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Romeo and Juliet

One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the ill-fated romance of its two young lovers. Set in medieval Italy, the drama details the clandestine love of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, members of two feuding Veronese families. Because of this feud and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choosing, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage culminates in tragedy for both the couple and their families. Historical commentary on the work has focused on a variety of stylistic and design issues, and particularly its status as a successful tragedy. More recent scholarship has carried on another principal line of inquiry by concentrating on the tragic love between Romeo and Juliet. Attempts have been made by critics of the latter half of the twentieth century to understand Shakespeare's representation of love in Romeo and Juliet, especially in its social contexts. The significant juxtaposition of sexual desire and death has also been studied by scholars, as have the roles of language and gender in constructing the love affair.

Contemporary critics have offered numerous approaches to the passionate romance of Romeo and Juliet, assessing this subject as the central element in the play. Geoffrey Hutchings (1977) considers love as a force beset by social predicaments, human foibles, and the vicissitudes of fortune. He emphasizes Romeo's role as a sensitive, at times ridiculous, lover whose shared passion with Juliet is thwarted by the lovers' isolation and leads to disaster. R. Stamm (1986) examines the pivotal scene of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting, which Shakespeare presents in the form of a love sonnet. In addition to considering the importance of the words spoken during this encounter, Stamm highlights Shakespeare's use of gesture and touch to reveal the magnitude of passion between Romeo and Juliet. Barbara L. Estrin (1981) portrays the young couple as dreamers whose love stands as an ideal vision that awakens the self and transcends death.

The related nature of death and desire has been further investigated by critics of Romeo and Juliet who maintain that the work is a dramatic depiction of the Liebestod myth—a juxtaposition of romantic passion and death. Contradicting the point of view of many recent commentators who consider the deaths of Romeo and Juliet ironic or somehow justly deserved, William C. Carroll (1981) contends that the ending of the play—in which golden statues of the now-dead lovers are erected by their apparently contrite families—reveals the triumph of their passionate love over death. Lloyd Davis (1996) considers the rhetoric and poetic discourse of desire in Romeo and Juliet. According to Davis, the idealized romance in this tale of desire unfulfilled reveals itself to be tragically fatal, furthering the Renaissance theme of sex and death as inextricably intertwined.

The relationship between the action of Romeo and Juliet and the social components of love, desire, gender, and romance also figures prominently in contemporary criticism of the work. Catherine Belsey (1993) offers a cultural perception of the drama, in which she views the inherent contradictions of desire represented in the play's tragic outcome. Carolyn E. Brown (1986) observes the imagery of falcon and falconer as indicative of a unique gender dynamic, with Juliet adopting the role of master and Romeo that of her trained servant. Robert Appelbaum (1997) examines a related subject, that of masculinity in Romeo and Juliet. Appelbaum envisions the family rivalries as a violent and masculine assertion of the patriarchal symbolic order, to which Romeo offers an alternative in the form of erotic desire, but from which he cannot escape. Susan Snyder (1996) also closely examines the feud between the Montagues and Capulets as a central concern. According to Snyder, this feud may be interpreted as a metaphor for ideology, which seems to pervade the drama of Romeo and Juliet's love.

Love And Romance

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Geoffrey Hutchings (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Love and Grace in Romeo and Juliet" in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 20, No. 2, September, 1977, pp. 95-106.

[In the following essay, Hutchings considers Romeo and Juliet "a study of love and passion " in a social context.]

In the Prologue Shakespeare summarizes his plot; we know what to expect. He also tells us what sort of play he is writing: a story of love overthrown by misadventure in the context of social hatreds, and not an Aristotelian tragedy.1

Shakespeare was beginning to exploit the idea that lovers are essentially vulnerable in a wicked world. Paradoxically, just because love "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things", those who love are vulnerable. Indeed, if I may, in discussing so punning a play, make my own very serious word play, love bareth all things in both senses of the verb; and what is bare is vulnerable. In later plays, whether the outcome is comic or tragic or delicately ambivalent, this vulnerability accompanies love; and often true love itself is most vulnerable to the counterfeit emotions with which the unwary may confuse it—mere physical passion, lust for power, narcissistic self-indulgence. All of these counterfeits are powerfully presented in Othello, for example, or in the single character of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. And this is a theme running not only through Shakespeare but through all western literature, for, as Denis de Rougemont wisely observed, "Happy love has no history—in European literature."2

In Romeo and Juliet we have a study of love and passion. This love is essentially domestic and sexual. We do not have, as in King Lear, a profound examination of great theological issues. But the play does take love very seriously, and places it in a social context where first it offers hope, as Friar Laurence is quick to see; where it suffers isolation and death; and finally where it achieves, in death, a reconciliation, "a glooming peace". Friar Laurence's passionate rebuke to the grief-stricken Romeo conveys the seriousness:

Why railest thou on thy birth, the heaven, and earth?
Since birth and heaven and earth, all three, do meet
In thee at once; which thou at once wouldst lose.
Fie, fie, thou shamest thy shape, thy love, thy wit,
Which, like a usurer, aboundest in all,
And usest none in that true use indeed
Which should bedeck thy shape, thy love, thy wit.
Thy noble shape is but a form of wax,
Disgressing from the valour of a man;
Thy dear love sworn but hollow perjury,
Killing that love which thou hast vowed to cherish;
Thy wit, that ornament to shape and love,
Misshapen in the conduct of them both,
Like powder in a skilless soldier's flask
Is set afire by thine own ignorance,
And thou dismembered with thine own defence.
What, rouse thee, man! Thy Juliet is alive.


This play is not simply a moving tale of Liebestod; it is based upon more than a romantic death-wish: to love is to be responsible.

I shall discuss the play as a dramatic account of the nature of love; love beset, as it must be, by social conventions, accidents, laughter, hatreds, hypocrisies, lies, lusts and prurience. The predicament and the very identities of the two "star-crossed lovers" must therefore be defined in the context of, and in contrast to their community and their friends. For a proper consideration of character in the theatre is a consideration of dramatic function. The didactic principle I am aiming at is that good analysis of the play is a synthesis of the characters, and analysis of character is a synthesis of the play.

Let us consider first the setting of the lovers' stage. They are brought together in that beautiful sonnet duologue in Act 1, Scene 5. How are we prepared for this? The prologue, to which I have already referred, is at once frame and summary. Appropriately its formality provides a link between the dramatist and his company on the one hand, and the spectators on the other: the plot is given in eight lines, the octave of the sonnet. The diction provides an indication of the thematic treatment we can expect. The repetition of civil in "civil blood makes civil hands unclean" underlines the socially significant setting and establishes an ironical contrast between the aspirations of polite, that is, civilized society and actual conduct. We might compare with this Capulet's generous promise to Paris that his will in the matter of his daughter's marriage will wait upon her consent (I:ii.l7ff); and also Juliet's later promise to her mother of dutiful consent to her parents' wisdom of choice (I.iii.98ff.). But passion is to betray both Capulet's generosity and Juliet's duty.

"A pair of star-crossed lovers" they are called. They are to be hunted down by fate. The portents of that fate are numerous. At different times before the bloodshed starts we are warned by Tybalt, an unreliable witness; by Friar Laurence, a thoroughly reliable witness; and even by the lovers themselves of impending disaster. And that disaster will be achieved in misadventure; at a crucial moment a messenger is delayed by pestilence and cannot deliver his missive. As a dramatic device it would be feeble, at best melodramatic; but it is not a dramatic device. Unlike some film directors, Shakespeare does not even show this incident on stage. It is a small link in a chain of events; just as, when deep social discontent erupts into riot on the flimsiest excuse, it is not the excuse that matters but the discontent. These lovers "take their life" at the end as they took their life at the beginning: "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes". Theirs is the civil blood that pays the price of ancient grudge. The guilt for these piteous overthrows is social. Love and procreation is responsibility.

The sestet of the opening chorus then prepares the way from the mere story to the dramatic spectacle. I like Shakespeare's request to his audience for "patient ears" to match the toil of the players. Dramatic experience demands effort from players and spectators alike.

We are taken straight into a scene at once comic and brutal. The Capulet servants are obsessed with violence and bawdry; indeed the two are not distinguished. Loins, we see, are fatal in many respects. The impulse that "will push Montague's men from the wall" is the same as that that will "thrust his maids to the wall". At the sight of the Montague servants, Sampson boasts "My naked weapon is out." Despite appearances, it is neither good, nor clean, nor fun. Disturbingly, we find that the ancient grudge has become a servants' quarrel; Capulet and Montague are themselves too old to do more than rail. Among the younger gentlefolk, some, like Benvolio, are peace-makers, and some, like "the fiery Tybalt", are quarrellers. But the gentlefolk have little influence; it is the servants and the citizens who riot, to the exasperation of their governor, the Prince.

And only after the Prince's fury has curbed the riot is there any mention of Romeo. A mood, a scene has been set and yet Romeo is not completely part of it. Both the sense and the sound of his mother's rhyming couplet herald a shift of dramatic mood.

O where is Romeo? Saw you him today?
Right glad I am he was not at this fray.


Benvolio, although he does not speak in rhyming couplets, completes this shift as he describes in delicate, ornate verse the artifice of his friend's passion:

Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the East,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from this city side,
So early walking did I see your son.


How clever of Romeo to be found under a sycamore tree! He is identified with the popular Elizabethan song of unrequited love "A poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree". (Shakespeare was to use the song with great effect in Othello.) The artificiality of Benvolio's verse reflects the convention of Renaissance love poetry, for the term "artificial" carried far fewer pejorative overtones for the Elizabethans than it does for us. But Benvolio's lines are clearly marked in their artificiality by contrast with the direct power of the Prince's eloquence just heard:

Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets
And made Verona's ancient citizens
Cast by their grave-besseming ornaments
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate.
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.


Montague himself, commenting on his son's behaviour just before the entrance of Romeo, speaks feelingly and simply of his concern, but with portentous dramatic irony. Using an image deep in the mind of European art he talks of Romeo:

As is the bud bit with an envious worm
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air
Or dedicate his beauty to the sun.


Blake used a very similar image to suggest guilt and beauty in "O Rose, thou art sick", and garden imagery, with its echoes of Eden, runs through all our folk song, that most fundamental part of our literature. Caroline Spurgeon has said that Shakespeare "visualises human beings as plants and trees, choked with weeds, or well primed and trained and bearing ripe fruits, sweet smelling as a rose or noxious as a weed".3 The image is important because it links back to the sort of concerns with rank disorder that have been established before Romeo's entrance, and forward to such scenes as Friar Laurence's culling herbs in his garden in the early morning after we have witnessed Romeo and Juliet declaring their love. Passion can wither the plant; it needs the orderly cultivation of a wise gardener to help it grow in love.

Romeo, when he enters, is ridiculous; a very conventional melancholic lover. His first long speech is an anthology of the conventional paradoxes of love poetry. The theatre audience knows that he will soon be thrust into a situation where such paradoxes as "brawling love" and "loving hate" have real point, but right now he is a poseur playing a word-game with well-known rules: "Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health" (I.i.180). Until either his own natural wit or a twitch of Benvolio's brings him close to his senses it might well be asked "Dost thou not laugh?" If a lover is to play his role thoroughly he might as well have the misunderstanding and even mockery of his friends. That, too, is in the script. Not surprisingly, Romeo breaks into couplets:

Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast
Which thou wilt propagate, to have it pressed
With more of thine. This love that thou has shown
Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.
What is it else?

He is running out of steam; or is his memory failing?

A madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
Farewell my coz.

Benvolio is swept into rhyme himself as he says,

Soft! I will go along.
And if you leave me so, you do me wrong.

It is an elegant joke, for Benvolio is twitting Romeo in lover's lingo. But Romeo's next remark reveals an honesty and a deeper insight into his own condition:

Tut, I have left myself, I am not here.
This is not Romeo, he's some other where.


This self-absorbed posturing is a counterfeit of love, and as a context, as a garden in which to cultivate love, no more promising than the violence and bawdry with which the scene opened.

The next scene, Act 1, Scene 2, contains the first mention of Juliet. Again it emerges that the feud is no longer actively fostered by Capulet as the head of his house. He, rather, is concerned with the dynastic side of his responsibilities. When Paris presses his suit, old Capulet is conscious that his daughter is a highly desirable match:

Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;
She's the hopeful lady of my earth.


He anticipates a good match for her, but is in no hurry to arrange it, a view that changes later when Tybalt's death underlines the sudden brevity of life.

When Benvolio and Romeo again appear, Benvolio is trying to persuade Romeo to turn his attention elsewhere than to Juliet. His advice is practical, commonplace and cynical:

Tut, man, one fire burns out another's burning,
One pain is lessened by another's anguish.
Turn giddy, and be holp by backward turning.
One desperate grief cures with another's languish.
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.


This cynicism is only the other side of the coin to Romeo's infatuation and it became very common in early seventeenth-century poetry. In spirit it is very like Suckling:

Out upon it, I have lov'd
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Benvolio has slipped into one of the commonest verseforms of the age, the six-line stanza consisting of a quatrain followed by a rhyming couplet. It was a form that admirably served the fashionable madrigalists of the day. Romeo rebuts the argument in the same coin:

When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires;
And these, who, often drowned, could never die
Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!
One fairer than my love? The all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.


The next time Romeo talks about devout religion in love, is when he and Juliet are making their sonnet about holy palmers' kisses. It is admittedly less conventional, more moving verse, but partly so because at last we believe him. We have been led to that moment. No wonder Friar Laurence is concerned with the suddenness of Romeo's changes. No wonder he wants, for political reasons, and out of love for Romeo to confer on the passion of the lovers the grace and responsibility of matrimony.

But Juliet must be introduced to the audience before she can meet Romeo. The scene that introduces her, however, is dominated by the Nurse. Juliet emerges as affectionate and dutiful, but she is given no more than six lines in this scene (Act 1, Scene 3) before, two scenes later, she encounters Romeo. How is the quick-witted, passionate, rather knowing young girl whom we see later related to this scene? It is a challenge to the director and to the actress who plays Juliet; for, in this scene, Juliet must be depicted and defined by her reactions to those who surround her. And the Núrse is the dominating character. The Nurse also dominates Lady Capulet, that rather waspish character. This serves the useful dramatic purpose of establishing for Juliet a confidante who does not represent parental authority. Lady Capulet, it is clear, has delegated a good number of her parental responsibilities to the Nurse. Juliet has been wet-nursed and brought up by this garrulous old earth-mother, whose first utterance is to swear by her "maidenhead at twelve year old". Characteristic. Juliet at nearly fourteen, it appears, is not as experienced as her Nurse had been. The Nurse, like the other servants, is bawdy. Her heartiness is no doubt preferable to their violence, but passion is no less appetite for her than for them, and no less obsessive. Her husband, "God be with his soul, A' was a merry man", seems to have had a pretty uncomplicated notion of educating women to fit their station in life. "Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit", he had said to the infant Juliet, and the Nurse finds the child's grave "Ay" killingly funny. It is rather like a modern pantomime: the adults entertain themselves at the expense of the children by devising a bawdy entertainment that can be taken in what sense thou wilt. And now that Juliet is nearly fourteen she can share the joke with her Nurse. Juliet is isolated even here at the outset. To her, marriage is "an honour that I dream not of (I.iii.67); to Lady Capulet it is a dynastic necessity, and to the Nurse it is bed and babies. I do not think Shakespeare is denying the force of the views of the two adults, but Juliet clearly expects more.

As Juliet has her Nurse, so Romeo has Mercutio. But in Mercutio we find a wit, a vitality and a charm that leave even the Nurse a pale character by comparison. They have their bawdy minds in common, but where the Nurse plods, Mercutio skips and romps and gallops. Mercutio is the young Renaissance gallant; he is thoroughly familiar with the conventions of polite society (even his fencing is a match for that of the fiery Tybalt) but he is also a sceptic, he sees through those conventions. And as the Nurse dominates her scene, so, even more powerfully, does Mercutio his. Romeo's own wit is but a foil to Mercutio's; chronic punster and quibbler that he is, Romeo seems at times content merely to tempt Mercutio to display his verbal virtuosity, as when he says:

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.

Mercutio, as he is meant to, picks up the suggestion.

If love be rough with you, be rough with love.
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.


Moments later he is launched into his Queen Mab speech. It is inspired fooling, witty, superbly inventive and shows a marvellous control of language, again by its vigour and originality exposing Romeo's effete languishing. It is the speech of a sceptic: aldermen, lovers, lawyers, ladies, courtiers, parsons, soldiers, the very pillars of society, are all mocked skilfully. When Romeo interrupts, and accuses him, "Thou talkest of nothing" (I.iv.106), he consigns his speech to "vain fantasy, which is as thin of substance as the air". But there are many dimensions to the fantasy. Queen Mab and her fairies represent whim, frustration, misfortune, whatever mortals cannot account for either in rational understanding or in systematic belief. Morally they are ambivalent; there is certainly something arbitrarily malevolent about them, as we can see in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Awareness of this malevolence gives to Mercutio his aggressive edge. And there seems to be something deeply melancholic in Mercutio, for all his vigour. Unlike Romeo's it is not a contrived melancholy, but the melancholy of the sceptic, caught up in, and yet distrusting the institutions of society.

Romeo is sensitive to the tenseness of the situation, and just before the young men enter the enemy's ballroom he shows himself without affectation:

.. . my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despisèd life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!


A wonderful piece of theatre, this. We have dancers, weaving in and out of the light, men and women engaged in normal social intercourse, that "necessary conjunction which betokeneth concord" that Sir Thomas Elyot had commended in his Governor (and which his descendant T. S. Eliot quoted in East Coker). Romeo's language is elevated and ornate, but beginning now to shed the stilted phrasing of his earlier infatuation. He uses the imagery of light and dark which is Shakespeare's continuously repeated image in this play, his leitmotiv.

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear.


And as the dancers move and the lovers become aware of each other, Tybalt rages and sends for his rapier. Light and dark indeed. Old Capulet shows himself generous towards Romeo but at the same time extremely touchy about his authority. And seconds before the lovers meet to compose their sonnet of awakened love, Tybalt has stormed out on two portentous couplets:

Patience perforce with wilful choler meeting
Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.
I will withdraw. But this intrusion shall,
Now seeming sweet, convert to bitterest gall.


Thus he echoes Romeo's misgivings. The scene is set, the forces marshalled, and the drama now must run its course.

The moment of this meeting is now ritualized in a dramatic sonnet, Romeo offering a quatrain and Juliet a quatrain. Then their lines are mingled through to the final couplet which they share. The sonnet elegantly traces the progress and passion of their physical contact and—I repeat—ritualizes it. The ceremony is so enchanting that they start afresh, though this time they are interrupted by the Nurse at the end of a quatrain, Juliet having justly commented on the literary achievements of them both, "You kiss by the book."

My obvious interest in the verse-forms of Romeo and Juliet is not just a pedantic preoccupation with technical details; it is more importantly a concern for dramatic detail. An Elizabethan audience must have been responsive to these modulations, and since they take such obvious physical forms as rhyme-patterns, they should strike our ears too and set our minds alert for their importance. This importance I have tried to show wherever I have referred to the verse forms. We cannot divine the importance by the application of trite formulas, like rhyming couplets mean formality, and madrigal stanzas signal insincerity. The immediate context, rather, will supply us clues. My claim is simply that a modulation of verse form signals something, a modulation of mood or emphasis, for example. In this dramatic sonnet bedded in the dialogue of an important scene we can sense the ritual significance of a meeting. The protagonists are changed permanently by it. The sonnet makes a ceremony of the change, and formalizes it in ritual, directing the lovers' concomitant actions. It is dramatic justification of Yeats's great lines,

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?

Once it is past, the play continues, accelerates in fact. It is surely significant that when the lovers start the ritual again, they are interrupted and the consequences of the ceremony begin to become apparent. Romeo and Juliet are quickly isolated. In revealing Juliet's identity to Romeo, the Nurse is true to bawdy form, and places in addition an unpleasant emphasis on Juliet's status as an heiress:

I tell you, he that can lay hold of her
Shall have the chinks.

Romeo underlines his isolation by taking the pecuniary image and developing it in his own sense:

Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe's debt.


The love now created between Romeo and Juliet is exposed to the howling storms of its social context. It is interesting to compare this play to Othello, where we witness the tragedy of a noble love, founded on domestic virtue, destroyed. John Danby has observed that the good in the relationship between Othello and Desdemona requires "a community of goodness in which to be permanent. It is vulnerable so long as there is anywhere around it the intention to wound."4 This intention arises in what I see as a profound sense of sexual alienation in Iago. He is completely obsessed with sex as appetite, as self-gratification, and he destroys Othello by playing on this theme. The community on Cyprus is poisoned by barrack-room smut. Even a decent enough person like Cassio is infected, and discusses his whore in terms that degrade both her and himself. And Emilia, for all her fondness for Desdemona, cannot help because she too is infected by the alienation. Of men she says

They are all but stomachs and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.


Desdemona cannot communicate her sense of love to anyone on the island. The community cannot sustain it.

Do we have any such case in Romeo and Juliet? The violent smut of the servants in the opening scene could well fit into the garrison barracks on Cyprus, though it is less obsessive than Iago's. But we surely cannot identify the gay bawdry of Mercutio or of the Nurse with Iago's obsessions. Apart from anything else, Mercutio and the Nurse are very funny. This raises the old question of the distinction between bawdry and filth. I cannot account for it very well in the abstract, though I feel intuitively there ought to be a distinction. Here is Mercutio:

The ape is dead, and I must conjure him.
I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie.


Romeo's mad humours have thoroughly deserved this mockery. Besides the phallic fantasies of Cupid's darts, and the flaccid cliché of conventional love-poetry, Mercutio's is honest realism—of a sort. And certainly there is no intent to wound, which would distinguish Mercutio from the Capulet servants. But is intention alone a valid criterion? Benvolio warns Mercutio, "An if he hear thee, thou wilt anger him" (22), to which Mercutio replies:

This cannot anger him. 'Twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress' circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down. That were some spite.


And after more bawdry, they give up the search for Romeo, who enters the garden to find Juliet.

But why, we must ask, has Shakespeare given Romeo these friends, and why has he put this scene between the lovers' first meeting at the ball and their second in the garden? Modern audiences, in my experience, find the garden scene movingly comic, a reaction well exploited in the famous 1960. production by Franco Zeffirelli at the Old Vic. If the Romeo of the early scenes is a rather effete young man playing at love, Juliet has now released in him a more direct, lusty, impulsive energy. Zeffirelli had Romeo speak his lines with an urgent intensity, and shin lithely up and down the balcony half a dozen times to say his farewells. The audience was rocked with a gentle, wry, sympathetic laughter, a reaction, surely, to the lovers' vulnerability. A Romeo transformed, as his friends later recognize, is surely a reading of the character better warranted by the text and by dramatic necessity than languid romantic Romeos of the fashion earlier in this century. And so the juxtapositions of scene in Act 2 serve to contrast phallic comedy with romantic comedy, and these two sorts of comedy are in turn contrasted with the darker parts of the play. In fact, the most pungent comedy is never very far from tragedy, as we can see elsewhere in Shakespeare, in Chaucer, Chekhov, Dickens and the Mozart of the great operas.

What is achieved in all these contrasts? Perhaps, in a sense Mercutio is right. Bawdy talk cannot anger Romeo; he now loves and is beloved in earnest. The sort of de-personalized obsession with physical appetite that characterizes bawdy talk and that sometimes counteracts the insincerity of many common attitudes to love, is a different sort of emotion entirely from that now aroused in Romeo. Romeo is learning a new dimension to himself, skilfully guided by Juliet's instincts. In the balcony scene he is still tied to the rhetoric of love, and Juliet has to school him beyond the mere conventions. She well knows what she is doing and how far it exposes her:

O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully.
Or if thou thinkest I am too quickly won,
I'll frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo. But else, not for the world.


Romeo's reply to this is passionate rhetoric:

By yonder blessèd moon I vow . . .

But Juliet cuts him short—

O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Do not swear at all
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.


Juliet's directness is magnificent. It is she who proposes marriage. But since she is neither brazen nor falsely modest, she has no need of bawdry, which is one of our defences against false modesty. Mercutio and his friends represent that defence, and remind us that the lovers exist in a society which needs such defences. Romeo and Juliet are learning a brighter existence. Teilhard de Chardin put it very beautifully:

The only right love is that between couples whose passion leads them both, one through the other, to a higher possession of their being. The gravity of offences gainst love therefore is not that they outrage some modesty or virtue. It is that they fritter away, by neglect or lust, the universe's reserves of personalization.5

When Romeo returns to his friends he joins in with their high spirits and, after some verbal duels with Mercutio, evokes this compliment from Mercutio:

Why is not this better now than groaning for love?
Now thou art sociable. Now art thou Romeo.
Now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature.


This reminds us of Romeo's earlier observation, "This is not Romeo, he's some other where" (I.i.197). But being sociable has social consequences. Though Romeo does not confide his love to any friend but Friar Laurence, he is drawn into the web of hatred, obligations, honour and revenge that a corrupt society has spun for him. The tragedy begins. Romeo is isolated inspirit and then physically banished by society. With Mercutio's death, and the plague he bestows on both houses in the feud, the young gallants part company. Even good, sane Benvolio disappears.

Juliet too is isolated, even from her Nurse. For all the Nurse's human warmth, she fails Juliet in the crisis. For the Nurse has no resources beyond her earthy humour. And that humour serves well enough in ordinary circumstances but not in a crisis. Her upbringing has left Juliet a very direct person. But she expects more of life than does the Nurse. While the Nurse is bawdy, Juliet is truly sensual, passionate, and even so she is properly modest. In love she attains that higher possession of her being that Teilhard spoke of:

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway's 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. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night. Come, Romeo. Come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back.
Come, gentle night.


"Think true love acted simple modesty." But the social context will not bear such lovely, simple modesty. Even as Juliet speaks, the audience knows Mercutio and Tybalt are dead and Romeo banished. The Nurse is undiscriminating in her grief. Her habit of keeping Juliet in suspense for any news now leads her to burble on about "Tybalt, the best friend I had". Hyperbole is an ineradicable quality of her mind.

But look where her garrulousness leads her:

There's no trust,
No faith, no honesty in men; all perjured,
All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.

Ah, where's my man? Give me some aqua vitae.
These griefs, these woes, these sorrows make me old.
Shame come to Romeo!

Is not this somewhere close to Emilia's rancour, "They are all but stomachs and we all but food"? Juliet swiftly rebukes the Nurse:

Blistered be thy tongue
For such a wish! He was not born to shame.
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit.


And in her grief she later utters the thought that will be echoed like a motiv by her father when she has died, and by Romeo when he sees her in the tomb:

. . . I'll to my wedding-bed,
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead.


Denis de Rougemont sees this as yet another chapter in the celebration of Liebestod—an identity of love and death—in European literature. But I think he is wrong. Romeo and Juliet are brought to passionate life in their love. Their marriage is consummated, and the consummation symbolized in the beautiful poetry of the scene in the wedding-bed. But that bed is turned by external pressures, by cankered hate in society, into a sacrificial altar.

Juliet is isolated further by the marriage her father would arrange with Paris, and by her Nurse's readiness to temporize:

I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first.


When the reserves of personalization have been frittered away by neglect or mere lust, one man is very much like another. Did not Emilia say as much to Desdemona?

And have we not affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

(Othello, IV.iii.101f.)

The comedy is over. Juliet recognizes her Nurse's advice for what it is, and finds herself isolated:

Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!


Friar Laurence's goodness fumbles, and is not enough to save her. The rest of the play deals with the consequences of her isolation, the exploitation of her vulnerability.


1 This paper was first delivered as a lecture at the 1976 Grahamstown Shakespeare Conference.

2 Denis de Rougemont, Passion and Society (London: Faber, 1956), p. 52.

3 Caroline Spurgeon,. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1966), p. 19.

4 John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: a Study of King Lear (London: Faber 1961), p. 164.

5 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy (London: Collins, 1969), pp. 74-5.

Barbara L. Estrin (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Romeo and Juliet and the Art of Naming Love," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, April, 1981, pp. 31-49.

[In the following essay, Estrin probes Romeo and Juliet's vision of love and their efforts to realize this vision.]

In Act II of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio defines the successful man, incorrectly assuming that Romeo's recovered wit signals the decline of his infatuation for Rosaline:

Why is this better now than groaning for love? now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature: For this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.1

To be Romeo at his best is to have acquired distance from the amorous situation and to have "separate[d]" himself, as Pyrocles admonishes Musidorus in the Arcadia, "a little from himself," so that his "own mind may look upon [his] own proceedings."2 The capacity for reason distinguishes man from the beasts, raising him above all other creatures. Groaning, drivelling and lolling are mannerisms of a "natural," one who feels victimized by, rather than master of, his situation. Sociability, as a manifestation of reason, signals for Mercutio the measure of manhood. Conversely, love marks a retreat from the art of forming, and so becoming, fully what man was destined to be. To "hide" is to fail to evince the jewel of the complete, and hence fully alive, self.

When, in Act III, he affirms the gravity of his wound as he slips into the death hole from which he tried to extract Romeo, Mercutio makes the figure of his speech literal by facing the very fate he feared:

Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague a both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death!


"Peppered," "sped" (III.i. 92) "scratched" by death, as he claimed Romeo had been "stabbed . . . run through" (II.iv.15) and cleft (II.iv.16) by love, Mercutio is badgered into the grave, rendered solemn instead of witty, made the steward ("grave," N.E.D. IV, p. 374), instead of the owner of his being. His presence in the play demands that the flatness of nature be enriched by the fulness of art. His injury reduces him to the animal—dog, rat, mouse, cat—he hoped to overcome.

For Mercutio, art is the opposite of death because it stabilizes the self, confirming man's formulative presence in the universe. Art makes the whole self visible by completing nature. At the opposite extreme is the dream which begins by depleting nature to foster the invisible. In the "Queen Mab" speech, Mercutio describes the expansion of airy nothing into a something of fancy. Queen Mab is "no bigger than an agate stone / On the forefinger of an alderman / Drawn with a team of little atomies" (I.iv.55-57). The list of diminutives grows as Mercutio expounds on the inflationary process of fancy.

The fallacy of the dreamer is that he makes the small disproportionately large; the strength of the artist is that he preserves things as they are, neither denying the self, like the lover Mercutio disdains, nor exaggerating the self, like the dreamer Mercutio deflates. If wit raises man by pushing nature into its destined fulness, the dream distorts him, distending the little that is. In Mercutio's sphere, the hero maintains the balance between the merely bestial and the wholly vacuous by developing what he might, most abundantly, be. The raisonneur of the play, Mercutio defends the jewel of the self which the lover, as he defines him in II.iv, seems anxious to hide.3 If the dreamer expands the microscopic, distorting it to defy the test of the real, the artist encompasses the actual, using it to soften the impact of the fates. The dreamer dissolves into an empty vista; the artist evolves out of the natural world.

Romeo and Juliet begin as dreamers, testifying to the immensity of their love. But they succeed for a while as artists containing, as Mercutio would wish them to do, the natural impulses initially igniting them. The life they form bridges, however briefly, the moonshine beams drawing them together and the graveside truth pulling them apart. They create, in the moments they share, an art of love, described even by the chorus of Act II as a configuration of a full body out of the raw material of life:

Passion lends them power, time means, to meet
Temp'ring extremities with extreme sweet.

(Prologue, II, 13-14)

The subject of temper is at once the power in the lovers (passion) and the circumstances without them (time). Thus they cast the shape of their love (extreme sweet) from the situations (extremities) in which they are caught, freeing themselves both from descents of nature and flights of emptiness.

In his praise of Romeo, Mercutio begins with nature and ends with art. In their paeans to each other, Romeo and Juliet start with art (extreme sweet) so that they might enjoy their nature (extremities). For Mercutio, wit is the culmination of human experience; for Romeo and Juliet it is the means whereby they can touch and so return to the element they mutually desire. Romeo is clever when he meets Mercutio in II.iv because he has learned by then the satisfying consummation of language and because he knows, by then, the overwhelming need of love. The words he shared with Juliet to discover his nature are now the tools he uses against the world to protect his secret.

During the opening sequences, the lovers approach Mercutio's ideal. The introductory sonnet (I.v.95-109) and the balcony scene (II.ii) manifest their wish to share an art which at first recognizes, and then builds upon, the solidly present cycle of nature. They use the reason Mercutio so avidly espouses to ensure the union they so physically desire, their wit determining the course of their bodies. The happiness in the early scenes stems from a belief found first in the lovers' creative capacity, evidenced in the echoes of Genesis in II.ii.37-47, and the second in the earth's created endowment, manifested in the references to nature of II.ii.133-35. Romeo and Juliet exult in the strength they impress upon each other and in the support they derive from the world, fixing the metaphors for their love on the certainty of the constellations (II.ii.184-85) and the reality of the senses (II.ii.165-66). They move from moments of self doubt to periods of self-confidence (II.ii.28-34; II.ii.139-41) when they confirm their feelings in a natural setting. In the first half of the play the lovers cement their union with what they think is a firm physical bond. Their effort through the second half is to salvage what they made despite the inexorable retreat of the structure underlying their hope. In the aubade (III.v.1-35), they begin to see nature's unavoidable indifference to their plight. Just before she takes the Friar's potion (IV.iii. 15-59), Juliet envisions her physical end as a mental collapse, the animal in her destroying the reason earlier directing it. The edifice of love topples when she imagines her uncontrolled body "dashing" (IV.iv.54)—as Mercutio had seen the brutes "scratching" (III.i.102)—her defenceless brains. Nature obliterates erates in that scene the art which it had once sustained. The tragedy in the final acts is defined while the lovers witness the erosion of the foundation binding their union. Nature withdraws, leaving an empty art—hollow statues instead of supple bodies. Yet, if Mercutio saw, in his gravity, the levelling power of the bestial, Romeo and Juliet remember in the vault the soaring strength of the creative. What remains in the enveloping gloom at the end is the recollected light of the beginning, the lovers determined to secure the golden vision originally inspiring them. Thus Romeo seeks to preserve with a kiss (V.iii. 120), and Juliet to restore with an embrace (V.iii. 166), the image of the life they named together.

That sense of co-operation is apparent from their first encounter where the ingredients of fairy tale romance become the properties of actual experience. Their love begins with the Pygmalion formula, the melting of art into life—a formula which allows them, in turn, to live that life as art:

Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy
palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands so;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.


