In the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus tells us of an "ancient grudge" between two households of equal dignity that has broken out into a "new mutiny" that will cause blood to flow in the streets of Verona and will ultimately result in the deaths of the "star-cross'd lovers." The Chorus points to the heads of these two families as the source of the strife at hand, the rage of their parents causing the deaths of their children. We soon learn the surnames of the warring clans, Capulet and Montague, and both patriarchs (as well as their respective ladies) appear in the flesh in the play's first scene. Although Tybalt of the Capulets is the most aggressive character on the stage, Mercutio's twice-spoken curse, "a plague a' both houses!" (III, i. ll.91, 106), makes it plain that the sides are equally to blame for his death, and by extension, for the tragedy that befalls the lovers. Beyond this, however, we are never told what the original cause of the war between the Capulets and Montagues was. The inference here is that the conflict is an archaic rivalry based upon the very equality of the families' social standing that has been driven forward by a long skein of injuries and slights. Not only has the issue at odds been lost to time and the overlay of fresh events, there is no effective mechanism to resolve it at hand. While the parental figures of the play, most notably Old Capulet, act as tyrants, civil authority is wanting in Verona. That being so, the cause of the ongoing mutiny that is played out before us does not stem solely from strong parental domination but also from the weak authority of the state as embodied in Prince Escalus.
The play moves directly from the Prologue to a lower case example of the mutiny as a confrontation unfolds between servants of the Capulet and Montague households. As Sampson and Gregory square off against Abram and Balthasar, the vulgar obscenities and gestures which they exchange undercut any sense of real danger. The interplay among these underlings is stylized and restrained; before any threshold is crossed, Samson checks with Gregory about whether the law is on their side if they assent to an implied challenge. The foot soldiers in the war between the families are far less serious than the Prologue forebodes. The comic aspect of the feud is reinforced when Old Capulet arrives in person in his gown, calls to his wife for a "long sword" and is punctured roundly when she tells him that a crutch is all that he can handle at his advanced age. Montague arrives, mimics the mindless behavior of the servants and is duly restrained by his wife. This is not the stuff of menace or of chivalry, and the humor woven into this first display of mutiny in Verona mutes any sense of immediate threat.
There is, however, the showdown between Benvolio and Tybalt that erupts after the servants have had their say, and in the character of Tybalt we do see a deadly menace. When the level-headed Benvolio seeks to avoid a fight by engaging his adversary as a partner in peace, Tybalt issues the challenge: "What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee / Have at thee coward" (I, i. ll.69-71). What matters here is not that Benvolio (or the Montagues) are less at fault than Tybalt (or the Capulets) but that there are differences of degree in the animosity levels of individuals within each...
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camp. In Act II, scene iv, after Benvolio apprises Mercutio that Tybalt has challenged Romeo to a duel, we learn from Mercutio that, Tybalt, the "Prince of Cats," is a "duellist" and "a gentleman of the first house." Tybalt's membership in the Capulet family confers a certain status upon him, but his lethal intentions and the skill to act upon them put him at a particularly high "rank" within his clan and, in the eyes of those on his level, notably Mercutio himself. The bloodshed that occurs in the duel scene (Act I, scene iii) is not simply an inevitable outcome of two families at war, but of a social structure or sub-culture that has evolved over generations through which Tybalt is matched with Mercutio.
Returning to the play's opening scene, following a crowd of citizens shouting, "Down with the Capulets. Down with the Montagues," Prince Escalus enters and angrily complains to the heads of the warring factions that three times "civil brawls" have arisen from an "airy word" between Old Capulet and Montague. The Prince is not entirely accurate in his charge; the elderly men have had no hand in provoking the fracas. Escalus then lays down the law, saying to both of the patriarchs, "If ever you disturb our streets again / Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (I, i. ll.96-97). The Prince's order seems harsh and extreme in its finality, but it raises the question of what the Prince did after the first two outbreaks. The chinks in the Prince's authority widen after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt at the outset of Act III. Romeo is not sentenced to death for his crime, but merely exiled, and as for Old Montague and Old Capulet they are punished with fines for their responsibility in an incident much more serious than the hurly-burly of the first scene. Escalus only partially acknowledges his weakness as an enabling force in the conflicts that (seem to) end with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet when he casts his judgment:
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That finds means to kill your joys with love.And for winking at your discords tooHave lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished (V, iii. ll.291-295).
While pronouncing all guilty, Escalus does not indicate what the punishment is to be, and in the last line before the play's concluding couplet, the Prince wavers still further, asserting for the future that "some shall be pardon'd, and some punished" (l.308). Worse, although the standard interpretation of their joint pledge to erect statutes to the memory of the ancient lovers takes this to be a sign of reconciliation, rivalry persist between Old Capulet and Old Montague, the latter claiming to have the capacity to give more than his counterpart demands of him. In the end, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are ordained by the war between their houses, but that conflict is also the result of actions by individual characters, like Tybalt and Mercutio, and inaction by a weak and wavering sovereign.
One of the most important issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that of choice. Do the characters have the ability to choose what they want to do, or are they simply destined to participate in death and destruction? There is ample evidence of both fate and free will in the play, and the presence of both greatly affects the interpretation of the plot and the characters.
Fate as a dominating force is evident from the very beginning of the play. The Chorus introduces the power of fortune in the opening prologue when we are told that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed” (destined for bad luck) and “death-marked,” and that their death will end their parents’ feud. Fate and fortune are closely related in the play, as they both concern events that are out of human control. By telling us that Romeo and Juliet are destined to die because of their bad luck, Shakespeare gives us the climax of the play before it even begins. This strategy, which seems odd considering the end has been spoiled for the audience, serves two purposes: it allows the introduction of the power of fate and fortune over people’s lives by declaring the fate of Romeo and Juliet at the very beginning, and it also creates tension throughout the play because they very nearly succeed despite this terrible declaration. Thus the opening prologue sets up the fate/free will problem.
The characters themselves all believe that their lives are controlled by destiny and luck, and Romeo is a prime example of this. When Romeo and his friends journey to the Capulet’s ball in Act I, scene iv, Romeo hesitates to go because he has had a bad dream:
...[M]y mind misgivesSome consequence, yet hanging in the stars,Shall bitterly begin his fearful dateWith this night’s revels and expire the termOf a despised life, closed in my breast,By some vile forfeit of untimely death (I, iv. 106-111).
Romeo not only acknowledges the power of the stars, which tell what fate has in store through astrology, but he also believes that his destiny is to die. Romeo’s belief in fate also affects his interpretation of events. When Romeo kills Tybalt in Act III, scene i, he claims that he is “fortune’s fool” by having contributed to his own downfall. In Act V, scene i, Romeo demonstrates his belief in the power of dreams to foretell the future once again when he believes that he will be reunited with Juliet on the basis of another dream. However, when Balthasar informs him that Juliet is dead, Romeo once again rails against the power of fate: “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars! / Thou knowest my lodging” (V, i. 24). Romeo finally tries to escape from his destiny at the end of the play by committing suicide to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars,” ironically fulfilling the destiny declared by the Chorus in the opening prologue. Other characters in the play believe in the power of fate as well. Juliet appeals to fortune when Romeo escapes to Mantua in Act III, scene v:
“O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with himThat is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,For then I hope thou wilt not keep him longBut send him back” (III, v. 60-64).
Juliet demonstrates here that she not only believes in the power of luck and fate over her own situation, but that Romeo himself has faith in those concepts. Friar Laurence also shows his belief in the power of destiny over people. When Romeo runs to his cell after killing Tybalt, Friar Laurence acknowledges that Romeo does indeed have bad luck: “Affliction is enamored of thy parts, / And thou art wedded to calamity” (III, iii. ll.2-3). As a priest, Friar Laurence naturally believes that destiny exists, as God has planned out all events. However, the friar will also become a victim of fate by the end of the play. His letter to Romeo, which details Friar Laurence’s plan for Romeo to pick up Juliet at the Capulet tomb after she has awakened from the effects of the potion, could not be delivered because of the “unfortunate” quarantine of Friar John. Friar Laurence then has the misfortune of accidentally tripping over gravestones while running to meet Juliet, which delays his arrival until after Romeo has committed suicide. Friar Laurence recognizes the power of fate to overrule his good intentions when Juliet awakens: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (V, iii. ll.153-154). The fact that Friar Laurence, Juliet, Romeo, and the other characters in the play believe so strongly in fate and fortune is not surprising, given the time period. Faith in destiny and luck was typical in the Renaissance, and Shakespearean audiences would not have questioned the dominance of these concepts in the lives of the characters. Indeed, it would have seemed odd if the characters did not believe in the power of fate or in the ability of the stars to dictate lives.
Not only does Shakespeare make the case for the power of fate in terms of the characters’ beliefs in the play, but he also strengthens it by including a multitude of ironic statements that predict events in the play. Romeo and Mercutio both predict their own deaths through their statements in Act I, scene iv, and Act III, scene i, respectively, and Juliet foresees Romeo’s death in Act III, scene v. Friar Laurence makes several prophetic statements throughout the play, including the infamous “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast,” from the end of Act II, scene iii, which predicts the mistake that he himself will make at the play’s climax. Even Lady Capulet, in her anger over her daughter’s defiance, wishes that Juliet “were married to her grave,” in Act III, scene v, which will indeed become the case. Through these statements and the opinions of the characters themselves, Shakespeare would seem to indicate that the power of fate over humanity is unbreakable, and even the power of love cannot overcome it.
The power of fate to control our lives seems insurmountable in light of what the characters say in Romeo and Juliet, but when we consider what they actually do, the issue becomes much more problematic. Although Romeo professes a great belief in the power of the stars over his life, he constantly acts against what he believes his destiny to be. When he has the dream that he will die if he goes to the Capulet ball, he still goes, even though Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech has not impressed him. Romeo knows that he should not engage Tybalt in Act III, scene i, and even notes that the consequences of fighting Tybalt will be dire: “This day’s black fate on moe days doth depend; / This but begins the woe others must end” (ll.117-118). Romeo realizes that his actions and those of Mercutio and Tybalt will have repercussions, but he ignores them in order to exact his revenge for his friend’s death. This makes his complaint about being “fortune’s fool” questionable, as he had already perceived the consequences of his actions. Romeo refuses to follow his fate in Act V, when, despite having a dream that predicted happiness with Juliet, he immediately attempts to procure poison in order to commit suicide without even questioning how Juliet dies or asking Friar Laurence for details. He also kills himself in order to escape fate, which cannot be possible if fate exists. If Romeo’s belief in destiny is as strong as he claims, he should not attempt to contradict it so often.
