Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet, which ranks among Shakespeare's most popular and well-known plays, is considered by some critics to be the first and greatest example of romantic tragedy written during the Renaissance. The play centers on two youths from feuding families who, upon falling in love, attempt to defy social custom, patriarchal power, and destiny. Their efforts meet with disastrous results, including the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, as well as the tragic demise of Romeo and Juliet. Contemporary critics, like their predecessors, often focus on the titular characters, searching for flaws that may be said to have contributed to their tragedy, or, in contrast, defending the lovers against such attacks. Mercutio's character is also the subject of critical analyses, as some critics feel that his death marks a turning point in the play from comedy to tragedy. Other areas of critical scholarship include examinations of patriarchal power, as well as the language, imagery, and structure of the play. Just as these issues are examined by critics in print, directors also explore issues of characterization and language in performance and film. Numerous reviewers have commented on such contemporary productions of Romeo and Juliet as Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, as well as various live performances.
Romeo and Juliet have been accused by some critics of being self-centered and immature. While some may agree, others, including critics such as Elmer Edgar Stoll (see Further Reading), contest the idea that Romeo and Juliet possess flaws that contribute to their fate; Stoll finds that love, destiny, and the feud between the families brings about the deaths of the lovers. Carolyn E. Brown (1996) observes a shift in the critical opinion of Juliet, noting that modern critics have increasingly credited Juliet with being “self-willed,” rather than a passive “victim” of her circumstances and fate. Exploring Juliet's depth of character and emerging selfhood, Brown concentrates on Juliet's language in two scenes typically thought of as romantic (Act II, scene ii, the so-called balcony scene, and Act III, scene v, the morning after the consummation), and finds in these scenes and in the falconry imagery they contain an effort on Juliet's part to control Romeo. As Romeo's closest male companion, Mercutio plays a vital role in Romeo and Juliet. Joseph A. Porter (1988) focuses on Mercutio’s relationship with Romeo, stressing that in both criticism and in performance, Mercutio's statements about the value of friendship are often underemphasized. Porter locates strains of homosexuality in Mercutio's phallic language, and in the “warmth and urgency” of his friendship with Romeo, and further analyzes how these homosexual suggestions may reflect Shakespeare's response to Christopher Marlowe's subversive homosexuality. Like Porter, Joan Ozark Holmer (1991) is interested in the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio. Holmer argues that Shakespeare used Mercutio to deepen the intensity of our reactions to the play, noting for example that in Shakespeare's sources, Romeo's duel arose out of self-defense, but the duel in Shakespeare's play stems from Romeo's passionate desire to avenge Mercutio's death.
The translation of Shakespeare's play to film involves numerous challenges for directors. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of the play, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, although popularly successful, was often disparaged by critics. Jim Welsh (1997) criticizes the way many of the actors were unable to convincingly deliver Shakespeare's dialogue and notes as well that the “bizarre” visuals of the film called into question its “fidelity” to Shakespeare's text. Leah Guenther (see Further Reading) notes that many reviewers condemned Luhrmann's film and suggests that Shakespeare purists were disdainful of Luhrmann's attempt to create a “Shakespearean vernacular.” After comparing the film to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version of the play, Guenther praises Luhrmann's effort to “reincarnate” Shakespeare for the 1990s. Similarly, Elsie Walker (2000) claims that the film should be seen as a “revolutionary” Shakespeare film. Walker focuses primarily on the film's intertexuality and setting, and the way in which these elements encourage an active response from the audience. Jack Jorgens (1977) reviews Zeffirelli's film, noting that it was critically deprecated. While Jorgens praises the film's “nontheatrical” acting and favorably assesses the way Zeffirelli used visual effects to compensate for the excised dialogue, the critic nevertheless comments that the film as a whole is a “less mature” effort than Shakespeare's play. Other reviewers focus on modern live performances of Romeo and Juliet. Russell Jackson (1996) discusses the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production directed by Adrian Noble, noting that there were numerous “awkwardnesses” in the staging of the play and that the actors playing Romeo and Juliet lacked passion. Katherine Duncan-Jones (2000) offers her analysis of the National Theatre's “Ensemble” production of the play directed by Tim Supple, noting that the depiction of the two households as racially different had little effect except to generate some confusion and throw an otherwise well-constructed play “off balance.” Lawrence Christon (2001) observes some “uneven” performances in the Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater’s production directed by Peter Hall, but notes that Hall's “theatrical intelligence” helped to move the production along.
Many critics identify within Romeo and Juliet an exploration of patriarchal power and its abuses. Sasha Roberts (see Further Reading) studies the relevance of such issues in late sixteenth-century England, contending that understanding such concerns reveals the complexities of Shakespeare's portrayal of the family crises in Romeo and Juliet. Roberts goes on to argue that the lovers' secret marriage defied Elizabethan social convention, and that while the play portrays Capulet's patriarchal power, it does not endorse his authoritarianism. Like Roberts, Thomas Moisan (1991) discusses the depiction of patriarchy within the play, demonstrating that gender is portrayed in Romeo and Juliet as an agent of patriarchal control. Furthermore, Moisan states that while Shakespeare toned down the clearly misogynistic overtones found in his source poem (Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet), the play nevertheless reflects patriarchal concern regarding the potentially destructive quality of female sexuality.
Other areas of critical interest include the play’s form, style, and structure, as well as its language and imagery. Jill L. Levenson (2000) and Harry Levin (1960) comment on the poetic nature of the play. Levenson observes that in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare manipulated the poetic form of the sonnet sequence, deconstructing it and scattering it throughout the play's structure, which is composed of tragic and comic elements. Levin notes that the play arose from Shakespeare's “so-called lyrical period.” The critic further surveys the balanced nature of the play's style and structure, finding that the symmetry of the dramatis personae is repeated dramatically in the symmetry of the antithetical style of the play's language. Similarly, Marjorie Garber (see Further Reading) studies the language and structure of Romeo and Juliet, and also notices the symmetry of the play's characters; each character has a counterpart on the opposite side of the feud. Garber observes as well that as the play shifts from comedy to tragedy, the characters undergo a dramatic change. The nurse, for example, an amusing figure in comedy, becomes a more frustrating character in tragedy. This transition from comedy to tragedy, argues Garber, is initiated by the death of Mercutio. Taking another approach to the play, David Lucking (1996) is concerned primarily with the function of oxymoron. Lucking asserts that through oxymoron the unifying force of the play is revealed to be the “metaphysics of irreconcilable but reversible opposition,” found in both the play's language and plot. Whereas Lucking focuses on the particulars of language, Abdulla Al-Dabbagh (2000) centers on the particular imagery of light and darkness in the play. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing the influence of Arabic culture and ideas on Shakespeare's play, Al-Dabbagh demonstrates that Shakespeare's treatment of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet reflects the outlook of Islamic Sufis on the unity of existence and the presence of evil in the world.