When Romeo calls Juliet a shrine, he makes her both the container of the saint and the thing contained, exalting and embodying her. Unlike the conventional sonneteer, he can touch the Petrarchan idealized woman and yet not die of her. When Juliet takes his hand, she raises him to the level he has praised her, allowing him to join her on the same plane. The gratification is immediate. Through the submerged metaphor of a ladder, Juliet's indulgence emboldens Romeo to climb even one rung higher:

Have not saints lips and holy palmers too?

Is it Juliet who maintains his equilibrium, keeping Romeo from toppling over with audacity or tripping out of dizziness. Like Rosalind with Orlando, she puts him "to entreaty," refusing him momentarily so that they can have more "matter" to discuss, letting him take the reins by giving him something to do. The lovers alternatingly provide tasks for each other, extending the arena of the possible to the height of the exhilarating. Demanding prayer, Juliet keeps Romeo looking up. Begging Juliet to join him in the name of balance, Romeo reminds her of the possibility, always near, of despair. If she falters now, things may reverse themselves. Romeo might slip into the void. Similarly, Juliet suggests the need for equanimity when she argues for continual vigilence. If Romeo stops praying to her, he becomes inconstant, himself subject to change. Thus, in concert, they find a solution:

Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo. Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.

Permitting the kiss, Juliet bestows herself on Romeo, acknowledging her feelings by consenting, but encouraging his suit by permitting it "for prayer's sake." Such a constant coming-to-be and fulfillment is the promise of the sonnet, a mutual exchange to keep from changing. The gentleness (granting) of nature preserves the stillness (or permanence) of art.

The banter about movement anticipates Florizel's speech to Perdita in The Winter's Tale:

When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function.


Florizel's play on moving and stillness in the seemingly contradictory line "move still, still so" suggests at once the peace (stillness) he has found in her motions and the inexhaustibility ("still," in the Renaissance, meaning always) of her sexuality. Not only does Perdita dance but she "moves" (inspires) Florizel to contemplate eternity (stillness). Granting without moving, Juliet maintains the opposite eternity of Perdita. In the late play, Shakespeare's sympathies are clearly with the reproductive powers Florizel compares to the sea. Thus, Perdita progresses towards a maternal fulfillment to be achieved in future "stillness." In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers attempt a permanence through the art of their current lives. By allowing Romeo to imbibe the kiss, Juliet breathes life into him, becoming the muse of the prayers he formulates to get more. The give and take of the kiss in this initial scene permits both lovers to realize a fulness not (as in The Winter's Tale) in anticipation of some promised and remote generation but as an actualization of a present and willing nature. The lovers in this play find a state which is at once solidly unchangeable ("saints do not move") and softly yielding ("grant for prayer's sake"). They provide thereby the conditions—Juliet by imploring Romeo to pray afresh, Romeo by urging Juliet to kiss again—which foster both immediate gratification and persistent desire. They stimulate each other by coming to life, simultaneously as they guarantee each other by surfacing as art, in an abiding vehicle for love. The continuity of speaking becomes the incentive for expansiveness as the lovers meet again in the Capulet garden. When Juliet sighs, Romeo exults. Yet, as he praises her, he places himself in the exigency of the moment prior to the initial sonnet. In the garden, separate from Juliet, he seems to have fallen off the imaginary ladder. It is only through the process of the balcony scene that Romeo finds the courage to climb to, and enjoy, the heights of their first encounter. Overhearing Juliet, he is overcome by the wonder he perceives:

O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond'ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.


Like the saint of the initiating sonnet, Juliet is a bright angel. But unlike the woman contained in the earlier metaphor, this Juliet is unreachable—a "winged messenger of heaven." She moves majestically in the spheres above, while Romeo, in typical Petrarchan fashion, falls back into the ground below. Passive and bereft of energy, Romeo is overtaken, his eyes fixed on the soaring and powerful eagle of his image.

It is Juliet who returns him to himself by recreating him, not out of the vacuous clouds in the sky, but out of the solid substance of the earth. In her garden, Juliet becomes a kind of Adam in reverse, unnaming the universe, decomposing—in order to recompose—the world. By moving backwards in time and recreating the experience of Genesis, she moves upwards in space, revitalizing the sense of Adam's dream:

And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.

And out of the ground, the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a help meet for him.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

(Genesis 2.18-24)

The process of Eve's emergence is curious. First God forms every beast of the ground for Adam to name, so that he becomes the arbitrary and wholly conscious word maker. But the woman—the companion—was taken, not out of the earth, but from Adam's rib; he was made less in order to be made more. Further, the moment of Adam's greatest creativity occurs during a trance, the height of his powers realized during the depths of his sleep.

In the joy of Adam's awakening the two negative components—the usurping of the body, the surrender of the mind—do not detract from the pleasure of discovering thè wholly made being. Adam still names the woman, as he had all the other creatures, but he names her after himself, as she had been taken out of him. He feels a double triumph, returning to himself the namer, discovering himself—the maker. The joy is immediate (now) but it bears with it a sense of the past (now, in view of these accumulated facts) and the future (now, in light of these forthcoming events). The exultation is temporary, preceded as it was by Adam's absence in the conditions necessary for creation, and foreshadowing, as it does, a future leavetaking in the circumstances governing marriage. History surrounds the now with anterior and ensuing diminution but it can never retract the joy of believed-in power.

In the balcony scene, Juliet allows Romeo to experience Adam's moment of happiness by giving to him, however fleetingly, a belief in his own capacity for making and a consequential faith in his own resources for giving. The scene in the Capulet gardens parallels the scene in Eden. At first Romeo is, through his own hyperbole, rendered as passive as Adam, while Juliet finds the means to bring him to himself. She begins by defining her terms:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!—
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.—Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.


Juliet is in sequence God, then Adam, then Eve until Romeo awakens, newly baptized, ready to act and name and be Adam to the Eve she has become. The exchange of roles continues throughout the scene as one enters the other and as each revels in the self the other made and found. At first Juliet reforms Romeo by unnaming him, starting with hand and foot, returning him, part by part, to the nature of his origin and directing him, name by name, towards the art of his aspiration.4 In the recreative moment she seems like the God of Genesis. But, in the next line, she descends to the place of Adam:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;


By equating Romeo to the rose, Juliet renders him part of the found universe which she, like Adam, merely names. The more she speaks the further she retreats, enlarging Romeo's promise as she diminishes her role. He is next the "dear perfection" (II.ii.45), at once the precious ("dear") beginning and the ultimate ("perfection") consummation of her life. When she asks him to substitute herself for his name, Juliet crawls into Romeo, emerging the nascent Eve of Genesis. She becomes, in that act, flesh of the flesh, bone of the bone which is their mutual compound. With the command, "take all myself," she makes Romeo simultaneously the God who "took" Eve from man's rib and the Adam who named her because she was so taken. Through the giving of herself Juliet converts Romeo into the begetter of her life—"all." The mutuality of the exchange continues as the lovers toss each other compliments testifying to their power to rework the world.

Romeo in turn makes Juliet his Adam and his God:

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.


By "taking" Juliet at her word, Romeo credits her as mortal and believes in her as "saint" (II.ii.55), perceiving that she is, as he was to her, his origin and his destiny. If she renames him, he will be reborn, no longer the old Romeo but the "new baptized" self. Such a rebirth is premised on a creative mutuality which neither is ashamed to call love. The Romeo who earlier lay gazing in passivity is now active in appreciation, ready to "tear" the word (II.ii.57) Juliet cannot bear and prepared to dare the world (II.ii.68) which tries to stop him.

Recovered, Romeo reveals how he entered Juliet's enclave. He compares himself retrospectively to the bird he called Juliet, flying in backward glances to the now attained heights:

With love's light wings did I o'er-perch these walls,
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt;
Therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me.


And Juliet, too, speaks in excess:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.


Both lovers emerge limitless, their happiness based on the illusion of strength (paralleling the moment after Adam's trance) inspired by the renaming process. Juliet's goodness (bounty) equals her generosity and that equals her boundlessness. Like the sea returning to the shore, she crests with still more to give, expressing, in the reference to the ocean, the circular completion of Romeo's earlier metaphor of the bestriding bird in the heaven's range. The extension builds on nature, stretching its limits to a vision of grandeur and moving outwards from a fixed centre towards a limitless circularity. Juliet's concluding expansion downwards in the sea corresponds to Romeo's initial praise upwards in the skies, rounding the universe now.

Having defined her fulness not by her ability to take but by her capacity to give, Juliet casts herself as the maker Mercutio praised. When she calls Romeo the "god" of her "idolatry" (II.ii. 113), she summarizes the progress of the scene where Romeo moves from passive worshipper, to active Adam to idealized god. As god, Romeo is the object of her adoration; as idol he is the image she carved. The illusion of creativity satisfies their craving, forming a temporary frame of love around the core of nature. In the course of time, reality will break through with the dark truth of its unyielding presence but for the moment, at least, the lovers seem to be able to bend the lines of the world to the encircling purposes of their art.

They are able to so shape their vision because they find in nature a pattern of certainty where they can hinge their imagined flights. The process by which they fix their beliefs is like the process by which they proclaim their love—a movement towards resolution from a position of uncertainty. Immediately following the mutual discovery of power Romeo, left alone, fears for its loss:

O blessed blessed night! I am afeard,
Being in night, all this is but a dream,
Too flattering—sweet to be substantial.


Repeating Mercutio's admonition about dreams, Romeo tests his own expanded expectation against the inflationary process of wish-fulfillment. All this is "too flattering-sweet," he whines, worried that, inspired on insufficient grounds, he has been flattered into believing himself the hero of his own life. During that moment alone, Romeo loses faith in art because he has lost touch with nature. The sweetness of the night is unsubstantial. It cannot be seen or smelled or heard.

It is only in the reawakening of his senses that Romeo is able to rekindle his faith. When Juliet calls him back, he combines sight and sound by comparing her voice to music:

How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!


Juliet's voice provides a light that awakens touch ("soft") sound ("music") sight ("silver") and taste ("sweet") to the nature of the world. With the word "attending," Romeo pushes his present listening into a projected act. The sweetness promises more than a "now." It anticipates a "then," leading him to expect fulfillment because of an instantly realized substance.

Similarly, Juliet prolongs the word of departure so that it becomes the signal for return:

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.


Sound restores Juliet's faith here just as it earlier bolstered Romeo's. If she continues calling it will, as surely as day follows night, be morrow. By centring her prolongation of the "now" on a permanently recurring cycle, Juliet attempts to guarantee her word. Her art is linked to nature, the sorrow of the parting "sweet" because the repetition of the sound will make Romeo return to her when the sun completes its journey in the sky. While the lovers rejoice in their own creative capacity, they hinge that potential on what they assume to be the firm foundation of nature's reserve. If they began the balcony scene with an imagined dream of love, they close it with a felt experience of life, reiterating with the sweetness, a solid sight and sound and smell. That sweetness recalls Juliet's rose which appeared as a promise of what nature, signalling its immutable "bounty," might give.

In the opening acts, the lovers feel confident that the shrine they build has the strength of a sympathetic cosmos at its centre. But their early belief is fleeting. What they discover subsequently is that the centre does not hold. The foundation keeps slipping out from under them. The last acts "scratch" away the illusion of art, leaving only—what Mercutio found—the indifference of nature.5 In the first half of the play Romeo and Juliet turn figurative flights of fancy into uplifting possibilities of hope. The birds of their immediate imagination signified the high level of their ultimate aspiration. They gave to each other, when they exchanged vows, the capacity to realize a creative life. The more they touched, the more they sparked the universe with their desire, converting external objects into manifestations of their inner state. They named the world out of the selves they promoted in each other. But in the final acts, the bird-songs of their early expansive similes are replaced by the death-knells of reductive actuality.

The aubade begins with Juliet's attempt to transform the lark into the nightingale she covets just as, in the balcony scene, she had reconstructed Romeo into the lover she desired:6

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.


Yond light is not daylight. I know it, 1:
It is some meteor that the sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua:
Therefore stay yet; thou need'st not be gone.


Romeo's perception, she claims, is shaped by the pressure of a reality he fears, the hollow in his ear pierced by his failure to believe in love. Sensing the vacancy, Juliet tries, as she so successfully earlier had tried, to fill it with the bird of her imagination. In her efforts to prolong Romeo's stay, she asserts the logic of her calculations, rendering the light Romeo paints an exhalation of the sun, a torch left as a remainder from the day before instead of a signal sent as a herald of the morn ensuing. Such a wish to reverse time is based, not as her sweet sorrow speech was, on the certainly seen and solidly stable cycle of the fixed star, but on the dubious gift and sudden miracle of the variable meteor. With the redundant, "I know it I," she desperately recalls the strength of her earlier intuitions about nature and her previous assertions of being, both of which empowered Romeo to find his way with her. Juliet clings to the assumptions of self and the vision of nature inaugurating her reformation of the world.

It is Romeo this time who reminds Juliet that reality nullifies her expectations:

Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops:
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.


On the one hand, day flattens Juliet's heightened expectations, reducing her hopes to the mist of dreams. On the other, day stands ready, poised like a dancer, to begin the journey across the sky launching (from tiptoe) the inevitable succession of the spheres and manifesting (with the jocund) the utter indifference of the planet. Romeo's counter to Juliet here forces her to face not the sound of her fancy but the role of reality. The aubade contrasts with the balcony scene, the lovers issuing to each other the responsibility for dealing with nature, the necessity of parting from their dreams.

Romeo commands Juliet to say what he has already seen; she orders him, in turn, to do what he himself has proposed:

It is, it is: hie hence, be gone, away!
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division;
This doth not so, for she divideth us:
Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes;

O, now I would they had changed voices too!
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray
Hunting thee hence with hunts-up to the day.


In Act II, the sound of voices had signalled an awakening of the lovers' faith; now the rousing echo of nature initiates the destruction of hope. With the line "arm from arm that voice doth us affray," Juliet acknowledges the defeat of the body through the devastation of the mind. Romeo and Juliet are torn apart (physically frayed) by the voice that makes them psychologically fearful. Left armless (defenceless) they are bereft of the power to enclose nature within the sphere of their desire. As light now approaches, they remain in the darkness of distress (woe as grief). Further, the sight of day increases the sound of their lamentation (woe as exclamation), leaving them, as Mercutio had found Romeo in the beginning, subjugated by sound, overwhelmed by sight, the very forces they had, in Act II, so well mastered. Their eyes are now turned downwards towards the grave as they feel themselves betrayed by, rather than formulating, reality:

Juliet. O God! I have an ill-divining soul:
Methinks I see thee, now thou are below,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb:
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look'st pale.
Romeo. And trust me, love, in my eye so do you:
Dry sorrow drinks our blood.


Parting this time, Juliet envisions Romeo not as the enshrined saint she might bring to life but as the contained body nature has already cast in marble. In the balcony scene, the lovers instilled liquid life into each other; here dry sorrow drinks their blood, sucking the life they had formed, sapping the expectations they had raised. Early, Romeo and Juliet, the creative artists, felt themselves infinitely ready to give; now nature, the controlling force, manifests itself as inexorably destined to take.7

While "dry sorrow" attacks from without in Act HI, "cold fear" circulates from within in Act IV. When she imagines her death there, Juliet extends the fear of the aubade until it reaches every part of her body, moving from the torn arms to the frozen marrow of her being:

I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,
That almost freezes up the heat of life:


The fear is active, penetrating Juliet's body, controlling her totally. In the potion-taking moment, Juliet reverses the process of the balcony scene where she used her mind to construct the Romeo she desired:

Alack, alack, is it not like that I,
So early waking, what with loathsome smells
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad:
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears?
And madly play with my forefathers' joints?
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud?
And, in this rage, with some great kinsman's bone,
As with a club, dash out my desperate brains?
O, look, methinks I see my cousin's ghost
Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body
Upon a rapier's point:—stay, Tybalt, stay!—
Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee.


Here, death becomes all physical. It "smells" and "shrieks" and "environs" her until she sees herself madly playing with her forefathers' joints and in a rage "dashing" out her "desperate" brains. While she speaks, Juliet turns the faith for which Romeo prayed in the initial sonnet into the despair he feared. The corpses closing in on her smash and depress her spirit. Having begun with a brain hopeful enough to create a body, she ends here with bodies powerful enough to unmake her mind. Death for Juliet, as it was for Mercutio, is "madness"—the dashing—the confounding of reason. Already in the throes of her anticipated derangement, Juliet imagines Tybalt's ghost avenging Romeo. As she drinks the potion, she bids Tybalt "stay," seeking to keep from her lover—in order to prevent him from feeling—the despair that has overtaken her. Similarly, Romeo will "stay" with Juliet to stop "death's pale flag" (V.iii.16) from advancing on her cheek. Faced with the onslaught of unavoidable fate, both lovers attempt somehow to pre-empt it, to overtake it before it unmakes them. Thus, they die in an effort to revive the image of the heroic selves they once made possible.

If, in Act IV, Juliet contemplates the body quelling the mind, Romeo remembers, in Act V, the mind infusing the body. His famous dream speaks of the power they had together found:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived, and was an emperor.


Once more, Romeo turns Juliet into the goddess inspiring him to strength. She breathes "such life" into him that he feels, as Adam did for the moment of naming, the maker of the world. He gives her the ability to give him a life of creative power. In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra dreams there was an emperor Antony who, after his death, becomes the energetic source of her final act. But in this play, the dreamer is the emperor, having already been granted the energy to control his life. This mutual bringing to strength by memory (he dreaming her reviving him, she imagining him restoring her) counterbalances the encroaching levelling to weakness by destiny.

If Juliet sought to protect Romeo from Tybalt, so Romeo takes on death, finding in the tomb the same monster that Juliet saw. But if Juliet with the potion envisions a future based on dissolution, Romeo in the vault seeks to preserve a past premised on consolidation. Act IV ends with Juliet feeling only the darkness. Act V ends with each lover recovering light. In the vault Romeo vows to act:

Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that 1 still will stay with thee,
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.—Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you,
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here's to my love! O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick.—Thus with a kiss I die.


Romeo does not passively await or groan or sigh, he actively "stays," "remains," "shakes" and "run[s] on." Finally, with "a kiss," he "dies" reversing the process by which he came to life in the early sonnet. There, the lovers kissed, advancing from stillness to movement. Here, Romeo retains—with a kiss—the beauty originally prompting him to move. Similarly, Juliet dies with a "restorative" seeing the kiss as a means for revitalizing the shrine of the self Romeo worshipped:

I will kiss thy lips;
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die a restorative.
Thy lips are warm!


In actively stalking Death, the lovers consciously revive the golden images inspiring their union.8 The statues the Montagues erect are merely symbols of the conscious artifice their children—following Mercutio's philosophy—struggled to make of their lives. Doing their own undoing, Romeo and Juliet retain the vision that enabled them, however briefly, to achieve a fulness of being, an awakening of self, in the naming of love.


1Romeo and Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons (London: Methuen, 1980), II.iv.90-95. All references are from this edition and will be cited in my text.

2The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Jean Robertson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 19.

3 Critics who see Mercutio as merely vulgar assign him the role of foil to Romeo. But such dismissals misconstrue the importance of his defence of reason and underestimate his role as spokesman for art. Among those who cite his carnality are Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 120-23; Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Voi II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), pp. 335-38; and J. Dover Wilson, "The Elizabethan Shakespeare," Proceedings of the English Academy (London: Oxford University Press, 1929), 123.

4 Harry Levin makes a similar distinction between art and nature when he argues that "Juliet calls into question not merely Romeo's name but, by implication,—all names, forms, conventions, sophistications, and arbitrary dictates of society as opposed to the appeal of instinct directly conveyed in the odor of a rose." See "Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Quarterly, XI (1960), p. 4.

5 On nature's callousness, Frederick Turner writes: "The lovers call their love infinite, but in the world of time there can be nothing infinite. Time itself turns against the lovers, and blindly ejects them from its system as incompatible with its texture and tissue. The lovers treat time subjectively . . . and time revenges itself blindly for such temerity." See Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 126.

6 Comparing the balcony scene to the aubade, Mark Rose writes: " . . . the segments of the early scene are arranged to give the effect of the dream dominating "reality," the lovers overwhelming the "outsiders" as the short initial segment yields to the long lyric episode. The [aubade] suggests "the dream" dissolving into "day," the magical world of the lovers literally overwhelmed before our eyes." See Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 72. Similarly, James Black counterpoints the two scenes: "The fact that in each of these scenes the setting is the same and the stage picture reduplicated lends emphasis to the pathetic alteration in the speakers' tones and circumstances. The parallels emphasize the differences: things look the same but are painfully altered. Thus the audience is looking at what it saw before, but is being forced to see more intensely." See "The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet," Studies in English Literature 15 (1975), 247.

7 Commenting on the way nature retracts its support, Donald Stauffer maintains: "In no other play does Shakespeare envisage a general moral order operating with such inhuman, mechanical severity." See Shakespeare's World of Images (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 55.

8 M. H. Mahood writes that "Romeo and Juliet 'cease to die, by dying'." See Shakespeare's Word Play (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 72.

R. Stamm (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The First Meeting of the Lovers in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet,'" in English Studies, Vol. 67, No. 1, February, 1986, pp. 2-13.

[In the following essay, Stamm analyzes the suggestive words and gestures of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting, which he sees as "an unique combination of formality and spontaneity, of elegance and intensity, of wit and passion. "]

No observer of Shakespeare's tragedy can fail to notice the importance of the first meeting of the lovers. It constitutes the climax prepared by the preceding scenes of Act I, and, in the structure of the whole play, it is—like Romeo's fateful duel with Tybalt and the death scene—one of the turning points. It is the event that changes Romeo's and Juliet's lives, bringing them intense happiness at first and suffering and death in consequence. Shakespeare used all the resources of his rapidly developing art to provide this decisive encounter with a very special kind of dramatic life, moulding the first exchange of his young lovers into the form of a sonnet, of which he knew himself a master. To go with it he chose imagery also derived from the Petrarchan tradition with its tendency to express love in religious terms. And he saw to it that this poetic inset did not remain a literary exercise by integrating it in a dramatic event with its specific movements and gestures. As a result he achieved an unique combination of formality and spontaneity, of elegance and intensity, of wit and passion. Its impact is felt by every reader, performer or spectator, but to analyse and explain it has proved a difficult task for the critics. In their discussions they have often been struck by one or the other of its qualities only and overlooked or played down other aspects.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the sonnet form by which the encounter is set off against the surrounding speeches in prose and blank verse, and in consequence of this it was often studied as a mainly oral event, a tendency that has not died out in spite of the contributions of Harley Granville-Barker. Bertrand Evans, for instance, sees the meeting as a 'conversation'. He says of the lovers: 'In the seventeen lines of their initial conversation, the force of their sudden love, intense as religious devotion, is figured forth by the motif of their exchange: "profane . . .holy shrine . . . pilgrims . . . pilgrim . . . devotion . . . saints . . . pilgrims . . . holy palmers' . . . saints . . . holy palmers . . . pilgrim . . . prayer . . . saint . . . pray . . . faith . . . Saints . . . prayers' . . . prayer's . . . sin . . . sin . . . Sin . . . trespass . . . sin". Such is the predominent vocabulary of their exchange, the very sound of which marks the brief encounter as being a moment of transcendent passion; and these lines are made even more potent by the special setting in which, because of the Prologue, we hear them: by its very intensity this sudden love bids us remember that the lovers are doomed, and the sounds echo as in a tomb.'1 This exclusively aural reaction ignores everything that is happening in the scene.

Nicholas Brooke's approach is less one-sided as his primary interest in verse and music is balanced by his perception of a performed ritual and an appeal to the test of the theatre: 'seeing the Act in its fullness, with its functional contrasts of prose and several kinds of verse, we can see this climax in a very elaborate verse becomes musically almost inevitable. And the sense of ritual is dramatically right: what, out of context, would be empty courtliness, in its context is solemn celebration. In psychological terms, this sonnet represents the spell of mutual recognition; but thus formalized, the psychological moment is carried forward into full betrothal—the implication of such recognition. To grasp the best of Romeo and Juliet, we have to grasp that this does work on the stage.'2 This is well said, and we would like to know how exactly this works on the stage.

In such an inquiry we expect to derive help from Harley Granville-Barker's Preface to the play. What we find there, however, seems strangely uneven. When he comes to our scene he invites us: 'One must picture them there. The dance is over, the guests and the maskers are in a little chattering, receding crowd, and the two find themselves alone. Juliet would be for joining the others; but Romeo, his mask doffed, moves towards her, as a pilgrim towards a shrine.

If I profane with my unvvorthiest hand .. .

It is hard to see what better first encounter could have been devised. To have lit mutual passion in them at once would have been commonplace; the cheapest of love tragedies might begin like that. But there is something sacramental in this ceremony, something shy and grave and sweet; it is a marriage made already. And she is such a child; touched to earnestness by his trembling earnestness, but breaking into fun at last (her defence when the granted kiss lights passion in him) as the last quatrain's metre breaks for its ending into

You kiss by the book.'

The producer critic begins with a few practical remarks on the introductory grouping on stage, but then he becomes as vague and impressionistic as any normal literary critic, repeating Shakespeare's very words instead of suggesting their scenic equivalents. After a glance at the beginning of 'the cheapest of love tragedies', which seems rather otiose to the present-day reader, he offers a fine sentence on the effect and the meaning of the ceremony enacted by the young couple, but again we look in vain for a word on the way how it is enacted. And what is then said of the behaviour of the child Juliet is hardly more than a personal projection from Granville-Barker's sensitive and imaginative mind.

For a more specific remark on the sonnet's gestic implications we can turn to J. L. Styan, whose attempt to read it as a theatrical score is as follows: 'In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare even borrows the formal sonnet, rich in its own amorous allusions, and makes it serviceable to the actors:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle pain is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

(I.v. 93-6)

This sonnet not only conveys a tone suitable to an idealized encounter, but also precise indications of gesture and attitude. In Juliet's reply,

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss . . .


Shakespeare contrives to signal the withdrawal of her hand from his lips and indicate her modesty as she perhaps turns aside with the cadence of the last lines.'4 The hint concerning the withdrawal of Juliet's hand is useful, but it does not lead to a coherent account of the integration of speech and action. When Styan returned to the passage in a later book, he read a radical contrast between speech and action into the text, a procedure that may have recommended itself to some of the modern producers of the play: 'The imagery of saints and pilgrims falls within the literary mode of courtly love, but it is an error to accept it on this level. On the stage the eye belies the idealism of the words, since the same words describe a pattern of gesture and behaviour that scarcely fits either saint or pilgrim: in the acting the sonnet seems more like a series of cues for a flirtation. Not only does Romeo take Juliet by the hand and lead her out of the dance, but he kisses it and then her lips, and these not once but twice. Juliet, for her part, is no shy virgin, and on

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake

she actually takes the initiative while denying her power to initiate: in all this her wit is equal to Romeo's. The whole rhythm of gesture in this piece, while exactly planned for performance, also makes a mockery of the Petrarchan convention, eyes contradicting ears.'5

Here we are far away, indeed, from ceremony and ritual as well as from Granville-Barker's child lovers: A clever young couple knows how to overcome the awkwardness of a first meeting by the fun of undercutting traditional imagery by flirtatious acting. Two important German studies arrive at different views of the interplay of speech and gesture in the sonnet scene. According to them the two elements are complementary, two aspects of one and the same event, in which a spiritual and an erotic experience become united. Inge Leimberg concludes: 'die Motivreihe "devout religion of mine eye" (I.2.Z.91), "touching hers, make blesséd my rude hand" (I.5.Z.51) erreicht einen Höhepunkt an dieser Stelle, wo die Wirklichkeit taktil-sinnlicher Erfahrung sich spannungsvoll mit dem Motiv der Geliebten als der angebeteten Heiligen begegnet. Die höchste Wertsphäre trifft zusammen mit realer Gegenwart und konkretem Erleben, das ideelle Streben mit dem erotischen Verlangen, der Ernst des einen Motivs mit dem spielerischen Charakter des andern, . . . '6

A remarkable development of Inge Leimberg's line of thought can be studied in the unusual and unusually well written article devoted exclusively to our theme by Wolfgang Baumgart.7 He finds the climax of the scene and the centre from which speech and imagery are derived in the lovers' first touch of each other's hand. He thinks that Juliet refers to it in her line 'And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss'. For him the meeting of the palms of the two young hands is the perfect expression of the birth of love, mute and yet more eloquent than all the elaborate speeches that have sprung from it. He insists that this first touch had nothing in common with anything resembling a conventional handshake: 'Kein Händedruck ist es, was die Liebenden in erster körperlicher Berührung zusammenführt. Vielmehr übertragen die empfindlichen Hautflächen der inneren Hand, vom Handteller bis zum Innern der Finger und der Fingerspitzen, aneinandergelegt, Inneres an Inneres, palm to palm, das erste wechselseitige Fühlen lebendiger Begegnung der Körper.'8 In that searching first touch Baumgart discovers a metaphor of the kiss desired by Romeo and, perhaps less consciously at first, by Juliet, pointing the way to the fulfilment of the two kisses that follow. And he is careful to explain how this crucial meeting of palm and palm can come about. When her former partner leaves her, Juliet, he thinks, remains immobile at the end of the last dance figure, one hand half raised, until Romeo comes up to her and places one of his palms against it. The significance of her gesture appears almost inexhaustible to Baumgart. He connects it with the religious imagery in the sonnet and stresses the resemblance between it and a hand raised in the act of benediction.

One would like to agree wholeheartedly with an article remarkable for its insight into the possibilities of gestiç as against oral expression, but there is an inescapable objection against Baumgart's reading of the text. The idea that Juliet is referring to the manner how Romeo's and her own hand have just met when she says 'And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss' has no support in it. What she intends is a far more general remark, and her choice of words is conditioned by the desire for rhetorical variation. She replaces 'pilgrim' by 'palmer' and 'hand' by 'palm' in order to avoid excessive repetition and because she discovers an opportunity for a pun. This consideration renders Baumgart's argument rather dubious.

His method should also warn us against the danger of isolating one particular event in the tragedy too much. We therefore begin our own study of the meeting by recalling what we have learnt concerning the destined lovers in the preceding scenes. We have become better acquainted with Romeo than with Juliet. From the beginning he appears different from his cheerful friends, absorbed as he is by his Petrarchistic cult of an ideal and ideally inaccessible mistress. In fact, he avoids the contacts with reality and with other people as much as possible, and what we hear from Benvolio and old Montague of his tearful morning walks to the sycamore grove and the self-sought confinement in his darkened room reminds us of a figure in a tapestry representing scenes from the Roman de la Rose. His absence from the first street brawl shows how far he has withdrawn from the normal life of his friends. When he makes his entry we are struck by the abundance of his fanciful love rhetoric and his poverty of significant gestures. His references to his actual surroundings are weak and merely pro forma. He registers the departure of his father with a useless question, which reveals how deeply he is lost in himself:

Was that my father that went hence so fast?


The same goes for the two unrhymed lines by which he unexpectedly interrupts his rhymed tirade on love:

Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.


The first is a routine question. He does not wait for an answer as this could lead to purposeful action, but pretends for a moment an interest in the disorderly scene which has left its marks in the street. Again he prevents an answer by a not very plausible evasion. A little later he makes an attempt to get rid of the company of Benvolio ('Farewell, my coz.' [193]); when his friend refuses to take the hint, he tolerates the presence of a partner, who, with his objections and his good advice, keeps playing the balls into his hands that he knows how to use very skilfully in his display of verbal acrobatics. Even when they meet Capulet's thickwitted servant in need of reading help, Romeo finds it hard to break away from his self-absorption; he tries to obtain water for the mill of his love complaints when he replies 'Ay, mine own fortune in my misery' to the simple question 'I pray, sir, can you read?' (I.ii.57f.) Then, however, he feels obliged to accept the practical situation and to read out the list of the invited guests. As the name of Rosaline, the goddess he worships, is on it, he allows Benvolio to persuade him that he should visit Capulet's ball.

Also in Scene I.iv, in which Romeo and the rest of the uninvited guests are getting ready for this visit, he does his best to secure a passive role for himself. Benvolio is looking forward to the pleasure of dancing, but not Romeo:

Romeo. Give me a torch, I am not for this ambling.
Being but heavy I will bear the light.
Mer. Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
Romeo. Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles, I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground 1 cannot move.


And he repeats his refusal:

Ben. Come, knock and enter, and no sooner in
But every man betake him to his legs.

Romeo. A torch for me. Let wantons light of heart
Tickle the senseless rushes with their heels.
For I am proverb'd with a grandsirc phrase—
I'll be a candle-holder and look on.


As in the earlier scene, Romeo's love melancholy prevents him from joining his friends in their physical activities only; he shares their delight in punning and combats of wit. But while they are all enjoying their outrageous wordplay, a new quality makes itself felt in his depression:

Romeo. And we mean well in going to this masque,
But 'tis no wit to go.
Mer. Why, may one ask?
Romeo. 1 dreamt a dream tonight.


The carefully cultivated pose of the languishing lover is being undermined by a premonition rooted in deeper layers of his consciousness. Mercutio senses the change behind his friend's words and tries to overcome it by his Queen Mab phantasy. Romeo cannot tell his dream, but listens, fascinated like everybody else, by Mercutio's extraordinary performance. Finally, however, he finds it too much of a good thing and defends himself against it—his plight recalling that of Juliet for a moment, when she is confronted by her nurse's eloquence:

Romeo. Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.
Thou talk'st of nothing.


The marvellous talker seems to have achieved his purpose of convincing his friend that dreams are nothing. But he cannot keep him from returning to his premonition and finding very precise words for it. It is remarkable that this first uncertain contact with his fate does not paralyse Romeo like his yearning for the unattainable Rosaline. The unfamiliar energy in his encouragement 'On, lusty gentlemen' (113) suggests that the dreamer has come close to his waking hour.

When the ball begins Juliet has remained a less clearly defined figure than Romeo. Still, she has been characterized by a few telling strokes that we should keep in mind. She has been the subject of a short discussion between her father and Count Paris. We learn from it that 'she hath not seen the change of fourteen years' (I.ii.9) and that Capulet considers his only child to be almost too young for marriage. When she appears herself in Scene I.iii, she cannot say much since the nurse and her mother do most of the talking. When Lady Capulet wants to know her thoughts about marriage and then, quite specifically, about Count Paris as a suitor, her answers are obedient, but also quite noncommittal. In fact, her reply to her mother's brusque main question shows that she can easily compete with the young gentlemen out of doors in the arts of ornate speech and punning and that she is mistress of the diplomatic if sentence:

I'll look to like, if looking liking move,
But no more deep will 1 endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.