This tendency to profess a belief in fate but act according to one’s own wishes is typical of more characters in this play than just Romeo. The Capulets and the Montagues, who complain about their bad luck when their children commit suicide at the end of the play, are willing participants in the feud that causes the situation in the first place. Tybalt and Mercutio, who are technically not of either house and should not be involved in the feud, willingly fight each other because of their bad tempers. Friar Laurence, who states that Romeo has bad luck, tries to counteract it by helping Romeo escape to Mantua and by devising the plan to get Juliet there. Friar Laurence also acts against his own advice when he runs, panicking, to Juliet’s tomb, only to stumble and delay his arrival. If he had followed his own advice, he would have arrived before Romeo commits suicide, and even possibly before Romeo kills Paris. Note that all of these characters choose their actions in these situations—no one has made the Capulets, the Montagues, Tybalt, or Mercutio participate in the feud, and Friar Laurence does exactly what he tells Romeo not to do by hurrying. The choices the characters make eventually result in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.
Juliet also acts according to her own mind, despite her belief in fate. Despite her love for Romeo, Juliet knows that a relationship with him is not the wisest choice:
Although I joy in thee,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 beEre one can say ‘It lightens’ (II, ii. ll. 116-120).
Not only is a relationship with Romeo a bad idea because they have just met, but it is complicated even more by the feud. Juliet chooses to pursue this relationship despite these problems, knowing that it may result in both of their deaths. When the Capulets demand that Juliet marry Paris so quickly after Tybalt’s death (which under normal circumstances would not have been done), Juliet chooses to allow Friar Laurence to concoct a plan to save her, which involves taking the potion. No one makes Juliet take the potion; she does so of her own free will. She also chooses to kill herself rather than confront her parents once Romeo has committed suicide. All of the characters in the play have options, and it is their actions, which contradict their belief in fate, that lead to the deaths that occur. The problem of fate and free will in Romeo and Juliet is a difficult one indeed. There are obvious examples of “accidents” in the play: the servant who encounters Romeo and Benvolio and invites them to the Capulet party, the meeting of Romeo and Juliet, the quarantine of Friar John, and the presence of Paris at the tomb when Romeo arrives. These accidents and the beliefs of the characters in the power of fate and fortune suggest that Romeo and Juliet are indeed death marked. There are, however, obvious circumstances where the characters choose their actions of their own free will: the feud itself, the decision of Romeo and Juliet to marry each other, the fight in Act III, scene i, and the suicides of Romeo and Juliet. The characters choose these actions of their own accord, and nothing has forced them to follow the paths they have chosen for themselves. What, then, is the “greater power” that the characters cannot contradict? The only definitive answer is the same as it is for any story: their author.
Light and darkness usually have very definitive meanings in human psychology. Traditionally, light is considered “good” because it allows us to perceive the world around us and to work within it. Conversely, dark is usually viewed as “evil” due to our inability to see and the fear that such a state brings. Thus day and night, which are distinguished by the amount of light available, have similar connotations. However, while typical notions of light and dark do appear in Romeo and Juliet, day and night are reversed. Night becomes good because it aids Romeo and Juliet, and day becomes evil because it brings death and destruction.
Light and dark are linked with the protagonists early in the play. When Romeo first appears in the play, he is immediately associated with darkness. As Montague observes, Romeo walks around before the sun rises, and
Away from light steals home my heavy son And private in his chamber pens himself, Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out, And makes himself an artificial night (I, i. ll.135-138).
Romeo does this, of course, because of Rosaline’s rejection. Romeo’s parents and cousin regard his darkness as “black and portentous,” and consider it a reason for concern. And indeed it is troubling, as this is not typical behavior for Romeo, nor is it expected of most people, and there is clearly something wrong with him. Romeo’s relationship with the dark is also strengthened through the object of his love, Rosaline. When Romeo explains his situation to Benvolio, he comments that Rosaline has “Dian’s wit” because she has sworn to be a virgin for the rest of her life, ending, of course, any of Romeo’s romantic pretensions. This creates a link between Rosaline and darkness because Diana is the Roman goddess of the moon, which appears at night and thus is connected to it. This association will become important later in the play when Romeo and Juliet meet. Meanwhile, Romeo’s melancholy at Rosaline’s rejection and his desire to avoid light leads him to want to be a torchbearer at the Capulet ball in Act I, scene iv:
Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling. Being but heavy, I will bear the light (ll.11-12).
Because of his depression, Romeo sees light as a burden, and does not regard it as good. Romeo conforms to the typical notions of light and dark; he keeps to the darkness because there is something wrong with him, and he will be attracted again to light when he has overcome his depression. When Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, he recovers from his unrequited love for Rosaline, and, as a result, finds light good again. Romeo’s first words to describe Juliet are about light:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear (I, v. ll.44-46).
This observation serves two purposes: it indicates that Romeo’s pining for Rosaline is over (and thus his need for hiding from light), and it creates an association between Juliet and light that will endure throughout the play. This point is expounded further two scenes later, when Romeo sees Juliet on the balcony. Just as in Act I, scene v, Romeo’s immediate reaction to seeing Juliet is to comment on the light she brings:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! (II, ii. ll.2-3).
Juliet is more closely bound to the concept of light by Romeo’s metaphor—not only is she luminous, but by being the sun, she has become the primary source of Romeo’s light. This is in direct contrast to Rosaline, who, as noted earlier, is associated with the moon. Romeo notes this distinction when he continues:
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief That thou, her maid, art fair more fair than she (ll.4-6).
Juliet’s light, then, overshadows the darkness associated with Rosaline, and “kills” the passion that Romeo once felt for her. Hoping to avoid another unrequited love, Romeo then expresses his desire that Juliet not be a “maid” of the moon (i.e., not pledge to be a virgin as Rosaline did). He then continues to ponder the brightness of Juliet’s eyes, which are stars, and her cheek, which he compares to daylight. Through the wonder and the love of Romeo’s soliloquy in Act II, scene ii, we are provided with a strong bond between Juliet and light that is beautiful and good. This bond is evident even in Act V, scene iii, when Romeo is about to commit suicide: Juliet’s light makes the vault, a dark and death-filled place, a “feasting presence” (l.86).
Although light’s association with Juliet in this play gives it a positive connotation, it does not necessarily follow that all things associated with light are benevolent, and all things associated with dark are detrimental. Daytime, when light is strongest, becomes destructive in the play, and night, when darkness rules, becomes loving. When the play opens, it is day in Verona, and thus the reason why the servants of the Capulets and the Montagues are outside. They confront each other, which leads to the fight that eventually involves both families as well. Likewise, the next day brings the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, which ends in both of their deaths and in Romeo’s banishment. Day becomes associated with violence—it lets life out, as Juliet observes, because it brings the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Because of this, Romeo and Juliet cannot be together during the day. The fact that day is their enemy is not lost on Romeo or Juliet, especially in Act III, scene v, when they share their final moments alive in Juliet’s chamber. They describe day as “envious,” and the lark, who sings in the day, “out of tune,” despite the traditional view that the lark is beautiful because of its singing and because it heralds dawn. They must separate or be discovered, which is painful to them, as Romeo notes, “More light and light—more dark and dark our woes” (ll.36). The violence that day brings, which is noted by various characters through their descriptions of day as “black” and “fiery,” separates day from the other conceptions of light that exist in the play.
While day has lost its beneficial meaning in the play, nighttime takes a more positive turn. Night is the time of Romeo and Juliet; it is when they can be together without being discovered, and when they can permit love to overcome the hatred of the feud. Romeo calls night “blessed” in Act II, scene ii, and Juliet notes in the same scene that their love is revealed by the night. Romeo delineates the relationship between light and Juliet in the balcony scene and Juliet ponders the association between Romeo and night in Act III, scene ii. Juliet’s soliloquy on the beneficial aspects of night in Act III, scene ii, occurs because both she and Romeo have come to value night as their time. Juliet first describes night as “cloudy,” which denotes the fact that it obscures their love from the eyes of their families. Juliet then begins to describe the wonders of night:
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night, That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo Leap to these arms untalked 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 (III, ii. 5-10).
Night becomes linked with love in this passage. Because of this link, it also becomes associated with sex, as Juliet mentions in lines 10-16. The reversal of the meanings of day and night is also clearly stated in line 17, when Juliet calls Romeo “thou day in night,” similar to the metaphor Romeo uses in Act I, scene v, when he calls Juliet the jewel in Ethiop’s ear. Darkness allows the love of Romeo and Juliet to shine as brightly as the sun, and therefore becomes more beneficial than daylight.
The connotations of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet, then, stay consistent with their traditional meanings, while day and night, which should mean the same as light and dark, are reversed. This may be because, as Capulet notes upon Juliet’s apparent death, all things in this play are “changed to the contrary” (IV, v. l.90). The reversal of day and night occurs because of the feud. The destruction that occurs during the day does not permit the love of Romeo and Juliet to surface, making day black and dark. However, at night, Romeo and Juliet can allow their love to appear, thus permitting them to generate their own light.
Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab in Act I, scene iv, seems to have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet whatsoever. In fact, some Shakespearean scholars have argued that it was added to the script during the printing of the Second Quarto and was not, therefore, a part of the play as it was originally written. Other scholars argue that even if the speech was in the original script, it contradicts what we know of Mercutio: a hot-tempered and lusty youth who has no patience for the dreams and visions discussed in the Queen Mab speech. The Queen Mab speech, however, does hold consistent with Mercutio’s character in some ways, and it also points to some important aspects of the play in general.
