Joseph A. Porter (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Porter, Joseph A. “Friendship and Love.” In Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama, pp. 145-63. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

[In the essay below, Porter states that in both criticism and in production, Mercutio's claims for the worth of friendship are not given adequate attention. Porter goes on to assess the historical context of the love versus friendship debate as it existed in Shakespeare's England, and notes the ways in which the subversive nature of Christopher Marlowe's homosexuality is addressed by Shakespeare through the character of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.]


Mercutio takes shape in Shakespeare's mind as a product of, and response to, a distinctive array of social forces determining the received entities of friendship and love. Some of Shakespeare's address to these matters is recognized in commentary on the scrutiny of social, particularly verbal, determinants on the emotion of love in Romeo and Juliet (see especially Kahn, “Age,” 1980, and Snow, “Language,” 1985). The subject is much larger, though, and furthermore our understanding of the historical moment changes, being itself historical. In particular, numerous commentators over the past two decades, from Michel Foucault to Lawrence Stone, have contributed to a revision of earlier essentialist views of psychological states and relations in favor of more thoroughly historicized notions of them.

Therefore a preliminary word about the affectional constitution of the moment seems in order (even though no more than a word is possible here), to situate the following treatment of Mercutio by making explicit some of the assumptions that underly it and sketching some of the historical topography. Neither of the terms in the title of this chapter is any more immediate for Shakespeare than for us, although there is reason to suppose that social changes underway in Shakespeare's moment create an effect of immediacy for both friendship and love. Sexuality, a third key term figuring in this chapter, is as complex and mediated as love and friendship. Unlike them it postdates Shakespeare; like them it serves here as an umbrella for a body of related phenomena.1 Given the general subject of this study, the following pages primarily and almost exclusively concern the friendship of men with men, and the love of men for women. The sexuality in view is also male.

Ronald Sharp (Friendship, p. 7) writes, “Though I make no attempt to be exhaustive in my treatment of the literature [of friendship], I do deal with many of the major writers and works in this tradition: Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Johnson, Austin, Thoreau, … Auden, Hellman, and Rich.” While there is medieval friendship and commentary on it, some mentioned by Sharp (p. 162n20), still we find in the Middle Ages “almost no glorification of friendship as a boon and privilege on this earth” (Mills, Soul, p. 17) so that the long hiatus in Sharp's list between Cicero and Shakespeare feels immediately right. For in its broadest outlines the moment of Romeo and Juliet is the arrival in England of the renaissance of secularity, commerce, social mobility, and other social forces tending to foreground nonhereditary interpersonal bonds by giving them increasing consequentiality and putting them more at risk. The profile of the tradition of the literature of love is lower in classical times and much higher in the later Middle Ages, but here too Shakespeare's moment is a watershed, one marked fifty years ago as a division between “some five centuries of human experience, mostly painful” (Lewis, Allegory, p. 341) of courtly love, and the succeeding centuries of “that romantic conception of marriage which is the basis of all our love literature from Shakespeare to Meredith” (p. 360). And the same social forces that give friendship new prominence in the moment also figure in the new prominence of the love that is realized and sanctioned in marriage.

Among innumerable factors giving the Renaissance in England its distinctive national character, certain ones seem particularly to figure in the constitution of affection. The emergent mercantilism and incipient colonialism give a peculiar urgency to questions of love and friendship by raising into prominence the kinds of distinctions between gift exchange and commodity exchange treated recently by Hyde (The Gift, 1983) and by Sharp (Friendship) in his chapters on “Friendship as Gift Exchange” and “The Merchant of Venice.” The separation from the church of Rome, together with distinctive features of the English law of inheritance, colors English romantic love by making English marriage differ from its Continental analogue in ways currently most vigorously discussed in feminist treatments of Shakespeare such as Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (1975), and of literature of the period such as Woodbridge, Women (1984). And the gender and marital status of the English head of state figure pervasively if not always calculably as determinants in the constitution of English Renaissance affection.

Two additional factors in the general moment of the English Renaissance seem particularly worth noting for their bearing on the unruly eroticism that is more or less manifest in love and more or less latent in friendship. The first is the already noted comparative dearth of pictures in England. It means that the English eye has far less instruction than the Continental in the appreciation of human physical beauty, of face and of unclothed body, and it may also mean that verbal descriptions of physical beauty need therefore to accomplish more in English than in other European languages. A second key factor in English Renaissance eroticism is the theatricality of the Renaissance in England. Here it is a question not only of the uniquely English Renaissance prominence and popularity of the literary genre of drama but also of such phenomena as the famous theatricality of Elizabeth's practice of rule. The recent “Shakespearean Revolution,” to use Styan's phrase, in the direction of increased attention to questions of performance, has included valuable assessments, by Goldman and others, of the erotics of the theatrical situation of the actor's body performing for spectators. In the English Renaissance theater that erotics includes the deferrals and displacements imposed by prohibitions against female actors and against stage nudity.

If we narrow the focus to literary texts from 1595 and the few years immediately before, a number of other determinants on the affectional makeup of Romeo and Juliet stand forth. Some of these are familiar landmarks, such as the vogue of the erotic Ovidian epyllion, the traditions of Petrarchan love poetry, of the amatory sonnet sequence, and of the debate on the relative merits of love and friendship, and such specific texts as Shakespeare's own poems and plays, Sidney's The New Arcadia, Spenser's The Faerie Queene III, and his Amoretti and Epithalamion, both from 1595.

Somewhat less familiar, at least until recently, but coherent, prominent, and, as I shall argue, addressed and processed in Romeo and Juliet, particularly in the character of Mercutio, is the wave of homoerotic poetry in the first half of the 1590s. Conspicuous examples are Richard Branfield's The Tears of an Affectionate Shepherd Sick of Love, or The Complaint of Daphnis for the Love of Ganymede (1594) and Cynthia. With Certain Sonnets (1595), “a cycle of twenty poems in which the older lover, Daphnis, woos his Ganymede in indubitably amorous terms” (Pequigney, Love, p. 65). The explicitness and exclusiveness of the homosexual orientation of Barnfield's poems apparently prompted objections in his time, and have doubtless caused some of the subsequent neglect of the poems, as claimed by Pequigney in his recent argument for an explicitly homosexual reading of Sonnets 1-126: “One might have thought that the other Elizabethan sequence that also treats of love for a youthful master-mistress would have received attention—even particular attention—in the vast output of the Shakespearean commentators. Instead, Barnfield is a dirty little skeleton to be kept in the closet, while insistent and exaggerated claims are advanced for the concept of ‘Renaissance friendship’” (Love, p. 65).2 But in the early 1590s Barnfield can only have been mildly objectionable, and only because of his single-mindedness. For his poems appear in the context of far more insistent homoeroticism in Hero and Leander and even Venus and Adonis, and possibly the Sonnets in ways suggested by Pequigney.

And then there is the general case of Marlowe's own assertive homosexuality, flaunted in the remark about tobacco and boys and repeatedly in his writing. Those commentators discussed above who have recently helped to open hitherto unacknowledged depths in the subject of the relations between Shakespeare and Marlowe, notably Brooke treating Marlowe as a provocative agent in early Shakespeare and Cohen discussing Marlovian subversion and Shakespearean containment, have not addressed the subversiveness of Marlowe's homosexuality and Shakespeare's response to that subversion. Yet regardless of the persuasiveness of Pequigney's claim that the Sonnets record a physically consummated homosexual episode in Shakespeare's life, a claim that seems tenable if weakened by some of Pequigney's strained argument, we may apply Brooke's (“Agent,” p. 44) remark about Marlowe's political heterodoxy—“Marlowe seems to have been for Shakespeare … the inescapable creator of something initially alien which he could only assimilate with difficulty”—mutatis mutandis to Shakespeare's response to Marlowe's sexual heterodoxy. Mercutio's Mercurial phallicism thus serves in Shakespeare's negotiations with Marlowe's subversive sexuality, as I shall argue in the third part of this chapter. But first we turn to other conflicts in the affectional realm.


Shakespeare's earlier Veronan-Brookean play makes his first major dramatic statement of the theme of rivalry between friendship and love. It is a major theme of the Sonnets, of course, and one Shakespeare returns to repeatedly in plays of all four genres in his career through The Winter's Tale (and which reappears in The Two Noble Kinsmen). Kahn (“Age,” p. 104) calls it “a conflict between male friendship and marriage which runs throughout his [Shakespeare's] work.” The second major dramatic statement of the theme, and a far clearer one than in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is Romeo and Juliet, with the essential opposition being that between Romeo's friendship for Mercutio and his love for Juliet.

A number of recent commentators have noted the importance of this conflict in Romeo and Juliet. Janet Adelman, “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies,” pp. 82-83, writes that

when Shakespeare allows women to test the solidity of male bonds without Much Ado's comic protection from harm, that testing issues in Macbeth's murder of Duncan at Lady Macbeth's instigation, in Coriolanus's ambiguous betrayal of Aufidius at his mother's request, and above all in Hamlet's image of literal fratricide. … In fact Romeo and Juliet gives us a condensed but suggestive analogue for the turn of this fantasy material from comedy to tragedy. The play seems to begin securely in a comic realm. … The bantering love and competition between Romeo and Mercutio seems safely of this realm, even when it suggests the dissolution of friendship threatened by Romeo's … love of women. After one such wit combat, Mercutio claims Romeo as his own. … But Romeo is not Mercutio's; and the play turns … tragic at the moment that Romeo's new loyalty to women graphically destroys the old male bond. Mercutio's death signals the end of the comic realm.

I quote Adelman at some length here because her remarks seem fairly representative of current feminist and psychoanalytic thinking about the play, and because what she says seems true and useful as a starting point for a consideration of Mercutio's place in the conflict, but also because elsewhere in the same essay she indulges in a certain kind of psychosexual prescriptivism that is regrettably common in discussions such as hers, and that Shakespeare in fact seems to call into question by his creation of Mercutio.

That prescriptivism is of course the doctrine that heterosexual love ought to succeed homosexual bonding in the maturation of the individual and, more generally, that adult heterosexuality is superior to adult homosexuality. The doctrine, promulgated to Shakespeare most notably by the church, and to us most notably by the law and by the discourses deriving from Freud, results from the conversion of description into prescription by a hierarchical valuation of contingent facts, a canonization.3 In Adelman's article the doctrine appears in such phrases as “the necessary sorting out into male and female that enables marriage” (p. 90), and (of Winter's Tale) “the necessarily disrupted homosexual union of the parents” (p. 92). The doctrine implicit in Adelman's “necessary” and “necessarily” is recognized and stated with approval by Kahn (“Age,” pp. 104-5): “As Janet Adelman points out … same sex friendships in Shakespeare (as in the typical life cycle) are chronologically and psychologically prior to marriage.”

Certainly the doctrine appears in Shakespeare, most conspicuously in the festive comedies with their celebrations of the pattern described by Adelman and Kahn, but elsewhere as well, and in particular in Romeo and Juliet. But as with other received ideas, as we have come to see, so with this psychosexual doctrine in Shakespeare—it is subjected to various sorts of question and subversion. Leaving aside for the moment the question of homosexual sexuality, we may then consider how Mercutio figures in the testing of that doctrine.

None of this is intended to suggest that Adelman, Kahn, and other feminist and psychoanalytic commentators fail to see Shakespearean tensions between friendship and love. In the essay under discussion Adelman (p. 97n6) accepts the part of Fiedler's account of Shakespeare's personal mythology that makes “not marriage but male friendship the redeeming sentimental relationship” (Fiedler, Stranger, p. 127); Kahn quoted above and other recent accounts also acknowledge this conflict.4 The problem with these critics is rather the construction they put on the conflict. Because their vantage is more exclusively orthodox than is Shakespeare's, I maintain, they fail to take account of some of the kinds of weight Shakespeare grants the conflict, and they do less than justice to the kinds of claims Mercutio makes on Romeo and on us.

These critics recognize in Romeo and Juliet, as in The Merchant of Venice and elsewhere in Shakespeare, the “tug of war in which women and men compete—for the affections of men” (Kahn, “Age,” p. 110). And they are aware that friendship and love determine each other in Romeo and Juliet, so that not merely aesthetically or structurally in terms of the particular work of art but also, as deeply as we can go into the cultural constitution of the relevant affectional differences, who Romeo and Juliet are and what they do is a function of who Mercutio is and what he does (as well as vice versa). But at the same time these critics carry and promulgate (as do we all) inadvertent traces of acculturated prescriptivism. According to Novy (Argument, p. 106), “Romeo's exclusion of Mercutio from his confidence suggests that his love of Juliet is not only a challenge to the feud but also a challenge to associations of masculinity and sexuality with violence.” Half of Novy's last phrase is a throwaway: associations of masculinity with violence are probably specieswide, and in Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet, are smoked out and questioned in ways widely recognized and beyond the scope of the present study. But the other half of Novy's last phrase—“associations of … sexuality with violence”—demands more attention here, because while it masquerades grammatically as coordinate with the first, in fact the first subsumes it. That is, by “sexuality” Novy here means “male sexuality,” and she thus uses “sexuality” as a term subordinated to and included within “masculinity.”

We are not at an easy time. The foregoing notations of antifeminist residua in feminist critics mean only to flag sidetracks along the way to a feminist, humanist future. While Mercutio stands like an in trivio herm along our way to that future, his directions go unheeded and misinterpreted in production and in much criticism, including those works immediately in view here.

In those works a symptom of the failure to grant adequate moment to Mercutio's claims for the value of friendship is the consequent thinning and reduction of Mercutio himself. Reductive characterizations such as Dash (Wooing, p. 81), “Mercutio—the brash, imaginative male who, incidentally, denigrates women”—are familiar and hardly restricted to criticism of this century or to feminist criticism. In “Coming of Age in Verona” Kahn provides a more useful picture of the problems Mercutio presents to feminist and psychoanalytic study.

Kahn (“Age,” p. 176) acknowledges the character's attractiveness for us, who “want … the death of Mercutio, that spirit of vital gaiety, revenged,” and then proceeds to assign him a place in the following schema: “Among the young bloods serving as foils for Romeo, Benvolio represents the total sublimation of virile energy into peacemaking, agape instead of eros; Tybalt, such energy channeled directly and exclusively into aggression; and Mercutio, its attempted sublimation into fancy and wit.” Apart from the nineteenth-century ring of “virile energy”—an authentic and perhaps inadvertent echo of Freud's own metaphors for mental processes—several other features of the remark deserve note. Why, for instance, isn't Benvolio's virile energy “channeled” into peacemaking as “directly” as Tybalt's into aggression? When we come to Mercutio he begins to work some havoc with Kahn's schema, the tidy “total” and “exclusively” of Benvolio's and Tybalt's assignments giving way to the “attempted” of Mercutio's. And just who is making the attempt, and how and why does it fail, we may wonder. And then what about friendship? Among these four outlets for virile energy (the fourth being Romeo's love for Juliet) the only remotely amiable one is Benvolio's pacifist agape, which is indeed remote from Mercutio's full-blooded friendship for Romeo.

Kahn certainly is right that Mercutio “would rather talk than love” (p. 177), but her account of what he says obscures the character as much as does her account of his virile energy. Here the spanner in the works is not psychological but rather feminist doctrine of a particular sort. Kahn's terms are slippier than they might seem when she maintains that Mercutio “suggests” that feuding's psychological function is as a definition of manhood (p. 176). It seems doubtful that exactly this is what Kahn sees Mercutio as meaning to suggest to Romeo and Benvolio. She may rather mean that Mercutio through his wit expresses some approval of the feud to his friends, or at least acceptance, and links that attitude to his notion of manliness. Or she may mean that Shakespeare is making the suggestion to us through Mercutio. Or she may mean the impersonal “suggest,” as when we say, “The sky suggests rain,” in which case what she is really talking about is a suggestion of her own. Under any of these constructions (the list is not exhaustive) Kahn's point is tenable, although the exceptional sliding of signifiers hardly bodes well for our understanding of Mercutio. In fact, I suggest, the slipperiness is an index of the fact that Kahn is not so much attending to Mercutio as using him in support of dogma.

That situation is clearer, and the picture of Mercutio so clouded by dogma as to be untenable, in her “Love is only manly, he [Mercutio] hints, if it is aggressive and violent and consists of subjugating women, rather than being subjugated by them” (p. 176). The feminist stance is apparent, as are traces of a feminist dogma opposed to sexist patriarchy. The dogma in itself seems unexceptionable, and perhaps too the stance, but in the quoted sentence they clearly impede Kahn's understanding. Again we have the ambiguous attributive, “hints”—but is Mercutio one to hint? Kahn supports her claim with two examples of Mercutio's “hinting,” his advice to Romeo to “be rough with love” (l.4.27-28), and his remark to Benvolio that Romeo “is already dead, stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft. And is he a man to encounter Tybalt?” (2.4.13-17). But in neither speech does Mercutio hint at the doctrine Kahn attributes to him. Neither there nor anywhere else does Mercutio hint at approval of “subjugating women.” Neither there nor elsewhere does he hint that a particular kind of love is “manly”—as Kahn herself observes, “Mercutio mocks … all love” (p. 177).

Again, while Mercutio is not averse to fighting, Kahn's claim that he “would rather fight than talk” (p. 177) seems obviously false. The wrongheadedness Mercutio elicits from Kahn also manifests itself in numerous ways in her discussion of the Queen Mab speech. Mercutio “would like to think that women's powers, and desires for women, are as bodiless and inconsequential as the dreams to which they give rise, and to make us also think so he concludes his whole speech with the mock-drama of a courtship between the winds. For him the perfect image of nothingness is unresponsive and inconstant love between two bodies of air” (p. 177). None of this is accurate. The Queen Mab speech is not concluded at all since Romeo breaks into it, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace” (1.5.95), and it is not until Mercutio's next speech, one about the Queen Mab speech, that he mentions the inconstant wind. But there he does not speak of winds, or of love between them. He speaks of one wind, who woos first the frozen bosom of the north and then the dew-dropping south.

Kahn's otherwise admirable and helpful essay traduces Mercutio in these and other ways because he stands outside the feminist reflex division of men into those who wish to dominate women and those who are able to love them in a way characterized by mutuality. The real and subversive Mercutio, standing outside that division, tests it and its underlying assumptions. Similarly he tests the psychological dogma prescribing the supplanting of homosexual by heterosexual bonding. Too often critics adhering to either dogma or, like Kahn, to both, attempt ploys like Kahn's, attempting to contain Mercutio's subversion by radically rewriting him. “Ploys,” though, is not meant to imply full consciousness on the critic's part. Kahn's self-contradiction about Mercutio and love, for instance, is too patent to be anything but guileless, and the fabricatedness of her Mercutio seems entirely unconscious.

Characteristically such critics are at pains to read Mercutio as a foil to Romeo, to make Mercutio into a case of arrested development that Romeo outgrows. And characteristically they devalue Mercutio, and devalue or ignore the claims of his friendship. While psychoanalytic and feminist critical stances increase the likelihood of such misreadings in ways described here, the play itself provides some grounds for the misreadings, as does what we know about Shakespeare's other plays. But audiences find Mercutio more attractive than Romeo not only because of Mercutio's own vitality but also because he uses it to elicit an answering vitality in Romeo, and because Mercutio is a better friend—more generous, more concerned with the other—than is Romeo. Prescriptivists find The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale more amenable to citation without distortion, but even those plays keep something of an open mind about conflicting claims of friendship and love. The mind is most open of all in Romeo and Juliet, where Shakespeare's most significant and notable single alteration of the received version is his transformation of a canonical story of love into a story of rivalry between friendship and love.


The Mercurial phallicity that Shakespeare could have known from Cartari or any number of the other sources noted above is present in Romeo and Juliet from the opening interchange between Sampson and Gregory with their talk of standing, being felt when standing, thrusting maids to the wall, being a pretty piece of flesh, drawing a tool, and having a naked weapon out. This is in fact the most relentlessly phallic opening in all of Shakespeare's plays, and in only a few passages from anywhere in his work is the notion of the phallus more prominent. The opening establishes the phallus as much as the feud as a major theme, and sets up those equations between phallus and weapon, and between male heterosexuality and the violent subjugation of women, that Kahn and others transfer to Mercutio. Gohlke (“‘I wooed thee,’” p. 152) holds that “the way in which heterosexual relations are imagined” in these lines manifests a vision of intercourse as murder and, more generally, a “masculine ethic … which defines relations among men as intensely competitive, and relations with women as controlling and violent,” which ethic, she argues, turns the play's incipient comedy to tragedy and is also instrumental in later tragedies.5 Certainly such difficulties inform the opening interchanges, and in numerous ways the play that follows draws attention to costs exacted by the social institution of patriarchal sexism.

The play contains three additional notably phallic passages, in all of which the phallicity is still more concentrated and prominent than in the play's opening. All three are in Mercutio's speech: at his talk of sinking in love, pricks and pricking, and beating love down (1.4.23-28); at his long bawdy interchange with Benvolio about raising a spirit (2.1.23-32); and at his talk with Romeo and Benvolio, and then the Nurse, of love's bauble, of his own “tale,” and of the prick of noon (2.4.91-99, 111-12). Given that in each passage it is Mercutio who introduces the phallicism and primarily sustains it, and given the proportional prominence of such talk in Mercutio's total of lines, he is easily, in terms of what he talks about, Shakespeare's most phallic character. And several points should be made immediately about the insistent references to the phallus that mark his eloquence like priapic herms.

While Mercutio's phallicity is as aggressive as the Capulet servants', his is in a thoroughly different key by virtue of his speech acts, his range of reference, and his speech situation. Sampson in effect boasts to Gregory of the tool with which he thrusts maids to the wall, but with Mercutio we find neither boasting nor envisioned male aggression toward women. Indeed he begins his first phallic passage with

And, to sink in it, should you burden love—
Too great oppression for a tender thing


a mock counsel to Romeo against love on the grounds that heterosexual intercourse per se is overly aggressive against women. The roughness in the remainder of his counsel,

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

(ll. 27-28),

is directed not against women but against love, who has changed gender from female to male in Romeo's intervening speech. We do have a kind of Mercurially abrupt misogyny later in the scene in the Queen Mab speech, in the representations of the maid with lazy fingers and the ladies with tainted breaths, and the mention of foul sluttish hairs, and in the portrayal of Mab herself as a hag. None of this misogyny is phallic though, and the phallus is conspicuously absent in the final image of the speech, of Queen Mab's pressing the maids when they lie on their backs.

Nor do we find misogyny or particular aggressiveness toward women in Mercutio's other concentrations of phallic speech.6 Nor, it may be worth noting, is Mercutio's disapproval of Romeo's infatuation and heterosexuality at all sternly prescriptive. Rather it is genial and tolerant, and the increasingly sensual catalog of Rosaline's parts that introduces the second concentration of phallicism is appreciative throughout, if streaked with sexism in the anatomization and in the word “demesnes” (2.1.20) deriving from Latin dominus, lord, and meaning “property” (see OED, s.v.). Furthermore in an important respect Mercutio's phallic talk reverses Sampson's. While Sampson talks boastfully and exclusively about his own phallus, and induces the compliant though not entirely credulous Gregory to talk about it too, only a portion of Mercutio's bawdy, and that not boastful, is about his own “tale” (2.4.95-98). The other phalli that come up more or less explicitly in his speech are love's (1.4.28, 2.2.33, 2.4.91-93), noon's (2.4.111-12), a stranger's (2.1.23-26), and Romeo's (1.4.28, 2.1.29, 38). Mercutio, that is, very readily grants phallicity to others, notably including his friend Romeo.7

Mercutio's three references to his friend's phallus serve as an index of the sexual dynamics of the friendship. The quibbling figurativeness of

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

makes the sentence exceptionally resistant to close paraphrase. Still, clearly the exhortation is antivenereal, like most of what Mercutio says in the first part of the scene, and prophallic, so that (being rough with the sentence) we might paraphrase it as “Use your phallus against love.” A lightened and, as it were, genially resigned antivenerealism appears in the context of “in his mistress' name / I conjure only but to raise up him,” with its sensually appreciative but irreverent talk of Rosaline. The prophallicism, on the other hand, is stronger and more apparent.

Furthermore Mercutio here exhibits an attitude toward Romeo's phallus that is at once generous and interested. It is as if Mercutio has a personal investment, as we say, in his friend's erection. The nature of that investment might seem, on the basis of the line and a half quoted here, to involve the idea of Mercutio's taking Rosaline's place not only as conjurer but also as container of Romeo's phallus, and it is true that Rosaline has receded from active participation with the stranger, her circle around his spirit, to a mere deputizing name at Mercutio's raising of Romeo.8 But that fleeting, apparently subliminal trace of sexual desire on Mercutio's part for Romeo, which seems to reappear in Mercutio's image of biting Romeo by the ear (2.4.77; see Gibbons's note), is preceded by the genially explicit talk of Rosaline as sexually active and attractive, and is followed shortly by the third reference to Romeo's phallus, in Mercutio's mock wish that Romeo were a “poperin pear,” another image that (like “raise up him”) reduces the friend to his genitals, while naming the phallus precisely for its use in heterosexual intercourse.

These references of Mercutio's to Romeo's phallus add up to a highly Mercurial stance combining an opposition to love, an amiable erotic permissiveness, and a phallocentrism that admits traces of homoeroticism. The stance, given Mercutio's other Mercurial stances of herald and hierophant, and given his hortatory eloquence, amounts to a directive. Mercutio, that is, points like a roadside herm to a fraternally bonded realm, with its attendant latent misogyny and homosexuality, and with its gratifications including strong friendship and celebration of the phallus. It is a path his friend the romeo never seems much tempted by. Romeo's repartee with Mercutio never seems quite wholehearted, and when Mercutio shifts into the bawdy, while Benvolio plays along—“Thou wouldst else have made thy tale large” (2.4.96)—Romeo hangs back; and Romeo's love for Juliet is notably uncarnal and unphallic. Certainly the play authorizes Romeo's choice of a direction other than Mercutio's. The generally neglected point, though, is that through Mercutio the play gives Romeo's love an opposition other than and different in quality from the opposition of the feud. Where Brooke's Romeus has merely a choice between love and family honor, Mercutio gives Romeo a third choice. I want to conclude this chapter on love and friendship, then, and these three chapters looking at the Mercutio of 1595 from the vantage of the late 1980s, with some further specification of the Mercurial and Marlovian road not taken by Romeo.

Mercutio's service to Shakespeare—and this is to say, to Shakespeare's culture—as a means of processing the memory of Christopher Marlowe has of course its sexual dimension. We may describe Marlowe's sexual stance in increasing degrees of provocativeness or subversiveness as follows. He is intermittently misogynistic, as for instance when he preceded the interchange discussed above between Tamburlaine and Theridamas with the interchange

What now!—in love?
Techelles, women must be flattered:
But this is she with whom I am in love

(Tamburlaine 1, 1.2.106-8).

Marlowe's intermittent misogyny affronts Shakespeare's proto-feminism, but the affront is of a kind the culture supplies from many quarters, and indeed of a kind we may find in Shakespeare himself. The abrupt intermittent misogyny that Mercutio exhibits has been discussed above. Marlowe's more insistent eroticism, the sensuality that seems pervasively incipient when not present, seems more idiosyncratic and more subversive than his misogyny. Much of Shakespeare's early career through Romeo and Juliet may be read in terms of strategies for processing Marlovian sensuality. In Mercutio some of that sensuality appears in some of his bawdy, especially his anatomy of Rosaline, and some appears as if sublimated in the minute particularities of the Queen Mab speech. Marlovian sensuality undergoes a further sublimation, and a displacement of sorts, in the amorous figurativeness of Romeo and Juliet. But Marlowe's flaunted homoeroticism is surely the most provocative and subversive feature of his sexuality.

As is well known, Marlowe flaunts his minority sexual preference in the vivid homoeroticism of Hero and Leander, in the love of Edward and Gaveston, at various other points in his work, such as the opening scene of Dido, and reportedly in the remark about tobacco and boys.9 The flaunting seems to serve Marlowe for several not entirely compatible ends, including self-promotion and self-destruction, and it is intended as, and is surely received as, a challenge. The challenge is general, to all of whatever individual sexual persuasion who condone heterosexual hegemony, but the challenge is also obviously weighted toward men, since not merely sexually but indeed quite generally Marlowe is very much more interested in men than in women.

While there is substantial agreement now with respect to these facts about Marlowe, Shakespeare's case seems less clear. Certainly he is far more interested in women generally than is Marlowe. Indeed as recent feminist studies have helped us to see, a good deal of fairly subversive proto-feminism animates Shakespeare's works. It also seems safe to read heterosexual desire in the biography, the Sonnets, and the plays, although no clear consensus is apparent about the degree and nature of that desire. There is still less consensus about the presence or absence of homosexual desire in Shakespeare. Here the key text is of course the Sonnets, the subject of Pequigney's Such is My Love, which provides a useful if tendentious survey of responses to the challenge of possible autobiographical homosexual content in the sonnets, and argues “(1) that the friendship treated in Sonnets 1-126 is decidedly amorous … the interaction between the friends being sexual in both orientation and practice; (2) that verbal data are clear and copious in detailing physical intimacies between them; (3) that the psychological dynamics … comply in large measure with … Freud's … discussions of homosexuality; and (4) that Shakespeare produced not only extraordinary amatory verse but the grand masterpiece of homoerotic poetry” (p. 1). Pequigney's often suggestive though less than entirely persuasive support for these claims would not be the last word on the subject even if it were much more persuasive, in part because the stakes are still high.10

The present study takes no stand about the Sonnets, nor does it assume or support any grander claim about Shakespeare's own sexual orientation than that he seems generally heterosexual, though far less prescriptively and possibly less exclusively so than commentators generally, and feminist and psychoanalytic commentators in particular, make him out to be. Mercutio as a processing of Marlowe exemplifies such a Shakespeare, because while Marlowe's sexual orientation is obviously not paraded, neither is it cancelled, denied, or ignored. Rather Shakespeare proceeds in ways Greenblatt and others have taught us to see him as a master of, admitting and incorporating the subversive element, to some extent containing it, and to some extent rendering it still more subversive.

Marlovian homosexuality resonates not only in the general prominence of phallic talk, and the warmth and urgency of Mercutio's friendship for Romeo, but also in several specific things he says: his mock threat to bite Romeo by the ear and his “conjure only but to raise up him” discussed above, and also at least two other of his bawdy remarks.

As noted, in the interchange between Mercutio and Romeo at 1.4.23-28, “love,” referred to with only the genderless pronoun “it,” effectively changes gender from female in Mercutio's

And, to sink in it, should you burden love—
Too great oppression for a tender thing

to male in Romeo's answering

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

Thus when Mercutio replies

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

the action he advises is homosexual, whatever its nature.11

And then there is Mercutio's direct explicit reference to sodomy in

                              O that she were
An open-arse and thou a poperin pear!


the only such, I believe, in the canon (though Pequigney, Colman, and others find what they take to be numerous indirect, inexplicit, and more entirely metaphorical ones).12 Of course the sodomy is heterosexual, but its uniqueness in Shakespeare suggests that the image rises out of the system of substitutions and representations Mercutio partakes of. It is as if here Shakespeare has Mercutio wish for his friend heterosexual intercourse as it might easily have been imagined, in passing, by Marlowe.

The bibliographical and critical history of “open-arse” is a good yardstick for measuring Mercutio's changing phallic subversiveness and the changing containment it elicits, and so previewing the subject of the next chapter. Suggested by Farmer and Henley, Slang and its Analogues (1903; noted by Gibbons, s.v.), as the meaning of Quarto 2's “open, or,” the word does not appear in printed texts of the play before Hosley's 1954 adoption of the reading.13 Partridge in 1948, s.v. “et cetera,” gives the then accepted lines received from Quarto 1 and Quarto 4,

O, that she were
An open et-caetera, and thou a poperin pear!

and glosses “et cetera” as pudend, so that he is spared acknowledging mention of even heterosexual sodomy, although he does note at the same entry that the medlar (“Now will he sit under a medlar tree,” 2.1.34) is “slangily an open arse.” Since Hosley, editors generally, including Wilson and Duthie, Williams, Spencer, Gibbons, and Evans—though not Hankins—accept “open-arse,” but pass in silence over the extraordinariness of the implied act.

Colman, whose view of Mercutio in The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (1974) is less doctrinaire than most of the feminist and psychoanalytic ones discussed above but still reductive,14 quotes the lines with “open-arse,” holding that Mercutio's mockery in them is “so gross as to be self-defeating,” and then announces that “It is unlikely that Mercutios of Shakespeare's own day spoke the term ‘open-arse’ here, as both the Bad and Good quartos of Romeo and Juliet suppress it, and some such action as Benvolio's clapping his hand over Mercutio's mouth seems called for” (p. 69). Colman allows that Shakespeare's audience would divine the suppressed word, but he has no more to say about the image of sodomy than the rather prim observation, “Clearly, all that Romeo needs to do about so broad a sally is to keep out of the way and flatly disregard it.” But the grounds presented for this ingenious rearguard censorship performed by an authority on Shakespearean bawdy writing well after “open-arse” proved the accepted reading, are in fact not quite the grounds Colman makes them out to be. While Quarto 1's “open Et cetera” suggests suppression, the Quarto 2 reading “open, or” is not, as Hosley and subsequent editors recognize, a suppression but rather a compositor's misreading or misunderstanding. The er-ar equation we have seen variously attending Mercutio plays a part again here, for it seems possible that what the compositor misread was “openers” or “open ers.”

As with Mercutio's references to homosexual and heterosexual sodomy, so generally with his phallicity and even his physicality: in all these respects Shakespeare appears to be processing some of what is most disturbing in Marlowe. The processing is far from a sanitizing, even of poetic imagery, as witness the potentially grotesquely sodomic image of Mercutio's offer to Romeo:

                    we'll draw thee from the mire
Of—save your reverence—love, wherein thou stickest
Up to the ears.


Nor is the processing quite like any of the other sorts we can see in progress around 1595, condemnation, apology, outspoken praise, or dismissal.15 Rather with Mercutio Shakespeare performs some containment, some incorporation, and some transmission of Marlovian corporeality, itself a notable instance of renascent classical physicality problematized by centuries of Christian transcendent doctrine. Although the scandalous phallus reappearing (and re-disappearing, as we have seen) in pictorial representations may not be presented directly to the theater audience's gaze, it like all other parts of the male body is always actually present, and not merely represented, on the Elizabethan stage. Mercutio's phallicity then resonates not merely with Marlovian corporeality but also with the scandalous, dangerous, and, in 1595, male corporeality of the theater. In directions marked out both by “phallogocentrism” and by “materialism,” that corporeality is potentially subversive in Mercutio, as it was in Marlowe—and as it is elsewhere in Shakespeare, though in other ways and perhaps nowhere so much as in Mercutio. For, as we know, Marlowe provides Shakespeare with directions he is unable to follow. But Shakespeare keeps and uses those directions, especially in Mercutio, where he conjures the god Mercury and also the raised spirit of Marlowe.


  1. The treatment of love and friendship in this chapter is especially indebted to Foucault (Use), Mills, Rougemont, Sharp, and Whigam, and to recent psychoanalytic and feminist studies of Shakespeare including Adelman, Bamber, Dash, Kahn, and Novy.

  2. Pequigney, Love, p. 231n26, stands out among Shakespeareans in his attention to Barnfield, whose defense—Some there were, that did interpret The affectionate Shepheard, otherwise then (in truth) I meant, touching the subject thereof, to wit, the loue of a Shepheard to a boy; a fault, the which I will not excuse, because I neuer made (Cynthia, sig. A3)—is surely “curious and perfunctory.”

  3. See Smith, “Value,” 1983, for a wide-ranging treatment of such canonization; and see Porter, “Marlowe,” 1989, for an elaboration of the particular claim made here about Mercutio and the canonization of heterosexuality.

  4. Since in Fiedler's view the primary force opposing marriage in Shakespeare is the father's love for the daughter, he slights fraternal bonding somewhat and speaks flippantly of Mercutio, who “manages to spare himself the pain of someone else's happy ending by dying before his beloved friend is quite Juliet's” (Stranger, p. 90). Additional feminist and psychoanalytic recognitions of the tension between friendship and love include Neely (Nuptials, p. 64) “Male resistance to marriage is more pervasive and persistent [than female resistance],” Novy (Argument, p. 63) on the “rivalry” between Antonio and Portia for Bassanio, and MacCary throughout Friends, 1985. All are more or less prescriptivist. Scarcely has MacCary (p. 3) seemed to take an admirably open-minded position, saying that Shakespeare “seems to say that every man's appetites and aversions are a law unto that man, i.e., that desire is a purely individual determination and that there can never be universal agreement on its objects” when he plunges (p. 5) into the standard heterosexual prescriptivist hierarchicalization of desire—“He [Shakespeare] carefully takes his young men through four stages of object-choice: first, they love themselves … then, … mirror images of themselves in twins or friends; after that, … those same images in transvestized young women; finally they learn to love young women. … [A lover's] identity must be a function of the objects he chooses—first parents, then friends, then lovers”—that continues through the study and, in particular, results in a peculiarly unpleasant approval of the marginalization of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.

  5. The elliptical quotation makes Gohlke say what she seems to mean to say. What she actually says is that the feud defines relations with women as controlling and violent. Her view of “relations among men as intensely competitive” is the standard psychological-feminist one that refuses to acknowledge friendship in the play. In her brief remarks about the play Gohlke does not mention Mercutio, but she finds that both Romeo and Juliet at moments express something of the intercourse-murder equation. Snow, in his Jungian-feminist “Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet,” p. 182, agrees with Kahn and others in (mistakenly, I maintain) transferring the play's opening equations whole-cloth to Mercutio, when he says that the Nurse's and Juliet's world of “vast interconnectedness” stands opposite to “the partially repressed realm of phallic violence that haunts the soldier's dream and Mercutio's reverie.” But a kind of collapse of figuration happens if we turn all swords into Sampson's naked weapon. Any phallicism in the soldier's dream of cutting foreign throats seems more than partially repressed. In the speech's one explicit image of sexual intercourse the phallus is notably absent, or under erasure, as it is Queen Mab who presses maids when they lie on their backs.

  6. “Not so fast,” says the feminist concerned to put Mercutio in his place. “You're glossing over the aggressiveness of his ‘hit the mark’ at 2.2.33, and the reductiveness of that and of his ‘a hole’ at 2.4.93.” As for “hit,” while there may be some sexist aggressiveness in it, two further things should be said. First, a certain amount of aggressiveness, which is not necessarily sexist, is inherent in phallic sexuality. This truism needs saying here only because in feminist readings of Romeo, as of other texts, one senses in the margins of the discourse a myth of male heterosexuality that is nonphallic and nonintrusive. And second, in Mercutio's most elaborated talk of heterosexual intercourse, 2.1.24-29, while he talks bawdily of Romeo, Rosaline, and a male stranger, the only one he has taking action is Rosaline, who lays and conjures down the phallus of the stranger, who appears only in the phrase “Of some strange nature” identifying the phallus as not Romeo's, so that he becomes a mere site for a phallus that, rising in rather than into Rosaline's circle, seems so unintrusive as to be unrealistic. As for Romeo, he is not even present as a site for his phallus; he is the phallus in “I conjure only but to raise up him.” As for Mercutio's “a hole,” it, like the momentary reduction of Romeo to his phallus, certainly is a reductionist and therefore potentially sexist way to speak of the female party in the intercourse conjured up at 2.4.91-92. But reduction is arguably the lesser evil when the male party is “drivelling … like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble.” The speech, that is, seems far more antivenereal than sexist. Much the same seems generally true of Mercutio's rather parallel, though less energetic and picturesque, image of blind love's inability to hit the mark. In particular, given the mark-Mercutio correspondence at work in the play, the passage carries the subtextual message of Mercutio's invulnerability to love, and perhaps also it creates a fleeting suggestion of Mercutio's playing a “passive” role in homosexual intercourse.

  7. Mercutio's “prick of noon” exhibits a Mercurial identification of phallus and graphic mark, since the dial's pricks are engraved marks.

  8. Partridge, s.v. “lay it,” suggests an auditory allusion to the Latin cunnus and its English derivative (which he elsewhere rightly takes OED to task for excluding) in the “conjur'd” Mercutio gives to Rosaline at 2.1.26. The same allusion would presumably then also be present in Mercutio's “I conjure only but to raise up him [Romeo]” (l. 29), and here could have resonances with the postulated subliminal image of Mercutio containing Romeo's phallus. Partridge, of course, ignores the possible bawdiness of this “conjure,” just as he provides an obfuscatory account of “raise up” (s.v.) in the line, because open recognition of the line's bawdiness could serve to compromise his claim that Shakespeare's bawdy is almost exclusively heterosexual. Pequigney recently, and generally rightly, takes Partridge and Colman to task for screening homosexual bawdy out of their accounts, although (as mentioned) he has screened all sexuality out of the friendship between Mercutio and Romeo. Syntactically the line plays a trick with ambiguous modification. Officially Mercutio means “I conjure to raise up only but him” (i.e., Romeo and no one else). At the same time Mercutio's word order may suggest an unofficial subliminal meaning of “I only conjure but to raise up him”; that is, the only reason I'm talking (here and elsewhere) is to raise him up.

  9. For the claim “That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles,” attributed to Marlowe by Richard Baines in his list of charges against Marlowe sent to the queen three days after Marlowe's death, see Goldberg, “Sodomy.” As Goldberg here points out, Bray (Homosexuality) lays bare some of the social mechanisms of Renaissance England in the context of which we can best understand the nature and force of Baines's charge.

  10. Pequigney (p. 1) traces the ongoing attempt to protect Shakespeare and the Sonnets from “the embarrassment and scandal of homosexuality” from Benson's 1640 altered words and misleading titles through Auden's 1964 chiding of the homosexual reader determined to ally Shakespeare with “the Homintern” and the noncommitalism of Ingram and Redpath and of Booth, as well as in a smaller group of commentators who in the past twenty-five years have been willing to grant the persona of the Sonnets some erotic feelings for the young man. While Pequigney sometimes strains credibility, and has less than perfect command of the commentary—Giroux, The Book Known as Q, might have been included in the smaller group just mentioned—still he is often suggestive and sometimes persuasive in his all-out glosses of homosexual meaning in the Sonnets. See Sedgwick, Between Men, for a subtle and powerful treatment of relations among “homosocial” desire, gender, and power in the Sonnets.

  11. “Prick love for pricking” suggests Romeo's penetration of love, perhaps preceded by love's of him. And then “you beat love down” strongly suggests masturbation, perhaps Romeo's of love. Conceivably there is another trace of sodomy in the last word of Mercutio's “Alas poor Romeo … the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft” (2.4.13-16). Partridge glosses “butt” in Troilus 5.1 as “buttocks.”

  12. “When the plays glance at sodomy it is with reticence and distaste. … Generally, … allusions to buggery are few in number and ambiguous in tenor … So far as one can judge … Shakespeare seems to have shared in the conventional disapproval of sodomy. … the subject was one that he seems to have preferred to avoid” (Colman, Bawdy, p. 7). I am in accord with all this. In his brief summary discussion of homosexuality and sodomy Colman (pp. 6-8) restates the conventional assurances about Elizabethan friendship, but admits here and in his chapter on the Sonnets the possibility of homosexual eroticism there. He finds Thersites's “preposterous” (Tro. 5.1.22) the “one fully explicit reference” to sodomy. Part of the problem here is terminological; for Colman sodomy entails homosexuality, and when the act is heterosexual he calls it “anal intercourse,” to which he also finds very few references in Shakespeare (p. 100).

  13. The acceptance of “open-arse” in the Wilson and Duthie edition a mere year after Hosley (whose priority, along with that of Kökeritz, they acknowledge in their note on the line) suggests that they arrived at the emendation independently, and the wording of the last sentence of their note—about “‘or’ as the seat of the [textual] corruption”—may acknowledge sodomy as the act Mercutio has in mind.

  14. Colman (Bawdy) in his own way sacrifices Mercutio on the altar of young love—“Matters are so arranged that every time Mercutio tries to undercut Romeo's emotion, he fails” (p. 69)—but he is also sympathetic to Mercutio's “weird, fast-flowing current of indecent humour and extravagant fancy” (p. 70), and suggests that “Romeo and Juliet demands a good deal of critical reorientation if … Zeffirelli's … presentation of Mercutio is justified by the text” (p. 171). The remark seems prophetic of the present study, and might be generalized—the crux of course not being Zeffirelli (discussed below)—to the thesis that the play demands reorientation if any presentation of Mercutio is to be “justified by the text.”

  15. In the years intervening between 1595 and the present Marlowe elicits these and other kinds of mostly detrimental processing, including “explanation.” Recent studies including those discussed in the preceding chapter undo some of that detrimental processing, and provide a climate in which we may find increasingly less tenable the line of claims running from Johnson's (Preface, p. 82) that Shakespeare “had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation” to Bloom's that the anxiety of influence failed to touch Shakespeare.


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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.

Jack Jorgens (review date 1977)

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SOURCE: Jorgens, Jack. “Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.” In Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, edited by John F. Andrews, pp. 163-76. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

[In the following review, originally published in 1977, Jorgens assesses Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet, commenting on its visual excessiveness, its refreshing “nontheatrical” acting, and is paring down of the original text. Jorgens concludes that while the film's action, emotional impact, and conception of theme and structure may be appealing to some viewers, the work as a whole is a more immature effort than Shakespeare's play.]

Shakespeare's source for the story of Romeo and Juliet was Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, written first in Italian by Bandell, and now in Englishe by Ar. Br. (1562). In his “Address to the Reader,” Brooke spoke of

a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures or peril for the attaining of their wicked lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for the furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.

In the story itself, however, he abandoned his heavy moralizing and showed great sympathy for both the young lovers and the Friar, and rather than tying the tragic ending to character and divine justice, rooted the cause in Fortune.

Certainly Shakespeare trusted the tale and not the teller. One of his most popular plays, written when he was about thirty and also at work on A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet is an exuberant celebration of young love—its excitement, passion, and lyricism. Despite the ominous Prologue, which foretells the sacrifice of the young to “bury their parents' strife,” critics often note that this love story has many of the characteristics of Shakespeare's romantic comedies: the fool Mercutio, the bawdy, funny Nurse, the stereotypical villain Tybalt, the blocking of the loves of the young by the values and laws of the old, ornamented verse, domestic detail, and even the motif of dreaming. Only with the death of Mercutio does the story become a tragedy of Fate and begin its breathless race toward the tomb.

What Romeo and Juliet lack in depth of character they make up in energy, beautiful innocence, and spontaneity. If the arc of their rise and fall seems unusually intense and brilliant, it is because it is set against a rich, dark background. Love clashes with hate, the ideal with the real. Romeo and Juliet's romance avoids sentimentality because it must pass through the fires of the Nurse's jokes and meandering, trivial, pragmatic mind, Mercutio's bawdy wit, the demands of duty and honor, the ugly rigidities of the old, and the feud, which though bound up with Fate seems to have a life of its own. Shakespeare's pattern seems true because it is never a simple one. If the parents want to live their lives over again through their children, they also have great affection and hope for them. Blended with the impulses of the young toward rebellion are hot tempers and the need to prove their maturity, which keep the feud alive when the old are ready to let it die. Analogous to the literal tragedy that the young and innocent are sometimes cruelly cut off in life is the figurative one that youth, innocence, spontaneity, passion die as we grow older—they are sacrificed to meaningless conflicts, adult responsibilities, and accommodating oneself to a fallen world.

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, based loosely on his energetic stage production for the London Old Vic in 1960, is the most popular and financially successful Shakespeare film yet made. It shares with his Shrew rich colors and textures, elegantly reconstructed Renaissance interiors and costumes bathed in idyllic golden light and resembling paintings by the old masters. It is spectacular, extravagant, full of nervous motion, energy, camera movement, rapid cutting. We find the same frenetically active extras and strenuous physicality in the clowning of the Maskers before Capulet's ball and the fights in the square that we find in Petruchio's pursuit of Kate and their destruction of Paduan proprieties. (The saturnalian pattern is at work here too, but the outcome is deadly, not festive.) The director fills his frame with motion, people, and things in an effort to give the film a realistic solidity, fullness, and spontaneity. At times it becomes almost operatic in its excess. As in Shrew there is so much music that one expects the actors suddenly to burst into song. Yet the acting, far from being operatic, is in a fresh, nontheatrical, nonelocutionary style. The director uses a pared down text, often interrupts the flow of the lines with entertaining gestures and sounds, and generally keeps the talk out of the way of the action according to the convention of film realism.

