this aspect of it and emphasizes Romeo's own impulsiveness. He teases the servant, claiming to be able to read "if I know the letters and the language" [I. ii. 61]—the servant interprets this to mean that Romeo cannot read, when it really means that he can read only the language he knows. When the servant starts on his way to find someone who can read, Romeo suddenly decides to help him and calls him back; he reads the list aloud and learns that the people on it are invited to Capulet's house. Capulet repeats this pattern in Act III, Scene iv: Paris starts to leave and he impulsively calls him back, offering him Juliet's hand. Friar Laurence repeats it again in Act IV, Scene i. After telling Juliet that nothing can postpone her marriage to Paris and hearing her declare that she will kill herself rather than break her vow to Romeo, he says, "Hold, daughter" [1. 68], echoing Romeo's "Stay, fellow" [I. ii. 63] to the servant, and on the spur of the moment offers her, in the sleeping potion, a desperate way out of her dilemma.

Romeo's and Capulet's impulsiveness or rashness has been well documented. Capulet's offer of Juliet in marriage to Paris without first consulting his daughter is followed by the equally impulsive, and ultimately disastrous, action of advancing the wedding from Thursday to Wednesday. The most obvious example of impulsive behavior on Romeo's part occurs when, upon hearing from Balthasar that Juliet is dead, he goes immediately to the Apothecary's to buy poison with which to kill himself at her side, instead of first investigating the circumstances of her "death." Unlike Romeo's and Capulet's, Friar Laurence's rashness has not been explored; it is, however, essential to an understanding of the play as tragic as opposed to pathetic.

Just as the illiterate servant, Paris, and Juliet in the above examples are not offered what they desire by chance, neither is Friar John detained by the plague by chance. The first cause of his delay is Friar Laurence's rashness. He sends John to Mantua alone, when he should remember, as Brian Gibbons points out, that "the rule of the [Franciscan] order forbade [Friar John] to travel without the company of another [Franciscan] friar." John is detained because the companion that he finds has had contact with the sick; as a precaution, both he and the other friar are quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. Even if it is argued that it was Friar John's responsibility to find a traveling companion, not Friar Laurence's to find one for him, the latter should still have foreseen the improbability of his confrere's choosing a "safe" Franciscan companion in a city beset by the plague (the Franciscans would be ministering to the sick, and would therefore be capable of spreading the infection). He should have gone to the trouble of providing a Franciscan companion for Friar John who had not had contact with the disease, or perhaps he should even have gone with him himself. Surely Friar Laurence knew of the plague's existence in Verona. Had Friar John left the city immediately in the company of a "safe" member of his order, he would never have been delayed and would have been able to deliver the letter to Romeo. (pp. 404-07)

In my view, the flaw of impulsiveness or rashness … [explains] the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Friar Laurence's rashness is responsible for Friar John's detention, not chance. And it is equally responsible for Balthasar's reaching Mantua, undeterred, with news of Juliet's "death." It is the Friar's fault that Balthasar is unaware of her feigned death. In Act III, upon sending Romeo to spend the night with Juliet and then to flee to Mantua, Friar Laurence says to him, "I'll find out your man, / And he shall signify from time to time / Every good hap to you that chances here" [III. iii. 169-71]. We know that, before departing for Mantua, Romeo tells Balthasar of his role as happy go-between, since the latter says to him in Act V, "O pardon me for bringing these ill news, / Since you did leave it for my office, sir" [V. i. 22-3]. It is another mark of Romeo's impulsiveness that he does not question this "ill news" from a source whose office it was to "signify from time to time / Every good hap to [him] that chances [in Verona]." Romeo asks if Balthasar has been sent by the Friar, but he gets no reply and neglects to ask again. He never inquires what his servant or Friar Laurence knows about the circumstances surrounding the death of one so young as Juliet.