Let’s begin with a summary of the speech itself. When Romeo is reluctant to attend the Capulet ball because he has had a bad dream (probably because he has been pining for Rosaline), Mercutio makes fun of him for it by telling him that “Dreamers often lie” (l.51). Romeo puts out a witty retort to Mercutio’s joke, and Mercutio replies with a 42-line speech about Queen Mab, the “fairies’ midwife,” or the fairy responsible for bringing dreams that fulfill the wishes of the dreamer (l.54). It should be noted that the name “Mab” was an insult in Shakespeare’s time because it was synonymous with “prostitute.” Queen Mab’s name is also different from Titania, the name Shakespeare used for the fairy queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was written during the same period as Romeo and Juliet. Once he identifies Queen Mab, Mercutio then describes her appearance and carriage. She is the size of a stone in a ring, and she rides in a coach pulled by atomies, or tiny creatures. This indicates Queen Mab’s importance because during Shakespeare’s time, only the rich had coaches. The coach itself is made of natural things: spider legs, grasshopper wings, spider webs, moonbeams, cricket bone, and filament. All of these items draw a connection between Queen Mab and nature, although coaches are artificial. We also learn that her driver is a gnat and that the seat is a hazelnut made by a “joiner squirrel” or a “grub,” whose job it has traditionally been to make these coaches for fairy royalty (l.68).
Once Mercutio finishes describing the Queen and her coach, he then turns to what Queen Mab actually does as the fairies’ midwife. Queen Mab and her coach gallop through the minds of lovers, courtiers, lawyers, parsons, soldiers, and maids, occasionally pulling pranks as she goes. When she gives lovers dreams, they dream of love and kisses, which sometimes angers Queen Mab because of their bad breath. If they do have bad breath, then Queen Mab blisters their tongues. For courtiers, or members of the royal court, Queen Mab brings dreams that they will receive money in order to bribe officials and gain power in court. If Queen Mab brings a dream to a parson, or minister, it is one of advancement in the church. This second section of the Queen Mab speech, then, describes the effect of Queen Mab on humans.
The third section of the speech begins with describing another dream of wish fulfillment, but then moves to another aspect of Queen Mab’s character -- her desire to play tricks. Mercutio gives a relatively long account of the dreams Queen Mab brings to soldiers:
Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck, And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes, And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two And sleeps again (ll.82-88).
Soldiers dream of killing enemies and of having adventures, which conforms to the stereotype of a soldier. However, just as with the ladies with the bad breath, Queen Mab cannot resist tricking the soldiers as well. Just when the soldiers begin to enjoy their dreams, Queen Mab drums in their ears and scares them. Another trick she pulls is braiding the manes of horses during the night, which tangles their hair. As Mercutio points out, “much misfortune bodes” when the owners of the horses attempt to untangle the manes, because horses buck (kick) when they are in pain, and usually hurt anything nearby. Although this trick will certainly bring harm, it is not as terrifying as the last jest Mercutio describes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage (ll.92-94).
In this section of the speech, Queen Mab becomes a hag, or nightmare, who rapes maidens in their sleep. Mercutio attempts to continue his description of Queen Mab’s activities, but Romeo interrupts him by telling him that he speaks of nothing. Now that we have summarized the speech, let’s take a look at its importance to the play as a whole. In terms of the actual plot of the play, the Queen Mab speech has little significance. The only thing the speech does is actually slow down the action of the play, as Mercutio delays his party’s arrival at the ball because of his verbosity. Mercutio complains earlier on in Act I, scene iv, that Romeo’s misery is “burning daylight” by making them late for the ball. But Mercutio makes them even later for the party by burning daylight with his lengthy diatribe about Queen Mab, which contradicts what he was attempting to do. This seemingly hypocritical action points to an important aspect of Mercutio’s character -- he talks and acts first and then thinks afterward. It is this trait that will lead to Mercutio’s death in Act III. The speech also shows us Mercutio’s wit, which we will see much of in Acts II and III. His description of the desires of soldiers also gives us insight into Mercutio’s personality, as he is a soldier who, as we will see in Act III, does desire fights against enemies. Although the Queen Mab speech only slightly affects the plot, it does give us an introduction to Mercutio, who appears for the first time in this scene.
Mercutio may also be giving us a different perspective on other characters in the play through the Queen Mab speech. To Mercutio, love is little more than sex, an opinion which surfaces in this speech through the description of the lovers’ dreams and Queen Mab’s malevolent acts as a hag. This view of love is in direct contrast with the next scene in the play, Act I, scene v, when Romeo and Juliet meet. The language used by Romeo and Juliet in scene v is “holy” in nature, suggesting that their love is on a spiritual plane. Mercutio, had he known about their relationship, would have viewed it in the same way that he does Romeo’s love for Rosaline in scene iv: one of sexual desire. Mercutio also provides insight into two other characters with this speech. The parson, who dreams of an additional living, will surface in the character of Friar Laurence, who does have support outside of the church as Romeo’s mentor. The soldier, who as we have already seen parallels Mercutio, also relates to Tybalt, who, like Mercutio, desires a fight. All of these characters will get what they dream of—love, support, or battle—but none will be happy for getting their wish by the end of the play.
The Queen Mab speech also brings to the fore an important theme of the play. By describing Queen Mab and her tricks, Mercutio is contradicting Romeo’s belief that dreams have meaning because Queen Mab produces dreams in order to fool the people that have them. When Romeo stops Mercutio’s speech by telling him that he is talking of nothing, Mercutio clearly states his opinion of the importance of dreams:
True, I talk of dreams; Which are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy; Which is as thin of substance as the air, And more inconstant than the wind (ll.96-100).
Because dreams are so fleeting and are produced by the imagination (or Queen Mab), Mercutio argues that they should not be taken seriously. Romeo’s belief in dreams as omens is a critical issue in the play, and Mercutio’s comments serve as a counterpoint to Romeo’s opinion. The presence of the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet is almost chaotic. It does not further the plot nor directly mention any character in the play. It also complicates Mercutio’s character through its poetry and imagination, which can hardly be expected of someone who has the temperament of a soldier. Whether or not the Queen Mab speech was actually a part of Shakespeare’s original script for the play, it does have its place in Romeo and Juliet. Through his description of Queen Mab, Mercutio tells us about the dreams of several of the characters, which, when realized, bring their downfall. Perhaps that is Queen Mab’s greatest trick of all.
Act II, scene ii of Romeo and Juliet is commonly known as the "balcony scene," and although this designation may be inaccurate (Shakespeare's stage directions call for Juliet to appear at a "window," not on a balcony), this scene has been quoted from, played, and misplayed more than any other in all of the Bard's works. It is proceeded by some astoundingly beautiful verse in Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech of Act I, scene iv., and by the individual and joint speeches of Romeo and Juliet at the banquet which concludes the first act and includes a wonderful exchange in which the lovers author a sonnet together. But the balcony scene rises even above these brilliant flashes and is indelibly etched in our memories. Here Shakespeare's genius is evident even at a relatively early stage in his career, and while the characters of Romeo and Juliet predominate, the playwright employs certain key dramatic devices and stage techniques that amplify the scene's impression.
There is, to begin, a deliberate heightening of dramatic suspense immediately before Romeo enters into Juliet's orchard. Before the beginning of Act II proper, Shakespeare inserts a second appearance by the Chorus (II, chorus 2, ll.1-14). Taking the same sonnet form as the play's Prologue, this speech is meant to heighten the narrative tension, suggesting, that Romeo, "being held a foe," may not have access to his Juliet. The dissonance is intensified still further when a lone Romeo asks aloud, "Can I go forward when my heart is here?" (II, I, l.1). When Mercutio and Benvolio enter just as Romeo withdraws, there is a mild sense of pursuit that lends even greater urgency to the moment. But the search for Romeo is broken off, with Romeo then emerging in Act II, scene ii to mark a line between the outside world and the lovers' world at hand by having the last word in the discourse of his friends: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound" (II, ii, l.1).
The second line of the balcony scene stands in sharp relief to the first. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" (l.2), Romeo proclaims and not only does the level of diction now rise to the formally poetic, unlike the first line, Romeo is not simply inserting his own wit but describing to the audience the impression that Juliet makes upon him. Romeo now becomes a guide to the spectator. He sees Juliet in profile and remarks, "She speaks but she says nothing, what of that?" (l.12). The questioned asked is addressed to both Romeo himself and to us, the sympathetic spectator, so that we share directly in Romeo's joy to find "She speaks!" (l.25). Unaware of Romeo's presence below, Juliet utters the famous lines: "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?/Deny thy father and refuse they name/Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love/And I'll no longer be a Capulet." (ll.33-36). Romeo addresses an anonymous (but sympathetic) spectator, Juliet addresses a known (but absent) Romeo. When he continues his role as a guide, saying in a stage aside that he wants to hear Juliet speak more, she fulfills his wish (and that of the audience he guides) by elaborating on the what's in a name theme and saying that a rose "by any other word would smell as sweet" (l.44).
Romeo now sheds his attachment to the spectator and is immersed in poetic discourse with his beloved. In what follows, virtually all of the play's main figurative strands---references to brilliant light, to planetary bodies, to birds singing at night and the like---surface in exquisitely wrought verse. Romeo comes forward from the shadows in response to Juliet's call that he "doff" his name and is "new baptized," the rebirth going beyond Juliet's suit and allowing Romeo to develop into a new man, shedding the pretentious, self-absorbed persona that he has displayed in the first Act. Juliet is playful with this newborn Romeo, asking him "what are thou?" (after she has presumably recognized him as the youth she saw hours ago and has openly pined for since), more as an opportunity for Romeo to wax poetic than as actual inquiry.
A fine equilibrium is achieved between the lovers when Juliet is given an extended speech (ll.85-107) that balances nearly with Romeo's opening "But soft" monologue. The balance here is dynamic, as they come together against centripetal forces. She first asks Romeo to affirm that he shares her love for him, but then draws back and speaks of false lovers. She moves forward once more, in offering to alter her behavior to his sense of decorum, but when Romeo swears by the "inconstant moon," she again withholds full union by asking him to not swear at all, or by they self, "the god of my idolatry" (l.113). Just as he begins to swear as she commands, Juliet interrupts again, asking him not to swear and saying that she has no joy in their romance because it is "too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden." She then bids him an adieu, Romeo says that he will leave him, and this provokes Juliet to ask, "What's satisfaction can'st thou have tonight?" (l.126). What Romeo wants is an exchange of vows to seal their union, but again, the playful Juliet first speaks about withdrawing the vow that Romeo had already heard.