Critics have been harsh with Zeffirelli's rash, reckless style. John Simon complained of what he called “centrifugality.”1 In comparing Romeo and Juliet with Kozintsev's Hamlet, Ronald Hayman argued that

wasting visual effects is quite as bad as wasting words, and where Kozintsev is tautly economic, Zeffirelli is loosely lavish. Each visual detail, each movement of the actors and each movement of the camera means something in Kozintsev, whereas Zeffirelli's camera wanders all over Verona, grabbing at anything that catches its eye, and putting in movements (or even dances like the gratuitous Moresca at the Capulets' ball) for the sake of their immediate photogenic appeal.2

Though we may question whether a “tautly economic” style would really suit this play, there is truth in Hayman's objections. Zeffirelli's films sometimes veer out of control, lapse into visual clichés, caricatures, and sentimentality, wander between muddled motivations and geography and a tendency to make everything simple and obvious. Still, he is no mere mindless popularizer of Shakespeare. Like Shrew, Romeo and Juliet is a critically underrated film which has some interesting dimensions. When he has things under control, Zeffirelli's images embody interpretative truths about the play very well.

The panoramic opening shot of Romeo and Juliet (a tribute to the opening of Olivier's Henry V—he even has Olivier reading the prologue) strikes many as a conventional establishing shot, an attempt to be “scenic.” But Zeffirelli is doing here what the critics have not credited him with doing—using imagery in a significant way. To begin with, the shot provides a visual equivalent to the godlike, distant, formal tone and style of the prologue which contrasts so vividly with the passion and violence inside Verona's walls. As the camera pans over deathly still Verona, bathed in early morning light, the city is shrouded in fog. There is a formal rightness in this image, for the white shroud is one of the central motifs of the film. It recurs in Mercutio's white handkerchief, which at various times becomes his apron as he kneels in mock prayer and mimes the priest “dream-ing of an-o-ther ben-i-fice” (a glance at Friar Laurence?), his needle work (not long after, we see Juliet sewing), his contraceptive as he plays the gossip and the bawdy jokester with the Nurse, his deathlike mask (“blah, blah, blah”) and washrag in the hot square, and finally his bandage which hides the bloody fatal wound and is rubbed in Tybalt's face by Romeo. The white shroud also appears in the Nurse's veil (“A sail! A sail!”), in the sheets and gauze curtains in Juliet's room, and in the winding sheets in Juliet's funeral and covering the corpses in the Capulet tomb. Opposing the fogshrouded city of death in the opening shot is the burning circle of the sun. The camera zooms rapidly in on it (an overused device in this film) until it fills the screen with blinding orange light, making of it a symbol of the opposing passions of the play. It represents not only the love of Romeo and Juliet (the sun greets them in bed and shines at their funeral), of Romeo and Mercutio, and of the Nurse and Juliet, but also the general hatred unleased in the feud—the frustrated rage of Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo, and Prince Escalus. The symbol captures the underlying unity of emotions which come together dialectically at the end of the play.

Zeffirelli's splashy style is evident in the two big scenes of the film, Capulet's ball and the fatal duels in the square. Each is shamelessly milked for emotion, the dance for the tenderness and lyricism of young love, including the sticky sweet song “What is a Youth?” and the fights for the raw excitement of seeing mockery and tests of skill turn into a fight to the death as well as the shock and pain of seeing Mercutio die while his friends laugh, thinking it is another of his jokes. Each scene is filled with spectacle: the ball with swirling costumes, candles, torches, glasses of wine, heaps of fruit, diffused gold backgrounds, and the comic faces among the guests (including a tall, homely, moon-eyed girl who stares down at Juliet), and the duels with Mercutio's clowning and playing to his audience even in his bravura death, and the vicious, dirty, unromantic fight to the death between Romeo and Tybalt, shot in the midst of the dust with a hand-held camera and punctuated with nervous bursts of cuts, climaxing with Tybalt's running on Romeo's sword (a grim repetition of the accidental stabbing of Mercutio) and his sightless corpse falling on top of Romeo. Yet, in these scenes Zeffirelli does more than just immerse his audience in action and spectacle. Each scene presents a complicated pattern of characters, relationships, and themes central to Zeffirelli's interpretation of the play.

For Zeffirelli, language is primarily a key to character. He is more interested in “the poetry of human relationships” than in ideas, imagery, and the music of the words,3 and he is not timid about fleshing out characters roughly sketched by Shakespeare. Lady Capulet, for example, is at the hub of the continuing feud. In her appearances before the ball, we learn that her marriage to the older Capulet is not a happy one. As the camera tastelessly zooms in on her sour face and a violin comically whines on the sound track, it is all too evident that Capulet has learned about girls being marred by early marriage and motherhood from personal experience. Capulet's remark to Paris that Juliet will be his only heir and, later, his joking lament for his lost youth at the ball suggest that he is impotent, that what is left of his marriage is the social arrangement. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, is still young, vain about her looks (we see her primping and being made up), uncomfortable with a nearly grown daughter, in need of the Nurse when she must broach the subject of marriage, in need of Capulet when Juliet is disobedient. At the ball we learn more about the conflict between Lady Capulet and her husband. He is a nouveau riche, lacking the polish and refinement of his guests, while she is a daughter of the old aristocracy, embarrassed by her gauche, gregarious spouse, positively withering in her irony as she reprimands Capulet and Tybalt for quarrelling at the ball (with a hostess's smile: “well said my hearts!”).

In a sense, the Capulet marriage is a recapitulation of the larger conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, who, Zeffirelli said, “are a noble, military family who have gone to seed. They are in decline. They produce only students—Romeo learns verses and Benvolio carries books. The Capulets are a rich merchant family, full of social climbers, men of wealth as well as men of action.”4 Louis Gianetti notes that the bright colors worn by middle aged, clean-shaven Capulet contrast with the dark robes of grey-bearded Montague.5 Lady Capulet's refusal to help Juliet is thus more clearly motivated in the film. She is anxious to shore up the respectability of her family with an alliance with Paris; she is uneasy in the role of mother and annoyed that Juliet's stubbornness has subjected her to Capulet's anger. Underneath, too, one guesses that she welcomes the opportunity to subject Juliet (obviously Capulet's favorite) to the unhappiness she herself suffers by marrying her to a man she does not love. Lady Capulet is further implicated in the feud in that her refuge from her husband is handsome, virile, young Tybalt, her dancing partner at the ball, the “young princox” who submits to her when he will not to his uncle. The intensity of her grief when, with her hair down, she cries to Prince Escalus for justice (revenge) reflects the loss of much more than a favorite nephew.6 This frustrating relationship also clarifies the keenness of Tybalt's anger, his anxiousness to prove his manhood, to uphold family honor, and to prevent Juliet from “consorting” with Romeo.

In the duels, Zeffirelli is once again interested in “the poetry of human relationships.” There is deep friendship, even love, between Romeo and Mercutio. Mercutio's mercurial showmanship seems aimed at Romeo, and his anger, when Romeo is off sighing for love or making a milksop of himself before Tybalt, is tinged with jealousy. How could a friend abandon male comradery for “a smock”? These feelings, along with the oppressive heat, general boredom, and shallowness of Benvolio, make Mercutio push Tybalt too far and set the wheels of Fate in motion. The combatants are natural opposites. Tybalt fights with strength and skill, Mercutio with resiliency, wit, and a talent for doing the unexpected. Tybalt frightens and threatens his victim (he puts a sword to Mercutio's throat and lets him sweat, cuts off a lock of his hair), while Mercutio ridicules his (by bandying words while baptizing himself in the fountain, whistling nonchalantly when cornered, doing pratfalls and running in mock fear, arming Tybalt with a pitchfork, and forcing him to retreat by sharpening one sword on the other before his face). This ingrained antipathy between Mercutio and Tybalt—Tybalt's need to humiliate an opponent, Mercutio's need to flirt with danger (very near a death wish)—and Romeo's guilt, first at abandoning Mercutio and then at causing his death, come together to accelerate the tragic movement begun at the ball.

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet does not have particularly distinguished readings of the verse, being in this respect at the opposite end of the spectrum from the articulate readings of Olivier's films or Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream. This was in part lack of skill and in part artistic choice. “What matters is modernity of feeling rhythm, modernity inside. The verse must always have an intimate rhythm, the rhythm of reality. It must never become music.”7 The ball and the fight heighten the contrast in the film between the young who do and the old who talk. “What Zeffirelli suggests is that the means of communication between the young, or those who understand the young, is not essentially words, as it is for the older generation, but gesture and action.”8 Romeo and Juliet fall in love at the ball through looking and touching more than through words. Tybalt need only look at Juliet to know what has happened. In the duel, and earlier when he sports a death mask, raves in an empty square, and lifts up the Nurse's skirts, it is what Mercutio does as much as what he says that makes him so bawdy, irreverent, erratically alive. Like the lovers, the young bloods of the square “speak” with their bodies and their “weapons.” The young distrust the rhetoric of the old: Juliet asks “what's in a name?” Mercutio responds to Benvolio's echoing of parental cautions with “blah, blah, blah,” and Romeo is so impatient with Friar Laurence's tired saws while awaiting Juliet that he fills in the next word each time the holy man pauses. The impotent old, on the other hand, talk and talk, give worldly advice like the Nurse, send tardy letters and lend spiritual guidance like the Friar, or lecture and threaten like Capulet and the Prince. They seem overly deliberate, unspontaneous, slow compared with the young. That is why they are unable to help or even to understand.

Zeffirelli not only used the ball and the duel scenes to entertain, to further characterization, and to contrast young and old, he also displays something of Shakespeare's analogic habit of mind by underscoring the parallels between rituals of love and hate. Both scenes are ironic. Capulet intends the dance to provide a respite from the feud, to be a gesture of peace, a ritual of harmony in which his enemies are welcomed as his friends. Instead, it pours fuel on the glowing coals. Like Benvolio, Romeo tries to keep the peace in the fight scene, but he only manages to make “worm's meat” of Mercutio and Tybalt and get himself banished from Verona and his new wife. The good intentions of old and young go for naught. Hence, the ball and the fights are thematically linked by the motif of the circle,9 which was first introduced in the opening shot of the sun, and is echoed later on the church floor at the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. The dance is choreographed as a symbolic feud, beginning with two separate circles of dancers and shifting to two concentric circles moving in opposite directions. In an analogue of the overall movement of the play, after the dance the crowd merges into one static circle as a singer of a melancholy song of love and death performs. The “dances” of the duellists also take place in a circle formed by spectators. Following Shakespeare, Zeffirelli shows that love and hate, and the rituals Verona has generated around these passions—the dance and the duel—are intimately related. In Shrew Zeffirelli found a play which celebrates the liberating and creative aspects of love. In Romeo and Juliet he found a play which focuses on eros, the destructive aspect of love (between Capulet and Lady Capulet, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Mercutio, the Nurse and Juliet, Lady Capulet and Tybalt, Friar Laurence and Romeo).

In many ways, this film is a “youth movie” of the 1960s which glorifies the young and caricatures the old, a Renaissance Graduate. While Romeo acquires a stubble of a beard and defies the stars, and Juliet learns that she must stand alone when her parents and the Nurse abandon her, we have little sense that they grow up. They are Adam and Eve in the Edenic greenery of Capulet's garden and never lose the golden aura of innocence which insulates them from reality. Romeo's way of opposing the feud is to wander the streets alone sniffing flowers and sighing with melancholy, avoiding his parents and friends, playing at love. Through cuts in the text, Romeo is not forced to take advantage of the ugly, dehumanizing poverty of the apothecary, nor is he guilty of a second murder, that of Paris.

Juliet begins the film as a laughing girl running playfully through the house, becomes a credible teenager in love at the ball and in the balcony scene, and at least starts to mature when, abandoned by her parents, she turns to the Nurse for comfort and finds none. Shakespeare expresses the moment verbally:

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 praised him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counselor!
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.

Zeffirelli says it with fewer words. Sadly advising Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris, forcing herself to praise the County, the Nurse makes up the bed in which Romeo and Juliet hours before consummated their marriage. To her a little straightening of the sheets can make everything as it was before. Juliet's response is simply “go!” The Nurse reaches out to touch and reassure her, but Juliet backs away. The Nurse goes to the door, looks back for the conciliatory look she had always found before, and, finding none, backs out of the room, crushed, bowing as she closes the door like one of the common servants. This, however, is the extent of Juliet's growth.

Finally, there is no real sense of maturity or eroticism in their love. As Pauline Kael wickedly remarked, theirs is a “toy marriage.”10 It is damaging that Mercutio seems to feel and know more than Romeo and Juliet. He dies in irony and anger. They sob uncontrollably at losing each other. The limitations and the virtues of Zeffirelli's portrayal of Verona's youth are summed up in John Russell Brown's description of the original stage production.

All the youth of Verona were at ease. Running and sauntering, they were immediately recognizable as unaffected teenagers; they ate apples and threw them, splashed each other with water, mocked, laughed, shouted; they became serious, sulked, were puzzled; they misunderstood confidently and expressed emotion freely. … [Zeffirelli] gave prominence to a sense of wonder, gentleness, strong affection, clear emotion and, sometimes, fine sentiment, as well as to high spirits and casual behavior.11

In comparison to the young, Brown noted, the old lacked conviction, and this carries over to the film. Their grief is not particularly moving. They often seem two-dimensional (in the zoom-in on Lady Capulet's face or Friar Laurence's leering at Juliet through his test tubes). The Prince has his moments of ferocity when breaking up the opening brawl on his magnificent, nervous horse with the sun burning behind him, and again at the conclusion. And the Nurse, a delightful mock nun who is eager to find in Juliet the daughter she lost, steals wine at the ball, refuses and then takes Romeo's money, rages at Mercutio, is human throughout—right to the moment when she stares stunned at the bodies of the two lovers at the end. But in general the older characters are less convincing, seem hastily sketched in, and this causes an imbalance. What keeps the film from being totally one-sided is the fatal, self-destructive urge in these youths. They are reckless, bored, cynical—children of the feud, just as a generation of Americans were children of Vietnam. They are implicated in keeping the feud going. It provides them an outlet for feelings of jealousy, insecurity, and rage not merely at the old and everything they are responsible for but at mortality in all its forms. Even Romeo is not always glamorized, turning into a bloodthirsty animal as he goes after Tybalt. In this sense, Zeffirelli does preserve Shakespeare's balance between old and young.

In shaping the text for the film, Zeffirelli and his fellow scriptwriters accelerated the already rapid sequence of events, reduced speeches to stress the inarticulateness of the young, and stripped away much of the self-conscious verbal artifice which clashes with realistic surfaces and colloquial readings. For example, Escalus's ornamented image is cut:

What, ho! You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins!

Extended conceits are removed, such as Lady Capulet's urging Juliet to “read o'er the volume of young Paris' face” (the figure is elaborated in “beauty's pen,” “margent of his eyes,” “unbound lover,” “gold clasps,” and “golden story”). The film avoids the formal idiom of Juliet's grieving over the death of Tybalt or of the Capulets' mourning over the supposed death of Juliet. In the play Romeo uses oxymoron to embody the fundamental paradox of love and hate:

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Zeffirelli uses visual contrasts, shows the maimed survivors of the brawl and their mourning kin as they interrupt flower-sniffing Romeo's talk with Benvolio (Romeo throws the flower on the stones, walks away in disgust). Some of Zeffirelli's cuts (especially those in the cumbersome final scene) are usual on the stage and rescue what is in some ways an immature play from its own excesses. Some are compensated for by adequate gestures and visual imagery, such as the fierce, proud look on Tybalt's face as he turns to see Juliet sighing over Romeo at the ball, replacing “I will withdraw; but this intrustion shall / Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt'rest gall.” Some substitutions are less successful, as when a dull shot of Italian countryside replaces

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check'ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and Titan's burning wheels.

In keeping with the anti-intellectual tone of his films, Zeffirelli makes a philosophically thin play even thinner by cutting the Friar's thoughts that “The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb. / What is her burying ground, that is her womb,” and his wonder at a world where the vilest things do good and virtue can become vice. Also, occasionally cuts result in missed dramatic opportunities. For a director who underscores the structural and thematic relations between the Capulets' ball and the duels, as well as between the balcony scene and the deaths of the lovers, for example, it was a remarkable oversight to omit Shakespeare's striking transition from the Capulets' festive wedding preparations to mourning and funeral preparations when Juliet is found dead.

Many have complained that Zeffirelli's ornate brand of realism is inappropriate to tragedy. Certainly one would not like to see King Lear in his style. Yet in view of the strong elements of romantic comedy in the first half of Romeo and Juliet, the bright colors, constant movement, and rich detail seem true to the original. And often Zeffirelli foreshadows the darker, bleaker moments to come by cutting across this festive style: when Mercutio is bellowing in the empty square bathed in eerie blue light, when Juliet pauses in the shadows of Capulet's courtyard, and when Romeo is pursued along a dark, tunnellike street. The dust and stone of the hot town square contrasts with the warm, colorful interiors, and the imprisoning walls and mazelike streets symbolizing centuries of tradition and a social system hardened against change underscore the central theme of this and Castellani's film—“youth against a hostile society.”12

Most important, the style of the film changes radically after the death of Mercutio; it is drained of its busy look and festive colors. Juliet's room dominated by whites, the somber tones of Friar Laurence's cell, the dark of Capulet's house, the subdued funeral for Juliet, Romeo's shadowy house in exile, the Capulets' tomb, and the desolate wind-blown square filled with mourners in black—all these serve to erase the festivity and effectively embody Shakespeare's shift in tone. And Zeffirelli not only shows his protagonists imprisoned in colorlessness and stone, he shows them imprisoned in a pattern of events. Visually, he emphasizes the symmetry of the escalating conflicts from the opening brawl to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Three times the Montagues and Capulets come before the Prince, and three times he chastizes them, but only the last time, when the cost has been great enough, do the families see that they are destroying themselves by allowing the feud to continue. The love which blossomed in a garden withers in a tomb. The shrouded city becomes a tomb. As in Throne of Blood, the artistic patterning which provides the work with coherence and meaning becomes an embodiment of Fate which enmeshes the principal characters.

Some films of Shakespeare's tragedies end with a close-up of the face of the hero (Richardson's Hamlet, Brook's King Lear, Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar), placing emphasis upon the individual fall. Some conclude with a movement outward or upward, the society being involved in a final ritual (Welles's Othello, Olivier's Hamlet, Kozintsev's Hamlet). Some are circular (Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Welles's Macbeth, Polanski's Macbeth), stressing the continuing power of the pattern. Zeffirelli's conclusion is a blend of the latter two. In the end the rituals of love and death merge. The bells which continually remind us of passing time, and celebrate the wedding, now become funeral bells. The Montagues and the Capulets, who streamed twice before into the square in parallel linear movements, now form a single procession as they bear Romeo and Juliet to be buried in their wedding garments. All the people we care about are dead, and with them have gone spontaneity, energy, and innocence. The silence in the sunlit square is broken only by the tolling bell, muffled footsteps on the stones, and the whistling wind. Compositions are rigidly symmetrical as the families gather on the steps of the church. The chaos of the brawls has been replaced by order, but it is a dead order. The camera picks out somber faces (especially the Nurse's), which reflect guilt, recognition, a sense of loss. Then emphasis shifts to the Prince and the Shakespearean theme of “responsibility learnt in adversity.”13 In the sole outburst of passion, the Prince's formal pronouncement, “all are punished,” becomes a howl of rage and pain, “All are punished!”

As the two families file through the cathedral door toward the camera and the credits pass over the screen, there are gestures of consolement and reconciliation. The feud is over. But when they have all filed past, and the credits are through, the camera holds on the castellated wall towering over Verona's empty square, echoing the second shot of the film and providing a final symbol of division, war, imprisonment, continuity with the past. If this conflict has ended, conflict itself has not.

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is in most ways superior to the films by Cukor (1936) and Castellani (1954). It has energy, humor, and life where the others do not. No one would be tempted to say of it, as George Bernard Shaw said of Forbes-Robertson's production in 1895, that “the duel scene has none of the murderous excitement which is the whole dramatic point of it.”14 It avoids the static, ornate prettiness of the studio sets of the 1936 film, yet despite some excesses, never becomes a distractingly beautiful travelogue of Renaissance Italy the way the 1954 film often does. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are credible and likeable lovers as Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer or Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall are not.

However, one may like the film for all its action, emotional power, and sense of theme and structure and still be aware that this Romeo and Juliet, transforming tragedy into a story of sentiment and pathos, is a less mature work than Shakespeare's. It is not merely that the hero and heroine do not ripen in understanding. It is that their deaths are conceived too simply. The sorrow, the sense of loss, the sexual overtones of “death” are present at the end, but the insight and defiant anger are missing. Neither Romeo nor Juliet senses the larger pattern. They never see what a corrupt and flawed world it is that they are leaving, never give any indication that they know how they contributed to their own downfall, and never understand that love of such intensity not only cannot last but is self-destructive. Sorrow at losing each other is not coming to terms with life or death. The clear-sighted calm and sense of inevitability with which Shakespeare's tragic hero and heroine greet their end have disappeared.


  1. John Simon, Movies into Film (New York, 1970), p. 107.

  2. “Shakespeare on the Screen,” Times Literary Supplement (London), Sept. 26, 1968, p. 1082.

  3. Franco Zeffirelli in Directors on Directing, ed. Toby Cole and Helen Crich Chinoy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), p. 440.

  4. Ibid., p. 439.

  5. Louis Gianetti, Understanding Movies (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 154.

  6. Albert R. Cirillo, “The Art of Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet,TriQuarterly 16 (Fall 1969), 81.

  7. Zeffirelli, in Directors on Directing, p. 440.

  8. Cirillo, “The Art …,” p. 82.

  9. Ibid., p. 87.

  10. Pauline Kael, Going Steady (New York: Bantam, 1971), p. 189.

  11. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (New York: St. Martin's, 1967), p. 168.

  12. Paul Jorgensen, “Castellani's Romeo and Juliet: Intention and Response,” Film Quarterly 10 (1955), 1.

  13. Brown, Shakespeare's Plays …, p. 176.

  14. Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York: Dutton, 1961), p. 179.

Harry Levin (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Levin, Harry. “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 1 (Winter 1960): 3-11.

[In the essay below, Levin examines the style and form of Romeo and Juliet, and contends that the play is an elaborate and innovative experiment in romantic comedy.]

“Fain would I dwell on form—”, says Juliet from her window to Romeo in the moonlit orchard below,

Fain would I dwell on form—fain, fain deny
What I have spoke; but farewell compliment!

(II. ii. 88-89)1

Romeo has just violated convention, dramatic and otherwise, by overhearing what Juliet intended to be a soliloquy. Her cousin, Tybalt, had already committed a similar breach of social and theatrical decorum in the scene at the Capulets' feast, where he had also recognized Romeo's voice to be that of a Montague. There, when the lovers first met, the dialogue of their meeting had been formalized into a sonnet, acting out the conceit of his lips as pilgrims, her hand as a shrine, and his kiss as a culminating piece of stage-business, with an encore after an additional quatrain: “You kiss by th' book” (I. v. 112). Neither had known the identity of the other; and each, upon finding it out, responded with an ominous exclamation coupling love and death (120, 140). The formality of their encounter was framed by the ceremonious character of the scene, with its dancers, its masquers, and—except for Tybalt's stifled outburst—its air of old-fashioned hospitality. “We'll measure them a measure”, Benvolio had proposed; but Romeo, unwilling to join the dance, had resolved to be an onlooker and carry a torch (I. iv. 10). That torch may have burned symbolically, but not for Juliet; indeed, as we are inclined to forget with Romeo, he attended the feast in order to see the dazzling but soon eclipsed Rosaline. Rosaline's prior effect upon him is all that we ever learn about her; yet it has been enough to make Romeo, when he was presented to us, a virtual stereotype of the romantic lover. As such, he has protested a good deal too much in his preliminary speeches, utilizing the conventional phrases and standardized images of Elizabethan eroticism, bandying generalizations, paradoxes, and sestets with Benvolio, and taking a quasi-religious vow which his introduction to Juliet would ironically break (I. ii. 92-97). Afterward this role has been reduced to absurdity by the humorous man, Mercutio, in a mock-conjuration evoking Venus and Cupid and the inevitable jingle of “love” and “dove” (II. i. 10). The scene that follows is actually a continuation, marked in neither the Folios nor the Quartos, and linked with what has gone before by a somewhat eroded rhyme.

                                                                                                                        'Tis in vain
To seek him here that means not to be found,

Benvolio concludes in the absence of Romeo (41, 42). Whereupon the latter, on the other side of the wall, chimes in:

He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

(II. ii. 1)

Thus we stay behind, with Romeo, when the masquers depart. Juliet, appearing at the window, does not hear his descriptive invocation. Her first utterance is the very sigh that Mercutio burlesqued in the foregoing scene: “Ay, me!” (II. ii. 25). Then, believing herself to be alone and masked by the darkness, she speaks her mind in sincerity and simplicity. She 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. When Romeo takes her at her word and answers, she is startled and even alarmed for his sake; but she does not revert to courtly language.

I would not for the world they saw thee here,

she tells him, and her monosyllabic directness inspires the matching cadence of his response:

And but thou love me, let them find me here.

(77, 79)

She pays incidental tribute to the proprieties with her passing suggestion that, had he not overheard her, she would have dwelt on form, pretended to be more distant, and played the not impossible part of the captious beloved. But farewell compliment! Romeo's love for Juliet will have an immediacy which cuts straight through the verbal embellishment that has obscured his infatuation with Rosaline. That shadowy creature, having served her Dulcinea-like purpose, may well be forgotten. On the other hand, Romeo has his more tangible foil in the person of the County Paris, who is cast in that ungrateful part which the Italians call terzo incòmodo, the inconvenient third party, the unwelcome member of an amorous triangle. As the official suitor of Juliet, his speeches are always formal, and often sound stilted or priggish by contrast with Romeo's. Long after Romeo has abandoned his sonneteering, Paris will pronounce a sestet at Juliet's tomb (V. iii. 11-16). During their only colloquy, which occurs in Friar Laurence's cell, Juliet takes on the sophisticated tone of Paris, denying his claims and disclaiming his compliments in brisk stichomythy. As soon as he leaves, she turns to the Friar, and again—as so often in intimate moments—her lines fall into monosyllables:

O, shut the door! and when thou hast done so,
Come weep with me—past hope, past cure, past help!

(IV. i. 44-45)

Since the suit of Paris is the main subject of her conversations with her parents, she can hardly be sincere with them. Even before she met Romeo, her consent was hedged in prim phraseology:

I'll look to like, if looking liking move.

(I. iii. 97)

And after her involvement she becomes adept in the strategems of mental reservation, giving her mother equivocal rejoinders and rousing her father's anger by chopping logic (III. v. 60-205). Despite the intervention of the Nurse on her behalf, her one straightforward plea is disregarded. Significantly Lady Capulet, broaching the theme of Paris in stiffly appropriate couplets, has compared his face to a volume:2

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride
The fair without the fair within to hide.


That bookish comparison, by emphasizing the letter at the expense of the spirit, helps to lend Paris an aspect of unreality; to the Nurse, more ingenuously, he is “a man of wax” (76). Later Juliet will echo Lady Capulet's metaphor, transferring it from Paris to Romeo:

Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound?


Here, on having learned that Romeo has just slain Tybalt, she is undergoing a crisis of doubt, a typically Shakespearian recognition of the difference between appearance and reality. The fair without may not cover a fair within, after all. Her unjustified accusations, leading up to her rhetorical question, form a sequence of oxymoronic epithets: “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical, … honorable villain!” (75-79) W. H. Auden, in a recent comment on these lines, cannot believe they would come from a heroine who had been exclaiming shortly before: “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds … !” Yet Shakespeare has been perfectly consistent in suiting changes of style to changes of mood. When Juliet feels at one with Romeo, her intonations are genuine; when she feels at odds with him, they should be unconvincing. The attraction of love is played off against the revulsion from books, and coupled with the closely related themes of youth and haste, in one of Romeo's long-drawn-out leavetakings:

Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books;
But love from love, towards school with heavy looks.


The school for these young lovers will be tragic experience. When Romeo, assuming that Juliet is dead and contemplating his own death, recognizes the corpse of Paris, he will extend the image to cover them both:

                                                                                          O give me thy hand,
One writ with me in sour misfortune's book!


It was this recoil from bookishness, together with the farewell to compliment, that animated Love's Labour's Lost, where literary artifice was so ingeniously deployed against itself, and Berowne was taught—by an actual heroine named Rosaline—that the best books were women's eyes. Some of Shakespeare's other early comedies came even closer to adumbrating certain features of Romeo and Juliet: notably, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with its locale, its window scene, its friar and rope, its betrothal and banishment, its emphasis upon the vagaries of love. Shakespeare's sonnets and erotic poems had won for him the reputation of an English Ovid. Romeo and Juliet, the most elaborate product of his so-called lyrical period, was his first successful experiment in tragedy.4 Because of that very success, it is hard for us to realize the full extent of its novelty, though scholarship has lately been reminding us of how it must have struck contemporaries.5 They would have been surprised, and possibly shocked, at seeing lovers taken so seriously. Legend, it had been heretofore taken for granted, was the proper matter for serious drama; romance was the stuff of the comic stage. Romantic tragedy—“an excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet”, to cite the title-page of the First Quarto—was one of those contradictions in terms which Shakespeare seems to have delighted in resolving. His innovation might be described as transcending the usages of romantic comedy, which are therefore very much in evidence, particularly at the beginning. Subsequently, the leading characters acquire together a deeper dimension of feeling by expressly repudiating the artificial language they have talked and the superficial code they have lived by. Their formula might be that of the anti-Petrarchan sonnet:

Foole said My muse to mee, looke in thy heart and write.(6)

An index of this development is the incidence of rhyme, heavily concentrated in the First Act, and its gradual replacement by a blank verse which is realistic or didactic with other speakers and unprecedentedly limpid and passionate with the lovers. “Love has no need of euphony”, the eminent Russian translator of the play, Boris Pasternak, has commented. “Truth, not sound, dwells in its heart.”7

Comedy set the pattern of courtship, as formally embodied in a dance. The other genre of Shakespeare's earlier stagecraft, history, set the pattern of conflict, as formally embodied in a duel. Romeo and Juliet might also be characterized as an anti-revenge play, in which hostile emotions are finally pacified by the interplay of kindlier ones. Romeo sums it up in his prophetic oxymorons:

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!


And Paris, true to type, waxes grandiose in lamenting Juliet:

O love! O life! not life, but love in death!


Here, if we catch the echo from Hieronimo's lament in The Spanish Tragedy,

O life! no life, but lively form of death,

we may well note that the use of antithesis, which is purely decorative with Kyd, is functional with Shakespeare. The contrarieties of his plot are reinforced on the plane of imagery by omnipresent reminders of light and darkness,8 youth and age, and many other antitheses subsumed by the all-embracing one of Eros and Thanatos, the leitmotif of the Liebestod, the myth of the tryst in the tomb. This attraction of ultimate opposites—which is succinctly implicit in the Elizabethan ambiguity of the verb to die—is generalized when the Friar rhymes “womb” with “tomb”, and particularized when Romeo hails the latter place as “thou womb of death” (I.iii.9, 10; V.iii.45). Hence the “extremities” of the situation, as the Prologue to the Second Act announces, are tempered “with extreme sweet” (14). Those extremes begin to meet as soon as the initial prologue, in a sonnet disarmingly smooth, has set forth the feud between the two households, “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (4). Elegant verse yields to vulgar prose, and to an immediate riot, as the servants precipitate a renewal—for the third time—of their masters' quarrel. The brawl of Act I is renewed again in the contretemps of Act III and completed by the swordplay of Act V. Between the street-scenes, with their clashing welter of citizens and officers, we shuttle through a series of interiors, in a flurry of domestic arrangements and family relationships. The house of the Capulets is the logical center of action, and Juliet's chamber its central sanctum. Consequently, the sphere of privacy encloses Acts II and IV, in contradistinction to the public issues raised by the alternating episodes. The temporal alternation of the play, in its accelerating continuity, is aptly recapitulated by the impatient rhythm of Capulet's speech:

                                                            Day, night, late, early,
At home, abroad, alone, in company,
Waking or sleeping …


The alignment of the dramatis personae is as symmetrical as the antagonism they personify. It is not without relevance that the names of the feuding families, like the Christian names of the hero and heroine, are metrically interchangeable (though “Juliet” is more frequently a trochee than an amphimacer). Tybalt the Capulet is pitted against Benvolio the Montague in the first street-fight, which brings out—with parallel stage-directions—the heads of both houses restrained by respective wives. Both the hero and heroine are paired with others, Rosaline and Paris, and admonished by elderly confidants, the Friar and the Nurse. Escalus, as Prince of Verona, occupies a superior and neutral position; yet, in the interchange of blood for blood, he loses “a brace of kinsman”, Paris and Mercutio (V.iii.295). Three times he must quell and sentence the rioters before he can pronounce the final sestet, restoring order to the city-state through the lovers' sacrifice. He effects the resolution by summoning the patriarchal enemies, from their opposite sides, to be reconciled. “Capulet, Montague,” he sternly arraigns them, and the polysyllables are brought home by monosyllabics:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.


The two-sided counterpoise of the dramatic structure is well matched by the dynamic symmetry of the antithetical style. One of its peculiarities, which surprisingly seems to have escaped the attention of commentators, is a habit of stressing a word by repeating it within a line, a figure which may be classified in rhetoric as a kind of ploce. I have cited a few examples incidentally; let me now underline the device by pointing out a few more. Thus Montague and Capulet are accused of forcing their parties

To wield old partisans in hands as old,
Cank'red with peace, to part your cank'red hate.

(I.i.100, 102)

This double instance, along with the wordplay on “cank'red,” suggests the embattled atmosphere of partisanship through the halberds; and it is further emphasized in Benvolio's account of the fray:

Came more and more, and fought on part and part.


The key-words are not only doubled but affectionately intertwined, when Romeo confides to the Friar:

As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine.


Again, he conveys the idea of reciprocity by declaring that Juliet returns “grace for grace and love for love” (86). The Friar's warning hints at poetic justice:

These violent delights have violent ends.


Similarly Mercutio, challenged by Tybalt, turns “point to point”, and the Nurse finds Juliet—in antimetabole—“Blubb'ring and weeping, weeping and blubbering” (III.ii.165; iii.87). Statistics would prove illusory, because some repetitions are simply idiomatic, grammatical, or—in the case of old Capulet or the Nurse—colloquial. But it is significant that the play contains well over a hundred such lines, the largest number being in the First Act and scarcely any left over for the Fifth.

The significance of this tendency toward reduplication, both stylistic and structural, can perhaps be best understood in the light of Bergson's well-known theory of the comic: the imposition of geometrical form upon the living data of formless consciousness. The stylization of love, the constant pairing and counterbalancing, the quid pro quo of Capulet and Montague, seem mechanical and unnatural. Nature has other proponents besides the lovers, especially Mercutio their fellow victim, who bequeathes his curse to both their houses. His is likewise an ironic end, since he has been as much a satirist of “the new form” and Tybalt's punctilio in duelling “by the book of arithmetic” as of “the numbers that Petrarch flowed in” and Romeo's affectations of gallantry (II.iv.34, 38; III.i.104). Mercutio's interpretation of dreams, running counter to Romeo's premonitions, is naturalistic, not to say Freudian; Queen Mab operates through fantasies of wish-fulfilment, bringing love to lovers, fees to lawyers, and tithe-pigs to parsons; the moral is that desires can be mischievous. In his repartee with Romeo, Mercutio looks forward to their fencing with Tybalt; furthermore he charges the air with bawdy suggestions that—in spite of the limitations of Shakespeare's theatre, its lacks of actresses and absence of close-ups—love may have something to do with sex, if not with lust, with the physical complementarity of male and female.9 He is abetted, in that respect, by the malapropistic garrulity of the Nurse, Angelica, who is naturally bound to Juliet through having been her wet-nurse, and who has lost the infant daughter that might have been Juliet's age. None the less, her crotchety hesitations are contrasted with Juliet's youthful ardors when the Nurse acts as go-between for Romeo. His counsellor, Friar Laurence, makes a measured entrance with his sententious couplets on the uses and abuses of natural properties, the medicinal and poisonous effects of plants:

For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.

(II.iii.25, 26)

His watchword is “Wisely and slow”, yet he contributes to the grief at the sepulcher by ignoring his own advice, “They stumble that run fast” (94).10 When Romeo upbraids him monosyllabically,

Thou canst not speak of that thou doest not feel,

it is the age-old dilemma that separates the generations: Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait (III.iii.64). Banished to Mantua, Romeo has illicit recourse to the Apothecary, whose shop—envisaged with Flemish precision—unhappily replaces the Friar's cell, and whose poison is the sinister counterpart of Laurence's potion.

Against this insistence upon polarity, at every level, the mutuality of the lovers stands out, the one organic relation amid an overplus of stylized expressions and attitudes. The naturalness of their diction is artfully gained, as we have noticed, through a running critique of artificiality. In drawing a curtain over the consummation of their love, Shakespeare heralds it with a prothalamium and follows it with an epithalamium. Juliet's “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds”, reversing the Ovidian “lente currite, noctis equi”, is spoken “alone” but in breathless anticipation of a companion (III.ii.1). After having besought the day to end, the sequel to her solo is the duet in which she begs the night to continue. In the ensuing débat of the nightingale and the lark, a refinement upon the antiphonal song of the owl and the cuckoo in Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo more realistically discerns “the herald of the morn” (III.v.6). When Juliet reluctantly agrees, “More light and light it grows”, he completes the paradox with a doubly reduplicating line:

More light and light—more dark and dark our woes!

(35, 36)

The precariousness of their union, formulated arithmetically by the Friar as “two in one” (, is brought out by the terrible loneliness of Juliet's monologue upon taking the potion:

My dismal scene I needs must act alone.


Her utter singleness, as an only child, is stressed by her father and mourned by her mother:

But one, poor one, one poor and loving child.


Tragedy tends to isolate where comedy brings together, to reveal the uniqueness of individuals rather than what they have in common with others. Asking for Romeo's profession of love, Juliet anticipates: “I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’” (II.ii.90). That monosyllable of glad assent was the first she ever spoke, as we know from the Nurse's childish anecdote (I.iii.48). Later, asking the Nurse whether Romeo has been killed, Juliet pauses self-consciously over the pun between “Ay” and “I” or “eye”:

                                                                                          Say thou but ‘I,’
And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I, if there be such an ‘I’;
Or those eyes shut that make thee answer ‘I.’
If he be slain, say ‘I’; or if not, ‘no.’
Brief sounds determine of my weal or woe.


Her identification with him is negated by death, conceived as a shut or poisoning eye, which throws the pair back upon their single selves. Each of them dies alone—or, at all events, in the belief that the other lies dead, and without the benefit of a recognition-scene. Juliet, of course, is still alive; but she has already voiced her death-speech in the potion scene. With the dagger, her last words, though richly symbolic, are brief and monosyllabic:

This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.


The sense of vicissitude is re-enacted through various gestures of staging; Romeo and Juliet experience their exaltation “aloft” on the upper stage; his descent via the rope is, as she fears, toward the tomb (III.v.56).11 The antonymous adverbs up and down figure, with increasing prominence, among the brief sounds that determine Juliet's woe (e.g., V.ii.209-210). The overriding pattern through which she and Romeo have been trying to break—call it Fortune, the stars, or what you will—ends by closing in and breaking them; their private world disappears, and we are left in the social ambiance again. Capulet's house has been bustling with preparations for a wedding, the happy ending of comedy. The news of Juliet's death is not yet tragic because it is premature; but it introduces a peripety which will become the starting point for Hamlet.

All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral—

the old man cries, and his litany of contraries is not less poignant because he has been so fond of playing the genial host:

Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast;
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change;
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse;
And all things change them to the contrary.


His lamentation, in which he is joined by his wife, the Nurse, and Paris, reasserts the formalities by means of what is virtually an operatic quartet. Thereupon the music becomes explicit, when they leave the stage to the Musicians, who have walked on with the County Paris. Normally these three might play during the entr'acte, but Shakespeare has woven them into the dialogue terminating the Fourth Act.12 Though their art has the power of soothing the passions and thereby redressing grief, as the comic servant Peter reminds them with a quotation from Richard Edward's lyric In Commendacion of Musicke, he persists in his query: “Why ‘silver sound’?” (131) Their answers are those of mere hirelings, who can indifferently change their tune from a merry dump to a doleful one, so long as they are paid with coin of the realm. Yet Peter's riddle touches a deeper chord of correspondence, the interconnection between discord and harmony, between impulse and discipline. “Consort”, which can denote a concert or a companionship, can become the fighting word that motivates the unharmonious pricksong of the duellists (III.i.48). The “sweet division” of the lark sounds harsh and out of tune to Juliet, since it proclaims that the lovers must be divided (v.29). Why “silver sound”? Because Romeo, in the orchard, has sworn by the moon

That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops.


Because Shakespeare, transposing sights and sounds into words, has made us imagine

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



  1. Line-references are to the separate edition of G. L. Kittredge's text (Boston, 1940).

  2. On the long and rich history of this trope, see the sixteenth chapter of E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953).

  3. In the paper-bound Laurel Shakespeare, ed. Francis Fergusson (New York, 1958), p. 26.

  4. H. B. Charlton, in his British Academy lecture for 1939, “Romeo and Julietas an Experimental Tragedy, has considered the experiment in the light of Renaissance critical theory.

  5. Especially F. M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino, 1957), pp. 63-88.

  6. Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1922), p. 243.

  7. Boris Pasternak, “Translating Shakespeare”, tr. Manya Harari, The Twentieth Century, CLXIV, 979 (September, 1958), p. 217.

  8. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (New York, 1936), pp. 310-316.

  9. Coleridge's persistent defense of Shakespeare against the charge of gross language does more credit to that critic's high-mindedness than to his discernment. The concentrated ribaldry of the gallants in the street (II.iv) is deliberately contrasted with the previous exchange between the lovers in the orchards (1-135).

  10. This is the leading theme of the play, in the interpretation of Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Themes and Characters (New York, 1956), pp. 10-25.

  11. One of the more recent and pertinent discussions of staging is that of Richard Hosley, “The Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare Quarterly, V, 4 ([Autumn, 1-137], 1954), 371-379.

  12. Professor F. T. Bowers reminds me that inter-act music was probably not a regular feature of public performance when Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Some early evidence for it has been gathered by T. S. Graves in “The Act-Time in Elizabethan Theatres”, Studies in Philology, XII, 3 (July, 1915), 120-124—notably contemporary sound cues, written into a copy of the Second Quarto and cited by Malone. But if—as seems likely—such practices were exceptional, then Shakespeare was innovating all the farther.

Thomas Moisan (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Moisan, Thomas. “‘O Any Thing, of Nothing First Create!’: Gender and Patriarchy and the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 113-36. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.

[In the essay that follows, Moisan maintains that an in-depth study of the way in which Romeo and Juliet depicts gender reveals the tragic forces at work in the play. The critic also highlights the play's shortcomings as a tragedy.]


“Somehow or in some respects,” H. B. Charlton ever so inclusively suggested, “Romeo and Juliet fails to fulfill the function of tragedy, or rather it gives less of the pleasure peculiar to tragedy than do Shakespeare's greater tragic plays.”1 Although something less than succinct, Charlton's remark aptly reflects what had been oft said, more oft presumed: that Romeo and Juliet, an “early” play, either is not a tragedy or is less tragic than tragedies ought to be or than Shakespeare's later, “greater” tragedies are. All in all, for a tragedy, its protagonists were thought too young, too slight, its action too adventitious, too conspicuously dependent upon bad luck and poor timing, and the feelings produced by its denouement more akin to the pity of pathos than to the pity and fear Aristotle had prescribed.2 Indeed, even as critics have grown less inclined to dismiss the play a priori as a specimen of Shakespeare's dramaturgical adolescence, the structural elements of Romeo and Juliet have made it inviting to diagnose, not as failed tragedy, but as failed comedy, as a piece of “tragicall mirth” and the dark obverse of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Romeo and Juliet themselves but the “quick bright things come to confusion” elegized, and almost emulated, by Lysander and Hermia (I.i.132-49),3 variants, if poetically enriched and psychologically complex variants, of the Pyramus and Thisbe inadvertently travestied by Bottom and his fellow “rude mechanicals.”4

Nor are these concerns mere quibbling over generic labels. Rather, embedded in the sense that Romeo and Juliet is either a tragedy fallen short or a comedy gone awry lies a deeper uncertainty over what the play centrally transacts and how we are to respond to it, or how, for that matter, its contemporary audiences may have been expected to respond. This uncertainty is mirrored in the unresolved questions we have about the relationship of the play to its immediate source, Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, and, beyond that, to the literary tradition of “amatory misadventure” to which both Shakespeare's play and Brooke's poem are heir. That Romeo and Juliet is differentiated from its narrative antecedents through its poetic intensity and dramatic particularity is a commonplace; that it is differentiated from them in such a way as to stand as something other than, more than, just another in a series of love's “piteous overthrows” is less clear. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet may be perceived to “fail,” curiously, not simply in recalling its sources, but in giving promise of transcending its sources only to recall them, differentiating and distancing itself from the “woful” literary tradition in which it is inscribed only, ultimately, to reinscribe itself in that tradition.

I recite these problems here, not as diversions from a discussion of gender in the play, but as issues I believe such a discussion can help us address. In what is to follow I would argue that an analysis of the representation of gender in Romeo and Juliet illuminates the forces that at once define its tragedy and yet render our experience of it problematic. In the process, we come to see the “difficulties” Romeo and Juliet poses as evidence, less of its “earliness,” than of a delicate, perhaps precarious, accommodation it negotiates both with the textual tradition of which it is a part—and from which it pretends to stand apart—and with the ideological concerns and anxieties of its audience. What results, I would suggest, is a work that embodies and holds in tension impulses both subversive and recuperative: in giving dramatic shape to a vision of gender and sexuality threateningly impervious to the patriarchalist prescriptions of gender allegorized in literary tradition and reified in Verona, the play frames and, literally, contextualizes this vision in such a way as to cover up what Jonathan Goldberg would call the “slippages” in the patriarchalist order its dramatic action has dis-closed.5 A play that represents gender, not only as a signature of patriarchalist control, but as an instrument of patriarchalist repression and evasion of what it cannot control, Romeo and Juliet exposes this sublimation and the vulnerability it masks only, it might seem, to engage in sublimation of its own in the degree to which it permits us to regard the story it has presented as but Pyramus and Thisbe re-presented, and its tragedy merely one more tale of “misadventur'd,” “death-mark'd” love piteously and fearfully overthrown.


That the prescriptions of gender in patriarchalist Verona have much to do with making the “passage” of Romeo and Juliet's love “fearful” and “death-mark'd” is a thesis that has been convincingly argued in recent studies by Irene Dash and Coppélia Kahn. Though their emphases are complementary, both critics take the play as a drama of, to recall the very title of Kahn's essay, “coming of age,” with Romeo and Juliet the embodiments of the need adolescents have to differentiate themselves, and their sense of “self,” from the sense of self imposed by culture and society, in this case the patriarchalist culture and society of Verona. For both Dash and Kahn “tragedy” for Juliet and her Romeo is ineluctable once their pursuit of “self” leads them to each other and into conflict with the duties exacted of them as female Capulet and male Montague. If for Dash the locus for the “ultimate tragedy” lies in the conflict between Juliet's obligations as daughter and her awakening desires as a woman,6 for Kahn, the tragic catalyst, “the primary tragic force in the play,” in fact, is the feud, the feud which Romeo may strive to avoid, but in which, as a male “coming of age,” he must participate, a feud which Kahn identifies, therefore, not as a theatrical contrivance or the designated “agent of fate,” but “as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society.”7

Acutely attentive to the workings in Romeo and Juliet of forces psychological and anthropological, both studies adroitly isolate gender in the play as but the accessory to a destructive and self-destructive patriarchy, an instrument of patriarchal control at best indifferent, and finally inimical, to the aspirations of love. Worth noting here, though, is the degree to which both discussions read against the rhetorical grain and, thus, leave un- or understated the sense mediated by the rhetorical and dramatic structure of the play that love is not only the victim of the patriarchal order of Verona, but also a threat to it, and that a “destructive element” inheres, not only in the patriarchalist prescriptions of gender, but in the very experience of love itself. As has frequently been observed, after all, in Romeo and Juliet the final coupling of eros and thanatos in the Capulets' tomb seems the ultimate expression, not simply of the cruel caprices of chance and plot, but of a symbiosis invoked repeatedly throughout the play; or, as Madelon Gohlke has put it, “Read metaphorically,” the plot of Romeo and Juliet “validates the perception expressed variously in the play that love kills.”8 Love kills, and killingly embraces, not just “star-cross'd lovers” who have sought release from the sphere of patriarchal authority, but figures happily ensconced within that orb who happen to get in love's way. Hence, Mercutio, kinsman to Prince Escalus and icon of phallogocentrism, dies, at the hands, to be sure, of the furious, fiery, and feuding Tybalt, but, “under the arm,” as the stage directions for the First Quarto note,9 of the loving Romeo; similarly, Paris, yet another kinsman to the Prince and the patriarchal suitor of choice to Juliet, dies answering the call of his own love and a casualty of the loving Romeo's “dateless bargain to engrossing death” (V.iii.115). Indeed, as the deaths of Mercutio and Paris suggest, though we may with Kahn take the feud to be the tragic catalyst and a “deadly rite de passage” hostile to love and inimical to life,10 the language and action of Romeo and Juliet invite us to see less an opposition between love and the feud than a parallel: alike in their violence and spontaneity, and comparably responsive only to the passions that feed them, they are forces insusceptible to patriarchal control, beyond the powers of Capulet or Montague, or Friar Lawrence or Escalus, to comprehend or quell—each, in short, symptomatic of the “rude will” Friar Lawrence locates at the heart of all experience, in uneasy juxtaposition with its antonym and co-occupant, “grace” (II.iii.27-28).