Another hint that she is by no means a naive child but a young lady with her wits about her is given where she manages to stop the nurse's overwhelming flow of words by capping her repeated 'it stinted, and said "Ay"' by an energetic: 'And stint thou too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I.' (58) In consequence of this clever punning intervention the nurse's tongue actually comes to a standstill—after a few more spurts of speech, of course—a result Lady Capulet's direct order 'Enough of this, I pray thee, hold thy peace' (49) failed to produce. That Juliet has all sorts of social stratagems at her command appears quite clearly immediately after the meeting scene when, in order to get the name of her new lover out of the nurse without betraying her feelings to the old chatterbox, she has recourse to Cressida's trick,10 pretending interest in more than one of the departing guests.

In the ball scene Juliet enters with the rest of the Capulets and obeys her father's urgent invitation to dance. Romeo, one of the young masquers welcomed by Capulet, disregards this invitation, sticking to his decision to stand aside and watch. He sees Juliet and is struck by her beauty:

What lady's that which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?


His as yet half-conscious desire to touch her hand himself manifests itself in a discreet demonstrative gesture and in the metaphor 'Enrich her hand'. Too busy to listen properly the servant addressed gets rid of the untimely questioner by a bare 'I know not, sir'. Romeo does not insist since he is getting more and more absorbed by the vision before him. As he tries to find words for his reaction, he seems balanced between his new passionate and his former rhetorical self. The first three of his lines surprise by that brilliance and spontaneity which will be his in the balcony scene:

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—

What follows fails to keep to the same level, recalling, by its antithetical elaboration and trite image, Romeo's earlier love oratory:

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'Er her fellows shows.


More important than this relative relapse is the effect of the new, powerful emotion on his mood. He overcomes his old coddled depression and, with it, his passivity for good. His energy is set free, and he wants to contrive a way of moving from the admiring and praising of the beautiful creature before him to the meeting her and the touching of her hand:

The measure done, I'l1 watch her place of stand,
And touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.


Now the dancers disappear and the fascinated observer follows them, making room for the wild scene of the taming of Tybalt by old Capulet. When it is ended Juliet returns and, 'The measure done', is conducted back to her 'place of stand' and left there by her partner.

Romeo approaches, doffs his masque, kneels before Juliet, touches and gently raises her hand offering to kiss it. The effects of this first tender touch, described by Baumgart with so much empathy, make themselves felt. A wave of delight overcomes him, but it cannot render the hero of an early play by Shakespeare speechless. He speaks before the intended kiss and, in order to tame his emotions, he chooses the demanding form of a cross-rhymed quatrain for his first address:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


It is difficult for him to find words and images for the message which has passed from hand to hand with the most convincing urgency. His perturbation is great, and the playwright has seen to it that it leaves its marks on his deceptively smooth lines. Two of them are outstanding. The first is the half-line 'the gentle sin is this', a fragment of a thought, not directly connected with the properly organized sentence that precedes and follows it. Romeo cannot be fully coherent at this moment, breathless and passionate as he is. The dramatic significance of this loose bit of speech has escaped too many editors and critics. Their blindness to it has sent them on a vain chase after emendations or fine-spun explanations trying to make sense of what is not meant to make sense. Another sign of Romeo's turmoil appears in the awkwardness of the imagery in the second part of his quatrain. For a moment the old self-absorbed acolyte of the artificial cult of love asserts himself again in the narcissistic and almost grotesque comparison of his lips to two blushing pilgrims.

We now approach the most decisive and moving moment in this love encounter. So much depends upon Juliet's reaction to Romeo's appeal. With spontaneous empathy she senses his predicament, but she notices his blunders, too. What she says in a quatrain of her own is beyond anything he could have hoped for:

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


It is difficult to do justice to everything she achieves in these words with great ease and naturalness. She enters into the imaginative scene that Romeo has begun to enact—-not quite successfully in consequence of his excitement. She corrects his mistakes and distributes the roles in it properly: For the part of the pilgrim she casts, not the lips of the lover kneeling in front of her, but himself, and for herself she accepts the role, not of an impersonal shrine, but of a personal saint. She quickly withdraws her hand from his, thus refusing the kiss he intended to place on it. This is not done from coyness or shyness, but because her own emotions tell her that a kiss on her hand is no longer enough. So she induces a different development of the playlet in which they are now both passionately engaged. To speak here of scheming and calculation would betray a poorish way of seeing things. The fact is that the girl proves herself more mature than the boy; she takes control of the situation and is able not only to mend Romeo's speech, but to perfect the love that has sprung up in both of them.

In order to understand what is happening to the lovers now we should remember John Keats's version of the Romeo and Juliet theme. At the critical moment in The Eve of St. Agnes, Porphyro is able to enter into Madeline's dream of love,11 a consummation so absolute that the couple cease being human and mortal as they glide by all the obstacles in their way out of the castle into another world of myth and legend. Juliet's perfect response to Romeo's appeal corresponds to Porphyro's passing into Madeline's dream. What happens after the decisive event takes a few minutes in the poem and a few days in the play, but Shakespeare's lovers cannot simply glide away from reality and life; their sufferings and their deaths become as real as their ecstatic happiness.

On hearing Juliet's reply Romeo does not misinterpret the withdrawal of her hand. He feels how completely she is with him, and therefore his bewilderment leaves him at once. He jumps to his feet and boldly asks: 'Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?' As he tries to embrace her they allow free play to their passionate wit and are carried by it to the immense satisfaction of their first kiss:

Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.


As the kiss unites the lovers, the sonnet, the form they have chosen for their coming together, is complete. They should stop now, but their youthful vehemence and desire for another kiss drive them on through an excessive quatrain:

Romeo. Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg'd.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg'd.
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by th' book.


The delight they take in each other betrays them into this anticlimax. As they expand the sonnet their wit becomes more quibbling than before, and Juliet herself is critical of it in her final remark. Behind the fun of going on beyond the limits of the sonnet and of wringing further effect out of its imagery the hint is lurking that this new-born love is too violent to respect forms and conventions and that the excess in it might prove dangerous. Before embarking on the third quatrain the couple may well be lightly touched by the consciousness of this and hesitate a moment, and the words 'Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg'd' may come somewhat hesitatingly from Romeo's lips. It cannot be more than the passing of a white cloud announcing the darker ones which crowd in upon the lovers when they seek and obtain information concerning each other's name and family at the end of the scene. The recognition of what has happened to them makes Romeo cry out:

Is she a Capulet?
O dear account. My life is my foe's debt.


Soon this will be echoed by Juliet's

My only love sprung from my only hate.
Too early seen unknown, and known too late.
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.


When the curious nurse wants to know what she is talking about Juliet's sly answer is subtly balanced between banter and wistfulness:

A rhyme I learn'd even now
Of one I danc'd withal.


Again her savoir faire reminds us of that early maturity which stood her in such good stead when she had to cope with Romeo's first blundering address.

It has been our aim in this essay to show how intimately the sonnet is connected with the gestic events of the meeting scene and how much the importance of its dramatic functions outweighs the decorative ones. By way of conclusion we propose a comparison with the love encounter of Horatio and Belvidera in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, a play with which Shakespeare was certainly acquainted. It may have given him the idea of using a poetic pattern for the purpose of coordinating gestures and words in an intensely emotional scene:

Bel If I be Venus thou must needs be Mars,
And where Mars reigneth there must needs be wars.
Hor. Then thus begin our wars: put forth thy hand,
That it may combat with my ruder hand.
Bel Set forth thy foot to try the push of mine.
Hor. But first my looks shall combat against thine.
Bel Then ward thyself, I dart this kiss at thee.
Hor. Thus I retort the dart thou threw'st at me.
Bel Nay then, to gain the glory of the field,
My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield.
Hor. Nay then, my arms are large and strong withal:
Thus elms by vines are compass'd till they fall.
Bel O let me go, for in my troubled eyes
Now may'st thou read that life in passion dies.
Hor. O stay awhile and I will die with thee,
So shalt thou yield and yet have conquer'd me.12

Kyd produces an extraordinary slow-motion effect by providing a verbal stimulus for every significant gesture in Horatio's and Belvidera's approach to the physical consummation of their love. Some of these provocations to action are ingeniously combined with war imagery, but imagery gives way to direct expression as the scene becomes more passionate. Dialogue and gestures are strictly patterned by a combination of rhymed couplets with stichomythia, so strictly that the movements which are named and executed, either simultaneously or successively, can recall those of mechanical puppets. The whole scene is dominated by the double meaning of the word 'dying', and the playwright makes the most of the terrifying irony in the situation of the couple, who, unlike the audience, do not know that the consummation towards which they are striving will be death for Horatio and catastrophe for Belvidera. A sensational effect is achieved, but the scene adds hardly anything to the delineation of the two figures, mainly because of Kyd's radical concentration on the physical, generic side of their love-making.

Shakespeare accepts the principle of coordinating speech and gesture in a poetic form for the meeting of his lovers. His theme, however, is different. His young lovers, too, are not far from the brink of an abyss, but to begin with he leads them, not towards sexual satisfaction, but to that first experience when love is immense and full of delightful promises, not for the senses alone, but the imagination and the mind as well. In order to achieve this he frees himself of Kyd's pedantic way of relating word and gesture, and he replaces the imagery of war by the images of the saint and the pilgrim. The generic reactions of Horatio and Belvidera are abandoned in favour of personal ones, that permit us to see Romeo and Juliet as individuals. Shakespeare's score for the give and take between the poetic form, speech, imagery, and gesture is written with a light hand, suggestive much rather than coercive, so discreet that its subtleties have often gone unobserved. We hope to have drawn attention to some of them, to the hints especially that Romeo is not suddenly turned into a new man by love at first sight, but moves gradually from his former to his new self, that he is bewildered when he speaks the first quatrain of the sonnet, that it is Juliet's perfect reaction in the second quatrain which gives him confidence and the boldness that carries the couple through the wit combat of the sestet to their first kiss, and that the additional quatrain signals a possibly ominous excess in their love.


1 Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford, 1979), p. 27.

2 Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London, 1968), p. 95.

3 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series (London, 1930), p. 8.

4 J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge, 1967), p. 57.

5 J. L. Styan, Drama, Stage and Audience (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 56f.

6 Inge Leimberg, Shakespeares 'Romeo und Julia ' (München, 1968), p. 149.

7 Wolfgang Baumgart, 'Romeo begegnet Julia' in Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, vol. 206, 1970, pp. 81-95.

8 Baumgart, ibid., p. 87.

9 Quotations are taken from the Arden Edition of the play by Brian Gibbons.

10 Cf. Troilus and Cressida, I.ii.

11 Cf. The Eve of St. Agnes, Stanza XXXVI.

12 Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. by Philip Edwards (London, 1959), II.iv.34-49.

Death And Desire

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William C. Carroll (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "'We Were Born to Die': Romeo and Juliet," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 54-71.

[In the following essay, Carroll explores the juxtaposition of love and death in Romeo and Juliet, viewing the ending of the play as "positive" in that it eternalizes the title characters' love rather than ironically presenting their demise.]

While Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage offstage, their one night in the sheets of love is shaded by the ghostly presence of winding sheets. Tybalt's death hangs over Verona, as old Capulet says to Paris:

Look you, she lov'd her kinsman Tybalt dearly,
And so did I. Well, we were born to die.
'Tis very late, she'll not come down to-night.'



Indeed she won't, for she is dying sexually above even as her father pronounces his platitudes and arranges her hasty marriage to Paris. Juliet governs her own comings and dyings to the end.

Capulet's sententious wisdom, bracketed between a bow to a dead loved one and transactions with a new suitor, reminds us of Romeo and Juliet's constant association of birth, love, and death, from the Nurse's proleptic obituary of Juliet's parallel, Susan (I.iii.18), through the image clusters of wombs, tombs, sex, and death, to the brittle beauty of Liebestod in the final scene. The ending of the play represents the consummation, in all senses, of Romeo and Juliet's love, and its inescapable location in the tomb powerfully focuses our attention on their claustrophobic isolation and triumph. The only "problem" the ending seems to have caused modern readers is whether or not it is "ironic" and, if so, to what extent. Perhaps the most extreme prosecutorial revision of the ending was quoted in Richard Levin's New Readings vs. Old Plays, in which the unnamed critic reported that his background reading left him "with one overriding impression: that the average audience of Romeo and Juliet would have regarded the behavior of the young lovers as deserving everything they got,"2 including, presumably, a double suicide. Other ironic readings focus on the alleged inadequacy or "materialism" of the golden statues raised by the dead lovers' parents. In general, though, the ending of Romeo and Juliet has not provoked the kind of controversy that marks the ending of King Lear, for example. It seems, from one point of view, to be perfectly conventional and appropriate, and so it is, but I do not think we have yet fully understood why it is so.

I return for a moment to Capulet's commonplace that "we were born to die." Similar sentiments are to be heard in other of the tragedies, but in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare goes to great lengths to stress the inevitability of Capulet's vision. Specifically, as many readers have pointed out, Romeo and Juliet contains allusions to, even as it embodies, a journey.3 Feste's song assures us that "journeys end in lovers meeting" (TN,II.iii.4), as they certainly do for Romeo and Juliet (with the suggestive pun meeting = mating), yet we are never allowed to forget that all journeys must end, and that the ending, both goal and foreclosure, determines the shape of the journey itself. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare investigates this teleological puzzle in which the lovers' foreknown end colors the nature of their journey, continually darkening our belief in their potential and actual happiness.

The very existence of the Prologue begins the shadowing, especially with its look toward a "fearful passage" (1.9 ) and the eerie double grammar in which the "pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life" (1. 6), the journey and the suicide collapsed into the simultaneously transitive/intransitive verb. Nowhere but in Shakespeare could we find the journey and its end so economically and chillingly packaged. Romeo, as has often been pointed out, senses this fatality and frequently expresses it in similar terms:

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


Thus the end or "consequence" ironically begins with the beginning (which is why it is "bitter"), the first breath initiating the expiration of the last. Romeo bravely urges on the sea-journey of his fate, asking only that someone ("He") at least direct his course, but he has yet to learn that there is no such thing as an "untimely death."

Throughout the play we will be reminded of journeys and endings. Romeo will tell Juliet that "love" prompted his journey to her, a journey dangerous but potentially rewarding—like Drake's, for example:

I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.


The actual journey Romeo makes—to "sojourn in Mantua" (III.iii.169)—is not as far as the farthest sea, but might as well be, since he will never see Juliet alive (or awake) again. In a conceit as tedious as its speaker, Capulet takes Juliet's tears as the occasion on which to launch her metaphorical journey:

In one little body
Thou counterfeits a bark, a sea, a wind:
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs,
Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,
Without a sudden calm, will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body.


The irony of Capulet's fatuous prophecy becomes more evident when Juliet launches herself on an even riskier course of action by taking both the Friar's advice and his potion, intending to join Romeo later in Mantua. When Juliet's "dead" body is discovered, her mother's lament borrows a now familiar trope: "Most miserable hour that e'Er time saw/ In lasting labor of his pilgrimage!" (IV.v.44-45). The pilgrimage of time ought never to be a surprise, but it always is. Capulet recapitulates the play's paradox of beginnings and endings when he tells Paris that Death has "lain with thy wife. There she lies,/ Flower as she was, deflowered by him" (IV.v.36-37). Youth, defloration, death: they turn out to be the same thing, even verbally, as a single pun compresses the beginning, fulfillment, and end of life into a single sour irony. Perhaps the lovers are not entirely pretending when, after their one night together, they cannot agree on whether it is day or night, nightingale or lark, "more light and light" or "more dark and dark" (III.v.36). In fact, the play continually suggests that such distinctions are really identities.

"In lasting labor of his pilgrimage"—Lady Capulet's allusion—deepens the idea of the journey by suggesting the longest journey, the pilgrimage of earthly life. Shakespeare has hinted at this more resonant metaphor earlier, in the famous sonnet of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting:

Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


This is kissing by the book, to be sure, but even the audience can scarcely anticipate the rough touch of death these young pilgrims will finally experience in the ultimate shrine of love. However innocently the pilgrimage is invoked here, Shakespeare clearly knew the word's root and medieval meaning.4

Something more than image-clusters and iterated verbal signs points to a pilgrimage in Romeo and Juliet, however. In their brief moment on the stage, Romeo and Juliet recapitulate the emblematic moments of all human life—beginning, middle, and end—making the structure and movement of the play seem to follow the main lines of the ultimate pilgrimage plot, Everyman, or even more to the point, Lusty Juventus. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare was consciously imitating either of these plays, though the evidence for his knowledge of the Morality tradition has long been documented, and several other plays have been shown to have a "deep structure" derived from the typical Morality plot.5 What I want to suggest here, instead, is that Romeo and Juliet becomes far more powerful when we recognize the deepest analogy it offers.

Romeo and Juliet are rarely alone on the stage, as many readers have noted. They are almost always entangled in family webs of one sort or another, the feud being the largest one, surrounded by well-meaning but interfering authority figures who guide and misguide their lives. On three well-chosen occasions, however, Shakespeare isolates his lovers to focus our understanding of their life. The first of these moments, in the balcony scene, locates us in familiar emblematic geography—in the hortus conclusus of Capulet's walled orchard.6 As Rosalie Colie has noted about this moment, "The virgin is, and is in, a walled garden: the walls of that garden are to be breached by a true lover, as Romeo leaps into the orchard."7 As is usual for the lovers, though, the outside world intrudes soon enough, this time in the form of the Nurse's persistent voice offstage. Their physical positions on the stage are also significant: Romeo below, Juliet above.

The second scene of isolation is predictable—the bedroom, or the balcony just outside it, after the night of consummation. Moreover, in contrast to his source Arthur Brooke, Shakespeare gives the lovers only this single night together, heightening the pathos and incidentally isolating the moment even further. Physically, this seems to be the same "upper station" at which Juliet appeared earlier.8 But even this lovely aubade is darkened by death, and Romeo leaves with the kind of line that he might speak in the final scene in the tomb: "Farewell, farewell! One kiss, and I'll descend" (III.v.42). The lovers' physical positions—first both above, then one descending—seem emblematic again. Juliet follows Romeo's descent in a fearful imagining:

O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Mcthinks I see thee now, thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.


Romeo later relates an ironic inversion of this vision, just before he hears of Juliet's "death":

.. . all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
1 dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breath'd such life with kisses in my lips
That I reviv'd and was an emperor.


This romance fantasy of exaltation and rebirth is not only youthful wishing but also the fairy-tale fulfillment which the play is designed to counteract. The audience should know, even if Romeo does not, that what goes up must come down. Romeo's descent from the momentary elevation of Act III, Scene v is permanent. Once again, too, it is the Nurse who has interrupted the lovers' idyll.

The third moment in which Romeo and Juliet are alone together on stage is of course the final scene in the tomb. Much has been written about this scene as the inevitable completion of the tomb-womb theme, the logical result of the blood feud in Verona, and as a powerfully dramatic moment in its own right. I will examine the scene in more detail shortly. I would like now to observe its place in a line of images: from garden through bedroom to tomb, from courtship through sexual completion to death. These are the Three Ages of Man, as it were, the major emblematic moments in the pilgrimage of earthly life. Even the stage blocking reflects this movement: the lovers separated, one below and one above; the lovers united above, till one descends; and the lovers united below, forever.

These three moments provide a linear and irreversible chronological sequence, finally emblematic of the earthly pilgrimage. They are also all the same moment. Each scene takes place at night, each contains similar language and double-entendres, each emphasizes the isolation of the lovers. Moreover, each scene represents a dream displacement of female sexuality, from the walled garden and the actual marital bed to Romeo's explicit references at the tomb to the "womb of death" (V.iii.45) and the "palace of dim night" (V.iii. 107) where "Death is amorous" (V.iii.103) and has become Romeo's rival. For once, the lovers will not be interrupted before they can complete their making of love and death: Romeo: "Thus with a kiss I die" (V.iii. 120); and Juliet: "O happy dagger,/ This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die" (V.iii. 170).

Several other incidents in the final act increase this momentum towards mortality. In "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet," Brooke alludes to an apothecary, for example, from whom Romeus can buy poison, but Shakespeare gives his apothecary a most unusual appearance and inventory:9

meagre were his looks.
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones;
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff d, and other skins
Of ill-shap'd fishes, and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses
Were thinly scattered, to make up a show.


Clearly the agent of dismemberment and death, the cadaverous apothecary anticipates later merchants of mortality like the gravedigger in Hamlet or the country clown in Antony and Cleopatra.10 The random assortment of corpses, skins, and musty seeds reminds us also of the tomb itself, both as Juliet imagines it (in IV.iii) and as Romeo finds it (in V.iii). Thus the cause and effect of death are linked together, as they also are in the Apothecary's report to Romeo that the penalty of selling death is in fact death (11. 66-67).

In this speech, the iconography of death is heard but not seen. As we move toward the death-embrace in the tomb, Shakespeare similarly works to displace the visual, to remove part of the play from a strictly dramatic focus, and direct us towards other kinds of understanding. This process withdraws Romeo and Juliet from the temporal confinement of the drama proper and lifts the lovers toward other realms. Romeo's description of the Apothecary and his shop, not present in Brooke, begins the process. The stuffed animals, finally, also anticipate the lovers' memorialization in the form of statues.

Shakespeare also deletes from Brooke the few intimations of Romeo's vanity, as when he fantasizes "that if nere unto her he offered up his breath,/ That then an hundred thousand parts more glorious were his death" (11. 2553-54), or when he admires his own actions:

What Epitaph more worth, or halfe so excellent,
To consecrate my memorye, could any man invente,
As this, our mutuell, and our piteous sacrifice
Of lyfe, set light for love.

(II. 2649-52)

Shakespeare has none of this, but dramatizes instead a singleminded drive in Romeo to rejoin Juliet with a minimum of meditation, just as Antony seeks Cleopatra once he has heard of her "death." Romeo's rhetoric itself changes with the anticipation of death: he expects that the poison will work so "that the life-weary taker may fall dead" (V.i.62). This phrasal tmesis, of the weary life-taker, shows that the taker of the poison knows the sort of gap he will soon have to leap. The poison, he continues, will work as quickly as "hasty powder fir'd" hurries from the "fatal cannon's womb" (11. 64, 65). All three phrases once again compress cause and effect, beginning and ending. Everything in the play, it seems, works to isolate the lovers in both love and death.

The abandonment at the edge of death makes the suicides almost unbearably pathetic. But the loss of all worldly advisors at the lip of the grave ought also to seem a familiar dramatic moment. Just as Everyman, for example, is abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, Beauty, Discretion, and so on, and accompanied into the grave only by Good-Deeds, so Romeo and Juliet are progressively and cruelly abandoned by their worldly advisors, those meddling adults who tell them how to live but cannot help them die. These young lovers' lives may end in tragedy unless they receive proper counsel, as Montague says about Romeo's initial melancholy: "Black and portendous must this humor prove,/ Unless good counsel may the cause remove" (I.i.141-42). For now, he continues, Romeo is "his own affections' counsellor" (I.i.147), but his affections cannot be easily governed, as we see. Both Romeo and Juliet seek desperately for counsel throughout the play, for a worldly guide on the vast pilgrimage.11 Mother, father, friends, nurse, priest—all will fail and abandon them.

The play makes us believe a contradiction, that the lovers are self-sufficient but that they also need guidance and advice. The self-sufficiency is suggested in those few scenes where they exist alone on the stage and together seem all in all, their own affections' counselors. In the balcony scene, Juliet wonders who has spoken to her: "What man art thou that thus bescreen'd in night/ So stumblest on my counsel?" (Il.ii.52-53). Her counsel is with herself now, though she will soon seek the aid of the Friar, ironically already present in the verb "stumblest." As the lovers thrill to their first discoveries of love, their rhetoric suggests the fulfillment of a fragile fantasy. Romeo has arrived in the walled garden, he tells us: "With love's light wings did I o'Erperch these walls,/ For stony limits cannot hold love out" (Il.ii.66-67). Still, the stony limits of the world, not to mention the tomb, soon require them to find wordly advice. For now, hermetically sealed off, they guide their own destinies:

Juliet. By whose direction foundst thou out this place?
Romeo. By love, that first did prompt me to inquire;
He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes.
I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.


Every parent eventually seems a senex iratus, no doubt. Certainly the Capulets and Montagues vary little from the stereotypical blocking figures of New Comedy. The young lovers turn instead to the equally sexless but more sympathetic Nurse and Friar for help. Even Lady Capulet bids the Nurse stay and "hear our counsel" (I.iii.9). These usages of the word merely prepare for the far more urgent and dangerous counsel required after Tybalt's death. When the Friar proposes that Romeo journey to Mantua, the Nurse is thrilled, in a speech hedged with irony: "O Lord, I could have stay'd here all the night/ To hear good counsel. O, what learning is!" (III.iii. 159-60). But the Nurse fails signally when Juliet asks her how she can avoid the calamity of marrying Paris: "Comfort me, counsel me! . . . Some comfort, nurse" (III.v.208, 212). Worldly Wisdom, as it usually does, errs badly, for the Nurse recommends that Juliet marry Paris, incidentally committing bigamy, because all is lost and besides "Romeo's a dishclout to him" (III.v.219). Juliet is stunned, as we all are—"Speak'st thou from thy heart?" (1. 226)—and sarcastically thanks her: "Well, thou hast comforted me marvelous much" (1. 230). Morally, the Nurse has abandoned Juliet, and they can never be intimate again. As the Nurse leaves the stage, Juliet emotionally turns from her forever:

Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath prais'd him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counselor,
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I'11 to the friar to know his remedy;
If all else fail, myself have power to die.


Turning from the Nurse's too-worldly wisdom to the Friar's religious perspective will not make any ultimate difference, but the lovers are too young to go it alone. We hear in the ominous rhyme remedy-die the logical outcome of worldly counsel in this play, and we hear again the paradox of circular identity in which beginnings are endings and solutions are dissolutions.

Juliet will find in the Friar guidance more moral but also more dangerous. The terminology of Juliet's supplication remains the same:

Therefore, out of thy long-experienc'd time,
Give me some present counsel, or, behold,
'Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife
Shall play the umpeer. . . .


Her petition ends with the ominously recurrent pun, "I long to die,/ If what thou speak'st speak not of remedy" (IV.i.66-67). The Friar's advice is well-meant but desperate, "a thing like death" (IV.i.74). Juliet must begin to enact her fate alone, for with Romeo banished, she sends her mother and the Nurse away before she drinks the potion—"Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again" (IV.iii. 14)—though she once tries to call the Nurse back "to comfort me" (1. 17). But "My dismal scene I needs must act alone" (1. 19). Among the most terrible things she imagines, as she takes the potion, is her isolation in the womb of death, "stifled in the vault," before Romeo comes "to redeem me" (1. 32). Redemption from the tomb represents everyone's deepest desire, but it won't come to pass here. As with Everyman, the imagination of death constitutes the final isolation.

The portents and emblems around the final scene, then, are inevitable and severe. All earthly life has been an ironic rehearsal of this moment. The lovers, it seems, have always slept in "this palace of dim night." The message sent to Romeo has failed because of the plague; Romeo has killed his rival and sent away his servant; Friar Lawrence stumbles over graves. What more could happen? It is the end of the road, the consummation of the pilgrimage, and Romeo knows it:

O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.


Romeo lives a lifetime in a few days. Like a beast of burden after a long day, this abandoned child, who has presciently told us "I am no pilot" (II.ii.82), now crosses the bar and brings his journey to an end:

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here's to my love! [Drinks.]


The bravery these children reveal as they seal "a dateless bargain to engrossing death" (1. 115) thrills even the most jaded among us, in part because Shakespeare contrives to isolate them so completely. At the very last moment, the scene spectrally illuminating "grubs and eyeless skulls" (1. 126), Juliet awakens, still looking towards the "comfortable friar" (1. 148) for counsel and help. But this last worldly advisor, after offering to "dispose" of Juliet in a nunnery, inexplicably abandons her ("I dare no longer stay"—1. 159), and Juliet's dismissal of him echoes her earlier farewell to the Nurse: "Go get thee hence, for I will not away" (1. 160). Now they are alone, together, forever. Death is a relief.

The sense of closure at the end of Romeo and Juliet overwhelms us. Everything—theme, image, and structure—has led to this point in the tomb. Moreover, because the play has insisted on the identity of beginnings and endings, we are under a severe obligation to attend to the play's own ending as closely as possible. Here I particularly want to invoke the ways in which Shakespeare's ending deviates from that of Brooke's poem, for the deviations become quite frequent and significant in the final act. We have already seen Shakespeare's addition to the apothecary; even more strikingly, Brooke's Paris does not appear to be killed in the final scene, as he does in Shakespeare. But most significantly, Shakespeare rejects Brooke's religious orthodoxy altogether. This is most surprising, considering the language Brooke employs. Of course, Shakespeare frequently seems to avoid explicit religious declarations, while Brooke's Romeus, when he feels the poison working, makes a speech that seems perfectly in keeping with the iterative imagery of womb-tomb and descent-ascent we have seen in Romeo and Juliet:

Lord Christ, that so to raunsome me
deseendedst long agoe
Out of thy fathers bosome, and in the virgins
Didst put on flesh, Oh let my plaint out of
this hollow toombe,
Perce through the ayre. . . .

(11. 2674-77)

This spiritual analogy, with its intimations of redemption, suggests the survival of Romeus in another time. But Shakespeare prefers to work for pathos in the final scene, and wants to emphasize loss rather than redemption. Therefore he does not reach for the spiritual analogy, just as he also passes up another clenching image in Juliet's last words:

O welcome death (quoth she) end of unhappmes,
That also art beginning of assured happines;

. . . our parted sprites, from light that we see here,
In place of endlesse light and blisse, may ever live yfere.

(11. 2773-74, 2787-88)

The end that is a beginning that is in fact endless—the play insists on this point elsewhere, but Shakespeare here rejects the too-easy final connection, the promise of a spiritual "endlesse light," and he makes his young lovers (by contrast with Brooke's) unreflective. Indeed, Juliet has no time to think, while Romeo's speech is studded with images of linear completion and closure: the "doors of breath" will be sealed, the journey completed (or shipwrecked), the everlasting rest achieved. No beginnings here, no final emblem of hope.

No final emblem of hope, in fact, is necessary or even possible. As we have seen, the play everywhere demonstrates that this last stage has always been present, that the love of Romeo and Juliet already contains its own beginning and end. Since death is a necessary part of their love,1hen it is an end that is endless. The lovers do not need any final hope, and the audience is denied a visibly convincing one—not out of a cynical or ironic motive, I think, but because Shakespeare is working towards something far more difficult, something literally un-thinkable: Romeo and Juliet are absolutely dead, but they have achieved the endless end.

The Friar's speech of self-defense is longer in Brooke (77 lines, with yet further paraphrases) than in Shakespeare (40 lines), but the real difference is in where the speech is delivered. In Shakespeare, the Friar and the corpses remain in the tomb for the rest of the play. But in Brooke,

The prince did straight ordaine, the corses that wer founde
Should be set forth upon a stage, hye raysed from the grounde,
Right in the selfe same fourme, (shewde forth to all mens sight)
That in the hollow valt they had been found that other night.

(11. 2817-20)

The Friar must join them, and justify himself:

The holy fryer now, and reverent by his age,
In great reproche set to the shew upon the open stage,
(A thing that ill beseemde a man of silver heares).

(II. 2825-27)

"Upon a stage"? How could Shakespeare have resisted it, especially when we see the heroes and heroines of later tragedies so frequently associated with a stage? The theatrical metaphor, as many readers have noted, almost comers to be expected at or near the end of the tragedies: Hamlet speaks to the "audience to this act" (V.ii.335) and his corpse is to be borne "like a soldier to the stage" (V.ii.396); and rather than allowing rude mechanicals to stage her story, Cleopatra acts her own death—"perform'd the dreaded act" (V.ii.331), as Dolabella says. The theatrical metaphor is not inevitable, of course, but it is so available here. Why not use it?

The staging of Brooke's ending would have become openly emblematic, moreover, as the lovers ascend once more, and to a stage at that. But this seems to be precisely why Shakespeare did not adopt the idea, for he wants to keep the lovers in the tomb. There is no escape, not through pious orthodoxy, not through some convenient eternizing self-consciousness, and certainly not through a play. In fact, the play becomes steadily less "dramatic," less obviously a play. Perhaps the most important thing about the Friar's speech is not what it says, for we have all seen what it recounts, but the fact that it is spoken at all. It translates the dramatic action of the play into another form—into narrative, into oratory.12 The speech is conspicuously unnecessary in terms of the plot; though the Friar must exonerate himself, he is under much greater suspicion in Brooke. No, Shakespeare turns down the clenching allusions to new beginnings and the inevitable stage metaphor so that there may be no hint, no suggestion of a rebirth, religious or dramatic. He insists on the lovers' end. And Shakespeare further removes us from the lovers by retaining the Friar's long speech. Yet even here, Shakespeare deviates radically from Brooke. Brooke's Friar is unremittingly pious, marking his own guilt, looking forward to his own end, invoking the pilgrimage motif, anticipating his "great accompt, which no man else for me shall undertake . . . before the judgement seate of everlasting powre" (11. 2852, 2854). Naturally, Brooke's Friar invokes Christ and his pity as well, while Shakespeare's Friar makes none of these gestures. Instead, he tells us the plot again, a "tedious tale" (V.iii.230) for the audience if not the characters. To tell us what we have seen is not only necessarily to misrepresent what we have seen, but to alter its very nature. Shakespeare eliminates the piety of Brooke's Friar, eliminates the more elaborate self-justification, takes him off the stage, and simply makes him tell the plot. Since we have seen the play, we can judge how well the Friar tells it, and we find his story accurate but not the truth. His version of this story is no doubt more faithful to fact than Horatio's condensation of Hamlet's story, but it fails in all sorts of ways. Shakespeare's Friar removes the story of Romeo and Juliet from the life of drama, in short, but we remain in the tomb, with Romeo and Juliet, their bodies lying before us in an embrace. The lovers are being transfigured, all right, but from drama into myth, from action into stasis. We shall finally see their petrifaction, as statues, to complete the movement.