This finely orchestrated verbal pattern of promising approach and soft withdraw between the lovers is animated in Juliet's physical movements in the last portion of the scene and, at the same time, in a recapitulation of the mutual sonnet writing process of the banquet meeting in Act I. There is a dimension of ballet in the balcony scene, as Juliet is called in by the nurse, comes back on stage, and then repeats the action. The structure of Structure of II, ii, ll.142-157, is, in fact, that of another sonnet broken and misshapen by the Nurse's interjections, but Juliet leaves before the final rhyming couplet is spoken by Romeo as "Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books/But love from love, toward school with heavy looks" (ll.156-157). This is unsatisfactory, and so Juliet appears for a third time, with a decidedly non-poetic "Hist, Romeo, hist!" and wishing for a falconer's voice. Having little else of substance to say, Juliet asks about time tomorrow when shall send for Romeo, and then offers the alternative couplet: "Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow / That I shall say good night till it be morrow" (ll.184-185). When she departs, Romeo now alone concludes scene with two rhymed couplets: "Sleep dwell upon they eyes, peace in thy breast! / Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest! / Hence will I to my ghostly (sire's) close cell, / His help to crave, and my dear hap to tell" (ll.186-189). Thus, in addition to the natural sympathy that Romeo and Juliet evoke and to the beauty of the language they exchange, Shakespeare employs a number of technical, even experimental devices to increase the power of the balcony scene.
Friar Laurence's dramatic function as a "helping" character who will assist the star-cross'd lovers of Romeo and Juliet is established even before we see the Franciscan brother at work in his garden. At the conclusion of the balcony scene (Act II, scene ii), Romeo's mind turns from the reverie of repeated farewells with Juliet to the practical issue of how they can overcome parental opposition to the lovers' union and tells us that he will hie to his spiritual father for direction. Thereafter, we see Friar Laurence gathering herbs and are kindly disposed toward him. His initial banter with Romeo about the youth's abandonment of Rosaline is both jocular and sensible, and his quick agreement to preside at the marriage of his protégé to Juliet stands in sharp relief to the antagonism that the lovers face from the adults of Verona. Nevertheless, not only does Friar Laurence's plan to rescue the pair fail, we have good cause to believe that the fault here does not lie in the stars, but in Friar Laurence himself. In retrospect, Friar Laurence cooks up a half-baked scheme to advance his own agenda, exhibits both ignorance and arrogance in concocting a needless ruse, and then twists his own role in the tale of Romeo and Juliet as he relates it to the Prince in the play's last scene.
Act II, scene iii opens before sunrise in the garden of Friar Laurence who speaks to himself as he gathers "baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers" (II, iii. l.8) by moonlight. The good father approaches this task philosophical and positing that among herbs at hand, none are so vile as to be devoid of value while none are so good as to be invulnerable to abuse. When he asserts that this is his view of human beings as well, the extension is logical but needless. Moreover, Friar Laurence is not as learned as he believes himself to be. In his first speech, he speaks of the "gray-eyed moon," botching an Homeric allusion to "gray-eyed Athena," the Greek goddess of wisdom who is associated with the dawn, not the moon.
The errors here are subtle, and when Friar Laurence mildly chastises Romeo for the instantaneous switch of his affections from Rosaline to Juliet with "Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!" (II, iii. l.64), Romeo has it coming and the audience shares the clergyman's amusement. The Friar then justifies his willingness to marry Romeo and his Juliet that same afternoon, suggesting that while Romeo's love for Rosaline was mere "doting," his new romance is true love, even though he has no factual basis for such a distinction. The Friar's rationale is bolstered by his view of the larger picture of Verona's Christian society: he says that he will perform the marriage because this alliance may turn rancor between the city's warring families into love. Precisely how this lower case City of God will come about, however, is left unspoken. Nevertheless, after the marriage ceremony (which is not performed on stage) has taken place, the Friar first asks for God's blessing upon this holy act (now a done deal) but distances himself from its outcome by asserting that "These violent delights have violent ends" (II, vi. l.9).
We see the Friar again in Act III, scene iii as he conveys the ill tidings of the Prince's banishment sentence to Romeo. Laurence expresses relief that the penalty is mere exile, rather than the capital punishment indicated by the Prince and when Romeo's objects, Friar Laurence adopts a philosophical-rhetorical posture, saying to the youth, "Let me dispute with thee of thy estate" (l.63). He prevents Romeo's half-hearted suicide with "Hold thy desperate hand! / Art thou a man?" adding, paradoxically that Romeo's tears are womanish while his actions evidence the unreasonable fury of a beast (III, iii. ll.108-111). The Friar Laurence, with no input from Romeo, reveals that Romeo will ho to Mantua and stay there until a time comes when "we" can "blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends, / Beg pardon of the Prince and call thee back" (III, iii. ll.151-152). This is a complex and tall order, and again, the Friar leaves the details of its implementation to the future. When Juliet appears at his cell in the first scene of Act IV, Friar Laurence has a brilliant flash, saying Friar "Hold, daughter! I do spy a kind of hope" (IV, i. l.68). He conveniently has a vial of poison that will allow Juliet to feign death for forty-two hours right at hand. The plan is that after she has been sealed in the ancient burial vault of the Capulets, he and Romeo will await the hour and then Juliet will go with Romeo to Mantua. In retrospect, this scheme may buy time, but it hardly overcomes the forces that block the lovers' union; indeed, it has very little advantage over the alternative of Juliet simply eloping to Mantua at once.
This aside, Friar Laurence's plan appears to go awry as a consequence of happenstance. Friar John encounters an unexpected delay and is unable to deliver his brother's explanatory missive to Romeo. In Mantua, Romeo learns from Balthasar that Juliet is dead, the servant affirming that he saw Juliet's corpse with his own eyes. Multiple questions arise: Why was Balthasar (a not too bright servant) able to reach Romeo while Friar Laurence's messenger runs into a quarantine? Why does Friar John not know of Romeo's precise whereabouts? And, given Friar Laurence's remark that the forestalled letter is "not nice but full of charge" (V, ii. l.18), why didn't he impress its importance upon the bearer before Friar John's departure for Mantua?
Seeing the possible tragic consequences ahead and knowing that Juliet will awake in just three hours, Friar Laurence dispatches Friar John to obtain a crowbar while he initially writes another letter to Romeo. Just what the value of this second letter may be is not evident: plainly, it will not reach Romeo until after Juliet's awakening. In any event, after speaking with Balthasar, Friar Laurence goes forth into the tomb alone and finds a trail of blood leading to the bodies of Romeo and Paris. He ascribes their deaths to Fortune: "Ah what an unkind hour / Is guilty of this lamentable chance!" (V, iii. ll.145-146). Immediately thereafter, Juliet awakes and is told by the Friar "Come, come away: Thy husband in thy bosom there lies dead; and Paris too" (ll.154-156). Although he expresses concern about Juliet's psychological state, he nevertheless exits the scene when he is distracted by noise from outside Capulet tomb. Juliet then spies Romeo's dagger, which the Friar has left laying about, and stabs herself.
Friar Laurence recaps the mechanics of the lovers' tragedy to the Prince at the end of Act V, in a prolonged speech that begins, "I will be brief" (l.229) and concludes, "and if aught in this/Miscarried by my fault, let my old life / Be sacrific'd some hour before his time/Unto the rigor of the severest law" (V, iii. ll.266-269). To this, the expedient Prince Escalus gives no response, turns to Balthasar, and to a letter to Romeo that "doth make good the friar's words" (l.286). But the Prince lets Friar Laurence off the hook too easily, and the cleric's words are not, in fact, "good." Most significant, in his final speech, Friar Laurence recounts that the poison scheme arose when Juliet "bid me to devise" a plot; in fact, not just the plot but the very idea of using a ruse did not arise from Juliet's request, but from a brilliant hope that the Friar saw on his own and without any prompting. He also says that he was scared from the tomb by a noise, although why the sound of people coming toward the crypt should frighten him is unclear. Lastly, when he refers to the (absent) Nurse as witness and says that she is privy to all this, we must observe that this too is false; the Nurse is completely unaware that Juliet is not really dead but merely under the influence of the Friar's sleeping potion. In the end, Friar Laurence's scheme fails do to shortcomings rooted in Friar Laurence himself, faults that he fails to acknowledge even as he offers to assume some blame.
In Act II, scene v, after returning from her first mission to Romeo, Juliet's Nurse tells her impatient mistress, "I am the drudge, and toil in your delight" (II, v. l.75). At this juncture, we are inclined to take the Nurse at her word. When we first encounter her in Act I, scene iii, the Nurse of Romeo and Juliet appears to be a comic figure given to bawdy humor and innuendo, but this coarse character is sofened by her fondness for Juliet. Thereafter, she proves a reliable go-between, taking a message to Romeo in Act II, scene iv, and then apprising first Juliet and then Romeo of events in the wake of Act III's dueling scene. But in Act III, our perception of the Nurse as a "helping" figure undergoes a sharp reversal as she changes her views of Juliet's suitors, favoring the proper County Paris over the "dishclout" Romeo. In doing so, the Nurse displays a highly unattractive penchant for the calculation of immediate advantage, weighing in on the side that seems most likely to prevail, and to favor her own interests, here Juliet's parents and their support of Paris with Romeo exiled to Mantua. The question naturally arises: Whose side is the Nurse on?
In Act I, scene iii, the Nurse's role as a functionary is established at once as Lady Capulet goes through the older woman to get to her daughter, telling the Nurse to call Juliet forth. We learn a great deal about the Nurse from her very first remarks: "Now by my maidenhead at twelve year old, I bade her come. What lamb! What ladybird! God forbid! Where's the girl? What, Juliet! (I, iii. ll.2-3). The Nurse's language is vulgar, and even when she utters terms of endearment she relies upon conventional and easily available oaths. That much apparent, our opinion of the Nurse firms as she speaks about Lamas-tide (1 August), Juliet's upcoming fourteenth birthday and then reminisces about breast-feeding the girl when she was an infant (I, iii. ll.16-49). Lady Capulet rankles at these musings, proclaiming "enough of this," but the Nurse proceeds with her story (I, iii. ll.50-57) intent upon relating her own reaction to the events described, and ends her speech by avowing Juliet to have been the "prettiest babe I ever nursed" (l.60). By nature rather than intent, the Nurse demonstrates that she can violate the commands of Lady Capulet, and this identifies her as a possible ally in Juliet's efforts to forestall marriage to the Prince's cousin. There are, however, some notes in her early speeches that resonate with a dangerous irony. In passing, the Nurse mentions that she had a daughter, Susan, who died eleven years ago, is now in heaven, and was, in the Nurse's own words "too good for me." She also says that it is her fondest wish is to see Juliet "married once" (I, iii. l.61), a comment that rings forward when a secretly married Juliet faces a bigamous, second marriage to Paris.