Here, though, we can see more plainly both the tensions from which Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy and the peculiarly contrapuntal accommodation it reaches with the anxieties and concerns of its age—and, perhaps, ours as well. On the one hand, in giving dramatic life to—and eliciting sympathy for—a love and lovers in conflict with the decorums of a patriarchal society, Romeo and Juliet might be said merely to reify onstage the more liberal notions regarding love and marriage that had gained currency, as various commentators have suggested, among its audience.11 On the other hand, the play very much complicates a response to that love and evokes the darkest patriarchalist fears of sexuality in the degree to which it invites us to see in Romeo and Juliet's passion an annihilative force aligned with death and the deadly feud, the latter of which an Elizabethan audience would have found a particularly potent reminder of the civil unrest and public misrule it was continually schooled to fear and suppress.12 Again, it is precisely this destructive potential in Romeo and Juliet's love that the grammar of the play seems to evoke only to circumscribe by permitting us to think of it as merely one more sad story of unlucky love. And, curiously, we become more fully complicit in this process of circumscription the more exclusively we either read the play as a fable of patriarchalist suppression or anoint the feud as its “primary tragic force.” For while such readings effectively underscore the destructiveness of patriarchal prescriptions, they simultaneously ratify the fact of patriarchal control and overlook the degree to which that control is very much questioned by the annihilative power, and effects, of Romeo and Juliet's passion. We feel this questioning most keenly at the end of the play when, echoes of Pyramus and Thisbe notwithstanding, we are left with the sense that the questions about Romeo and Juliet that Escalus would like to settle may well go unresolved, and that the love of Romeo and Juliet may be as much beyond the power of patriarchal Verona to inscribe after their death as it had been to deny during their life. Indeed, we can discern the traces of this subversive potential—and the interpretive complexities the play poses—to this day, in the recurrent fears that Romeo and Juliet, a staple of the secondary school literature class, is “soft” on teen sex or suicide or drugs, or all three. There again, there may be no small irony in the possibility that apologists who have striven to preserve the textual integrity of the play, and its place in the classroom, have done so only by engaging in some latter-day recuperation of their own by insisting that Romeo and Juliet is not subversive of authority and, really, encourages neither teen sex nor suicide nor drugs!13


To examine the role accorded “gender” in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet more finely, however, it might be best to consider the respect in which the play is most often deemed to be “tragically” deficient, and that is in its representation of tragic character, and especially, the characters of its eponymous protagonists, who lack, it has been thought, sufficient “depth” and “complexity” to be the stuff of tragic heroes and heroines. To read Romeo and Juliet for its representation of gender, of course, invites us to rethink what we mean by “character” and hear its various inflections as but the voicing of and response to the values and codes that shape the play as a patriarchalist mythos. In adapting his principal source, Brooke's poem, Shakespeare sharpened the patriarchalist outlines of the fable, we know, by accentuating from the outset—from the opening Prologue, in fact—the identities of Romeo and Juliet, not simply as young lovers, but as children, taken directly to their “star-cross'd” loves and their deaths “From forth the fatal loins” of the warring Capulets and Montagues (1 Prologue 5-6). When, in turn, Romeo makes his first appearance he arrives as the object of his parents' concern (I.i.116-55), and when Juliet makes hers she appears quite literally in-fantine in getting to say very little in a conversation of which she and her immediate future are very much the subjects (I.iii.1-99).

At a glance, therefore, Romeo and Juliet presents itself as a patriarchal fable in which gender and character figure initially only to distinguish the terms that define the protagonists' relationships to their families as male child and female child. Indeed, to concentrate for the moment upon Juliet, it has often been noted that in the passage from Brooke's poem to Shakespeare's play Juliet's age drops by two years, and—whatever the intention behind the change14—its effects are very much to heighten our sense of Juliet as childlike and to italicize the issue of patriarchal power: the power Juliet does not have to choose her own husband or reject the husband chosen for her; the power Capulet does have to force his daughter into a marriage against her will and at an age which, by his own estimation, is a bit young (I.ii.7-11), and which, by Lawrence Stone's reckonings, at least, is younger than was the norm in the late sixteenth century;15 the power Capulet has, for that matter, as Irene Dash has argued, to employ the other women of the household, Lady Capulet and the Nurse, as extensions of his authority in enforcing his will upon Juliet.16

Readings of Romeo and Juliet that assign the onus of accountability for its sad proceedings to the rival patriarchs, visiting plagues o'both houses, find it especially appealing to view the young lovers as victims, as innocents, while making it especially difficult, of course, to find in them the hints of depth, not to mention Aristotelian “flaws,” that would entitle them to at least the designation of tragic characters. Descriptions of Juliet's characterization in particular, as one might expect, have often adhered to mimetically naturalistic paradigms of character that see in Juliet, simply, Shakespeare's attempt to portray a “young girl.” We see this mimeticism at work in Dash's analysis of Juliet in the terms of feminine adolescent development, and we see, alas, a rather less refined example of it in the “old” New Variorum Edition of the play (1871), where Juliet's language is said at one point to bespeak “a nature rendered timid by stinted intercourse with her kind,” and where Shakespeare is praised for the art through which “the Italian-born-and-bred Juliet is made … to speak and act with wonderful truth to her southern self.”17

Resisting the urge to add the qualification that Verona is, after all, in northern Italy, and laying aside the difficulty of imagining how exactly “Italian-born-and-bred” girls barely fourteen years of age may have spoken and acted in Shakespeare's time, what we hear in this remark is but an extreme example of what may be inherent in any attempt to account for Juliet by situating her within a fixed paradigm of “girlhood,” be it ever less sentimentalized, “sexist,” anachronistic and ethnicist than the one invoked in the Variorum. For efforts to “place” Juliet in this way mirror and reinscribe the efforts within the play by Juliet's family to bring her behavior into line with the going norms of femininity, and, in displacing the patriarchalist prescriptions of the Capulets for less restrictive descriptions, nonetheless run the risk of missing the special complexity of Juliet's character, which defines itself in its very resistance to, or evasion of, characterization.

Hints of this resistance or evasion are audible in the little Juliet does say—and, perhaps, for what she does not say—in that opening appearance in which she is informed of Paris's marriage proposal (I.iii). It is a scene in which Juliet's “youth” seems very much in evidence, and yet it is also a scene in which Juliet demonstrates the rhetorical canniness that enables the powerless to deflect the will of the powerful. The pointedly imperative formulations of Lady Capulet's pointedly rhetorical questions leave Juliet “free” either to accept marriage with Paris or not to reject it, and it is the latter that she chooses. To Lady Capulet's demand, “Tell me, daughter Juliet, / How stands your disposition to be married?” (64-65), Juliet's reply is the firmly equivocal, “It is an honor that I dream not of” (66); then, when her mother presses Juliet for a response to Paris's proposal, attaching to her blazon of Paris (81-94) the peremptory query, “Speak briefly, can you like of Paris' love?” (96), Juliet answers with the conditional, prettily camouflaged with some dollops of alliteration, polyptoton, and homoioptoton, “I'll look to like, if looking liking move” (97), and finishes her little speech with a rhyming couplet affirming the principle of filial obeisance, a principle which Lady Capulet can hardly claim she would not like to hear affirmed, but which she might on the whole have preferred to hear Juliet couple with a pledge to love Paris as much as her parents would like, rather than no more than they would permit:

But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.


In fact, only once does Juliet speak on her own initiative in the scene, and when she does it is to silence the recollection of her voice, and in particular the Nurse's reiterated recollection of the “Ay” Juliet's three-year-old voice gave to but a cruder version of the very question put to her by her mother:

‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and by my holidam,
The pretty wretch left crying and said, ‘Ay.’


With the aural association of “Ay” and “I” intoned in the Nurse's monologue, an association to which Juliet is not insensitive, the scene builds the suggestion that within the patriarchal world of Verona women define themselves, their “I,” in the very voicing by which they assent to their sexual role, be it merely the falling backward envisioned by the Nurse—and, perhaps, her late husband—or the falling into line with an arranged marriage of the sort Lady Capulet has in mind. Confronted with this notion of self, Juliet's initial response to the characterization her world would prescribe is to withhold her consent, muffling her voice in the rhetoric of evasiveness or silence: “And stint thou too, I pray thee, nurse, say I” (58).18

To a degree, what we learn of Juliet in her opening scene we can say of Romeo as well. In both we encounter figures whose characters are shaped at once by and in differentiation from the patriarchalist prescriptions for gender respectively imposed upon them as son and daughter, male and female. To see this, of course, is to gain a sense of what it is that defines them as tragic characters and yet makes their status as tragic figures so problematic. For on the one hand, their love for each other leads them into a state of tension with nothing less than their world, with its expectations and codes, with its authorities, and more fundamentally, with everything they have been conditioned—literally, versed, as we shall see—to believe they are, with everything that makes them, to recall Mercutio's formulation, “sociable,” what they are by art as well as by nature (II.iv.89-91), and in the degree to which we see them defined by their différence and by the irreconcilability of their love with what they are, we are more inclined to appreciate the dimensions of their particular case of amatory misadventure as tragic. On the other hand, to the extent to which the rhetorical and dramatic structure of the play reminds us that for all of their attempt to differentiate themselves Romeo and Juliet are still what they are, and are shaped by the patriarchalist prescriptions of Verona, and not only in differentiation from them, we sense an attempt within the play to diminish them as tragic characters and to limit the threat to the patriarchalist order that their genuine apostasy represents.

Within the world of Romeo and Juliet, of course, the constraints of gender and character by and against which the protagonists are defined impose themselves, not only in the rituals, protocols, and expectations of patriarchalist Verona that govern the action of the play, but also in the tropes and topoi that permeate its language and remind us of the literary, textual tradition of “woful,” youthful love to which the play is, as it were, “bound.” When we first encounter Romeo, for example, we find him, for the moment, barely on the margin of his family's activities, conspicuously aloof and only passively curious about the latest bloodletting with the Capulets, but fully bound up, as many have noted, in the rhetoric of what Juliet Dusinberre has dubbed “the male cult of idolatry.”19 For Romeo all the world's not a stage, but fodder for oxymoronic tropes on his Rosaline-induced lovesickness, with the evidence of the just concluded street fighting but a reminder of the greater turmoil within his love-racked breast: “Here's much to do with hate, but more with love” (I.1.175). For Romeo, at least initially, loving is suffering, but suffering in which he literally contextualizes himself as one, “Not mad, but bound more than a madman is” (I.ii.54) and whose “reading” serves to inscribe “mine own fortune in my misery” (I.ii.58).

Now, it is inviting to assume that Romeo's insistent textualizing of love and self at the outset of the play is merely a device to illustrate the “artificiality” of the love he has experienced before Juliet, but the initial, and undernoted, effects of this pattern of reference are both to quicken our sense of the literary determinants of Romeo and Juliet's characters, reminding us that, to play again upon Mercutio's formulation, what Romeo and Juliet are they are by art as well as by nature, and to deepen our sense of the patriarchalist ethos out of which the work proceeds. For the repeated invocations of textuality effectively establish as the ground of the play, not simply the fable of unfortunate love in Verona, but a broader literary fabric of amatory misery, of which Brooke's poem and the “Romeo-Juliet” story in general represent but one strand, and the idioms of Petrarchan love to which Romeo is so obligingly enthralled another. One thread of this tapestry weaves the pattern exemplified by the sad cases, not only of Romeo and Juliet, but Pyramus and Thisbe and the roster of amatory unthrifts and “runaway” lovers so interestingly re-pealed by Lorenzo and Jessica on a certain moonlit night in Belmont in The Merchant of Venice (V.i.1-22), wherein misery and disaster follow hard upon youthful passion, parental complications, and filial disobedience; the other describes a world populated by faithfully suffering male lovers kept in variously remote degrees of nonproximity by females either “daungerous” or, like Rosaline, too “well arm'd” “in strong proof of chastity” (I.i.210), a world with a happy coincidence between the satisfaction of masculine desire and what is expected of women in a patriarchalist society. When Romeo complains that Rosaline is determined to remain chaste—at least to him—he resorts to an argument from social responsibility that he might have chanced upon in a prepublication glimpse at Shakespeare's Sonnets and complains that in denying him Rosaline denies the world the progeny their union would have produced and, quite like one of the “wastes of time” Shakespeare deplores in Sonnet XII (10), condemns herself, “rich in beauty,” to be “only poor [in] / That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store”:

For beauty starv'd with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.

(I.i.215-16 and 219-20)

To the degree, then, to which the literary idioms of “runaway” love and “worshipful love” can be contained within a patriarchalist fable of experience, it is ironically appropriate that Romeo in effect reads this latest version of the story of Romeo and Juliet into being by chancing to read the invitation to Capulet's fateful party (I.ii.64-70), thus making an act of textuality the central action of the play and the instrument for bringing the male “cult of idolatry” and the youthful flight of passion to dramatic life beneath a patriarch's roof and as integral parts of a patriarchalist rite.

Small wonder, at the same time, that when Juliet deflects her mother's initial inquiries about her willingness to marry Paris, she also passes up a chance—to recall the imagery Lady Capulet employed—to bind herself as binding, as a “cover,” to “this fair volume” that happens to be Paris, “This precious book of love, this unbound lover” (I.iii.85-88), temporarily deferring, as well, the opportunity to be inscribed in Paris's “golden story” (92). And even though Juliet shows no “incontinent” yearning to write herself into the account of femininity her mother unfolds before her, she is at some pains to take herself out of the account of womanhood the Nurse presents in insisting that the Nurse “stint” (58). Indeed, throughout the early portion of the play Juliet consistently differentiates her own character by distancing herself from the ways in which women are “charactered” in art, as well as in nature—or at least as nature is defined within the patriarchalist world of Verona. Her consciousness that Romeo kisses “by th' book” (I.v.110) is coupled with an acute self-consciousness of her own relationship to the “book” and to the paradigms of femininity contained therein. Aware both of how women are supposed to behave toward men and how, in fact, they are often perceived to behave toward them, Juliet eschews both the falsely aloof and the false, entreating the eavesdropping Romeo to “trust me gentleman, I'll prove more true / Than those that have more coying to be strange” (II.ii.100-101). So too, in a play with numerous evocations of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde,20 Juliet's attempt to dissuade Romeo from swearing his love, and particularly from swearing “by the moon, th'inconstant moon” (II.ii.109), at once reveals a well-informed skepticism about lovers, at whose “perjuries / They say Jove laughs” (92-93) and recalls as well the very different behavior of the inconstant Criseyde, who, on the eve of her departure from Troy and Troilus, invokes no less than a pantheon of deities to witness her fidelity (4.1534-54) and, obviously with a poor sense of the moon's spotty reputation, uses the positioning of “Lucina the sheene” as a guarantor of her return (4.1590-94).21

On the face of it, of course, Juliet's attempt to define herself in differentiation from the models of feminine behavior provided by art and life in Verona might appear merely a coup de théâtre, a playwright's attempt to advertise the dramatic inventiveness of his own adaptation of a fable oft rehearsed by creating the illusion of an individuated character, a forerunner, as Juliet might seem, of the more successfully individuated heroines of Shakespeare's later comedies.22 By means of such a coup de théâtre, however, the play calls attention to its own theatricality and asserts its alterity and its identity as something other than one more text, one more sad inscription in the literary palimpsest with which it is affiliated. In effect, the strivings of the play against the traces of its own textuality would seem to echo the aspirations of the youthful lovers to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” and inconvenient familial attachments, and our sense of the success of those strivings may well be heightened in the degree to which, for example, we agree with Coppélia Kahn, and hear in the lovers' death their “triumphant assertion over the impoverished and destructive world which has kept them apart.”23

Yet to assert triumph is not necessarily to achieve it, and, as the annals of commentary on Romeo and Juliet would suggest, something about the transcendence the lovers claim leads us to qualify it and call it, as Gayle Greene, for example, has called it, “a kind of triumph over their world,”24 “kind of,” not simply because it entails a liberation achieved only through death, but also, perhaps, because the play seems ultimately to reaffirm its textuality, signifying itself as merely one more sad story of youthful, misadventur'd love, while keeping its protagonists very much under the yoke of inauspicious stars and inconvenient relatives, very much “bound” to the rigid determinants of gender and character inscribed in literary fable and prescribed by patriarchalist Verona. Thus, whatever success Juliet may have had along the way in coaxing Romeo out of the bookishness in which we initially encounter him lovingly encased, there is little evidence of it in the final act of the play where we find the retextualized Romeo hailing the freshly “slaughter'd” Paris as “One writ with me in sour misfortune's book” (V.iii.82). And though Juliet herself may well avoid being another Criseyde, avatar of feminine infidelity, it is not at all clear that she manages to avoid acting the part of a latter-day Thisbe, “woful” exemplar of a childlike feminine fidelity, to Romeo's Pyramus, childish victims alike of bad luck, poor timing, and patriarchal tyranny. Indeed, though it is certainly interesting that, as Kahn reminds us, Juliet makes use of an emblem of masculinity, Romeo's dagger, to kill herself,25 in doing so she follows the example, not only of her predecessor in Brooke, but also of Thisbe, whose use of Piramus's “swerd” in Chaucer's version, at least, has rather the concessive effect of calling attention to the norm of feminine frailty, to the strength of arm, and implicitly, heart, which women normally lack:

                              ‘My woful hand,’ quod she,
‘Is strong ynogh in swich a werk to me;
For love shal yeve me strengthe and hardynesse
To make my wounde large ynogh, I gesse.’

(Legend of Good Women, F889-93)

Earlier in the play, we will recall, Juliet had been urged by Friar Lawrence to let “no inconstant toy, nor womanish fear / Abate thy valor” and prevent her from drinking his powerful sleeping potion (IV.ii.119-20); both in drinking the potion and in slaying herself with Romeo's dagger, Juliet incarnates the convention of the Thisbean heroine transcending the limits of her sex to show that, for a girl, she is really quite plucky.

The point here, of course, is not that Shakespeare's representation of Romeo and Juliet is unoriginal, but that to the degree to which the play seems ultimately to conventionalize and contextualize its protagonists in such a way as to make their case appear but one more variation on an old fable, it contains their story within a mythos that may seem to question, protest, and even castigate patriarchalist rigidity, but ultimately sustains patriarchalist control. That is, Romeo and Juliet suffer because of the destructive realities of patriarchalist Verona, and their deaths presage nothing less than the extinction of their respective lines; yet the patriarchalist order of Verona “carries on” in the figures of the two fathers and the Prince, who hold the stage in the final moments and attempt to reassert their control and reconstitute the illusion of order that the various disorders enacted in the play have transgressed: the Prince by instituting judicial proceedings to distinguish those to be “pardon'd” and those to be “punished” (V.iii.308); the fathers by managing their children posthumously very much as they would have preferred to manage them in life, turning their children's union in death into very much the kind of amity-producing alliance that Friar Lawrence had envisioned from the outset (II.iii.91-92), vying to outdo each other in opulent public memorials to the lovers as they had vied with each other in less amicable ways before (V.iii.298-304), and even, in the case of Montague, turning the expression of grief into the inflections of parental chastisement:

O thou untaught! What manners is in this,
To press before thy father to a grave?


Indeed, we feel the principle of patriarchalist control asserted even in the very disposition of Romeo's and Juliet's bodies. That lovers gain through death the right to lie with each other that had been denied them in life is a recurrent topos of consolation in stories of runaway or misadventured love, and Romeo and Juliet's joint entombment is the most visible, and, perhaps, only evidence that they have triumphed over death. Yet even the bestowal of this right demands parental permission, as we are reminded in the apostrophe of imprecation and petition that Chaucer's Thisbe addresses to her father and Piramus's just before she takes her life:

And now, ye wrechede jelos fadres oure,
We that whilom were children youre,
We preyen yow, withouten more envye,
That in o grave yfere we moten lye,
Sith love hath brought us to this pitous ende.


The suggestion that in death Romeo and Juliet remain just as much the property of their fathers as they had been during their brief lives is, in fact, more heavily accentuated in Shakespeare's play than in Brooke's poem. In the latter, after all, the bodies of the lovers are removed from the Capulets' family vault and given a “stately tomb” of their own. In the play, however, they would appear to remain in the tomb of the Capulets, and though both Kahn and G. K. Hunter have commented respectively on the significance and appropriateness of Romeo's dying in the vault of his wife's family,26 what should not be overlooked is that for Romeo and Juliet to be, literally, incorporated in either family is to enforce a patriarchalist affiliation in death which had brought conflict in life and which Juliet, we may recall, expressly spurns when she calls upon Romeo to “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” (II.ii.34-36).

Still, one effect of this “enforcement” of patriarchalist prerogative and control during the closing moments of the play may be to remind us of the control the voices of patriarchal authority have not exerted over events during the rest of the play. With that recognition comes a fuller sense that in the Verona of Romeo and Juliet the prescriptions of gender, along with the voicings of civil constraint, mask a repressive intent behind their expressive function. Working on the surface as the instruments through which the patriarchalist order controls its young and manifests and sustains its authority and power, they in fact serve as the means by which the patriarchalist order disguises its powerlessness and evades forces impervious to its control and subversive of its authority: the destructive and violent force detonated by the “deadly” feud, on the one hand, the equally violent and ultimately destructive force set loose by the power of passion and sexuality, on the other, with both forces ultimately culminating in and allied with the experience most subversive of the patriarchalist order in Verona—death. In turn, in the degree to which the play seems to reinscribe itself as just one more sad story of young love star-cross'd, it replicates the repressive impulses at work in its fable, mythologizing and explaining Romeo and Juliet away as victims of the “stars,” of “rude will,” and of the caprices of patriarchal power, while recuperatively diverting attention both from the subversive and destructive force in Romeo and Juliet's love and the patriarchal powerlessness which their love has disclosed. Indeed, the impulses of recuperation and subversion inform the rhetorical structure of the play, and are dramatized, on the one hand, in the threat Romeo and Juliet's love poses, and on the other, in the suppression of that threat through the prescriptions of gender.

In what way, however, does Romeo and Juliet represent the love of its protagonists, not merely as a casualty of a destructive patriarchy and the destructive stars, but as a destructive force in its own right? To answer this, we might recall Peter Erickson's discussion of the vaginal darkness that Lear excoriates in his antiblazon of the feminine anatomy (, a darkness which, Erickson notes, becomes “synonymous with heterosexual intercourse,” but which, as a feminine domain, thereby makes the idea of “sexuality” equivalent to “female sexuality.”27 In Romeo and Juliet the idea of sexuality is equally “dark” and equally feminine, and first gets introduced as a disturbing excrescence of the male imagination and as something either to be sublimated through the exertions of rhetoric or consigned to the world of dream or exorcised in male raillery and badinage. If we listen closely enough, we get a hint of this notion of feminine sexuality amid the “O”-filled oxymorons that punctuate Romeo's first appearance, where the warring sensations of pleasure and pain provoked by love array themselves in a rhetorically pleasing and emotionally insulating paralysis:

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!


Oxymorons have ever the diversionary, and occasionally the repressive, effect of calling attention more to the coupling wit of their non-sense than to the experience they describe, and we feel that effect most keenly here, where our sense of the conventionalized cleverness of Romeo's complaints almost obscures the allusion those complaints make to feminine sexuality, submerged in a secondary meaning of the word “nothing.” Male fears of the emotional “chaos” wrought by the “well-seeming forms” of femininity voice themselves more audibly, of course, but only a little more explicitly, in the insistence with which Romeo checks Mercutio's “Queen Mab” speech just at the point at which Mercutio has “gotten on” to images of intercourse, with Romeo's restraining remark, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace. / Thou talk'st of nothing” (I.iv.95-96), drawing from Mercutio the rejoinder, “True, I talk of dreams” (96), a feint at sublimation which Mercutio will cast in a different form a bit later when, rather than banish the subject of feminine sexuality to the realm of dream, he consigns it to the domain of jest, acknowledging its power over Romeo even as he ridicules that power in a mock-rite of conjuration (II.i.6-29).

To be sure, that Romeo and Juliet represents feminine sexuality as destructive would seem a hard claim to press in a work that seems to eradicate, or at least mute, the overt misogyny to be encountered in its immediate source, where the moralism central to Brooke's intentions often gets expressed in the narrator's cynically knowing assessments of the lovers' lustful impulses, from which Juliet emerges as the more lustful, and more lustfully driven, of the two. In the transformation of narrative poem to play, Juliet not only loses two years off her age and thereby gains two years of presumptive childish innocence, but she is also liberated from the narrative aspersions of being called a “wily wench” (717) and a “jennet” who “Betwixt her teeth the bit … now hath caught” (723), and for whom the nurse acts “as bridle of her lust” (721).28 In the play, the pattern of behavior that earns Juliet the narrator's moral opprobrium in Brooke's poem stays very much in the foreground, and yet its representation is differentiated in such a way as, not so much to ensure Juliet the audience's unqualified moral approbation, but rather to render moral assessments of her conduct ambiguous and even moot. In the play Juliet is just as active in pursuing the furtherance of her relationship with Romeo as she had been in Brooke's poem, promising Romeo that she would “procure” someone to find out what arrangements he had made for their nuptials—nuptials which she proposes in the same sentence (II.ii.142-48)—and awaiting word from that someone, the Nurse, with “affections and warm youthful blood” (II.v.12) every bit as “hot” as that reproved in her counterpart in Brooke. Largely suppressed in Shakespeare's play, though, are the references to the passing of money by means of which the lovers' arrangements are made in Brooke's poem to appear very much like a tawdry exercise in procurement. In the play Juliet does not bribe the Nurse, as she does in the poem (628); nor—apparently, at least—does the Nurse accept money from Romeo (II.iv.182-83), as she does in the poem (667-70), let alone, as Brooke's narrator claims, neglect to mention her “hire” to Juliet (692). Interestingly, in the play it is Romeo, inscribed as he is in other patriarchalist norms for the relationship of the sexes, who, in offering the Nurse a gratuity, “for thy pains” (II.iv.182), comes closest to adhering to the protocols of procurement rehearsed in Brooke. In having the Nurse decline the offer, the play, yet again, seems to invoke a patriarchalist and, in this case, misogynist, prescription for femininity only the more pointedly to distance itself and its representation of Juliet from it.

Nevertheless, though it suppresses the overt misogyny indulged by Brooke, Shakespeare's representation of Juliet evokes the same patriarchalist anxiety over the destructive power of feminine sexuality and sensuality, a power which in Juliet seems all the more subversive for the very reason that she is not a reprise of Brooke's “wily wench” and “jennet.” We hear traces of this anxiety in the hints dropped here and there that Juliet's love could actually destroy Romeo, as in the conceit through which Juliet turns Romeo into a “wanton's bird” that she would gladly possess, save for her fear that “I should kill thee with much cherishing” (II.ii.176-83), a qualification that disappears in her celebrated apostrophe to the night, at the “climax” of which she not only imagines herself dying, but voices the hope that at that moment the night will take Romeo “and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night” (III.ii.22-24).

Entailed in these hints of physical destruction, however, is the suggestion of an annihilative force in Juliet's love far more threatening to the patriarchalist world of Verona. For in pursuing the fulfillment of their love Romeo and Juliet seek a sexual oneness that would obliterate the particularities of their birth, the particularities of family and gender that are the inseparable components of identity in Verona. As Juliet Dusinberre has observed, we get a sense of the leveling effect of the mutuality of Romeo and Juliet's love in the degree to which Juliet reciprocates Romeo's love for her by participating in the “male cult of idolatry” and making Romeo “the god of my idolatry” (II.ii.114), a rhetorical gesture that “nourishes,” as Dusinberre suggests, an “intimacy [between the sexes] which male idolatry discourages.”29 Indeed, it is this very mutuality that has made Romeo and Juliet's relationship seem so much the epitome of romantic love, so much an evocation, both of that world-annihilating love celebrated in Donne's “Good Morrow,” which “makes one little roome, an every where” (11),30 and of that sexually neutralizing love described in Donne's “Canonization”:

So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
          Wee dye and rise the same, and prove
          Mysterious by this love.

(ll. 25-27)

To such an extent is the patriarchalist ethos of the play a focus of its concern, however, that we are not permitted to forget that, whatever incorporation Romeo and Juliet may attain through their love, the immediate effect of that love upon Romeo is downright dis-incorporative. For though Juliet offers “all myself” if Romeo will but “doff thy name” (II.ii.47-49), it is Romeo who is figuratively dis-integrated and transformed by synecdoche into mere parts of Juliet's self. “O that I were a glove upon that hand,” Romeo fantasizes beneath Juliet's balcony, “That I might touch that cheek” (II.ii.23-24), while the sound of Juliet's calling him Romeo takes to be “my soul that calls upon my name” (II.ii.164).31 So too, if the speaker in “The Canonization” envisions a love that turns “both sexes” into “one neutral thing,” for Romeo the effect of love is not some tertium quid, but effeminacy, the effeminacy of which he is accused and for which he is teased by Mercutio (II.iv.52-57), the effeminacy of which he accuses himself when his desire not to fight with Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, leads to Mercutio's death (III.i.115-16), and for which he is reproved by the Nurse (III.iii.88-90) and reproved with great severity by his “ghostly father,” Friar Lawrence (III.iii.108-27). Voiced in these references to Romeo's feminization, of course, is the fear that frequents much of the literature of Petrarchan love, the fear that for a man to worship a woman is to deny his masculine self, an argument put quite volubly in Sidney's Arcadia, when Musidorus, discovering that his friend Pyrocles has disguised himself as an Amazon to gain access to his beloved, declares that “this effeminate love of a woman, doth so womanish a man that (if he yeeld to it) it will not onely make him an Amazon but a launder, a distaff-spinner; or what so ever other vile occupation their idle heads cã imagin, & their weake hands perform.”32 Indeed, as we listen to the repeated suggestions of the effeminacy to which Romeo has been brought by his love, we might recall the transvestism of Romeo's ancestor in an older version of the story, Luigi da Porto's Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (1530), in which Romeo attends the Capelletti's masked ball—and attracts Guilietta's admiring gaze—in the guise of a nymph.33

Above all, though, in the aspersions cast upon Romeo's masculinity we are reminded that the prescriptions of gender in the play are never so volubly invoked as when the illusion of patriarchal control has been destroyed, and that the main function of these prescriptions is to impose an artifice of patriarchal authority upon realities “rudely” impervious to that authority, in particular, the realities of love and death. Indeed, the two voices of patriarchy in the play most frequently heard, Capulet's and Friar Lawrence's, assert themselves at first by pretending to accommodate, while trying to co-opt, forces and emotions they acknowledge to be inevitable, engaging in stratagems to turn to the good and keep under their control what they at least pretend to concede cannot be controlled. Thus, Capulet, keenly appreciative of the control nature and mortality ultimately exert over human affairs, strives to reconcile his own will, and that of Paris, with Juliet's consent (I.ii.13-19), and, in envisioning the process of wooing as a rite of selection that can be transacted in a masked ball staged under his own auspices (20-33), validates his authority by making it appear compatible with nature's “taking its own course.” So too, Friar Lawrence may well recognize that there is not “aught so good but … Revolts from true birth” (II.iii.19-20), but the thought does not deter him from trying to use his spiritual authority to channel the emotional volatility he perceives in Romeo to the good of the state through the “alliance” Romeo craves with Juliet (61-88). In fact, to recall what Peter Erickson has termed the “selective androgyny” evident in Shakespeare's plays,34 the forces of patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet seem never so cooperative and co-optive as when they employ the idioms of maternalism to underscore their authority. Hence, in trying to get Romeo to accept the banishment that has been imposed upon him, Friar Lawrence pretends to offer Romeo an especially nurturant cast of “armor” in the form of “Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy, / To comfort thee though thou art banished” (III.iii.54-56); similarly, Capulet seems never so firmly in command, or so at ease with his household, as when he is playing, as the Nurse calls him, the “cot-quean,” busying himself in the minutest culinary details of the preparations for Juliet's nuptials with Paris (IV.iv.3-28).

It is, then, when patriarchal authority can no longer mask its impotency by co-opting forces impervious to it that it assumes its most unyielding and masculine accents. When the “sweet milk” of Friar Lawrence's philosophy proves quite unavailing with Romeo, the Friar resorts to the armaments of gender and accuses Romeo of “Digressing from the valor of a man” (III.iii.126). When the violence of Tybalt's emotions ineluctably intrudes upon the ordered rites of Capulet's masked ball, the hitherto indulgent Capulet waxes authoritarian, temporarily putting Tybalt “in his place” as a “goodman boy” and “saucy boy” (I.v.72-91). In turn, it is only when the fragility of the patriarchalist order has been exposed by the sudden extinction of two of its most conspicuous expositors and exponents—Tybalt and Mercutio—that Capulet becomes most imperiously insistent that Juliet heed his will and marry Paris (III.v.126-95), asserting his claim over Juliet's person even more volubly shortly afterward in the remarkable “lamentations” scene, when it would seem from Juliet's apparent demise that not even the most forcibly asserted patriarchalist prerogatives are proof against death's imperatives (IV.v.1-64).

Finally, then, in the “glooming peace” annunciated by Escalus at the end of the play, Romeo and Juliet achieves a curious doubleness. On the one hand, in the interestingly all-male society left onstage, with Juliet and Lady Montague dead, and with Lady Capulet taking “this sight of death … as a bell / That warns my old age to a sepulchre” (V.iii.206-7), the play ends with an image of dissolution and sterility which characterizes a number of Shakespeare's “later, greater” tragedies, and which seems to underscore patriarchalist Verona's most self-destructive impulses. On the other hand, in the final recuperative voicings and flexings of patriarchalist authority, we witness an attempt to circumscribe and limit the scope of the tragic proceedings that may remind us both of the use to which the prescriptions of gender have been put throughout the play, and of the sense in which the tragedy of what Nicholas Brooke once called this “spectacle of human experience”35 seems quite purposefully elusive.


  1. Charlton, “Romeo and Juliet” as an Experimental Tragedy, Proceedings of the British Academy, No. 25 (London: Humphrey Milford, 1939), p. 4.

  2. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Preston H. Epps (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1942), pp. 23-26. Although these perceptions about Romeo and Juliet have in various forms and with varying degrees of emphasis permeated a good deal of commentary on the play, they receive a classic formulation in Charlton (esp. pp. 13-16, 35-36, 41-45), who takes the protagonists' youth in particular as evidence that “Romeo and Juliet is indeed an almost wildly experimental tragedy” (p. 13). See also G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare's Tragedies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), pp. 49-50. Far less dismissively, Wolfgang Clemen, in The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London: Methuen, 1951), pp. 63-73, takes the imagistic patterning of the play as evidence of the intermediate position Romeo and Juliet occupies in Shakespeare's development between the “early” plays and the “great tragedies.”

  3. All references to Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). I omit editorial brackets.

  4. So it is, for example, that we hear Madelon Gohlke [Sprengnether] argue that “the failure” of Romeo and Juliet “to achieve the generic status of comedy may be read as the result of the way in which heterosexual relations are imagined”; see “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 152. That Romeo and Juliet may profitably be read in the context of comic conventions and structure receives its fullest and most compelling formulation in Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 56-70. For a short discussion of the relationship of the Pyramus and Thisbe story to Romeo and Juliet, see Harold F. Brook's introduction to the New Arden Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Methuen, 1979), pp. xliv-xlv.

  5. Goldberg, “Shakespearean Inscriptions: The Voicing of Power,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 130. Indeed, what we encounter in Romeo and Juliet sustains our growing awareness of the role the Elizabethan stage performed as a platform both for dramatizing cultural heterodoxy and for containing it within a “safely” theatrical context, a hypothesis explored quite compellingly in recent years by Louis Adrian Montrose in, for example, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios, N.S. 7 (1980), 51-74; and Stephen Greenblatt in, for example, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,” Glyph 8: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 40-61.

  6. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), p. 100; see also p. 88.

  7. Kahn, “Coming of Age in Verona,” in The Woman's Part, p. 171.

  8. Gohlke, p. 153. The imbrication of love and death in the verbal fabric of the play has been particularly well traced by M. M. Mahood, in Shakespeare's Wordplay (1857; rpt. London: Methuen, 1965), pp. 66-72.

  9. See the “Textual Notes,” in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1096. Note also the dying Mercutio's complaint to Romeo that “I was hurt under your arm” (III.i.102-3).

  10. Kahn, p. 171.

  11. See, especially, Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 1-30; and the discussion of “Women and Marriage” in Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 72-81.

  12. An anxiety over the violence that can erupt from unlawful gatherings, fed, perhaps, by the fear of the role such violence might play in an insurrection, is central to a number of Queen Elizabeth's proclamations which attempt to curb or prevent the gathering of unemployed people on London streets. One such ordinance, dated June 20, 1591, takes note of recent disorders “whereby her majesty's peace hath been of late violated and broken to the dishonor of her majesty's government,” while another, for February 15, 1601, complains of the great number of vagabonds who “lie privily in corners and bad houses, listening after news and stirs, and spreading rumors and tales, being of likelihood ready to lay hold of any occasion to enter into any tumult or disorder, thereby to seek rapine and pillage.” See Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, Tudor Royal Proclamations (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 3: 82, 232.

  13. One effort to “save” the text of Romeo and Juliet by demonstrating its social utility was a recent program undertaken under the auspices of the Folger Theater, the purpose of which was to show how the discussion of the play in high school classrooms might help to combat juvenile suicide by revealing the timelessness of juvenile depression. The program is described in Constance Holden, “Textbook Controversy Intensifies Nationwide,” Science Magazine, 235 (January 1987), 21.

  14. A number of the recurrent suppositions for the lowering of Juliet's age from what it had been in Brooke and, for that matter, Painter are formulated in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1871), pp. 32, 41; and in Dash, p. 68.

  15. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), p. 653. See also the cases cited by Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., in Child-Marriages, Divorces and Ratifications, etc., in the Diocese of Chester, A.D. 1561-6 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1897), pp. xv ff., from which one might infer that the incidence of marriages involving persons of Juliet's age was neither so rare as to be unheard of, nor so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

  16. Dash, p. 92.

  17. New Variorum Edition, p. 200. A hint of this critical mimeticism also informs the comment by Angela Pitt in Shakespeare's Women (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981), p. 45, that in Juliet we find “no sensual goddess, but instead a young, innocent girl,” a characterization indispensable if one is to argue, as Pitt does, that Romeo and Juliet must die young to preserve the traits that make their love ideal, namely its truth and purity (p. 47). See the discussion by Kathleen McLuskie of what she calls the “essentialist” mode in feminist criticism, in “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 88-92.

  18. In “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: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 175-76, Edward Snow finds a far more affirmative valence to Juliet's “Ay” in this exchange, hearing in it the expression of “a willingness to surrender the conscious self to the impersonal forces that stir within it” and “a kind of ontological trust in sexual experience and the world which opens with its relinquishments,” a reading which, to be sure, must be qualified by the fact that the “Ay” reiterated here is uttered, not by Juliet, but by the Nurse in a fit of memorial reconstruction.

  19. Dusinberre, p. 156.

  20. See the discussion of the relationship of the Troilus and Romeo and Juliet in Ann Thompson, Shakespeare's Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1978), pp. 94-110; see also the reminiscences of the Troilus Shakespeare would have encountered, and might have absorbed, from Brooke, in Arthur Brooke, Romeus and Juliet: Being the Original of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, ed. J. J. Munro (1908; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1970), pp. 147-63.

  21. For all citations of Chaucer's works, see The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

  22. For a salutary discussion of the limits imposed upon the “individualism” of Shakespeare's most “individualistic” comic heroines—such as Portia, Beatrice, and Rosalind—see Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Woman's Part, pp. 100-116.

  23. Kahn, p. 189.

  24. Gayle Greene, “Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘A kind of self,’” in The Woman's Part, p. 146.

  25. Kahn, p. 190.

  26. Kahn, p. 190; and G. K. Hunter, “Shakespeare's Earliest Tragedies: Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974), 8.

  27. Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985), p. 109.

  28. All references to Brooke's Romeo and Juliet are to the edition cited above in note 20.

  29. Dusinberre, p. 156.

  30. Citations of Donne's poems are from the Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967).

  31. For Snow, pp. 171-72, the literal self-partitioning pervasive in Romeo's thoughts about Juliet reflects, on the contrary, not a dissolution of the self, but a masculine assertion of boundaries by means of which Romeo, for all of his fervor, effectively distances himself from Juliet, whose love, by contrast, Snow maintains, is at once genuinely self-surrendering and permeative (pp. 173-75).

  32. Sir Philip Sidney, The Prose Works, ed. Albert Feuillerat (1912; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965), 1: 78.

  33. Cited by Brian Gibbons, ed., The Arden Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 34.

  34. Erickson, pp. 31-32.

  35. Brooke, “The Tragic Spectacle in Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet,” in Shakespeare: The Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Clifford Leech (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 256.

Joan Ozark Holmer (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Holmer, Joan Ozark. ‘“Myself Condemned and Myself Excus'd”: Tragic Effects in Romeo and Juliet.Studies in Philology 88, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 345-62.

[In the following essay, Holmer analyzes the way in which Shakespeare utilized the character of Mercutio to make the play—and our reaction to its themes and characters—more complex and ironic than its sources.]

Romeo and Juliet, although a tragedy written early in Shakespeare's career, persists in being a problematic play while it continues to command our modern sympathies in spanning the socio-historical changes wrought over the passage of some four hundred years since the play first captured “two hours' traffic of our stage” (Prologue, 12).1 This tragedy's captivating story and its compelling presentation of romance, beauty, and powerful passions for good and ill have made it one of Shakespeare's most familiar dramas. But familiarity should not be allowed to breed complacency. Romeo and Juliet involves us in dilemmas provoking complex intellectual and emotional responses not unlike in kind, albeit perhaps in degree, those for which we praise Shakespeare's major tragedies.

Critics no longer debate whether this play is a tragedy, but rather what kind of a tragedy it is and wherein excellent for its kind, debate often turning on Shakespeare's degree of success in integrating the tragic claims of fate and free will.2 While some claim this tragedy is experimental, the degree to which Shakespeare reigns remarkably innovative might be underestimated. If not the first romantic tragedy for the English stage, Romeo and Juliet is at least the earliest and greatest example of this genre from the prolific period of Renaissance drama. Perhaps one measure of Shakespeare's dramatic skill in staging more than a great love story of legendary fame, even by the time he dramatized it, is how richly he complicates much of what is rather straight-forward action in his literary sources, thereby deepening one's sense of tragic irony and poignancy. These sources are often textually pallid cadavers compared to Shakespeare's transformation of them into the breathing corpus of his drama. Romeo and Juliet already reveals the hand of a master dramatist who knows how to craft deftly a dilemma that evokes various, even contradictory, responses in his audience as well as characters. The wonder is how we can be simultaneously attracted to and repelled by a character in a given situation (such as Mercutio or Romeo) and be left perhaps even perplexed about what choices we would make if the stage were our world at that moment.

The play bristles with possible examples, but the fatal opening of the third act is pivotal as it moves with deadly pace in the direction of tragedy what might have been comedy, for Jack hath Jill and all ends well by the conclusion of Act II. Although Shakespeare probably knew other literary sources of the Romeo and Juliet story, clearly his main source was Arthur Brooke's poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562). With the exception of one crucial oversight, Geoffrey Bullough concisely summarizes the chief differences between the play's centerpiece and that of its main source: “In Brooke Mercutio plays no part in the brawls; Romeo kills Tybalt in self-defence after trying to prevent a general mêlée. In Shakespeare Mercutio thinks to purge his friend's lost honour by fighting for him, and is killed (ironically) through Romeo's attempt to stop the fight. Thus the motif of the play, that even our good deeds confound us when Fortune is against us, is stressed in this new episode, which proves Romeo's ‘respective lenity’, given up only when his friend has been slain.”3 However, Bullough does not mention the provocative role Mercutio plays before Romeo enters the scene, or the significance of this role for our understanding of Mercutio, Romeo, and Tybalt as well as the human condition explored in terms of the play's themes and imagery. The character of Mercutio is almost wholly created by Shakespeare, for in Brooke Mercutio appears only briefly, described as a “courtier that … was coorteous of his speche, and pleasant of devise … a Lyon … bolde … emong bashfull maydes,” who nonetheless had very cold hands (254-64; 288-90). Although Shakespeare kept the boldness and the creative pleasantry of a great talker, he omitted the cold hands, changed the courteous speech to witty and often irreverent raillery, and otherwise fully enfleshed his own vibrant Mercutio whose own “mad blood” (3.1.4) contagiously spreads the feud's plague that will make “worms' meat” of him (3.1.109). Given Shakespeare's pervasive interest in “what's in a name” (2.2.43), along with the nuances of ingenuity and eloquence derived from Mercury for the name “Mercutio,”4 perhaps Shakespeare also took a hint for developing Mercutio's combativeness from his name as it appears in the Italian sources of Luigi da Porto and Matteo Bandello—“Marcuccio”—which Richard Hosley explains means approximately “cunning little Marco.”5 “Marco,” from “Marcus/ Mark,” has a martial meaning derived from Mars.6 As will be seen, repeatedly in this play Shakespeare shows his back above the elements of his sources when he transcends them by developing the significance of a name which is often more than just the sound for who a character is.

How does Shakespeare complicate our responses through his deliberate use of Mercutio? What aspect of his mercurial self does Mercutio present as this first scene of death opens? With a tragic ignorance that colors all the human relationships in the play wherein parents know not fully their children, advisors their advisees, enemies their enemies, and friends their friends, Romeo had earlier described his friend's character as “a gentleman … that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month” (2.4.143-46). The first half of Romeo's analysis proves comically true, but the latter proves tragically untrue. Similarly Romeo refutes Tybalt's slander: “villain am I none … I see thou knowest me not” (63-64). When the Prince puts the crucial questions, “Where are the vile beginners of this fray?”; “Benvolio, who began this bloody fray?” (143, 153), Benvolio singles out solely Tybalt: “Tybalt, here slain … Tybalt deaf to peace … tilts / With piercing steel at bold Mercutio's breast, / Who, all as hot, turns deadly point to point” (154-62).

How accurate is this account? Lest we rely too heavily on friend Benvolio's somewhat biased rendition, let us examine what does happen. Benvolio's lines imply that Tybalt literally started this fray by drawing first to tilt at Mercutio's breast. But this is not true. Mercutio begins by baiting Tybalt, and it is he who draws first: “Will you [Tybalt] pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out” (79-81). Tybalt probably draws now in response, “I am for you” (82), but Romeo appeals first to the instigator, “Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up” (83). Benvolio's account is accurate only insofar as Tybalt indirectly begins this fray by issuing a personal challenge to Romeo in order to revenge Romeo's appearance at the Capulet ball. The maliciously premeditated nature of Tybalt's personal challenge is a far cry from Brooke's diffused situation of a spontaneous, general street brawl. Shakespeare's Romeo, however, seems not to know about this written challenge because Tybalt sent the letter to Lord Montague's house, but Romeo appears not to have gone home since last night's ball (2.4.1-7). Instead, Mercutio and Benvolio are aware of the letter, and Mercutio bets it is a challenge. In his account of the fray Benvolio rightly observes that Mercutio was “all as hot” as Tybalt, but his placement of that information suggests that Mercutio responds hotly to the “unruly spleen / Of Tybalt” (159). When and why was Mercutio “hot”?