The presence of an "inquest" after the protagonists' death recurs in many of the tragedies—the explanation of Cleopatra's suicide, the entrance and declaration of Fortinbras. The process of explanation begins to "withdraw" us from the tragic world. We meet the surviving figure of "order," and we sense the inadequacy of the world that survives.13 In Romeo and Juliet, the inquest begins very early in the final scene, and has somewhat different aims, I think. We withdraw not only from the lovers, but from drama itself. Shakespeare's final deviation from Brooke reemphasizes this point. Brooke's narrator, not the characters, reports the memorialization of the lovers:

And lest that length of time might from our myndes remove
The memory of so perfect, sound, and so approved love,
The bodies dead removed from vaulte where they did dye,
In stately tombe, on pillers great, of marble rayse they hye.
On every syde above, were set and eke beneath,
Great store of cunning Epitaphes, in honor of theyr death.


Thus the actual bodies are elevated and memorialized, and written inscriptions offered, while in Shakespeare a far more controversial proposal is made:

Montague. But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
Capulet. As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity!


Of the actual bodies, which still lie before us on the stage (along with those of Paris and Tybalt), there is no mention. They have already ceased to exist, dramatically speaking, because they cannot move. They have become icons, a complex emblematic tableau which is being framed and distanced by the minute. Their story has been transmuted into an incomplete and passionless narrative, their bodies ignored while representations of their bodies are measured and discussed. This ending shows Shakespeare uncannily aware of the possibilities and limitations of representation itself.

Rosalie Colie argues that in the statues the "lovers are preserved in a nearly Ovidian way, not as plants, but in an ecphrasis, as memorial statues exemplifying a specific lesson to future generations."14 This is a useful observation, but it elides the real difference: in Ovid's version of Pyramus and Thisby, the plants live on, forever, stained with and therefore bearing the lovers' blood. But statues cannot breathe, not until The Winter's Tale in any case. Shakespeare insists on the gap between bodies and statues, rather than an Ovidian continuity. James L. Calderwood offers by far the most elaborate explanation of the statues. For him, they embody the play's chief values, public and private:

If the lovers' nominalistic conception of speech implies a verbal purity bordering on nonspeech, here in the silence of the statues is that stillness; and if their love has aspired to a lyric stasis, here too in the fixity of plastic form is that stillness. But by being publicly available—representing the lovers and their value but representing them for the Veronese audience—the statues surpass the aspirations and expressive aims of the lovers. The communicative gap between the private secret love and the social order oblivious to the existence of that love is bridged—and this seems the major significance of the statues—by artistic form.15

This is very good, but perhaps it is too good. It expands upon a slender reference and pictures something we don't even see. The statue scene in The Winter's Tale, or even the songs at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, sum up their plays more convincingly. Nor am I certain that "stillness" and "stasis" are virtues quite so unmixed.

Both Colie and Calderwood strain for a "positive" reading of the end, which is in fact a welcome gesture after so many recent ironic readings.16 I also find in the statues, and especially their golden nature, an eternizing gesture. But what do the statues actually eternize? Certainly not the love of Romeo and Juliet. Colie sees the statues representing "a specific lesson to future generations," though it is hard to imagine what that "lesson" could be; and Calderwood believes that some "communicative gap" between the secret love and the social order will be bridged. But this is exactly what will not happen: the gap is in fact established by the statues. The characters in the play offer their own "positive" ending, and for them, it is sufficient, or as much as they can manage: an eternal memory to the resolution of their feud and to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but not to their love. One can move beyond this "positive" reading of the end without embracing an entirely "ironic" revisionist reading. For nothing could memorialize their love. It achieves its own perfection. While the others talk and statues are promised, the lovers' bodies continue to lie before us on the stage, locked in an embrace of permanence. The bodies render everything else unnecessary, and impossible.

In the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare alters the very nature of the theatrical experience to produce quite a different kind of experience. The reference to the statues comes at the end of a sequence of representations, and therefore withdrawals—moments in which the lovers' vital nature fades away as they are transfigured and slowly petrified. From life to death, from drama to icon, from flesh to metal—the ending of the play not only confirms Capulet's maxim that "we were born to die," but also suggests that no representation of their love, other than drama, could satisfy. The statues can represent the lovers not as a single identity—their love—but only as separate entities—their bodies, hence their deaths. The play ends with the bodies still before us, the sun refusing to rise (for the final descent has been final), the drama of their love left even further behind; they end as they began, the subjects of a rhyming epigram, a final closed representation of their "story," a last attempt to represent the endless end: "For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."


1 All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans (Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1974). Hereafter cited in the text.

2 Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 152. In The Music of the Close (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1978), Walter C. Foreman, Jr., says very little about the end of Romeo and Juliet.

3 The motif of the journey has frequently been discussed, beginning I believe with Moody Prior, The Language of Tragedy (1947; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 69-70. See also the remarks of James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1971), pp. 109-10. The best comment on the journey as an element of tragic structure is by Maynard Mack, "The Jacobean Shakespeare," Jacobean Theater, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1960; rpt. New York: Capricorn Books, 1967), pp. 35-38.

4 Cf. AYL: "how brief the life of man/ Runs his erring pilgrimage" (III.ii.129-30); Lr: "and from first to last/ Told him our pilgrimage" (V.iii.196-97); and lH4: "pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings" (I.ii.126).

5 For a famous example, see Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958); also Edmund Creeth, Mankynde in Shakespeare (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976). Alan C. Dessen has recently reviewed the issue in "Homilies and Anomalies: The Legacy of the Morality Play to the Age of Shakespeare," Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 243-58. For a recent dissenting view, see John Wasson, "The Morality Play: Ancestor of Elizabethan Drama?" Comparative Drama, 13 (1979), 210-21. Wasson argues that folk plays and miracle plays are more likely ancestors.

6 In Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947), Harley Granville-Barker describes the probable staging of this scene (II, 306).

7 Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 145.

8 In "The Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Quarterly, 5 (1954), Richard Hosley describes these moments. He shows as well that only those scenes require the upper station; thus the final tomb scene would have been below, on the main stage with perhaps some use of the discovery space.

9 In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), 278-83, Geoffrey Bullough summarizes the major points of comparison. Quotations from Brooke, hereafter cited in the text, are from this edition.

10 Perhaps Dickens was recalling the apothecary in his description of Mr. Venus' shop in Our Mutual Friend, ed. Stephen Gill (Baltimore: Penguin, 1971), where we find "human warious" as well as "Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird" (I, vii).

11 As one of its definitions of "counsel," the OED records: "One of the Advisory declarations of Christ and the apostles, in mediaeval theology reckoned as twelve, which are considered not to be universally binding, but to be given as a means of attaining greater moral perfection." The word recurs through many Morality plays, especially The Interlude of Youth and Tide Tarrieth No Man. In Enough Is as Good as a Feast, Worldly Man admits, "By my truth, me thinks I begin to war sick./ In sending away my counsellor I was somewhat too quick" (11. 1219-20) (English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, ed. Edgar T. Schell and J. D. Shuchter [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969]). In several plays, such as Horestes and Cambises, one of the allegorical figures is actually named Counsel. In Lusty Juventus, the central figure of virtue is Good Counsaill, and the prologue explains "in this interlude by youth you shall see plain,/ From his lust by Good Counsel brought to godly conversation" (The Dramatic Writings of Richard Wever and Thomas Ingelend, ed. John S. Farmer [1905; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966], p. 3.)

12 Granville-Barker justifies the Friar's story "because the play's true end is less in the death of the star-crossed lovers than in the burying of their parents' strife" (II, 323), a reading which seems to me quite wrong. Clifford Leech, however, says that the speech "is surely an indication of an ultimate withdrawal from the tragic: the speech is too much like a preacher's resumé of the events on which a moral lesson will be based," in "The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," English Renaissance Drama, ed. Standish Henning et al (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), p. 70.

13 Cf. Mack and Foreman, passim.

14 Colie, p. 146.

15 Calderwood, p. 117.

16 Leech finds it "difficult for us to get interested in these statues, or to take much joy in the feud's ending" (p. 71), and also points out the "curious ambivalence in the fact that the statues are golden" (p. 172, n. 15), since Romeo equates gold with poison earlier (V.i.80). I am greatly indebted to my colleague Stuart H. Johnson for helping me with this final section.

Catherine Belsey (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet," in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 126-42.

[In the following essay, Belsey observes that Romeo and Juliet is a play about desire, and examines the ways in which culture and language construct erotic longing. ]


Is the human body inside or outside culture? Is it an organism, subject only to nature and independent of history? Or alternatively is it an effect of the signifier, no more than an ensemble of the meanings ascribed to it in different cultures, and thus historically discontinuous? Or, a third possibility, is this question itself reductive, a product of our wish to assign unambiguous causes and straightforward explanations?

When it comes to sexual desire, our culture is dominated by two distinct and largely contradictory models, both metaphysical in their assumption that we can identify what is fundamental in human nature. One metaphysic proposes that sex is a matter of the body, originating in the flesh and motivated by it, however people might deceive themselves with fantasies about romance. The other holds that love is a marriage of true minds, and that sex is (or ought to be) the bodily expression of this ideal relationship. Both models take for granted a dualist account of what it is to be a person, a mind on the one hand, and a body on the other, one of them privileged, the two either in harmony or in conflict. This dualism is associated with the Enlightenment and the moment of its crystallization is the Cartesian cogito.1

But in practice desire deconstructs the opposition between mind and body. Evidently it exists at the level of the signifier, as it imagines, fantasizes, idealizes. Desire generates songs and poetry and stories. Talking about it is pleasurable. At the same time, however, desire palpably inhabits the flesh, and seeks satisfaction there. Desire undoes the dualism common sense seems so often to take for granted.

The human body, we might want to argue in the light of our postmodernity, is subject to the imperatives of nature, but at the same time it does not exist outside culture. It owes to the differentiating symbol its existence as a single unit, with edges, limits. Psychoanalysis adds the presence of the symptom, evident on the body, the mark not of organic disease but of disorder at the level of the signifier, and psychoanalysis identifies the 'talking cure' as the disorder's remedy.2 Desire, it urges, is an effect of difference, in excess of the reproductive drive. Furthermore, it knows itself as desire to the degree that it reads both the signifying practices of the body and the cultural forms in which desire makes sense. It is not possible to isolate the human body as natural organism, even methodologically: such a body would precisely not be human.

Romeo and Juliet is a play about desire. It is also a text poised on the brink of the Enlightenment, and it can be read, I want to suggest, as engaging with some of these issues, putting forward for examination in the process paradoxes that, for all the historical difference, a postmodern moment can find sympathetic. The bodies of the lovers are inscribed and, crucially, tragically, named. Their own account of love, while it displays a longing to escape the constraints of the symbolic order, reveals in practice precisely the degree to which it is culture that enables love to make sense. In Romeo and Juliet desire imagines a metaphysical body that cannot be realized.


Though there can be no doubt that Renaissance culture was profoundly and distinctively patriarchal, one sphere in which Shakespeare's women are perfectly equal to men is their capacity for experiencing sexual desire. Venus, Cleopatra, Portia in The Merchant of Venice,3 and, of course, Juliet, are presented as sharing with their near-contemporaries, Alice Arden, the Duchess of Malfi, Beatrice-Joanna and Ford's Annabella, for example, an intensity of passion which is not evidently exceeded by that attributed to the men they love. These women are shown as subjects and agents of their own desire, able to speak of it and to act on the basis of it.

Meanwhile, Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex assembles persuasive documentation from the Greeks to the Renaissance of similar assumptions among European analysts of physiology and anatomy. Laqueur finds in this distinct sphere of knowledge, which is also, of course, a distinct discursive genre, what he calls the 'one-sex' model of the human body. The one-sex understanding of the body prevailed, he argues, until modern science redefined women and men as opposite and antithetical sexes. In the one-sex body the sexual organs are understood to be similarly distributed among men and women, though externally visible in men and internal in women. Thus the vagina commonly corresponds to the penis, the uterus to the scrotum, and so on. Laqueur is clear about the implications of this account for the understanding of erotic impulses themselves: both sexes were capable of intense sexual pleasure; both sexes experienced desire. Indeed, it was widely held that female pleasure was necessary to conception, and this was consequently seen as an important project of male sexual activity. Desire was not in any sense a masculine prerogative. On the contrary,

The process of generation might differ in its nuances as the vital heats, the seeds, and the physical qualities of the substances being ejaculated differed between the sexes—but libido, as we might call it, had no sex.4

Some Renaissance physicians would have gone even further. Jacques Ferrand, for example, whose second treatise on lovesickness was published in Paris in 1623, argues that, being less rational than men, women are correspondingly more subject to violent erotic desires, and less able to resist their own impulses. A woman, according to Ferrand, 'is in her Loves more Passionate, and more furious in her follies, then a man is'.5

Laqueur does not, of course, imply that the one-sex body was the product of a less patriarchal culture. On the contrary, the male body represented the ideal of perfection; the female body, meanwhile, differed from it because women possessed less of the vital heat which pushed the sexual organs outwards. But the difference was one of degree, Laqueur insists, not kind. Women, less perfect than men, were in consequence less entitled to power and prestige. But they were not men's opposite, passive and passionless where men were active and desiring. That antithesis belongs to a later epoch.

Renaissance medical knowledge is neither a source of the plays nor a guarantee of their meanings. It is too easily supposed that we can read off the true meaning of fictional texts from the other knowledges of the period, as if the culture somehow shared a single, homogeneous account of the world, and was in that respect simpler, less diverse than our own.6 We should not now expect popular romance to depict the world in the same way as psychoanalysis, and even current pornography frequently takes precious little account of elementary anatomy. I invoke Laqueur's extremely valuable work here simply as additional evidence that it was possible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to imagine female desire, and even to take it seriously.

But there are also significant generic differences between Renaissance anatomy and Renaissance fiction. In the medical treatises libido had no necessary moral implications: this was a knowledge which set out to record the world it found in the authorities and in experience. The drama, however, makes no attempt at value-free analysis. It cannot avoid showing the implications of the passions it depicts, and consequently it tends, whether incidentally or as its main project, to offer an assessment and evaluation of female desire. But the judgements it makes are by no means univocal or monolithic. As my examples suggest, desire may lead women into bad ways (Arden of Faversham, The Changeling); it may be radically misdirected ( 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), or innocent in itself but unfortunate in its consequences (The Duchess of Malfi); its moral status may be profoundly ambiguous (Antony and Cleopatra); it may be seen as lyrical but at the same time absurd (Venus and Adonis). But alternatively, desire reciprocated may be the foundation of conjugal marriage and (we are invited to assume) the nuclear family, as it is in Shakespeare's comedies. It was the Enlightenment, according to Laqueur, which insisted on the two-sex model of male and female bodies, the woman's lacking what defined the man's. And it was also the Englightenment which tended to polarize male erotic activity and female passivity. Not until the nineteenth century was it established as a fact of nature that good women had no sexual feelings at all. The oppositional stereotypes of sexless virgin and voracious whore are not helpful in making sense of the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.


There was of course a convention, not that women should feel nothing, but that they should appear aloof in order to intensify male desire. This is the convention that Juliet unwittingly breaks when she declares her love at her window, only to be overhead by Romeo. It is quite late in their discussion, however, that she alludes, perhaps rather perfunctorily, to the proprieties of female behaviour: 'Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny What I have spoke, but farewell compliment!' (Romeo and Juliet, II.2.88-89). The moment for observing the conventions has clearly passed, and propriety itself soon becomes matter for a teasing romantic overture on her part: 'If thou thinkest I am too quickly won, I'll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay, So thou wilt woo, but else not for the world' (II.2.95-97).

At the heart of the play it is Juliet who speaks most eloquently and urgently to define, perhaps on behalf of both lovers, the desire experienced in the secret life of the body:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging; such a waggoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.


The opening imperative, in conjunction with the image of the pounding, burning hooves, suggests the speeding pulses and the impatient ardour of desire, as well as its barely controlled power, and the allusion to Phaeton which follows evokes the boy's failure to manage Apollo's unruly horses, and so implies a surrender of what remains of restraint. Juliet's speech is entirely explicit in its invocation of love performed, acted, possessed and enjoyed. Their wedding night will be 'a winning match Play'd' between a symmetrically and reciprocally desiring couple 'for a pair of stainless maidenhoods' (11. 12-13). This necessarily clandestine love—perhaps the more thrilling because it is clandestine, because the fear of discovery intensifies the danger and the excitement7—is to be enacted in secret, in total darkness, and in silence:

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That [th'] runaways's eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalk'd of and unseen!
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties.


The (bed-)curtain of the dark is to exclude all outsiders, and the runaway god of love himself will close his eyes,8 so that no one sees their union, not even the lovers. If 'see' is a metaphor (1.8), they are to be guided in the performance of their amorous rites by the beauty of each other's bodies. Love, the conceit implies, has no need of light, since its mode of 'seeing' is tactile, sensational. And the syntax here might lead us to suppose that if the lovers are 'unseen' by themselves as well as other people, so too, perhaps, the act is 'untalk'd of by the lovers, since speech is also superfluous. Indeed, night is invited to obscure even the signifying practices of the virgin body: 'Hood my unmann'd blood, bating [fluttering] in my cheeks, With thy black mantle' (11.14-15). It is as if Juliet imagines the presence of the desiring bodies as pure sensation, sightless, speechless organisms in conjunction, flesh on flesh, independent of the signifier. A rose by any other name, she had earlier supposed, would smell as sweet (II.2.43-44): the same gases, emanating from the same petals, striking the same nostrils, its physical being separable from the word that names it. The name, the signifier, and the symbolic order in its entirety are to be relegated to a secondary position, the place of the merely expressive and instrumental.

But these isolated, unnamed bodies (and roses) are only imaginary. The human body is already inscribed: it has no existence as pure organism, independent of the symbolic order in which desire makes sense In the sixteenth-century text Juliet's imagined act of love is paradoxically defined in a densely metaphoric and tightly structured instance of signifying practice. The speech depends on invocations repeated with a difference ('Come civil night [ . . . ] Come night, come Romeo [ . . . ] Come gentle night, (11. 10, 17, 20)), framing an elaborate conceit in which the love-performing darkness both is and is not synonymous with Romeo himself, the lover who is ultimately to be perpetuated in little stars (1.22). The text specifies a wish in a tissue of formally ordered allusions, comparisons and puns, which constitute a poem, the zenith of signification, self-conscious, artful, witty. In order to bring before us its imagined bodies, the play here invokes a long poetic and rhetorical tradition, and in the process the lyricism which conjures up the act of love necessarily supplants it too. Moreover, this is a set piece, an epithalamion, though it is spoken, ironically, not by the assembled wedding guests, but by the bride herself, and in solitude.9 What is enacted within it is desire imagining its fulfilment, and not the event itself, nor even any possible event. Love is inevitably performed within culture, within, indeed, a specific culture: bodies do not exist outside the cultural moment which defines them, and experience cannot be identified beyond the meanings a cultural tradition makes intelligible. What we call a rose might take any other name, but if it were nameless, outside difference, who is to say that its smell would be 'sweet'? Here too a whole cultural tradition underlies the recognition (re-cognition) of this sweetness—and its association with love. Romeo and Juliet is about desire. It is also one of Shakespeare's most evidently formal, conventional texts. As Rosalie Colie points out, the play draws on the traditions of Roman comedy, with its young woman and two suitors, one of them approved by her father. The garrulous nurse belongs to the same genre. Meanwhile, the Prologues to Acts I and II are sonnets, and the lovers converse in Petrarchan imagery. Mercutio, on the other hand, is an Ovidian figure. When the lovers are together they perform in joint and reciprocal set pieces: first a sonnet (I.5.93-106) and then an aubade (III.5.1-36). But there is no necessary contradiction, Colie proposes, between convention and desire: on the contrary, the effect in the text is precisely to naturalize the familiar forms. On e of the most pleasurable, for me, of Shakespeare's many talents, is his "unmetaphoring" of literary devices, his sinking of the conventions back into what, he somehow persuades us, is "reality"'. The Petrarchan convention of love at first sight, she goes on to argue, 'is here made to seem entirely natural [ . . . ] its conventionality forgotten as it is unmetaphored by action.'10

In this respect, Colie might have added, Shakespeare's text is no more than a superlative instance of culture in general, which works precisely by unmetaphoring the device and naturalizing inherited forms. There is no unmediated experience located entirely outside the existing semiotic repertoire, though there are, as the play demonstrates, unexpected deviations, juxtapositions, turns, and resistances. In the play Ovid disrupts Petrarch; comic form leads to tragic denouement; choric narrative appropriates the lyric voice of the sonnet. Culture imagines the symbol as truth, and 'proves' its case by novelty, demonstrating that it is constantly possible to formulate something new, surprising or unexpected.

In a brilliant discussion of the formality of Romeo and Juliet Gayle Whittier argues that the play shows how the inherited word declines 'from lyric freedom to tragic fact.'11 She points out that the poetic mode in which Romeo falls in love precedes him, and that he longs to be the author of the lover he becomes. But in Whittier's account the narrative mode of drama displaces the abstract and timeless paradoxes of Petrarchan poetry. It endows the word with flesh, and in the process necessarily subjects it to time and death. Poetry, Whittier argues, is transcendent: love is referential. The bodies of the lovers exist in time, and confront death: the poetry which precedes them also survives them.

The argument is extremely convincing, and it is eloquently presented. If in the end I put a slightly different case, the distinction between us is perhaps no more than a matter of emphasis. I want to stress the degree to which the letter invades the flesh, and the body necessarily inhabits the symbolic. This above all is the source of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Petrarch, their names and the word of the Prince ('banished') are all decisive for the protagonists, but the symbolic order is not external to their identities: on the contrary, it is exactly the element in which they subsist. On the other hand, they exceed it too. The body which it defines is not contained by the symbol, and desire seeks to overflow the limits imposed by the differential signifier.


In recognizing that the name of the rose is arbitrary, Juliet shows herself a Saussurean avant la lettre, but in drawing the inference that Romeo can arbitrarily cease to be a Montague, she simply affirms what her own desire dictates.

O 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 [ . . . ]
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, [nor any other part]
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.


Identity, the speech acknowledges, exists in the symbolic as the Name of the Father. Juliet imagines a succession of (im)possibilities: that Romeo should repudiate his father's name, or she hers; that he should be named differently; and finally that he should simply remove his name, as if it were extrinsic, separable from identity. In place of Romeo's name Juliet offers her 'self', implying that beyond their names, as beyond the name of the rose, the lovers could exist as unnamed selves. This move to transcend the signifier, however, the play at once makes clear, is precisely a contradiction. In offering to take what she urges literally, Romeo can only propose punningly to assume another name, to adopt a different location in the symbolic:

I'll take thee at thy word
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.


But the signifier, however arbitrary, is not at the disposal of the subject. Romeo's name precedes him, makes him a subject, locates him in the community of Verona. It is not optional. Later Romeo will offer to excise his murderous name, but he cannot do so without killing himself:

O, tell me, friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion.


Unlike hand or foot, Romeo's name is not something that he can lose and retain his identity, continuing to be the specific, differentiated Romeo that Juliet loves.

Lovers are prone to perceive the imaginary essence of the object of desire, to identify a 'self, a presence which subsists beyond the symbolic order, the 'dear perfection' of the loved one independent of the public and external name. This is the evidence of their idealizing passion. A lover who might be expected to know better, the author of Jacques Derrida's sequence of postcards, also affirms something of this kind:

you will never be your name, you never have been, even when, and especially when you have answered to it. The name is made to do without the life of the bearer, and is therefore always somewhat the name of someone dead. One could not live, be there, except by protesting against one's name, by protesting one's non-identity with one's proper name.12

Here too, the letter kills, we are invited to suppose, but desire gives life. The name is a trapping, inessential, inherited or given, a reminder that the individual's autonomy is always imaginary, the effect of a place allotted by others, by the family, by a whole culture.

But Derrida's amorous-philosophical text is not naïve (of course!). The name is dead because it is ancestral; it is dead because in differentiating the person that it names, it constitutes a reminder of all the other possible objects of desire, and the arbitrariness that singles out this one; and it is dead finally because it stands in for the person it names, and thus supplants the being who elicits so much intensity, intervening between the lover and the loved one. But there is no suggestion that it is possible to do more than protest against the imposed identity, to insist on non-identity with that, to refuse the imposition. Though it imagines it in an oxymoron ('I am calling you [ . . . ] beyond your name, beyond all names',13 the text does not in the end suppose that the person could exist independently, a free-floating essence beyond nomenclature, which is to say beyond difference.

Nor, indeed, is Shakespeare's text naïve. The name of Montague, imposed, ancestral, is Juliet's enemy, the text as a whole makes clear. If Romeo's non-identity with his name legitimates their love, the repudiated name returns, nevertheless, to ensure their tragedy. Even though his name is no part of the man Juliet loves, the play at once draws attention to the impossibility of discarding the name which differentiates him. Hearing in the darkness a voice reply to her musings, the shocked Juliet demands, 'What man art thou?' (1. 52), and how else can Romeo indicate who he is but by reference to a name which precisely cannot be specified without identifying an opponent of all Capulets:

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who 1 am.
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.


In the event, Juliet recognizes his voice, a property of the lover like hand or foot, or any other part, and promptly puts her recognition to the test—by naming him:

My ears have not yet drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue's uttering, yet I know the sound.
Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague

(1. 58)

The question of names recurs at intervals throughout Derrida's 'Envois' to The Post Card. The text is at least in part an engagement with Oxford philosophy and its distinction between 'use' and 'mention' ('Fido is my dog'; '"Fido" is a possible name for a dog'). But this issue is part of a larger debate in Western philosophy concerning the question whether proper names have meaning. The answer to this question has implications for our understanding of the relationship between language and the world,14 and this in turn is the problem Derrida has addressed throughout his work. Proper names imply that words may be no more than substitutes for things, labels for the objects they refer to, without meaning in themselves. What, after all, does 'smith' mean? If names have no meaning, however, but only reference, what are we to say when the name is Medusa, and the referent does not exist? And is 'Homer' meaningless? Or does 'Homer' precisely mean the anonymous author(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who must have existed, but probably not as Homer? If so, is meaning independent of what goes on in the world, a matter of shared, inherited knowledge, which may be false? Who does Homer's name belong to? To an individual? Or to a culture? What gives it its meaning?15

The 'Envois' to The Post Card consists of a series of love letters to an unnamed person, addressed poste restante 'because of all the families' (p. 45). The epistolary form throws into relief the problems of 'communication', and the story of a passionate clandestine love makes evident how much is at stake in the process of writing. The secret love letter is a paradigm case of the urgency and the impossibility of meaning as immediate, transparent, individual, exclusive presence. All language is subject to what Derrida calls 'the Postal Principle as differential relay' (p. 54). The message is always differed and deferred (differantiated), since the intervals and the distance, the delays and relays, separate the people it was designed to unite. Much of Derrida's love story concerns a critical, definitive, 'true' letter which fails to arrive. Instead it is eventually returned unopened, and remains for ever unread by the addressee, unopened by the sender, though it goes on to haunt the relationship, since its existence cannot be forgotten. This 'dead letter' is at once outside the living love affair and formative for it. In response to Lacan's account of The Purloined Letter, Derrida's text insists that the letter never arrives at its destination.

At the same time, The Post Card proposes, the letter can never ensure its own secrecy. However cryptic it is, however coded, designed exclusively for the recipient, if the message is intelligible, it is always able to be intercepted, read, misread, reproduced. Since it is necessarily legible for another, who does the letter belong to? To the sender, the addressee, or an apparently irrelevant unspecified third party, representative of the symbolic order in all its (dead) otherness? Their secret love does not belong exclusively to Romeo and Juliet. To the degree that it inhabits the symbolic, to the extent that it is relayed in messages and letters, even when the messages in question are those of the signifying body itself, love is tragically not theirs to control.

Derrida's text refuses to name its object of desire, the secret addressee of the love letters, though it plays with a succession of possible names (Esther, Judith, Bettina (pp. 71-73, 231)). It names others, however, who feature in the itinerary of the lover (Neil Hertz, Hillis, Paul, Jonathan, and Cynthia, and a woman who seems tantalizingly, comically, to be called Metaphysics (p. 197)). It thus keeps the reader guessing, about the identity of the beloved, and about whether the named and apparently non-fictional figures can be ruled out (p. 223). It names the writer, but only (punningly?) as acquiescent, as j'accepte ('this will be my signature henceforth [ . . . ] it is my name, that j'accepte' (p. 26)), leaving in doubt whether the whole story is fictional, or in some disguised and elusive way referential, 'true', and problematizing in the process those terms themselves. But though it withholds the name of the loved one, it substitutes a pronoun, 'you': a shifter, certainly, but no less differential for that. The amorous project is to locate the living object of desire beyond the inherited, dead signifier, to invest it with a transcendent existence outside mortality. At the same time, of course, The Post Card recognizes this impulse as imaginary, 'metaphysical', and perhaps in the process offers another clue—or possibly a red herring—which might lead us to identify the object itself:

You have always been 'my' metaphysics, the metaphysics of my life, the 'verso' of everything I write (my desire, speech, presence, proximity, law, my heart and soul, everything that I love and that you know before me), (p. 197)

The beloved is not named, but is not nameless either, for the lover or the world:

I have not named you while showing you to others, I have never shown you to others with the name they know you by and that I consider only the homonym of the one that I give you, no, I have called you, yourself, (p. 219)

'Yourself is not an unmediated self it is not a name, but at the same time it is not independent of the signifier. And as a shifter, it patently does not belong to the unnamed object of desire.

Romeo and Juliet are not reducible to their proper names, but they are not beyond them either, though in their idealizing, transfiguring imagery they repeatedly locate each other outside mortality, in the heavens, among the inauspicious stars, not at their mercy (II. 2. 2; 15-22; III. 2. 22-25). And their names are not their property: they do not belong to them in the same way as hand or foot, or any other part. As subjects, the lovers aspire both to love and to immortality only by virtue of the differentiating, inherited signifier, which subjects them, in the event, to death itself.


What is at issue in the aubade is the name of the lark.

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear.

(III. 5. 1)

The referential truth is available here, but it is not what matters. The debate is about the significance of the birdsong that the lovers hear, its meaning: not ornithology, but the time of day. The same bird known by any other name would make the same sound, but it would be of no interest unless a culture had already invested the song with the meaning of dawn. It is the lark: Romeo proves it on the evidence of other signifiers:

Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night's candles are burnt out

(1. 7)

The lark is already inscribed as 'the herald of the morn' (1. 6), and while the time of day is also referential, a matter of fact, it too is in question here in its meaning, as the signifier of the moment when Romeo's banishment takes effect, separating, because of their names, the desiring bodies of the lovers. The world of nature, of birdsong and morning, is already invaded by culture, even though it also exceeds it, and the knowledge that it purveys is necessarily at the level of signification.

Juliet's epithalamion is uttered, ironically, in the direct shadow of the Prince's sentence, immediately after it is pronounced (III. 1. 186-97), but thanks to the Postal Principle she does not yet know it. When the message that Romeo is banished is finally delivered by the Nurse, her account initially obscures the truth, and Juliet believes that Romeo is dead (III. 2. 36-70). Juliet's premature lament for Romeo here finds a parallel in the family's lamentations for her apparent death (IV. 5). Both are displaced, inappropriate, and yet not wholly irrelevant, since they anticipate the events of the play, as if the signifier lived a life of its own, partly but not entirely independent of the referent. Meanwhile, Friar Lawrence's letter fails to reach its destination and Romeo, in possession of another narrative, the public account relayed by Balthasar, tragically returns to act on Juliet's supposed death. The Prince speaks the sentence of banishment, but it is to be carried out on Romeo's body, causing either his absence or his death. Romeo's absence is a kind of death for Juliet too, she affirms:

Some word there was, worser than Tybalt's death,
That murder'd me; I would forget it fain,
But O, it presses to my memory
Like damned guilty deeds to sinners' minds:
'Tybalt is dead, and Romeo banished.'


The insistent signifier is determining for the bodies of the lovers, and yet at the same time it is not definitive, in the sense that its implications are not contained by its meaning. '"Romeo is banished": to speak that word, Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet, All slain, all dead.' (11. 122-24). The signifier, which differentiates, specifies limits and imposes boundaries, also evokes an unspeakable residue, boundless and unlimited: 'There is no end, no limit, measure, bound, In that word's death, no words can that woe sound' (11. 125-26). The woe exceeds the word because no word can make it present. Supplanted by the signifier, it exists as an absence hollowed out within the utterance—just as it does within the corresponding signifying practice of the body, the weeping which is to follow (11. 130-31).

In the same way, the signifier cannot exhaust desire, since desire inhabits the residue that exceeds what can be said. Challenged to 'unfold' in speech the happiness of her marriage, Juliet replies:

Conceit, more rich in matter than in words,
Brags of his substance, not of ornament;
They are but beggars that can count their worth,
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.


Love, Juliet claims, like the unnamed rose or the un-talked of act, is more substantial than mere words. For this reason, she continues, its substance cannot be counted, cannot be summed up in words. And she makes the affirmation in an ornamental metaphor, an analogy between love and wealth familiar to us from the Sonnets and from Theseus's opening speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The comparison, which brings the intensity of the love before us, simultaneously has the effect of supplanting it, replacing it by the signifier, so that the speech demonstrates precisely the impossibility it affirms of putting love into words. This excess of love over the signifier is what invests desire with metaphysics, and at the same time, if Derrida is to be believed, the metaphysical with desire. As speaking subjects, we long for the unattainable verso of signifying practice—proximity, certainty, presence, the thing itself. Lovers long to make present the unspeakable residue which constitutes desire.


Shakespeare's play ends with death, the golden statues—and names again. At the beginning of the final scene Paris decorously strews Juliet's tomb with flowers and sweet water, in a gesture appropriate to a man who would have been her bridegroom. He is interrupted by her actual bridegroom, whose intentions, in contrast, are excessive, in every sense of the word: 'savage-wild, More fierce and more inexorable far Than empty tigers or the roaring sea' (v.3.37-39). Alan Dessen makes the point that modern productions commonly include a structure which represents the tomb. This, he argues persuasively, is not necessarily how the scene would have been staged in the 1590s. On the contrary, the tomb might well have been no more than a stage door or a trap door in the stage, and Juliet's body might have been thrust out on a bier at the point when the scene shifts to the inside of the tomb. Including the tomb, as they do, Dessen says, modern productions often leave out Romeo's mattock and crowbar. In consequence, they fail to do full justice to the emblematic contrast the scene sets up between Romeo and Paris, the one sprinkling scented water on the grave, and the other violating the tomb with an iron bar, forcing open what he himself calls this 'Womb of death' (1.45).16 When Romeo, who is beside himself with passion, offers to strew the churchyard with the interloper's limbs, the contrast is surely complete.