The Nurse becomes handmaiden to the budding romance between her mistress and Romeo in Act II, scene iv. Accompanied by Peter, she asks Romeo himself about Romeo's whereabouts and is immediately impressed by the youth's capacity for wordplay. There is, however, a confusing exchange between the Nurse and Mercutio, as he calls her a "lady" in light-hearted jest and she becomes offended at this "scurvy knave," protesting that "I am none of his flirt-gills (loose women) / I am none of his skain-mates" (l.154), before scolding the silent Peter for standing idle while she is insulted. She recovers her composure and asks Romeo if he intends to lead Juliet into a "fool's paradise, as they say." When he objects to her suspicions above his intentions, the Nurse assures Romeo that she will tell Juliet of his "gentleman-like offer." In short order, Romeo gives the Nurse penny, she initially demurs, protests, he insists, and she predictable takes it with a perfunctory "God in heaven bless thee!" (II, iv. l.194). Now in possession of her hire, the Nurse relaxes. She touts Juliet's unsurpassed beauty, crudely mentions that Paris would like to "lay knife aboard" but that her mistress would rather see a toad, and then adds that she angers Juliet by telling her that Paris is a proper man.
In the next scene (II, v.), Juliet awaits Nurse's return with word from Romeo, complaining that her emissary must be lame, since she has been gone three hours after promising to return in thirty minutes. When the Nurse arrives, Juliet asks about the matter of the moment, but she complains about her aching bones. Unasked, the Nurse proceeds to give her appraisal of Romeo, who has a face and legs unsurpassed, is not the flower of courtesy but is still gentle as a lamb. She then passes her blessing on their union in characteristically ribald terms, saying "Go thy ways, wench, serve God" (II, v. ll.44-45). In Act III, scene ii, the Nurse brings news to Juliet saying "he's dead" and the confusion persists until the Nurse makes it plain that it is not Romeo who is dead, but the most bellicose of the Capulets "O Tybalt, Tybalt, the best friend I had / O courteous Tybalt, honest gentleman" (ll.61-62). Knowing Tybalt's character and never suspecting any kind of bond between him and the lowly nurse, these protestations of grief by the Nurse ring hollow. Moreover, despite her grief for Tybalt, she nonetheless volunteers to find Romeo. When she does so in Act III, scene ii, she describes Juliet's reaction to Romeo as "blubb'ring and weeping," saying that her mistress "Tybalt calls and then on Romeo cries." The characterization is inaccurate, for Juliet is more far more concerned with Romeo than with Tybalt.
Our growing misgivings about the Nurse's allegiance become overwhelming in the last scene (v.) of Act III. The Nurse weighs the situation and finds that with Romeo banished and the wedding to Paris in the works, she will switch camps, so to speak. She says to Juliet, "I think its best you married with the County, / Oh, he's a lovely gentleman! / Romeo's a dishclout to him" (III, v. ll.217-219). The Nurse has previously supported Paris's cause in Act I, saying of Romeo's rival that he is "a flower, in faith, a very flower" (I, iii. l.78). But in the interim, she has as much as called Paris a toad.
The Nurse's change of heart is clearly not a matter of altered opinion as much as it is a matter of altered circumstance. It is not that Romeo has killed Tybalt that causes the Nurse to call him a "dishcloth" but the fact that the immediate prospects for a union between Romeo and Juliet that is favorable to the Nurse are now clouded. We see the Nurse a final time as she tries to awaken the drugged Juliet, pulls back the curtain to the girl's bed and cries out, "Alas, alas! Help, help! My lady's dead / O, weraday, that ever I was born!" (IV, v. l.15). It is a "lamentable" day, the Nurse raves on, stressing not the tragedy of Juliet's death but the pain that this event evokes for herself. The Nurse is absent from the tomb scene that concludes the play, but Friar Laurence refers to her as a witness who is privy to the story that he tells to the Prince. In fact, the Nurse does not know all: she has been kept in the dark about the sleeping potion ruse by Juliet. The reason is that the Nurse has shown herself to be untrustworthy. At bottom, the Nurse is not on the side of the lovers, nor in the camp of the parental authorities who oppose their union. She is on her own side, an opportunist bound to the course of least resistance.
Although Romeo and Juliet appears early in the sequence of Shakespeare's tragedies, it represents a considerable improvement over his very first attempts at tragedy, the historical Tragedy of Richard III and Titus Andronicus. These two works follow in the tradition of a crude, though powerful, form of revenge drama perfected by Marlowe and Kyd in the 1580's. Richard III and Titus Andronicus contain the typical conventions of this form: ruthless Machiavellian villains, bloody spectacle, and long speeches debating the nature of villainous ambition and revenge.
The content of Romeo and Juliet differs greatly from that of Shakespeare's early revenge tragedies. No character in Romeo and Juliet can be clearly designated as a villain. The deaths emphasize the cruelty of a prejudiced society, rather than the horror caused by overtly destructive individuals. The language of the play is richly poetic and full of imaginative symbolism. Most likely, the exploration of themes of love and reconciliation inspired this blossoming of Shakespeare's poetry. A comparison of passages typical of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the growing beauty and sophistication of Shakespeare's style:
Aar. Madam, though Venus govern your desires, Saturn is dominator over mine: What signifies ay deadly-standing eye, My silence and my cloudy melancholy, My fleece of wooly hair that now uncurls Even as an adder when she doth unroll To do some fatal execution? (Titus Andronicus, II, iii. 30-37.)
Rom. ... But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, That thou her maid art far more fair than she: (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii. 2-6.)
The images of light and dark and heavenly bodies in this speech appear throughout the play. The contrast of light and dark adds to the impression that the love of Romeo and Juliet brings enlightenment to a world clouded by destructive feuds. This imagery often takes subtle turns. After the union is consummated, the dark night becomes the lovers' friend, and the light of day is their enemy:
Jul. ... 0! now be gone; more light and light it grows. Rom. More light and light; more dark and dark our woes. (III, v. 35-36.)
With this reversal of the feelings normally associated with darkness and light, Shakespeare suggests the negative aspects of the clandestine relationship, which has already indirectly led to the deaths of the lovers' kinsmen, Mercutio and Tybalt.
Romeo and Juliet is also one of the first plays in which Shakespeare develops major characters as sources of comic relief for a serious situation. In his earliest tragedies and histories, minor characters provide some humor in brief scenes. Richard III is the first of Shakespeare's major tragic characters to have wit as an element of his personality. The addition of humor to important characterizations makes the comedy a more integral part of a play's structure, and adds interesting dimensions to the characters. Life is not entirely desolate, so why should a tragedy create the impression of a desolate universe? The hilarity provided by the Nurse and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet endears them to the audience and make the Nurse's grief and Mercutio's wasteful death all the more poignant. This ability to combine comedy and tragedy is one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Shakespeare asks us to laugh with Hamlet, Lear's fool, lago, and Cleopatra, as well as to grieve for the tragic heroes.
Mercutio is a witty, young gentleman with seemingly boundless mirth and energy. His clever taunting of Romeo's unrequited passion for Rosaline develops into one of the most famous passages of the play:
Mer. 0! then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the forefinger of an alderman. Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep: (I, iv. 53-58.)
Yet Mercutio also blends into the tragic tone of the play when his approaching death prevents him from maintaining his humorous facade:
Rom. Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much. Mer. No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 'tis enough, 't will serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. —A plague O' both your houses! (III, i, 97-104.)
The Nurse's humor grows mainly from her rambling, colorfully common speech:
Jul. It is an honor I dream not of. Nur. An honor! were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou had suck'd wisdom from thy teat. (I, iiii. 65-67.)
In the face of Juliet's death, the Nurse retains her basically foolish nature without detracting from the tragic tone, and her hysterical cries add to the dramatic tension:
Lady Cap. What noise is here? Nurse. 0 lamentable day! Lady Cap. What is the matter? Nurse. Look, look! 0 heavy day! Lady Cap. 0 me! 0 me! my child! my only life! (IV, iv. 17-19.)
Romeo and Juliet represents a definite growth in Shakespeare's art. He deals skilfully with a theme far more subtle than the rise and destruction of a cruel hero villain, which he dealt with in his earlier tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare demonstrates more clearly that all participants in a tragic situation must accept part of the blame for the suffering they bear. The elder Montagues and Capulets, who stand apart from the bloodshed caused by their younger kinsmen, are partially responsible the tragic events because they attempt to impose their wishes on Romeo and Juliet, while ignoring the desires of their children. Romeo must be blamed for murdering Tybalt during an outburst of rage over Mercutio's death. Shakespeare suggests that both Romeo and Juliet deserve some censure for the secretive methods they employ to consummate their union and for their hasty suicides.
The poetry and characterizations have grown in appeal and complexity. The language can be lyrical, symbolic, and humorous, as well as fierce and powerful. Characters can be funny and tragic simultaneously.
Perhaps the reason for this growth lies in Shakespeare's choice of a source for the play. The source of Romeo and Juliet is an obscure English poem written in doggeral verse and based on an Italian romance. Shakespeare no longer relied on imitating an established tragic tradition, but gave his fertile imagination the challenge of transforming mediocre poetry with hints of interesting themes and characters into outstanding poetic drama.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of his earliest dramatic plays. Most critics believe that it was written in 1595 although there is some debate over the exact date. The plot is a simple one which revolves around the story of two families who are engaged in pursuing an ancient and senseless family feud. While the two main characters in the play are clearly Romeo and Juliet, others contribute to the action and are important in bringing out the characters of the other players as well as making a statement in their own right. Romeo's friend, Mercutio, is one such character. After a brief explanation of the plot which will place the play's events in context, we will examine the character of Mercutio to determine what kind of friend he was to Romeo. What is his role in the play? Why does he die? How important is his character in the course of the drama? Would the play be changed dramatically if his character were removed? It is questions like these that will determine the course of our analysis of the character of Mercutio.