The scene opens with Mercutio and Benvolio alone on stage discussing the excessively hot weather which prompts hotheadedness. Timing the play's action almost a fortnight before Juliet's fourteenth birthday on Lammas Eve (July 31) so that the July month, from which Juliet's name is derived, is paradoxically the month of both her birth and death,7 Shakespeare emphasizes the oppressive mid-July heat which is his stark change in his source's Christmas meeting of the lovers and its early spring setting for the duel (The Argument, 5; 155, 949). Given Shakespeare's “star-cross'd” (Prologue, 6) motif this change is most appropriate from a Renaissance perspective: “And this month [July] is most fervent: for in the middle of this month the sunne beginneth to be in Leone, & the Canicular daies begin. And therefore is great passing heate in that time, because of the hot signe, and also because of the most hot starre [i.e., Canicula or Sirius]. Also that time all hot passions & evills increase.”8 John Bullokar similarly defines “Dogdayes” as “certain dayes in Iuly and August, so called of the Starre Canis, the Dogge: which then rising with the Sun, doeth greatly increase the heate thereof,” and Edmund Spenser poetically describes “the hot Syrian Dog” as corrupting “th'ayre with his noysome breath, / And powr'd on the earth plague, pestilence, and death.”9 We should recall here that “the infectious pestilence” (5.2.10) is what fatally prevents Friar John's delivery of Friar Laurence's important letter to Romeo. An overlooked possibility is that Shakespeare's “star-cross'd” might also be related to his “hot days” of “mad blood” (4) and refer to the malign influence of the reigning “hot” star, Canicula or Sirius (a star of the first magnitude, the chief of the constellation Canis Major, and the brightest in the heavens), that would appropriately influence the play's tragic consequences viewed from the perspective of Shakespeare's telling seasonal change of his source.10

Perhaps as significant as the macrocosmic-microcosmic analogy between the world's weather and man's temperament is the degree to which Mercutio is “hot” before either Tybalt or Romeo enters. The entire preliminary conversation wittily rests on the exceptionally quarrelsome nature of Mercutio who would fight for the sake of fighting (32-34). Its puns on being “moved” to a passionate mood (12-14) recall those of Sampson's and Gregory's comic exchange where a man's “standing” depends on violence in both sexual prowess and pugnacious power (1.1.7-33). Focusing now on the latter, the witty repartee sets us up for another comic beginning to a non-lethal resolution of an incipient duel, an expectation that poignantly heightens our sense of tragedy when that expectation is truncated. Brooke, however, presents no specific opening brawl scene, only general references to “yre” and bloodshed (36-38), and consequently there is no thwarting of expectations. Indeed, critics remain surprisingly silent regarding Shakespeare's change in the description of the feud. In Brooke the cause of the feud is identified, and it is described as a recent development: “so great a new disorder in [the prince's] common weale” (42; italics mine) infects these two families “whose egall state bred envye pale of hew” (25-38). Shakespeare underscores tragic irony by having Paris reverse the equality issue so that it should, but does not because of the feud, operate to Romeo and Juliet's advantage in making a match between two families “both alike in dignity” (Prologue, 1): “Of honourable reckoning are you both, / And pity 'tis you lived at odds so long” (1.2.4-5). In Shakespeare, moreover, no cause is specified other than the general “airy word” (1.1.87), thereby emphasizing the irrationality of the feud, and he stresses its “ancient” quality (Prologue, 3; 1.1.102).11

When Tybalt enters, he surprises us with his verbal courtesy to Romeo's friends: “Gentlemen, good e'en: a word with one of you” (38). Mercutio's immediate rejoinder shows he is itching for a fight before any mention is even made of Romeo: “And but one word with one of us? / Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow” (39-40); “Could you not take some occasion without giving?” (43). The incendiary weather is undoubtedly a factor, but it does not seem to affect the aptly named Benvolio, Romeo's other good friend, who advocates privacy, rationalization, or departure (49-52) in response to Mercutio's first reference to his sword: “Here's my fiddlestick, here's that shall make you dance” (47-48). Mercutio's baiting of Tybalt here anticipates Tybalt's more insulting baiting of Romeo once Romeo enters. Tybalt, however, does not rise to Mercutio's taunts to fight but turns aside from Mercutio—“Well, peace be with you, sir”—when “[his] man” Romeo (58) finally enters. Before Tybalt can insult Romeo, Mercutio quickly jabs Tybalt with another speech in defense of Romeo's manhood, punning on Romeo's social rank as a master not a servant (56-58) and thereby continuing to develop his offensive reaction to Tybalt's use of “consortest” (44). Mercutio defines manhood in terms of mastery and the fight, as did Sampson and Gregory earlier when quarreling with Abram and Balthasar (“Draw if you be men,” 1.1.59) over whose masters are “better” men (1.1.58) so that these two fight scenes are linked verbally and thematically. Likewise, Benvolio's appeal to rational manliness (51) echoes faintly the more strongly stated definition of manhood that opposes bellicosity given by Prince Escalus when he denounces the brawlers in the play's first scene: “You men, you beasts!” (81). The issue of mastery is explored both socially and philosophically throughout the play to resonate most painfully in the final scene when the stumbling Friar Laurence discovers the “masterless and gory swords” (5.3.142) of Romeo and Paris at the Capulet tomb.

Tybalt, who might expect Romeo to have received his letter, must be dumbfounded when Romeo repeatedly pleads he loves Tybalt (61-64, 66-71). Tybalt's first rejoinder, “Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries / That thou hast done me, therefore turn and draw” (65-66; italics mine), and the earlier allusions to his letter show how this “ancient grudge” (Prologue, 3) has been fanned into an intensely personal conflagration. Shakespeare, as he often does in adapting the general nature of situations in his sources, highly personalizes the situation so that the audience's empathy is more specifically channeled for the characters, and the situation becomes much more charged with dramatic energy. Before Tybalt can counter Romeo's second protestation of good will, Mercutio, who thinks one must fight to be a man, interprets what Escalus might see as courageous pacifism as the dishonorable weakness of “vile submission” (74).

Although “the fiery Tybalt,” first satirized by Benvolio (1.1.107-10), showed no self-restraint in the play's opening scene, he now, however, continues to resist Mercutio's insults, as Gibbons rightly notes: “What wouldst thou have with me?” (75). Tybalt ultimately responds to Mercutio's action of sword-drawing, but why might Mercutio's language that now directly satirizes Tybalt's name with feline puns (“ratcatcher,” “Good King of Cats”) be particularly galling to a “princox” (1.5.85) like Tybalt who takes what's in a word or name quite seriously (cf. 1.1.66-69)? Unlike Tybalt, the audience has been prepared for such name-calling (2.4.19-35). Moreover, Romeo's appeal to Tybalt stresses the importance of name: “And so, good Capulet, which name I tender / As dearly as my own, be satisfied” (70-71). Editors tend to overlook, however, the “bold” / “manly” denotative meaning of Tybalt's name. E. G. Withycombe suggests the name in its vernacular form, Tebald or Tibald, is a form of “Theobald” and is probably related to the Old German “Theudobald” meaning “bold people.”12 Similarly, William Camden indicates the meaning of the name “Theobald, commonly Tibald, and Thibald” is “Powerfull or bolde over people,” and Randle Cotgrave offers another Renaissance definition, “Thibauld. Theobalde; a proper name for a man.13

Shakespeare inherited Tybalt's name from his source, retaining and heightening its meaning while also creating through his feline puns another meaning not found in Brooke. Editors regularly observe that “Tibert” is the name of the cat in The History of Reynard the Fox, a medieval animal epic still popular in the sixteenth century.14 In his edition of William Caxton's English translation of The History of Reynard the Fox (1481) from a Middle Dutch version, Donald B. Sands explains that “Tibert” is “a Germanic name, originally Theodoberht and one which appears in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.18) in a pun on ‘Tibalt.’”15 But what is the point of Mercutio's allusion? For anyone in the audience familiar with Reynard the Fox Mercutio's sharp-tongued identification of Tybalt as the Prince of Cats undercuts Tybalt's arrogant pretensions because in Reynard Tibert, although reputed wise by the King of Beasts (the lion), is “not great” but “little and feeble” and is physically beaten, as well as made to look cowardly and foolish when “outfoxed” by Reynard.16 The same purpose of pricking false pride appears in Thomas Nashe's similar satire on titles and pretensions to being extraordinary in his reference to “Tibault” and the title “Prince of Cattes” in Have with You to Saffron-Walden.17 On the other hand, tibert or tybert can also refer commonly to any cat.18 Therefore, Mercutio's jest becomes doubly appropriate for the haughty duellist Tybalt whose cat-like agility in butchering a silk button (2.4.23) is matched by the cat's method of fighting, that is, scratching. That method is paralleled by the relatively new weapon of the rapier. As Mercutio gravely laments, the rapier can “scratch a man to death” (102; 94), unlike the older “long sword” (1.1.73) of Capulet's youth or the servants' weapons of “swords and bucklers” (1.1.S.D.) which depend on the cutting edge of the blade, and not its point, to deal death.

What then prompts Mercutio? What the audience knows is not what Romeo knows. Romeo, having entered the scene but lately, is not privy to Mercutio's own hot mood today. It appears that Mercutio is offering to duel Tybalt in an attempt to assuage his friend's loss of manly honor in not standing up to his enemy. And that indeed is a probable motive, but is it the only one? Alas, from Romeo's perspective it is. Given Mercutio's general cursing of both feuding houses after he is fatally wounded, Mercutio's accusation—“why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm” (104-5)—and Romeo's ignorance of what has already transpired between Mercutio and Tybalt, Romeo cannot help but wrenchingly conclude that his friend died for him and because of him.

If Romeo's conclusions were the only possible truths, why did Shakespeare bother to develop for Mercutio a quarrelsome nature as well as an attitude of personal animosity toward Tybalt? While Tybalt is nursing his personal hatred for Romeo, Mercutio reveals his for Tybalt. Mercutio's repeatedly contemptuous ridiculing of Tybalt suggests that Mercutio emphatically resents Tybalt and not just because he is a Capulet and the Montagues are Mercutio's companions. After all, Mercutio is invited to the Capulet ball (1.2.68). As with Tybalt's enmity toward Romeo, Mercutio's strikes a deeply personal chord. Prior to their encounter, Mercutio, who champions a plain style of fencing, parodied Tybalt as a duelist and mocked him as a man, objecting to Tybalt's textbook fencing and punctilious adherence to form and the latest fencing fashions as signs of Tybalt's villainous character (2.4.19-36). Could Mercutio be jealous of Tybalt's skill with the rapier? Or does Mercutio genuinely disdain the “Good King of Cats” (76)? There seems to be more than honor at the stake here. Whatever may be the case, Mercutio certainly laments he has not scored against Tybalt: “Is he gone, and hath nothing?” (92). His final denunciation rings with contempt: “A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic” (102-3). But until this final denunciation Romeo appears ignorant of Mercutio's “rude will” (2.3.24) toward Tybalt.

Thus, Shakespeare propels the situation to its utmost by heightening the tragic irony and its consequently tragic dilemma for Romeo. While Mercutio may have been fighting Tybalt on Romeo's behalf, he was also fighting Tybalt for himself. With pungent irony Shakespeare has Mercutio insist on “alla stoccata” (73) as the fencing thrust for triumph. Criticism has overlooked the possible significance of this particular thrust. A stoccata is a thrust which reaches the enemy under the sword, hand, or dagger. At first blush Mercutio's choice seems apt because the Renaissance fencing master, Vincentio Saviolo, stresses the use of this particular thrust if one's enemy “bee cunning and skilfull,” which Tybalt certainly is.19 But it is Tybalt, not Mercutio, who seems to triumph with this thrust because Tybalt thrusts under Romeo's arm and perhaps even under his foe's weapon. Perhaps Mercutio's reference to the “passado” (84) is another taunt to egg on Tybalt because the passado was often a remove (step aside) to escape a hit while allowing for a counter-attack.20 This implies that Mercutio will be the first to strike at Tybalt, forcing a temporary retreat. Through Mercutio's identification of Tybalt with fancy fencing Shakespeare ingeniously develops a hint in Brooke where Tybalt is several times lauded for his “skill in feates of armes” (1054, 964), a reputation that befits his name. As such Tybalt becomes a warrior type in the play—the fighter.

Romeo, however, has been consistently presented in the role of the lover, as well as friend, who rediscovers his “sociable” self (2.4.89) with Mercutio only after he betroths himself to Juliet. And as a lover Romeo might also be seen as the pilgrim, a stark foil to the fighter. As Brian Gibbons and other editors have noted, “romeo” in Italian means “roamer, wanderer, or palmer” (1.5.92-105, note), and the pilgrim was conventionally associated with the lover. I would suggest, unlike Gibbons, that verbal quibbling is abetted by visual impression because the masked Romeo probably does go to the ball costumed as a pilgrim, and hence the first loverly exchange between Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet greets Romeo as “good pilgrim” before she even knows his name rises naturally from his pilgrim's costume. Aside from her greeting there is no specific evidence in the play for this costume, but critics have overlooked evidence in Brooke for some costume in addition to the mask. In Brooke when Juliet seeks to know her beloved's identity, she asks: “And tell me who is he with vysor in his hand, / That yonder doth in masking weede besyde the window stand” (351-52; italics mine).21 The traditional pilgrim's garb usually included a cloak as well as a large hat, scallop shell, and staff.22

If Shakespeare does innovatively develop the costume hint in his source as the specific pilgrim motif, then the visual impact of the pilgrim registers even more contrast with that of the revenger. As pilgrim-lover Romeo seems to be no man to fight Tybalt. Mercutio, ignorant about Juliet but anticipating a possible duel between Tybalt and Romeo, laments this, playfully deriding Romeo as “already dead” (2.4.13-17) from love's attack. Once Romeo shifts his allegiance from love to hate, from peace to war, he ironically transforms himself from the pilgrim-lover into the pilgrim-wanderer, the “runagate” (3.5.89) doomed to exile for killing Tybalt. Although Shakespeare took some nautical hints from Brooke's poem, “To the Reader,” with its “wery pilate” using “the lode starres … in storms to guide to haven the tossed barke” (12-14),23 Shakespeare, however, through his imagery of voyaging creatively coalesces the nuances of Romeo's name when its bearer's earthly pilgrimage ends not in safe haven but in shipwreck. When Romeo is faced with banishment, his “dear saint” (1.5.102) becomes his “heaven” (3.3.29). When faced with what he believes to be death, Romeo keeps faith with Juliet in setting up his “everlasting rest” (5.3.110) with her, but wearied by an onslaught of woes, does Romeo also break faith with “[him] that hath the steerage of [his] course” (1.5.112) when he becomes his own “desperate pilot” of his “seasick weary bark” (5.3.117-18)?

Romeo's tragic ignorance of Mercutio and his possible motivations enmeshes Romeo in a painful dilemma of having to choose between his wife and his friend, between romance and friendship, if you will, not altogether unlike the dilemmas of choice for lovers and friends in other plays roughly contemporaneous with Romeo and Juliet, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Much Ado About Nothing. Indeed, Shakespeare strikingly develops the motif of youthful male friendship that virtually disappears after the opening of Brooke's poem (101-48). Shakespeare also significantly changes Brooke's reasons for Romeo's attempt to prevent violence and foster peace. In Brooke Romeus knowingly runs to the fray attracted by its noise (994), whereas Romeo, either by chance or by fate, unluckily happens upon an apparently peaceful scene. Shakespeare develops tragic pathos here by using mischance and by telescoping time; in Brooke the fray occurs some three months after the marriage (The Argument, 5; 949), but in Shakespeare only one fragile hour has transpired since the wedding. When Brooke's Romeus arrives at the fray, he tries to reason with the combatants on very different grounds than does Shakespeare's Romeo: “helpe frendes to part the fray / … Gods farther wrath you styrre, beside the hurt you feele / And with this new uprore confounde all this our common wele” (1001-2). Except for Romeo's reminder of the Prince's edict (87-88), Shakespeare omits the political and theological concerns that govern Romeus's appeal and crystallizes Romeo's motivation in his love for Juliet. Brooke's Tybalt viciously attacks Romeus twice, Romeus being spared only by his coat of “mayle” and his “cunning ward” (1009, 1020). For Romeus's vague “other waighty cause my hasty hand doth stay” (1012), Shakespeare substitutes the explicit language of love as Romeo attempts to deflect Tybalt's slanderous insults. Given what we have seen of our pilgrim Romeo, we expect him to continue in pursuing loving pacifism. Indeed, Romeo seems remarkably resilient and would have been able to withstand Tybalt's provocation but for Mercutio's tragic intervention. Despite Tybalt's insults and Mercutio's condemnation, Romeo continues to argue for peace, even risking his own life by coming between the dangerous duelists to part them.

What then might Shakespeare gain dramatically by changing Romeo's duel from enraged self-defense to impassioned revenge for the loss of a dear friend?24 Among other things he gains at least a much more complicated and ironic situation fraught with bittersweet poignancy and ethical dilemma as Romeo's love for Juliet is newly challenged by his love for his dear friend Mercutio and hate for Tybalt. To champion his dead friend he must kill his wife's cousin. For Romeo the moment is emotionally electrified with very little time to think, let alone “reason coldly” (51). However, Shakespeare clears the stage and gives Romeo some brief time to soliloquize, and upon this reflection to choose, totally unlike anything found in his source. In Brooke Tybalt's second attack so provokes Romeus that he rages savagely “as a forest bore … / Or as a Lyon wylde … of wrong receavde tavenge himselfe by fight” (1023-30). What a stark contrast we find in Shakespeare's account which bypasses the sensationalism and gore found in Brooke to focus more incisively on the tragic trap and characters' motives for choices. Thus far Tybalt has not physically attacked Romeo, but he has succeeded in wounding Romeo far more deeply by killing Mercutio. In light of this context the view represented by Gibbons emphasizing Romeo's being “forced” (p. 40) to avenge Mercutio seems a bit overstated. Just as Romeo had chosen not to obey the dictates of the honor code in revenging Tybalt's insults, so now he consciously reverses that decision. In contemplating what has just happened—Mercutio's “mortal hurt / In [his] behalf—[his] reputation stained with Tybalt's slander” (113-14)—Romeo begins to resolve in favor of revenge: “O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soft'ned valor's steel” (115-17). Benvolio's reentrance to announce Mercutio's death but fans the flame as Romeo ominously forewarns, “This day's black fate … but begins the woe others must end” (121-22).

Amazingly Tybalt now returns to the scene of the crime, still “furious” (123) and still seeking his original prey. How violent must one be to return to kill again, one's sword already bloodily “neighbourstained” (1.1.80)? Shakespeare's darker exploration of man's “rude will” contrasts sharply with Franco Zeffirelli's revision of this scene in his well-known film where Tybalt's fatal thrust appears accidental and Romeo furiously pursues a soberly retreating Tybalt. Given the traumatic complexity of his situation what should Romeo do? The question rankles. But Romeo now verbally clarifies his choice for revenge, “Away to heaven respective lenity, / And fire-ey'd fury be my conduct now!” (125-26), before he enacts it. He fights now both for himself—“Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again / That late thou gav'st me”—and for Mercutio—“Mercutio slain … for Mercutio's soul” (124-28). As Benvolio notes in his report to the Prince, Romeo has but “newly entertain'd revenge” (173). Now “to't they go like lightning” (174), and the audience's ear may recall the last time they heard the word “lightning” in a far different context but one also tinged with danger as Juliet cautioned Romeo about the lightning nature of their love (2.2.119). Romeo is ready to kill or to die: “Either thou, or I, or both must go with [Mercutio]” (131). Romeo exits lamenting that he is now Fortune's fool, and although Fortune has played her part, it has been but a part.

Thus Shakespeare transcends his source by developing Romeo's stature as a tragic protagonist as Romeo chooses here to decry his love for Juliet as an effeminate force, rendering him a “weaker vessel” (1.1.14-15), and consequently he embraces the macho ethic of Tybalt's revenge code which lamentably fuels the feud as well as the warrior definition of manhood. Must one violently revenge wrongs to be a man? In an attempt to analyze the modern street violence in Washington, D.C., commonly called the murder capital of the United States, a front-page article in The Washington Post newspaper outlined “the deadly code of conduct” believed to be “at the roots of the violence”: “Never back down, even from what appears to be a trivial confrontation. Be willing to kill or die to defend your honor. Protect your reputation and manhood at all costs, lest you lose the respect of your friends.”25 How far have we come?

Shakespeare's fascination with violence and its potentially tragic effects in this play is far more complex, and part of his mastery of tragic form involves his brilliant juxtaposition of scenes, our scene being no exception. While outside the compass of this essay, we might note in passing that violence in hate is matched by violence in love. His imagery deadly and explosively violent, Friar Laurence cautions Romeo and Juliet about how to love each other before he weds them: “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which, as they kiss, consume” (2.6.9-11). Romeo describes Tybalt as “alive in triumph” (126) over Mercutio only to die himself. And in the two scenes subsequent to the duel both Juliet (3.2.132-37) and Romeo (3.3.106-7) threaten to take their lives but are prevented until finally interred in a “triumphant grave” (5.3.83).

However, the fatal duel in which Romeo becomes a first-time murderer does not in itself make Romeo “death-mark'd” (Prologue, 9) because the point of Friar Laurence's subsequent philosophical debate with Romeo (3.3) depends on exile, not death, on Romeo's being spared to live. Indeed, Benvolio expected the death sentence, reminding us of that decree when he begs Romeo to flee: “The Prince will doom thee death / If thou art taken” (136-37). The fact that Escalus mitigates his original decree of the death penalty for future frays is in itself somewhat complicated business that usually receives scant attention. In Brooke there is no such specific edict to begin with, only general “jentyl … perswasion … [and] thondring threats” on the prince's part (43-48), and the prince's dilemma of judgment is marked by a significant pause to reflect on this particular fray before dooming exile (1045-46). Why does Shakespeare's Escalus change his mind? His reasons are never clearly articulated, but he questions Lady Capulet's assertion that justice exact Romeo's life for Tybalt's by emphasizing the triangle that evolves with Mercutio's death. Escalus's revision of the penalty from death to banishment probably reveals his recognition of Romeo's dilemma as well as Romeo's offense of murder because Romeo took the law into his own hands. Moreover, Shakespeare makes Mercutio “the prince's near ally” (3.1.112), thus giving Escalus a vested interest of personal loss in this feud: “My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding” (191).

Interestingly, the next and last time we hear Mercutio's name mentioned in the play ominously occurs in Romeo's next and last duel, hence linking these two fatal duels, as opposed to the greater comic potential of the opening brawl with its bloody danger but no death. Just as Shakespeare made Mercutio kin to the Prince, so also he now reveals ever so poignantly through Romeo's complaint that Mercutio was also kin to Paris (5.3.75). Herein Romeo recognizes that he has slain both his wife's kin and his friend's kin, and Escalus later laments this loss of “a brace of kinsmen” (Mercutio and Paris), simultaneously acknowledging the influence of a higher power while significantly seeing himself as punished for his own blameworthy “winking at [the feudists'] discords” (5.3.292-94). Escalus's conclusion recalls Friar Laurence's bipolar position (5.3.153; 225-26). Although a detailed analysis of Escalus's role lies outside the scope of this essay, it should be observed here that Shakespeare may indict him for lax discipline of his town's rebellious patriarchs and their households, more than Brooke does whose Escalus loses no kinsmen nor comments that “all are punished” (5.3.294). In both Brooke and Shakespeare the feud causes bloodshed, but in Shakespeare three specific brawls occur before Escalus pronounces his edict (1.1.79-101).

In both Romeo's duels he intended to prevent violence, but succumbed to it in deed.26 In the final duel, another of Shakespeare's additions to Brooke, the emphasis on mad blood as well as the “betossed soul” (76) resurfaces as Romeo, once again intending not to fight, pleads with Paris as he similarly had done with Tybalt, “I love thee better than myself” (64). But while his self-description as “a desperate man” (59) and “a mad man” (67) elicits our sympathy for his agony, we also hear Romeo rationally recognize his own plight: “Put not another sin upon my head / By urging me to fury” (62-63). The network of related deaths cripples Verona in a premature burial of some of its finest. The play's architecture might be thought of as resting on the tripod of these three fights created or transformed by Shakespeare to define structurally the opening, midpoint, and ending of this tragedy.

Shakespeare's powerful revision of his chief source for the fatal duel that orients the play in tragedy's direction raises compelling questions about the interplay of comic and tragic modes: What promotes life? What promotes death? Above all, how and why? As young Romeo exits he might do well to borrow some of his ghostly father's lines that partly capture the tragic tension in this sometimes underestimated drama: “And here I stand, both to impeach and purge / Myself condemned and myself excus'd” (5.3.225-26).


  1. All references are to Romeo and Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons (New Arden Shakespeare) (London: Methuen, 1980). I dedicate this essay to the late Professor O. B. Hardison, Jr. who encouraged me to write it.

  2. For a useful list of critics representing the views of this play as a tragedy of fate or a tragedy of character, see Paul N. Siegel, “Christianity and the Religion of Love in Romeo and Juliet,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 12 (1961): 371.

  3. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), I, 281. All references to Brooke's poem are documented parenthetically in my text and refer to Bullough, 284-363. Kenneth Muir also does not mention Mercutio's aggressive role in The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), 38-46. However, G. Blakemore Evans does note this role in his edition of Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 3.1.168, note. Cf. also, Raymond V. Utterback, “The Death of Mercutio,” SQ 24 (1973): 105-16.

  4. See O.E.D., [Oxford English Dictionary] “Mercurial,” a.3; “Mercurialist,” lb. Cf. Murray J. Levith, What's in Shakespeare's Names (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1978), 46-47. In describing “the qualities of the Planets” Claude Dariot notes that the influence of “Mercurie in all things is common and mutable, he is good with the good and euill with the euill … hote with the hote … infortunate with the misfortunes,” and perhaps this aspect of mutability also affects Shakespeare's presentation of Mercutio as one who can change from a “talker” to a “fighter.” See Dariot, A Briefe … Introduction to the Astrologicall Iudgement of the Starres, trans. Fabian Wither (London: Thomas Purfoot, 1598), sigs. C4v-D1.

  5. See Hosley, ed., The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1854), 1.4.1 n., p. 134. It is not unlikely that Shakespeare knew the Romeo and Juliet story in an Italian version, especially Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo (c. 1530) and perhaps even Matteo Bandello's “Romeo e Giulietta” (1554) in his Le Novelle. Shakespeare also used Italian sources for The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Olin H. Moore argues the case for Shakespeare's knowledge of Luigi da Porto. See Moore, The Legend of Romeo and Juliet (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1950), 111-18, 129-31, 138. Cf. Muir, 38. Evans notes that the detail of Romeo's attending the Capulet feast in the hope of seeing Rosaline appears only in Da Porto, and not in Boaistuau, as had been formerly argued. See Evans, 7, n. 1. In addition to Shakespeare's possible awareness of Marcuccio's name, I would like to present here new support for Moore's thesis that Shakespeare probably had “access, directly or indirectly, to Italian originals” (p. 138). Only in the Italian sources do we find the Mercutio figure called “squint-eyed.” Da Porto introduces him as “Marcuccio Guercio,” and when Bandello refers to him as “Marcuccio il guercio,” he develops the character as “an indispensable leader in festivities,” a trait Shakespeare also ascribes to his Mercutio. See Moore, 44, 76-77 and n. 14. Marcuccio's physical deformity of being “squint-eyed,” which could be masked especially well by a visor with overhanging eyebrows, seems to shed light on Shakespeare's curious lines for Mercutio: “A visor for a visor. What care I / What curious eye doth quote deformities? / Here are the beetle brows shall blush for me” (1.4.30-32). There is nothing to prompt such a remark in the English versions of Brooke and Painter nor in Boaistuau's French translation of Bandello's Italian. Shakespeare's original portrayal of Romeo as a “torchbearer” (1.4.11-12, 35) to the ball, one who intends not to dance, may be influenced by Da Porto's and Bandello's emphasis on the “torchio” as the name of the last dance at the Capulet ball, a dance in which partners are exchanged, and as Bandello explains, the “torchio” is passed from the gentleman to the lady. See Moore, 44, 82. Brooke has one line that indicates this dance: “With torche in hand a comly knight did fetch her [Juliet] foorth to daunce” (246). Finally, only in Da Porto and Bandello does Romeo attempt suicide by stabbing himself but is prevented. See Moore, 47; Bullough, 273. If Shakespeare borrows this incident, he transfers it from the end of the Italian versions when Romeo receives the false news of Juliet's death to the middle of his play (3.3.106-7) when Romeo reacts to the news of his banishment. Shakespeare moves forward in his plot several elements in his sources, such as the match with Paris and Tybalt's entrance. However, using evidence from separate scenes, Moore overstates the case for Shakespeare's exclusive agreement with Da Porto and Groto in the mention of stabbing and poisoning at the heroine's death (see 106, 115, 138). The same double emphasis, at similar places in the narrative, may be found in Brooke, ll. 2023-24, 2028, 2179-80, 2753, 2772. A useful edition for comparing Moore's quotations from the Italian sources is Alessandro Torri, ed., Giulietta e Romeo … di Luigi Da Porto; Romeo e Giulietta … di Matteo Bandello; Giulia e Romeo … da Clizia (Pisa: Tipi dei Fratelli Nistri e cc., 1831).

  6. See William Camden, Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine (London: G. E., 1605), sig I4: “Marke … according to Festus Pompeius it signifieth a Hammer or Mallet, given in hope the person should be martiall.” See Edward Lyford, The True Interpretation and Etymologie of Christian Names (London: T. W., 1655), sig. L5: “Mark, or Marcus” means “Martial, or Warlike (with Plutarch) from Mars … a name given in hope of future Valour.” Cf. E. G. Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 167.

  7. “Juliet” is a diminutive of “Julia,” the feminine form of “Julius,” and the month of July takes its name from Julius Caesar. See O.E.D., “July”; Withycombe, 175-76; Levith, 45. Cf. Gibbons who suggests “these associations with early ripening [Lammas-tide] chime happily with Juliet's birth” (1.3.15 n., 101). But Shakespeare complicates the joyful ripening associated with the harvest festival of Lammas-tide because a harvest is also a time of death—cropping and uprooting—so that while Juliet “ripens,” she is also “cut down” before her time.

  8. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Batman uppon Bartholome, his Book De Proprietatibus Rerum, tr. John Trevisa, rev. Stephen Batman (London: Thomas East, 1582), IX. 15, fol. 146v.

  9. See Bullokar, An English Expositor (London: John Legatt, 1616), sig. F5. See Spenser, Prosopopoia. Or Mother Hubberds Tale (1591), Spenser: Poetical Works, eds. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (1912; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 495, ll. 5-8. Cf. also, Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), “Iulye Aeglogue,” 444, ll. 21-26, and the “Glosse,” 447: “in Iuly the sonne is in Leo … [and] the Dogge starre, which is called Syrius or Canicula reigneth, with immoderate heate causing Pestilence, drougth, and many diseases.”

  10. The term “star-cross'd” appears to originate with Shakespeare and is a hapax legomenon in his canon as well. This term is most often glossed in a plural sense (i.e., the malignity of the stars): see, e.g., the editions of the play by Thomas Marc Parrot, George Lyman Kittredge, William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill, Oscar James Campbell, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, John E. Hankins, John Dover Wilson and George Ian Duthie, T. B. J. Spencer, and Frank Kermode (Riverside) as well as Alexander Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare always uses the word “star” in its plural form, but elsewhere he uses “star” in the singular sense of a natal star (Ado, 2.1.335), an unfavorable star (2H6, 3.1.206), or a favorable star (Tmp, 1.2.182). For the singular sense of “star-cross'd” to signify a current misfortune, see Thomas Dekker, Old Fortunatus (1599), The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953-61), Vol. 1, Act 2 (Chorus), 15-16, 136 and Act 4 (Chorus), 4-6, p. 168, where Dekker's first passage presents misfortune as “some unluckie starre” and parallels his use of “star-crost” in his second choric passage. Cf. also, O.E.D., “Star,” sb. 1, 20 (“star-cross, -crossed adjs., thwarted by a malign star”); Evans's note on “star-crossed,” p. 53.

  11. Regarding the reference to an “ancient grudge,” see Bullough, 276 and Evans, Chorus, 3, note, p. 53. Evans errs, however, when he claims that Brooke “only allows the feud to erupt in violence after Romeus and Juliet's marriage” (p. 8). See Brooke, ll. 36-38: “So of a kyndled sparke of grudge, in flames flashe out theyr yre, / And then theyr deadly foode, first hatchd of trifling stryfe / Did bathe in bloud of smarting woundes, it re[a]ved breth and lyfe.”

  12. Withycombe, 263-64. In the Italian sources of the Romeo and Juliet story, Tybalt's name is “Tebaldo.” See Moore, 46, 68, 76, et passim.

  13. Camden, sig. K4. Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London: Adam Islip, 1611), “Thibauld,” sig. Ggggviv.

  14. See, e.g., H. H. Furness, ed., Romeo and Juliet (Variorum Shakespeare) (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1899), 119; Gibbons, 142; Evans, 105.

  15. See Sands, ed., The History of Reynard the Fox, trans. William Caxton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 201.

  16. Tibert first appears briefly in chapter three of Reynard, but chapter ten begins his story, a very funny but uncomplimentary allusion for Tybalt. See Sands, esp. 64-69; cf. also, 72, 78-82, 85, 95, 97, 105, 148, 183.

  17. For the interrelation of Nashe's and Shakespeare's use of the title, “Prince of Cats,” and the view that Shakespeare is probably borrowing from Nashe, see Evans, 3-4, 105. Although the title, “Prince of Cats,” does not appear in Reynard, Tibert is introduced in chapter 10 as “Sir Tibert.” See Sands, 64.

  18. See Robert Nares, A Glossary (London: Robert Triphook, 1822), “Tibert, or Tybert,” 518. Cf. O.E.D., “Tibert.” Cf. Ben Jonson's figurative use of “tiberts” for “men” in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), Vol. 8, Epigrammes (cxxxiii. “The Voyage Itself”), 88, 149-55: “Cats there lay … / But ’mongst these Tiberts, who do’ you thinke there was?”

  19. Saviolo, His Practice (1595), in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, ed. James Jackson (Delmar, New York: Scolars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1972), sig. H1v; sig. E. For the stoccata, cf. also, Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence, rev. ed. (1885; London: G. Bell & Sons, 1910), 121; Horace S. Craig, “Dueling Scenes and Terms in Shakespeare's Plays,” University of California Publications in English 9 (1940), 25-26; Adolph L. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing in Romeo and Juliet,SQ 20 (1969): 122, n. 10.

  20. See Saviolo, sig. H3, sig. K2; Castle, 122; Craig, 12, 25.

  21. Cf. Shakespeare's other English source, William Painter, trans., The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs (1980; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966), “Rhomeo and Iulietta,” III, 87: “Then she asked hir againe, what young gentleman that was which holdeth the visarde in his hand, wyth the damaske cloke about him” (italics mine). Although Brooke's “masking weede” for Romeo is a sufficient hint for Shakespeare to develop his own specific pilgrim costume, he might have taken another hint for the idea of a specific costume from Da Porto's version. Only in this version, where the party is a masquerade ball, is Romeo given a specific costume; he is disguised as a nymph. See Moore, 43.

  22. For Inigo Jones's sketch of a “romeo” or pilgrim costume, see James Robinson Planché, A Cyclopaedia of Costume or Dictionary of Dress (London: Chatto & Windus, 1876), 2, 398-99. Cf. Furness, Halliwell's note on 1.5.95, pp. 80-81. For another pilgrim-lover association in Shakespeare, cf. Hamlet, 4.5.25-26.

  23. See also Brooke's other nautical references, ll. 211-12, 225, 799-808, 1365-82, 1519-26. Cf. also, Romeus's complaint, ll. 1335-36, redressed by the Friar's wise counsel, ll. 1361-81, 1431-36.

  24. The motif of avenging others, rather than just oneself, also appears only in Luigi da Porto's version, but revenge here is more generalized with Romeo's seeking revenge for the wounds of many friends. See Moore, 114.

  25. Leon Dash, “At the Roots of Violence: A Deadly Code of Conduct,” The Washington Post, April 3, 1989, A1. Cf. Marvin E. Wolfgang and Neil Alan Weiner, eds., Criminal Violence (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1982), 303-4, for an appraisal of peer environment for group violence.

  26. Youth, at least to some extent, is its own excuse. Shakespeare emphasizes throughout his play the youthfulness of Romeo, his peers, and Juliet (e.g., as is often noted, Brooke's Juliet is 16 years old (1860), but Shakespeare's is 13). Cf. here Worcester's explanation to Vernon why they as responsible adults will not be excused for their rebellion against the king, but Hotspur's offense will be excused because of his youth and splenetic temperament: “My nephew's trespass may well be forgot, / It hath the excuse of youth and heat of blood.” See The First Part of Henry the Fourth, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 5.2.16-23.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Levenson, Jill L. Introduction to Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jill L. Levenson, pp. 1-126. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the excerpt below, Levenson highlights Romeo and Juliet's themes, discusses its structure and its use of rhetoric, and notes that in terms of genre, the play provides an original arrangement of the tragic, comic, and sonnet sequence forms.]


Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was, and still is, famous for its affect. In his essay on feeling and early modern theatre, Gary Taylor cites allusions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably to the tragedy's last couplet, indicating that audiences appreciated this play as ‘the ultimate in woe’.1 However the text has been adapted since the Restoration, woe and love have remained keynotes of successful performance; and Romeo and Juliet has enjoyed a number of highly successful periods in production, from the second half of the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth, from staging by David Garrick to cinema by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann (see the discussion of theatre history below, ‘Restoration to Late Twentieth Century’). Theatre tends to pitch emotion for adult audiences; recent films, keying sentiment for more than one generation, have moved record numbers of teenagers with the incomparable ‘story of more woe’.


One source of affect in Romeo and Juliet must be the mythical component of the narrative, potential which the dramatic version exploits to a far greater degree than the novellas. Again and again Shakespeare reinforces Liebestod and resonant myths, not only with references to Cupid and Venus but with allusions to unrelated Ovidian stories connecting disaster and transformation: Phaëton, the most prominent (2.2.4, 2.4.9, 3.2.1-4, 5.3.306), as well as Danaë (1.1.210), Echo (2.1.207-9), Julius Caesar (3.2.22-5), Philomel (3.5.4), and Proserpina (5.3.105). At times citations of supporting myth and legend appear in unlikely places, such as Mercutio's catalogue of five tragic heroines in his mockery of Romeo as lover (2.3.40-2). Despite comic distractions like this, promises of woe to come occur everywhere in the play. The motif of death as Juliet's bridegroom, identified by M. M. Mahood and T. J. B. Spencer,2 is introduced at the end of the fourth scene (ll. 247-8) and repeated until its enactment in 5.3. Wordplay and irony also anticipate the tragic close. On seeing Juliet at the dance, Romeo observes ‘Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear’ (see 1.4.160 n.). In their first private conversation Juliet confesses, as she compares Romeo to a pet bird, ‘Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing’ (2.1.229). The familiar version of the wedding scene concentrates foreboding in the exchange between Friar Laurence and Romeo (2.5.1-15).3

The play also enhances the rite of passage which the myth represents. While the novellas emphasize the lovers' failure to make the social transition symbolized by marriage, they present little psychological complexity. Literary conventions which stylize thought and emotion allow the protagonists almost no individuality: Romeo and Juliet are patterns of young love, his age unspecified, hers noted (during her father's marriage negotiations) as sixteen in Brooke, eighteen or so in the others. By contrast, the dramatic version catches the lovers specifically in the early and middle phases of adolescence. Its portrayal of these phases, remarkable for its accuracy and thoroughness, is animated by sexual energy. When wordplay imitates sexual play, it expresses thoughts and sensations typical of this often chaotic period of transition.4 The staging itself, readily adaptable to film, charges events:

Visually, the play remains memorable for a number of repeated images—street brawls, swords flashing to the hand, torches rushing on and off, crowds gathering. The upper stage is used frequently, with many opportunities for leaping or scrambling or stretching up and down and much play between upper and lower areas. The dominant feelings we get as an audience are oppressive heat, sexual desire, a frequent whiz-bang exhilarating kinesthesia of speed and clash, and above all a feeling of the keeping-down and separation of highly charged bodies, whose pressure toward release and whose sudden discharge determine the rhythm of the play.5

Perhaps the sexually charged enactment of adolescence explains the emotional appeal of Romeo and Juliet to modern teenagers and to adults still in touch with their earlier selves.

In its portrayal of adolescent phases, Romeo and Juliet uses the sequence of the well-known story as a point of departure. It adds scenes and shorter passages to the fictional narrative which enlarge the social worlds of the lovers before reducing them, and which therefore complicate relationships with families or friends. Consequently the changes of adolescence, part of a larger dynamic, set off repercussions at every level of the action: the protagonists verbalize them and act them out; Romeo's friends mirror or disagree with his behaviour; and the older generation, misconstruing almost all of the signs, hasten events towards calamity.

In the opening scene, for example, more than half of the dialogue elaborates on Romeo's state of mind. When the prototype failed to rationalize his initial lovesickness in the novellas, an anonymous friend lectured him on the wastefulness of unrequited love, and Romeo immediately accepted his advice to find a more compassionate mistress. Revising this episode, the play makes Romeo's behaviour the subject of conversation between his father and his cousin Benvolio: Romeo isolates himself, restless and uncommunicative, seeking an ambience that suits his mood. Benvolio not only shares some of Romeo's feelings (ll. 114-26), but recognizes the correspondence:

I, measuring his affections by my own …
Pursued my humour, not pursuing his,
And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me.

(ll. 122-6)

Yet neither relative can identify Romeo's problem, an obvious case of unsettled hormones, and Benvolio determines to help Montague find the cause. During the eighty-line exchange between Romeo and Benvolio which follows, play on words and on conventions of love-poetry replaces the anonymous lecture, establishing the distinctive language of the young male peer group that will include Mercutio. With his ripostes to Benvolio's speeches, Romeo scores points in a contest of wits that displays self-conscious masculinity in adolescent patter:

In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.
I aimed so near when I supposed you loved.
A right good markman, and she's fair I love.
A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.
Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit; …

(ll. 200-5)

The fourth scene introduces Mercutio, the character invented from a few sentences in the original narratives; and it adds at the start an episode of more than one hundred lines where he interacts with Romeo, almost engulfing him with the power of his imagination in the Queen Mab speech, expressing his anger and his sexual fantasies. Often Mercutio's banter, witty and combative, escalates to rough bawdy; it voices preoccupations which the other young men disguise with more propriety. Between this episode and the beginning of the third act, Romeo's two close friends appear where the audience could not have expected them from precedents, leaving Capulet's party (1.4.232-7), serving as prelude to the moonlit balcony scene (2.1.3-43), filling time until the Nurse delivers her first message to Romeo (2.3.1-134). Intruding on the love-story, they accentuate Romeo's growing distance from their social life. The opening scene of the third act centres on them, especially Mercutio, who provokes the fight which leads to Romeo's exile. After the explosion of violence which kills Mercutio, Benvolio too disappears from the play, and Romeo's isolation becomes different in kind. As his social world disintegrates, the drama returns to its source-narrative and Romeo engages with characters who expedite his fate: Friar Laurence, the Nurse, his man Balthazar, the Apothecary. The fifth act contains a different kind of invention, Romeo's dream and recollections of the Apothecary's shop in 5.1, and his encounter with Paris in 5.3. Late in the play these discrete moments again focus his state of mind, his brief escape into wishfulfilment and his suicidal despair.

Like the novellas, the play introduces Juliet after the exposition which dissociates Romeo from the feud; but it immediately adds two scenes which position the character within her family and add up to a biographical sketch. The fictions present a stereotypical beauty at her father's celebration, ‘a maid, right fair of perfect shape’, who attracts Romeo's eye (Brooke 197). Anticipating the party, the second and third scenes of the drama portray the young Juliet as she is viewed through the eyes of others: her father, a potential suitor, her mother, and her nurse. When she appears in the third scene, Juliet has little to say, barely hinting the complexities to come, but she is well-defined in social terms. If the play conceals her state of mind, it announces her age, her status as an only child and heir, her suitability for betrothal, and her condition of total dependency on her parents. She belongs to an affluent early modern household run by her father. In addition to the immediate family there are servants for everything from delivering messages to serving food.6 Later scenes will show them moving furniture, providing torches, gathering provisions for the cook, and collecting logs for a fire. Interpolations, these episodes portray an establishment bustling with male and female servants, some more experienced and responsible than others. The household includes Samson and Gregory, the serving-men inclined towards sex and violence: Shakespeare created them to open the play.

Certainly the Nurse holds a privileged position among the rest; she shares the counsel of Juliet and her mother during 1.3. A nurse in every sense of the word, she breast-fed the infant Juliet and cared for the growing child. She delivers the history of Juliet's brief life, allowing the audience to imagine a toddler being weaned, taking her first steps, going through the initial stage of separation from a mother-figure with its attendant hazards: Juliet fell out with the breast, and she toppled over as she ran. When the Nurse repeats her husband's joke about Juliet losing her balance—‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit’ (1.3.44, 58)—unknowingly she not only mocks the narrative in progress, but calls attention to the second stage of development now under way. Whatever the age of puberty for girls in Elizabethan England, Juliet has apparently reached it in Shakespeare's Italy.7 ‘Well, think of marriage now’ (1. 71), her mother advises Juliet, who is almost fourteen. Younger girls have become mothers, and Capulet's Wife herself gave birth to Juliet when she was about Juliet's age (ll. 71-5).

After the first act, the play invents little narrative around the character of Juliet. Instead, it makes adjustments to the Capulet family of the novellas, in particular to Capulet himself, which strengthen initial impressions of Juliet's place in the household. From the beginning this father busily engages in his daughter's marriage arrangements, rushing them along from 3.4. His interference generates irony and suspense in the third act; his negotiations with Paris continue while Juliet consummates her marriage with Romeo. Significantly, his efforts call attention to the conflict which results when Juliet attempts to escape his authority. In 3.5 this confrontation, which starts with Capulet's Wife, occupies most of the long scene: nearly two hundred lines of dialogue follow the sixty-five-line parting of Romeo and Juliet. The family episode, in its sheer bulk, represents the obduracy which the lovers face. Here social and economic considerations are primary; and the adolescent girl who tries to assert independence hears, in blunt terms, that she is her father's property. Many of Capulet's insults—‘green-sickness carrion’ (l. 155), ‘wretched puling fool’ (l. 183), ‘whining maumet’ (l. 184)—emphasize Juliet's youth. In 4.2 he will stress her intractableness: ‘A peevish self-willed harlotry it is’, ‘How now, my headstrong’ (ll. 13, 15); but he will express approval when she seems to concede:

I have learned me to repent the sin
Of disobedient opposition
To you and your behests; …

(ll. 16-18)

In effect, the play simulates what Anna Freud calls ‘the atmosphere in which the adolescent lives’:

… [the] anxieties, the height of elation or depth of despair, the quickly rising enthusiasms, the utter hopelessness, the burning—or at other times sterile—intellectual and philosophical preoccupations, the yearning for freedom, the sense of loneliness, the feeling of oppression by the parents, the impotent rages or active hates directed against the adult world, the erotic crushes—whether homosexually or heterosexually directed—the suicidal fantasies, etc.8

Although writers since antiquity had recognized and recorded the experience of adolescence, none had dramatized it so comprehensively.9

The play observes the transitional phase from an adult's point of view as the younger generation assume the attitudes typical of the process; it also adopts the adolescent's point of view as the developing personality responds to family and other social values and beliefs. Consequently it presents adolescence in Verona not only as it is perceived by those who have survived it, usually in a distant or vanished past, but also as it is felt by those who are growing through it until violence abruptly stops their progress. Finally the play totalizes this experience, which psychoanalytic theory and recent data continue to link with emotional turmoil: the whole adolescent population, including the most stable personalities, feel the pressures of new sexual impulses and socialization as adults.10 The dramatic action displays a range of adolescent behaviours from Benvolio to Tybalt, less disturbed to more disturbed, showing these figures in relation to one another and to adults, especially father-figures.11 But only spectators, and perhaps actors, have access to the entire prospect. None of the characters fully apprehends the decisive changes in the younger generation which will profoundly disrupt their society, ending the Capulet and Montague lines and killing Mercutio and Paris, two of the Prince's kinsmen.