Explaining his purpose, Romeo 'lies' to Balthasar:

Why I descend into this bed of death
Is partly to behold my lady's face,
But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring . . .


The lie is also intelligible as a coded truth, a cryptic declaration of a real purpose, not intended to be legible to Balthasar, of re-enacting his clandestine marriage by a second exchange of rings. In the grotesque parody of the wedding night that follows, Romeo seeks a repetition in the tomb of the original darkness, silence and secrecy invoked so eloquently in Juliet's epithalamion, though once again these amorous rites are to be lit by beauty, as Juliet, who once taught the torches to burn bright (I.5.44), now 'makes This vault a feasting presence full of light' (v.3.85-86).

This time, too, the body signifies. There is blood in Juliet's face once more, to the point where Romeo seems almost to read the message it puts out:

O my love, my wife,
Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer'd, beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death's pale flag is not advanced there.


But because his understanding at this moment is constructed in accordance with another narrative, he cannot read the story of Juliet's living body. Again he turns to her, this time with a question: 'Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair?' (11. 101-02). The audience could have told him the answer (and perhaps did in early productions?). But Romeo, in the light of what he thinks he knows, produces another hypothesis:

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?


(It is tempting, especially in the context of Georges Bataille's current popularity, to find an erotics of death in this conceit, but it is worth bearing in mind that from the point of view of the audience, the account is ironic, since it represents precisely the wrong answer.)17 The re-enacting of the wedding night remains in consequence imaginary. They die, as Juliet performed their epithalamion, separately. 'These lovers of the night remain', as Kristeva puts it, 'solitary beings.'18

Their grave is not, however, a private place. On the contrary, it is the family vault of the Capulets, a memorial, precisely, to the name, which is all that remains of their ancestors, but which lives on to shadow the present so tragically. Moreover, no sooner has he established the close-curtained secrecy of this second wedding night, than Romeo interrupts his address to Juliet to recognize the dead body of Tybalt in its bloody sheet (1.97). Once again Tybalt, who insisted on the importance of Romeo's name and the 'stock and honor' of his own kin (1.5.54, 58, 61), and who for that reason fatally sustained the feud, intervenes between the lovers, as an emblematic third party, representative of the inherited symbolic order in all its dead—and deadly—otherness. Finally, the whole community crowds in, the community which is ultimately responsible for the arbitrary and pointless ancestral quarrel, and which is powerless to reverse the effects of a violence carried on in the names of Montague and Capulet, and enacted on the bodies of the new generation.


Romeo and Juliet are immortalized as signifiers. The promised golden statues are, of course, a metamorphosis, effigies of their bodies, beautiful, precious, and lifeless. Metamorphosis enacts something of the project of desire, arresting, and stabilizing the object, fixing it as possession—and supplanting it in the process. Like metaphor, metamorphosis offers an image in place of the thing itself, but the image is precisely not the same. Venus is able to hold the flower that Adonis becomes, but the flower is no longer Adonis. The reconciling golden statues appear too late to interrupt the fatal invasion of the signifier into the living organism. Verona will recognize the effigies of Romeo and Juliet, but the effigies will signify concord, not desire.

And yet finally, as is to be expected of signifiers, the lovers are incorporated into a love story, foretold by the Prince, dramatized by Shakespeare. The play closes, appropriately, with their names, which are not synonymous with the lovers themselves, but which are not independent of them either. The play, and the legend of love that the play has become, have been astonishingly popular from the Restoration period on. The text has been performed, adapted, cut, reinterpreted, rewritten as a musical, filmed,19 and now produced as a movie starring cats. Even in death, therefore, the record of the lovers' desiring, inscribed bodies is preserved in the archive, filed, appropriately enough, under their names:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


Evidently it was possible, before the dualism of the Enlightenment separated us all neatly into minds and bodies, to identify another relationship between the organism and the culture in which it becomes a human being. Romeo and Juliet dramatizes the sexual desire which is produced at the level of the signifier and inscribes the body of the lover. The play also acknowledges the slippage between the signifier and the world it defines and differentiates. But above all, it puts on display the hopeless longing to escape the confines of the signifier, to encounter directly, im-mediately, the rose that exists beyond its name. And to this extent Romeo and Juliet suggests the degree to which the named, differentiated lover is always only a stand-in for something which cannot be embraced, a reminder, as Plato proposes, of 'an ideal that is out of sight, but present in the memory.20

Does the continued popularity of the play, even in a predominantly Enlightenment culture, perhaps suggest a dissatisfaction with the neat Cartesian categories by which we have so diligently struggled to live?


I am grateful to Alan Dessen and Cynthia Dessen for their incisive comments on an earlier version of this essay.

1 The dualism of the Enlightenment differs from Plato's and Augustine's. Both Platonic and medieval souls are immortal and their affiliations are divine. But the Cartesian mind is predominantly secular and human. Nor is its relation to the body always one of superiority. Enlightenment science, paradoxically, had the eventual effect of reversing Descartes's hierarchy.

2 Charles Shepherdson, 'Biology and History: Some Psychoanalytic Aspects of the Writing of Luce Irigaray', Textual Practice, 6 (1992), 47-86. I owe to the clarity of that essay the theoretical framework of my argument here.

3The Merchant of Venice, III. 2. 108-14. Shakespeare references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. by G. Blakemore Evans and others (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

4 Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 43.

5 Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania, trans. by Edmund Chilmead (Oxford, 1640), p. 214. Female desire was widely taken for granted in the Middle Ages, and natural philosophy commonly presented women as more libidinous than men (Mary Frances Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The 'viaticum' and its Commentaries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 110-25.

6 The New Historicism sets out to break with this version of the Elizabethan world picture by insisting on the single anecdote which is not offered as 'Representative'. But though it produces acute insights, the New Historicist juxtaposition of fiction with quite different knowledges, as if it could be taken for granted that they illuminate each other, risks repeating Tillyard's unifying and simplifying gesture. In 'Fiction and Friction', for example, after a number of disclaimers Stephen Greenblatt goes on to identify Renaissance England as 'a culture that knows, as a widely accepted physical truth, that women have occulted, inward penises' (Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 66-93, p. 87). He then uses this medical knowledge to explain the transvestite theatre, female cross-dressing in Shakespeare's comedies, and homoerotic desire in the period. All this is suggestive, inventive, and challenging, but it fails to take account of the counter-knowledge, evident in the bawdy jokes of the theatrical tradition itself, that women lacked what men possessed. Greenblatt himself cites Viola's 'a little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man' (Twelfth Night, III.4.302-03). Gratiano's 'Would he were gelt that had it' is comic if Nerissa is understood to be 'gelded' (The Merchant of Venice, V.l.144). See also: '"That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs." "What is?" "Nothing."' (Hamlet, III.2.118-21), and David Wilbern, 'shakespeare's Nothing', in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. by Murray Schwarz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 244-63.

7 Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans, by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 211.

8 Gary M. McCown, '"Runnawayes Eyes" and Juliet's Epithalamium', Shakespeare Quarterly, 27 (1976), 150-70, pp. 156-65.

9 McCown, '"Runnawayes Eyes"', p. 165.

10 Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare's 'Living Art' (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 135-67, p. 145.

11 Gayle Whittier, The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 27-41, p. 27.

12 Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans, by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 39.

13 Derrida, The Post Card, p. 130. Compare: 'But it is you I still love, the living one. Beyond everything, beyond your name, your name beyond your name' (p. 144).

14 See J. R. Searle, 'Proper Names and Descriptions', The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ed. by Paul Edwards, 8 vols (London: Collier Macmillan, 1967), VI, 487-91.

15 I am grateful to Andrew Belsey for a discussion of the problem of proper names.

16 Alan C. Dessen, 'Much Virtue in "As"' in Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance: Essays in the Tradition of Performance Criticism in Honor of Bernard Beckerman, ed. by Marvin and Ruth Thompson (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1989), pp. 132-38.

17 See Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans, by Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986); and The Tears of Eros, trans, by Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989).

18 Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 216.

19 See Jill L. Levenson, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987).

20 Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 269.

Lloyd Davis (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'death-Marked Love': Desire and Presence in Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49," 1996, pp. 57-67.

[In the following essay, Davis searches the poetics of desire in Romeo and Juliet, maintaining that the drama links desire, death, selfhood and the forces of time.]


The action of Romeo and Juliet occurs between two speeches proclaiming the lovers' deaths—the prologue's forecast of events and the prince's closing summary. The vicissitudes of desire take place in this unusual period, after life yet before death. It is a kind of liminal phase in which social and personal pressures build to intense pitch before they are settled. Such liminal tension, as Victor Turner suggests, is the very stuff of which social dramas are made.1 It figures a mounting crisis that envelops those observing and taking part in the unfolding action. At the same time, this temporal setting has a range of interpretative implications.

With the lovers' deaths announced from the start, audience attention is directed to the events' fateful course. The question is less what happens than how it happens. By framing the action in this way, the prologue triggers various generic and narrative effects. First, it establishes the play as 'a tragedy of fate' similar to Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which gives 'the audience a superior knowledge of the story from the outset, reducing the hero's role to bring into prominence the complex patterns of action'.2 In turn, this generic marker initiates a compelling narrative, poised between prolepsis and analepsis, as opening portents of death are played off against background details and further intimations in the following scenes.3 The tension between these hints and flashbacks fills the narrative with foreboding. The breakneck speed of events (in contrast to the extended time frame of Arthur Brooke's version,4 a few days as opposed to nine months) sees the ordained end bear relentlessly on the lovers. They are caught between a determining past and future.

The narrative has a further generic analogue. Gayle Whittier suggests that the play develops through a contrast between sonnet lyricism and tragedy that is finally reconciled in death: 'the "spoken lines" of the Prologue predestine the plot of the play to be tragic from without, even as the spirit of Petrarchan poetry spoken by Romeo to Juliet finally necessitates their tragic deaths from within.5 What first appears as thematic conflict between two of the period's key literary modes makes way for a troubling similarity. The spirit of Petrarchism is revealed as tragically fatal and idealized romance collapses.

In this view, Romeo and Juliet stages the outcome of unfulfillable desire. Although it appears to reverse the erotic story told in the Sonnets, the dramatic narrative ends up paralleling the failing course of identity and desire which can be traced through those poems. There the poet reluctantly finds his desire shifting from the self-gratifying potential figured by the youth to the disarming dark lady, who offers instead 'a desire that her very presence at the same time will frustrate'.6 This pattern initially seems to be inverted in the play—Romeo willingly renounces self-centred longing for Rosaline, Juliet tests and proves her self-reliance, both find true love in each other. However, their love ends in reciprocal death, with the Petrarchan images fatally embodied and materialized. The links between love and death unveil a dark scepticism about desire, despite bursts of romantic idealism. They convey a sense of futility and ironic fate which Romeo momentarily feels but is able to forget for a time, 'my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night's revels' (I.4.106-9).

Such scepticism appears in many subsequent literary and psychoanalytic conceptions, where possibilities of romantic union are queried.7 These questions carry implications about selfhood and desire and about ways of representing them. In theories and stories of divorce or isolation, selfhood is not effaced but conceived as incomplete; as Barbara Freedman puts it, 'The denial of self-presence doesn't negate presence but redefines it as a distancing or spacing we always seek but fail to close'.8 Characters cannot attain their goals, and the inability to claim satisfaction affects desire as much as selfhood. Proceeding from an uncertain source, desire remains 'predicated on lack, and even its apparent fulfilment is also a moment of loss'.9 In this view, desire and presence are forever intertwined: 'differantiated [sic] presence, which is always and inevitably differed and deferred, and which in consequence exceeds the alternatives of presence and absence, is the condition of desire'.10 They forestall each other's wholeness yet continue to provide the self with images of consummation, contentment and victory—the curtsies, kisses, suits, livings and battles which Mercutio's dreamers envisage but cannot clasp, 'Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, / Which is as thin of substance as the air, / And more inconstant than the wind' (I.4.98-100).

The recurrence of this viewpoint in fiction and theory suggests that Romeo and Juliet stages a paradigmatic conflict between ways of representing and interpreting desire. The play affects these possibilities by placing idealized and tragic conceptions of desire and selfhood in intense dialogue with each other. This dialogue continues to be played out in literary and theoretical texts since, as Alan Sinfield notes, notions of sexuality and gender are 'major sites of ideological production upon which meanings of very diverse kinds are established and contested'.11Romeo and Juliet informs and illustrates a cultural history of desire in which images of romantic fulfilment or failure carry great importance.

As well as being part of this history, Shakespeare's play has two other distinctive temporal features. First, as noted above, it unfolds over a charged time span. Time allows desire to be acted out but also threatens its fulfilment, by either running out or not stopping. This equivocal link affects desire's tragic course in Romeo and Juliet, 'as the time and place / Doth make against' the characters (5.3.223-4).

Secondly, its depiction of desire reverberates with erotic tropes from earlier traditions—Platonic, Ovidian, Petrarchan, as well as popular sayings. These tropes are used by the characters to talk and think about relationships, but they are also challenged for not allowing the gap between self and other to be bridged. They are unfulfilling since it feels as if they belong to someone else; as Astrophil puts it, 'others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way'.12 The lovers are often dissatisfied with or unsure about the words of others. Their discontent grows from early dismissals such as Romeo's 'Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all' (1.1.171) and 'Thou talk'st of nothing' (1.4.96), or Juliet's 'And stint thou, too, I pray thee, Nurse' (1.3.60), to deeper disquiet over the inability of this language to match their experience: 'Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel' (3.3.64); 'some say the lark makes sweet division; / This doth not so, for she divideth us' (3.5.29-30). The corollary of their frustration with the language of others and of the past is the value they put on their own: 'she speaks. / O, speak again, bright angel' (2.1.67-8); 'Every tongue that speaks / But Romeo's name speaks heavenly eloquence' (3.2.32-3).

Like the lovers, the play also seeks to revise existing rhetorical conventions. It reworks these tropes into personal, tragic terms which underlie later literary and psychological conceptions. Hence, in addition to exemplifying Stephen Greenblatt's point that 'psychoanalysis is the historical outcome of certain characteristic Renaissance strategies',13Romeo and Juliet shows that these strategies develop in response to earlier discourses. The play's pivotal role in later depictions of desire stems from the way it juxtaposes historical and emergent conceptions.

These complex temporal and rhetorical effects are hinted at in the Prologue, which repeatedly sets past, present and future against each other. 'Our scene' is initially laid in a kind of continuous present, yet one that remains hanging between 'ancient grudge' and 'new mutiny'. Likewise, the 'star-crossed lovers take their life' in a present whose intimations of living and loving are circumscribed by 'the fatal loins' of 'their parents' strife'. As the birth-suicide pun on 'take their life' hints, sexuality is already marked by violence and death, its future determined by the past's impact on the present. The Prologue ends by anchoring the staging of 'death-marked love' in the here and now of the audience, who attend 'the two-hours' traffic of our stage'. It anticipates a successful theatrical conclusion, with the play's performance 'striv[ing] to mend' what the lovers 'shall miss'—a kind of closure that their desire cannot realize. In contrast to the simple linear Chorus to Act 2, which culminates in the lovers' union, the rebounding moments of the Prologue displace consummation with death.14

A complicity between sex and death is well known in Renaissance texts. Its function in Romeo and Juliet is, however, distinguished by temporal shifts which define the characters' relations. While the lovers in a poem such as Donne's 'The Canonization' exceed worldly time and place, and their post-coital condition is eternally celebrated, in Shakespeare's play the links between past and present, social and personal, cannot be transcended. The intense oneness felt by the lovers appears to signify mutual presence, but such intersubjective moments are overlaid with social and historical pressures. The drama alternates between instants of passion, when time seems to stand still, and inevitable returns to the ongoing rush of events. This contrast is manifested not only in the characterization and plot but in the interplay of underlying traditions, sources and tropes. The play reiterates and revises these conventions, confirming a conception of desire that speeds not to its goal but its end. In this conception personal presence can exist only as a transient, illusory sign of desire.


One of the main influences Romeo and Juliet has had on later depictions of love lies in its celebration of personal desire. The force of this celebration comes partly from its dramatic mode, staging the lovers' experiences for a 'live' audience. In the decades after the play was first performed, poetry (till then, the key romantic discourse) was changing from oral to written modes. Until the rise of the novel, drama remained the pre-eminent form for presenting love stories, and stage performance could give these tales the confessional tones which earlier forms of poetic recitation doubtless achieved. The Prologue enacts this shift by relocating the love sonnet in the drama, a move again underlined by the verse which the lovers will soon share in Act I, scene 5.

On stage, the impact of the 'personal' can come across in different ways—through physical, verbal, even interpersonal performance. In Romeo and Juliet these forms of presence concentrate in the protagonists' unshakeable love. It seems to assume an essential quality which captures the 'diachronic unity of the subject'.15 This unity underwrites numerous adaptations of and responses to the play, from elaborate stage productions, operas and ballets, to more popular versions such as the American musical West-Side Story or the Australian narrative verse of C. J. Dennis's A Sentimental Bloke, whose colloquial tones add to the impression of true romance. For many audience groups, each of these transformations once again discovers the play's 'spirit', which surpasses local differences to reveal truths about desire and 'ourselves'.

The director's programme notes to a recently well-received production in Australia illustrate this kind of response. The mixed tones of confession and authority sway the audience to accept his views:

My fascination with this play continues. Considerable research over the years has taken me twice to Verona and Mantua, but the conflict in Bosnia has brought the work urgently closer. I first considered a Muslim-Christian setting several months before the tragedy of Bosko and Admira .. . A study of the text supplies no religious, class, nor race barriers between the 'two households' and this makes Shakespeare's vision all the more powerful. When differences are minimal, ancient grudges seem the more difficult to understand. Yet they remain with us today, passed on by our parents. It seems the one thing we teach the next generation is how to maintain rage and other forms of prejudices. Thus this work is as much about young people in the Brisbane Mall today as it is about the hot days in medieval Verona . . . The human spirit, as portrayed by the 31 year old playwright, is a thing of wonder to be nurtured and treasured.16

The paradoxical effects of citing 'Real' personal and political situations are first to detach the drama from its own historical concerns and then to efface the ideological grounds of the current crisis. The revelation of 'human spirit' triumphs over any tragic significance. Indeed, the play's freedom from material contexts testifies to its, its author's, and our affirming 'vision'. This viewpoint recalls Coleridge's claim that Shakespeare is 'out of time', his characters 'at once true to nature, and fragments of the divine mind that drew them'.17

Because it hides sexual, class and ethnic factors behind archetypal human experience, this sort of perception of Shakespeare's work becomes a target of materialist criticism:

Idealised and romanticised out of all dialectical relationship with society, it [Shakespeare's work] takes on the seductive glamour of aestheticism, the sinister and self-destructive beauty of decadent romance . . . this 'shakespeare myth' functions in contemporary culture as an ideological framework for containing consensus and for sustaining myths of unity, integration and harmony in the cultural superstructures of a divided and fractured society.18

In relation to sexual issues, universal images of the personal in Romeo and Juliet can be seen as helping to naturalize notions of desire which reinforce an 'ideology of romantic love' in terms of 'heterosexualizing idealization' and the 'canonization of heterosexuality'.19 Personal romance and desire are revealed as authoritative codes which conceal and impose official sexuality.

The kinds of ideological impacts that the 'personal' registers may be intensified or interrogated by the generic effects of 'Excellent conceited Tragedie', as the Quarto titles announce. The combination of personal experience and tragic consequence can turn Romeo and Juliet into an account of contradictory notions of desire and identity, in line with Jonathan Dollimore's recognition that, notwithstanding traditions of celebration 'in terms of man's defeated potential', tragedy questions ideological norms.20 The genre's ambiguous drift to 'Radical' or cathartic ends sees the play assume a kind of meta-textual disinterestedness, distanced from final interpretations as it seems to reflect on how desire may be conceived and staged. This distance can be observed in the play's citing and reworking of tropes and conventions from existing discourses of love and romance. The intertextual traces reveal continuities and changes in the depiction of desire, keyed to social and historical notions of the personal and interpersonal.

Platonism is traditionally seen as offering a set of tropes that affirm selfhood and desire as forms of true being despite possibilities of loss.21 In the Symposium, for instance, Socrates defines love as desire for what one lacks, either a specific quality or a lost or missing element of the self. Aristophanes goes so far as to image love as a 'longing for and following after [a] primeval wholeness . . . the healing of our dissevered nature'. The Symposium deals with this incipiently tragic situation by redirecting desire to the heavens; in a comedic resolution, love's lack is fulfilled by catching sight of 'the very soul of beauty . . . beauty's very self.22 Such vision provides the model for Renaissance Petrarchism.

This model is famously reproduced in Pietro Bembo's Neoplatonic paean to divine love at the close of Castiglione's The Courtier. He recounts 'a most happie end for our desires', as the courtier forsakes sensual desire for a wiser love that guides the soul: 'through the particular beautie of one bodie hee guideth her to the universali beautie of all bodies . . . Thus the soule kindled in the most holy fire of true heavenly love, fleeth to couple her self with the nature of Angels'. This 'most holy love' is 'derived of the unitie of the heavenly beautie, goodnesse and wisedom', and in narrating its course Bembo himself undergoes an ecstatic loss of identity. He speaks as if 'Ravished and beside himselfe', and emphasizes that 'I have spoken what the holy furie of love hath (unsought for) indited to me'.23 Speaking and experiencing true desire are related forms of self-transcendence, and Bembo can rejoice in the loss of selfhood.

Similar experience underpins the double structure of Edmund Spenser's Fowre Hymnes, first published in 1596, around the time Romeo and Juliet was written. The hymn in honour of earthly love characterizes the lover as Tantalus, feeding 'his hungrie fantasy, / Still full, yet neuer satisfyde . . . For nought may quench his infinite desyre'. This figure is recast in the corresponding hymn of heavenly love, where the poet renounces his earlier poems—'lewd layes' which showed love as a 'mad fit'—for a lover linked to 'high eternali powre'.24 In these instances, the lack or absence which motivates love is conceived positively, part of a spiritual response which lifts the lover beyond temporal identity. Through its philosophic or poetic utterance, the self is not destroyed but surpassed.

However, the link between lack and love can also affect selfhood less positively, even fatally. Classical texts again offer tropes and characters to Renaissance authors. Ovid depicts less drastic versions of desire and self-loss in the changes that Jove makes to pursue various nymphs. These can be read in varying ways—on the one hand, a carnivalesque switching of sexual roles for the sake of pleasure; on the other, a sequence of illusory identities that offers no final fulfilment. Though Jove's transformations bring different degrees of satisfaction, none is tragically oriented (at least for himself). In contrast, the tale of Narcissus sets desire and selfhood in irresolvable conflict. In Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses, Narcissus gazes into the pond to find that 'He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolishe elfe / Doth burn in ardent love thereof. The verie selfe same thing / That doeth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting'.25 His desire cannot be satisfied, and the attempt to do so pains and then destroys selfhood.

Opposing notions of genre, time and character underlie these figures of ecstasy and loss. Platonic and Neoplatonic transcendence is marked by timelessness and selflessness. It brings narration and character to an end, as the self enjoys eternal fusion with the other. In comparison, Ovidian images of disguised or deluded self-loss entail conflict within or between characters. These interactions rely on distinct, often opposed, figures who respond to each other through time. Their fates frequently impose eternities of lonely, unfulfilled selfliood.

Platonic images of true desire and identity are invoked in Shakespeare's comedies during the 1590s; but even there, as characters move to romantic union, they are usually questioned. The disguises, confusions and mistakes through which love's destiny is reached may suggest random or enforced effects that unsettle 'nature's bias'. In a less equivocal way, Shakespeare's use of Ovidian images of desire and selfhood tends to limit or foreclose positive readings, especially where narcissistic traces are discerned. This tendency takes place in both comic and tragic genres: 'Like Ovid's tales, Shakespeare's comedies never lose sight of the painfulness and the potential for the grotesque or for disaster wrought by love's changes . . . If part of the Ovidianism of the comedies is their potential for violence and tragedy, it would seem logical to expect that Ovidianism to be developed in the tragedies'.26 In Venus and Adonis, for example, the humour of the goddess's overweening desire and her beloved's petulance changes to grim consequence. 'The field's chief flower' (line 8) is mournfully plucked, recalling Narcissus's end, 'A purple flower sprung up, chequered with white, / Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood / Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood' (lines 1168-70). The characters have shared an ironic desire whose deathly goal was unwittingly imaged by Venus, 'narcissus so himself himself forsook, / And died to kiss his shadow in the brook' (lines 161-2). As noted earlier, comparable effects occur throughout Romeo and Juliet, where moments of romantic union are disrupted by ongoing events that undercut their idealism. The mixed genres in these tales represent desire as a hybrid of the comic, tragic and ironic.27

Related images of threatening or incomplete desire and self-transformation are repeated through many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts, from the angst of sonneteers to Montaigne's musings in the Apologie of Raymond Sebond on 'The lustfull longing which allures us to the acquaintance of women, [and] seekes but to expelí that paine, which an earnest and burning desire doth possesse-us-with, and desireth but to allay it thereby to come to rest, and be exempted from this fever'.28 As most of these references suggest, this notion of erotic jeopardy is almost always tied to masculine conceptions of desire and selfhood. The pains of desire are indulged if not celebrated, and they may convert to misogyny, as in Hamlet's tirade against Ophelia or Romeo's charge that Juliet's beauty 'hath made me effeminate' (3.1.114).

This attitude echoes through Romeo's early laments about Rosaline. As Coleridge noted, he is 'introduced already love-bewildered':29 'I have lost myself. I am not here. / This is not Romeo; he's some other where' (1.1.194-5). Amid these tones of despair a self-satisfied note can be heard. The early Romeo is a 'virtual stereotype of the romantic lover',30 whose role-playing brings a kind of egotistic reassurance. The lament for self-loss becomes proof of self-presence, a 'boastful positiveness',31 with Romeo still to know the unsettling force of desire.

From this point, the play proceeds by exploring the limits of the Platonic, Ovidian and Petrarchan tropes. The seriousness of narcissistic absorption is questioned (underlined by Mercutio's quips at romantic indulgence);32 yet the full consequence of desire is not realized in Platonic union but deferred to its aftermath. None of the conventional models can quite convey what is at stake in the lovers' story, and the discourse of desire must be revised.


Clearly, then, Romeo and Juliet invents neither tragic nor personal notions of desire. Both are strongly at work in Shakespeare's direct source, Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562): the threats to selfhood caused by love; the workings of 'False Fortune' and 'Wavering Fortunes whele'; an intense desire that can be quenched 'onely [by] death and both theyr bloods'; time as tragic and ironic, first intimated in woe at Juliet's 'untimely death' and then gaining full significance as Romeus's man tells him 'too soone' of her end.33

While it reiterates these ideas, Shakespeare's play also develops and sharpens the connections among desire, the personal and the tragic. The lovers create new images of individuality and of togetherness in order to leave their worldly selves behind. Yet their efforts remain circumscribed by social forces. The ironic result is that the ideal identities the lovers fashion in order to realize their desire become the key to its tragic loss. Self-transcendence can be experienced but not as a kind of timeless ecstasy; instead it becomes entwined with unfulfilled desire.

The play personalizes desire in ways which constantly alternate between idealism and failure. As Kay Stockholder notes, threats to desire are 'Externalized' and the lovers consciously create 'a radiant world apart by attributing all inimical forces to surrounding circumstance'.34 In this reordering of reality, desire becomes part or even constitutive of private, individual identity. Romeo and Juliet's love is secret from others and transgresses the roles imposed by their families. In The Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576), George Pettie considered this opposition the key to the story: 'such presiness of parents brought Pyramus and Thisbe to a woful end, Romeo and Julietta to untimely death'.35 In A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, resisting or contesting patriarchal authority allows a temporary move towards selfhood.

Through this contest, love appears to be one's own, yet both plays show the impossibility of holding onto it. The personal is as elusive as it is idealized, destined to slip back into constraining and distorting social forms. In retrospect, we may see this elusiveness prefigured in the lovers' first meeting, an intense bonding that occurs amid an elaborate ritual of masks and misrecognition. The symbolic means through which love must be expressed will prevent its consummation.36 For the moment, however, love beholds a single object of desire, whose truth authenticates the lover and recreates both their identities: '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 . . . Call me but love and I'll be new baptized. / Henceforth I never will be Romeo' (2.1.76-93).

The nexus between identity and desire is strengthened by the need for secrecy. Hidden and equivocated as the lovers move between private and public realms, secret desire endows selfhood with interiority and intention. It grants a depth of character, and even if its longings are not fulfilled inner experience is confirmed. Juliet's cryptic replies to her mother's attack on Romeo reveal private pleasure couched in pain: 'O, how my heart abhors / To hear him named and cannot come to him / To wreak the love I bore my cousin / Upon his body that hath slaughtered him!' (3.5.99-102). Like secret desire, the obstacles to fulfilment sharpen internal experience and give it a kind of sensuous reality: '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' (3.2.6-9).

This deep desire and selfhood develop in terms of intentionality—desire for someone, effected through imagination, speech and action. Desire marks the self as agent, and tragic desire portrays the onus of agency. It is felt sharply by Juliet before she takes the friar's potion, 'My dismal scene I needs must act alone' (4.3.19), and by Romeo as he enters the Capulet tomb 'armed against myself (5.3.65). In this sense, the play's depiction of desire is linked to representations of subjectivity that emerge during the sixteenth century. It reflects the important role that tropes such as the secret, with its social and personal disguises, have in discourses which are starting to inscribe both an inner self and the individual as agent.

Even as it invests in such notions of selfhood, at its most intense desire in Romeo and Juliet surpasses individual experience and realizes an intersubjective union. The lovers re-characterize each other as much as themselves: 'Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name—which is no part of thee—/ Take all myself (2.1.89-91). Again this effect has generic analogues, as we see the lovers' discourse moving beyond single-voiced Petrarchism. They share exchanges which reveal 'not only the other's confirming response, but also how we find ourselves in that response'.37 Unlike contemporary sonnet sequences, which portray the poet by stifling the woman's voice (just as Romeo invokes and silences Rosaline), the play is marked by the lovers' dialogues. This reciprocity is epitomized by the sonnet they co-construct and seal with a kiss at their first meeting (1.5.92-105).38 It is a highly suggestive moment, capturing the separateness of the lovers' world and speech from others, and also rewriting the dominant 1590s genre for representing desire. The sonnet is re-envoiced as dialogue, its meanings embodied in the climactic kiss. At the same time, the heightened artifice of the scene intimates its transience. The lovers start another sonnet but are interrupted by Juliet's garrulous nurse, who foreshadows the dire interventions of others. A further irony is also implied—as noted earlier, their union will be ended by events that literalize poetic tropes of love and death: Romeo really does die 'With a kiss' (5.3.120), and Juliet falls in eternal sexual embrace, 'O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die' (5.3.168-9).39

The deaths verify the Prologue's vision of inescapable ties between sex and violence. Not only can the lovers not escape the eternal feud that frames them, they even play parts in it, responding impulsively, at the threshold of nature and nurture, to news of Mercutio's and Tybalt's deaths. For a moment their union bows under its violent heritage as each impugns the other: 'O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper softened valour's steel' (3.1.113-15); 'did Romeo's hand shed Tybalt's blood? . . . O serpent heart, hid with a flow'Ring face!' (3.2.71-3)

Other characters also link sex and violence, suggesting that the connection has become naturalized and accepted. The Capulet servants joke aggressively about raping and killing the Montague women (1.1.22-4). The friar parallels birth and death, 'The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb. / What is her burying grave, that is her womb' (2.3.9-10), and is later echoed by Romeo, who calls the Capulet crypt a 'Womb of death' (5.3.45). The friar also connects 'violent delights' to 'violent ends' (2.5.9), and the lovers' suicides suggest a final fusing of love and death. Yet as different interpretations maintain, this fusion's meaning may be tragic, romantic, or both. The lovers are 'consumed and destroyed by the feud' and seem to rise above it, 'united in death'.40

The final scene thus accentuates the connections among selfhood, death and desire. It caps off the discourse of tragic desire announced by the Prologue—a tradition of failed love known through numerous European novellas, the second volume of The Palace of Pleasure (1567), and two editions of Brooke's Tragicali Historye (1562, 1587). The action has thus had a doubly repetitive stamp, not only replaying this oft-told tale but restaging what the Prologue has stated. Foreknowledge of the outcome plays off against moments of romantic and tragic intensity, and triggers a kind of anxious curiosity that waits to see the details of the deaths—the near misses of delayed messages, misread signs, plans gone awry.

Through this repetitive structure, the play affirms precedents and conditions for its own reproduction as if anticipating future responses. Before ending, it even shows these possibilities being realized. The grieving fathers decide to build statues of the lovers, and the prince's final lines look forward to 'more talk of these sad things', in an effort to establish once and for all what desire's tragic end might mean (5.3.306). As Dympna Callaghan observes, the play not only 'perpetuates an already well-known tale', but its closure is predicated on 'the possibility of endless retellings of the story—displacing the lovers' desire onto a perpetual narrative of love'.41

Patterns of repetition weave through the play as well as framing it. Characters constantly restate what has previously been staged—in the first scene Benvolio explains how the opening brawl started, and later he recounts details of Mercutio's and Tybalt's deaths and Romeo's involvement; the Chorus to the second act reiterates the lovers' meeting; the Nurse tells Juliet of Tybalt's death; the Capulets and Paris echo each other's lamentations over Juliet's apparent death;42 and lastly the Friar recaps the whole plot to the other characters after the bodies are found. These instances are part of the effort to explain the violent meaning of events, but as the prince's closing words suggest, something extra needs to be told, 'never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo' (5.3.308-9). There is a sense that 'this' version of the story exceeds earlier ones. For all its repetition of tropes and narratives, in closing the play recognizes and stresses a difference from precursors.

Other repetitive designs through the play are used to underline the tension between desire and death. Four meetings and kisses shared by Romeo and Juliet structure the romance plot. They are in counterpoint to four violent or potentially violent eruptions that occur between the male characters, especially involving Tybalt. A muted fifth interruption is provided by the presence of Tybalt's corpse in the Capulet crypt where Juliet and Romeo finally meet and miss each other. These turbulent scenes frame the romantic ones, unsettling the lyric and erotic essence which they seem to capture.