The plot of Romeo and Juliet is not complex: Two households, the Montagues and the Capulets, have been fueding for years. Their ancient grudge finds renewed fuel at the beginning of the play and the Prince of Verona, Escalus, threatens Capulet and Montague with death if they cannot keep their families and the feuding under control. Thus when Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love and then find out that they are from opposing sides in the dispute, there is reason for concern. But the two are young and impetuous and too much in love to let the complexity of their situation stop them. Within the space of twenty-four hours they agree to wed. They are wed the next day by Romeo's friend the Friar. After their wedding the two lovers must part but they promise to join each other soon. Unfortunately, as Romeo is walking with his two friends one of Juliet's cousins, Tybalt, insults Romeo, and Mercutio comes to his defense. The two enter into a duel wherein Mercutio is fatally wounded. Although Romeo does not want to have anything to do with fighting now that he is married to Juliet, he is forced to defend his dead friend's honor, and he kills Tybalt. For this he is banished from the city. Juliet's father, meanwhile, has arranged for her to marry Paris and preparations for this big wedding are underway. So she won't have to marry Paris she takes a potion which makes her appear dead even though she is only asleep. When Romeo finds her in her family's burial vault he believes that she is really dead and he kills himself so he can be with her in heaven. When Juliet awakes and finds Romeo dead beside her she stabs herself to death. The two families discover the two young lovers dead beside each other and they agree to end their senseless feud.
In Act I, scene iv, Mercutio is introduced as he and Romeo and Benvolio set off together to crash a party at the Capulet's house. At this point in the play Romeo is still mourning his unrequited love for an older woman named Rosaline. Mercutio cannot stand listening to what he believes is a false and foolish set of feelings. For this reason he makes fun of Romeo. It is in this way that we get a strong taste of Mercutio's sense of humor and his philosophy about life. Unlike Romeo's other friend, Benvolio, Mercutio does not pamper Romeo nor does he necessarily believe that Romeo's love for Rosaline is as pure as Romeo likes to think it is. Mercutio is smart and he realizes that at this point Romeo is more in love with the idea of being in love than that he is really in love. Mercutio doesn't encourage Romeo's false moaning. He says that when they go to the party Romeo should dance and have fun. When Romeo protests that he doesn't want to Mercutio teases him and says that since he is a lover he should borrow Cupid's wings, "And soar with them above a common bound."
After more verbal jostling between the two men Mercutio delivers one of his most famous speeches, called the "Queen Mab" speech. After Romeo has talked about lovers and their dreams Mercutio retorts thus:
I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners' legs. The cover of the wings of grasshoppers The collar of the moonshine's watery beams Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat... And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers' brains and then they dream of love. (I, iv. 53-71)
This speech is often seen as a ploy by Mercutio to humor Romeo into joining into their spirit of adventure as they prepare to go uninvited to the party. The speech is really about fanciful dreaming—like the dream of love that Romeo has for Rosaline. There is a big build-up of the fantasy and then there is a sudden undercutting of such fancy by coarseness. In a sense, Mercutio is trying to jolt Romeo back into reality. He is trying to give him a glimpse of himself as he appears to others. Romeo finally tells Mercutio to hush up, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing." Mercutio finishes his speech by saying that although he speaks of dreams he does not speak of "nothing."
Even though Mercutio isn't entirely successful in cheering Romeo up and getting him into the frame of mind for the party his presence and vocalization at this point in the play are very important because they point up the falsity of Romeo's claim to be in love with Rosaline. Mercutio ensures that even though Romeo still believes that he is truly in love the reader has a chance to see how idealistic and romantic Romeo is and to realize that his expression of feelings are just a part of his character rather than an accurate testimony of true love. This is of primary import to the play. For if at this point we really believed that Romeo is deeply in love with Rosaline it would affect our perception of him when just a few hours later he appears to be deeply in love with Juliet as well. Since Romeo is not meant to be seen as a shallow character it is important that Mercutio is able to act as a foil to Romeo's character and to provide the reader with a more accurate picture of him.
After Romeo has fallen in love with Juliet and the three friends leave the party in Act II, scene I, Mercutio still believes that Romeo is just continuing his same foolish lamentations about Rosaline even though he is now truly in love with Juliet. But at this point, because of the information we have received earlier via Mercutio, readers now realize the truth and can see the reaction of Mercutio as simply a realistic response on his part. Mercutio continues his jesting and bawdy joking and although his wit is still apparent it is not quite as funny as it was in the beginning.
In Act II, scene iv, Benvolio and Mercutio reveal that Tybalt has sent Romeo a challenge to a duel. Mercutio then goes on to make sarcastic comments about Romeo's alleged love for Rosaline. When Romeo joins his two friends he and Mercutio are once again engaged in a witty exchange of puns and quips. Although Mercutio is sarcastic he is also entertaining and likeable. He provides an interesting foil to the character of Romeo and is in fact, an interesting character in his own right. He has a strong zest for life and a passionate approach to everything that he does. It is for this reason that some critics have said that the playright had to 'get rid' of him — otherwise he might have shifted some of the attention away from Romeo and Juliet who are the central figures in this story. In any case, Mercutio proves his steadfast and passionate friendship when he dies trying to defend the honor of his friend Romeo. In Act III, scene I, Mercutio and Benvolio run into Tybalt who is looking for Romeo. When Romeo chooses to ignore Tybalt's insults, because as Juliet's new husband he doesn't want to fight with her cousin, Mercutio comes to his defense and fights his opponent for him. Unfortunately, he is mortally wounded in the process.
Mercutio's character remains strong and fiesty to the very end. Even as he lays dying he makes jokes and puns about his wound. He seems to have the most regret for the fact that he does not even respect the man who is causing his death rather than for the death itself. Mercutio is not a coward. He is strong and brave and loyal. He is a character for whom the reader has genuine empathy and sorrow for when he dies. Although part of Mercutio's part in the play is to act as a foil for the character of Romeo he is also a character in his own right. He is likeable and engaging; because of this the reader is able to gain a better perspective on the events in the story. Apart from the young lovers, Mercutio is a vital force in the story. His death is tragic as are the deaths of his friend Romeo and Romeo's wife, Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet, the tragic play by William Shakespeare, centers around the love story between Romeo, the young heir of the Montagues, and Juliet, the daughter of the house of Capulet. Because of an on-going feud between the two families, Romeo and Juliet are forced to keep their love a secret, marry in secret and, due to ill-fated consequences, they die together in the tomb of the Capulets.
As the story unfolds, a great variety of moral assumptions and explanations as to the value of love are explored. Romeo is first presented as a lover creating poetical phrases in honor of his present love, the chaste and unattainable Rosaline. As he states to his friend, Benvolio, "She'll not be hit / With Cupid's arrow. She hath Dian's wit, / And, in strong proof of chastity well armed,...." He goes on to admit: "She hath foresworn to love; and in that vow do I live dead that live to tell it now." Romeo's purity and inexperience are thus exemplified by Rosaline's (whose existence is not portrayed, but rather revealed through Romeo) rejection of him - for it is love she is rejecting rather than her actual dislike of Romeo.
It is Romeo's friend, Benvolio, who represents more experienced love, being more realistic in his assessment of Romeo's over-indulgent longings. He reasonably proposes to Romeo that he can forget Rosaline "By giving liberty unto thine eyes. Examine other beauties." Benvolio further entices Romeo to go to a feast at the Capulets, Juliet's family, stating: "Go thither, and with unattained eye / Compare her face with some that I shall show / And I will make thee think thy swan a crow." What Benvolio foresees takes place. Romeo's sight of Juliet obliterates Rosaline from his mind. As he says to the servingman at the Capulets, upon seeing Juliet: "Did my heart love till now? / Forswear it, sight! / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."
Juliet responds equally ardently to Romeo. She says to her Nurse: "Go ask his name. If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed." It is a particularly eloquent and telling phrase, since their own marriage does end in their tragic deaths.
Romeo remains poetically ardent in his expressions of love, as in his speech to Juliet, when he views her upon her balcony: "What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, / Who is already sick and pale with grief / That thou her maid art far more fair than she." He continues: "See how she leans her cheek upon that hand! / 0 that I were a glove upon that hand, / That I might touch that cheek!"
It is Juliet who, in spite of her self-abandonment to love, "0 Romeo, Romeo! - wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name. / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,/ And I'll no longer be a Capulet," remains strong and practical, increasingly so during the course of the play. Even in their conversation by the moonlight, Juliet, on her balcony, presents questions that are directly to the point, while Romeo's responses are poetically phrased compliments. Juliet says to Romeo: "The orchard walls are high and hard to climb, / And the place death, considering who thou art." Romeo replies: "With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls. For stony limits cannot hold love out...." The youthly passion of Romeo and Juliet is contrasted with the mature outlook of the other characters, whose views regarding love take different forms.
The Friar is presented as kindly and good-humored, as when he responds to Romeo's telling of his new-found love for Juliet: "Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here! / Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, / So soon forsaken? - Young men's love then lies/Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.... / Thy old groans yet ring in mine ancient ears." When Romeo asks if he is chiding him, the Friar replies: "For doting, not for loving, pupil mine." Though for the Friar love is an accompaniment of life, reprehensible if violent or unsanctified by religion, he is compassionate to the lovers' dilemma. Realizing their torment, when Juliet refuses to marry another (Paris) and Romeo has been banished by the Prince of Verona to Mantua for the slaying of Tybalt, nephew of Lady Capulet, he offers Juliet a sleeping potion to put her in a death-like state, saying to her: "No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest / Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift. / And hither shall he come. And he and I / Will watch thy waking, and that very night / Shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua." However, due to circumstance, he fails to avert the disaster which befalls the two lovers, exemplifying the fact that the worldly wisdom of others cannot always avert the consequences of violent passion.