Clearly Shakespeare's additions and adjustments contribute to the narrative's inclusiveness as well as its various ironies. One modern study of adolescence begins with Romeo and Juliet 2.2, the exchange between Romeo and Friar Laurence about Romeo's inconstancy. Original to the play, this dialogue sets adolescent intensity and impatience against adult perplexity and rationalization; its tension is diverted rather than resolved. Friar Laurence may joke about Romeo's passions—tears, sighs, and groans over changing objects of love—but he never acknowledges their sources, and at last he will indulge them in an attempt to end the feud (ll. 90-2).12 Through the rest of the play this pattern continues: Friar Laurence redirects not only Juliet's suicidal inclinations (4.1), as his prototypes had, but also Romeo's (3.3), both efforts to reconcile the families. In a few days the repressed feelings overwhelm both the protagonists and Friar Laurence. They also overwhelm the other adults in the play, from Montague to the Nurse, who misunderstand the younger generation in their charge. Again and again the drama focuses on this kind of misunderstanding which is probably, in Peter Blos's summation, ‘as old as generations themselves’.13 The lovers and parent-figures never confront their growing distance from one another; and the parent-figures, from one angle, represent adults in adolescent fantasy and perception.14

The peer group which centres on Mercutio, the leader of high social status who takes the greatest risks, represents a constant of adolescent experience observed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric: ‘[Young men] are fonder of their friends, intimates, and companions than older men are, because they like spending their days in the company of others’.15 In Western cultures the male peer group provides space for transition from childhood dependencies to adult relationships: the adolescent experiments with social conventions—dress, gesture, vocabulary—as he establishes his sexual identity according to the group's standard; he may also experiment with fantasy and introspection.16 Nevertheless, the family remains a source of shelter and security: Romeo, still a ward, will follow Mercutio and Benvolio to dinner at his father's house (2.3.130-2).17

Like the signs of dissonance between generations, those of interaction within the peer group are obvious in the play. From the approach to Capulet's party, the three named members show concern with style and decorum, sometimes pointedly dismissing what others think. When Romeo asks if they will enter with a formal speech, for example, Benvolio responds, ‘The date is out of such prolixity’, and he concludes:

But let them measure us by what they will,
We'll measure them a measure and be gone.


Mercutio, putting on a mask required by the occasion, asks; ‘What care I / What curious eye doth quote deformities?’ (ll. 28-9). Since they plan to present themselves in a uniform way, Mercutio attempts to talk Romeo out of the loverlike attitude that sets him apart. His idiom of choice is the pun, unsubtle and ribald, characteristic of the language these young men share. Although not unique to them—Samson and Gregory introduce bawdy wordplay as contest when the play opens—the pun combines with other rhetorical figures to produce a distinct mode of expression, what Erik Homburger Erikson would call a ‘strange code’.18 Mercutio is aware of this distinction and what it means. After the long match of wits with Romeo in 2.3, which ultimately becomes more and more obscene until it stops, he is convinced that Romeo has returned to the fold: ‘Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature’ (ll. 84-5).

As Romeo begins to remove himself from the group, testing sexual partnership, Mercutio seems to consolidate his own position. Mercutio remains witty to the end, a trait Aristotle calls ‘well-bred insolence’; and he argues to the end, another acceptable way to release feelings he may not understand.19 Moreover, he stereotypes everyone he encounters, including that person in the group or, more often, excluding a misfit.20 Sometimes he plays with the stereotypes, describing the peacemaker Benvolio as a quarrelsome gallant (3.1.5-29). But his portrayal of Tybalt as totally unfashionable—in his duelling style, his affected speech, and his other social habits—distinguishes the young Capulet as an outsider (2.3.18-34); and the differences emphasize what Mercutio promotes as the values of his own group. Among the other simplifications, Mercutio stereotypes women, from the elusive Rosaline to the down-to-earth Nurse, always in demeaning them. From Mercutio's point of view women debilitate men, reducing them to impotence and effeminacy: infatuated Romeo appears to him ‘[w]ithout his roe, like a dried herring’ (2.3.36), that is, sexually depleted. All women objectify sex, even the Nurse (‘A bawd, a bawd, a bawd!’, 2.3.122). At a stage of psychological development which may be slightly earlier than Romeo's, Mercutio expresses more interest in his friend's sex life than in his own: Romeo's body supplies images for his phallic wordplay, most strikingly in a series of puns at 1.4.20-6 and 2.1.35-9. With their friendship, typifying the androgynous world of male adolescents, the play enacts not only male bonding but Mercutio's unacknowledged homoerotic desire.21

Romeo and Juliet meet in this incoherent world of shifting identities and relationships, each at a different phase of adolescent development. According to 1.2 and 1.3, Juliet has just entered adolescence from latency, its juncture with childhood. When she first appears she reveals no consciousness of her sexuality, behaviour characteristic of girls her age, despite the subject of the conversation: ‘How stands your dispositions to be married?’ (1.3.67). ‘It is an honour that I dream not of’ (l. 68), Juliet responds, and she is just as abstract when her mother asks, ‘can you like of Paris' love?’ (l. 98):

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

(ll. 99-101)

At this point Juliet accommodates herself to social conventions which take no account of the transitional period she has begun: her mother and nurse expect the child to turn into a woman without delay.22

By comparison Romeo has advanced farther, both in becoming autonomous and in directing his sexual feelings towards an object. Shakespeare makes this object Rosaline, a Capulet, identifying the anonymous lady of the sources with the enemy house. As a result Romeo's first love anticipates his second, and both externalize the emotional conflict which he attempts to articulate in formal, poetic terms; they represent not only unattainable but forbidden desire, sexual impulses which may revive his earliest, Oedipal sensations.23 In isolation or company Romeo seeks the ‘sharp, intense affective states’ which compensate for the losses of adolescence, especially detachment from parental figures.24 He uses Petrarchan language to describe the anxiety of a self-conscious personality loosed from its moorings: ‘Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here; / This is not Romeo, he's some other where’ (see 1.1.193-4 n. and ‘Tragedy, Comedy, Sonnet’ below).

The meeting of Romeo and Juliet in 1.4 initiates a series of events which both deepen and particularize their story. If the broad outline of young love reappears—instant attraction and complementarity—the play fills it in with shades of meaning. Instead of the first conversation which Romeo dominates in the sources, the lovers share verse as sensitive children might share a game: each ‘not only enters the other's imaginative world but also transforms that world by his or her presence’. They take part in a dialogue through which they begin to perceive each other, not narcissistically as mirror images, but mutually as distinct personalities.25 Through the course of their dramatic narrative, continuing transformations allow them the full interplay of male and female roles which C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler noticed in Shakespeare's plays to 1595, an exchange developed in Romeo and Juliet from suggestions in the novellas.26 On the stage Romeo condemns his own effeminacy at Mercutio's death (3.1.113-15), as Friar Laurence will condemn it later (3.3.108-12, 125-6, 142-3), but he will act until his suicide with the emotion and impulsiveness Friar Laurence assigns to women; Juliet accepts the sleeping potion and in the end kills herself with manly resolve, admitting ‘no inconstant toy nor womanish fear’ (4.1.119).27 The intensity of the passion which recasts gender roles changes Romeo and Juliet in other ways: it is audible in the constant modulations of their speech; and it is palpable in the urgent rhythms of their actions, as the play compresses time from months in Brooke and Painter to less than a week.28 Always it collaborates with the conditions which rush the lovers through adolescence to the edge of adulthood, a paradoxical state of independence and relatedness. Together passion and contingencies accelerate the irregular phases of progress or regression for both protagonists.

Yet each lover remains singular.29 As Edward Snow argues persuasively, their voices express their differences. Romeo and Juliet articulate little of their experience as conscious thought; rather, they expose facets of their personalities in idiosyncrasies of diction.30 Characteristically Romeo's figurative language, dominated by eyesight, gives material forms to his desire which rationalize and contain it; Juliet's, generated by all the senses, allows hers a formlessness which slips through boundaries. He frames images to reduce their immediacy; she releases them to take the measure of emotion. ‘Thus where Romeo tells [Juliet] to “look” out her window at the “envious streaks” that “lace the severing clouds in yonder east”, she in turn tries to convince him it is the nightingale that “pierc'd the fearful hollow” of his ear (3.5.1.-10)’.31 When they share an image cluster, these divergences become particularly noticeable. In their first private conversation, for example, just over a dozen speeches produce two distinctive marine conceits. Both figures are attempts to define love, his conceivable and hers difficult to imagine:

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


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.


The signs of masculine and feminine sensibilities, his restraint contrasts with her self-abandonment, his distancing of experience with her absorption in it.

Often Romeo links desire with death, a vein of morbidity pronounced in his speeches from 1.1, his devotion to Rosaline a living death (l. 220), to 5.3, his perception of himself as ‘a dead man’ interring Paris (l. 87).32 After marrying Juliet he associates desire with guilt as well, first about the death of Mercutio, then about his own sexual initiation. At the beginning of 5.1 the soliloquy which conveys his dream reflects not only an adolescent wish to create a new self through the beloved person (his lady's kiss makes Romeo an emperor, ll. 8-9), but also fear of a dreadful price for sexual manhood (‘I dreamt my lady came and found me dead’, l. 6).33 Momentarily Romeo's dream suppresses his guilt as the dreamer takes control, reviving as a powerful man of authority; but Romeo's other speeches in this act emphasize his implication in the destructiveness which perpetuates the feud. His last dialogue and soliloquies—addressing the Apothecary, Paris, Tybalt, and Juliet—define injustice and futility as he perceives them in the world of the play. Since adult Verona is oblivious to crises like this and affords no means to defuse them, Romeo is forced to extemporize a ritual of escape. The dramatic catastrophe elaborates the fictional ones: he kills himself after confronting Paris, who re-enacts his earlier role as lover, a fragmented character to the end.34

For Juliet sexuality is a pleasure and an affirmation that satisfy her need for connectedness.35 After 1.3 she acts on these feelings, a personality who insists on their fulfilment and imagines it vividly in the doomed hours before her wedding night (3.2.1-31). Until the last scene she overcomes morbidity or, as Friar Laurence puts it, ‘cop'st with death himself to scape from it’ (4.1.75). Beginning with the first dialogue on the balcony she faces danger with strategies, actively seeking to avoid the consequences of union with Romeo. Unlike him, she quickly suppresses guilt. When it surfaces in 4.3, for example, in her soliloquy on the vial of potion—she envisions herself mad in her forefathers' vault and Romeo threatened by Tybalt's ghost—she stops the fantasy by taking the drug: ‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here's drink—I drink to thee’ (l. 57). She says little about injustice in the world and she dies with few words, leaving an impression more consistent and focused than that of her lover. By the end of the play her character may be more firmly centred as well, an integrity aware of itself just before it disappears. Her prototypes wake from deathlike sleep confused by light in the tomb: ‘She wist not if she saw a dream, or sprite that walked by night’ (Brooke 2708; cf. Painter, 118). But Shakespeare's Juliet tells Friar Laurence: ‘I do remember well where I should be, / And there I am’ (5.3.149-50). ‘“[R]emembering well” … enables her to venture over the threshold between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, the self and the non-self, and find herself where she “should be” when she returns.’36


Where Brooke and Painter deleted cultural history from the Romeo and Juliet narrative, Shakespeare restores it with late Elizabethan background. Once again the lovers come together in what Jacques Derrida terms ‘contretemps’, ‘produced at the intersection between interior experience … and its chronological or topographical marks’.37 The feud, more complex in the play than in the fictions, surrounds the protagonists with an ideology which affects the way they think and act. As Susan Snyder has shown, the feud represents how ideology works: beliefs, assumptions, and especially practices which reduce everything and everyone to sameness. Enemy Montagues and Capulets share this social terrain, where even the peacemaking Benvolio fights with Tybalt as if by reflex. At the same time this feud enacts a particular ideology which inscribes the play with its chronological or topographical marks.38 Patriarchy, the system which licenses individual men of power to transfer their authority to other individual men, had already added historical dimensions to the novellas.39 In the drama it is more of a presence, filling all the public space and intruding on privacy as well, not only in the family but in the subjective experience of individuals. Some of its most prominent features match current realities more exactly than they do in the sources, making the play immediate and critical.40

Extended in these ways, the feud allows the narrative to draw correspondences between patriarchal state and patriarchal family, political and social order. Prince Escalus attempts to regulate his city, Capulet his family, and both fail because of conflicts within the system. In the early modern era, this juxtaposition contributed more to the play than symmetry. It set unpredictable state against predictable family; eruptive Verona against an established household; forms subject to change—political, economic, cultural—against ‘old-accustomed’ forms (1.2.20).41 Finally the most stable unit of the larger community cannot avoid the stresses inherent in the ideology, but it endures, and Verona endures. Only the younger generation, who internalize imperatives of the feud in the process of becoming adults, pay the ultimate price for its unreasonable demands. The play depicts their crisis in contemporary terms, heightening correspondences in the fiction with analogies from Elizabethan life.

In the earliest texts of Romeo and Juliet, unlawful violence is the most obvious sign of pressure within the system as a whole. As Derek Cohen says, writing about other Shakespearian plays, ‘[a]cts of violence belong to patriarchy as surely as fathers do’.

They appear … to issue directly from that system, indeed, are often logical, rational products of it. … Violence, both criminal and legitimate, is an essential form of cultural expression though it is always the dominant culture within society which gets to define criminality and legitimacy. For this reason acts of violence are all political in that they are absorbed by and conform to and, additionally, are produced by a social code which valorizes order as a social value.42

Violence in Romeo and Juliet, generally unauthorized, not only facilitates the mechanics of plot but adds political implications. At the centre of each novella one dangerous confrontation had occurred: the brawl between Montagues and Capulets that leads to Romeo's banishment. Shakespeare invents two more conflicts, the row in 1.1 and the duel in 5.3, producing a narrative driven by social disorder through violence.43 Like the ideology in which they originate, the signs are pervasive.

Always ready for armed conflict, weapons appear everywhere in Romeo and Juliet. They range from current to obsolete—the rapiers of young gentlemen to the long sword of old Capulet—giving the familiar story new menace as well as concrete signifiers.44 Repeatedly the text calls for weapons as props; often the props make emblematic comments on the action.45 In the first scene Prince Escalus commands, ‘Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground’ (1.1.83), and they lie on the stage in disarray for Romeo to notice soon after he enters (l. 169). In the last scene Friar Laurence finds the ‘masterless and gory swords’ dropped by Paris and Romeo (5.3.142), and Capulet discovers Romeo's dagger ‘mis-sheathèd in my daughter's bosom’ (l. 205). The text seems to require all of the male characters, except Friar Laurence, to wear weapons or have ready access to them; it reflects Elizabethan practice. At the Capulet ball Tybalt, outraged by Romeo's presence, orders his page, ‘Fetch me my rapier, boy’ (1.4.168); on the day after the feast Peter neglects to defend the Nurse with the weapon he carries (2.3.146-9). Friar Laurence, like the Apothecary, has poison at hand (2.2.23-4); Capulet's Wife plans to order some (3.5.88-91).

Weapons and fighting occur not only in the play's action but in the dialogue. As a topic of conversation they open the exchange between Samson and Gregory, a conversation that will be echoed later by Peter and the Musicians at the end of 4.4. They distinguish Mercutio's speeches: his fantasy of Queen Mab includes the soldier who dreams ‘of cutting foreign throats, / Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades’ (1.4.81-2); his characterization of Tybalt portrays a duellist in the Spanish style:46

O, he's the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion; he rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom—the very butcher of a silk button—a duellist, a duellist, a gentleman of the very first house of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado, the punto riverso, the hay!


Mercutio's caricature of Benvolio as a quarreller trivializes the causes for which gentlemen fight: ‘Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun’ (3.1.23-6).

While furnishing content, implements and acts of combat also provide the dialogue with metaphors. These figures blend with standard topoi of the Petrarchan idiom through which all of the dramatis personae express themselves; a social code animates a literary one.47 As Leonard Forster explains, the play enacts a conventional stereotype of amatory poetry: ‘The enmity of Montague and Capulet makes the cliché of the “dear enemy” into a concrete predicament; the whole drama is devoted to bringing this cliché to life’.48 Among the tropes connected with this stereotype are military equipment and assault.49

The fusion of metaphors begins crudely in the conversation of Samson and Gregory: ‘I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall’, ‘when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids, I will cut off their heads’ (1.1.15-17, 20-2). With Romeo's description of Rosaline the conflated tropes, though still extreme, become more refined:

          … she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit;
And in strong proof of chastity well armed,
From love's weak childish bow she lives uncharmed.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th'encounter of assailing eyes …


The conceits often assume this second form through the rest of the play. In the orchard scene, for instance, Romeo finds more peril in Juliet's eye than in twenty of her kinsmen's swords: ‘Look thou but sweet, / And I am proof against their enmity’ (2.1.115-16). Immediately he reports to Friar Laurence that he has been feasting with his enemy, ‘Where on a sudden one hath wounded me / That's by me wounded’ (2.2.50-1). Mercutio describes the lovelorn Romeo as unfit to answer Tybalt's challenge: ‘he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love-song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft’ (2.3.12-15). Before the wedding, in a famous passage Friar Laurence imagines the ends of violent delights as the igniting of gunpowder by fire (2.5.9-10). When the lovers part the lark, whose sound pierced their ears, serves as herald to the morning; streaks of light seem envious and clouds severing (3.5.3-8). Finally Romeo defies the stars, determined to end his grief with poison so potent

                              that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb.


Charged with its ideology, violence determines all forms of expression in Verona, from public conversations to dress to the vocabulary of desire. It spans generations, and it infiltrates the love-story through both incident and verbal style. In the late sixteenth century it gained immediacy from the current events it reflected: violence was an intransigent reality in early modern England. Proclamations against fighting in public had been issued by Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth.50 Despite these and other measures, civil disorder erupted in town and countryside until the turn of the century: brawls disturbed Fleet Street and the Strand; dangerous feuds threatened the peace of whole counties.51 As the Tudors attempted to contain the capacity for violence, and therefore the power, of the aristocracy, infractions continued to escape them. By the 1590s Queen Elizabeth's policies were beginning to take hold, defusing violence through litigation or limiting it to private confrontation in duels, but street outbreaks persisted and the number of recorded duels and challenges jumped from five in the 1580s to nearly twenty in this decade.52 With its feud, street fight, duelling, casualties, and deployment of combat imagery, Romeo and Juliet offers a panoramic view of violence in Elizabethan England. In the midst of its chaos and death Prince Escalus seems to mirror Elizabeth's conduct towards the élite: temporizing procrastination, ‘studied neutrality’.53

More specifically, the play's most striking outbursts of violence reflect a contemporary preoccupation with duelling. According to Diane Bornstein, Elizabethan gentlemen not actively engaged in duels constantly read about them, trained for them by learning to fence, and discussed them.54 By the time Romeo and Juliet was composed in the mid-1590s, three manuals dealt with both the art and its ethical code: Sir William Segar's The Book of Honor and Armes (1590), Giacomo di Grassi's His True Arte of Defence (1594), and Vincentio Saviolo's Practise (1595).55 Like members of his audience, Shakespeare was familiar with the material in these publications, and he may even have known Segar and Saviolo.56 Certainly he parodied the more absurd fine points throughout his dramatic career, from Love's Labour's Lost to Cymbeline.57 With Hamlet he would explore a contradiction most noticeable in Saviolo but present in di Grassi and Segar: both skill and moral self-consciousness determine victory in a duel; both decorum and providential justice govern the outcome. With Romeo and Juliet he examines this contradiction less than he diminishes its moral terms and, by extension, the violence they rationalize. In the fight scenes moralizing and its paradoxes, central to the duelling code, remain conspicuous by their virtual absence: all of the duellists finally ignore not only the procedures but also the ethics of fighting. Three times the play shows a visually stunning match ending in chaos or death. It follows the issuing of a challenge to its conclusion in two fatal duels and exile. Throughout it echoes instruction published by Saviolo—from appropriate behaviour at great feasts to strategies for avoiding conflict with a ‘friend’58—demonstrating over and over again that it does not work.

Violence in all of its manifestations urgently signals disruptions in the patriarchal state of Verona: ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’ (Prologue 4); unlawful outbreaks betray a faltering system which cannot enforce regulations distinguishing criminality from legitimacy. With less force it makes a similar point about the patriarchal family, bound to the state in the play and in fact. What Natalie Zemon Davis writes about the patriarchal family from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth applies to Capulet's situation: ‘In the little world of the family, with its conspicuous tension between intimacy and power, the larger matters of political and social order could find ready symbolization’.59

From the first scene violence intrudes on Capulet's household, calling him from it on a Sunday morning as he responds to Montague, armed and also drawn from his home, by demanding his long sword.60 Soon violence will intrude on Capulet's marriage negotiations with Paris: their first exchange about Paris's suit in 1.2 follows Capulet's allusion to the feud and the Prince's efforts to suppress it; the festivities for viewing Juliet in 1.4 are threatened by Tybalt's fury over Romeo's appearance; and the wedding plans in 3.4 and the fourth act go awry, as far as Capulet knows, with the death of Tybalt. Of course these disturbances are superficial, little tremors from a deep cataclysm. With Juliet's defection and its terrible consequences Capulet loses his grip, more visibly than Montague, on his authority as a patriarch.

By the second scene it becomes clear that Capulet has in sight the main objective for marriage arrangements in the Elizabethan age:

Although children were theoretically able to negotiate their own marriages, parents, especially upper-class parents, continued to regulate spousals in order to achieve or maintain status, cement alliances, gain economic advantage, and ensure continuity of family and property. Indeed, parental pressures may have been especially strong in the period (as they certainly are in the plays) due to economic and demographic factors that tended to increase competition for suitable matches.61

The dialogue with Paris, which Shakespeare invented, reveals that old Capulet feels his mortality; later episodes, in particular an exchange with his relative at the party (1.4.143-53), will reinforce the effect. At this point the scene positions Capulet to begin transacting his succession. According to the first stage direction Paris is a count, a titled suitor whose status Capulet's Wife will soon confirm (1.3.106). Capulet describes Juliet as his only heir, young and vulnerable (ll. 8-11, 14-15). In his longest speech he sets his terms and observes Elizabethan protocols for arranging a marriage, consent by child and parent.62

Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;
She's the hopeful lady of my earth.
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part;
And she agreed, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair according voice.


The correctness of these proceedings contrasts not only Capulet's behaviour in 3.4 and 3.5, but also the unplanned encounter of Romeo and Juliet about to happen in 1.4. Meantime the next scene modifies this decorous picture with its portrayal of the women in Capulet's home: his Wife serves as the agent for his plans, yet the three women form a domestic circle with a life of its own. They generate an impression of female autonomy which the Nurse brings to life in half the lines with her frank sexuality, her anecdotes about nurture and falling backward.63

Within a few minutes of stage time Juliet starts to enact that autonomy, choosing her own candidate for husband (1.4.247-8), and later she makes her own marriage arrangements (2.1.186-91). She corresponds in several ways to Bandello's Giulietta, more responsible than Romeo for the course of events and more threatening to the patriarchal scheme than her other prototypes. In the play capitalism again becomes an active principle still identified with consolidation of the state and prosperous families.64 Marriage continues to mean, in the first place, establishment of a new economic unit, a permanent association between two families, and membership of the husband in the community.65 Ignoring most of these requirements, Juliet too obstructs economic and social progress as much of early modern Europe understood it. Yet she also corresponds to Boaistuau's Julliette, victimized by a system that in the end reveals its own weaknesses and idealizes her.

Similarly, the love Juliet shares with Romeo is a threat to the patriarchal system of family and state. The play makes it sympathetic, a means by which the protagonists discover both themselves and a transcendent mutuality. With more artfulness than Brooke's narrative, it supports the idea of companionate marriage which gained currency during the Elizabethan period; it acknowledges the views advocated by church and state which encouraged marital sexuality.66 Nevertheless, the love which the play endorses is not only transformative but ‘death-marked’ (Prologue 9), the product of mythical and literary tradition. Having a predetermined outcome, it cannot transgress very far. Although it disappoints patriarchy and exposes it, ultimately it does not effect significant change in the ideology.

Act 3, Scene 5 illustrates the play's treatment of its central conflict, an opposition without victory; here the little world of the family symbolizes larger matters. By this time the lovers have consummated a marriage performed without parental consent, an offence against the authority of the feuding families. Grieving and fearful after Romeo's departure, Juliet can barely defend herself against her father's emotional assault. Capulet, secure in his paternal rights, has violated accepted Elizabethan practices in his rush to complete arrangements with Paris; he has allowed no time for wedding preparations, reading of banns, or proper courtship.67 In both cases the violations imply strength of will, but Capulet has an ideology to excuse his breach of custom. When the confrontation happens Capulet, unaware that he has already lost control of his daughter, tries to force her into submission. His last words in the scene threaten disinheritance and death:

An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend;
An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets!
For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.

(ll. 191-4)

Finally Capulet only hastens the inevitable with this speech, and he will not know Juliet's real transgression until the inevitable occurs.

The lovers cannot change or break their social constraints because they have so completely internalized them. However far they escape from gender norms—Juliet in manly risk-taking, Romeo in conciliatory gestures—circumstances force them to return: Juliet reaches a hallucinatory state verging on hysteria before she takes the sleeping potion; Romeo commits murder once in revenge, twice in fury. Nor can they escape their identities as members of rival houses. Everything's in a name, a genealogical marker of an individual's public and private history.68 Perhaps the most transparent sign of ideology in the lovers' characterization is their appropriating of its language, especially the idiom of finance and quantification.69 The economic terms which Bandello introduced to the novella become even more prominent in the play; and both lovers use them, even to convey their feelings for each other. Particularly noticeable in the wedding scene, this determinate language communicates passion in the distinct voices of the two lovers. When Romeo challenges Juliet to express joy equalling his (‘if the measure of thy joy / Be heaped like mine’, ll. 24-5), she answers:

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.


Dympna C. Callaghan describes Romeo and Juliet as a ‘lyrical document of universal love’ which stands within history ‘doing the work of culture, instigating and perpetuating the production of socially necessary formations of desire’.70 Whether or not the play accomplishes such work, it certainly records its own cultural era with its contradictions and defaults. In this sense it shows adult society trying to ward off anomie while a young generation invites it, adapting a compromised ideology in the fervour to become individuals. Adolescent impatience and unreasonableness, keynotes of Mercutio and Tybalt in particular, encapsulate the feud, from its rivalries for power to its allegiances and poignancy. If Romeo and Juliet resist their socialization and for several fleeting days create a private world apart from Verona, they nevertheless continue to incorporate the familiar in the new, and they struggle to reconcile the new with the familiar. The play depicts them as vulnerable young lovers, fragile embodiments of ideas and values that test the status quo. In the coda to their deaths it qualifies their achievement. Their fathers celebrate the marriage with equally valuable gold-plated figures; Capulet regards the lovers as ‘[p]oor sacrifices of our enmity’ (5.3.304). A melancholy spectacle, the tragedy brings ‘[a] glooming peace’ (l. 305)—hardly new in Verona—but no signs of lasting change.


The first audiences of Romeo and Juliet, whatever their social and economic distribution,71 must have been surprised by this rendering of the famous story. Shakespeare changed traditions as he used them in this play, continuously and often radically. With the opening sonnet, literary and dramatic customs appear just long enough to be identified: the work presents itself as a tragedy based on a familiar narrative and expressed through love-poetry. But once the action starts, Shakespeare immediately modifies these customs and they begin to seem unfamiliar, slightly eccentric. As the dramatic narrative takes its course, anomalous variations repeatedly jar established patterns. Their frequency and placement again and again strike the note of wit that prevents Romeo and Juliet from becoming an intense two-hour dirge for young love.

As this discussion of the play has already noticed, Shakespeare reworked the widely known sixteenth-century fiction with substantive changes. He retained two basic features, the sequence of events and the characters' roles, but he adjusted even these. In an important essay on Romeo and Juliet, Harry Levin describes how the dramatist patterned this material by imposing symmetry on much of it. Symmetry affects the formulation of the narrative, where scenes of violence alternate at regular intervals with domestic scenes set in Capulet's house; it affects the arrangement of characters, who appear in counterpoised sets from Montagues and Capulets to Benvolio and Tybalt to the Friar and the Nurse; and it affects the rhetoric of the verse, which more than a hundred times balances lines by repeating words in them: ‘These violent delights have violent ends’ (2.5.9). In its order and balance it contributes to the strong impression of design in the play. If Romeo and Juliet transmits a compound of volatile materials—romance at its limits, adolescent turmoil, patriarchy under stress—it contains these potentially explosive components by stylizing them. According to T. J. B. Spencer in the New Penguin edition, ‘Nothing in European drama had hitherto achieved the organisation of so much human experience’ (p. 7).

But stylization of form and language accomplishes more than containment. It becomes a commentary on the action, a reminder of controls which are absent in both public and private life. At the same time its formalities parallel rituals in Verona—from organization of marriages to organization of funerals—and frequently they too disappoint expectation. In the process they not only complicate the narrative, but call attention to its aesthetic. They critique the novellas which had become fixed in their idiom and rhetoric; and they critique themselves, the rhetorical, dramatic, and poetic conventions adapted to this version of the narrative. Stylizing the fiction as a play, Shakespeare took the Romeo and Juliet plot out of its well-known frame of reference, the particular conflation of rhetoric, realistic details, and stock literary devices which produced a uniformly serious ambience for the lovers' story. With his alterations the tone of the dramatic narrative, self-reflective and variable, is far more expressive than the sobering voices of the novellas. It is also ironic. By means of standard devices—repeated references to fate, the stars, premonitions, dreams, and chance—the play insists, as the fictional narrators had insisted, upon its own coherence and the reasonableness of its fable. It gives broad hints towards its own interpretation, but invariably it contradicts them, especially with allusions to the concept of fortune which Brooke had made so prominent. In the drama the impression of coincidence, emphatic in the course of the action, competes with the impression of cosmic fate, a motif in the language. At last the competition itself proves more important than either contestant.


Through its treatment of rhetoric Romeo and Juliet breaks with the tradition of the novellas, which had used the art primarily to decorate and rationalize the sequence of events. Shakespeare worked at rhetoric in this play: there is evidence of revision in extravagant passages (such as 3.2.73-85),72 and schemes appear everywhere until the end. He deliberately reinvented the medium which had conveyed the Romeo and Juliet story, a project which allowed him to engage with it in new ways. As scholarship demonstrates, he employed a number of strategies in the encounter.73

For example, Shakespeare cuts and reallocates deliberative argument, assigning most of what remains to characters other than the protagonists. Their counsel, which frequently halts rash action, more often accelerates disaster and gives rise to irony. At the centre of the play Friar Laurence has the most extensive speech of disputation. This passage of fifty-one lines, 3.3.107-57, illustrates one of Shakespeare's straightforward techniques for calling rhetoric into question: setting an accomplished performance into a context which reduces its effect. Attempting to calm Romeo, distraught at news of his banishment, Friar Laurence delivers a rhetorical tour de force based on Brooke's less accomplished original (1353-480). Brooke's version leaves no doubt that the Friar's rhetoric has the desired effect on Romeus; Shakespeare's is ambivalent. Unlike his receptive prototype, Romeo damns philosophy before Friar Laurence begins (ll. 57-60), and he provokes the speech with a desperate question (itself rhetorical):

                    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.

(ll. 104-7)

After Friar Laurence concludes we hear not Romeo but the Nurse, who exclaims, ‘O, what learning is!’ (l. 159); and Romeo reacts in response not to the argument but to the promise of seeing Juliet.

Ambivalence, which accompanies disputation and some of the pathos in Romeo and Juliet—the laments over the sleeping Juliet in 4.4 are a striking instance (see ll. 67-90 n.)—assumes most importance in the figures of ambiguity which permeate the narrative. As Mahood has shown in the second chapter of her seminal book, wordplay begins with the Prologue and never disappears from the text. Like other rhetorical devices, it interacts with different kinds of figures: Friar Laurence's staid arguments in 3.3 and 4.4 include wordplay. Often it destabilizes equilibrium, disrupts order, or baffles predictability. It opens a familiar story to new interpretations while making the familiar devices seem inadequate, in themselves, to the demands of narration. In this edition the Commentary tracks wordplay, which proliferates and varies, from the pun on civil in the fourth line of the opening sonnet to the equivocation poor sacrifices of at the very end of the text (5.3.304).

Frequently Shakespeare organizes wordplay as a contest which may postpone the love-story even though it involves the protagonists. This format, wordplay as contest, transcribes in rhetorical figures a competitive element in the social exchange of Verona. Many times it correlates with invention of another kind: new characters, episodes, or speeches. Mercutio and Romeo share a series of puns on their way to the Capulet party (1.4.12-26) and at a meeting on the street (2.3.43-82). In 2.3.83-7, lines noted above, Mercutio makes it clear that he views the second exchange, a concentrated display of rhetorical figures, as the most proficient kind of social discourse, the language of his peer group. Yet this conversation spins words so fast and automatically that it threatens to empty them of meaning:

Sure wit, follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, solely singular.
O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness!

(ll. 59-63)

In this episode wordplay and other figures, agents of sociability, flirt with nonsense. They also create an interlude in the sequence of the love-story.

As a medium of social exchange in Romeo and Juliet, this combination of figures resembles other kinds of play: it has a precarious edge where a speaker may lose control of the game; it licenses players to court disaster or mask deception. During the new episode in 3.1 Mercutio challenges Tybalt in rhetorical terms: ‘Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out’ (ll. 78-80). Tybalt, who never responds to Mercutio's verbal sparring, takes this dare literally. Mercutio dies in character, famously, with a series of puns and other figures. No longer part of a competition, the devices now communicate disbelief and outrage. In the aftermath of this scene wordplay will fuse with various schemes to negotiate risky situations through subterfuge. Juliet in particular depends on equivocation to communicate with her family and with Paris.

Clearly rhetorical figures in Romeo and Juliet not only amplify the narrative but also call attention to the processes of amplification. Several well-known passages labour devices as if they were inviting a critical assessment of both the schemes and their effects. What strikes modern sensibility as sheer flamboyance is probably a figure stretched beyond its usual range, performing a more complex function. At 3.2.45-50, Juliet's frenzied series of puns on aye/i/I/eye produces three effects (see ll. 45-50 n.). In this scene, ll. 73-85, and at 1.1.172-7, extended passages of synoeciosis, condensed paradox or oxymoron, project confused emotions and points of view: Romeo's about Rosaline; Juliet's about Romeo, who has just killed Tybalt. The formal, imprecise figures express what the speakers feel but fit their subjects awkwardly.

Perhaps Mercutio's Queen Mab speech at 1.4.51-93 offers the most elaborate array of rhetorical devices in a passage invented for the text. It stands far enough apart from the sequence that Pearlman considers it an interpolation: ‘Mercutio's excursus is not articulated with the remainder of Romeo and Juliet in terms of plot, content, language, or intellection. There is no overlap between the realist, materialist Mercutio and the Mercutio who celebrates Queen Mab in elaborate, imaginative, and romantic terms.’74 His conclusions about Mercutio notwithstanding, Pearlman raises an important issue by emphasizing the singularity of the speech: Mercutio takes up the subject of dreams, introduced by Romeo but absent from the other narratives at this point, and amplifies it for forty lines. R. O. Evans calls Mercutio's performance ‘a demonstration of rhetorical fireworks’, and he claims that no Elizabethan writer would employ so many figures without intending to make the passage conspicuous.75 From the start Shakespeare extends the use of anaphora (repetition at the beginnings of clauses) and zeugma (one verb serving more than one clause), outdoing the illustrations in contemporary textbooks. These grammatical devices frame other kinds of schemes from apostrophe to figures of ambiguity and ominatio, or prognostication of evil.

Scattered through the text, a number of other passages seem to reflect explicitly on the play's use of rhetoric. The first and most obvious follows Romeo's apostrophe to love in a burst of contradictions. ‘Dost thou not laugh?’, he asks Benvolio. The answer, ‘No, coz, I rather weep’, compounds the deflation even as it directs the exchange towards more derivative paradoxes (1.1.179). In the wedding scene Juliet makes a comment about decorum which applies not only to Romeo's language but also to the play's:

Conceit, more rich in matter than in words,
Brags of his substance, not of ornament.


However the audience interprets conceit (see l. 30 n.), Juliet refuses to compete with Romeo in formal terms.76 Of course she does so rhetorically, in a speech which elaborates its subject through wordplay, polyptoton (words from the same root with different endings), and an epigram. At the end of 4.4 Peter and the musicians provide a more extensive commentary. As Thomas Moisan explains the episode, these characters subject the operations of rhetoric to common sense, take amplification literally, and deconstruct a phrase from Richard Edwards's Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), ‘a compendium of the lachrymose rhetoric we have heard fortissime throughout the mourners' speeches’.77

Juliet's vexed question in 2.1 may also refer to the medium she speaks:

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

(ll. 86-7)

In Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians, Marion Trousdale makes a distinction which states what these lines imply:

Shape is something absolute and suggests parts whose functions, once determined, are irrevocably fixed. A rose in that sense is a rose. But one cannot say the same thing about its name, which, like language itself, is artificial. A name can, at will, both define and embellish, and, unlike the rose, it can divide ‘one thing entire to many objects’ (Richard II, 2.2.17).78

Romeo and Juliet allows its audience to measure the advantages of such embellishment against its limitations.

That kind of engagement animates other literary works of the late sixteenth century, as critics have demonstrated.79 It informs Shakespeare's Sonnets and narrative verse as well as his early plays: Lanham shows how it affects Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the Sonnets; Trousdale analyses Love's Labour's Lost.80 In most of these texts rhetoric, vigorous and accomplished, comes up against barriers of its own making, rigidities inherent in language. Its processes expose the sources of intractableness: the inability of words to express for their speakers the real conditions of their lives; the potential for amplification to grow out of control.81 According to Joel B. Altman, Renaissance tragedy takes a particularly dim view of rhetoric: ‘… invention fails, as in comedy, because it cannot transcend man's epistemological condition and attain to truth—and it fails because it deals with a world in which will, not reason, determines human actions’.82 All of these texts exploit and doubt rhetoric at the same time, raising questions not only about the art itself but also about rhetoricians and the culture that fosters them.83

In this vein Romeo and Juliet explores the capacity of rhetoric to rationalize human conduct in moving terms. It pursues this investigation with the ambivalence that Kenneth Muir has recognized in Shakespeare's early works.84 Argument inevitably leads to error, accident, and death, as it did in the Romeo and Juliet fictions. Rhetorical schemes may interrupt the sequence but they fail to change it in any substantive way. While figures amplify events, da Porto's plot and characters move inexorably towards their tragic conclusion. Rhetoric cannot overcome necessity or describe it with precision. Yet it can present the full range of ambiguities that surround every human act. Despite its limitations, rhetorical virtuosity in Romeo and Juliet allows more than one interpretation of both events and the verbal medium through which they travel.


In addition to reinventing the medium of the Romeo and Juliet narrative, Shakespeare created a new genre for it, a unique arrangement of tragedy, comedy, and sonnet sequence. H. B. Charlton first addressed the unorthodox treatment of genre in an influential lecture delivered in 1939, ‘Romeo and Juliet as an Experimental Tragedy’.85 By now others have described the novel disposition of generic features. For example, Levin explains how Shakespeare introduced the subject of romantic love to the genre of English Renaissance tragedy.

Legend, it had been heretofore taken for granted, was the proper matter for serious drama; romance was the stuff of the comic stage. Romantic tragedy—‘an excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet’, to cite the title-page of the First Quarto—was one of those contradictions in terms which Shakespeare seems to have delighted in resolving. His innovation might be described as transcending the usages of romantic comedy, which are therefore very much in evidence, particularly at the beginning.86

When he alludes to ‘the usages of romantic comedy’, Levin indicates another novelty in Shakespeare's treatment of dramatic genre. With Romeo and Juliet tragedy entertains not only new subject matter, but also conventions of plot, character, and style from a totally different theatrical mode which flourished during the 1590s. A number of critics have explored this comic dimension of the play, trying to understand how it functions and what it signifies. In The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies, Susan Snyder finds the comic element prominent enough to support her argument that Romeo and Juliet goes through genre transformation: ‘Action and characters begin in the familiar comic mold and are then transformed or discarded, to compose the shape of tragedy’.87 No matter how the results are interpreted, Shakespeare's counter-pointing of genres affects the play's structure and tone from moment to moment; and it provides means to emphasize the complex bonds between art and social life intrinsic to the dramatic content.88

Its earliest title-pages call Romeo and Juliet ‘An Excellent Conceited Tragedy’, ‘The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy’, and ‘The Tragedy’; Francis Meres lists it among Shakespeare's tragedies in his Palladis Tamia; Wit's Treasury (1598);89 and the Folio places it among the tragedies between Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. In short, external evidence insists that the tragic genre governs this work, serving as host to other kinds and modes. But external evidence proves somewhat misleading because the dramatic narrative so frequently shifts into comedy, an effect hinted by ‘Conceited’, which could mean ‘witty’ (OED ppl. a. 1c). Like many other English Renaissance plays, Romeo and Juliet contains more than one generic repertoire: tragedy and comedy coexist, overlap, and produce a hybrid form. In some episodes, especially those of lamentation, the two kinds have become difficult to distinguish. Neither scholars nor directors can agree which genre predominates in a tragic-comic passage like 4.4.67-90 (see ll. 67-90 n.).

Renaissance critical theory does little to explain this generic phenomenon, but twentieth-century genre theory helps to account for it by discovering likenesses between early modern tragedy and comedy. According to Alastair Fowler, a genre or ‘kind’ is a ‘type of literary work of a definite size, marked by a complex of substantive and formal features that always include a distinctive (though not usually unique) external structure’.90 Significantly, Elizabethan tragedy and comedy share the same ‘external structure’, a formula derived from Latin comedies as the later age perceived them. In both types of dramatic representations the narrative advances in three phases whose proportions may vary: exposition and beginning of the action; complication of incidents; and catastrophe or resolution. Of course, tragedy resolves the complications in death; comedy, in a happy ending.91 Moreover both genres are, on a scale of epigram to epic, middle-sized but capacious. Within their frames they can accommodate elements not only from each other but also from a wide range of other forms literary and non-literary, small and medium in length. Sometimes they share incidental features, novella sources, protagonists of lesser rank, private situations, a theme of love. In effect, Elizabethan tragedy and comedy had so much in common that a stroke of the pen could change one into the other.92 With minimum disruption each could admit the other's character types, plot devices, incidents, and tonalities. It was primarily the conclusion that made the difference.

Romeo and Juliet emphasizes the points of congruence in its strikingly balanced configuration of tragedy and comedy. Like a metaphysical conceit, it deliberately yokes unlikely partners to illuminate the similarity in difference. As the dramatic sequence progresses, one form literally metamorphoses into the other, sometimes merging at the moment of connection. The play begins with such a transformation. First the audience hear the Chorus promise a tragic ending (Prologue 5-8); then they watch two servants burlesque the Chorus's themes—feud and romantic love—with visual as well as verbal puns (1.1.1-36). At the centre of the action, the scene of Romeo and Juliet's marriage (2.5) fades into Mercutio's banter and Mercutio's death (3.1).

On one level, then, Romeo and Juliet dramatizes generic observations; it sums up a development in English Renaissance theatre, offering a representation of practice rather than abstract systems of thought. When the play originally made these observations, both genres already belonged to the public domain and both had already been combined. John Lyly's Prologue to his comedy Midas (c. 1589) indicates the circumstances which called forth the inter-related kinds: a new audience of mixed character and taste demanding the extension of generic limits:

At our exercises, soldiers call for tragedies, their object is blood; courtiers for comedies, their subject is love; countrymen for pastorals, shepherds are their saints. Traffic and travel hath woven the nature of all nations into ours, and made this land like arras, full of device …

(iii. 115)

Although Lyly wrote for the private theatre, he describes here the large and varied audiences of the public playhouse, the patrons of drama. With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare aimed to satisfy these patrons with the blended essences of two favourite genres.

These two popular genres bear the impress of a third kind, the sonnet sequence. From the opening sonnet to the closing sestet, short lyrics in Romeo and Juliet form a heterogeneous series. The amatory verse includes not only sonnets but quatrains, octaves, an aubade, an epithalamium, a duet, a quartet, and some straightforward rhymed passages.93 In its variety, such verse belongs to the tradition of sequences conceived ‘as something more than a collection of imploring sonnets’. While the Elizabethan sequences frequently end with a longer poetic narrative, the dramatic version conveniently makes the sustained narrative its plot. Lyrics and narrative illuminate each other in both the sequences and the play.94

Traced by lyric continuity, the outline of a sonnet sequence extends the length of Romeo and Juliet. In addition, the conventions of love-poetry fill the dialogue and inform many situations. All of the dramatis personae express themselves in some variation of the Petrarchan idiom; they speak the standard topoi and rhetoric. Moreover, the feud central to the Romeo and Juliet story allowed Shakespeare to enlarge the oppositions of Petrarchan rhetoric into plot ‘as well as into the emotional and social structure of the play’. In Rosalie L. Colie's phrase, the playwright ‘unmetaphors’ familiar literary devices.95 Characters enact the verbal conventions: the lover's anguish, the unattainable lady, the equating of love and war.

If genre is ‘the place where the individual work enters into a complex network of relations with other works’,96 what does this unusual juxtaposition mean, the adapting of sonnet sequence to tragedy and comedy? In the first and most obvious place, the arrangement once more draws attention to points of likeness among different genres. Like literary criticism, the play indicates that contemporary drama and poetry share the theme of love with its conventional topoi, its changing visage. Shakespeare displays the variety, inclusiveness, and balance which theatrical and lyric genres have in common. By making romantic comedy and amatory verse prominent, he acknowledges the current vogue of each form. Meanwhile, he conspicuously links two genres that take an outsider's view of court life and court values.

In the second place, Shakespeare's juxtaposition reveals differences among the genres which point beyond the aesthetic sphere. They lead us from the work of art to its social context and to dimensions of meaning hidden from view. As the historian Lauro Martines might say, they take us ‘from poem to world’.97 The verse-form especially builds such a bridge. Unlike Tudor drama, the sonnet sequences had a well-defined genealogy, set of conventions, milieu, and audience. They derived, of course, from Petrarch; and by the time the sonnet itself reached England through Wyatt (1503-42), it had become the most exacting test of a poet's skill. After the publication of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella in 1591, the series occupied a privileged rung on the hierarchy of kinds. Poets from diverse social ranks soon attempted the genre, hoping to improve their status by mastering the aristocratic verse.

The link between status and verse had been forged in the 1580s, when sonnet sequences took their lofty place among the aristocracy. At the highest reaches of Elizabethan social life, courtly love had become a complex mode of play. Courtiers addressed the Queen in the Petrarchan style; they expressed their aspirations to power in the conventional language of love. With its amatory theme, suppliant's posture, and literary credentials, the sonnet sequence could adapt easily to the game. Sidney first exploited this potential, using the politically encoded language as the idiom for his sequence. In Arthur F. Marotti's view, Sidney ‘made sonnet sequences the occasion for socially, economically and politically importunate Englishmen to express their unhappy condition in the context of a display of literary mastery’.98

As a result, every feature of the Petrarchan situation became a metaphor for something else: the unreachable lady stood for impossible goals; flattery of her charms disguised supplication for patronage; and desire itself represented ambition for advancement, its range benign to wilful. Again and again the English sonneteers tried to profit from this language: Daniel, Spenser, Greville. In the 1590s sonnets ‘darkened the air; they emerged by the thousands’.99 According to Meres, Shakespeare's own ‘sugared’ versions circulated ‘among his private friends’ by 1598.100

As the genre peaked, attracting both emulation and parody, Shakespeare explored its possibilities as a kind. His sequence uses the conventions not only to appeal for patronage, but to record the struggles of a working poet within the system. Mingling epigram with sonnets and making verbal postures literal, Shakespeare also expresses doubts about this medium directly through the poet-narrator:

Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent; …

(Sonnet 76.5-12)

Throughout the sequence, passages of disenchantment and frustration express doubts about the system which the medium promotes.

At about the same time, Shakespeare appropriated these very conventions for Romeo and Juliet. He transferred them from the aristocratic milieu to the public theatre, from an élite to a popular venue. Perhaps he meant to dignify his theatrical craft by fusing it with the art of lyric. With allusions to the sonnet sequence, he may have appealed to members of the audience who could appreciate the references: young men from the Inns of Court, courtiers and gentry. He may even have wanted to rethink the genre from a different point of view. Whatever his purpose, Shakespeare has deconstructed the poetic form and distributed it throughout the tragic-comic structure. The narrator's voice becomes many voices as the sonnet monologue is absorbed by the multivocal text. Anatomized in this way and distanced, the lyric form loses some of its affect. It becomes a more tractable subject for appraisal; and its politics change.101

In the Verona of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare releases sonnet conventions from their traditional frame of reference in more ways than one. First, he imagines a city where everyone speaks or enacts the Petrarchan idiom. Even the servants who open the play act out the topos of ‘dear enemy’, reducing it to the absurd. As quarrelling and quibbling intensify in this first scene—as the stage fills with Veronese society—familiar Petrarchan conceits and devices punctuate the dialogue: images of beasts, fish, canker [worms], fire; antitheses and rhetorical questions, sometimes combined (‘What, drawn and talk of peace?’, l. 66).