The repetitions and retellings connect with the representation of time in the play, imposing a destructive pressure between the weight of social and family history and personal longings. Social and personal time are opposed, and desire is caught between these conflicting time frames. Social time is frequently indexed through the play, in general terms such as the 'ancient grudge' and through the scheduling of specific events such as Capulet's banquet and Juliet's wedding to Paris. Against this scheme, the lovers' meetings seem to dissolve time, making it speed up or, more powerfully, stop and stand still, as the present is transformed into 'the time of love'.43 The lovers seek to disregard time and death in their union, 'Then love-devouring death do what he dare—It is enough I may but call her mine' (2.5.7-8). Yet this passionate energy also drives the drama to its finale, and Romeo's words link their union and separation with death. The time of love confronts the passing of its own presence.

In various ways, then, Romeo and Juliet renovates tragic desire for the Elizabethans and for subsequent periods. In early scenes it evokes a narcissistic poetics of desire as self-loss and death but moves beyond that to stage a dialogic reciprocal presence. The reappearance of death then inscribes ineluctable external influences—the determinations of time and history which frame desire—and the impossible idealization of self and other which passion seeks but fails to find. In this sense, Shakespeare's play marks a complex intersection between historical and emergent discourses of desire. First, in a period when modern institutions of family, marriage and romance are starting to appear, it translates Platonic, Ovidian and Petrarchan tropes of ecstasy and love into personal notions of desire. Next, it conceives desire as the interplay between passion, selfhood and death. And thirdly, its equivocal staging of love's death anticipates the tension between romantic and sceptical visions of desire that runs through many later literary and theoretical works.

It could be said that the play's symbolic bequest to these works is a notion of desire as lost presence. Though love continues to be celebrated as present or absent or present-in-absence in many texts (in different ways, Herbert's poetry and Brontë's Wuthering Heights come to mind), a significant line of literary works explores the interplay among desire, death and selfhood. Like Romeo and Juliet, these texts place desire in conflict with time, recounting moments of ideal presence whose future reveals they could never have been. This revision of desire begins with Shakespeare's later tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra—where one lover survives, though briefly, to feel the other's loss. It runs from the fallen lovers of Paradise Lost ('We are one, / One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself [9.958-9]), to the equivocal pairings at the end of Dickens's great novels or the images of foreclosed desire in Henry James's major phase. Its most poignant statement comes at the close of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:

the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If Romeo and Juliet helps to initiate this tradition, it does so as the last tragedy of desire. For in these later texts the note is of melancholic rather than tragic loss: what hurts is not that desire ends in death but that it ends before death. The present then becomes a time for recounting lost desire, and the self's task is to try to hold the story together. 'The subject's centre of gravity is this present synthesis of the past which we call history', writes Lacan.44 Like Romeo's last letter, this history reveals the 'course of love' (5.3-286) to those who remain.


1Drama, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, 1974), pp. 40-1 and passim.

2 Brian Gibbons, Introduction, in Romeo and Juliet (London, 1980), p. 37.

3 On analepsis and prolepsis, see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London, 1983), pp. 46ff.

4 Gibbons, Introduction, p. 54.

5 Gayle Whittier, 'The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 27-41; p. 40.

6 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare 's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley, 1986), p. 24.

7 Two of the primary psychoanalytic texts are Civilization and Its Discontents, and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. A clear reading of this direction in Freud is offered by Jean Lap lanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore, 1976): 'the death drive is the very soul, the constitutive principle of libidinal circulation' (p. 124). Related scepticism underlies Lacan's view of the link between desire and demand. Desire is dependent on demand, but demand, 'by being articulated in signifiers, leaves a metonymie remainder that runs under it . . . an element that is called desire': desire leads only to desire. See The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1981), p. 154; compare Catherine Belsey's gloss of Lacan's view—'desire subsists in what eludes both vision and representation, in what exceeds demand, including the demand for love'—in Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford, 1994), p. 139.

8Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, 1991), p. 110.

9 Belsey, Desire, pp. 38-9.

10 Ibid., p. 70.

11Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford, 1992), p. 128.

12Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Poems, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford, 1973), p. 117. As discussed below, this first sonnet's turn to a seemingly authentic self is also made in Romeo and Juliet.

13 Stephen Greenblatt, 'Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture', in Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore, 1986), 210-24; p. 224.

14 'But passion lends them power, time means, to meet, / Tempering extremities with extreme sweet' (2 Chor. 13-14). The Chorus, not included in first Quarto, is reprinted in the Arden edition (see n. 2).

15 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London, 1985), p. 34.

16 Aubrey Mellor, 'From the Artistic Director', in Queensland Theatre Company Program for Romeo and Juliet (Brisbane, 1993), p. 3.

17 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare and Other Poets and Dramatists, Everyman's Library (London: Dent, 1914), p. 410.

18 Graham Holderness, Preface: 'All this', in The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester, 1988), pp. xii-xiii.

19 See Dympna Callaghan, 'The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet', in Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms and Jyotsna Singh, The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford, 1994), pp. 59-101; Jonathan Goldberg, 'Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs', in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, 1994), 218-35; p. 227; and Joseph A. Porter, 'Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Canonization of Heterosexuality', South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 (1989), 127-47.

20Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Age of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago, 1984), p. 49.

21 Cf. Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1990), p. 5 and passim.

22Symposium, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, 1985), 193a-c, 211d-e.

23 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1948), pp. 319-22.

24Fowre Hymnes, 'A Hymne in Honovr of Love' (lines 197-203) and 'A Hymne in Honovr of Heavenly Love' (lines 8-28), in Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1979).

25Shakespeare's Ovid: Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the 'Metamorphoses', ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Carbondale, 1961), book 3: lines 540-2.

26 Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993), p. 173. Bate emphasizes Actaeon as another figure of self-consuming desire (p. 19 and passim).

27 Cf. George Bataille's conceptions of eros as 'laughable', tragic and 'arousing irony', and of 'The complicity of the tragic—which is the basis of death—with sexual pleasure and laughter': The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco, 1990), pp. 53 and 66.

28 Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans. John Florio (London, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 192-3.

29 Coleridge, Lectures, p. 103.

30 Harry Levin, Torni and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of 'Romeo and Juliet V A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Douglas Cole (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), 85-95; p. 86.

31 Coleridge, Lectures, p. 103.

32 Joseph A. Porter emphasizes that Mercutio's opposition is to romantic love not to sex: Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama (Chapel Hill, 1988), p. 103.

33 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London, 1966), lines 114, 210, 935, 2420 and 2532.

34 Kay Stockholder, Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays (Toronto, 1987), p. 30. In Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, 1984), Marianne Novy sees that the lovers' private world crystallizes in the aubade of Act 2, scene 1 (p. 108).

35 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 374.

36 On the interplay among misrecognition, desire and the symbolic, see Catherine Belsey, 'The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet', Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993), 126-42; on the significance of the lovers being masked from each other, see Barbara L. Parker, A Precious Seeing: Love and Reason in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1987), p. 142.

37 Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York, 1988), p. 21.

38 Edward Snow suggests that the sonnet registers 'an intersubjective privacy' that subdues 'sexual difference and social opposition': 'Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet', in Shakespeare's 'Rough magic': Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark, 1985), pp. 168-92; p. 168; Novy contrasts this scene with the sticho-mythic exchange between Juliet and Paris at 4.1.18-38 (Love's Argument, p. 108).

39 On the love-death oxymoron, cf. Whittier, 'sonnet's Body', p. 32.

40 Copp élia Kahn, 'Coming of Age in Verona', in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism, of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, 1980), pp. 171-93; p. 186. Marilyn Williamson regards the deaths as alienating rather than uniting, 'Romeo's suicide fulfills a pattern to which Juliet is both necessary and accidental': 'Romeo and Death', Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 129-37; p. 132.

41 Callaghan, 'Ideology', p. 61.

42 See Thomas Moisan, 'Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: the "Lamentations" Scene in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), 389-404.

43 Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1987), p. 213.

44The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1, Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954, trans. John Forrester (New York, 1991), p. 36. On literature and psychoanalysis as twin discourses of mourning and melancholia, see Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, 1993), esp. pp. 32-3.

Gender And Society

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Susan Snyder (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Ideology and Feud in Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 49, 1996, pp. 87-96.

[In the following essay, Snyder contends that the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet is a metaphor for ideology, arguing that social "norms themselves bring about the tragedy" of the play.]

Romeo and Juliet are very young. They are young to be married, and also young to be protagonists in a tragedy. Shakespeare made a special point of Juliet's extreme youth, first subtracting two years from the already tender age of Arthur Brooke's heroine (instead of sixteen, just under fourteen), and then having the characters disagree more than once over whether she is old enough to marry.1 Romeo, presumably somewhat older than Juliet, is nevertheless not yet grown up: still in the family home, fussed over by his parents, free to roam about with his friends but apparently not seen as ready for adult responsibility.

Why did Shakespeare insist on his tragic lovers as adolescents? To be sure, their youthfulness accentuates the generational conflict implicit in the story, the tragic disjunction that Franco Zeffirelli exploited so well in his compelling film version. But the extreme youth of Romeo and Juliet opens up a possibility beyond the traditional clashes of young and old. The very embeddedness in family that signals their tender years may itself be the point. It is surely significant that each of the two protagonists is introduced to us first as the object of parental concern. In the opening scene the Montagues worry about Romeo's solitary moping, fearing that some secret sorrow may blight their promising son before he ever arrives at maturity.2 In the scene directly following, Capulet is busy providing for his daughter's future by negotiating her marriage with Paris. It is important that each of these parental discussions takes place before we even meet the young person being discussed. Our initial view is of Romeo as a son, Juliet as a daughter.

Juliet as daughter of the house continues a prominent emphasis. Even her love scenes with Romeo are played out inside the Capulet enclave, with one family member or another always threatening to intrude. Romeo is seen in the streets rather than enclosed in Montague domesticity, in the company of his friends rather than his parents. This reflects, of course, the relative freedom accorded to young males as opposed to young females. But the difference in terms of family embeddedness may be more apparent than real. Romeo's peer group is not separate from kinship structure but a kind of extension of it, in that his habitual companions are Montague allies.

All of us are always being shaped into our ways of being and knowing by extensive social processing, but the lives of the young make this process especially visible. Romeo and Juliet do not necessarily have less autonomy than adults who have undergone the full ideological conditioning afforded by society's institutions. Yet their subordinate situation as children, acted on (cajoled, lectured, ordered, modelled) by the parents who in effect own them, makes that lack of autonomy more apparent. And the major constituting force that operates in their society is the feud between Montagues and Capulets.

At first glance this would seem too comprehensive a claim for the feud's reach and impact. The quarrel involves only two families, and it is not always taken seriously even by Montagues and Capulets. H. B. Charlton finds the family feud unsatisfactory as Fate's instrument in Romeo and Juliet, 'unsubstantial', because it is sometimes treated comically and does not consistently inform the feelings and actions of most characters. In any case, thinks Charlton, such barbaric mores are not realistic in the civilized Verona the play depicts.3 (On this last point, one wonders how a study published soon after World War II could ignore such abundant evidence in the recent history of civilized Western Europe of resurgent group hatreds and the barbaric behaviour they generated.) Critics in their own time have less trouble seeing the destructive dimensions in Veronese civility. Marilyn Williamson, for example, points to the violent atmosphere of the play's society.4 For Coppélia Kahn, the feud is 'an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society'.5 I agree that informing social institutions are the play's major tragic force, though I would quarrel with Kahn's term 'peculiar' if it is meant to characterize the feud as uncommon, individual rather than general. The dramatic expression of dynastic hostility may seem extreme and eccentric, but the feud in its operations acts like any ideology, indeed offers a model of how ideology works.

Like ideology in Althusser's classic formulation, the feud has no obvious genesis that can be discerned, no history. It pervades everything, not as a set of specific ideas but as repeatedpractices. The feud-system is not in fact predicated on any substantive difference between Montagues and Capulets. A Jerusalem production which presented Montagues as Arabic-speaking Palestinians and Capulets as Hebrew-speaking Jews had its own political point to make about the clash of rival cultures.6 Shakespeare, though, with his 'two households both alike in dignity', seems to be creating a different sort of division, one that is obviously arbitrary and artificial. The members of his rival houses belong to the same culture, use the same verbal and behavioural languages. When Montagues intrude on the Capulet festivities, only their faces have to be covered; nothing else in their bearing or manners marks them as outsiders. What's in a name? Everything, it would seem. One thinks of Lacan's two identical doors with Ladies over one and Gentlemen over the other.

Shakespeare also emphasizes the artificial nature of the feud by suppressing the account of its origins given in this source. Brooke explains that it was their very equality of station that gave rise to enmity between the two families, breeding envy and hatred which in time became 'Rooted'.7 Shakespeare says only that the quarrel is 'ancient'.8 The first scene subtly enacts this 'always already' quality of the feud, when a question of origins is raised only to fall short of an answer. The elder Montague asks Benvolio what started the latest round of hostilities—asks, we should note, only after both of them have automatically taken part in the fighting. Benvolio can't give a good explanation because the clash was already under way when he entered. The audience has been on the scene longer than he has, but any answer spectators can give to 'how did this start?' is no more definitive than Benvolio's. We have seen the Capulet servants come on already primed to fight, as if they need contrary Montagues to define their manhood. Or rather, this has been Sampson's stance, while Gregory twits him and plays generally with words. But the feud, like ideology, flattens out personal differences, slotting individuals into predetermined roles; after some actual Montagues arrive on the scene, Gregory quickly falls into line with Sampson's pugnacity—just as Benvolio, whose natural bent is to peacemaking and who a few minutes later tries to stop the servants' scrap, must nevertheless slide into his appointed slot to cross swords with Tybalt. The dominance of an 'assigned form of subjectivity'9 over individual temperament or initiative is evident in the exaggerated symmetry of the whole sequence: servants matched by opposing servants, nephew of one house paired off against nephew of the other, Capulet patriarch answered by Montague patriarch, all entering as if on cue and doing the same thing.

The Montague-Capulet feud may be like ideology in having no apparent beginning, but is it not different in coming to a publicly announced end in the last moments of the play? I shall delay addressing this somewhat problematic issue till the end of my essay, and consider here another question that has probably occurred to more than one reader already. Is it legitimate to see the feud as shaped by Shakespeare enacting the workings of ideology as conceived by modern theorists? Where we may accept without difficulty readings that discern in his plays and poems the features of specific ideological systems, explore their contradictions, and trace their transmutations, the assumption in these cases is that Shakespeare need have made no conscious effort to delineate these systems, which rather inscribe themselves through us without our awareness or cooperation. But doesn't taking the feud as a metaphor for ideology in general imply some conscious intent on Shakespeare's part?

Yes, it does, and the assumption is not unwarranted. Without precognizing Althusser, Shakespeare nevertheless displays in Romeo and Juliet a very conscious concern with society's impact on the individual, especially in the characters' meditations on names and their power. Names define us as individuals, announce who we are. Yet no name is unique to one person. It has been attached to others in the society, blood kin in the case of the surname, saints or leaders or forebears in the case of the given name. Names are imposed on infants before they are individuals, by society and its central unit the family. The considerable dynastic and cultural freight they carry begins the child's constitution as a subject. 'Romeo Montague' inscribes the young man who is called that into a particular subject-position. (We tend to see this dimension mainly in the family name, but Juliet laments over the given name as well: 'deny thy father and refuse thy name' is preceded by 'Wherefore art thou Romeo?' And her lover, invited to doff his offending name, responds 'Henceforth I never will be Romeo.')

Juliet's familiar 'What's in a name?' meditation shows up the power of ideology by signally underestimating its force. She and Romeo have met unlabelled, as it were, a faceless youth and an anonymous girl at a party. They have not encountered each other before in the usual contextual way because of the enmity between their families. Each asks for the name of the other, and discovers conflict:

ROMEO Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe's debt . . .
JULIET My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!'10

In soliloquy later, Juliet convinces herself that seeing, responding to individual looks and attitudes, can blot out knowing, which acknowledges the social context. She tries to separate her lover's name from his essential properties.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any part
Belonging to a man.


Name and self are not so easily divisible, though. While Romeo immediately disavows his name, Juliet even here goes on calling him 'Romeo' and 'Montague', and worries about the danger of his staying with her, 'considering who thou art' (2.1.106). A name may not be a body part, but Romeo will soon feel it to be just as intrinsic. Fearing that Juliet hates him for killing her cousin Tybalt, he attributes the act to 'that name's cursed hand'. The contorted phrase makes manifest the social construction of his agency. Contradicting Juliet's earlier optimism, he feels 'Romeo' as something so enmeshed with his being that it needs to be forcibly ripped out of his body (3.3.101-7). What has happened to change his perception from 'Henceforth I never will be Romeo' to 'In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge?' is the reactivation of the feud: the need to avenge Mercutio, who died taking Romeo's own place against Tybalt, by killing in turn the enemy Capulet. Romeo's name has turned out to be a part of his self after all, directing his actions and defining his responses.

Juliet's hopeful separation of essence from what seems to her an external label—'Thou art thyself, though not a Montague'—is soon shown to be wrong, then. Even the supporting argument that she uses at the time is suspect. 'That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet' (2.1.85-6) sounds self-evidently true. But would that flower really retain its full sweetness in our subjective judgement if we were not conditioned to think of the rose as the best, the most worthy? The blossom itself retains its natural properties under any name, but our use and valuation of it must alter. The name 'Rose' carries with it considerable cultural baggage, suggesting surpassing beauty combined with difficulty of access (surrounded by thorns), hence something supremely precious, as well as the paragon, the ideal. What Ophelia means when she calls Hamlet 'th' expectancy and rose of the fair state' (Hamlet 3.1.155) would be significantly altered if she talked of 'th' expectancy and lilac', even though lilacs smell sweet too—especially since the 'fair state' of the audience for whom Shakespeare wrote this line had a rose as its familiar symbol.

Shakespeare did not need Althusser's analysis in order to grasp the workings of interpellation or to feel the force of the dual meaning of subject, the 'autonomous' agent who is formed by and in a social formation to which he is subjected. Jonathan Dollimore approaches the same question through parallels between Montaigne's 'custom' and Althusser's 'ideology', concluding that 'the Renaissance possessed a sophisticated concept of ideology if not the word'.11 The preoccupation with names in Romeo and Juliet points directly to the most basic function of ideology, central also to the feud: identifying, hailing or interpellating into predetermined subject-positions. The feud operates in the classic way of language, and of ideology: it creates meaning by differentiating. Terry Eagleton, following Jameson, finds the opposition between self/familiar/good on the one hand and non-self/alien/ bad on the other 'the fundamental gesture of all ideology'.12 Capulets define who they are against Montagues, Montagues against Capulets. 'This' can only be distinguished when set against 'that', however arbitrary such distinctions are in language and other social constructions.13 The feud is not a matter of contrary ideas, not a matter of ideas at all, but of repeated, habitual actions that keep reasserting the defining distinctions between 'us' and 'them'.

Ideology is what constructs our consciousness and makes sense of our world. It is pervasive, working everywhere. Can this be said of the feud? After all, not everyone in Verona is a Montague or a Capulet. We get fleeting glimpses of some nameless citizens, and various members of another family come in for more extended attention as individual characters: Prince Escalus, and especially his two kinsmen Mercutio and Paris. But on scrutiny the Montague-Capulet hostility can be seen to gather in and organize these third parties as well as the two central clans. The feud exemplifies the workings of any ideology, of Ideology itself, but the specifics of its enactment express their historical moment.14 The Veronese discourse of family division thus embraces some important social imperatives of early modern élite culture in Western Europe: the obligation to maintain one's honour by avenging insults, the obligation to contract a suitable marriage and adapt appropriately to the married state.

To some extent these were gendered. It was men who were bound in this way by the code of honour. Marriage, though expected of both sexes, was more central and defining for women, since a wife took on the loyalties as well as the status of her new family along with its name. In Romeo and Juliet Lady Capulet not only makes the case for marriage to her young daughter but also demonstrates her own thorough conditioning as a wife. Presumably not a Capulet by birth, she nevertheless has committed herself totally and fervently to the family feud. Her husband, born into the anti-Montague faith, can be easygoing about it at times, as when he accepts Romeo's presence at the party. His wife, a typical convert, is possessed by her acquired faith. She is not on hand to comment on this first occasion, but after Romeo has killed Tybalt she fills the air with cries of grief and demands for revenge. Indeed, it is presumably her role as chief mourner for Tybalt in 3.1, as contrasted with her husband's silence, that led Malone and subsequent editors to list Tybalt in the Dramatis Personae as the nephew of Lady Capulet, not Capulet himself.15 But family titles like nephew and brother routinely included in-laws as well as blood relatives,16 and Tybalt's own deep investment in Capulet family values, not to speak of his interment in the family tomb, strongly suggests that he is a Capulet born. While a woman's transfer of loyalties to her husband's kin was fitting, a man's proper adherence was to his own clan. Lady Capulet's extreme sorrow for Tybalt, then, and her murderous designs on his slayer convey not special concern for her own family of birth but complete interpellation as a Capulet by marriage.17 To Juliet as a prospective bride she lays out the same course, inviting her to be the decorative cover to the book that is Paris—in other words, to take her meaning from her husband. 'so shall you share in all he doth possess / By having him, making yourself no less' (1.3.81-96). Paris himself, like Juliet initially, gives docile heed to the imperative of suitable alliance; indeed, this is his sole motive for action in the play. The marriage of Paris and Juliet never takes place, but it is his moves towards that union that involve him fatally in the bloodshed of the feud.

Like his kinsman Paris, Mercutio gets entangled in the feud and dies in consequence. By his intervention in the fight to uphold Romeo's masculine good name when Romeo himself refuses to rise to Tybalt's insulting provocations, Mercutio brings out the other specific historical face of ideology in this play, the masculine code of honour. Mercutio presents himself as a scorner of codes and conventions. He shows no sign of negotiating like Paris for a bride, he delights in recasting Romeo's Petrarchan metaphors of adoration for Rosaline into leering physicality. He mocks standard beliefs like the power of dreams to prognosticate, and standard practices like the formulas of fencing. Yet Mercutio is as deeply implicated in ideology as anyone else. His reduction of woman to a set of sexual parts to be attacked is not really his own, but derives from another ideological strain, as extreme as Petrarchan adoration and even hoarier as a cultural tradition. And for all his disdain of the duello, he hurls himself with no question at all into the duel proposed by Tybalt. His response is as mechanical as any we have witnessed in the opening Montague-Capulet brawl. Mercutio himself attributes his death to the family feud, obsessively repeating through his last moments 'A plague o' both your houses . . . A plague o' both your houses! . .. A plague o' both your houses . . . Your houses!' (3.1.91-108).

When these specific ideological ramifications thus draw in the two chief 'outsiders' in the play, and the third 'outsider' finally reads his own implication in theirs ('And I, for winking at your discords, too / Have lost a brace of kinsmen', 5.3.293-4), the feud does appear all-pervasive. No part of society that we see can escape from its influence.18 Romeo and Juliet themselves are deeply conditioned by it, although they also, necessarily, transcend the family division. I call this movement beyond the feud necessary not only because it allows their love for each other to begin and develop, but also because their venture outside the circumscribing feud-ideology makes that ideology visible, as it would never be if everyone continued to operate inside its unspoken premises.

Transcendence is perhaps a misleading term for the lovers' attempted isolation of themselves from the feud. Enclosed by Veronese social formations, they do not rise above so much as withdraw inward. Romeo and Juliet have no space of their own. Their love scenes are all played out inside the Capulet establishment, constantly impinged upon by Tybalt, or the Nurse, or Lady Capulet. The closest the lovers come to a shared private space is Friar Laurence's cell, where they met in 2.5 to be married. But that encounter is brief and driven (Friar Laurence feels it necessary to 'make short work' of the marriage ceremony, line 34). Moreover, this respite from the feud is granted not by escape from ideology but by the temporary ascendancy of a rival one, the Friar's Christian agenda of reconciling the two warring houses. Nor does a freer space seem to be imaginable for Romeo and Juliet somewhere else. A milieu less insistently enclosing might make visually possible the option of leaving the city together and finding a new life somewhere else. Instead, the play's physical dimensions only confirm that 'there is no world without Verona walls' (3.3.17). Verona, constituted by the feud, asserts itself like any ideology as the only reality there is.19 Even as they die, another Capulet enclave surrounds the young pair, the family tomb.

Hemmed in as they are, how can Romeo and Juliet constitute even an inner space in terms different from the all-powerful norm? As is suggested by Friar Laurence's transgression of the feud's dictates to sanction their love, opportunity arises through the presence of rival ideologies coexisting with and sometimes challenging the dominant one. For example, Romeo and Juliet can initially meet and talk as they do not only because they are momentarily free of family-name labels but because Juliet's father is for once tolerating the presence of a Montague. He restrains the angry Tybalt, swayed by imperatives other than the feud:

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone.
A bears him like a portly gentleman,
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.
I would not for the wealth of all this town
Here in my house do him disparagement.


Such indulgence at first glance seems to support Charlton's dismissal of the feud as too light-weight to sustain its role in the tragic structure, let alone to express the central shaping force of any culture. If the family enmity can be so easily set aside by the leader of one faction, how can it nevertheless represent the all-powerful operations of ideology? But one can see in Capulet's attitude not a casual shedding of the feud but an internal disruption in the social ideology, as the dominant discourse is crossed by other, locally influential ones. Montagues are to be spurned, yet good cheer must be fostered at social gatherings, especially by the host. Categorically, a Montague is an enemy, yet a particular young man's good behaviour and reputation make it hard to treat him rudely. For convivial Capulet, whose favourite activity is preparing and presenting feasts, the primary value at this moment of cross-purposes is surely hospitality. 'Here in my house', whatever you do, don't spoil the party.

Normally kept apart by the reigning ideology, Romeo and Juliet can thus come together in a kind of aporia created by ideological contestation, which in turn enables them to find in their sonnet-exchange discourses that they can share, of romantic courtship and religion. Religion will continue as a common discourse embodied in Friar Laurence. The commonality has in fact preceded this first meeting: it is another sign of crossed ideologies that these two young people so firmly separated by the feud can nevertheless share without any special dispensation the same confessor. His cell is another aporia, or a version of the first, the (only) place where hereditary enemies can meet and formally unite.

The discourse of romantic courtship presents a more complicated picture. The first exchange between Romeo and Juliet is in some ways highly conventional, grounded in a familiar cultural master-script. Their dialogue falls neatly into the standard sonnet's three quatrains and a couplet, and in typical sonnet fashion elaborates a conceit, the lover as pilgrim. In showing so clearly the impress of literary tradition, this wooing passage may remind us of Romeo a few scenes before, expounding his hopeless love for Rosaline in Petrarchan clichés. If that earlier love-talk nevertheless feels more artificial, it is partly because the speaker's diligence in piling up the conceits and Oxymora suggests a scholar's zeal rather than a lover's;20 but partly because, with the other party to the courtship not even present, Romeo's one-sided romance acquires the flavour of rhetorical exercise. The passage between Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet party moves more naturally: proposition, response, adjustment and further proposition, new response. Here Romeo's speech has a real purpose, pleading for a kiss. And they do kiss, twice. Juliet breaks off the second sonnet begun by Romeo with 'You kiss by th' book' (1.5.109). While the latter part of her teasing complaint underlines how the impersonal discourse of literary love has written itself through their exchange, the first part nevertheless acknowledges real physical contact between them. The later love-speech of Romeo and Juliet uses rhyme much less and highly wrought forni not at all. Their language cannot of course completely escape tradition—no language can. But in subsequent dialogue between the lovers convention is not prominent as such, and familiar materials are reworked to flow, with the verse, more freely.21

This often-noted evolution, from romantic discourse shaped by convention to a more direct lyricism that seems to override form, enacts through language the withdrawal of Romeo and Juliet from the defining difference imposed on them by the feud, into immediate, fervent engagement with each other. Perhaps their very youthfulness, which on the one hand highlights the social processing they are undergoing, on the other hand makes that withdrawal more possible in that the processing is not complete. They are less fixed by constant conditioning than their elders, less habituated to their social roles as Montague and Capulet. Even so, the grip of ideology is tenacious, and apt to tighten in moments of emotional crisis. Both lovers offer examples of this tenacity, and both temporary re-conformings are accentuated by a lapse into 'speaking by the book'. Trying to deal with Tybalt's rage right after his marriage to Juliet, Romeo has been unconventional in both action and speech: 'I do protest I never injured thee, / But love thee better than thou canst devise . . . good Capulet—which name I tender / As dearly as mine own—be satisfied' (3.1.67-71). But when Mercutio takes up Tybalt's challenge on Romeo's behalf and is mortally wounded as a result, conventional reactions and conventional language suddenly reclaim Romeo. Now, not before, he worries about his 'Reputation stained / With Tybalt's slander' (lines 111-12). The news that Mercutio is dead completes Romeo's total absorption into the avenger-role prescribed for him in the code of honour, the role from which he had earlier distanced himself so carefully.

He gad in triumph, and Mercutio slain?
Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now.
Now, Tybalt, take the 'villain' back again
That late thou gav'st me.

(lines 122-6)

The style of his speech as well as its substance belongs to revenge tragedy. In the scene following, Juliet in her turn is repossessed by ideology. She has begun this sequence in soliloquy, wishing impatiently for night and her bridegroom, her speech hastening along with her desire and overflowing the artificial pentameter bounds. Now the Nurse tells her that Tybalt her cousin is dead by the hand of that same bridegroom.

O serpent heart, hid with a flow'Ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despisèd substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st—
A damnèd saint, an honourable villain.


When Juliet lapses into her feud-assigned form of subjectivity as outraged Capulet, her speech changes. All at once, she is speaking in hackneyed images and formally balanced end-stopped lines. Her shock at suddenly having to superimpose Romeo the murderer on Romeo the lover is certainly real, but its articulation through neat oxymora (reminiscent of Romeo's own conventional language of emotion before his meeting with Juliet) makes clear that she is speaking as a generic Capulet.22 As Orwell might say, feudthink generates bookspeak.

Yet if the language of Romeo and Juliet, apart from these lapses, hints at a journey beyond the prevailing ideology, the constraints implicit in the play's action leave them with nowhere to go, nothing to do except die. For individuals who try to advance beyond their ideology but cannot undo its constitutive influence, there is no feasible way to live. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet can be seen as the final expression of a process of excommunication that was adumbrated earlier when Romeo was banished from Verona. Exclusion, as Goran Therborn reminds us, is the main form of sanction invoked by ideology against those who transgress its barriers and definitions.23 The crime that cut Romeo off from his social existence came about through acts of ideological rebellion: crossing over the feud-barrier to love an 'Enemy', refusing (as a result) a challenge in violation of the code of honour. The lovers' deaths look avoidable on the plot level, a matter of misunderstanding and bad timing, but from this perspective that tragic finale inside the family tomb (a setting that visibly manifests the weight of past practices) is all too inevitable. Laurence Stone thinks that an Elizabethan audience would have understood the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as self-inflicted: their destruction came about because, by placing personal passion before obedience to family imperatives, they violated the norms of their society.24 I have been arguing that, on the contrary, the norms themselves bring about the tragedy. One could go further and propose that the tragic predicament—possibilities for human development narrowed down and cut off—is built into the operations of ideology. That which is necessary to give us a stable identity and a consistent view of the world is by the same token what limits and distorts us. The suicides of Romeo and Juliet represent one version of ideology's destructive power. An alternative outcome to the action, less dramatic but just as tragic in its own way, would portray the two young people as recaptured for good by their social conditioning. Romeo would become the Tybalt of the Montagues, challenging Capulets on cue and advancing his manly reputation. Juliet would have an elaborate church wedding and afterward live comfortably in her different sphere as the rich and decorative cover to Paris's book.

Does the destruction of this young pair do anything to transform the feud and ideological force it represents? Certainly Capulet and Montague join hands in their mutual grief at the very end of the play, initiating what the Prince calls 'a glooming peace'. Taking the hopeful view, we might conclude that the union of Romeo and Juliet, born in the contradictions of ideology that open up possibilities for change and development, signals even in their death the end of the old system and the beginning of a new phase. But the hopeful view has to ignore or discount the ironies that hedge that reconciliation of the patriarchs. The fathers propose to seal their peace by erecting gold statues to their children, an image that not only suggests vulgar show but also resonates disturbingly with Romeo's recent diatribe against gold as a poison, a murderer (5.1.81-5). Memorializing the feud's victims in a medium that is synonymous with corruption and death makes at best an inauspicious beginning for a new era of peace. What is more, as many readers have observed, the proposals of Montague and Capulet suggest in their form renewed competition rather than cooperation.

CAPULET O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter's jointure, for no more
Can I demand.
MONTAGUE But 1 can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
CAPULET As rich shall Romeo's by his lady lie . . .


Both fathers speak the language of commercial rivalry as they strive not to be outdone in conspicuous display. If mercantile competition played a part in their feud, it has never been so noticeable as in this moment of supposed reconciliation.25

Traditional productions of Romeo and Juliet, while often cutting or omitting entirely Friar Laurence's lengthy explanations in the last scene, usually present the reconciliation to be taken at face value. Directors more inclined to social criticism interrogate it. Viewers of Michael Bogdanov's 1986-7 RSC production, for example, could have little assurance of a brave new world in Verona when they witnessed the actual unveiling of those golden statues, staged as an empty public relations event with the Prince speaking from cue cards and papparazzi photographing all the surviving principals in appropriate poses. The handshake of Capulet and Montague became a photo op.26 In any case, even the most optimistic reading or staging of the final exchange between Capulet and Montague as marking a definitive social change leaves unaltered the larger tragic script of ideology. If this particular instrument of forming subjectivities becomes outmoded, a new system of distinctions and codes will replace it as the 'ancient' order of things that divides and excludes in order to define.


1 Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), fol. G4. Her mother says that most of the girl's friends are already married. In Painter's version Juliet is almost eighteen: The Palace of Pleasure (1567), Nnn2r.

2 Montague likens him to 'the bud bit with an envious worm / Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air / Or dedicate his beauty to the sun' (I.I. 148-50).

3 H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge, 1948), pp. 59-60.

4 Marilyn Williamson, 'Romeo and Death', Shakespeare Studies, 14 (New York, 1981), 129-37; pp. 135-6. Her main point is Romeo's bent to self-destruction, which she sees as expressing his society's pervasive violence.