Mercutio, kinsman to the Prince and Romeo's friend, remains vigorous and ribald in his commentary on love, ridiculing the concept of an all-absorbing, exclusive passion. Commenting on Romeo's leaping the orchard wall to go to Juliet, he states: "0, Romeo, that she were, 0 that she were/An open-arse and thou a peppering pear!" Responding to Benvolio, who tells Mercutio of Tybalt's challenge to Romeo, he says: "Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead! - stabbed with a white wench's black eye; run through the ear with a love song; the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft." Mercutio acts as a foil to Romeo: his sense of reality provides a contrast to Romeo's sentimentality. Gay, brave and mocking, he is not involved in family feuds, being a friend to both the Montagues and Capulets. When he has received a death-wound due to Romeo's ineptitude, his vivacity of wit still shines through: "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man." But it is Mercutio's final curse, "A plague a 'both your houses!" which speaks of the ominous events to follow.
Father Capulet's love, on the other hand, is two-fold. While talking courteously to Paris, he is a kindly father, regardful of his daughter's affections: "But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart. / My will to her consent is but a part, / And, she agreed, within her scope of choice / Lies my consent and fair according voice." However, he is also a self-willed, obstinate man who denounces his only daughter when she speaks of refusing to marry Paris: "God's bread! It makes me mad / Day, night; hour, tide, time; work, play; / Alone, in company; still my care hath been / To have her matched." It is an anger, however, which turns to remorse upon Juliet's death: "Dead art thou - alack, my child is dead, / And with my child my joys are buried!"
For Lady Capulet, love is a matter of wordly wisdom. She is never shown in a sympathetic relationship with her daughter nor her husband. It is Lady Capulet who promises Juliet that she will send someone to Mantua with poison to finish off Romeo. When Juliet appeals to her, she replies: "Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word. / Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee."
The Nurse, meanwhile, regards love as something natural and sometimes lasting, part of the routines of a woman's life. She, too, provides a contrast to concepts of romantic love. When Lady Capulet says to Juliet, regarding her marrying Paris, "So shall you share all that he doth possess, / By having him making yourself no less", the Nurse replies: "No less? Nay, bigger! Women grow by men." Further, when contemplating Juliet's marriage to Paris, she remarks: "Sleep for a week. For the next night, I warrant, / The County Paris hath set up his rest / That you shall rest but little."
Juliet is shown in a family circle consisting of her father, her mother and her nurse. It is the Nurse who encourages Juliet's affair with Romeo. It is she whom Juliet sends to speak to Romeo regarding their marriage, to take place in Friar Laurence's cell. She returns, stating: "Hie you to church. I must another way, / To fetch a ladder, by which your love / Must climb a bird's nest soon when it is dark." Though the Nurse advises Juliet to abandon Romeo to marry Paris, nevertheless she remains Juliet's confidante helping in her efforts to console Juliet. When the Nurse relates to a grief-stricken Juliet that Romeo has slain Tybalt and is banished, she offers to bring Romeo to her: "Hie to your chamber. I'll find Romeo / To comfort you."
The forebodings of Romeo and Juliet, as if they had impending notions of their doom, are manifest in their dialogue. From her balcony, Juliet says to Romeo: "Although I joy in thee, I have no joy of this contract tonight. / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;...." When Romeo leaves Juliet after their bridal night to banishment in Mantua, she looks down from her balcony upon him, exclaiming: "Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb." Romeo, in Mantua, before he hears the false news of Juliet's death, thinks: "I dreamt my lady came and found me dead." With the play's progression, Juliet changes from an inexperienced girl of near-fourteen to a married woman caught in a web of passionate events. Though Romeo and Juliet understand each other's love, it is in their love that they become isolated from friends and family. In the end, however, their love becomes public as all mourn their loss—a loss which serves to reunite their feuding families. It is Capulet, a character with whom one has not been particularly sympathetic, who first speaks: "0 brother Montague, give me thy hand." In summation, it is the concept of their love:, rather than their death, which, contrasting with the cynicism and disillusion of the other characters, remains in the mind.
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses darkness to perform a variety of functions. Darkness sets the tone of the play as the tragedy proceeds with a dark and inexorable determinism. Many of the scenes in the work are set in darkness, with the alternation of day and night serving to propel the drama's narrative line. Darkness is employed, moreover, as a reflection of mood and character in the figures of Romeo, Juliet and Mercutio. The dark acts as a foil in images in which light represents the illumination of romantic love. Finally, the contrast between light and dark allows Shakespeare to elevate the dimensions of the tragedy to cosmic proportions.
Romeo and Juliet is, of course, a tragedy, and images of darkness give the work an ominous character from the outset. In the play's first scene, for example, we find that Romeo’s shutting himself from the light of day is,"black and portentous," for there is, from the beginning of the work, a darkly portentous nature to the work.1 The tragedy moves along with an irreversible determinism, ultimate demise careering like a juggernaut. Romeo gives expression to the deterministic caste of the drama in his observation: "And feckled Darkness line a drunkard reeling / from forth days path and Titan's burning wheels" (II, i. 232-233). For Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers fate seems to have been determined in advance. We find Juliet seeking to alter the deterministic progression of the plot when she implores Fortune to, "be fickle" (III, v. 62). Indeed, at salient points in the play we consistently here precognition of doom in terms of darkness. After Mercutio's death Romeo makes the joyless prophecy, "This day's black fate on moe days doth: depend / This but begins the woe others must end," (III, i. 123-124), and, in similar fashion Romeo describes the progress of the play’s action at the end of Act III, "more light and light—— more dark and dark our woes." (III, v. 36) While the narrative does have its brighter moments, even the light sequences of the plot appear but a prelude before the darkness, as, "a lightning before death" (V, iii. 90).
As one critic has remarked, Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet sets numerous scenes in the dawn, at the time of the division between light and dark.2 Indeed, numerous scenes in the work are set by torchlight, moonlight, or virtually in the absence of light. The alternation between night and day provides the outlines of the plot's scene-by-scene structuring. In a play with constant reference to the importance of time, the revolution of the hours becomes of upmost significance. As Friar Lawrence informs Romeo, the fate of the protagonists rests largely on timing:
And here stand all your state Either be gone before the watch be set Or by the break of day disguis'd from hence. (III, iii. 165-167)
The opportunities which Romeo and Juliet find to defy their ultimate doom are given in terms of the alternation of night and day. Juliet declares, "Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night," (III, ii, 20) and the banter of the lovers at the beginning of Act III, scene v, in which they dispute the time, underscores the importance of the contrast between night and day in terms of the drama’s narrative line.
Dark and light are also employed by Shakespeare as a mirror of the character and mood of the play’s central figures. Romeo, at the outset of the work, is associated with a melancholy darkness, or, as Montague puts it, "Away from light steals my heavy son" (I, i. 140). Before he meets Juliet, Romeo is viewed by himself as one who has been struck blind, and the transformation of Romeo from a figure of darkness, lurking in the background of the play’s action, to a figure of light, in the foreground of the stage, reflects the change in the youth's character. Juliet is also a figure of the dark, although hers is no melancholy darkness, but rather a demure and withdrawn aspect.3 Juliet herself gives expression to the withdrawn nature of her character in the famous balcony scene, "Therefore pardon me / And not impute this yielding to light love / Which the dark night hath so discovered." (II, i. 146-148) Like Romeo, love produces a change in Juliet's character from darkness to light. Mercutio is a figure associated with the light of a firebrand,4 and his early demise gives us some early indication of just how rapidly a bright candle can be snuffed.
Darkness also plays a seminal role in Shakespeare's use of imagery. Darkness is most consistently used as a foil or contrast to light, with light being used as a symbolic representation of love. As a critic asserts, "the dominating image is light, every form and manifestation of it... the background, both of things seen, and of the imagery, is of light against darkness."5 Light is employed as an image of light and love repeatedly cast against a dark background. Thus we have Romeo describing Juliet's beauty, "It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" (I, iv. 161-162). Later Juliet will make use of the light and dark contrast in her expression of idealized love, "Love's heralds should be thoughts / Which ten times faster glides than the sun's beams / Driving back the shadows over lowerring hills" (II, v. 4-6). Darkness is the unrelieved field in which the light of beauty and love is made to shine more brightly, although the darkness will, ultimately, subsume the light, and, "the sun for sorrow will not show his head" (V, iii. 306).
This use of dark and light in association with love permits Shakespeare to promote the romance of Romeo and Juliet to cosmic proportions. The lovers, as the Prologue informs us, are star-crossed, Juliet being referred to by her paramour as a "sun." The figures of Romeo and Juliet are like, "Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light" (I, ii. 25). Juliet's beauty is likened by Romeo to the sidereal glow of the stars:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven. Having some business, do entreat her eyes To twinkle in their spheres till they return. (III, i. 57-59)
Thus, Romeo and Juliet are like bright stars and heavenly bodies, with an all-encompassing darkness of the night marking their outlines.
1. Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare: The Art of the Dramatist. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970, p. 81.
2. John Erskine, "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespearean Studies, eds. Brandler Matthews and Ashley Horace Thorndike. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962, p.221.
3. Harry Levin, Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times. New York: Oxford University, 1976, p.105.
4. Harry Granville-Barker. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University, 1947, p.307.
5. Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, "Shakespeare's Iterative Imagery," Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Peter Alexander. London: Oxford University, 1964, p. 171.
Erskine, John. "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespearean Studies. Eds. Brandler Matthews and Ashley Horace Thorndike. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962, pp. 215-237.
Frye, Roland Mushat. Shakespeare: The Art of the Dramatist. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970.
Granville-Barker, Harry. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University, 1947.
Levin, Harry. Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times. New York: Oxford University, 1976.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Richard Hosley. New Haven: Yale University, 1917.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. "Shakespeare’s Iterative Imagery," Studies in Shakespeare. Ed. Peter Alexander. London: Oxford University, 1964, pp. 171-200.
There is a great deal written about the nature of the love relationships involving Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. In analyzing the relationship which opens the play, namely, Romeo and Rosaline, with the one which quickly replaces it, Romeo and Juliet, we see a progression in the characters from innocence to maturity, from love-sickness to the authentic experience of love.
The change from one relationship to another is a forced change from childhood innocence to adult awareness. Hence, Northrop Frye refers to Romeo and Juliet as a play whose theme is love, bound up with and part of, violent death.1
As the lovers meet and find themselves bound by love, they are surrounded by the intruding world which brings with it a feud, family pride, loyalty for friends and the tragic death of the lovers. In examining this change, we first consider Romeo as we first meet him in the play.