The sonnet idiom crosses not only social ranks but generations. With the first descriptions of Romeo's love-melancholy, for example, Benvolio and Montague speak passages of almost equal length (1.1.114-38). Both adopt the topoi of Petrarchism, verbalizing a portrait of the sonnet lover: the pre-dawn secret wanderings, the restlessness, solitude, sleeplessness, tears, and sighs; and they do so through the familiar conceits of locale, prison, sun/clouds, day/night, and through the customary devices of hyperbole and antithesis. Much later in the play, after Romeo's departure for Mantua, Capulet describes his weeping daughter, to her face, by imitating a Wyatt translation of Petrarch (see 3.5.126-36 and n.). No one writes poetry in Verona, but everyone speaks it for better or worse. The Elizabethan language fraught with political metaphor belongs to the city's regular discourse on love and rivalry, its two major themes. Delicately, that language complements more obvious signs of social ambition, the Capulets' wedding arrangements in particular.

With this first adjustment, then, the sonnet idiom becomes a universal language in Romeo and Juliet, a subtle indicator of cultural values. With the second, it remains detached from any specific object of power or patronage, a general sign of aspiration. Romeo comes closest to playing the courtly game in the usual way during the first act, when he languishes for Rosaline. Confessing his infatuation to Benvolio, he idealizes the lady in terms associated with Queen Elizabeth as ‘lover's mistress, lay Madonna, and medieval Lady of the tourney’102 (1.1.204-12); he creates a personification of chastity with mythological allusions as well as military and religious conceits. At the same time, like the poet-narrator of Shakespeare's early sonnets, he speaks to aristocratic values of marriage and procreation. But the abstraction never materializes; and it loses its force as a vision through Benvolio's sceptical remarks. Consequently, the play's one potential symbol for sociopolitical goals evaporates by the end of the second scene: Rosaline is notable primarily for her absence.

During the fourth scene Romeo finds Juliet, a real and powerless object of love. From that point on the sonnet idiom takes a third liberty: it becomes a private language of desire as its terms and conventions undergo significant change. The courtly metaphor weakens, vehicle separating from tenor. In the speeches of Romeo and Juliet, the sonnet idiom loses much of its political signification. It expresses their desire for each other: the joy of its fulfilment and grief of its frustration. Gradually it acquires variety and resonance, even in the formal setting of Capulet's party. At the lovers' first encounter—the sonnet with quatrain—Romeo introduces religious conceits which he had just used to idolize Rosaline, but now he and Juliet act out the tropes, giving them new meaning. Instead of celebrating an abstraction, the pilgrim/shrine metaphors permit desire its initial, tentative expression as the lovers touch and kiss.

In the passages leading to their marriage, Romeo and Juliet continue to adapt the public language of amatory verse to their secret love. As they find voices to articulate their feelings, Juliet in particular discards pointless words and conventions. She ignores Romeo's conceits early in their garden scene, intent on learning his identity and access. ‘What man art thou[?]’, she asks, and Romeo elaborates:

My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.

(2.1.95, 98-9)

Disregarding the metaphors, Juliet finds her answer elsewhere: ‘I know the sound. / Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?’ (ll. 102-3). When she questions, ‘How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?’, he responds that the power of Cupid gave him means and immunity: ‘With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls’, and ‘Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me’ (ll. 105, 109, 112). The conceit fails to reassure her: ‘If they do see thee, they will murder thee’ (l. 113). In his next attempt, Romeo draws on another Petrarchan cliché:

Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet,
And I am proof against their enmity.

(ll. 114-16)

Again Juliet does not hear him: ‘I would not for the world they saw thee here’ (l. 117). Later she asks Romeo to refrain from swearing lovers' vows. Yet she draws on amatory verse in the same lines for an image to express her hope (ll. 164-5), and she uses hyperbole to describe the intensity of her feelings (ll. 176-8). When dawn approaches the lovers share a figure, ‘a wanton's bird’ (ll. 222-9), which captures both the tenderness and the fragility of the moment.

During 2.1 Juliet's plain diction seems to refine the courtly mode; it makes the public style not only more personal but more exact. Later in the action—after the death of Mercutio, when events move from crisis to crisis—the higher style frequently modulates abruptly into the lower, or absorbs it in a new poetry. As the play inclines towards tragedy, this dynamic verse registers the lovers' volatile emotions.

When 3.2 begins, for instance, Juliet speaks an epithalamium (ll. 1-31)—a song to celebrate forthcoming nuptials—anticipating the consummation of her marriage. Her poetry overflows with the conventions of Petrarchan verse, their abundance contributing to the vitality of the lines. At this point, amatory verse provides her with a vocabulary to express breathless anticipation and ardency. Yet the verse rings with her voice: much of its diction is plain; it conveys excitement through repetition; and its pitch heightens with intensity. Once the Nurse interrupts with news of calamity, the poetic vocabulary of love suddenly fails Juliet. In the laboured wordplay (ll. 45-50) her diction shrinks to commonplace puns and sound effects. Here the modulation indicates how swiftly Juliet's grief has arrested her imagination. Shortly, as she begins to recover and learns the truth, her verse expands again with typical Petrarchan devices: she describes Romeo in a catalogue of oxymora which obviously do not fit him:

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, …
A damnèd saint, an honourable villain.

(ll. 73-9)

At this moment, the formal, imprecise figures of speech indicate Juliet's unreadiness for this first encounter with sorrow and disillusion. Her lexicon for making distinctions—the conventions of amatory verse—cannot verbalize the true nature of either her husband or her experience. Within a few minutes, however, her diction changes again, and as it does, it communicates that her vision is clearing. Less figurative, more prosaic, it simply analyses the bleak reality just disclosed:

Some word there was, worser than Tybalt's death,
That murdered me. I would forget it fain,
But O, it presses to my memory,
Like damnèd guilty deeds to sinners' minds:
‘Tybalt is dead and Romeo banishèd’.

(ll. 108-12)

In effect, variations in the poetry reveal variations in the protagonists: the lovers' changing moods, perceptions, intensities. In later tragedies, Shakespeare would employ less contrived means for portraying character. But here, changes in the verse from moment to moment convey the shifting contours of personality. As the play closes, such changes produce the impression of a more complex but still impetuous Romeo.

In his soliloquy at the beginning of Act 5, Romeo continues to use the familiar language of love-poetry: love sits enthroned in his heart; he has dreamt about his beloved's wondrous lips; and love savours of its customary sweetness. Moreover, the concept of dream in the opening lines, among other things, varies two well-known Petrarchan topoi, ‘the reunion with the dead beloved in a dream’, and dreaming of the beloved only to awaken to disappointment.103 Romeo's images and dream belong to a conventional pattern, yet his formulation of his experience is new. In plain but elegant terms, this speech testifies to reflection: Romeo has been thinking about the dream and his ‘unaccustomed spirit’ (l. 4) all day, conscious that the dream may be deceptive, and that it contains contradictions. He makes the second observation in a monosyllabic aside: ‘Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!’ (l. 7). When Balthazar interrupts this reverie with mistaken news of Juliet's death, Romeo immediately thinks of suicide. He conveys his despair in a monologue about the Apothecary, transforming Petrarchan images to decorate the squalid shop (ll. 42-8). As he sketches the Apothecary himself, he produces a grotesque image of the unrequited lover (see 5.1.68-71 n.).

While the play takes its course, modulations like these—as well as the more striking poetic changes that occur between scenes, early and late—distinguish the voices of Romeo and Juliet. Our sense that their passion for each other is genuine, and that it sets them apart from the rest of Verona, derives especially from the way they speak. Their soliloquies do not analyse these developments, nor do the assessments of other characters. Nothing in the text explicitly remarks how the lovers have changed. But the variations in their poetry signify both transformation and, finally, uniqueness. Like some of Shakespeare's other plays from this period, Romeo and Juliet makes a connection between qualities of love and qualities of imagination. Sexual passion sparks imagination and vice versa; the more sensuous or genuine the feelings, the more original or lyric their expression. In the end Romeo and Juliet not only belong to Verona but rise above it, however briefly. If they engage in its social discourse, using its rhetoric and vocabulary, they also create from that idiom a language which distinguishes them both as lovers and as individuals.

Like Spenser and Donne in the 1590s, Shakespeare has created an amatory drama of two voices, private and public, singular and communal. Ultimately, both voices in Romeo and Juliet owe much of their sound and impact to the Elizabethan sonnet sequences; and the private derives from the public. The public voice uses amatory conventions as a matter of course in daily social life. With little imagination, the citizens of Verona understand one another in terms of sonnet conceits and postures, Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan. Their medium brings with it—and enhances—a political attitude, a disposition towards competition and advancement. As a result, the play's setting corresponds with that of its audience. They share the values that Mercutio satirizes in his Queen Mab speech, and that Romeo disparages in his exchange with the Apothecary. By contrast, the private voice—a voice expressing mutual love—revitalizes poetic conventions by using them as a medium of desire and self-expression. Articulating passion, the familiar motifs lose some of their customary political implications. They help to create a sphere of amorous reciprocity in a world of marriage transactions; they produce ‘a compelling cultural fantasy’104 in conditions that reflect Elizabethan life.

Finally, the poetic genre allowed Shakespeare to add political import to the melancholy legend. The verse reinforces the opposition between romantic love and marriage, an emotion and an institution, the individual and the social structure. At the same time, the stage gave the poet-dramatist an opportunity to explore thematic and auditory possibilities of the verse beyond his own narratives or sonnets. Moreover, the dramatic genres—with similar forms but different points of view—permitted him to consider all sides of the public-private antithesis. While the known outcome of the famous story tilts the play towards tragedy, the vision of reciprocal love inclines it towards comedy. The conclusion, poising the lovers' death with their fathers' survival, presents a complex metaphoric version of Elizabethan realities. …


  1. ‘Feeling Bodies’, in Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association Congress, Los Angeles, 1996, ed. Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl (Newark, Del., and London, 1998), p. 264. (See also p. 259.)

  2. Mahood, p. 57, and Spencer's edition, 1.5.135 n.

  3. The impression of imminent disaster is less intense in the 1597 version of Romeo and Juliet, which has fewer lines to anticipate its ending and a different wedding scene. (See below, ‘The Mobile Text’.)

  4. On the eroticism of verbal wit, see Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Fiction and Friction’, in Reconstructing Individualism, pp. 48-50.

  5. Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, 1972), p. 33.

  6. Peter Laslett discusses this configuration of family and servants in Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge, 1977), Chapter 1.

  7. In The World We Have Lost—Further Explored, 3rd edn. (1983), Peter Laslett gives a summary of data about the age of sexual maturity in the late sixteenth century; and he suggests that ‘[Shakespeare] was deliberately writing a play about love and marriage amongst boys and girls without any recognition of the facts about the age of women at their weddings or at sexual maturity’ (p. 85). Nevertheless, the play accurately observes the stages of what psychoanalysts now call individuation. Meredith Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven and London, 1984), pp. 182-6, offers a helpful overview of theoretical work on child development; important studies of the adolescent phase have been done by Erik Homburger Erikson, Heinz Kohut, and Peter Blos.

  8. ‘Adolescence’, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 13 (1958), 260.

  9. Often writers describe this stage as part of their own inner landscapes. Norman Kiell cites a variety of early examples throughout The Universal Experience of Adolescence (New York, 1964). At the beginning of The Adolescent Passage: Developmental Issues (New York, 1979), Peter Blos quotes a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric which gives a circumstantial account of male adolescence (pp. 12-13). On ideas characteristic of Shakespeare's period, see Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven and London, 1994), especially Chapters 1 and 8.

  10. See, for example, Harvey Golombek and Peter Marton, ‘Adolescents over Time: A Longitudinal Study of Personality Development’, Adolescent Psychiatry, 18 (1992), 213-84.

  11. On Tybalt see, for instance, 1.4.202-3 n. Two essays regard Tybalt as a troubled adolescent who compensates for his insecure masculinity with hostile aggressiveness: Marjorie Kolb Cox, ‘Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet’, Psychoanalytic Review, 63 (1976), 386, and Sara Munson Deats, ‘The Conspiracy of Silence in Shakespeare's Verona: Romeo and Juliet’, in Youth Suicide Prevention: Lessons from Literature, ed. Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker (New York and London, 1989), p. 81.

  12. Henry P. Coppolillo, ‘The Tides of Change in Adolescence’, in The Course of Life, vol. 4, Adolescence, ed. Stanley I. Greenspan and George H. Pollock (Madison, Conn., 1991), pp. 235-6.

  13. Adolescent Passage, p. 14.

  14. See Hyman L. Muslin, ‘Romeo and Juliet: The Tragic Self in Adolescence’, Adolescent Psychiatry, 10 (1982), 112, and Katherine Dalsimer, Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Works of Literature (New Haven and London, 1986), p. 81. Dalsimer adds that the match with Paris is the same type of representation.

  15. Quoted in Blos, Adolescent Passage, p. 13.

  16. Both Blos, Adolescent Passage, and Kiell, Universal Experience, devote chapters to the subject of peer groups. See also Erik Homburger Erikson, ‘The Problem of Ego Identity’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4 (1956), 72-3.

  17. On Romeo's status see Bruce W. Young, ‘Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage: Some Implications of Social History for Romeo and Juliet’, Iowa State Journal of Research, 62 (1988), 465.

  18. ‘Ego Identity’, 73.

  19. Aristotle's Rhetoric, quoted in Blos, Adolescent Passage, p. 13. Kiell, Universal Experience, pp. 428-9, makes the point about arguing. Wit as well as argument ‘enables the individual to search out his self through verbal pyrotechnics’ (Kiell, p. 429).

  20. On this sort of stereotyping see Kiell, Universal Experience, p. 397.

  21. A number of critics have commented on Mercutio's sexual attraction to Romeo. See, for example, Joseph A. Porter, Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1988), pp. 145-63; Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London, 1994), p. 64; Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs’, in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Goldberg (Durham, NC, and London, 1994), repr. in Porter, Critical Essays, pp. 91-4. Mercutio's phallic wordplay illustrates Freud's interpretation of the joke, summarized by Skura, as ‘a displaced version of a sexual or aggressive wish, allowing the teller to express his forbidden wish in an acceptable way’ (Literary Use, p. 180). Obviously jokes cannot work without an audience, and Mercutio's puns generally demand of his peer group ‘complicity, sanction, and reassurance’ (p. 181).

  22. Both Cox, ‘Adolescent Processes’, 383-4, and Dalsimer, Female Adolescence, pp. 84-90, discuss the psychological implications of this scene.

  23. See Cox, ‘Adolescent Processes’, 381, and Dalsimer, Female Adolescence, p. 93.

  24. Blos, Adolescent Passage, p. 159, defines these states.

  25. Compare Brooke 275-316, and Painter, 85-6. My terminology is adapted from Carol Gilligan's description of identity formation in female adolescents: ‘Remapping the Moral Domain: New Images of the Self in Relationship’, in Reconstructing Individualism, pp. 237-52; the quotation comes from p. 243.

  26. Barber and Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1986), p. 14. The suggestions occur in the sources when, for instance, Friar Lawrence berates Romeus's effeminate behaviour on hearing the sentence of banishment (Brooke 1353-8), and when he advises Juliet to follow his instructions in using the potion ‘[w]ith manly courage’ (Brooke 2146; compare Painter, 109).

  27. Critics have repeatedly pointed out the reversal of gender roles: for instance, Goldberg, ‘Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs’, pp. 87-8; Sudhir Kakar and John M. Ross, Tales of Love, Sex and Danger (Delhi, 1986), pp. 28-32; and Gayle Whittier, ‘The sublime androgyne motif in three Shakespearean works’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 19 (1989), 187-96. According to anthropologists, the inversion can be ritualized in some cultures as part of adolescent rites of passage, ‘either to suggest the marginality of the transitional state … or to allow each sex to obtain something of the other's power’. In hierarchical societies, if not in the play, they can provide healthy outlets for conflicts within the system. (See Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Women on Top’, in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford, 1975), p. 130.)

  28. On the subjectivity represented by the time-scheme, see Dalsimer, Female Adolescence, pp. 79-81, and Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1987), p. 213.

  29. The two earliest versions of Romeo and Juliet present this singularity with a disparateness. Because the 1597 text is shorter (see below, ‘The Mobile Text’), the protagonists speak less and therefore reveal less of themselves. Juliet's soliloquies in 3.2 and 4.3 are especially brief.

  30. The next paragraphs are indebted to Snow's essay, ‘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, Del., London, and Toronto, 1985), repr. in Andrews, Critical Essays, pp. 371-401. Michael Rustin makes the point about ‘Thinking in Romeo and Juliet’ in Chapter 9 of his book The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Culture (London and New York, 1991), pp. 231-53.

  31. Snow, ‘Language and Sexual Difference’, p. 377.

  32. See Marilyn L. Williamson, ‘Romeo and Death’, SSt 14 (1981), 129-37.

  33. Norman N. Holland analyses the soliloquy in ‘Romeo's Dream and the Paradox of Literary Realism’, Literature and Psychology, 13 (1963), repr. in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. M. D. Faber (New York, 1970), pp. 41-54.

  34. Kiell, Universal Experience, p. 715, refers to the rituals and ceremonies in cultures which acknowledge in adolescence the death of an earlier personality with the emergence of an adult. On the relationship between Romeo and Paris, see Paula Newman and George Walton Williams, ‘Paris: The Mirror of Romeo’, Renaissance Papers 1981 (1982), 13-19.

  35. In her article ‘The Relational Self: Implications for Adolescent Development’, Adolescent Psychiatry, 19 (1993), 228-39, Judith V. Jordan speculates that even now ‘boys are socialized toward a power/dominance experience of self while girls are socialized toward a love/empathy mode of self’ (234). Snow, ‘Language and Sexual Difference’, pp. 387-9, suggests that Juliet may have been socialized towards connectedness by the Nurse.

  36. Snow, ‘Language and Sexual Difference’, p. 387.

  37. ‘Aphorism Countertime’, in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York and London, 1992), p. 421.

  38. ‘Ideology and the Feud in Romeo and Juliet’, SSu 49 (1996), 87-96.

  39. This definition of patriarchy is adapted from Derek Cohen, Shakespeare's Culture of Violence (New York, 1993), p. 3.

  40. Coppélia Kahn discusses the feud as an expression of patriarchy in a seminal essay which has been published in more than one form: see ‘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, Chicago, and London, 1980), pp. 171-93.

  41. Davis, ‘Women on Top’, pp. 142-3, describes this contrast in historical terms.

  42. Shakespeare's Culture of Violence, p. 1.

  43. Joan Ozark Holmer considers the three fight scenes, focusing on 3.1, in ‘“Myself Condemned and Myself Excus'd”: Tragic Effects in Romeo and Juliet’, SP 88 (1991), 345-62; I interpret the violence as less static in ‘“Alla stoccado carries it away”: Codes of Violence in Romeo and Juliet’, in Shakespeare'sRomeo and Juliet’, ed. Halio, pp. 83-96. In addition, Sergio Rossi analyses ‘Duelling in the Italian Manner: The Case of Romeo and Juliet’, in Shakespeare's Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, ed. Michele Marrapodi, A. J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Cappuzzo, and L. Falzon Santucci (Manchester and New York, 1993), pp. 112-24.

  44. A. Forbes Sieveking's early description of ‘Fencing and Duelling’ in Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manners of his Age, ed. Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh, Sir Sidney Lee, and C. T. Onions, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1916), ii. 394, rightly identifies in Romeo and Juliet ‘a perfect epitome of the cause and materials for fighting, of the quarrels that arose, and of the weapons used in their liquidation in Shakespeare's days’.

  45. The props are enumerated below, in ‘Initial Staging’. Although illustrations in these paragraphs are drawn from the 1599 version of Romeo and Juliet, examples are also prolific in the 1597 text.

  46. See Adolph L. Soens, ‘Tybalt's Spanish Fencing in Romeo and Juliet’, SQ 20 (1969), 121-7.

  47. On the literary and social codes see below, ‘Tragedy, Comedy, Sonnet’.

  48. The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge, 1969), p. 51.

  49. I have dealt extensively with the play's use of the Petrarchan idiom in ‘The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet’, SSt 15 (1982), 21-36.

  50. See Charles Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare's Plays (Manchester, 1992), pp. 17, 174-5.

  51. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), pp. 229-32.

  52. Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy, p. 245. Christopher Fitter argues that the Crown and its agents ignored aristocratic infractions but imposed severe punishments on lower-class Londoners, causing riots. In his view the play reflects the kinds of class tensions such inequity exacerbated (‘“The quarrel is between our masters and us their men”: Romeo and Juliet, Dearth, and the London Riots’, ELR 30 (2000)).

  53. Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy, pp. 233-4.

  54. Introduction to Sir William Segar, The Book of Honor and Armes (1590) and Honor Military and Civil (1602) (Delmar, NY, 1975), [p. 4].

  55. The manuals of Segar and Saviolo are related to each other: both borrow from Girolamo Muzio's Il Duello (1550), and Segar's treatment of honour abridges Saviolo's. For the complicated connections, see Ruth Kelso, ‘Saviolo and his Practise’, MLN 39 (1924), 33-5. Di Grassi's volume was originally published in Italian in 1570.

  56. See Bornstein, Introduction, The Book of Honor and Armes, [p. 5], and S. P. Zitner, ‘Hamlet, Duellist’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 39 (1969), pp. 17-18 n. 16.

  57. Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous, pp. 20-1.

  58. Saviolo's Practise, in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, comp., introd. James L. Jackson (Delmar, NY, 1972), pp. 322, 217-18.

  59. ‘Women on Top’, p. 127.

  60. In the shorter 1597 version of Romeo and Juliet a stage direction alone gives the impression of intrusive violence: it calls for entrances by ‘old Montague’ and ‘old Capulet’, with their wives, into the middle of a street fight (

  61. Neely, Broken Nuptials, p. 10.

  62. See Young, ‘Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage’, 466-7.

  63. For other comments on this all-female scene, see Dympna C. Callaghan, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet’, in Callaghan, Lorraine Helms, and Jyotsna Singh, The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1994), pp. 84-6, and Snow, ‘Language and Sexual Difference’, pp. 387-91.

  64. Callaghan, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love’, pp. 71-2, and Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, Ky., 1986), p. 40.

  65. Laslett describes these connections between marriage and the social structure of pre-industrial England in The World We Have Lost—Further Explored, p. 101.

  66. See Thomas Moisan, ‘“O Any Thing, of Nothing First Create!”: Gender and Patriarchy and the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’, in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen, NJ, and London, 1991), p. 116, and Callaghan, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love’, pp. 79-80.

  67. Young, ‘Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage’, 467-8. See also Ann Jennalie Cook, Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and his Society (Princeton, 1991), pp. 211, 100-1.

  68. On this subject, see especially Derrida, ‘Aphorism Countertime’, pp. 416-33, and Catherine Belsey, ‘The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet’, Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993), repr. in Porter, Critical Essays, pp. 70-2.

  69. Greg Bentley writes about ‘Poetics of Power: Money as Sign and Substance in Romeo and Juliet’, Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 17 (1991), 145-66. Other critics who analyse the connections between the love-story and its cultural setting include Kirby Farrell, Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1989), Chapter 8, repr. with variations as ‘Love, Death, and Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet’, in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman N. Holland (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1989), pp. 86-102; Moisan, ‘Gender and Patriarchy’, pp. 113-36; and Nathaniel Wallace, ‘Cultural Tropology in Romeo and Juliet’, SP 88 (1991), 329-44. In the longest of these essays, Callaghan's ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love’, pp. 59-101, ‘[t]he goal … is to examine the role of Romeo and Juliet in the cultural construction of desire’ (p. 59).

  70. Callaghan, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love’, p. 88.

  71. On the composition of Elizabethan audiences, see Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, 1996), passim.

  72. See Pearlman, pp. 107-11, for the connection between rhetoric and revision in the 1599 quarto.

  73. For a guide to rhetorical studies of the play, see my article ‘Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: The Places of Invention’, 45-55. The Commentary to this edition pays particular attention to rhetorical devices. In the following paragraphs the illustrations come from the longer 1599 quarto; most have parallels in the 1597 quarto.

  74. ‘Shakespeare at Work’, p. 119. See n. 20 on pp. 129-30 for a summary of criticism which argues that the speech is relevant.

  75. See pp. 81, 86. My summary of devices in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech condenses Evans's detailed analysis, pp. 73-86.

  76. On this passage and the use of conceits in the play, see Edgar Mertner, ‘“Conceit Brags of His Substance, Not of Ornament”: Some Notes on Style in Romeo and Juliet’, in Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism: Essays in Honour of Marvin Spevack, ed. Bernhard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador (Hildesheim, Zurich, and New York, 1987), pp. 180-92.

  77. ‘Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The “Lamentations” Scene in Romeo and Juliet’, SQ 34 (1983), 402.

  78. Chapel Hill, NC, 1982, p. 157.

  79. See Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1978), and the books cited above by Kinney and Rebhorn.

  80. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence, Chapters 4 and 5; Trousdale, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians, pp. 95-113.

  81. Rebhorn makes these points in The Emperor of Men's Minds, p. 235.

  82. The Tudor Play of Mind, p. 230.

  83. See Rebhorn, The Emperor of Men's Minds, especially Chapter 2.

  84. ‘Shakespeare and Rhetoric’, SJ 90 (1954), 49-68.

  85. Proceedings of the British Academy, 1939, 25 (1940), pp. 143-85.

  86. ‘Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet’, p. 45.

  87. Princeton, 1979, p. 57.

  88. The analysis which follows has been adapted from my essay ‘Romeo and Juliet: Tragical-Comical-Lyrical History’, in Proceedings of the PMR [Patristic, Mediaeval, and Renaissance] Conference, vol. 12/13 (Villanova, Pa., 1990 for 1987/8), pp. 31-46.

  89. Preface by Arthur Freeman (New York and London, 1973), p. 282r.

  90. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), p. 74.

  91. On Renaissance concepts of tragic and comic formats, see T. W. Baldwin, Shakespere's Five-Act Structure (Urbana, 1947).

  92. See Snyder, Comic Matrix, p. 56, and M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1935), p. 37.

  93. See my article ‘The Definition of Love’, 25-6.

  94. On the heterogeneity of the sequences, see, for example, John Kerrigan's Introduction to his edition of The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (Harmondsworth, 1986), pp. 7-18, and Thomas P. Roche, Jr., ‘Shakespeare and the Sonnet Sequence’, in English Poetry and Prose 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks (1970; rev. edn. 1986), pp. 73-89. The quotation is from Roche, p. 78.

  95. Shakespeare's ‘Living Art’ (Princeton, 1974), p. 145.

  96. Maria Corti, An Introduction to Literary Semiotics, trans. Margherita Bogat and Allen Mandelbaum (Bloomington and London, 1978), p. 115.

  97. See Chapter 2 of Society and History in English Renaissance Verse (Oxford and New York, 1985).

  98. My information about the political background of the sonnet sequences comes from Martines, Society and History, passim, and Marotti, ‘“Love is not love”: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order’, English Literary History, 49 (1982), 396-428. The quotation is from p. 408.

  99. Patrick Cruttwell, The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (1954), p. 16.

  100. Palladis Tamia; Wits Treasury, pp. 281v-282r.

  101. Recently three other critics have considered Shakespeare's appropriation of the sonnet in Romeo and Juliet: Gayle Whittier, ‘The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet’, SQ 40 (1989), repr. in Porter, Critical Essays, pp. 47-63; Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1995), pp. 262-7; and Diane E. Henderson, Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender, and Performance (Urbana and Chicago, 1995), pp. 1-6. The first scholar to emphasize the play's connection with the sonnet was N. Brooke, pp. 80-106.

  102. Cruttwell, Shakespearean Moment, p. 29.

  103. See Forster, The Icy Fire, p. 59; Lisle Cecil John, The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences: Studies in Conventional Conceits (New York, 1938), p. 82. A. J. Earl, ‘Romeo and Juliet and the Elizabethan Sonnets’, English, 27 (1978), 111-12, cites this variation on Petrarchan topoi.

  104. Marotti's phrase, ‘“Love is not love”’, 416.

Abbreviations and References

The following abbreviations represent editions consulted and works frequently cited. The place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.

Editions of Shakespeare

Q1: An Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet, 1597
Q2: The Most Excellent and lamentable Tragedie, of Romeo and Iuliet, 1599
Q3: Reprint of Q2, 1609
Q4: Reprint of Q3, 1622
Q5: Reprint of Q4, 1637
F, F1: The First Folio, 1623
F2: The Second Folio, 1632
F3: The Third Folio, 1663
F4: The Fourth Folio, 1685
Alexander: Peter Alexander, Complete Works (1951)
Bevington: David Bevington, Complete Works, 4th edn. (New York, 1997)
Boswell: James Boswell, Plays and Poems, 21 vols. (1821)
Bryant: J. A. Bryant, Jr., Romeo and Juliet, The Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York and Toronto, 1964)
Cambridge: W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright, Works, The Cambridge Shakespeare, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 1863-6)
Capell: Edward Capell, Mr. William Shakespeare his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies …, 10 vols. (1767-8)
Collier: John Payne Collier, Works, 8 vols. (1842-4)
Collier 1858: John Payne Collier, Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, Tragedies and Poems, 6 vols. (1858)
Crofts: J. E. Crofts, Romeo and Juliet, The Warwick Shakespeare (1936)
Daniel: P. A. Daniel, ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Parallel Texts of the First Two Quartos, The New Shakspere Society (1874)
Deighton: K. Deighton, Romeo and Juliet (1893)
Dowden: Edward Dowden, Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare (1900)
Evans: G. Blakemore Evans, Romeo and Juliet, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1984)
Furness: Horace Howard Furness, Romeo and Juliet, A New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia, 1871)
Gibbons: Brian Gibbons, Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare (1980)
Globe: W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright, Works (Cambridge, 1864)
Hankins: John E. Hankins, Romeo and Juliet, The Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1960)
Hanmer: Thomas Hanmer, Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1743-4)
Hoppe: H. R. Hoppe, Romeo and Juliet, Crofts Classics (New York, 1947)
Hosley: Richard Hosley, Romeo and Juliet, The Yale Shakespeare (New Haven, 1954)
Houghton: Ralph E. C. Houghton, Romeo and Juliet, The New Clarendon Shakespeare (Oxford, 1947)
Hudson: Henry N. Hudson, Works, 11 vols. (Boston, 1851-6)
Johnson: Samuel Johnson, Plays, 8 vols. (1765)
Jowett: John Jowett, Romeo and Juliet, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford, 1986); notes in Textual Companion (see entry below)
Keightley: Thomas Keightley, Plays, 6 vols. (1864)
Kittredge: George Lyman Kittredge, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Boston, 1936); rev. Irving Ribner (Waltham, Mass., and Toronto, 1971)
Knight: Charles Knight, Works, Pictorial Edition, 8 vols. (1838-43)
Malone: Edmond Malone, Plays and Poems, 10 vols. (1790)
McKerrow: Ronald B. McKerrow, unpublished papers for the Oxford Shakespeare (in the archives of Oxford University Press)
Mowat-Werstine: Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Romeo and Juliet, The New Folger Library (New York, 1992)
Munro: John Munro, The London Shakespeare, 6 vols. (1958)
Pope: Alexander Pope, Works, 6 vols. (1723-5)
Pope 1728: Alexander Pope, Works, 10 vols. (1728)
Rann: Joseph Rann, Dramatic Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1786-94)
Ridley: M. R. Ridley, Romeo and Juliet, The New Temple Shakespeare (1935)
Riverside: G. B. Evans (textual editor), The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edn. (Boston, 1997)
Rolfe: William J. Rolfe, Romeo and Juliet, English Classics (New York, 1879)
Rowe: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 6 vols. (1709)
Rowe 1714: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 8 vols. (1714)
Singer: Samuel Weller Singer, Dramatic Works, 10 vols. (Chiswick, 1826)
Singer 1856: Samuel Weller Singer, Dramatic Works, 10 vols. (1856)
Sisson: Charles J. Sisson, Complete Works (1954)
Spencer: T. J. B. Spencer, Romeo and Juliet, The New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1967)
Staunton: Howard Staunton, Plays, 3 vols. (1858-60)
Steevens: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, Plays, 10 vols. (1773)
Steevens 1778: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, Plays, 10 vols. (1778)
Theobald: Lewis Theobald, Works, 7 vols. (1733)
Theobald 1740: Lewis Theobald, Works, 8 vols. (1740)
Warburton: William Warburton, Works, 8 vols. (1747)
White: Richard Grant White, Works, 12 vols. (Boston, 1857-66)
Williams: George Walton Williams, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet (Durham, NC, 1964)
Wilson-Duthie: John Dover Wilson and George Ian Duthie, Romeo and Juliet, The New Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1955)

Other Abbreviations

Abbott: E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, 3rd edn. (1870)
Andrews, Critical Essays: ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Critical Essays, ed. John F. Andrews (New York, 1993)
Bartenschlager: Klaus Bartenschlager, ‘Three Notes on Romeo and Juliet’, Anglia, 100 (1982), 422-5
Booth: Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven, 1977)
Brooke: Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet written first in Italian by Bandell, and nowe in Englishe by Ar. Br., in Bullough, i. 269-363 (see Bullough, below); cited by line numbers unless otherwise indicated
Brooke, N.: Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (1968)
Bullough: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (1957-75)
Cirlot: J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd edn. (New York, 1971)
Cotgrave: Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611)
Daniel: Samuel Daniel, The Complaint of Rosamond, in Poems and ‘A Defence of Ryme’, ed. Arthur Colby Sprague (Cambridge, Mass., 1930)
Dent: R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (Berkeley, 1981)
ELN: English Language Notes
ELR: English Literary Renaissance
E & S: Essays and Studies
Evans, R. O.: Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage: Rhetorical Devices in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Lexington, Ky., 1966)
Greg, Editorial Problem: W. W. Greg, The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1942)
Greg, First Folio: W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio: Its Bibliographical and Textual History (Oxford, 1955)
Jonson: Ben Jonson, Works, ed. C. H. Herford and P. and E. Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-52)
Joseph, Sister Miriam: Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947)
Laroque: François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World (Cambridge, 1991)
Levin: Harry Levin, ‘Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet’, SQ 11 (1960), repr. in Andrews, Critical Essays, pp. 41-53
Lyly: The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. W. Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1902)
Mahood: M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (1957; repr. 1968)
MARDE: Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England
Marlowe: The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1973)
MLN: : Modern Language Notes
MLR Modern Language Review
MP: Modern Philology
Nashe: The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, repr. with corrections and supplementary notes by F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1958)
N & Q: Notes and Queries
OED: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. (1989)
Onions: C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, rev. Robert D. Eagleson (Oxford, 1986)
Ovid: Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, ed. John Frederick Nims (New York, 1965); cited by book and line numbers
Painter: William Painter, ‘The goodly Hystory of the true, and constant Loue between Rhomeo and Ivlietta …’ in The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs (1890), iii. 80-124; cited by page numbers
Partridge: Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, 3rd edn. (1968)
PBSA: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America
Pearlman: E. Pearlman, ‘Shakespeare at Work: Romeo and Juliet’, ELR 24 (1994), repr. in Porter, Critical Essays, pp. 107-30
Porter, Critical Essays: Critical Essays on Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ed. Joseph A. Porter (New York, 1997)
PQ: Philological Quarterly
Reconstructing Individualism: Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, ed. Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery (Stanford, 1986)
RES: Review of English Studies
SAB: Shakespeare Association Bulletin
SB: Studies in Bibliography
SEL: Studies in English Literature
Shaheen: Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies (Newark, Del., 1987)
Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ed. Halio: Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, ed. Jay L. Halio (Newark, Del., 1995)
Sidney: The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr. (Oxford, 1962)
SJ, SJH: Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West
SP: Studies in Philology
Spenser: The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, and Frederick Morgan Padelford (Baltimore, 1932)
SQ: Shakespeare Quarterly
SR: Stationers' Register
SSt: Shakespeare Studies
SSu: Shakespeare Survey
STC: A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640, first comp. A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave; 2nd edn., rev. and enl., begun by W. A. Jackson and F. S. Ferguson, completed by Katharine F. Pantzer, 3 vols. (1976-91)
Textual Companion: William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor with John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford, 1987)
Tilley: M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950)
TJ: Theatre Journal
TLS: The Times Literary Supplement
TSLL: Texas Studies in Language and Literature

Russell Jackson (review date 1996)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare Performed: Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1995-96.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 319-29.

[In the excerpt below, Jackson reviews the 1995-96 production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Adrian Noble and performed at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson highlights a number of “awkwardnesses of staging,” finds that the performances by the actors in the roles of Romeo and Juliet were not very passionate or compelling, and praises the performances by the Nurse and Friar.]

In its brochure advertising the 1995-96 Stratford season the Royal Shakespeare Company defined itself as “the finest actors and directors working on great plays in some of the best theatre spaces in the world” and promised “World Class Classical Theatre.” One can hardly blame any company for setting out its stall as attractively as possible, so there is no need to require that “possibly” or “perhaps” be inserted in this kind of statement. However, the actual achievements of the 1995-96 season suggest that some questioning is in order. If in this marketing context “Classical” means “mainly well-known plays from an established repertoire,” the choice of plays for the season did justify this claim. But if “Classical” implies a distinct performance style or tradition, as it does in dance, or if “World Class” is to be understood as “on a par with the best available anywhere,” there was room for doubt. Distinctive ingredients of world-class classical theater should include innovation, a dynamic relationship with what is familiar and traditional, and an ability to make old texts new without ceasing to be attentive to their expressive idiom. Having proclaimed itself world class and classical, what did the RSC deliver?

The season offered only five Shakespeare productions in Stratford's three theaters. The main house presented a challenging Richard III (which Robert Smallwood discusses on pages 326-29) and a vigorous and quirky Shrew, but the other main-stage productions, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, were lackluster affairs. In the Swan Theatre, one of the best spaces for his plays, Shakespeare was represented briefly by The Tempest, which was paired with Edward Bond's Bingo. The quasi-Elizabethan space was also used for a lively staging of The Devil is an Ass but otherwise hosted plays written later than those for which it was designed: Chekhov's Cherry Orchard (directed by Adrian Noble and the best production in the company's season), Ian Judge's flamboyant Relapse, and Michael Bogdanov's assault on both parts of Goethe's Faust. At the Other Place were Calderón's The Painter of Dishonour, an adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Euripides's Phoenician Women.

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Adrian Noble and designed by Kendra Ullyart, was set in the middle of the nineteenth century, in a rather gloomy Verona. Sunlight was all but excluded from a narrow street, where café tables and lines of gray laundry constituted the local color. Arcaded walls of gray marble slid on and off to make the stage space more or less confined as successive scenes demanded. The costumes (and a snatch of La Traviata in the party scene) suggested the Italy of the Risorgimento, and Shaun Davey's score recalled The Godfather, strengthening the oppressive atmosphere of interfamilial strife. Tybalt (Dermot Kerrigan) was evidently a nascent capo, accompanied by a slouching henchman who could produce the proscribed swords from under a folded raincoat at a moment's notice. The café setting served the street scenes well, although it seemed odd for Romeo to arrive onstage in 1.1 to find no more sign of disorder than a couple of table napkins lying on the floor. “Ay me! What fray was here?” has rarely been so meagerly motivated or given so little emphasis. At the Capulets' party, otherwise staged effectively as a family gathering with young children included in the fun, Romeo accosted Juliet from behind, taking her hands awkwardly (and not making much of “palm to palm” as a consequence). At least one of Romeo's asides was electronically amplified: though the actor does not have a strong voice, it was surely a failure of direction to allow the bustle of upstage business to drown out a protagonist. There were other awkwardnesses of staging. In the balcony scene (2.2) the generous amount of light made Juliet's puzzlement about her visitor's identity unbelievable, and in 5.3 the Capulet mausoleum was so well lit that it seemed absurd for Romeo to fight with Paris without recognizing him. As if to make the incongruity more obvious, the friar was able to identify Paris (by now face-down on the floor) as soon as he looked across the stage. In 3.5 Juliet's bed rose from a trap, a curtain rising with it to separate it from the exterior wall with the balcony seen previously. The lovers effectively exited from what had been established as the bedroom to appear above, facing the audience, for Romeo's descent from the window. Juliet then descended to her bedroom again, making the scene an odd combination of naturalistic and formal staging.

At first glimpse Romeo (Zubin Varla) was winningly awkward, his voice rising to a peevish thin tenor and his body contorting in the agony of his calf-love for Rosaline. Unfortunately the experience of Juliet's love did little to alter him. At times he positively squirmed with delight, rubbing the back of one leg with the top of his other foot, and he reacted to his banishment with a prolonged tantrum. Juliet (Lucy Whybrow) was pretty but not passionate, a small-voiced, doll-like young person. Sexual passion was not very evident, even in “Gallop apace, ye fiery-footed steeds …,” despite the impetus given to this speech by its delivery from a garden swing. … “When he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars …” was a charmingly fanciful notion rather than an expansive and daring moment of sensual fantasy, and “I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it” was merely petulant. Her response to the news of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment was more hysterics than desperation, reminiscent of her reaction to the Nurse's teasing in 2.5. Juliet raved and flopped on the floor, only managing to salvage some self-possession and gravity when she picked up the rope-ladder cords. More arresting was a sudden glimpse of the Nurse's bewilderment and emptiness—“These sorrows make me old.” Friar Laurence (Julian Glover) was a tough and worldly amateur herbalist with a Scottish accent and an astringent manner. In 2.3 he came to the café for what was clearly his daily morning espresso, taking a flower from the table setting to illustrate his discourse on the properties of herbs. The same flower served as an ingredient when he mixed Juliet's potion in 4.1—is this the first time that Friar Laurence has prepared the brew onstage rather than simply providing it from his stock of ready-mixed drugs? Romeo's hysterics in 3.3 provoked the priest to a sharpness of tongue which seemed to have the audience's sympathy, and he would have forfeited little of it (and probably earned a round of applause) if he had cuffed the whining hero soundly. Like Susan Brown's warm, strongly maternal Nurse, the friar seemed an exemplar of mature good sense in a world of absurd rivalries between the young men and callow emoting from the allegedly tragic couple. One of the production's few strong points was its insistence that both friar and nurse fail their charges at crucial moments.

Mark Lockyer's Mercutio was clearly disturbed. The Queen Mab speech started as exhibitionism and became a dark, unnerving descent into sexual disgust, a dangerous mood from which his friends had to help him recover. He went to Capulet's feast in grotesque drag, with balloons as breasts, and got so drunk that his companions had to make their excuses and leave. The extravagance of his affection for Romeo created a sense that for him bawdy talk was a covert expression of homosexual desire. The principal interest of the production lay in this and a few other individual performances (notably Julian Glover's and Susan Brown's but also Michael Gould's sensible, worldly Benvolio and Christopher Benjamin's feeling, passionately patriarchal Capulet). The absence of any evidence of passion or even accomplishment in the title roles helped to reduce this to yet another routine rendition of a popular, much-studied, and therefore bankable play ….

Carolyn E. Brown (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Brown, Carolyn E. “Juliet's Taming of Romeo.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 36, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 333-55.

[In the essay that follows, Brown analyzes the characterization of Juliet, stressing the young woman's depth of character and examining her search for selfhood.]

Shakespeare's Juliet has received divergent critical appraisals. Early criticism, in particular, of Romeo and Juliet largely overlooks Juliet, viewing the play as being primarily about Romeo and treating Juliet as a subsidiary, underdeveloped character. When such criticism explores Juliet, it is often influenced by her young age of fourteen, reading her as little more than a child—naive, immature, inexperienced, obedient to her parents' wishes, and uncomplicated. E. C. Pettet, for example, characterizes Juliet as a “spontaneous, passionate child of nature, whose speech and heart are always one.”1 But as criticism, especially feminist in orientation, begins to recognize the depth of Shakespeare's female characters, Juliet is receiving more concentrated, appreciative attention. And as critics look beyond her youth, they discover not a reticent virgin but a multifaceted character who transcends Romeo in maturity, complexity, insight, and rhetorical dexterity. Critical estimation of Juliet has moved from regarding her as a passive victim of “star-crossed love” to lauding her as a self-willed, courageous, intelligent young woman who initiates and controls action in her struggle to preserve her integrity and autonomy in a world that is hostile to women. Irene Dash argues that Juliet tries to retain “her sense of self as ‘essential’” and, thus, moves the audience “with admiration for a courageous person attempting to fight her destiny as a woman” and “to govern her own life.”2 Nancy Compton Warmbrod views Juliet as determined to see “herself as an independent person” and to establish “an identity apart from family and nurse.”3 Instead of perceiving Juliet as shallow, criticism is now more willing to admit that under the surface lyricism there is another dimension to her words and actions where her more independent, controlling, and rebellious nature is lodged.4

This essay enhances the critical appreciation of Juliet's depth and her struggle for selfhood, and focuses on her interchange with Romeo in two particular scenes—II.ii, the so-called balcony scene, and III.v, which contains the lovers' interchange the morning after the consummation. Typically these scenes are read as the most romantic in the play, and Juliet is traditionally read as helplessly in the throes of young love. Pettet, for example, looks at II.ii as “the most serenely joyful passage of the play,” containing “lyricism and the warm, unfolding passion of [Romeo and Juliet's] love declarations.”5 My reading, however, explores a less romantic mode in which Romeo and Juliet woo each other in these two scenes, and challenges the traditional view of Juliet as Romeo's passive beloved by arguing that her language and actions contain a deeper level of meaning. This subtext is established by the falconry imagery that appears throughout the play but that reaches its prominence in the balcony scene. Through this imagery, Shakespeare establishes a reading that draws parallels between Romeo and trainable falcons (usually females) and between the way Juliet treats Romeo and the methods falconers (usually males) use to train their birds.6 Shakespeare reverses the gender roles, as he does in other parts of the play, and has Juliet assume behavior typically assigned to men.

During the balcony scene, she can be read as trying to train Romeo, much as falconer Petruchio trains his bird Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. She attempts to make Romeo as obedient as a “manned” falcon. The falconry references contribute to the reading of Juliet as being interested in control since the relationship between the bird and trainer is not one of equality but one in which the trainer respects the bird's powers but subjects them to his own will and dominates the bird. Juliet transforms her future husband from a “flighty,” impractical man of fancy who engages in long, unrealistic speeches, into a pragmatic, obedient man of few words who learns to give her the succinct answers she wants and to fulfill her commands. The subtext establishes that Juliet's inability to control her own life compels her to resort to shrewd means of establishing autonomy and that she attempts to control her destiny by controlling the man who constitutes her destiny—Romeo. This essay examines how Shakespeare transmutes the rigorous physical training of a falcon into Juliet's training of Romeo through rhetoric and elucidates this subtextual reading by comparing it to the primary reading of falconry taming techniques in The Taming of the Shrew.

That Juliet wants to control Romeo and her life is not unusual. In the context of marriage, lovers—males and females—often try to control one another. In the context of Shakespearean drama, moreover, female characters have been recognized as strong-willed, and Shakespeare has been called an “inveterate feminist.”7 But what is unusual and refreshing at the same time is Juliet's overt mode of controlling Romeo and her life. She does not use the traditional feminine wiles. She does not disguise herself as a male, as do some of Shakespeare's heroines, in order to sanction what is traditionally male behavior. While she may offer a few obligatory excuses, she usurps the male role with aplomb and conviction. Although Juliet is one of Shakespeare's youngest female protagonists, she in many senses is the most aggressive and self-contained in her pursuit of love and independence as she attempts to tame a wild falcon.