The Friar, of course, never does find Balthasar and apprise him of the plan to get Juliet out of the marriage to Paris so that she can be reunited with Romeo. Had he sent Balthasar instead of Friar John to Mantua with the letter, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet would have been prevented. Presumably, Romeo would have returned to Verona at the appointed time to take Juliet away. Just as, in his haste to aid Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence forgets about the infectious disease that afflicts Verona and that will ultimately detain Friar John, he forgets to send Balthasar in John's place (as he had told Romeo he would) and even to inform him of the plan to reunite the lovers. Friar Laurence and Balthasar are acting independently to serve Romeo, whereas they should be acting together. Similarly, Friar John is acting "independently" when he leaves Friar Laurence's cell without a Franciscan companion. The image of John and a fellow friar, finally acting together but quarantined for it, and helpless to prevent the tragedy, is the opposite of that of Friar Laurence and Balthasar at the end of the play, finally discovering each other's separate actions but "freed" or pardoned for them by the Prince, and able to join in the two families' reconciliation.

The most obvious example of Friar Laurence's rashness or impulsiveness occurs in Act II, when he decides to honor Romeo's request to marry Juliet. The Friar's intentions are good; he hopes, by joining the lovers in marriage, "to turn [their] households' rancour to pure love" [II. iii. 92]. But he acts without considering fully the possible consequences of such a secret marriage between members of feuding families. Ironically, he violates his own dictum: "Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast" [II. iii. 94]. In order to make Friar Laurence's rashness stand out, Shakespeare contrasts it with the hesitation or delay of the Nurse—the only other character (except perhaps Balthasar) with knowledge of Romeo and Juliet's secret union, and one who exhibits her own bit of impulsiveness in switching her preference of husbands for Juliet from Romeo to Paris once the former has been banished from Verona. Like the other characters' impulsiveness, the Nurse's turns out to have tragic consequences: her sudden disparagement of Romeo is the immediate cause of Juliet's decision to ask the Friar how she can remain faithful to him, how she can avoid marriage to Paris.

In Act II, Scene v, the Nurse returns home to give her mistress Romeo's message: Juliet is to "... devise / Some means to come to shrift this afternoon, / And there ... at Friar Laurence's cell / Be shriv'd and married" [II. iv. 179-82]. But, contrary to our expectations, the Nurse does not give her the happy news right away. The scene consists of 78 lines; the Nurse enters on line 17 and does not give her message until lines [68-9]. She claims that she is tired and aching and needs to catch her breath; she is also, of course, teasing the impatient Juliet. But the Nurse's behavior here has an underlying meaning: Shakespeare delays the giving of the message as long as possible, in contrast with his hastening the Friar's agreement to marry Romeo and Juliet two scenes before, in order to suggest that the message is something Juliet should not want to hear and abide by. Marriage to Romeo will mean her doom, yet she rushes to it. Throughout Act II, Scene v, she is "hot" to hear what her lover has to say (the Nurse says to her on line 62, "Are you so hot?"; similarly, Lady Capulet tells her husband in Act III, when he is insisting that Juliet marry Paris, "You are too hot" [III. v. 175]).

In Act III, Scene ii, the Nurse hesitates in announcing the sad news of Tybalt's death to Juliet. Although this scene is almost twice as long as Scene v of Act II (143 lines to 78), and the Nurse consequently enters on line 31 instead of 17, she waits only until lines 69-70 to give her message. … The Nurse's delay is long enough, however, to provoke this response from Juliet: "What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?" [III. ii. 43]. The Nurse is naturally in shock over the death of Tybalt; she barely acknowledges Juliet upon entering. But, as in Act II, Scene v, her behavior here has an underlying meaning. Shakespeare has her hesitate in giving the news of Tybalt's death, in contrast with his having Friar Laurence rush to get the news of Juliet's seeming death to Romeo four scenes later [IV. i], in order to connect Juliet's own impulsiveness with Romeo's and to prefigure both their deaths at the end of the play. The Nurse's delay brings out a quality in Juliet that the Friar's haste helps to bring out in Romeo. When the Nurse does not immediately reveal who has been slain, Juliet assumes that Romeo is dead and vows to join him: "Vile earth to earth resign, end motion here, / And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier" [III. ii. 59-60].

She does not commit suicide until the last scene of the play, of course; here she is foreshadowing that suicide and Romeo's own. Wrongly believing her dead because Balthasar reached him and Friar John did not, Romeo poisons himself beside her bier; awaking to find him dead, Juliet stabs herself. The Nurse's delay, unlike Friar Laurence's haste, is not itself lethal. She corrects Juliet's erroneous assumption and tells her that "Tybalt is gone and Romeo banished. / Romeo that kill'd him, he is banished" [III. ii. 69-70]. Juliet will live to love Romeo before being parted from him once and for all in Act III, Scene v. Once he receives Balthasar's fateful report, Romeo will not live to love her again.