5 Copp élia Kahn, 'Coming of Age in Verona', Modern Language Studies, 8 (1978), repr. 'Romeo and Juliet': Critical Essays, ed. John F. Andrews, Garland Shakespearean Criticism Series, 10 (New York, 1993), 337-58; p. 337.

6 Reported on All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 27 July 1994.

7Romeus and Juliet, A2r.

8 Prol. 3; I.I.101. G. K. Hunter points to the lack of content in the enmity between Capulets and Montagues when he observes that the feud has 'little political reality' and exists to put pressure on the love of Romeo and Juliet: 'shakespeare's Earliest Tragedies: Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Survey 27 (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 1-9; p. 5.

9 This term, preferred by Goran Therborn over role (The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology [London, 1981]), better emphasizes inward conditioning along with the behaviour it generates.

10 1.5.116-38. For the formality of the lovers' rhymed couplets here as an expression of the feud mentality, see below, pp. 94-5.

11 Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2nd edn (Durham, N.C., 1993), pp. 17-18; the idea is developed in ch. 10.

12 Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London and New York, 1991), p. 126; cf. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), pp. 114-15. Althusser came close, in his essays on Freud and Lenin and in Lenin and Philosophy, to equating language and the symbolic order with ideology as agents constructing the subject. Catherine Belsey completes the connection in Critical Practice (London and New York, 1980), ch. 3.

13 The lack of real difference between Montagues and Capulets (see above, p. 88) illustrates Saussure's central dictum that language is a system of differences with no positive terms, a system which creates meaning rather than discovers a pre-existing one. For the inextricable relation of language and ideology, see Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject (London, 1977). Erik Erikson in Identity and the Youth Cycle (New York, 1980) discusses (pp. 97-8) the function of group identification and exclusion in the adolescent years, the founding of identity on difference.

14 'Existential ideologies always exist in concrete historical forms, but are never reducible to them': Therborn, The Ideology of Power, p. 44.

15 Eighteenth-century editions before Malone's of 1790 list Tybalt as Capulet's kinsman.

16 Both Capulet and Lady Capulet refer to Tybalt as the son of 'my brother' (3.5.127; 3.1.146).

17 Lady Capulet demonstrates that one of Juliet's propositions about names is not naive wish but fact. Her assertion that in union with Romeo she would 'no longer be a Capulet' (2.1.78) has the whole weight of contemporary theory and practice of marriage to support it.

18 The feud is an example of Althusser's ideology of the ruling class, as that class is embodied in the three élite clans on view. The potentially opposing interests of the lower classes are not thematized: Capulet and Montague servants are instead shown as interpellated by their masters' feud, identified with the interests of the houses they serve. Althusser's formulation is not completely appropriate here, however, since the cui bono question—whose interests are served by the constituting force?—is not relevant to the feud as presented by Shakespeare. Ideology in Romeo and Juliet is not analysed structurally but experienced from the subject's point of view; its origins and purposes are riot visible.

19 Here again Shakespeare departs significantly from earlier versions of the story, in which Juliet begs to accompany her lover into exile, either openly as his wife or in disguise. Brooke has Romeus refuse for fear that Capulet will pursue and harm them, but in the world Shakespeare has created, to leave the city together is not even conceived as possible.


Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! . . .
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes,
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.


21 Several critical studies chart the lovers' shift out of conventional speech: perhaps the best known of these is Harry Levin, 'Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1960), 3-11. Kiernan Ryan applies Romeo's line 'Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books' (2.1.201) to this movement beyond the 'prescribed texts': 'Romeo and Juliet: The Language of Tragedy', The Taming of the Text: Explorations in Language, Literature, and Culture, ed. Willie van Peer (London and New York, 1988), pp. 106-21; p. 116.

22 W. H. Auden notes the radical disparity between this conventional speech and the one that opened the scene, without suggesting any function for the difference: 'Commentary on the Poetry and Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet', Romeo and Juliet, Laurel edn (New York, 1988), p. 26.

23 The victim of this process 'is excluded from further meaningful discourse as being insane, depraved, traitorous, alien, and so on. The excommunicated person is condemned, temporarily or forever, to ideological nonexistence . . . Usually ideological excommunication is connected with the material sanctions of expulsion, confinement, or death' (Therborn, The Ideology of Power, p. 83).

24 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage 1500-1800 (New York, 1977), p. 87.

25 Among critics who have found irony in the final rapprochement of Capulet and Montague, see Clifford Leech, 'The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet', English Renaissance Drama, ed. Standish Henning et al. (Carbondale, I11., 1976), pp. 59-75, p. 70; on the competitive nature of their speeches, Nathaniel Wallace, 'Cultural Tropology in Romeo and Juliet', Studies in Philology, 88 (1991), 329-44; p. 342; Thomas Moisan, "'O Any Thing, of Nothing First Create!": Gender and Patriarchy in the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet', In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen, N.J., and London, 1991), pp. 113-36; p. 125; Greg Bentley, 'Poetics of Power: Money as Sign and Substance in Romeo and Juliet', Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 17 (1991), 145-66; pp. 163-4.

26 For an account of several stagings of the final scene, see Barbara Hodgdon, 'Absent Bodies, Present Voices: Performance Work and the Close of Romeo and Juliet's Golden Story', Theatre Journal, 41.3 (October, 1989), repr. Andrews, pp. 243-65. Bogdanov's is discussed pp. 252-4.

Robert Appelbaum (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "'standing to the Wall': The Pressures of Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet", in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 251-72.

[In the following essay, Appelbaum investigates the tragic limitations of masculinity in Romeo and Juliet, discussing its socially-constituted relationship to symbolic order and rejection of the female.]

What is masculinity? In a brief essay that rings true for me with respect to my own experience as a man, Homi K. Bhabha warns us not to speak of "masculinity in general, sui generis." What we are talking about when we talk about masculinity, Bhabha writes, is a certain "prosthetic reality—a 'prefixing' of the rules of gender and sexuality" that is somehow removed from the subject, that "is strangely separating from me, turning into my shadow," even as it "supplements and suspends" the male subject, suspends the "lackin-being" that constitutes male subjectivity. This "'prefixing' of the rules" will obviously vary from situation to situation, from culture to culture, and from period to period, if not from individual to individual. It is not to be confused with an essence or a substance. But it is also something that a man can't dispense with. It is "the 'taking up' of an enunciative position" without which the male subject cannot articulate himself as a man in his masculinity.1 When he was a boy, Bhabha's father used to challenge him with the playful question "Are you a man or a mouse?"—implying that there is no choosing between the two. And in an important sense there isn't any choosing. The system is already in place; in virtually any given situation a regime of masculinity will be already hegemonic, wearing a mask of coercive but universal normativity. If a man is to articulate himself as a man, the rule for doing so is already in place; and if a man is to articulate himself at all, he is already under compulsion, in most situations, to do so as a man. And yet the regime itself—as Bhabha knows it, as most of us today have known it, and as it seems for the most part to have been known in Shakespeare's time as well—is fundamentally unstable. It is the regime of a lack, operating as if it were the regime of a being, and its goals are always elusive and unsatisfiable, even if they are also the conditions that "supplement and suspend" the male subject while regulating his behavior.

This dilemma of masculinity is rehearsed in the oftencited masculinist patter that opens Romeo and Juliet and leads to a renewal of violence in the world of the play. "To move is to stir, and to be valiant is to stand," the Capulet servant Gregory argues, preparing to incite a brawl. But what is a man, then, really to do? To stir or to stand? The assertive masculinity that Gregory is trying to grasp immediately slips out of his hands and out of his words, since to stand, as his companion, Sampson, rejoins, is to "take the wall," and yet "the weakest goes to the wall"; the wall is a place for women (1.1.9-14).2 To be a man is to move, to stir, to push, to thrust ("I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall" [11. 16-17]); but it is also to stand, to show oneself standing, "to show [oneself] a tyrant," and attempt to exact tribute to one's masculinity, to secure ratification that one is standing: "My naked weapon is out"; "I will frown as I pass by, and let them take it as they list" (11. 21,34,41). On the one hand, the man wants to take up the position that is already waiting for him, the position of his own lack; he wants to stir and occupy it, displacing his rivals, abusing their women. On the other hand, the man wants to wear the mask of having the position occupied; he wants to show himself not stirring toward it but already standing there in possession of his masculinity. Valiantly standing, he is confirmed, at last, in his manhood. Or is he?

It is clear from its context that the rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues is also, for the men, the impetus for an inward rivalry, an inward pressure to masculine self-assertion that cannot be appeased or concluded. Both Gregory and Sampson find themselves called upon (from where is unclear) to initiate an incident of masculine aggression—to stir or to stand and, either way, by being embroiled in a fight, to attain to the realization of a normative value. But what is lacking from the regime of aggression that they are trying to observe is a genuine endpoint, a normativity that, once attained, can bring their masculinist goals of aggression to a final resolution: a mask of adequacy.

Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare the regime of masculinity seems to have a doubleness that is all but insoluble. If masculinity is a prefixing of the rules, those rules are invested in systems of power about which the Shakespearean canon is already ambivalent, and which the canon commonly depicts as unstable and insufficient. Moreover, if the regime of masculinity demands that its unsatisfiable goals be followed to the end, and subjects such as Sampson and Gregory, or, for that matter, Tybalt and Mercutio, are compelled to try to complete themselves in ways that can only result in their death, the Shakespearean canon often dramatizes what appears to be a desire to escape from the regime, to overcome or run away from the snares it sets. Romeo and Juliet is not a play particularly marked by what might be taken to be signs of psychological complexity; on the contrary, it seems bent on schematizing its psychologies and laying its schematizations bare. But for just this reason, it provides, I believe, an especially interesting test case of this insoluble double bind: the ambivalent prosthetics of masculinity.3 Against its opening and recurring spectacle of masculine aggression, the play juxtaposes a pair of alternatives: civil peace, apparently embodied in the person and decrees of its Prince; and civil love, sponsored by the affair between its eponymous hero and heroine and the regime of heterosexual love they try to observe. But it is fair to wonder what kinds of alternatives, if any, civil peace and civil love really supply. My position is that they do not supply genuine alternatives: in the world of Romeo and Juliet, the regime of masculinity is constituted as a system from which there is no escape, but in keeping with which there is no experience of masculine satisfaction either, although the drama played out by Romeo may seduce us into thinking that there is both one and the other.

One might continue this line of inquiry by looking into the nature of the alternatives themselves. What would it mean for a male not to be a man in the world of Romeo and Juliet, to be a male subject without being a captive of the masculinist regime? Or, if any male were inevitably its captive, the system being both prosthetic and mandatory, what would it mean to find fulfillment in the system, as if, in being its captive, one were also expressing one's freedom and transcending the system's constraints?

Both the fixity of the gender system in Romeo and Juliet and the illusions of transcendence the system apparently fosters have recently been attacked by Jonathan Goldberg. The focus of Goldberg's critique is the play's conventional reception as a celebration of what amounts to compulsory heterosexuality.4 In Romeo and Juliet the hard realities of life in Verona are apparently healed by the fervid, heterosexual love of the two main characters. Romeo's manliness is put in the service of a woman ("For stony limits cannot hold love out" [2.2.68]), and Juliet's femininity is put in the service of her man ("all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay, / And follow thee my lord throughout the world" [11. 147-48]). Of course, their love is doomed, but that seems to be because, as the prince tells their fathers, Capulet and Montague, "a scourage is laid upon your hate" (5.3.292). Love, heterosexual love, would thus seem to be the predominant value of the play, and the regimes of masculinity and femininity required by such a value would seem therefore to be equally predominant, equally necessary to the world of the play.

But Goldberg deconstructs the circulation of desires in the play, exposing the "open Rs," as Goldberg and Mercutio and Juliet's Nurse all put it, toward which sexual desire in the play is frequently headed. Goldberg shows how desire frequently inclines in unexpected homosocial and homosexual directions; and he underscores how, if desire is ever structured in the course of the play as a celebration of a heterosexist ethos, it is only by way of a certain kind of performance of gender identities and gender relations, more or less deliberately and openly engaged in. Given the ease with which the fixity of gender relations and desire can be deconstructed, Goldberg shows us, it is a mistake to conclude that the play really exalts heterosexual love in quite the way popular audiences and high-school teachers imagine that it does. It is more plausible to conclude that the exaltation of the heterosexist ethos is a construction imposed on the play by readers and performers as they pursue their own ideological agendas, including the often-unconscious agenda of compulsory heterosexuality.

But although Goldberg himself doesn't develop the point, one thing remains clear: whether or not the play exalts heterosexual love as it is popularly held to do, the play dramatizes an attempt to exalt it, an attempt to overcome patterns of violence and aggression through an engagement with what the two main characters take to be the joyful "bounty," as Juliet puts it, of their mutual desire. And this attempt, too, involves a kind of performance of gender.5 The main characters understand immediately that what is happening between them entails the embrace of an economy of desire that fixes them in a bipolar gender relationship. If their economy of desire requires them to embrace what seems to be an alternative system of values ("Deny thy father" [2.2.234]), in embracing that system, they nevertheless reduplicate, on a highly individualized, sublimated level, a normative structure of gender. However urgently their desire for each other seems to summon them toward escape and transgression, in other words, it also envelops them in a structure that requires them to perform and re-perform their relation as a dialogue of gender—to perform it, essentially, as a performance. The impulses toward escape and transgression that their desire entails can thus be interpreted not as drives toward departing from the regime of gender performance but as individualized expressions of the regime's authority. Impulses toward escape and transgression, placed in the service of an attempt to exalt the power of heterosexual love and heterosexist identities, are in fact manifestations of the regime of gender and the inescapable power of masculinist prosthetics.

Certainly Romeo and Juliet believe that they can bypass the boundaries of this system—leaping over walls; standing "proof against the "enmity" of their families; Juliet vowing to lay at Romeo's feet a fortune that is not in her power to bequeath or, when threatened by her official engagement to County Paris, to "leap . . . / From off the battlements of any tower" (4.1.77-78). But their belief in escape is, again, an expression of the system that determines them. The system itself is complex, and those very endpoints of value toward which one might incline in order to bypass the limits of masculinist aggression—civil peace and heterosexual love—are among the system's constitutive normative elements. The mise-en-abyme of masculinist aggression that individuals such as Sampson, Gregory, and Tybalt are determined to embrace is part of the same system that permits Prince Escalus, speaking from a position of unquestioned authority, to condemn them for their "pernicious rage" (1.1.84). And it is part of the same system that leads Romeo—with the oxymoronic acceleration that characterizes his affair with Juliet—to "stand on sudden haste" (2.2.94) and pursue his passion to his death. If the regime of masculinity in Romeo and Juliet, as elsewhere in the Shakespearean canon, prefixes the rules, the rules are multivalent, offering what appear to be options. But the options themselves are contained within and intrinsic to the overall structure of masculinity; they are part of what fixes it, enforces it, and makes it compelling. When men experience themselves—when they experience themselves in their masculinity—they find themselves in a condition of unresolvability. But they also find themselves under compulsion, precisely, to resolve themselves, to struggle toward a condition of masculine fulfillment as if their masculinity were a single, stable, normative goal. This is the rule; that is the pressure of masculinity in the world of the play. And if endless cycles of violence are expressions of the regime of masculinity, so is the promulgation of the law, a law of peace, which itself has the right to resort to violence ("0/2 pain of torture, from those bloody hands / Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground" [1.1.86-87, emphasis added]). So, too, is the promulgation of the idea of an alternative, the idea of standing apart from the masculinist regime in practices of heterosexual love.

In saying this, I am agreeing with some of the phenomenological aspects of masculinity noted in Coppélia Kahn's important 1980 essay "Coming of Age in Verona," which argues that Romeo and Juliet is a play about the achievement of mature masculine and feminine "identities."6 But I am disagreeing with her conceptual apparatus, beginning with the ideas of identity and integration which control her concepts of gender and dramatic action. Kahn argues that "Romeo and Juliet plays out a conflict between manhood as violence on behalf of the fathers and manhood as separation from the fathers and sexual union with women."7 This argument sees Romeo as having two obvious choices; he can make war on behalf of the father or make love, in effect, on behalf of himself. Circumstances (but not "fate," Kahn insists) cause him to choose both, to experience the conflict of choosing both, and to suffer the consequences. I agree that such a conflict is experienced in the play. But I disagree with Kahn's explanation and with her strategy of privileging that experience as the play's central psychological dilemma. Kahn understands masculinity as the condition of an identity, a condition, specifically, of the ego as understood in ego and objectrelations psychology—a condition of integration at which the ego arrives precisely when it "comes of age." But it is notable that none of the young men in the play ever really arrives at this condition of masculine integration; and I believe it can be shown that none of them was ever really headed that way.

Another way of putting this is to say that the young men in Romeo and Juliet are not, as men, in control of themselves; they are not in control of the project of masculine autonomy to which they understand themselves to be pledged. Autonomy, to be sure, along with the circumstances under which it can be imagined or asserted, is a problem with which Shakespearean characters are often confronted.8 But the idea of an explicitly masculine autonomy is especially troublesome for Shakespearean characters. Masculinity is not a single thing they can get a hold of, although they are constantly under pressure to do so. Masculinity is rather a regime, triangular in structure; the triangle is constituted by a pair of masked positions of incommensurate sites, in pursuit of which the subject, operating from the third position, the position of the subject-self, is doomed to vacillate. When men in Romeo and Juliet experience themselves in their masculinity, they experience an indefinite inadequacy in the face of an aggressive pressure to drive forward in two different directions and yet also to stay in place, to sustain themselves apart from the objectives they are being pressured to pursue. They have to go forward, they have to stir, now as aggressor, now as the one confirmed in his title to aggress; but they also have to remain in that third position, from which they embark in pursuit of their objectives, the self. "I have lost myself," Romeo complains in his opening scene; "I am not here" (1.1.197). "This wind you talk of," Benvolio complains to Mercutio—dreams, fantasy, desire, which Mercutio has shown himself capable of finding anywhere, in anyone, since desire itself, "Queen Mab," has its own autonomy—"blows us from ourselves" (1.4.104). The men want to achieve the endpoints of their masculinist system, but that system proves to be one of male inadequacy and incompletion, a system blowing masculine selves from their selves.9

Of course, abandoning Kahn's position has its costs, since her idea of a mature masculine identity at least provides us with a model of masculinity as a positive value. One of the problems faced by members of the critical community today when talking about the subject of masculinity grows out of what might be thought of as the critical community's ideological moment. There is today a predisposition toward the idea that masculinity—not particular men, who may be one thing or another as the case may be, but masculinity itself—is always first of all at fault. Masculinity isn't innocent. It is a structure, a regime, a dominant system that is held to account; and what it is held to account for is the violence and oppression that seems to be the corollary of its hegemony. Whatever else it may be, masculinity is the gender of destructive aggression on the one hand and of homosocial domination on the other. And so, if we forgo the idea that there might nevertheless be a healthy masculinity, a universally normative condition of masculine identity to which young men can aspire—whether in Shakespeare's time or in our own—we are in danger of being unable to assert anything at all about masculinity except so far as it is a phenomenon which must be refused, denied, pathologized, subverted, or otherwise abjected.

The problem entailed is worth pausing over briefly. For what our ideological moment seems to militate against is our ability to sustain our interest in the idea of the tragic subject himself—a subject now increasingly isolated from critical discourse, relegated to the province of the merely masculine, the merely dominant.10 But what we find ourselves experiencing when we attend a good performance of a Shakespeare tragedy—including that performance which we attend in our heads when we read or reflect on the playscripts—may be incommensurate with our vocabulary for describing it or our concepts for assessing it. But it is surely insensitive, if not despotic, to dismiss the claims of students of Shakespeare when they tell us that the tragic subject in Shakespeare, all but invariably a masculine subject, doesn't engage them, doesn't command their attention anymore.11 Nor will it do simply to avoid the theoretical quandaries that critical thinking about masculinity has produced and talk instead about Shakespeare's tragic subjects as if they weren't predominantly male and weren't predominantly invested in perpetuating structures of masculinist hegemony. Precisely because of their investment in masculinist hegemony, Shakespeare's tragic subjects no longer command the universal respect that was once thought to be a corollary of the liberal humanist worldview.12 Precisely because of our current difficulty in discussing the structure of masculinity without putting it on trial and pronouncing it guilty, our experience of tragic subjectivity in Shakespeare has been unable to find a suitable critical vocabulary. Those of us for whom masculinist tragedy is still in some way engaging and still in some sense of value are being called to craft a language for describing masculine tragic subjectivity in Shakespeare which neither dodges our current critical awareness of the repercussions of masculinist hegemony nor rejects out of hand the experience and reality of masculine subjectivity. We need to find a way of talking about tragic masculine subjects in Shakespeare which allows us, at the very least, to continue to see them.

The way to this reconceptualization, however, is not always clear. The concept of healthy masculinity—a masculinity worth achieving, worth performing—is extremely difficult to sustain given the current terms of critical theory. The topic of masculinity leads immediately to the dual problem of domination and deceit, of hegemony and the false consciousness that sustains it; "healthy masculinity" in these circumstances is oxymoronic. Even the openly sympathetic readings of contemporary psychoanalytic critics seem to require a condescending pathologization of the tragic subject, an equation of the psychology of tragic (male) experience with illness: dissociation, psychic alienation and numbing, anxiety, melancholia.13 In a tradition that begins with Freud himself, even where male subjectivity is taken as a norm, tragic male subjectivity is also already an emblem of neurosis. The problem, therefore, is not only that much of the English-speaking world is no longer confident about what it should mean to be a man;14 the problem is also that, as members of the critical community, we are heirs to a critical language which takes for granted that masculinity as such is suspect, already marked as pathological, even if it is also assumed to be normative, inescapable, and indispensable.

Among the factors contributing to our current critical quandary is the apparent polarity in the very concept of gender. "'Masculinity' does not exist," a contemporary sociologist of gender insists, "except in contrast with 'femininity.'"15 And therefore, in any situation in which women can be seen to be oppressed in relation to men, the men are already complicit in a system of domination and for the most part unable to do anything about it. Since to be a man is to not be a woman, and therefore to not be one of those weaklings who in Shakespeare's time are caused perforce to "go to the wall," a man, as a man, is always already hegemonic. "Art thou a man?" the friar complains to Romeo, underscoring at once the relational and the hegemonic character of masculine performance. Then why are you crying? Why are you being weak? Why are you not asserting your manly strength? "Thy tears are womanish. . . . Unseemly woman in a seeming man" (3.3.109-12).

Even allowing for differences between the gender systems of Shakespeare's time and that of our own—such as the "one-sex" theory and an easier environment for the expression of love between men—recent Shakespeare criticism frequently repeats the censuring gestures of contemporary sociology, making masculinity into something that has to account for itself as the gender that is almost always at fault.16 Consider, for example, Alan Sinfield's treatment of Henry V. in which Sinfield is concerned to see the play as a terrain of "warring ideologies," one of which is the ethos of masculinity in the England of Henry V.17 Sinfield argues that "sexualities, genders and the norms proposed for them are principal constructs through which ideologies are organized."18 He notes that in the societies of Shakespeare's plays masculinity is constructed as a norm, the greatest threat to which is that "disastrous slide back into the female" which Shakespeare's characters call "effeminacy."19 In the England of Henry V, as in early modern society generally, Sinfield argues, order is identified with "the dominance of masculine attributes." Henry V dramatizes a struggle for the assertion of a normative masculinity both in the conflict between a supposedly masculine England and an effeminate France and, at the conclusion of the play, in Henry's anxious sexual conquest over Katherine. Of course, masculinity requires femininity. England requires the France it will dominate; Henry requires Katherine, needing her not only for her sexual surrender but also for the children she is supposed to bear. But that is just the point. "The dominant," Sinfield concludes, " . . . takes from its others what it can incorporate, leaving the remainder more decisively repudiated."20

Under the weight of critical analyses like this, it is hard to see how to talk about healthy masculinity—indeed, it is hard to see how to talk about masculinity as anything at all but a phenomenon that ought to be repudiated. A deep reason for this problem, one as vested in our own ideological situation as it is in Shakespeare's, has been discussed among Lacanian feminists. "Our dominant fiction," Kaja Silverman writes, "calls upon the male subject to see himself, and the female subject to recognize and desire him, only through the mediation of images of an unimpaired masculinity. It urges both the male and the female subject, that is, to deny all knowledge of male castration by believing in the commensurability of penis and phallus, actual and symbolic father."21 Our dominant fiction prevents us from acknowledging the fallibility of masculine subjectivity; it seduces us into identifying masculinity as that which, precisely, cannot fail us. Failure in itself is emasculating; or rather, failure is emasculation, and emasculation is the one thing our dominant fiction will never concede to male subjects. Hence, if a man is to find himself in any position other than one of impossibly unimpaired potency, he shall have to find himself, as Silverman puts it, "at the margins"; he shall have to find himself in a masculine subjectivity that has somehow escaped the system of our dominant fiction. But the status of that escape is, again, highly problematic—especially if being a man means primarily not being a woman, and not being a woman means being a subject complicit in the domination of women.

A number of situations in Shakespeare in fact dramatize this dominant fiction. It is especially prominent, as Sinfield suggests, in the history plays, which stand in relationship to Romeo and Juliet in a way that may require reassessment. In the opening scene of 1 Henry VI, for example, where the leading men of England gather at the funeral of Henry V, Gloucester eulogizes Henry by focusing on the specifically masculine quality of violent aggression through which Henry asserted his kmgliness: "England ne'Er had a king until his time: / Virtue he had, deserving to command. . . . / He ne'Er lift up his hand but conquered" (1.1.8-9, 16). At issue here is a whole set of fears about the future of England, which had been held together, on this account, precisely by Henry's masculine power, his "virtue," his ability by right to conquer and command. What the leaders of England are apparently faced with now, left with an infant Henry VI to occupy the place of a king, is a vacuum, an absence of commanding, conquering masculine virtue. "In stead of gold," Bedford laments,

we'll offer up our arms,
Since arms avail not now that Henry's dead.
Posterity, await for wretched years,
When at their mothers' moist'ned eyes babes shall suck,
Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears,
An d none but women left to wail the dead.
Henry the Fift, thy ghost I invocate:
Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils. . . .

(II. 46-53)

What Bedford's speech bewails is that England is about to despoil itself of its own men and ultimately of manhood itself; what it invokes as cure is the maintenance of that commanding, conquering virtue which only Henry V had been able to embody; what it requires is a prosperity founded on the power of masculinity to control the effects of inadequacy and to prevent civil broils from resulting in total emasculation, the isle left "a nourish," and "none but women left to wail the dead." On all these accounts, then, once we abandon the idea of healthy masculinity, a mature and normative condition of masculine identity, we become unable to talk about men except as agents of legitimized oppression. We might find a different kind of masculine subjectivity "at the margins" now and then; but it would have to be rare, a masculinity without masculinity, an inadequate masculinity—even though it is just such a condition, 1 Henry VI seems to argue, that leads us into civil disorder and decay and the end of both manhood and men.

The problem is further complicated when we turn to a second major characteristic of the masculinist fiction in Shakespeare and elsewhere. If masculine experience is relational, such that its very difference from the feminine oppresses feminine experience, a chief strategy of its ideology is the effacement of relationality itself. "Any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the 'masculine,' " Irigaray famously complained.22 Triumphant virtue in Shakespeare frequently defines itself as a kind of self-relational, supra-gender entity. Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a man" is a primary example of this. Although the speech degenerates in the end to bawdy banter, where Hamlet is required to add that, as he doesn't like "man," he doesn't like "woman" either, . the "man" whom Hamlet would celebrate if he could is situated less on a male-female axis than on an animal-human/human-divine axis of representation. To be "a man"23 here is to be a subject whose manliness stands in for humanness, and whose humanness represents man-to-man capacity, "express and admirable . . ." (Hamlet, 2.2.303-10).

So the problem in talking about masculinity in Shakespeare's plays, as in many other contexts, stems not from the oppressive relationality of masculine performance but from its overcoming of relationality altogether. If masculinity is a quality or family of qualities that acquires its meaning from relationality with respect to femininity, it is also a relational condition that aspires to efface its relationality, to raise itself to a condition of self-adequacy, where the category of femininity is moot. It is not for nothing that, in chiding Romeo, Friar Lawrence argues against both Romeo's womanly grief and his beastly rage: "thy wild acts," the friar adds, "denote / The unreasonable fury of a beast" (3.3.110-11). The manliness the friar wants Romeo to exemplify is a condition of self-directedness and self-control: it is not only a way of not being a woman; it is also a way of not being a lower animal. When it succeeds in being what it is, masculine subjectivity, it appears, is destined to require nothing but itself and to attain to a condition of self-related self-control. Unfortunately, this second version of the commensurability of penis and phallus, this elevation of a particular anatomical-cultural condition to a universal value, can be just as oppressive as the first version. Even the apparently healthy masculinity toward which the friar encourages Romeo to aspire may have to be rejected as the work of an oppressive ideology, the instrument and product of a dangerous dominant fiction from which there is no escape but in gender performance at the margins or in the "fatal strategies" that Baudrillard, hailing the death of the subject, characterizes as the "crystal revenge" of "the object and its destiny."24

Psychoanalytic criticism of Shakespeare, it is true, has often remained focused on the internal condition of the subject and has been able to locate both relationality and its effacement within the developmental dynamics of the male psyche. In the work of Janet Adelman, for example, we encounter the men in Shakespeare as men, aware of their manhood, conscious or semiconscious of the difference between themselves and women as the outcome or analogue of internal demands, intrinsic to their inward drives and experiences of selfhood.25 Being a man in Shakespearean drama, in Adelman's reading, involves a project of identity-generating differentiation, a project of refusing feminine identifications and especially what Adelman calls the "maternal matrix"; yet the project is mainly a matter of ego formation and is therefore constitutive of personal identity. If being a man means having a self of a certain kind, not being a man could amount to not having a self at all. Indeed, it is just this threat of not having a self, of being engulfed by the maternal other, that impels men to engage in rituals of rejecting and oppressing femininity. The formation of masculine and therefore sexually hegemonic selves is ultimately an outcome of the logic of ego formation; and in Adelman's reading, Shakespeare's tragic male subjects are thus constitutively tragic in keeping with the same structure by which they are constitutively men with selves. In other words, tragic male subjectivity is born out of what in Shakespeare becomes an inevitable confrontation with the structure of masculine autonomy and its inherent pre-oedipal aversion to femininity.

However, even if one grants Adelman's hermeneutic premises—that Shakespeare's complex characters can be read as representations of deeply psychological beings with egos and unconscious motives, and that these beings themselves reflect the "development" of Shakespeare's career as a student of the self-—one is still left with an idea of the masculine as a negative value. It is a negative value for Adelman because in the first place masculinity is an identity at which one arrives only by repudiating femininity. Without doubting that male subjects in Shakespeare frequently betray a desire to identify with father figures as well as a drive to avoid being smothered by antipathetic maternal figures, one may wonder whether such a psycho ontological structure can entirely account for the dilemmas of masculinity that Shakespeare's characters regularly face. There are grounds for worrying that, in making fear of the mother into the primary motive of tragic subjectivity, Adelman solves the problem of the bipolarity of gender simply by turning the problem on its head and making maternal femininity into a positive ideal whose negation is the condition of masculinity. Once again, being a man means not being a woman, for the most part out of a fear of woman; it means evading the maternal matrix by taking up an ego-ideal inseparable from a whole system for sustaining the dominant fiction of the male phallus and for perpetuating the oppression of women. This theory may help to account for certain kinds of character formation common to male subjects and especially male subjects in Shakespearean tragedy. But it both enshrines the ego as the motor force of subjectivity and interprets male ego formation as a pathology. As a result, it cannot account for the project either of the masculine ethos in the plays or of the mode of tragedy through which Shakespeare so energetically puts that ethos into play. It cannot account for the drives of masculinity or for the positive values of its complex regime; it can explain only the reactive drives that may negatively bolster masculinist behavior. The theory still leaves us with masculinity as illness.

It may be possible, however, to bypass both the repudiating and the pathologizing of masculinity as we find it in Shakespeare and to grant that men in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, invested in the regime of masculinity though they are, seldom if ever attain to the goal of normative masculinity which serves as the ideological justification for the oppression of women. It may be possible to see them as failing subjects, whose failure is also a part of the regime of masculinity and its ideological norms, but whose failure is precisely what makes them into subjects of tragedy, comedy, and history—into the subjects whose ethical dilemmas and psychic dramas are of interest to us. The difference may be subtle. But it may enable us to return to the idea of masculinity as an inescapable and positive if perplexing and dangerous structure. In this way we may be able to embrace, if not the ethos of Shakespeare's world or the conventional masculinity it often seems to promote, at least our sense of Shakespearean drama as in large part the tragic, comic, and historic drama of men: of men called on to take part, inadequately, in the perpetuation of an inadequate world.

The dominant fiction of the commensurability of penis and phallus, for example, is not a fiction that the Shakespearean canon consistently sustains or unproblematically promotes. If the plays of the Henriad celebrate the moment of Henry V's final triumphs, they also cast a cold eye upon it. What Henry V had accomplished, the Henriad makes clear, was a personal incarnation of masculinist ideology; but it wasn't only through ideology that he accomplished it. Power exercised in the register of the real—real force, real conquest—was required for the ideology as such to succeed in reproducing itself; the ideology itself was otherwise vulnerable to attack and decay. Moreover, for all the talk about Henry V's virtue, the talk is frequently retrospective. In the Henry VI plays, the adequacy of Henry V's masculinity, its fullness with respect both to the demands of ideology and the demands of the real, is only a memory. That it is already missing recalls a point often made by Freud and Lacan alike that the symbolic father, whose function is to determine the system of subjectivity that everyone is forced to operate under, is always already dead; Lacan calls him "the dead Father."26

In fact, the Shakespeare canon commonly represents full masculinity as a historical problem, associated with the problem of national sovereignty and what Francis Barker calls the historical "tremos of the land."27 The problem is historicity itself: all subjects are subjects of history and therefore of historical conflict and the insufficiencies of the politico-historical project. The dominant fiction of masculine adequacy is vulnerable to the tremors of historical depredation; thus the fiction usually works only on the level of memory, the memory of the dead father. Rather than urging the fiction of the commensurability of penis and phallus, in fine, the Shakespeare canon commonly urges their incommensurability. The male subjects in Shakespeare can't sustain it—not even Tybalt, Mercutio, or Romeo. Pace Kahn's argument to the contrary, the historical process that characters in the plays commonly call "fate" overtakes them.