Romeo's love for Rosaline has long been taken to be an internal preparation; it is--for an external contrast and surprise. ...The Rosaline affair has...the purely dramatic or poetic advantage of offering an interesting contrast between Romeo's demeanor now and before.2
Romeo's view of Rosaline is what Frye calls the Petrarchan convention of love. This technique of describing the pristine, unrequited love from afar was altered when it reached the 17th Century. Writers explored the relationship, particularly its sexual aspects more deeply. Romeo's relationship followed the tradition. It involved a proud, disdainful mistress quite out of reach of the lover, but allusions are made to sexual desires and innuendo. Rosaline, the unavailable mistress, is not seen and does not engage in conversations with Romeo. Romeo is the lovesick youth "isolated and immature, self-absorbed and serious, a young man not yet awake to the possibilities of life or the dangers of death."3 He shows little actual awareness of Rosaline, and never speaks to her, but spends all his time writing poetry to her, wearing rumpled clothing and elaborating upon the "cruelty of his mistress, wept and kept 'adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs.’"4
This emotional affliction is more akin to melancholy, which, as noted above, was common to Shakespeare's time. At the play's beginning Romeo has no time for the street brawl, since he is immersed in the Petrarchan lament for his mistress who "has sworn to 'live chaste.’”5
Romeo's language at this point reflects his shallow relationship. His language is artificial and non-dramatic when speaking of Rosaline:
Love is a smoke made with fume of sighs; Being purg'd, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes; Being vex'd, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears. (I, i. 196-198)
Romeo's "condition of love" for Rosaline is one of subjugation. He will not allow himself to become involved in the feud, he does not dance or even exchange witty remarks with his closest friend Mercutio, and refuses to be enticed into jocularity. Romeo is a lovesick lover who cannot simply enjoy life and is, as Stoll indicates, "in love with love."6
Both the lovers-to-be are representative of the stage of adolescence. Their "adolescence is quieter and moodier than Mercutio's or Benvolio's but they are not strikingly unusual until love transforms them."7 All that changes when Romeo meets Juliet. Going to a dance where he expects to meet Rosaline, he suddenly confronts Juliet and miraculously he forgets about the mistress who had absorbed so much of his interest. His language displays a new richness which underscores his emotion rather than the melancholia he felt with Rosaline:
0, she doth teach the torches to turn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! So shows a snowy drove trooping with crows, As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows. (I, v, 46-51)
Hart points out in his analysis of this passage that it:
suggests a sensuousness in the apprehension of Juliet that gives vitality to their relationship. Romeo is at once awe-struck, humble, physically conscious of her from this very first glance. And she in turn is always aware of him.8
Perhaps Hart states it more succinctly when he says that Romeo "changes from a moping adolescent to a young man of action."9
Juliet is just as dramatically transformed. She is but a child without even Romeo's imaginative experiences to stimulate her. Yet she is transformed by her sudden love for Romeo and develops a fullness of character which never is surrendered. She moves from obedient child and innocent little girl to an independent young woman who is committed in trust and devotion to her love.
Her actions are quite revolutionary for the time. First she speaks of setting aside her name. Then she assumes the role of one who woos the other. Unlike Rosaline, Juliet is a participant in this relationship. She is willing to speak of her love rather than coyly denying it. She immediately assumes an independence from family traditions and loyalties which will alter her life. Yet, Juliet's intense love brings with it an insight into the tragedy that awaits the lovers when she states, "It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden" (II, ii. 118).
Juliet ultimately follows the female tradition of the times, that is to accept the lead offered by her lover, and to acquiesce to his decisions, regardless of their consequences. He will lead and she will follow. Herein lies her tragedy. Juliet must rely on Romeo to make their arrangements. She must await his return and must suffer for his loyalty to his slain friend Mercutio. Even as she awaits the dawn after their one night together, Juliet can do nothing but remain loyal to Romeo, even if such loyalty results in death.
Yet this change in the nature of the two lovers is Shakespeare's way of making them sympathetic characters. He contrasts them with other lovers who are skeptical, and absorbs Romeo and Juliet in the feud between the two families. Their love is so innocent, intense and perfect that it can only be destroyed by the imperfect world which surrounds it.
Rosaline cannot be compared with Juliet, whose character is rich, full of love, wit, and humor. She is at once both playful, and caressing, confiding and resolved. It is not Juliet who panics and acts rashly... that is Romeo. Yet she is strong in her resolve when she must be separated from her lover. Left alone and having rejected her family in favor of her lover, she must now sacrifice everything for the sake of that love. She calmly makes the decision to take the Friar's potion and risk the results.
Yet when she finds that her commitment results in the death of her lover, she accepts the fact that death will be her only triumph over life and her only means to attain her ultimate love. Hers is not a hysterical reaction, rather a realistic acceptance that she cannot have her love in this life and yet life without him is not life at all. There remains only one action to take, and Juliet willingly embraces the death which will reunite her to Romeo.
Hart points out that this love relationship, the perfect love between Romeo and Juliet is "pure love put into such a framework that love can be believed in and accepted as the one truth in that world. The very names Romeo and Juliet testify to Shakespeare's success."10
NOTES 1. Robert Sandler, Ed., Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986, p. 19.
2. Elmer Edgar Stoll, Shakespeare’s Young Lovers. London: Oxford University Press, 1935, p. 19.
3. John A. Hart, "Romeo and Juliet," in Lovers Meeting: Discussion of Five Plays by Shakespeare. Carnegie Series in English, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1964, p. 27.
4. Frye, p. 21.
5. Ibid., p. 21.
6. Stoll, p. 8.
7. Francis Fergusson, Shakespeare: The Pattern in his Carpet. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970, p. 89.
8. Hart, p.27.
9. Hart, p.28.
10. Hart, p.27.
Fergusson, Francis. Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970.
Hart, John A., "Romeo and Juliet," in Lovers Meeting: Discussion of Five Plays by Shakespeare. Carnegie Series in English. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1964.
Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Shakespeare’s Young Lovers. London: Oxford University Press, 1935.
Sandier, Robert, Ed., Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.
Shakespeare’s plays Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra share some common themes and attitudes, among them love, war, and the notion that love between two people can conquer even death. In Romeo and Juliet we find families at war, their children victims of an argument which is meaningless and irrelevant in the face of a mutual attraction. In Antony and Cleopatra the wars of nations and political intrigue trap the lovers in a net from which death is the only escape. Both pairs of lovers are dead at the end of each play; yet the nature and quality of the love which they shared while alive is different.
That the love between Juliet and Romeo "is no mere infatuation, but love indeed in its finest sense" is clear from the beginning.1 Between Antony and Cleopatra, however, there is a passion, and an outspoken sensuality which tends to mask the deeper strains of devotion and love. While Romeo and Juliet allows the reader to trace the beginnings and growth of young love from beginning to untimely end, Antony and Cleopatra does not, until the final act, reveal the extent to which the pleasure-seeking lovers have matured in their love. It is difficult to decide which pair of lovers meets a more tragic end, although as one critic has noted "the injurious gods cannot cheat Cleopatra as the stars cheat Juliet, because she has known years of love and revelry with Antony."2 On the other hand, Romeo and Juliet die before having to face the inevitable disillusionments of life together.
Both of these plays are supremely poetic, with images of light, the sun and stars, and the moon abounding. It is no accident that Romeo describes Juliet in these terms: "...it is the east, and Juliet is the sun...the brightness of her cheek would shame those stars...", and Cleopatra is called "0 eastern star”. In like manner, Juliet says of Romeo "...when he shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars," while Cleopatra calls Antony "our Jewel...our lamp." In both plays the woman seems the stronger of the lovers. Romeo’s brashness towards the end of the play tends to detract somewhat from the quality of his devotion to Juliet. Juliet's visit to Friar Laurence, and her drinking of the potion show a courage born of love, the intensity of which seems unmatched by any of Romeo's actions. It has been said that Juliet, "abandoned even by religion (in the person of Fr. Laurence) must fall back for courage finally on love alone."3
Similarly, Cleopatra, abandoned by everyone including Antony (through death) must fall back for courage finally on love alone. Those who would interpret her suicide as merely the only way to escape being paraded as a slave of Caesar miss the point of the play, which is in part to show the love between her and the man she called “my master and my lord”.
In both Antony and Cleopatra and in Romeo and Juliet the man is the first to die, Antony by his own sword, thinking that Cleopatra is dead, Romeo by poison, believing that Juliet is dead. Both Juliet and Cleopatra die of poison, with Juliet stabbing herself in addition. Thus, while the deaths of all concerned have a certain degree of chance (that is, Cleopatra's lie to Antony, Romeo's mistake in believing Juliet dead), there is a sense of inevitability connected to each separate tragedy. Antony and Cleopatra, having lost the most important thing in their lives, namely the glory of boundless power, find life no longer worth living. For Antony "All is lost"; he can hardly believe what has happened, "All come to this?" Cleopatra, having finally despaired of defeating Caesar's intentions through any earthly tactic comes to accept a new type of ambition: "I have / Immortal longings in me." Romeo and Juliet despair of ever having the opportunity to live their lives out together in love. The trials of their brief time together have been great enough to make Romeo refer to his own body as "world-wearied flesh." Juliet, seeing her new husband poisoned, hesitates not a minute to join him in death. For both, death together inevitably seals what both had tacitly understood to be "A dateless bargain to engrossing death."
What is the effect upon the world of the death of Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet? Even Caesar, thwarted in his evil purposes, admits that Antony and Cleopatra died noble deaths: "She shall be buried by her Antony; / No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous." Both achieve a dignity in death which they did not always possess in life; Cleopatra’s servants, for example, recognize in her death a strength and purity of purpose, a behavior "fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings." The love between Borneo and Juliet was not strong enough in its action upon the Montague and Capulet families to allow them to forget their feud. In death, finally, the families move towards each other in grief and mutual guilt: "See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That Heaven finds means to kill your Joys with love," says the Prince. Thus, the death of the lovers brings about only "a glooming peace.” Of both Antony and Cleopatra and of Romeo and Juliet we might say, “never was a story of more woe."
1. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol.1, Chicago, 1962, p. 119.
2. Robert Ornstein, “Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra” in Dean, Modern Essays in Criticism, New York, 1968, p. 392.
3. Goddard, p. 138.