Character, then—Friar Laurence's, Capulet's, Romeo's—determines the destiny of Romeo and Juliet, not chance. It has often been said that the play is in part about the hastiness of youth. I would say that it is in part about the hastiness of everyone, of the old as well as the young. One of the oddities of this tragedy is that the flaw of impulsiveness or rashness is shared by at least three characters. (Juliet's and the Nurse's impulsive moments are not as numerous and significant as the three men's. Clearly Tybalt and Mercutio are impulsive, though not as central to the action as the trio; the impulsiveness of Capulet extends all the way to his servants, who start the fight with Montague's men in the first scene.)

Another oddity is that neither Capulet, Romeo, nor Friar Laurence ever has any recognition of his flaw. This suggests, less that they are not fully tragic or sufficiently introspective, than that their impulsiveness was bred by the unnatural state in which they lived—by the long-standing feud between the two families, which affected even non-family members like Friar Laurence. This may help to explain Shakespeare's curious mention only one time of the "infectious pestilence" afflicting Verona. The infectious pestilence may be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual one—the feud and its resultant impulsiveness—bedeviling two prominent families in the city and their circles. Friar John is confined so as to prevent the spread of infection and kill the plague. His confinement leads to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and as a result, paradoxically, to the killing of the spiritual plague afflicting their families.

Once the feud is about to end as a consequence of the deaths of the lovers, impulsiveness in characters like Capulet and Friar Laurence disappears; tranquility rules in its place. Impulsiveness nearly possesses a life of its own in Romeo and Juliet; to the extent that no one mentions the original cause of the feud, the flaw that it bred appears almost as one disconnected from character. It comes to Verona, one does not know exactly whence, and it goes. Romeo gives the following speech before going to the feast at Capulet's house:

I fear too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my suit. . . .
[I. iv. 106-13]

Perhaps the "despised life" enclosed in Romeo's breast is the very impulsiveness that I have been speaking of. And perhaps the "consequence yet hanging in the stars" is its destruction at its own hands. Impulsiveness has spread among the members of both families, and to their friends, to the point that it must conflict with itself: Romeo and Juliet's marriage, with Capulet's intention to give his daughter to Paris; Friar Laurence's plan to save Juliet from a second union, with Capulet's desire to see her wed even earlier than planned; Juliet's feigned death, with Romeo's suicide.

Impulsiveness is the real villain in this play that has no villains. It finally extinguishes itself, but not before Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet are killed by it. Obviously, we do not lament impulsiveness' passing at the end at Romeo and Juliet. But we may have been fascinated by its having afflicted almost everyone in the circumscribed world of the drama, instead of isolating itself in a single tragic figure. This may have something to do with the play's origins in comedy. The reconciliation of two feuding houses through marriage is normally a subject of comedy; Shakespeare made it a subject of tragedy. Furthermore, as H. B. Charlton has observed [in his Shakespearian Tragedy], unlike the figures of Shakespeare's other tragedies, Romeo and Juliet have "none of the pomp of historic circumstance about them; they [are] socially of the minor aristocracy who … stock [the] comedies. ... To choose such folk as these for tragic heroes was aesthetically wellnigh an anarchist's gesture." To afflict a miniature society with the flaw of impulsiveness, instead of a single tragic hero, was probably aesthetically well-nigh an anarchist's gesture, too. But it had the effect of making the flaw seem endemic to the society and thus of allowing the characters to exhibit it without final awareness, in much the same way that comic characters frequently exhibit foibles without ever being aware of them. Accordingly the thought and the talk at the end of Romeo and Juliet are of reconciliation of the Montague and Capulet families, not of full tragic recognition; no one identifies the flaw that led to the catastrophe, or any individual manifestations of it (Friar Laurence admits that he married Romeo and Juliet and gave her the sleeping potion, but he does not connect these actions with impulsiveness or rashness, leaving it to the Prince to decide if he has done anything wrong). Shakespeare has his "comic" ending, arrived at by a tragic route. (pp. 407-13)

Bert Cardullo, "The Friar's Flaw, the Play's Tragedy: The Experiment of 'Romeo and Juliet'," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, June, 1985, pp. 404-14.

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