Falconry imagery appears throughout Shakespeare's plays. Maurice Pope notes that hawking references appear with greater frequency, variety, and accuracy in Shakespeare's works than in those of his contemporaries, and he conjectures that Shakespeare gained his knowledge from first-hand experience.8 Certainly, most Elizabethans were familiar with what has been called “the great national field sport of England,”9 and Shakespeare's audience would have better appreciated the numerous falconry images in Romeo and Juliet and their significance than modern audiences do. The language of both Romeo and Juliet contains many references to birds and more particularly to falconry, and references are made to them in such terms. Romeo, for example, is repeatedly associated with winged Cupid. Mercutio associates Romeo with the flight of Cupid—“You are a lover, borrow Cupid's wings / And soar with them above a common bound” (I.iv.17-8).10 Romeo himself identifies with the winged love god: when he is “in love” with Rosalind, Romeo explains that Cupid has so wounded him that he is temporarily immobile, “I am too sore enpierced with his shaft / To soar with his light feathers” (I.iv.19-20); later he implies that he flew with Cupid in order to find Juliet—Cupid “lent [Romeo] counsel, and [he] lent [Cupid] eyes” (II.ii.81). Juliet describes Cupid, with whom Romeo is associated, in terms of birds as well: “nimble-pinion'd doves draw Love, / And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings” (II.v.7-8). Romeo identifies with birds and their flight: “Flies may do this [touch Juliet's lips] but I from this must fly” (III.iii.41); when he sees Juliet in the balcony scene, he immediately thinks of the way birds would react to her beauty—“[B]irds would sing and think it were not night” (II.ii.22)—and “sings” himself as if he were a cozened bird. Romeo's language also contains more specific allusions to falconry: he, for example, thinks of Juliet “cast[ing] [her virginity] off” (II.ii.9), a technical term for throwing out a lure in falconry; he claims he is “so bound [by love] / [He] cannot bound a pitch above dull woe” (I.iv.20-1), “pitch” being a “height from which a hawk stoops to kill” its prey.11 He is repeatedly associated with the hooding of falcons, a device used to cover the hawk's eyes and, thus, control the bird: Romeo refers to Cupid's “view [being] muffled still” (I.i.168); Benvolio implicitly compares Romeo to “Cupid [being] hoodwink'd with a scarf” (I.iv.4).12 All of these references underscore that Shakespeare repeatedly encourages his audience to view Romeo in terms of a wild bird, specifically a falcon.

Juliet is delineated in similar terms, for she and women in general are described as birds:13 Benvolio claims that Romeo will see other women at the Capulet ball who “will make [him] think [his] swan a crow” (I.ii.89); when Romeo sees Juliet at the ball, he concurs with Benvolio's earlier prediction, viewing his new beloved as “a snowy dove trooping with crows” (I.v.47); during the balcony scene, Romeo associates Juliet with “the airy region” (II.ii.21) and sees her as “a winged messenger of heaven” that “sails upon the bosom of the air” (II.ii.28; 32); he refers to her as his “nyas” (II.ii.167), an unfledged hawk or eyas. The Nurse calls Juliet a “ladybird” (I.iii.3) and states that Romeo “must climb a bird's nest” to be with his beloved (II.v.75). In III.v, Juliet and Romeo's language is filled with references to nightingales and larks and the songs of these birds.

Juliet also enlists and is described with falconry terminology. In her epithalamium, for example, she asks that Night “hood [her] unmann'd blood, bating in [her] cheeks” (III.ii.14), using three terms from falconry: she refers to the “hood” placed over a hawk's eyes in order to calm it; to the “bating” or the fluttering of a hawk's wings when it is being uncontrollable; and to the “manning” or the mastering of a wild hawk. She speaks of “the mask of night [being] on [her] face” (II.ii.85), an allusion not only to darkness but also possibly yet again to the hooding of a falcon. Lady Capulet speaks of her daughter being “mew'd up to her heaviness” (III.iv.11), the “mews” referring to the housing or confining of hawks, especially at night; Capulet refers to his daughter as a “wayward girl [who] is so reclaim'd” (IV.ii.47), “reclaiming” being the falconry terminology for a hawk's obedient return to its master after a hunt. The bird imagery equates Juliet with a trapped bird, wanting to exercise its natural freedom of flight but confined—imagery that embodies the state of women and Juliet, in particular, in a patriarchal society that “mews” them up.

Juliet, though, also refers to herself as a “falconer” and to Romeo as her “bird” (II.ii.177), repeatedly speaking of him in connection with birds: when she is anticipating Romeo's arrival in her bedroom, she proclaims Romeo “wilt lie upon the wings of night / Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back” (III.ii.18-9); she describes her beloved as a “dove-feather'd raven” (III.ii.76). She also calls him her “tassel-gentle,” a designation for the male peregrine falcon: “O for a falconer's voice / To lure this tassel-gentle back again” (II.ii.158-9). She speaks of training Romeo to come to the “lure”—an “alluring” object that entices the falcon back to its master after a flight for quarry. She gains Romeo's attention with “Hist! Romeo, hist!” (II.ii.158), the bird's receptivity to the falconer's call being an important part of the sport. She speaks of having him attached to a “silken thread” (II.ii.180), a designation for the trainer's leash or “creance.” At the end of the balcony scene, she says she prefers to have Romeo “still stand” (II.ii.172) in one spot, a falconry term for an obedient hawk that does not “bate” its wings. Romeo wishes he “were [Juliet's] bird” (II.ii.181), and, indeed, the bird and falconry terminology in the play contributes to a latent reading in which Romeo becomes Juliet's well-trained pet falcon. Such imagery leads to a reading of Juliet as trying to escape her confined status as a “mewed up” bird and vicariously achieve flight or freedom through training her bird to fly for her.

The references to Juliet as falconer and Romeo as her falcon are reinforced by the actions and language of both characters. Juliet's designation of Romeo as a “tassel-gentle” (II.ii.159) is appropriate. The tassel is labeled “gentle” because of its suitability as a “noble” bird for a prince and because of its “docile and tractable disposition.”14 Like the high-spirited but pliant peregrine falcon, Romeo has a gentleness about him. He shuns the feud that consumes the other men and professes himself a wooer, not a fighter. The Nurse remarks on his mildness: “I'll warrant him as gentle as a lamb” (II.v.44). Juliet also notes his docility after she kisses him: she claims that he “kiss[es] by th'book” (I.v.109). Although perhaps a little disappointed at his lack of proficiency in the art of kissing in which she seems to have some experience, Juliet seems to feel she has made a good choice: he displays callowness, does things by the book, and follows directions well—characteristics that make him tractable and, thus, trainable. On a primary level, Juliet develops an affection for Romeo because she meets a soul mate. But on a subtextual level, she is attracted to Romeo because he is malleable and controllable. Such a mate allows her to assume the dominant role in the relationship, finding the “weaker vessel” in Romeo.

Shakespeare also means Romeo's elaborate, lofty professions of love to resemble the flight of hawks, which “hover on extended wings high in the air.”15 While Shakespeare models Romeo after the courtly serenader and lover-poet, scholars note that Romeo speaks in the “debased literary currency” of Petrarchanism and his language is so extreme and hyperbolic that it almost ruins the solemn mood by making the audience laugh.16 Shakespeare also undercuts the lofty romanticism by making Romeo's speech resemble the soaring of a falcon, for Petrarchanism is associated with loftiness, flight, and ascension into a spiritual world above a mundane existence. Scholars often speak of Romeo's language in terms of flying: Katherine Dalsimer and Larry Champion allude to his “flights” of rhetoric; James Calderwood argues that Romeo's Petrarchan flights “soar airily and often vacuously.”17 Romeo indulges in such inflated Petrarchanism that he soars figuratively in his “flights of passion.” He “flies” with romantic allusions, which make him almost ethereal, part of the airy realm. Upon seeing light in a window, or spying Juliet, or hearing an “oh hum” from her lips, Romeo, with each event, soars further from reality with lengthy, grandiloquent comparisons of Juliet to the sun killing the jealous moon (II.ii.29). He rhapsodizes about her eyes leaving her head to outshine the stars in heaven (II.ii.15-20). At the beginning of II.ii, he is merely noting Juliet's beauty and his desire to divest her of her chastity, but it takes him thirty lines to make this simple observation. In terms of falconry, his “flight” is “unchecked” or free-ranging in that his speech is erratic: Romeo darts from one metaphor to another and gets carried away with extravagant comparisons. Romeo is also like a falcon in that he figuratively flies above the concerns of the feud and is oblivious to the dangers that might ensue from his appearance at his enemy's house: “With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls / For stony limits cannot hold love out” (II.ii.66-7). Flying along with winged Cupid, he figuratively cannot be impeded by earthly boundaries. As a man, Romeo can go wherever he wants, unlike Juliet, and the flight imagery becomes symbolic of this freedom.

Juliet, on the other hand, can be seen to resemble a falconer—a person consigned to the earthy element, keen-witted and aware of reality. As a woman, she is presented as having less liberty than a man and as being bound to earth—a situation reflected in her status as an “earthbound”18 falconer: the Chorus states, “her means much less [than Romeo's] / To meet her new beloved anywhere” (II.ii.11-2). Her constrained status is indicated by her language: “Bondage is hoarse and may not speak aloud” (II.ii.160). Constrained by a patriarchal society from expressing her thoughts and controlling her own life, she does not figuratively fly in her speech as Romeo does; rather, her speech is direct, curt, and practical. While Romeo is metaphorically “in the clouds,” Juliet at the beginning of II.ii immediately gets down to business, speaking as if she were striking a bargain:

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.
.....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.

(lines 34-47)

Her practical language and message are in stark contrast to Romeo's flighty Petrarchanism. On the primary level of meaning, Shakespeare suggests that Juliet, unaware of Romeo's presence, muses to herself about her affection for Romeo, showing that the strength and purity of her love allow her to look beyond the externals of names and feuds to an appreciation of Romeo's spiritual essence. But with Shakespeare being elusive about whether Juliet knows of Romeo's presence, he suggests the possibility that on a subtextual level of meaning Juliet recognizes that Romeo has entered the scene. Shakespeare allows for the reading that Juliet only pretends not to see Romeo and takes advantage of the darkness so that she can be more forward and can assume a typically masculine position of power, proposing to Romeo rather than waiting for him to act. She inverts the marriage vows and asks him to make the sacrifices required of women: he is to give up his name and leave the protection of his father's home and take her as his new protector. While Romeo enters the scene thinking only of enjoying her physical delights, Juliet thinks in more practical terms, and she begins by almost conducting a mock wedding ceremony. She requests that he deny his heritage, forgetting his past freedoms and thinking of her as his new family—his new identity. In this reading, Juliet maneuvers Romeo into assuming a less powerful position in the relationship, a position subsidiary to her. She entices him by making her argument seductive and tantalizing, as she refers to the sweet smell of Romeo, to his “perfect” body “parts” (line 41) that constitute him more than his name, and to her offering herself to him sexually. On a subtextual level, she is trapping him, as a falconer does a wild bird. Although the phrase is suggestive, “Take all myself” (line 48) actually refers to Romeo's subsuming his identity into Juliet's, into doing what a bride customarily does during a wedding ceremony—give up her name and take her husband as her new self. She suggests he renounce both his first and last name, all signs of his former life.

Shakespeare has Juliet's actions resemble those of a falconer, who early in the training must de-program the bird from its former freedoms until it thinks of the falconer as the center of its new existence. The falconer has to “mak[e] her forget her wild ways.” The bird must be “detached from her normal mode of life and [made to] renounce certain peculiarities, replacing them by other (acquired) habits and accomplishments … [The falconer must] teach the falcon a new manner of life,” one based on the falconer's terms.19 Shakespeare has the self-proclaimed falconer Petruchio of The Taming of the Shrew take first steps similar to those of Juliet in order to “man” his falcon. Petruchio modifies Katherine's identity, diminishing her independent stature as “Katherine” into the more diminutive status of “Kate” (II.i.185-90).20 Petruchio gives her a new name, a new identity that he defines for her. Petruchio clarifies that this strategy is meant to make her “conformable” (II.i.271) or pliant to his molding her into a wife who suits his needs. Just as Petruchio proclaims Katherine to be “my Kate,” Juliet declares her beloved to be “my Romeo,” as if she possesses or owns him.

In his avowal of love, Romeo voices his utter devotion to Juliet and defies the outside world: “Call me but love, and I'll be new baptis'd: / Henceforth I never will be Romeo”; “Had I [the name of Romeo] written, I would tear the word” (II.ii.50-1; 57). On a subtextual level, however, he can be seen as figuratively flying to Juliet and taking the bait. The word “tear” seems unusual in this context. But it makes sense in reference to the falconry terminology, with Shakespeare evoking the image of Romeo as a hawk taking its prey in its talons and “tearing” small portions of flesh off with its beak before swallowing the meat. Romeo's prey becomes his own identity, and he is willing to give up both his first and last name and to give Juliet absolute control over him: he claims to be “neither [Romeo nor a Montague], fair maid, if either thee dislike” (line 61).

The following quick interchange (lines 52-84) between Juliet and Romeo, in which Juliet asks a series of simple technical questions, such as Romeo's name and his means of arriving at her balcony, underscores the difference between the practical, efficient Juliet, anchored in a troubled existence, and the flighty Romeo, removed from reality. Unlike the ethereal Romeo, Juliet is acutely aware of the reality of danger—“If they do see thee, they will murder thee” (line 70)—and she tries to get Romeo to give her direct answers by asking him direct questions—“How cam'st thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?” (line 62); “By whose direction found'st thou out this place?” (line 79). But his answers are unrestrained, “wild ranging,” and unfocused:

[I found this place b]y love, that first did prompt me to enquire.
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 her farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.

(lines 80-4)

Shakespeare makes us feel the power of love over Romeo in that it renders him fearless and compels him to voice his endless devotion. But by juxtaposing Romeo's indirect speech to Juliet's direct approach, Shakespeare on another level mocks Romeo and encourages us to see Romeo's responses in a different light. The bird imagery throughout the play allows Romeo to be seen as a wild, untrained falcon that “breaks away,” which means to not fly a direct path to the lure, as Romeo cannot fly a direct path to Juliet by giving her a substantive answer. Although she tries repeatedly to communicate effectively with him, she cannot get a direct answer out of him, one grounded in reality. In fact, with each response, Romeo only seems to “fly” further from the concerns of this world: he claims that Juliet's love makes him impervious to stony walls, to the “enmity” (line 73) and the swords of his enemies, and even to death.

The rest of the interchange takes a new direction, signaled by Juliet's long speech of twenty-one lines (85-106). Throughout the remainder of the scene, Juliet behaves strangely: she repeatedly and brusquely interrupts Romeo, hardly letting the loquacious Romeo complete a sentence or spout more than a few words; and she repeatedly threatens to break off relations or she actually leaves the scene in response to the Nurse's call. On a principal level of meaning, Shakespeare intends for us to understand that the forbidden quality of their love and the need for secrecy contribute to the lovers' strange behavior and compel them to act in haste. But the interchange can be read in a different way, for there is a systematic method to Juliet's behavior: she consistently promises a union with Romeo only to withdraw that promise and herself. The latent reading allows for the possibility that Juliet is playing with Romeo to some degree. Calderwood suggests that Juliet repeatedly interrupts Romeo because she “distrusts his style.21 She may, indeed, not like his answers and teaches him to give her the answers that she wants to hear. At the end of the exchange, she wishes “for a falconer's voice / To lure this tassel gentle back again” (lines 158-9). The word “again” suggests that Juliet has lured Romeo before the last instance near the end of the scene. Her behavior at lines 85-106 may indicate that she is beginning her “luring” tactics, that she, in other words, is teasing and taunting him. Shakespeare has her rhetorically enlist something similar to a training strategy in falconry and tame Romeo into saying and doing what she wills.

To understand how Juliet transforms Romeo's behavior, we need to see that her rhetorical strategies can be read as similar to the falconer's tactics of getting a bird to “fly to the lure.” The lure, consisting of a dead animal or bird that the falcon would hunt on its own, tempts or “lures” the bird back to the falconer. Once the bird flies on its own for the quarry that the falconer points out to it, the lure will entice the bird to bring the quarry back to its master and to eat the lure, not the quarry. In training the bird to the lure, the falconer swings the lure “round vertically once or twice”22 and then throws it out the full extent of the line, still holding the stick to which it is attached and also holding the creance attached to the bird. The trainer tries to get the falcon to notice the lure and fly to it: he twitches the lure by pulling on the line and dragging it a bit. Juliet, likewise, can be seen as “lur[ing]” Romeo, as she tries to get him to “fly to the lure,” that is, to speak in practical terms to her and get a commitment from him. Romeo must vow his love, for she asks him, “Dost thou love me?” (line 90)—a bold question that is usually posed by the male, not the maiden. The lure that she throws out is the promise of herself (the promise of sexual consummation) or her body (chastity), for she comes out of the shadows at this point and acknowledges Romeo's presence. She speaks suggestively of expressing her “true-love passion” (line 104) and of being “too quickly won” (line 95), or of Romeo sexually conquering her and enjoying the spoils of copulation. Earlier Romeo, like a hungry falcon, has anticipated gorging himself on a full meal of Juliet's chastity: the moon's “vestal livery is but sick and green / And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off” (lines 8-9). He alludes to her virginity as a “livery,” which, besides denoting a piece of clothing, can refer to an allowance or ration of food served out.23 He tells her to “cast off” her “vestal livery” or her chastity. The term “cast off” comes from falconry and means to throw out a lure (OED v. 6b), and it is at this important stage in the training that Juliet throws out her chastity to allure Romeo.

As the falconer twitches the food to attract the bird's attention, Juliet tantalizes Romeo: she repeatedly makes an initiative and invites Romeo, in turn, to make an overture and then she recoils, suggesting she may be acting too forwardly:

If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully.
Or, if thou think'st 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.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my haviour light.

(lines 94-9)

On a subtextual level, Shakespeare allows us to read Juliet as piquing Romeo's appetite for her by speaking seductively about his enjoying her fleshly delights yet denying him the chance. She tantalizes Romeo, asking him to express his feelings and to hear her express hers and yet denying him the opportunity for both. She asks him if he loves her but rebuffs him by answering for him and stating that if he should profess he might break his oath:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’,
And I will take thy word. Yet, if thou swear'st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs.

(lines 90-3)

Like a good trainer, Juliet keeps her “tassel-gentle” hungry for some affection. If the training is to continue, a falcon's sharp appetite must always have its edge: hunger in hawks “‘will enforce them to be more eager’ or ‘as an empty eagle, sharp by fast.’”24 Petruchio of The Taming of the Shrew starves Katherine, who is “sharp and passing empty” (IV.i.177), both of literal food and sexual contact, and describes this technique: “And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd, / For then she never looks upon her lure” (IV.i.178-9).

The bird must be taught to be obedient, to fly directly to the lure. The falcon must learn to fly as its new master wishes, not as the falcon wishes: the bird is to “return to [its master] promptly” and “roundly, without delay.”25 An expert explains the technique: upon just the sight of the lure, the falcon should “presently come in and be most obedient, which may easily be performed, by giving her reward when she doth your pleasure, and making her fast when she disobeieth.”26 Consequently, if the falcon “checks”—“casual, random, or intermittent action, as distinguished from a sustained and deliberate effort”27—and does not fly straight to the lure, the trainer removes the lure. The following advice explains the training procedure: “Just before the falcon reaches [the lure], jerk it towards you.” “The falcon should feel that if she flew just a little harder she would catch the lure, yet when she does so she still finds it eluding her by a fraction—so she tries harder still.”28

Tantalized and “hungry” for Juliet's chastity, Romeo flies to the lure, vowing his love: “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow, / That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—” (lines 107-8). But Juliet interrupts him: “O swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon” (line 109). In falconry terms, Juliet jerks the lure from him because Romeo does not make a direct flight to her. He “breaks away” as he did in his previous responses, launching on one of his “flights of fancy,” becoming distracted with an elevated paean to the moon. He, in other words, indulges his wild, unrestrained romantic nature. She removes the promise of herself because, as she tells him, his answer or flight has been unsatisfactory. In terms of falconry, she makes him fast when he is disobedient and lets him know that if he wants her affection, he must follow her instructions; he must please her, not himself. Like a trained hawk, he begins to see her as the new focus of his existence and becomes dependent on her, asking her for directions: “What shall I swear by?” (line 111).

Responding to his show of obedience, Juliet “throws out the lure” again, acting as if she might be receptive to him and telling him to “swear by thy gracious self” (line 113), not to engage in lofty references to the moon but to speak directly of himself and in more practical terms—in falconry jargon, to fly straight to the lure. Romeo tries verbally to “fly” to her again, “If my heart's dear love—” (line 115), but she is shown to be once again dissatisfied with his answer and withdraws the lure, “Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee, / I have no joy of this contract tonight” (lines 116-7). The few words of his answer betray that he is beginning to launch on another erratic, indirect “flight,” and, consequently, she allows him to speak fewer words than in his previous attempt. In reference to falconry, she jerks away the lure faster than she did before and does not allow him to get close to it, making him fast even more for an incorrect flight pattern. She reaffirms her control: if she does not like his answer, he will get no “food.” Her withdrawal of the lure is more emphatic, more final as she threatens to leave him and, thus, to remove the lure of herself:

[This contract] is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.” Sweet, good night.
This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night.

(lines 118-23)

With each repetition of “too,” she seems more determined to abandon the meeting or to not present the lure again, as she protests the alacrity of the wooing, although she has been the one who has rushed the wooing. But she yet again twitches the lure before Romeo, for her words can be read as continuing to tease him with a promise of a relationship. With the terms of husbandry having a sexual subtext, her language elicits images of fecundity and fruition and the promise of sexual consummation. With the allusion to a “contract” or a marriage agreement (OED 3), she makes his next flight to the lure more demanding (throws the lure farther from him) and makes it more difficult to catch in that he must not just vow his love (which he has not done yet) but also propose to her.

Romeo's response betrays that her taunting tactics have increased his appetite, “O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” (line 125). He wants “satisfaction,” “satisfy” meaning to “put an end to an appetite by fully supplying it” (OED v. 6). Romeo's pleas evoke the training of falcons through hunger and the equating of affection with food. He also asks Juliet if she would “withdraw” (line 130) her vow to him. With the word “withdraw,” Shakespeare allows for the image of a falconer “withdrawing” or physically removing the lure from Romeo's sight and teasing him—as Juliet has been doing. Romeo's increased hunger makes him more receptive and more obedient, and he begins to “fly” or respond more directly, more practically to Juliet in his answers. When she asks, “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” he promptly responds, “Th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine” (lines 126-7). Instead of a flighty reference to the moon or to Cupid, Romeo makes a straight “flight to the lure,” stating the request she has led him to ask. His response is focused and short as he makes what sounds very much like a marriage proposal. Juliet does not withdraw the lure as before and make him fast. Falconry experts underscore the importance of rewarding a falcon and allowing it to take the lure after a successful flight. Juliet rewards Romeo, responding to him with luxuriant answers that ooze with erotic nuances:

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.

(lines 133-5)

Romeo does not get to gorge himself yet; he gorges himself only on the promise of endless bouts of sexual ecstasy—a tactic that both satisfies and tantalizes at the same time. Juliet gives him only a small amount of “food” or a vow of affection, even after all of the luring. He certainly gets no physical contact in this scene.29 After this brief “feeding” and getting Romeo to want more substantial food or affection, Juliet withdraws the lure by removing herself, leaving the scene momentarily and then reentering “above.” The primary reading is that Juliet is merely responding to the Nurse's summons, that she is being careful that no one detects their meeting, and that she keeps coming back to steal just a few more precious moments with her beloved. But a subtextual reading allows for the possibility that Juliet is capitalizing on this opportunity to tease and tame Romeo. With her repeated references to leaving and with her actual exit, she can be read as playing with Romeo, keeping him always “hungry” and making him fearful that he will get no more food, that he will not see her again that night. He fears that “this is but a dream, / Too flattering sweet to be substantial” (lines 140-1). Juliet keeps him at a pitch of arousal because she has an even lengthier flight for him: she now requires more of a commitment from him, for he is not only to agree to marry her but also to arrange the ceremony:

If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow
By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite.

(lines 143-6)

Like a falconer, she gives him his first free-flying mission: he is to fly after the quarry—the arrangement of the marriage rite—and return it to her—to inform her of the time and place. If he obeys and makes a successful catch, she promises Romeo a full meal: “And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay, / And follow thee my lord throughout the world” (lines 147-8). In hawking terms, she remains stationed on the ground as she gets her falcon-like mate to fly for her and capture the quarry—make arrangements for the marriage—which she as a woman cannot undertake from her position of confinement.30 She achieves a kind of freedom in her life, limited though it may be.

Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew tames his falcon, Katherine, in a similar but more literal and patent fashion. Like Juliet, he denies Katherine any physical relations, any signs of affection: a servant declares that Petruchio makes “a sermon of continency to her” (IV.i.170). Petruchio denies Katherine a full meal of sexual consummation of their marriage throughout the play. He also denies her the more basic sustenance of food, which in Romeo and Juliet is comparable to the “food of love” or affection. In IV.iii, both Petruchio and his servant Grumio taunt Katherine with food, much as Juliet taunts Romeo with her affection. Like Romeo, Katherine is in need of food: she pleads with Grumio to “satisfy” her by getting her “some repast, / I care not what, so it be wholesome food” (lines 15-6). Like Juliet, Grumio repeatedly tempts her with the promise of satisfaction, as he describes in delectable terms the dishes he could serve her, but he ultimately denies her any food at all. Petruchio then enters the scene and duplicates his servant's actions. He holds the actual meat before Katherine and then withdraws it until she gives him the response he wants. Like Juliet, he feeds Katherine only when she gives him the simple, direct answers he requests—“I thank you, sir” (IV.iii.47). And, even then, he allows her to take only a few bites, keeping her in a perpetual state of hunger and, thus, amenable to his training lessons. Petruchio goes on to taunt Katherine not only with food but also with clothing and a trip to her family's house. She must prove how well-trained she is by answering as he wishes. Like Juliet, Petruchio tells Katherine what to say, and, like Romeo, Katherine learns to follow directions, if she wants to be satisfied.

Juliet's next move is to leave the scene again and then reenter to call Romeo back: “Hist! Romeo, hist! O for a falconer's voice, / To lure this tassel-gentle back again” (lines 158-9). Harley Granville-Barker clarifies the conventional reading: Shakespeare enlists the “well-worn comic theme of the lovers that cannot once and for all say good-by.”31 But the falconry imagery allows for a latent reading in which Juliet calls Romeo back and postpones his departure in order to “lure” him “again,” just as she has been doing throughout the preceding part of the scene. She withdraws herself and her affection and then she reintroduces her body or the lure. She develops a special call for him, as all falconers must—“Hist!”—a word that denotes a sound used to summon a dog or other animal (OED 2). George Turbervile refers to the special sound as a “whistle or the chirping of your mouth.”32 Another Renaissance practitioner of falconry, Edmund Bert advises a “keeper to giue [his hawk] his voyce out of her sight” as a way to assess the extent of the bird's obedience.33 A highly trained hawk should not need to see the lure, but only hear its master's call to be reclaimed. Juliet, likewise, is gauging how quickly and directly Romeo comes to merely the sound of her voice. While extravagant, Romeo's answer is short, unlike the earlier lengthy tributes to Juliet:

It is my soul that calls upon my name.
How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears.

(lines 164-6)

He, moreover, avows that he has “attending ears,” that he is an attendant, ever waiting to serve her. He resembles a tamed hawk that “waits on” or follows the falconer wherever he goes. But because Romeo has not answered obediently enough, has not come to her call quickly enough, Juliet commands him again, “Romeo” (line 166), to which he quickly, directly, and obediently replies, “My nyas” (line 167). Shakespeare allows for Juliet to be testing her training skills, for she fabricates an excuse for calling him back and asks a superfluous question, “What o'clock tomorrow / Shall I send to thee?” (lines 167-8). She admits that she has no valid reason for reclaiming him: “I have forgot why I did call thee back” (line 170). Shakespeare permits the reading that Juliet calls Romeo back unnecessarily not just to assess how well she has trained him but also to relish her control over him, to see him jump when she tells him to jump, to see him “still stand there” (line 172) until she tells him to go. Romeo shows that he is well-trained by responding to her question about when he will send his answer to her with a directness, alacrity, and practicality, uncharacteristic of his first long, unrestrained Petrarchan flights: “By the hour of nine” (line 168). Romeo's answers after this point in the scene are all short, direct, seldom more than one line long. Romeo becomes as well-trained as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew: they both learn to answer directly and to give their trainers the responses they want.

Romeo's short, precise responses that are lodged in reality and concerns with time and practicalities contrast sharply to his lengthy, luxuriant, wandering speeches earlier in the scene, especially to his first speech in which he needed twenty-five meandering lines to state Juliet's beauty. Kiernan Ryan attributes the “radical transformation” of Romeo's language into a “more simple, direct, personal and resolute” style to his “love for Juliet.”34 But the change can be read in a different way if the emphasis is placed on the falconry imagery. The submerged reading suggests that the change results from less romantic influences—from Juliet's consummate falconry training strategies. To see how much progress Juliet has made, we need only contrast Romeo's present crisp responses with his earlier inability to answer concretely and tersely Juliet's practical questions about his name, his means of crossing the orchard walls, and his method of finding the location of her abode. In contrast to the man who fell into a quandary over whether to approach Juliet or not, over whether to answer her pleas or not, this new Romeo shows a decisiveness and certainty in his responses. He states that he will “stand here” (line 171) until Juliet remembers why she called him back. And Juliet agrees that he will “still stand there” (line 172). He will “stand still” or remain securely stationed near her, not moving until she “call[s] [him] back” (line 170). Well-trained hawks also remain motionless, not “bating” or flapping their wings but waiting their master's next command. Petruchio describes ill-trained birds as those “that bate and beat and will not be obedient” (IV.i.183). Forgetting his wild state, Romeo declares that Juliet is his new resting spot: “And I'll still stay to have thee still forget [why she called him back], / Forgetting any other home but this” (lines 174-5).

Much of the time, the falconer keeps his hawk hooded, for only when it is in darkness will it sit still. Gerald Lascelles states that “what the bridle is to the horse, the hood is to the falcon; it is the only means by which she is controlled; without it, so nervous and excitable is her temperament that she would, even if trained and fairly tamed, dash herself from the perch at every strange sound or sight.”35 Romeo is represented in terms that evoke the picture of a hooded falcon: Juliet describes him as “bescreen'd in night” (line 52), and Romeo speaks of being enclosed in “night's cloak” (line 75). These descriptions of Romeo suggest that, in order to tame Romeo, Juliet metaphorically has hooded Romeo or kept him in the dark as to her tactics. She has kept him blind to her tricks, for he is easier to tame if he cannot see what she is doing to him or how she is divesting him of his freedom. Certainly, if one concentrates on the latent falconry imagery, Juliet has controlled Romeo: he entered the scene wanting merely physical contact; she leads him into expressing love, proposing marriage, and promising to arrange the ceremony in precisely the way she designates. Juliet “cherishes” Romeo in that he provides her with a means to control her life, yet she must “kill” (line 183) his freedom to achieve freedom herself.

Juliet's tactics are once again similar to those that the experienced falconer Petruchio uses with his haggard. Petruchio's training is directed to making his falcon “come and know her keeper's call” (IV.i.180-1). Near the end of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio, too, tests the effectiveness of his training regimen by assessing the alacrity of Katherine's response to his call (V.ii.66-9). Petruchio wins the bet with the other husbands because, unlike the other wives, Katherine comes obediently and quickly. Just as Juliet gets Romeo to accomplish missions for her, such as “fetching” her the quarry of the marriage ceremony preparations, Petruchio makes his falcon retrieve the quarry by bringing the disobedient wives before Petruchio and their husbands: “Go fetch them hither”; “Away I say, and bring them hither straight” (V.ii.104;106). When Katherine fulfills his commands, she is rewarded with affection—a kiss and the prospect of sexual consummation—just as Romeo is promised the reward of Juliet's chastity. Romeo proves to be well-trained in that he fulfills Juliet's mission of arranging for the marriage. Like the falconer who provides sustenance for himself without having exerted much of his own energy, Juliet has tried to “sustain” her mental well-being by determining her own future and arranging the marriage she wants, not the one her parents want for her, and she has never left her house.

In their next meeting, III.v, Juliet and Romeo have spent a night together, consummating the relationship, and are reluctantly contemplating Romeo's parting. Like the balcony scene, this meeting can be read in at least two divergent ways. Shakespeare is writing the scene in the form of the European folk tradition of the aubade. Jill Colaco explains that the tradition of the aubade is “rich in love lyrics which celebrate and lament the sweet sorrow of parting.”36 And, indeed, Shakespeare has written one of the most heartfelt scenes, in which the lovers savor their last moments together, reluctant to part and fearful of never seeing each other again. But on another level, there are signs of a “battle of wills,” for there is a latent combative tone to the exchange. Gayle Whittier, for example, notes the subtext: the lovers “do not co-create the aubade harmoniously as they did the sonnet [of their first meeting]: they argue its terms.”37 Juliet can be read as trying to reestablish her control, which seems to be waning.

From Juliet's and Romeo's first words in III.v we can tell that Romeo's behavior has changed:

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.
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
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.

(lines 1-11)

While Romeo is obviously in more danger and, thus, is forced to be more realistic, his answer displays a growing sense of self-reliance and a determination to be on his way. No longer does Romeo seem to be as “bewitched” or under Juliet's spell. In falconry terms, he can be read as chafing against being hooded and “put in the dark.” Several experts explain that keeping a bird hooded when it is finished hunting is important: the hood “is designed to blindfold the bird or, to use the original meaning of the word, to hoodwink, or fool, it into thinking that day is night. In complete darkness most animals will not move around, but will sit still … It gives the falconer some degree of control over his bird, and allows him to choose whom and what she may meet [italics mine].”38 Shakespeare may be alluding to this falconry technique of hooding the bird, for he presents Juliet as trying to exert control over Romeo by convincing him that “day is night”—“Yond light is not daylight, I know it, I” (line 12)—and defining reality for him.39 The combative tone of the interchange becomes more pronounced, with Juliet sounding much as she did when she silenced the disruptive Nurse, who kept interrupting Juliet's conversation with her mother: “And stint thou too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I” (I.iii.58).40 The reiteration of “I” and its placement at the end of the clause underscore that Juliet is asserting her will, that she is suggesting it will be her way or not at all. The scene can be read as a struggle over who will control Romeo.

This scene is mirrored in the sun/moon scene (IV.v) of The Taming of the Shrew, a parallel that clarifies Juliet's submerged taming strategies. Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, like Romeo, tries to assert her selfhood and integrity and objects to being treated like a “puppet” (IV.iii.103) whose actions, while ostensibly her own, are controlled by another. But Shakespeare has Petruchio exercise his control over his falcon nonetheless. Petruchio again behaves much as does Juliet: he argues with Katherine that the sun is the moon. Petruchio declares, “I say it is the moon that shines so bright,” to which Katherine responds, “I know it is the sun that shines so bright” (lines 4-5). The tone is similarly argumentative, as Petruchio demands that he impose his own reality on Katherine, that she see things his way or not at all: “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list, / Or e'er I journey to your father's house” (lines 7-8). Juliet grants Romeo his freedom, and Petruchio allows Katherine to continue her journey to her father's house, only after their spouses agree that it is the moon, agree that it is whatever their trainers say it is. Both Romeo and Katherine must parrot their masters' words and attitudes: to Petruchio's statement, “I say it is the moon,” Katherine concurs, “I know it is the moon” (IV.v.15-6). Like Petruchio, Juliet must have the last word and never be “cross'd.” She admits to the truth only after she imposes her will on Romeo. Shakespeare makes Juliet realize, though, that she is losing control with Romeo's banishment, that Romeo is “divided” from her and no longer thinks of himself as a part of her but as an autonomous entity: “Some say the lark makes sweet division. / This doth not so, for she divideth us” (lines 29-30).

The last words of the play reinforce the inequitable relationship between Juliet and Romeo: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” There has been a transference of power in the play, of Juliet attempting to “turn the world upside down” and assume the role of dominance in the relationship and in her life. In a listing of a husband and wife, the husband's name usually occurs first, symbolically representative of his role as patriarch. In this case, Juliet has usurped this role, and Romeo becomes “her[s],” an extension of her and a possession, similar to the situation of a woman in marriage. With her loss of control over Romeo and with his death, Juliet's story is, indeed, “woe[ful],” and her only option seems to be death. When Juliet earlier contemplated death, she said “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (III.v.242). Since her only chance to control her life passes with the death of “her Romeo,” Juliet's suicide may be her last act of defiance, her last act of controlling her own destiny by exercising the power to take her own life. Shakespeare suggests that for Juliet—and perhaps for all intelligent, strong-willed women—a physical death is preferable to a spiritual death in a world that denies women power over their own lives.


  1. E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 116.

  2. Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 74, 94-5, 97.

  3. Nancy Compton Warmbrod, “A Psychological Profile of Shakespeare's Juliet: Or Was it Merely Hormones,” EJ [English Journal] 69, 9 (December 1980): 29.

  4. For an appreciation of Juliet's verbal play and controlling nature in her first meeting with Romeo in I.v, see Richard Grant White, Shakespeare's Scholar (New York: D. Appleton, 1854), pp. 370-88, 371; Laurence Lerner, Love and Marriage: Literature and Its Social Context (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), p. 5; and R. Stamm, “The First Meeting of the Lovers in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet,” ES [English Studies] 67, 1 (February 1986): 2-13. For an analysis of Juliet's exercise of control and usurpation of a traditionally male role in later scenes, see Gary McCown, “‘Runnawayes Eyes’ and Juliet's Epithalamium,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 27, 2 (Spring 1976): 150-70.

  5. E. C. Pettet, “The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet,English 8, 45 (Autumn 1950): 121-6, 122.

  6. James Edmund Harting clarifies that falconers chose female birds to train because they were considered “superior” to males: females are “stronger in flight” and larger, the male being about a “third” smaller and, thus, the significance of the word “tercel” or “tassel” (The Birds of Shakespeare or the Ornithology of Shakespeare Critically Examined, Explained, and Illustrated [Chicago: Argonaut, 1965], pp. 54, 52). Consequently, falconers usually refer to the birds by using feminine pronouns, as will be evident throughout quotations in this essay. Although women could be falconers and there were famous ones such as Mary Queen of Scots, falconry was largely a male sport.

  7. Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage. Rhetorical Devices in “Romeo and Juliet” (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1966), p. 34.

  8. Maurice Pope, “Shakespeare's Falconry,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 44 (1991): 131-43, 138.

  9. D. H. Madden, The Diary of Master William Silence: A Study of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan Sport (New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897), p. 224. Falconry became so popular that by the thirteenth century in England every rank in society (including commoners) had a different falcon designated as suitable for their social station. Gerald Lascelles states that “So great a hold had falconry taken upon the minds of country folk in Elizabethan times that its technical terms were habitual to ordinary conversation. To the reader or playgoer of Shakespeare's time the technical terms describing the training of hawks for the sport of falconry were household words” (“Falconry” in Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age, 2 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950], 2:351-6, 351). The following are the early works on the sport: Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of falconry being De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (1244-1250), trans. and ed. Casey A. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1943); a work questionably attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, The Boke of Saint Albans (1486; rprt. New York: Da Capo, 1969), whose “circulation for a long time vied with, and perhaps exceeded that, of every other contemporary production of the press of lesser eminence than Holy Writ” (D. H. Madden, A Chapter of Medieval History [Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1969], p. 211); George Turbervile, The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking (1575; rprt. New York: Da Capo, 1969); Simon Latham, Falconry, or the Faulcons Lure and Cure in Two Books (1615; rprt. Norwood: W. J. Johnson, 1976); Gervase Markham, Countrey Contentments (1615; rprt. New York: Da Capo, 1973); Edmund Bert, An Approved Treatise of Hawkes and Hawking (1619; rprt. New York: Da Capo, 1969).

  10. All textual citations will be from the New Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet, ed. Brian Gibbons (New York: Methuen, 1980).

  11. Brian Gibbons clarifies the meaning of the hawking terminology (p. 107).

  12. Gibbons notes the “subsidiary quibbles on the hood used to cover a hawk's eyes” in the terminology “hoodwink'd with a scarf” (p. 106).

  13. Gibbons claims “the imagery of birds is associated with” Juliet (p. 156).

  14. Madden, The Diary, pp. 226-7.

  15. Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, p. 28.

  16. James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama: The Argument of the Play in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ ‘Love's Labour Lost,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’ and ‘Richard III’ (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 98. See also M. A. Goldberg, “The Multiple Masks of Romeo: Toward a New Shakespearean Production,” AR [Antioch Review] 28, 4 (Winter 1968-69): 405-26, 408, and Katherine Dalsimer, Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Works of Literature (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 77-112, 80.

  17. Dalsimer, p. 95; Larry S. Champion, Shakespeare's Tragic Perspective (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 78; Calderwood, p. 90.

  18. I borrow the term “earthbound” in reference to Juliet from Calderwood, p. 90.

  19. Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, pp. 227, 152.

  20. All textual citations will be from the New Arden edition of The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris (New York: Methuen, 1981).

  21. Calderwood, p. 90.

  22. Philip Glasier, Falconry and Hawking (London: B. T. Batsford, 1982), pp. 127-33, 127, thoroughly describes the stage in falconry training called “flying to the lure.”

  23. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), sb. 1. All further citations will be noted in the text as from the OED.

  24. As Shakespeare notes elsewhere (Henry VI and Venus and Adonis, respectively); quoted in Madden, The Diary, p. 199.

  25. Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, p. 152; Turbervile, p. 129.

  26. Markham, p. 89.

  27. Madden, The Diary, p. 376.

  28. Glasier, pp. 141, 138.

  29. Jill Colaco notes that Juliet's refusing Romeo sexual relations is unusual, for the Night Visit, after which the scene is modeled, typically “ends with the woman relenting and inviting her lover to enter” (“The Window Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Folk Songs of the Night Visit,” SP 83, 2 [Spring 1986]: 138-57, 140).

  30. Colaco claims that Juliet “turns courtship into trothplight” and explains that “it is rare for the woman in folk songs to tie her lover to any conditions before admitting him” (p. 143).

  31. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1951), 2: 346.

  32. Turbervile, p. 143.

  33. Bert, p. 54.

  34. Kiernan Ryan, “Romeo and Juliet: The Language of Tragedy,” in The Taming of the Text: Explorations in Language, Literature, and Culture, ed. Willie Van Peer (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 106-21, 116.

  35. Gerald Lascelles, The Art of Falconry (1892; rprt. Neville Spearman, 1971), p. 19.

  36. Colaco, p. 153

  37. Gayle Whittier, “The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet,” SQ 40, 1 (Spring 1989): 27-41, 37.

  38. Glasier, p. 90.

  39. T. J. B. Spencer clarifies that “the old material [of the aubade] is embedded in [Romeo and Juliet's interchange], but it is all transmuted” (EOS: An Enquiry into the Theme of Lovers' Meetings and Partings at Dawn in Poetry, ed. Arthur T. Hatto [London and Paris: Mouton, 1965], p. 522). In order to have Juliet keep Romeo “in the dark” and perform the falconer's role, Shakespeare inverts the roles of the lady and her lover. It is typically the lady who addresses the dawn and informs the man of the rising of the sun while the lover is associated with the night. See R. E. Kaske, “The Aube in Chaucer's Troilus,” in Chaucer Criticism: “Troilus and Criseyde” and the Minor Poems, 2 vols., ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame and London: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1961), 2:167-79, esp. 169, 172.

  40. There is often a combative tone to the aubade, but the lovers typically do not carry on an argument with each other so much as they rail against and chide the dawn or the herald of the dawn—the swallow, cock, or lark. Shakespeare makes a slight modification and develops the argument between the lovers.

Jim Welsh (review date 1997)

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SOURCE: Welsh, Jim. “Postmodern Shakespeare: Strictly Romeo.Literature-Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1997): 152-53.

[In the review that follows, Welsh comments that Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is so visually outlandish that its faithfulness to the original play is arguable. Welsh additionally observes that many lines were cut and that a number of the actors were unable to successfully deliver Shakespeare's dialogue.]

William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is deceptively titled, because it is really Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. Visually it is more Strictly Ballroom than strictly Romeo, though the dialogue—what survives of it—is strictly Shakespeare. It would get high marks if its evaluation were strictly verbal, perhaps, but the setting is so visually bizarre that its “fidelity” is questionable. The film's spectacle constantly overpowers and overwhelms the poetry. This Romeo & Juliet is packed with about as much exuberance as one might expect from writer Craig Pearce and director Baz Luhrmann, the creative team that made Strictly Ballroom a high-camp triumph.

The text is delivered oddly and anachronistically but not completely. Part of the Prologue is there, delivered by an anchorwoman (Edwina Moore) on a tiny television screen that expands out to reveal the scene of “fair Verona,” updated (but not upgraded) to a Hispanic ghetto called “Verona Beach.” Can Shakespeare's tragedy withstand the shock of the modern and the playful inventiveness of such postmodern tomfoolery as this movie employs? It's a judgment call at best.

At least Luhrmann gets the lines right, anachronistic though they may seem (though many lines are cut as a favor to actors who cannot deliver them effectively and coherently). Unlike Zeffirelli's visually splendid but textually goofy Hamlet, most of the lines seem to be in approximately the right places. Claire Danes handles Juliet's lines a great deal better than Leonardo DiCaprio handles Romeo's lines, but, as an awestruck student reviewer noted, they sure are a fine-looking couple. Of that there can be no doubt.

It's been nearly thirty years since Franco Zeffirelli's operatic and Italianate version of 1968, so perhaps a “new” version was overdue, reinventing the play for a new generation. The Zeffirelli production followed the play closely, for the most part—at least up to Romeo's banishment. Friar John and Paris somehow got bypassed in Zeffirelli's film, though Milo O'Shea's Friar Lawrence made his expected and cowardly appearance at Juliet's crypt, as he fails to do in the Baz Luhrmann version. Luhrmann kicks Paris and the priest out of the death scene and turns Friar John into a somewhat tardy FedEx delivery boy, indicating that a misplaced letter can have tragic consequences. Friar Lawrence is upgraded to the priesthood.

Like Zeffirelli, Luhrmann selected hot young actors to play the star-crossed lovers. To make the story “relevant,” he boots it out of Italy to an ugly twentieth century urban setting for 20th Century-Fox, hence “Verona Beach.” The film opens with a rumble on the beach and looks like a cross between West Side Story, Miami Vice, and Fellini's Satyricon, making the film (which was shot in Mexico) visually astonishing and intellectually confusing.

The casting is no less peculiar. Mercutio is played by an African-American in dreadlocks and drag as Luhrmann makes this flaming creature speak of “Queen Mab, the fairies' mid-wife.” Gender confusion seems to explain his melancholy, along with the fact that he is high on drugs. In Zeffirelli's Romeo, John McEnery played Mercutio with melancholy brilliance. In Luhrmann's Romeo it is hard to believe that Harold Perrineau even understands most of Mercutio's lines. If this Mercutio is indeed Romeo's cousin, a number of genetic tricks must have been played. Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) also disturbs the ethnic mix of the play, though this actor seems to understand his lines and delivers them with authority.

In Zeffirelli's Romeo Michael York's Tybalt was no less amazing than John McEnery's Mercutio. In Luhrmann's Romeo John Leguizamo's Tybalt has all the dignity of a pimp or a drug-dealer. The world of this film is perverse and confused. Swaggering out of his pimpmobile, Tybalt cannot be taken seriously, except as a killer-thug. By killing this hood-hothead, Romeo is doing a service to society and to Shakespeare, by removing one of the film's worst manglers of the text. All of the junior Capulets look like high-octane drug-runners. One might expect the Montagues to be less ostentatious than the Capulets, as Zeffirelli's costuming clearly suggests, but Luhrmann makes the “Montague boys” tattooed bully-boy punksters. Only sourful Romeo and peacemaking Benvolio (Dash Mihok) appear to be borderline normal, though Benvolio looks like a candidate for the Miami Dolphins' defensive line.

Romeo's father, “Ted” Montague, is played by Brian Dennehy, hardly an Italian actor, but the Montagues seem to be Irish hoods. At least Juliet's father (Paul Sorvino) looks like he might be Italian. Juliet's nurse (Miriam Margoyles) might do well enough in a pizza commercial, but, mamma mia, the film has stripped this Latina spitfire of most of her lines and charm. Capulet's banquet looks like Trimalchio's feast, the guests borrowed from Fellini's central casting, and Paul Sorvino's toga borrowed from Caligula. The film offers up a little Roman decadence, or maybe a lot.

Claire Danes is ravishing as Juliet, done up as an angel with wings at the banquet. There is no Mooriska in this production. Instead, love at first sight is established when the two lovers first examine each other from opposite sides of an aquarium. As Mercutio remarks in the play (but not in this film). “Oh flesh, thou art fishified!” A water motif flows through the film. The lovers make quite a splash out of the balcony scene. Captain Prince has a SWAT team in hot pursuit of Romeo on his way to the crypt scene. M. Emmet Walsh makes a creepy Apothecary, but creepiness is this character actor's speciality. Thumbs are bitten, hearts are smitten, and dreamboats collide as this play takes its expected suicidal trajectory. The lines are often right, but the context is most peculiar. Janet Maslin described this postmodern, kitschy Romeo as “headache Shakespeare” in her New York Times review. But they certainly are a fine-looking set of lovers. Stodgy old Shakespeareans should see the film because their students will have seen it and perhaps approved of its excesses, but they would be well advised to take a second look at the Zeffirelli version, the excesses of which will seem moderate in comparison.

