(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 18096 words.)

Death And Desire

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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:


(The entire section is 21448 words.)

Gender And Society

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 19577 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 723 words.)