Moreover, if we turn to specimens of nonbelligerent behavior among the men in Shakespeare's plays, we will find not a demand placed on the fiction of adequacy but the overt rehearsal of a fiction of inadequacy. This fiction is also a masculine performance; it is not at all innocent of collusion in the oppression of women, and it finds ways of masking the inadequacy it embraces. But it is nevertheless the performance of a lack. When Romeo complains "I have lost myself," comic though his behavior might be in the early going, he at least puts his finger on the choice of misguidedness which is governing his behavior, his choice of himself in having lost his self, his choice of what Barthes once called the persisting "precious remainder" or "supplement" of personal identity.28 He is "not here." But he is in a condition of desire, and of desire for desire, embracing the lack that impels him. What he is lacking is a woman—or so at least he thinks. But his insistence on fixity in the identity of the person he lacks, and his own fixity on himself as the one who is lacking, indicate that fixation itself may be his final aim. "[F]orget to think of her," Benvolio says with regard to the unrequiting Rosaline; "Examine other beauties." "O," Romeo responds, "teach me how I should forget to think" (1.1.225-28). Bare self-consciousness—Descartes's cogito—is the final term in the argument here, the supplement that turns absence into presence, lack into identity: since I cannot not think, you cannot dissuade me from my fixation; you cannot have me "Examine other beauties"; I cannot help but think, and if I think, I cannot help but think of what I am lacking, of her who causes me to perceive and to embrace my'lack.

He that is strooken blind cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost.
Show me a mistress that is passing fair,
What doth her beauty serve but as a note
Where I may read who pass'd that passing fair?
Farewell, thou canst not teach me to forget.

(11. 232-37)

Of course, as soon as he meets Juliet, Romeo's desire finds and fixes on another object to different effect. If the Shakespeare canon commonly expresses, as Barber and Wheeler put it, a "concern to realize and live in the identity of another," it is also quick to differentiate between the reality of erotic cathexis and the false consciousness of rhetorical, pseudo-Petrarchan posturing.29 But the first object lesson to be drawn here is that, although Romeo has held himself aloof from the kind of masculine aggression that most of the characters in the opening scene have been drawn into, we are nevertheless encountering in him a strategy of masculine performance.30 For all its rhetorical flourishes and false consciousness, this is a strategy that tries to find masculinity in relation to the female not as the object of thrusting but as the one which (whom) one lacks, and in whom one finds, precisely, a fixed reflection of one's lack. Petrarchanism provides Romeo with a strategy for performing a gender role that both insists on gender difference and allows him to remain aloof from the psychic requirement of thrusting or standing against an other.

But to return to my initial point. Masculinity may often seem like a value asserted by Shakespeare's men for the purpose of homosocial hegemony and, by the same token, for the rejection of the female and the oppression of women. And among many of Shakespeare's men this is exactly how the regime of masculinity works. But that is because it is at once multivalent and unsatisfiable, requiring a man to articulate himself in both one way and another, now in aggression, now in a retreat from aggression; now in thrusting, now in standing; now in an impossible attempt to annihilate one's lack, now in an equally impossible attempt to embrace it. Such men are caught in a struggle to resolve themselves in a system where resolution is impossible, a system where resolution is a legacy of the dead rather than an accomplishment of the living, and men propel themselves to resolve themselves by not being resolved.

Irresolution, however, is at best an uncertain value. The shadow of the dead father hangs over the world of the plays not only as a ghostly presence, as in Hamlet, but also operationally, as in the history plays. And the dead father stands for both symbolic and ideological order, operating as the guarantor of all social life, especially for men in their masculine identities within the context of a patriarchal system.

In Romeo and Juliet, in spite of all the disorderly conduct that constitutes the main action of the play, the context of masculinist patriarchy is particularly well marked. The symbolic role of the dead father is supplied by the living Prince Escalus, who in practice is an absolute monarch. "If ever you disturb our streets again," he says to the street fighters, "Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (1.1.96-97). Strong words, and not the words that a relatively restricted monarch such as the sovereign prince of England would be entitled to pronounce.31 Escalus is represented as being at once the principle of law and order in his society and its principal enforcer, holding in his person judicial, legislative, and executive powers all at once. He is what James I, referring to himself, trying to obviate the limitations of the English constitution, called a "speaking law."32 And although the people may at times disobey or skirt the law he represents, they never violate the principle of law itself (as for example the rebels and factions of the history plays . frequently do); nor do they challenge the authority of Escalus to decide and enforce it. Patriarchy and the system of legal sanctions and mechanisms that express and legitimate it, concentrated in the person of the prince, stands over the reality of life in Verona as it stands over the memory of life in the earlier history plays, in Julius Caesar, in Troilus and Cressida, and in Hamlet. Shakespeare evidently endorses this aspect of Verona; certainly he takes care to follow his sources, situating the action of the play within the context of a historically invulnerable patriarchy. His main source, Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Historye, opens with a celebration of the town's political and economic stability, depicting it as a somewhat isolated polity whose "renown" is based on its imperviousness to historical depredation.33 And Shakespeare seems to adopt Brooke's attitude toward Verona and its social order. If the town is subject to the contagion of what the Prologue calls an "ancient grudge" (1. 3), a contagion clearly calling for purgative elimination, it is nonetheless invulnerable to decay from without; and it has never experienced an outbreak of disorder such as to threaten legal and social stability. Indeed, it is precisely because the symbolic order of the law is historically invulnerable that the "ancient grudge" can be resolved by a purgative cleansing—the sacrifice of Romeo and Juliet on the altar of civic life—rather than by warfare. The prince may have his hands full maintaining order between the Capulets and the Montagues, but he doesn't need to worry about maintaining legality between his subjects and himself. The primary symbolic order of Verona is safe because the "dead Father" of Verona is also alive and, as Henry V was (and as James I would soon claim to be), capable of enforcing the law by the exercise of violence.

Against the sovereign masculinity of Prince Escalus, however, the play juxtaposes the compromised masculinity and sovereignty of its "Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace," as Escalus calls them (1.1.81)—the other men of the play, clinging to their varied, unresolved, and inadequate masculinities. Among them are the other father figures of the play: Capulet, Montague, and Friar Laurence, none of whom can succeed in establishing himself as a "speaking law." Capulet is temperamental and capricious, at times indulgent, at times an impatient martinet, and wholly ineffectual. Sometimes we find him asserting his patriarchal prerogatives benevolently, or at least pretending to do so, as when he insists on allowing Juliet some freedom in her choice of spouse (1.2.17-19), or on allowing Romeo to be a guest at his party (1.5.65-74). In these cases we find him expressing a kind of normative paternalism, well within the range of Tudor stage values.34 He knows the reach of his powers and the social good they are supposed to serve. "It is my will," he says to Tybalt, telling him to indulge Romeo's presence in his house (1. 72). He also knows his limits, his place within the larger social order of Verona. "Montague is bound as well as I," he tells Paris, "In penalty alike, and 'tis not hard, I think, / For men so old as we to keep the peace" (1.2.1-3). Yet, when his power is challenged, Capulet is unable to exercise it without giving in to what amounts to ineffectual hysteria; he cannot manipulate the system of deference and courtesy through which he has otherwise pledged himself to manage his social and familial affairs. "Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch!" (3.5.160), he complains to Juliet when she tries to assert the autonomy he had earlier granted her and has now inexplicably determined to withhold. "Speak not, reply not, do not answer me! / My fingers itch" (11. 163-64). Capulet is an exemplar of paternalism on trial; but as the action proceeds, his paternalism continually fails, his authority undermined by turns of events he cannot control, his composure shattered at the shattering of his expectations. There is little if any conquering virtue in him, although Capulet certainly wants to act as if there were, and as if his experience of social life were equal to his symbolic, legal position in it.

Montague is even less firm in his patriarchal standing. Diminished in his virility in part through old age, uxorious to a fault (the play implies), he is shown to be incapable of stirring—either as the young men do, in search of his foe, or as a paternal figure might aspire to do, in search of exacting tribute to his dignity. "Hold me not, let me go," he complains to his wife as he first appears onstage. "Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe," his wife decrees (1.1.79-80). This diminished figure is shown, moreover, to have little influence on his son, Romeo, who keeps himself, as Montague indulgently complains, "so secret and so close" (1. 149). Romeo never once considers his father's wishes when engaging in his affair with Juliet. He never pauses before the law of his father.

As for Friar Laurence, to whom Romeo regularly turns instead: although the friar endeavors to promote a kind of order in the world of Verona, similar in virtue to the prince's, his methods are indirect, and both his position and his character, his inner virtue, are obviously suspect. He is a priest and an herbalist and a self-appointed supplement to Prince Escalus in his aim to bolster the social order as well as to minister to it. But the friar is in many respects the play's most salient example of a man who gets it wrong, who fails to achieve his objectives, although he ultimately finds that his one objective of reuniting the Capulets and the Montagues has been achieved for him, partly as a consequence of his own mistakes. There is no better index of the friar's compromised paternalism and his inadequate masculinity than one of his final lines, when he abandones Juliet to her fate. "Come go," he says to her, using a common idiom, but using it here, I think, symptomatically as well, inadvertently betraying his paralyzing dilemma. Which is it? To come or to go? For his part, it doesn't matter. "I dare no longer stay" (5.3.159). Romeo might well have realized that, when one needs a father, it is asking for trouble to turn to a friar. For all his supplementary skills in dispensing medicine and platitudes, for all his ability to hold before Romeo the ideal of healthy and mature masculinity, he is nevertheless marginalized by his position as a priest—a celibate and cloistered man, attached to political power but also divided from it, maneuvering for power by indirect and even devious means. "Take heed, take heed," he advises Romeo, while commanding him to act like a man (3.3.145). Just as the friar will run away from the Capulet tomb, and thus fail to prevent the double suicide of his charges, so he advises Romeo to act manly by submitting to banishment, by being patient and staying in Mantua—in effect by doing nothing but running away.

The masculine order of Verona is thus represented as dispersed among a number of imperfect masculinities, tied together in a fundamentally stable structure, whose absolute legality is embodied in the person of the prince. At the top of this structure the prince guarantees the symbolic order of the law. Beneath him, we are given to understand, a number of "citizens" are available to rise to the occasion of guaranteeing the law as well. The citizens appear on the scene whenever violence breaks out and, along with the prince, restore the peace. But neither the prince nor. his citizens familiarize us with their internal experience—we experience them from afar, as the Capulets and Montagues experience them; we experience them as completed beings, whose authority is both irresistible and subject to resistance; we experience them as if they were dead fathers. The men whose internal experience we come to be acquainted with, on the other hand, are all of them incapable of realizing the hyper-adequacy that the prince and the citizens of this exceptional town seem to sustain without difficulty. The fathers are ineffectual; the sons (and the sonlike servants) are self-destructive. The fathers cannot enforce their own laws; the sons can neither enforce those laws on behalf of their fathers nor discover adequate forms of self-assertion.

What is crucial, it seems to me, is that against the norms represented by the prince and the citizens—the adequate masculine legality that determines Verona's condition as a world at least temporarily apart from the depredations of history and sovereignty-challenging war—the play juxtaposes the inward experience of failed normativity and represents this failure as the structure of life among its tragic men. The men whom we come to know as men are under pressure, in effect, to perform. But the fathers cannot perform as fathers; the sons cannot perform as sons either for the sake of their fathers or for themselves. Against the backdrop of an assured masculine order, guaranteed by the life of a dead father, they experience their own pressures to perform as imperatives to achieve the impossible, to end a cycle of repetition by means of repetition. The fathers cannot enforce the law so long as they themselves are living in a self-imposed condition of "mutiny" or "rebellion," which subjects them to the same kind of conflicting impulses and degenerative forces that the kingless nobles discover among themselves at the beginning of 1 Henry VI. Insofar as they attempt to enforce the law for their fathers, the sons are in effect acting in the interest of a false law in order to assume the position of a false father, caught between the symbolic alternatives of stirring and standing. Even the well-wishing Benvolio is caught in this trap: "I drew to part them" (1.1.108). Instead of exacting tribute to the law of peace, which he thinks he can represent, Benvolio ends up fighting like the others. All of the men, so far as they are involved in their unresolvable feud, are caught up in structures of repetition underwritten by the equality of each side (both "alike in dignity") and the falsehoods through which each side tries to differentiate itself as an autonomous patriarchal entity.

The alternative of erotic desire and the pacifism that may accompany it, represented by Romeo and, to a lesser extent, by Benvolio and Mercutio, is also compromised by the inadequate masculinity of the feuding fathers. Clearly the alternative of erotic desire establishes obstructions, blocking a natural pathway to the intermarriage that Shakespeare elsewhere values so highly as a mode of sustaining social integration among the ruling classes.35 But it should be recalled that the erotic drive is also a fundamental condition of the performance of masculinity, which the young men take up not in relation to paternal authority but entirely in relation to themselves. If the enforcement of the law, whether the true law or a false one, may be seen as a primary objective of men in their capacity as agents of masculine hegemony, then deviation from the law in the direction of erotic satisfaction is equally fundamental to masculinity as men experience it, equally constitutive of them as men and, commonly, as subjects who aren't women.

But the erotic drive also seems to place the man in a condition of indeterminate dissatisfaction; or, rather, the erotic drive as Romeo engages with it becomes a site of indeterminate dissatisfaction. Even after he has transferred his affections to Juliet, Romeo endeavors to hold himself aloof from both his object and his aim in order to sustain himself in a condition of isolation. As Edward Snow has shown, Romeo's language throughout the play is distancing, controlling, structuring, as if practicing an erotics of estrangement.36 "Eyes, look your last!" Romeo cries out as he begins to die, in the end separating even sensual experience from his willful subjectivity (5.3.112).37 After Romeo has repudiated his Petrarchan posturing, he tries to use his imagination as a "structuring" device, a faculty for isolating himself in the circumstances of his desire.38 While Juliet makes her first entrance announcing "I am here" and all but concludes by saying "I do remember well where I should be, / And there I am" (1.3.5; 5.3.149-50), Romeo is always elsewhere and endeavoring to keep himself there. It is in his straying, after all, that he is able to engage in his endless embrace of the absent.

When he encounters Juliet, Romeo nevertheless experiences a transformation of his separateness. To him Juliet is not only an object of desire; she is also, as Lacan has said with respect to Hamlet's relation to Ophelia, an object in desire.39 "I pray thee chide me not," Romeo says to the friar. "Her I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow; / The other did not so" (2.3.85-87). It is Juliet's reciprocity that now controls Romeo's language and affections. He is in a situation where he finds not an answer to his demands but a completion to his desiring, an awakening to the divagations of its aims and claims upon him. When he first meets her, the sonnet he speaks with her has the character of a discovery, where the stale and oxymoronic figures with which he attempts to court her unfold into rolling conceits of negotiation and joint seduction. When he first espies her at her window, his language works around the emotion of adoration and the desire for satisfaction; he tries to fit himself into the orbit of his object so as to incorporate himself within her and yet avoid penetration ("O that I were a glove upon that hand, / That I might touch . . ." [2.2.24-25]). But he also calls upon her to speak; and once she speaks, the transaction between a self and an other becomes transformed into the relation of two selves in the course of a systemic desire, an economy of desiring and being desired: "grace for grace." The effect of this on Romeo frequently threatens to disrupt the possibility of speech altogether, to break apart the conditions under which Romeo has performatively separated himself into his masculine identity. "What shall I swear by?" "Do not swear at all" (11. 112); "In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack / The hateful mansion" (3.3.106-8).

At this point it could be said that Romeo is being drawn into a destruction of his own symbolic order—a destruction already identified with something like a death drive and later signified in Juliet's epithalamion, where Romeo is to be "cut . . . out in little stars" (3.2.22). "Would I were sleep and peace," he says leaving her the first time, "so sweet to rest" (2.2.187). This affair obviously evokes in both not only an estrangement from the rules of sociality, which empowers them to defy the rules, but also the invention of an alternative system of performance, where the economy of a systemic desire is felt to take the place of every other economy. They are left with nothing but the desire itself: without it they "stand on haste" to die: without it they have no alternative but to die. And yet Juliet, seconded by the nurse and the friar, tries to turn desire in a conventional marital direction; and Romeo tries to deploy desire's conventionality as a pretext not for escaping the imperatives of masculine aggression, as he earlier tried to do, but for turning them into the imperatives of the symbolic order itself, imperatives that among other things demand the resolution of the family feud and all the masculine inadequacies that have sustained it. "[F]arewell," he says in response to Tybalt's challenge to fight; "I see thou knowest me not" (3.1.65). Intermarriage has worked. Indeed, as if this is where the economy of his desires has been leading him all along, Romeo now finds it possible not only to hold himself aloof from the pressures of masculine aggression experienced by the other young men, but to engage his masculinity from a superior position as a representative of the dead father:

Draw, Benvolio, beat down their weapons.
Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage!
Tybalt, Mercutio, the Prince expressly hath
Forbid this bandying in Verona streets.

(11. 86-89)

But there is something pitiful about Romeo's intervention, not only in its fatal consequences but in its fundamental assumption that, merely by invoking the law, Romeo can cause it to be observed. To enforce the law by invoking it, one must be in possession of a sovereign authority that only the prince is capable of possessing, a sovereignty that the Capulets and the Montagues continually take themselves to represent but that none of them can have or really stand for, thrown, as they are, into the shame of their ultimate inadequacy.

Romeo, for his part, seduced into thinking that he can escape the system altogether by sublimating aggression into law, has instead been transformed into a more perfect representative of the regime of masculinity and its masks. He no longer leans upon the cogito, no longer retreats into the solitude of his own lack. Instead he insists on abolishing the lack; on having his object and entering into desire with her, while at the same time arrogating the power of symbolic order to his own person. In this last respect he tries to assume the power not of a man in relation to a woman but of a dead father over the social order as a whole. He insists, in effect, on achieving the impossible self-relatedness of a whole system of power. This is not the goal of an ego searching for integration, although an ideology of integration, presided over by the good dead father, is always available as an imaginary justification of what Romeo is insisting on. The goal is rather of an ego seeking its dis-integration, its cancellation, which the system itself seems to have laid out for any man who is not the imaginary prince, or the imaginary citizens harmoniously toiling under the prince's law, invulnerable to history.

When he hears that Juliet lies dead in her family's tomb, Romeo immediately understands his position, sees how Juliet has been inspiring him to aim toward his own cancellation, and enthusiastically embraces the prospect. "Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night" (5.1.34). He will finally break the back of the language that has been determining him. He will not swear. But he will lie and thus culminate his desire while ending his life. In that way, of course, he will confirm the truth of the social order which makes the completion of his progress beyond it into a lie. Up against the wall, he'll find the solution to the dilemma of masculinity by refusing either to stand or to stir; he'll fulfill his masculinist calling by lying down, sacrificing himself. And, as the play makes clear, the social order will be much the better for it.

As a male subject in a Shakespearean tragic universe, Romeo can only oscillate, now thrusting himself forward, now standing aloof, awaiting a ratification he cannot receive. Without that ratification he is headed toward death. It is in that death he fulfills the highest ideals of the social order and its law-of-the-father, civil love and civil peace. But he doesn't accomplish those ideals for his self. Living as a man in Shakespeare's world, in the flow of history, even within a town where history seems to have temporarily come to an end, Romeo discovers that the regime of masculine performance laid down for him has always been strangely separating from him, even though he cannot do without it. If ending that separation seems to be the goal and reward of erotic love, it is possible only in death.

This discussion of the masculinist regime may not help anyone become more engaged with Shakespeare's male tragic hero. And after all, as tragic heroes go, Romeo is of a lesser order than characters such as Hamlet and Lear—in part, perhaps, precisely because as a young man with illusions, Romeo is bent on escaping the dilemmas of the system that contains him, of finding a way out of his conflict rather than (tragically) confronting them. But "helping" readers may not be the point. Readers will do with the plays what they will. It may be enough simply to have pointed out that as Shakespearean tragedy is commonly the tragedy of men, it is the tragedy, then, of masculine performance—which is to say, all ideological prejudices to the contrary, that it is the tragedy of inevitable inadequacies, inadequacies that nevertheless determine the drama of social and political order in the Shakespearean world. The full masculinity that few, if any, can attain—unimpaired legality and force—is a principle of order to which men like Romeo are pledged even when they are trying to escape its consequences. It is a principle of order they cannot do without. How else can civil order be sustained? And without civil order—without the premise of civil order—how else are they to try to escape it and make themselves into subjects trying to be men?


1 Homi K. Bhabha, "Are You a Man or a Mouse?" in Constructing Masculinity, Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 57-65, esp. 57-58.

2 All quotations from Shakespeare follow The Riverside Shakespeare, éd. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); Evans's square brackets have been silently elided to avoid confusion with my own interpolations.

3 On the idea of psychological complexity in Shakespearean theater, see, among others, Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on subjection (London and New York: Methuen, 1984); Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985); Stephen Greenblatt, "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture" in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, Patricia Parker and David Quint, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986), 210-24; Joseph A. Porter, "Character and Ideology in Shakespeare" in Shakespeare Left and Right Ivo Kamps, ed. (London: Routledge, 1991), 131-46; Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992); Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1995). It is probably safe to say that the jury is still out on this issue.

4 Jonathan Goldberg, "Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs" in Queering the Renaissance, Jonathan Goldberg, ed. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994), 218-35.

5 One inevitably owes one's vocabulary concerning gender "performance" to Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990); and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). In the first book, Butler defines gender as "an enactment that performatively constitutes the appearance of its own interior fixity" (Gender Trouble, 70). She later qualifies this with the statement that she is referring to a group of gender-producing "acts, gestures, enactments" (sometimes adding "desire" to her list of terms) that are "performative in the sense that the essence of identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means" (Gender Trouble, 136). In the second book, Butler assimilates her account of performativity to Derrida's notion of citationality or iterability: "The norm of sex takes hold to the extent that it is 'cited' as such a norm, but it also derives its power through the citations it compels" (Bodies That Matter, 13). The provisionality of Butler's theory may be indicative of both its weaknesses and its usefulness. In any case, without desiring to commit myself to Butler's entire theoretical apparatus, I shall be trying here to understand the "performance of masculinity" as precisely the stylized but nevertheless largely compulsory "citation of norms" that Butler refers to. The strength of Butler's concept is, I think, that it allows us to conceive of gender as a contingent and provisional form of behavior which is nevertheless neither arbitrary nor optional.

It is also important to note the adaptation of the idea of masculine performance put forward in Laura Levine, Men in womens clothing: Anti-theatricality and effeminization, 1579-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994); and in Cynthia Marshall, "Man of Steel Done Got the Blues: Melancholic Subversion of Presence in Antony and Cleopatra," Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 385-408.

6 Coppélla Kahn, "Coming of Age in Verona" in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980), 171-93. For a full appreciation of Kahn's position, one must consult her Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981), where the same essay appears in abbreviated form, but where Kahn's ideas about masculinity and identity are given fuller scope.

7 Kahn, 173.

8 "The cause is in my will," says Julius Caesar just before his assassination, asserting a license of autonomy which is both self-consuming and ill-fated; "I will not come" (Julius Caesar, 2.2.71).

9 Compare Antony's remarks in Antony and Cleopatra: "I have fled myself. .. . "; "O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt?" (3.11.7, 51). Remarks like this appear with some frequency in Shakespeare's canon. As Greenblatt notes, "In Renaissance drama . . . the traditional linkages between body, property, and name are called into question; looking back upon the theatrical and judicial spectacle, one can glimpse the early stages of the slow, momentous transformation of the middle term from 'property' to 'psyche'" (221). On this reading, the experience of erotic longing and especially of men longing for women would be one among a number of dramatic instances where the problem of identity is being queried and elaborated, and Romeo and Juliet would be a pretty clear example of bodies, properties, and names and the relations among them ("What's in a name?" [2.2.43]) being processed through storytelling. A play such as Romeo and Juliet, however, like many of Shakespeare's romantic dramas, inevitably adds a story of gender performance to its story about bodies, properties, and names and inevitably begins to construct gender performance (and the problems attendant on it) as yet another element in the struggle toward the construction of a psyche.

10 See Madelon Sprengnether, "Introduction: The Gendered Subject of Shakespearean Tragedy," and Gayle Greene, "Leaving Shakespeare," both in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), 1-27 and 307-16. In an ironic allusive subheading—"The World We Have Lost"—Madelon Sprengnether refers to the difference between Shakespeare study today and Shakespeare study in the time of Maynard Mack's King Lear in Our Time (1965).

11 On this topic, see Sprengnether's account of the "Feminist Thematics" controversy, 9-12. Also in Garner and Sprengnether, eds., see Shirley Nelson Garner, "Shakespeare in My Time and Place," 287-306.

12 For a concise restatement of this issue, see Terence Hawkes, Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2, Terence Hawkes, ed. (London: Routledge, 1996), 1-16.

13 See my remarks on Janet Adelman and psychoanalytic criticism below (p. 261 ff).

14 On this subject, see two related studies: Paul Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993); and Dennis Bingham, Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994). Smith suggests that the problem of accepting a form of nonpathological masculinity has become increasingly inherent in our prevailing conditions of cultural production, where ideal masculinity is always already a form of "hysterical masculinity." Bingham sees a kind of wounded masculinity functioning as norm in most of the movies starring icons of Hollywood manhood.

15 R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1995), 68.

16 On the idea of the "one-sex" theory, see "Fiction and Friction" in Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988), 66-93; and Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1990). A recent essay that helpfully explores the implications of the theory for the generation of male writers just before Shakespeare, and for Renaissance criticism in general, is Mary Ellen Lamb, "Apologizing for Pleasure in Sidney's Apology for Poetry: The Nurse of Abuse Meets the Tudor Grammar School," Criticism 36 (1994): 499-520. On homoerotic bonding, see Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991).

17 Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992), 109-43.

18 Sinfield, 128.

19 Sinfield, 134.

20 Sinfield, 142. An argument similar to Sinfield's, which makes the additional move of tying the oppression of women to the ideological erotics of male bonding and the "one-sex" theory, can be found in Phyllis Rackin, "Foreign Country: The Place of Women and Sexuality in Shakespeare's Historical World" in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, eds. (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1994), 68-95.

21 Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 42.

22 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985), 133.

23 See Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare 's Talking Animals: Language and drama in society (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), 131; Hawkes is responding to Robert B. Heilman's "Manliness in the Tragedies: Dramatic Variations" in Shakespeare 1564-1964: A Collection of Modern Essays by Various Hands, Edward A. Bloom, ed. (Providence, RI: Brown UP, 1964), 19-37.

24 Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski, ed. Jim Fleming (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990).

25 See Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992). A theoretical parallel of Adelman's interpretive readings is developed in Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1989); and Chodorow, Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994).

26 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1977), 199; cf. Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A feminist introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 68-69.

27 Francis Barker, The Culture of Violence: Tragedy and History (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993).

28 Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 190-92. See also Joel Fineman, "Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles" in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980), 70-109; Fineman argues that for the Shakespearean male there is always "a psychological need to build a distance between himself and his desire, lest he lapse into the psychotic discovery of No Difference between self and object, between his self-regard and his imagination of his mother, between his identity and the context of his identity" (103). I am of course making a different claim. Like Barthes, I am accounting for identity as a form of supplementarity, and I am allowing for an embrace of one's desire which maintains a separation from the object of one's desire. I am allowing for an embrace of desire, in other words, whose purpose is precisely the maintenance of difference and separation.

29 C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journev: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986), 169.

30 Here I am taking exception to Marianne Novy's argument in "Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida" (in Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relation in Shakespeare [Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984], 99-124). Novy holds that Romeo is here equating sexuality with violence, just as characters such as Sampson, Gregory, and Mercutio are apt to do. Novy also holds that Romeo shares a belief in "the manhood of violence" (107), and that what happens as Romeo tries not to be violent and tries to unite himself with Juliet is that Romeo (along with Juliet) is managing to "transcend the aggressions and stereotypes of the outside in their secret world" (108). This kind of argument about transcendence, however, is precisely the object of Goldberg's critique in "Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs." While it is true that Romeo's language goes through a metamorphosis when he meets Juliet, a phenomenon I will be commenting on below, it is tendentious to claim that, since some of Romeo's metaphors for love before he meets Juliet contain figures of violence, Romeo at this time is, in Novy's word, "equating" love (or sexuality) with violence. For what it is worth, Romeo's aloofness from aggression—his "effeminacy" in this respect—has been a commonplace of performances for some time; Zeffirelli's film version gives this aloofness particular emphasis by framing Romeo apart from the other men in the play both visually and aurally. (Cf. Jill, Levenson, Shakespeare in Performance: Romeo and Juliet [Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1987].) Still another interpretation of issues involved here, one that I am not pursuing, inclining toward a reading of male-female and aggression-passivity oppositions in the play as elements of a carnivalesque subversion of opposition, will be found in François Laroque, "Tradition and Subversion in Romeo and Juliet" in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet": Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, Jay L. Halio, ed. (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995), 18-36. Laroque's reading is perhaps not unrelated to the revisionism of Baz Luhrmann's popular film William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which is destined to have a major impact on our reception of the gender relations in the play, but which was released after most of this essay was written.

31 For a discussion of constitutional constraints on the English monarch, see David Lindsay Keir, The Constitutional History of Modern Britain, 1485-1937, 3rd ed. (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1946); and J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London and New York: Longman, 1986).

32 James VI and I, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies in The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard Mcllwain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1918), 53-70, esp. 63.

33 Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), quoted here from Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia UP, 1957-75), 1:286.

34 On the ethic of "paternalism." see Leonard Tennen-house, Power on Display: The politics of Shakespeare 's genres (Methuen: New York and London, 1986).

35 For an extended treatment of this subject, see David M. Bergeron, Royal Family, Royal Lovers: King James of England and Scotland (Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 1991).

36 Edward Snow, "Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet" in Shakespeare's "Rough Magic ": Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, eds. (Newark: U of Delaware P; London: Associated University Presses, 1985), 168-92.

37 See Snow, 175.

38 Snow, 174. By calling Juliet's sensibility "Blakean," Snow obviously tries to avoid the suggestion that her sensibility is fundamentally "feminine"; but the suggestion is there all the same. The problem, of course, is that Juliet is traditionally seen as one of Shakespeare's strong, and hence in some sense "masculine," women.

39 Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," trans. James Hulbert, in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Shoshana Felman, ed. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982), 11-52.

Further Reading

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Brown, Carolyn E. "Juliet's Training of Romeo," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 333-55.

Brown discusses the element of power in the love relationship of Romeo and Juliet, examining imagery of Juliet as a falconer and Romeo as her well-trained falcon.

Cox, Marjorie Kolb. "Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet." The Psychoanalytic Review 63, No. 3 (Fall 1976): 379-92.

Argues that the tragic outcome of Romeo and Juliet derives from difficulties its characters have in dealing with the problems of adolescence.

Franson, J. Karl. "'Too soon marr'd': Juliet's Age as Symbol in Romeo and Juliet." Papers on Language and Literature 32, No. 3 (Summer 1996): 244-62.

Considers the theme of premature marriage in Romeo and Juliet.

Goldstein, Martin. "The Tragedy of Old Capulet: A Patriarchal Reading of Romeo and Juliet." English Studies 77, No. 3 (May 1996): 227-39.

Contends that an internal disagreement between the patriarchal Capulet and Lady Capulet, rather than the public feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, provides the "driving force of the play."

Hays, Peter L. "The Dance of Love and Dance of Death in Romeo and Juliet." The Dalhousie Review 51, No. 4 (Winter 1971-72): 532-38.

Explores festive dancing and its antithesis, the duel or dance of death, in Romeo and Juliet.

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

Interpretation of Romeo and Juliet that focuses on the play's tragic elements caused by "the rashness of the lovers' passion."

Kiliõski, Janusz. "Elements of Neo-Platonism in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet." Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 17 (1984): 271-77.

Sees the love between Romeo and Juliet as a form of Neo-Platonic divine love.

Knowles, Ronald. "Carnival and Death in Romeo and Juliet: A Bakhtinian Reading." Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 69-85.

Discusses Romeo and Juliet in view of Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the carnivaleque, which parodies and inverts dominant social ideologies and dogmas.

Kozikowski, Stanley J. '"Fortune and Men's Eyes in Romeo and Juliet." Concerning Poetry 10, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 45-49.

Examines the motif of false or mutable fortune in Romeo and Juliet.

Levenson, Jill L. "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: The Places of Invention." Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 45-55.

Observes Shakespeare's stylistic transformation of his source work for Romeo and Juliet, featured in the dramatist's use of rhetoric.

Mason, H. A. "Love and Death in Romeo and Juliet " In Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love: An Examination of the Possibility of Common Readings of 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'Othello,' 'King Lear,' and 'Antony and Cleopatra,' pp. 42-55. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.

Briefly surveys critical regard of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, and considers the link between love and death in the play.

Novy, Marianne. "Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida." In Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, pp. 99-123. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Highlights the private world of Romeo and Juliet in which the lovers achieve "mutuality" and differing genders are not polarized.

Porter, Joseph A. Shakespeare 's Mercutio: His History and Drama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, 281 p.

Extensive study of Shakespeare's complex representation of Mercutio and of this character's sources.

Riess, Amy J. and George Walton Williams. "Tragical Mirth': From Romeo to Dream." Shakespeare Quarterly 43, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 214-18.

Proposes that Romeo and Juliet was written earlier than A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that elements from the preceding tragedy were used to create humor in the later comedy.

Snyder, Susan. "Beyond Comedy: Romeo and Juliet and Othello." In The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies: 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'Hamlet,' 'Othello,' and 'King Lear,' pp. 56-90. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Maintains that Romeo and Juliet uses the structure of romantic comedy in order to create a tragedy brought about by mischance.

Wells, Robin Headlam. "Neo-Petrarchan Kitsch in Romeo and Juliet." The Modern Language Review 93, No. 4 (October 1998): 913-33.

Probes Shakespeare's satire of Petrarchan "male erotic fantasy" in Romeo and Juliet.

Young, Bruce W. "Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage: Some Implications of Social History for Romeo and Juliet." Iowa State Journal of Research 62, No. 3 (February 1988): 459-74.

Questions the critical assumption that early marriages were common in Renaissance England, contending that Romeo and Juliet expresses concern with the young age at which Juliet is forced to marry.

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