Martin Goldstein (essay date 1996)

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

[In the following essay, Goldstein suggests that the driving force of the play is not the ancient feud between the Capulets and Montagues, but rather a conflict internal to the Capulet family, specifically, the disagreement between Capulet and Lady Capulet over who and when Juliet should marry.]

‘I know not how Capulet and his Lady might agree, their ages were very disproportionate; he has been past masking for thirty years, and her age, as she tells Juliet … is but eight and twenty’.

Samuel Johnson, in Notes to the Plays

Romeo and Juliet provides the paradigm—or myth, in one sense of the word—of a love affair between members of rival houses caught up in the implacable hostility of a feud. Versions of this myth have appeared in such diverse works as Aida and Huckleberry Finn. There is however no critical consensus on the implacability of Shakespeare's feud. That it has burnt itself out, and the older Capulets and Montagues show no interest in continuing it, has been asserted by Granville-Barker, Charlton, Bryant, and Levin among others, though Kahn believes it to be the motivating force of the tragedy, and an expression of patriarchal society; a similar view has been expressed by Goddard.1

I shall suggest in this essay that it is not the feud but a conflict within the Capulet household, specifically a disagreement between Capulet and Lady Capulet as to when and whom Juliet is to marry, that is the driving force of the play. The textual evidence for this conflict, though previously overlooked by most commentators, seems compelling, but the reasons why the Capulets disagree and why Capulet changes his mind in the middle of the play are less clear. I will therefore propose a number of hypotheses, both to account for the Capulets' behavior and that of the County Paris, for which the evidence is less compelling. The resulting reading of Romeo and Juliet, casting Old Capulet as a tragic figure to set beside the youthful doomed lovers, can be called a patriarchal version, one that an Elizabethan audience would have found less bizarre than an anti-imperialist Tempest, a feminist Shrew, or a philosemitic Merchant.

In the first scene, the brawl, started by the servants and exacerbated by Tybalt, leads Capulet and Montague to exchange threats (I, i, 73, 76).2 These are the last words either will speak in the entire play that show anger at the other house. Note that the symmetrical behavior of the husbands is not shared by the wives. Lady Capulet tells hers:

A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?

(I, i, 74)

while Lady Montague cries out:

Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe.

(I, i, 77)

To paraphrase: Lady Montague says, ‘I will not let thee fight!’ while Lady Capulet says, ‘You are too old to fight.’

Before this scene is over Montague is asking Benvolio querulously:

Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?

(I, i, 102)

and the next scene, between Capulet and Paris, begins with Capulet's:

                                        'tis not hard I think
For men so old as we to keep the peace.

(I, i, 2-3)

We learn quickly that Paris's importunate suit for Juliet's hand is not entirely welcome to Capulet:

My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years.
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

(I, ii, 7-10)

though Paris's social position and desirability as a suitor require the father to be polite. Paris does not accept Capulet's reason for hesitancy:

Younger than she are happy mothers made.

(I, ii, 12)

The old man answers:

And too soon marr'd are those so early made.

(I, ii, 13)

and tells Paris that at the feast that night there will be a number of attractive alternatives to Juliet, hardly what one expects a father to say to a desired suitor (I, ii, 24-31).

In the next scene, Lady Capulet goes to Juliet's room to persuade her to marry Paris. The Nurse, whom she first asks to leave, is pointedly called back to hear the conversation. Lady Capulet, when Juliet tells her she has not even been dreaming about marriage, urges that she do so, saying that she herself gave birth to Juliet when she was Juliet's current age, making her, if she is to be believed, not yet thirty (I, iii, 71-73). She then praises Paris extravagantly, comparing him in a tediously prolonged conceit, to an almost perfect book needing only a cover—i.e., a bride (I, iii, 79-94).

There are a number of things to be noted in this encounter.

First, Lady Capulet echoes not her husband's view on Juliet's readiness for marriage, but Paris's:

                                        Younger than you
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers.

(I, iii, 69-71).

There is clearly a conflict of views between husband and wife regarding Juliet's marriage.3 Capulet's quotation of the proverb: ‘Too soon marr'd …’ suggests further the division between them.4 Lady Capulet's calling back the Nurse at the beginning of the scene may reflect her feeling that she needs an ally in the household.

Second, attention is drawn to Lady Capulet's age: is she as young as she claims to be? Brian Gibbons, the editor of the Arden edition, does not think so, noting that in the rather inconsistent speech prefixes for her in this scene, ‘Old Lady’ is used six times. Further, in the final scene of the play, confronted with the dead bodies in the tomb, she says:

O me! This sight of death is as a bell
That warns my old age to a sepulchre.

(V, iii, 205-206)

Yet can one imagine the lines beginning ‘By my count …’ (I, iii, 71-73) spoken by an actress made up to look like a woman of fifty? A reasonable conclusion, given these words and the ‘crutch’ of I, i, 74, is that she is younger than her husband, young enough for the age difference to matter to her, and young enough to be vain about her attractiveness. Capulet's greater age is pointedly revealed in his conversation with his cousin at the ball (I, v, 30-40).

Third, there is the formal, stilted language of her praise of Paris. This is one of a number of speeches in Romeo and Juliet considered by many critics to be evidence of Shakespeare's artistic immaturity when he wrote it,5 the first being Romeo's extravagant paradoxes and oxymora in speaking of Rosaline to Benvolio in I, i, and the most egregious being the lamentations of the Capulets, Paris, and the Nurse at Juliet's supposed death in IV, v.

A different point of view is taken by Ewbank,6 who suggests that the ‘bad’ poetry is sometimes functional rather than parodic, and gives the Nurse's lamentation and a speech from Othello as examples. About the Nurse's speech she says that ‘The nurse's mock-Senecan fulminations … serve to set Juliet's mock-death here off from her real one in the last scene’. I suggest that one additional dramatic purpose served by the ‘bad’ poetry in this play is psychological: to reveal something about the inner thoughts or moods of the speaker, specifically to suggest that he or she is saying one thing while feeling another, or suffering from unacknowledged guilt. It must be hard for actors or actresses speaking such lines to sound as if they really mean what they are saying; maybe they should try sounding as if they don't. In this particular example, we can infer, as have many others, that Lady Capulet is a cold unfeeling mother, also suggested by the formal way Juliet addresses her: Madam, My lady—only once in the whole play as Mother.

Why does Lady Capulet want Juliet to marry Paris? And why doesn't Old Capulet? We cannot assume his statement to Paris that she is too young is necessarily his real reason: we know that a few days later he will order her to marry him. An alternative reason for his hesitation will be proposed shortly.

Lady Capulet's reason is difficult to discern. It could well be the material and social advantages of a marriage to a wealthy member of the nobility, but it is not obvious why such considerations should lead her to act contrary to her husband's wishes, and surreptitiously. Her urgency calls for a more plausible explanation, but the text fails to provide one. One may speculate that it is a wish to get out of her household a rapidly maturing and attractive daughter, who serves also as an indicator of her own age, but evidence is lacking.

However, even if the causes of the conflict between husband and wife are not known, recognition of it gives an added insight into much in the play. As an example of such added insight, I suggest that it explains why Shakespeare chose to make Juliet two years younger than Arthur Brooke's heroine.7 If she were sixteen, her father would not have given her age as an excuse to Paris, but she is not so young at fourteen that her mother could not credibly have urged her marriage.

In Act I, Scene V, we are at the Capulet's ball. Every significant character in the play is present at this scene with the exception of four who should not be there, and one who should. We would not expect the Prince, who would seem to be taking sides in the feud if he came, nor the ascetic Friar Laurence, and of course not the elder Montagues, but where is Paris, who was supposed to woo Juliet in this scene, but doesn't? It would not have slowed the action that much; if Romeo could win Juliet in eighteen lines of dialogue, Paris could have failed in ten. Nor can we assume the wooing took place off-stage, as Juliet informs us when her parents are forcing her to marry Paris:

I wonder at this haste, that I must wed
Ere he that should be husband comes to woo.

(III, v, 118-119)

This omitted wooing has been inserted in both the Zeffirelli and Cukor films8 by having Paris dancing with Juliet when Romeo first sees her; a reasonable bit of stage business, but in apparent conflict with the text.

Capulet learns from the furious Tybalt that Romeo is present, and tries to calm him as follows:

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.

(I, v, 64-69)

This is amazingly strong language from Capulet, to whom wealth matters. Tybalt is not appeased, so the old patriarch shows what a temper tantrum he can have when someone who owes him fealty tries to contradict him (I, v, 75-87), apparently going so far as to threaten to cut Tybalt out of his will. This is surely an exaggerated response if Capulet has his heart in the feud and only wants Tybalt to show a cooler judgement about when to pursue it.

Capulet's praise of Romeo is the most striking evidence offered for the waning of the feud. Charlton puts it as follows:

… [O]ld Capulet is unwilling to let the feud interrupt a dance; and a quarrel which is of less moment than a galliard is being appeased at an extravagant price, if the price is the death of two such delightful creatures as Romeo and Juliet … Nor, indeed, is [the feud] coherent and impressive enough as part of the plot to propel the sweep of necessity in the sequence of events.

To paraphrase Charlton, Capulet feels that it is better to endure an unwelcome guest at a party than make a scene. But does not Capulet's good opinion of Romeo say more than this? As the maskers, who to Capulet's knowledge include at least one Montague, are leaving the party, Capulet urges them to stay for ‘a trifling foolish banquet’ (I, v, 120-121). Is this the customary way to treat unwelcome guests?

A more reasonable reaction to this speech is given in a book by Asimov addressed to a popular rather than a scholarly audience:9

Surely the feud is as good as dead when the leader of one side can speak so of the son and heir of the leader of the other side. Capulet speaks so highly of Romeo, in fact, that one could almost imagine that a prospective match between Montague's son and Capulet's daughter would be a capital way of ending the feud.

Let us turn back to the moment when Tybalt realizes that a masked Montague is present; he recognizes the voice as a Montague's (not really plausible, of course), and tells Capulet, who has noticed his perturbation. Capulet's answer is remarkable:

Young Romeo, is it?

(I, v, 63)

Without seeing the face or hearing the voice, he knows which Montague it is. He must have had Romeo on his mind, even expecting him to appear at the ball. Why? The hypothesis I offer in answer is as follows: Capulet, grown weary of the feud, and embarrassed by its most recent outbreak, has been thinking of a marriage between his daughter and Romeo as a means of ending it. It is possible, though not necessary, that he expected Romeo to appear at the ball because he knew of the young man's infatuation with his frigid niece Rosaline, one of the guests (I, ii, 70). Possible stage business: (Capulet watches the passage between Romeo and Juliet at the ball with grave interest. When later he invites the maskers to stay for the banquet, he places his hand on Romeo's arm. Romeo turns as though to speak to him but his companions hurry him along).

When Romeo has told Friar Laurence of his new love, the Friar, like Capulet, sees a marriage between Romeo and Juliet as a means of ending the feud (II, iv, 87-88), and performs the clandestine wedding happily; presumably he means to call Montague and Capulet together to inform them of it after the marriage has been consummated. However, before either he or Capulet can make whatever moves they have been contemplating, events take matters out of their control: Romeo has slain Tybalt, the citizens of Verona are outraged at the renewed feud, and Enter Prince, Old Montague, Capulet, their wives, and all.

The Prince asks:

Where are the vile beginners of this fray?

(III, i, 143)

Benvolio starts to give a somewhat biased summary of the events, but is interrupted by Lady Capulet's cry of shock and anguish:

Tybalt, my cousin, O my brother's child!
O Prince, O husband, O, the blood is spill'd
Of my dear kinsman.

(III, i, 148-150)

After Benvolio completes his account, she again appeals for justice and revenge:

I beg for justice, which thou, Prince, must give.
Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.

(III, i, 182-183)

but the Prince, previously forceful in dealing with the feud, seems undecided:

Romeo slew Tybalt, he slew Mercutio.
Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?

(III, i, 185-186)

Indeed he is in a difficult position: members of his family are involved on both sides. He can't afford to be lenient with Romeo as he presumes it would anger the Capulets and compromise Paris's suit to Juliet, but it would be equally hard to condemn Romeo to death, as Romeo acted to avenge the death of his own kinsman Mercutio.

Here there is a textual crux. The next speech, answering the Prince's question, is given to Capulet in the Second Quarto and First Folio, but most modern editors give it to Montague. It is as follows:

Not Romeo, Prince, he was Mercutio's friend:
His fault concludes but what the law should end,
The life of Tybalt.

(III, i, 187-189)

The Arden edition calls the Second Quarto speech prefix ‘an obvious error’. In the New Cambridge Edition, the assisting editor, G. I. Duthie, thought it should be Capulet's, referring to his good opinion of Romeo in (I, v), but deferred to the editor, J. Dover Wilson, who felt Capulet would not publicly contradict his wife at such a moment.10 However, there is a strong argument for giving the speech to Montague: if it were Capulet who made it, both the feud and the play would have ended at this scene, with Montague embracing his old enemy who has just saved his son's life. So the usually garrulous Capulet is, after all, silent in this scene, silent in spite of the situation, silent in spite of his wife's appeal to her husband (III, i, 149) to speak out. Knowing Tybalt's capacity for violence, and knowing Romeo's reputation as a ‘well-govern'd youth’, he cannot cry out for vengeance. It is an eloquent silence.

The Prince's next words decree the banishment of Romeo:

                                        And for that offence
Immediately do we exile him hence …
I will be deaf to pleading and excuses;
Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses.
Therefore use none. Let Romeo hence in haste,
Else when he is found, that hour is his last.

(III, i, 188-189, 194-196)

Though the words are harsh the decision is a lenient one, as is clearly recognized by Friar Laurence, who in (III, iii) tells the depressed Romeo three times how fortunate he is, first describing the Prince's ‘doom’ as ‘a gentler judgement’ (line 10), then saying:

                                                                                          the kind Prince,
Taking thy part, has rush'd aside the law
And turn'd that black word ‘death’ to banishment.
This is dear mercy and thou seest it not.

(III, iii, 25-28)

and later:

The law that threaten'd death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile. There art thou happy.

(III, iii, 139-140)

Could the Prince so easily have passed this judgement unless Capulet's silence was seen by him as assent?

But that same silence must also have widened the division between Capulet and his Lady into a breach, indeed a breach between him and her side of the family. Evidence for that breach is provided in (III, v), when Lady Capulet tells Juliet of her plan to poison the banished Romeo:

                                        I'll send to one in Mantua,
Where that same banish'd runagate doth live,
Shall give him such an unaccustom'd dram
That he shall soon keep Tybalt company …

(III, v, 88-91)

‘I'll send’, not ‘We'll send’. Note that she is the only member of the older generation who expresses the eye-for-an-eye ethic of a feud.

The following stage business is suggested for this scene: (When the Prince asks his question, ‘Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?’ he looks at Capulet for a response, so also does Lady Capulet. Capulet however does not meet the Prince's eye, and stands silent. After a brief pause. Montague speaks. After the Prince pronounces his judgement, he leaves the stage. Montague and Capulet exchange glances, troubled, not angry. If this were a film, we would hear a voice-over of Montague's ‘Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?’ and Capulet's ‘'tis not hard I think / For men so old as we to keep the peace’. Then all leave the stage except Capulet and his Lady. He makes a shrugging gesture as though to ask, ‘What could I do?’ at which Lady Capulet gives him a furious look and exits, leaving him standing alone).

In (III, iv) the long day for the Capulets has just about ended. Paris is still pressing his suit, and Old Capulet continues to put him off, even with some irritation:

Things have fallen out, sir, so unluckily
That we have had no time to move our daughter.
Look you, she loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly,
And so did I. Well, we were born to die.
'Tis very late. She'll not come down tonight.
I promise you, but for your company,
I would have been abed an hour ago.

(III, iv, 1-7)

Note the absence of rancor toward Romeo and the Montagues for Tybalt's death, contrasting with that of his Lady.

Paris takes his leave with:

These times of woe afford no times to woo.
Madam, good night. Commend me to your daughter.

(III, iv, 8-9)

and Lady Capulet answers:

I will, and know her mind early tomorrow.
Tonight she's mew'd up to her heaviness.

(III, iv, 10-11)

The words are much the same as Capulet's, and the First Quarto stage direction at this point reads:

Paris offers to go in and Capulet calls him again.

Something at this point has pushed Capulet to an impulsive decision:

Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender
Of my child's love.

(III, iv, 12-13)

and he proposes a wedding in a few days.

Is it Lady Capulet's tone, rather than her specific words to Paris, suggestive of her eagerness to promote a marriage between him and Juliet, that remind her husband of the breach between them, and does it occur to Capulet that he can heal it by acceding to the marriage that he is aware she desires? Certainly any hope Capulet may have had for a marriage between Juliet and Romeo would have been rendered impossible, to his mind, by the exacerbation of the feud and the need to placate his wife's side of the family. Lady Capulet and Paris later attribute Capulet's sudden decision to a desire to cheer Juliet, whom they all believe to be saddened by her cousin's death, but this need not be the real reason. Juliet has given her parents little cause to believe she has been overwhelmed by grief for Tybalt; in III, ii, awaiting her husband, she rejects the Nurse's suggestion that she join her parents in mourning her cousin's death (128-131).

(When the scene begins, Capulet makes some attempts to catch his wife's eye, but she refuses to look at him. Her tone when she speaks to Paris is strained. After Capulet proposes the marriage, she brightens up, and smiles at him, for the first time in the play).

Lady Capulet, sent to inform Juliet of her father's decision, is quickly followed by the father. His unhappiness with what he is doing is made manifest in a number of ways in this scene, not least in his apoplectic fury with a daughter he loves and claims to be hoping to make happy. He begins, before he knows Juliet is refusing to co-operate, with a speech of ‘bad’ poetry—a long conceit comparing Juliet's tears to a water-pipe, a sea, a storm-tossed craft (III, v, 126-138). Then he makes a patently false claim of having gone to considerable trouble to select a suitable marriage partner for her:

                                                                      Day, night, work, play,
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her match'd.

(III, v, 176-178)

One has only to re-read his words to Paris in Act 1, Scene 2 to recognize the dishonesty. The most revealing of all are his words mocking Juliet's excuses, presumably spoken in a mincing falsetto:

And then to have a wretched puling fool,
A whining mammet, in her fortune's tender,
To answer ‘I'll not wed, I cannot love,
I am too young, I pray you pardon me!’


The fact is that Juliet, in this scene, has never given her youth as a reason for objecting to the marriage. In the difficult circumstances fate has placed her, she has found it necessary to equivocate, at times to lie, but for the wife of Romeo to say she is too young to marry is more than she could do. It is of course Old Capulet who is the only one ever to have raised the issue. (After saying these words, he hesitates, turns redder than ever, if possible, and breaks out louder and more furious than before.)

Lady Capulet's degree of love for her daughter is amply demonstrated by the proleptic irony of her answer to Capulet when he asks what Juliet's response is to the planned marriage:

Ay, sir, but she will none, she gives you thanks.
I would the fool were married to her grave.

(III, v, 139-140)

and her response when Juliet appeals to her, calling her ‘mother’ for the only time in the play:

O sweet my mother, cast me not away,
Delay this marriage …

(III, v, 198-199)

Her answer is:

Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.

(III, v, 202-203)

The contrast with Brooke's mother in the same situation is striking:

Whilst ruthfully stood by the maydens mother mylde

(line 1947)

After her abandonment by her parents and the Nurse's betrayal, Juliet goes to Friar Laurence's cell and makes the fatal plan with the Friar. It is here that she has her only conversation with Paris in the entire play. It is odd that two characters whose interaction will be fatal for both of them should have so little to say to each other, and odd that Paris, who could not find the time to woo his intended bride in Act I, should appear as her devoted mourner in Act V. Much hangs on this, their only and brief scene together. Is it that Juliet has suddenly changed in Paris's eyes; she is no longer the child he would marry for material advantage, but has become in some way mysterious to him a woman, and lovable?

(Paris begins his conversation with Juliet in a shallow and courtly tone, obviously taking his possession of her for granted. Juliet's distancing responses change the mood, and he turns more serious and intent, until the Friar terminates a dialogue Paris would have preferred to continue. As Juliet and Friar Laurence depart the stage he stands still and stares after her, his face suggesting the change in his feeling for her).

Old Capulet, involved at home with arrangements for the wedding, knows she has gone to Friar Laurence, and says to the Nurse:

Well, he may chance to do some good on her.
A peevish self-willed harlotry it is.

(IV, ii, 13-14)

It is an odd tone for a father whose last words to his daughter were

An you be not, hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets!
For by my soul I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.
Trust to't, bethink you. I'll not be forsworn.

(III, v, 192-195)

Even odder is his greeting to her when she appears:

How now, my headstrong: where have you been gadding?

(IV, ii, 16)

One might have expected something stern, along the lines of ‘Have you repented of your willful disobedience yet?’11 Instead he talks like a parent conscious of having been overbearing to a beloved child, but who doesn't know how to apologize. If only Juliet at this point had burst into tears and blurted out the truth! Alas, she is not a child anymore, and she will die for it.

When Lady Capulet comes to Juliet's room on the eve of the wedding and asks if her help is needed, Juliet, addressing her as ‘Madam’, asks to be left alone, and Lady Capulet answers:

                                                                                                                                                      Good night.
Get thee to bed and rest, for thou hast need.

(IV, iii, 12-13)

Lukewarm as these words are, they are the only kind words addressed to Juliet by her mother in the whole play. A little later, after Juliet has drunk Friar Laurence's potion, Capulet, his lady and the Nurse are busy and excited, preparing late at night for the wedding feast. The Nurse urges Capulet to go to bed and rest, but he answers:

                                                  What, I have watch'd ere now
All night for lesser cause, and ne'er been sick.

(IV, iv, 9-10)

His lady answers:

Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time;
But I will watch you from such watching now.

(IV, iv, 11-12)

The old man is tickled pink by his wife's bantering pretense at jealousy:

A jealous-hood, a jealous-hood!

(IV, iv, 13)

This tone of affection and intimacy between husband and wife is absent elsewhere in the play. On the surface at least, reconciliation within the Capulet household has been achieved.

The four speeches of lamentation, by Capulet, his lady, the Nurse, and Paris (IV, v, 43-64) over the apparently dead Juliet, are considered one of the worst examples in this play of ‘bad poetry’. They have been thought by many to be meant as burlesque, in particular a burlesque of the style of Seneca. Granted the audience knows that Juliet is not really dead, did the dramatist really want it to burst out laughing at this point? If, however, the speeches are to be taken as evidence of false or split feelings on the part of the speakers, what actually are those feelings? Here it helps to visualize the scene—or better still use the auditory imagination. (Capulet sends the Nurse to wake Juliet when he hears in the distance the merry wedding music played by the musicians accompanying Paris. During the attempts first by the Nurse and then by the mother to wake Juliet the music grows gradually louder. When Capulet himself enters and learns that Juliet is dead, it is at its loudest, with the musicians and Paris just outside the bedroom door. Paris enters, is told the dreadful fact by Capulet, says:

Have I thought long to see this morning's face,
And doth it give me such a sight as this?

(IV, v, 41-42)

and steps through the door to silence the musicians with an abrupt gesture.

There is a jangling discord as they stop, and then quiet. The four people standing around Juliet's bed are silent a few moments as the sounds die away, while their faces reveal the terrible thought that has crossed the minds of each: Juliet's death is somehow connected to the marriage each of them knew was distasteful to her, and each of them was willing to force on her. Capulet looks at his wife, and seems to intend to speak, but remains silent. All of them exchange glances, but each knows that this is a thought they cannot share with anyone else. Then the false lamentations begin with Lady Capulet's

Accurs'd, unhappy, wretched, hateful day

(IV, v, 43).

We arrive at the final scene at the Capulet family tomb, the full significance of which, in particular the lengthy summary by Friar Laurence of what is already known to the audience and which has troubled many critics, has been clarified in a remarkable essay by Bertrand Evans.12 Evans interprets the play, in accord with its prologue, as a tragedy of Fate, but in which the manner in which Fate operates is made specific:

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of unawareness. Fate … working out its purposes without either a human villain or a supernatural agent … operates through the common condition of not knowing. Participants in the action … contribute one by one the indispensable stitches which make the pattern, and contribute them without knowing; that is to say, they act when they do not know the truth of the situation in which they act.

The unawareness includes not only the obvious unawareness of everyone except Friar Laurence of the love between Romeo and Juliet, but an unawareness on the part of each and every character (including Friar Laurence) that at each moment of decisive action leads to an intensification of the rush towards doom. Examples given by Evans include the unawareness of Capulet's illiterate servant in Act I, scene ii that it is Romeo Montague whose help he asks, the initial unawareness of both Romeo and Juliet that the person each is attracted to at the ball is a member of the enemy family (I, v), the unawareness of both Tybalt and Mercutio of the clandestine marriage (III, i), Capulet's unawareness of the real reason for Juliet's submission in IV, ii, Paris's unawareness of Romeo's reason for being at the tomb (V, iii), and of special significance, Friar Laurence's unawareness that Romeo's servant Balthasar has informed his master of Juliet's apparent death, an unawareness that causes the Friar to arrive at the tomb too late to prevent Romeo's suicide.

In the scene between the tearful Juliet and her angry father, the unawareness of each of the thoughts and situation of the other are further indispensable stitches. Capulet is of course unaware of Juliet's marriage; Juliet in turn is unaware of her father's hope for a reconciling marriage with Romeo and unaware, as is Capulet also, of the divided state of mind that fuels his fury.

Hear me with patience but to speak a word.

(III, v, 159)

she begs, but she is cowed by that fury, and the word is unspoken.

In the end, the clouds of unawareness are lifted when Friar Laurence, Balthasar, and Paris's page tell their stories. Does Capulet recognize the irony that the marriage he once hoped would end the feud has, in fact, ended it? Even so, he is still man enough to speak first:

O brother Montague, give me thy hand.

(V, iii, 295)

and to make his sad little joke:

This is my daughter's jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

(V, iii, 296-297)

After this, who needs those gilded statues?


  1. Hartley Granville-Barker, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, in Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol II, pp 300-349 (Princeton, N.J., 1951); H. B. Charlton, Shakespearean Tragedy (Cambridge, 1971); J. A. Bryant, Jr., Introduction to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, Sylvan Barnet, Editor, pp. 479-484 (San Diego, CA, 1963); Richard Levin, ‘Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 103, March, 1988, pp. 125-138. Coppelia Kahn, ‘Coming of Age in Verona’, Modern Language Studies 8 (Winter 1977-78), pp. 5-22; Harold C. Goddard, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol I, pp 117-139 (Chicago, 1960).

  2. Text references are to The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. Brian Gibbons, Editor. London, 1980.

  3. Noted by Alfred Harbage in Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide, New York, 1963.

  4. In the Zeffirelli film (Romeo and Juliet, Paramount, 1968, Franco Zeffirelli, Director), Capulet, as he says these words, glances at his wife, who is in view but is not a party to his conversation with Paris.

  5. See for example, S. T. Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, T. M. Raysor, Editor, 2nd Edition, New York, 1960. Vol.I, pp 4-11. See also Granville-Barker, op. cit.; Kenneth Muir, Chapter, ‘Apprenticeship’ in Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, New York, 1979, pp 20-41; Norman Rabkin, ‘Eros and Death’, in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, Chicago, 1984, pp 150-191.

  6. Inga-Stina Ewbank, ‘Shakespeare's Poetry’ in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum, Editors. Cambridge, 1971, pp. 99-115.

  7. Arthur Brooke's ‘Romeus and Juliet’ is reprinted in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Geoffrey Bullough, Editor. Volume I. London, 1957-1975.

  8. Romeo and Juliet, MGM, 1936, George Cukor, Director. See also reference 4.

  9. Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, New York, 1993, page 485.

  10. The New Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet. Edited by John Dover Wilson, assisted in this volume by George Ian Duthie. Cambridge, 1955.

  11. Granville-Barker has noted the incongruity of his tone here with his earlier speech.

  12. Bertrand Evans, ‘The Brevity of Friar Laurence’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 65, No. 2, March, 1950, pp. 841-865.

Elsie Walker (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Walker, Elsie. “Pop Goes the Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.Literature-Film Quarterly, 28, no. 2 (2000): 132-39.

[In the review below, Walker examines Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, focusing on the way in which the film's intertextuality, as well as its choice of setting, encourages the audience's active response.]

Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, has attracted comparatively little critical attention even in the most recent collections of Shakespeare film criticism. Luhrmann's film is mentioned but in passing in the 1997 essay collection Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the plays on film, TV, and video. In the 1998 “New Casebooks” collection of Shakespeare film essays Luhrmann's film is not mentioned at all, whereas Shakespeare films made after Luhrmann's (such as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet) are already mentioned in the same breath as the aesthetically polemic films of Welles, Kozintsev, Olivier, and Kurosawa. The criticism of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet to date (mostly in the form of magazine and film reviews) tends to dismiss the production as “MTV Shakespeare”: the kind of mindless visual candy we associate with rock videos.1 Implicit in this claim is the notion that Luhrmann's film provokes nothing but a passive response. Like MTV videos, the film contains a bombardment of imagery and music; it is a postmodern assault of the senses. But the film demands more than a passive response. In the viewing process, the audience may shape the “raw material of the film.” And, as Lorne Buchman writes, this material is offered to us as an open structure to be “organized in the viewing process” (51). I will be concerned with the ways in which Luhrmann's film, particularly in its intertextuality and choice of setting, provokes an active response, leading us to make certain connections perhaps hitherto unexplored. After briefly considering why the film has received so little critical attention, I shall argue that Luhrmann's production should be embraced into the “canon” of revolutionary Shakespeare films.

Luhrmann exploits the narrative drive of modern mass-market movies, creating a highly energetic, primarily visual method of story-telling. Scenes and speeches are, as in Richard Loncraine's film of Richard III (1996), broken down into digestible snippets and sequences; their impact is created/supported/off-set by visual paraphrases, music, and camerawork. Luhrmann's method allows him some of the interpretive flexibility that Dennis Kennedy and Anthony Davies ascribe to foreign directors working on Shakespeare in translation. The preservation of Shakespeare's dialogue loses preeminence. As James N. Loehlin writes (though in reference to Richard Loncraine's Richard III), “The inventive insouciance with which the film treats individual characters, scenes, and images makes it a consistently engaging riff on Shakespeare's dialogue, which it plays off against a number of other signifying systems.” In Loehlin's words, the film operates “not so much as a series of textual exchanges, but through a pattern of interwoven and overlapping visual codes” derived from popular culture including film intertextuality (68).

Due to the considerable cutting of the dialogue, characters like Mercutio, Lord and Lady Capulet, and Paris do not have much time to develop: the film creates visual and aural ripples of association for each character in cinematic shorthand. The languid movements, thick theatrical make-up, and slight southern drawl of Lady Capulet, for example, simultaneously evoke Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois. Mercutio, who wears the sequined dress of a drag queen to the Capulet ball, is imaged as existing on the social fringe. This suggests the subversiveness of Mercutio's character: the costume emblematically reflects his position as a kind of outcast, seen as outrageous, and seldom taken seriously. Filmmaker Zeffirelli compares Mercutio to Hamlet in the way that he is set apart from his people, giving an atmosphere of anguished Verona (245). In Luhrmann's film we see him on the beach evoking Hamlet by literally taking arms against a sea of troubles, firing his gun into the sea. The Capulet ball of Luhrmann's film is a costume party where each character's costume serves as an analogue for their aspirations: Paris, being establishment-minded, wears the space-gear of an enthusiastic astronaut. His immaculate dress, pronounced jaw, and squeaky-clean smile make him seem like another JKF junior. Lady Capulet wears the gaudy get-up of a Cleopatra, which suggests her histrionic desire for tragic grandeur; Capulet wears the Caesaric robes of an august patriarch, suggesting his desire for tyrannical control over wife, family, and company; Romeo wears the romantic armor of a knight and Juliet wears the feathered wings of an earth-bound angel.

Luhrmann also creates much of his meaning through another form of cinematic shorthand—the explicit use of film intertextuality. The references to other films in his Romeo + Juliet create new frames of perspective through which to consider Shakespeare's work, new contexts that in turn highlight the different paces, rhythms, and genres within the single play. In this way Luhrmann challenges Seymour Chatman's claim that “The camera, poor thing, is powerless to invoke tone” (415).

Of course, no film (no “text”) exists in an artistic vacuum and within every film there will be (consciously or not) references, “quotes,” elements or moments reminiscent of other films. Recent readings of Olivier's Henry V and Richard Loncraine's Richard III, for instance, show the way in which both directors draw on elements of the classic Western. John Collick's commentary on Rhinehardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream examines the ways in which that film draws on nightmarish elements of contemporary animated cartoons. But Luhrmann's postmodern film is set apart from other Shakespeare films in the highly self-conscious way in which he “quotes” various films of diverse genres.2

Shakespeare's writing shows self-consciousness about the creative activity of playwright, performer, and spectator. Olivier, in his Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955), and Luhrmann, in his Romeo + Juliet show similar self-consciousness, especially in the play with quintessentially “filmic” and “theatrical” elements. As Buchman writes: “By defamiliarising their respective arts, playwright and filmmaker encourage and enrich the imaginative activities of the spectator. … Not only our imaginations but our expectations ‘eke out’ this text” (106). In watching a stage production the audience must, in Anthony Davies's words, “play the game of theatre,” investing a specific and defined area with special significance: “Our entering into complicity with the stage director and the actors is a crucial element” (6). Luhrmann's play with film intertextuality effects a similar response. Each shift in “genre” requires an imaginative shift on the part of the audience in complicity with the film director. The audience responses Luhrmann invites cover a wide spectrum between detachment and engagement. Often the self-conscious camp cheekiness of the film invites its viewers to be detached onlookers, sitting back and enjoying the way in which Luhrmann “makes sense” of Shakespeare's verse in a 'nineties popular culture context. But more often, especially after the scenes of Mercutio's death, we are encouraged to sit forward and be caught up in the action.

Within the opening moments of the film a television screen frames a newscaster who delivers the prologue in the same calm tone, the false friendly attitude in which we are accustomed to hearing the news of modern life tragedies. Right from the beginning then, by the use of the television frame within the cinematic frame, Luhrmann makes our role as screen audience very self-conscious. We are then “introduced” to the characters: each main character is shown in medium close-up facing the camera and their names and relationships to each other simultaneously appear in bold beside their faces (“Lady Capulet: Juliet's mother,” “Mercutio: Romeo's best friend” for example). They are introduced to us like the characters of a soap opera. Indeed the materialism and fierce glamour of Luhrmann's Verona reminds us of Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210 and countless other productions by Aaron Spelling. The evocation of soap operas effects a comic distancing from the action. This “tone” of comic distance is maintained in the next few scenes.

The brawl at the beginning of the play proper is filmed at hysterical pitch. The audience is assaulted by various cinematic tricks: impossible point of view shots (an extreme closeup of Tybalt's silver-heeled boots), quick cutting of pans, zooms, and wipes. The gas-station shoot-out is filmed like a Hong Kong spaghetti Western combined with Terminator II. The scene culminates in a characteristic contemporary action genre device; something potentially destructive moving at great speed is shown in slow motion to evoke the anticipation of the horror to come; here that moment is when Tybalt draws his weapon upon Benvolio (Arroyo 9). This film intertextuality, the self-conscious and amusing allusions to the Western and the action movie, distances the audience from the action somewhat. This evocation of the worlds of westerns and action movies is chiefly entertainment; we are at a “safe” distance in that what we see is hermetically sealed off from “reality.” Luhrmann places us in a privileged position, seeing the characters (as they cannot) locked within recognizable genre frames. At this point in the film the self-conscious aesthetic distancing makes us laugh at the action, at the exploits of the Montague and Capulet boys. It allows us, along with the Prince, to temporarily “wink at [their] discords.” This cheeky self-consciousness is also manifested in the billboards which dominate certain early scenes: one billboard advertises “Prospero's finest whiskey: the stuff dreams are made of.” Another billboard (shown above the Montague boys as they discuss going to the Capulet ball) displays the white words “Wherefore l'amour?” against a red background: the colors and script imitate an advertisement for Coca-Cola. The comedy in these billboards is in the meeting of “high” culture (allusions to Shakespeare) and “low” (pop) culture. Luhrmann is similarly, self-consciously cheeky in his representation of the weaponry: the rapiers, swords, and longsword of Shakespeare's text become guns with the words “rapier,” “sword,” “longsword” recast as trademarks. Romeo and his mates hang out in a dilapidated pool hall called “the Globe.”

However, in the scenes focusing on the interaction between Romeo and Juliet, the barrage of noise, the cheeky metacinematic billboards and accessories, the noise and color, the explicit and amusing film intertextuality fade into the background. Close-ups are predominantly used whereas the use of medium- and long- shots is prevalent in the opening funny crowd scenes. Their scenes are suffused with white and blue, with gentleness, moments of silence, and the purity of water. The water imagery that Luhrmann uses in the lovers' scenes obviously emphasizes the idealism of their relationship existing within a chaotic, corrupt, and frightening context. Romeo and Juliet believe that they are hermetically sealed off from the rest of Verona, able to guide their own destinies. (The balcony scene where they swim secretly together in a pool while one of the Capulets' armed guards sits nearby epitomizes this.) We are, albeit temporarily, allowed to believe this too: the close-ups draw us into a highly personal, personalized sealed-off world. Both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann in their films of Romeo and Juliet see the ability of a wide audience to “identify” with their protagonists as crucial. Both Luhrmann's earlier film Strictly Ballroom (1992) and his Romeo + Juliet feature high-spirited individuals who win our admiration by the resilience they show in asserting themselves in stifling surroundings.

It is also worth considering the portrayal of Mercutio's death in contrast with the opening brawl. The cheeky metacinematic nature of the first brawl is followed and displaced by a much more frightening duel. In contrast with the camerawork of precise zooms, wipes, and pans featured in the first brawl, the hand-held camera circles and jumps unsteadily, chaotically with Romeo, Tybalt, and Mercutio as they fight. The duel takes place by the ruins of an outdoor stage. We were visually introduced to Romeo when he was sitting on this stage “as” rebel without a cause, smoking and writing poetry. We have seen Mercutio dance in drag with his friends (also in costume) on this stage before leaving for the Capulet party. In the second duel scene, after he is stabbed by Tybalt, Mercutio staggers towards the stage, slowly rises, and with a flourish of one hand proclaims “a scratch.” As in Zeffirelli's film, Mercutio's friends momentarily believe they are watching another “performance”; Luhrmann's use of the stage painfully underlines this. Mercutio stumbles from the stage and dies. The retreat into self-conscious pretence is no longer possible. Besides, the stage is literally crumbling. The “reality” of Mercutio's death is the opposite of the hyper-reality, the fast cars and flash guns, of the opening brawl. Romeo clutches his friend in his arms, cries, stands, and runs to his car in the distance; we see Benvolio running after Romeo and trying, in vain, to stop his friend leaping into the car. Throughout this sequence the camera maintains a deep focus shot with Mercutio's dead bloody body in the foreground.

Luhrmann emphasizes the tonal shifts which we may find within Shakespeare's text—Romeo and Juliet is set apart from the other Shakespeare tragedies in that the action and characters begin in familiar comic patterns and are then transformed to compose the pattern of tragedy. In the final moments the television newscaster delivers the epilogue and the lovers end as they began, the subjects of a rhyming epigram delivered in emotionless monotone. Their bodies, wrapped in white sheets, are shown being hoisted into an ambulance: the picture is slightly fuzzy, suggesting the footage of a documentary or a news broadcast. The kind of comic, self-conscious detachment invoked by the newscaster's delivery of the prologue becomes a poignant reflection on the media's ability to trivialize and, through glib sensationalism, to empty a tragic event of meaning. Shakespeare's epilogue, in its rhythmic neatness, may seem to trivialize the tragic action but, in Luhrmann's film, the epilogue ironically heightens our sense of the story's grandeur: the discrepancy between the newscaster's summary and the passion we have witnessed is marked.

In a sense Luhrmann has made two films in one: the metacinematic elements, the profusion of popular culture signifiers set ripples of association in motion, speaking to an audience not necessarily familiar with Shakespeare. Various elements of Luhrmann's film (the popular culture references, the symbolism, the setting, music, and camerawork) comprise a composite art of story-telling, by which he claims and rewards the attention of his viewers while ensuring that they will be alerted to everything they need to know. Like Zeffirelli and his version of Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann caters for a wide audience (both those familiar and unfamiliar with Shakespeare), mediating boldly between the original theatrical medium and film. Zeffirelli says: “cinema creates a different chemistry with the audience, a different taste, and the attention of the audience moves so fast … fantasy gallops in the audience in the movies … your mind flashes-flashes-flashes” (Hapgood 82). Luhrmann's film is seldom subtle in its effects and, like Zeffirelli before him (in Hapgood's words) Luhrmann felt justified in cutting parts of the original that slowed its rapidity in the interests of maintaining “rapport” with his predominantly young audience (82). It should be noted that much of Zeffirelli's and Luhrmann's treatment of Shakespeare parallels Shakespeare's treatment of his own sources. These artists are bold in their appropriation of their “originals,” uninhibited in fulfilling the demands of their mediums. As Hapgood points out, Shakespeare was not only a popular artist but also a popularizer, transferring “from page to stage and from narrative to drama some of the central writings of his time” (84). In this sense Luhrmann, like Zeffirelli, is a self-professed “re-popularizer.” Further, Luhrmann's film is not simply an “easy,” “mindless” modernization but a re-contextualisation of the play which merits close analysis.

Luhrmann has, for his own generation, “made new” Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, and the film constitutes a remarkable chapter in what Jonathan Miller calls the “afterlife” of a play. As Barbara Hodgdon explains, a filmed adaptation of Shakespeare posits two auteurs, two kinds of textual authority, in the play and in the “so-called directorial signature.” However, she writes of “another textual authority operating here—what I call the expectational text—[which] contains my private notions about the play and about performed Shakespeare, notions that I might not even recognize until I find them denied” (Pilkington 17). I suggest that the very audacity, the “irreverence,” the popularity and the immediacy, the accessibility of Luhrmann's film, taking considerable liberties with the “text” in the cuts and emendations made, in the union of “high” (Shakespeare) and “low” (pop) culture has alienated critics because it defies certain “expectational texts.”

Unlike the stage, the cinema frame does not encapsulate the action within a microcosm—“the full extent of the action … must be credible beyond the constraints of the frame” (Davies 6). Luhrmann achieves a kind of visual “magic suggestiveness,” to use Conrad's phrase from his preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, conveying a world of attitudes and tendencies in the succinct accumulation of visual clues. For the filmmaker who adapts Shakespeare for the screen there is also the challenge of “reconciling the heightened utterance and … density of poetic dialogue with the convincing realism of cinematic space” (Davies 15). This is not simply a matter of placing characters and the verse they speak in a “believable,” “realistic” setting. (I am aware how problematic the notion of “realistic” space is but for the purposes of this paper let us call attempts to create a cinematic, believable world “realist” as opposed to productions which simply transfer stage productions onto screen.) Filmmakers like Castellani in his Romeo and Juliet have attempted to create an “authentic” cinematic space to the detriment of the poetic imagery. Shakespeare's verse is here overwhelmed by the visual splendor; the setting seems to exist for its own sake.

Tony Richardson's Hamlet (1969) circumvents the problem of integrating cinematic spatial realism with thematic substance by restricting camera movement and by rigid control of the film's spatial effects. The result is a sense of unalleviated claustrophobia in the “prison” of Denmark. By contrast, for directors like Kurosawa, Kozintsev, and Luhrmann it is imperative to clearly establish, in Davies's words, “the conquest of the realism of space” (16). Their films demonstrate that a Shakespearean film can incorporate cinematic realism that contributes much of its dramatic impact. In Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, for example, the forest becomes a “multi-layered embodiment of the film's thematic substance,” with a presence as strong as any character (Davies 16). (I hasten to add that this kind of effect can also be achieved on the stage.) The forest of Kurosawa's film and the Elsinore of Kozintsev's Hamlet function essentially as concepts rather than particular locations. And for Kozintsev it is impossible to “translate” this concept “directly and completely into plastic form. … The screen must show separate parts; the general plan can only be imagined. Otherwise, everything seems small, reduced” (266). Here Kozintsev refers explicitly to the spatial details in filmmaking but his comment could more broadly apply to his method of approaching Shakespeare. In watching Kozintsev's films the spectator is “responsible for assembling not merely a spatial whole, but a metaphysical whole which relates to the significance of the action” (Davies 21). In a different way, Luhrmann's film demands a similar kind of imaginative positioning from its audience. Signifiers of the modern western world (emblems of mafia gang-land hostility: guns, fast cars, tattoos; emblems of lurid wealth, of consumer culture, excess and decay; gaudy colors, huge billboards, cheap ostentatious jewelry, a massive cityscape dominated by the skyscrapers of Montague and Capulet) set off a string of associations which constitute a metaphysical whole. Verona is imaged as a cultural mirror through which Luhrmann asks urgent questions about the western world of the nineties. His Verona is a place beset by urban violence, a media that assaults the senses with a barrage of information, oppressive consumerism, depersonalization, the suffocation of innocence, faithlessness and violence: patterns of oppression which may be seen in our modern world. It is a world where a regular American girl of Juliet's age can easily find a gun to kill herself.

It is not a simple matter of Luhrmann having placed the action in a recognizable ‘nineties world. Like Kozintsev, Luhrmann is concerned that the landscape should not only say certain things within the context of the drama but that it should actually be the natural world in which characters must assert themselves and find their definition (Davies 22). One of the most affecting aspects of Luhrmann's film is that the idealism, purity, and sweetness of Romeo and Juliet's love is offset, defined by the world around them.

Objects, the spatial detail can in film have an anthropomorphic dimension, can have (for Balázs) a “violent expressive power”, an “intense physiognomy” against which the “human characters pale into insignificance” (Davies 9). Luhrmann has carried this notion to a polemic extension. Indeed, the characters of his film are dwarfed by the profusion of meaningful objects around them. The objects may have particular symbolic meaning: for example, the numerous religious icons which ironically foreground the faithlessness of this Verona, or the guns which, sleekly designed and seductively photographed, seem almost omnipresent signaling a world driven by hostility. But they also indicate that this Verona is a world of gaudy, oppressive materialism. Even in the final scene the slim figures of Romeo and Juliet are small amidst the elaborately decorated Capulet tomb: large blue and gold neon crosses, a multitude of candles and flowers, rose petals strewn thick across the floor.

Luhrmann's setting, the city itself, offers resistance to Romeo and Juliet who try to define a separate, personalized cinematic space for themselves. If, as Barthes insists, “the city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language” we should pay close attention to what Luhrmann's city “says” (92). Luhrmann's setting could be a prototype for imaging a postmodern city as described by the architecture specialist David Harvey. The urban world of this film is a “collage” of highly differentiated spaces and mixtures. This startling, eclectic “collage city” is comprised of the decrepit fairground, the ruined stage, the corporate cityscape flanking an immense statue of Christ, and the massive Capulet mansion which is comprised of Edwardian (a parquet floor, ionic columns, gardens structured into squares) and modern (Juliet's pink bedroom décor, the massive pool and security guard booth) elements. The ruined stage, in particular, prompts a sense of spatial and metaphysical dislocation because it does not seem “real,” does not appear as an integral part of the city but rather as an old fragment inserted into a new context. At times, the use of Shakespeare's verse invokes a similar sense of dislocation placed, as it is, in such a modern, eclectic context. In the collage mise en scène, in the quoting of various films of diverse genres and the portrayal of the characters themselves (of various nationalities and colors, from the camp black Mercutio, to the Blanche Dubois Lady Capulet, to the spaghetti Western Italian Tybalt), Luhrmann presents and alludes to many kinds of cultures, “realities” and “texts” which collide, which interpenetrate explosively. The coexistence of many styles does not convey a sense of freedom of expression but overwhelming oppressiveness. What Harvey calls the postmodern “themes” of destructive fragmentation, ephemerality, collage, rapid flux and chaotic change shape this film (44, 64).3 In the film's playfulness, the self-ironizing references to other films, its eclectic quotation, its “brutal aesthetics” which, for much of the film, undermine metaphysical solemnities, Luhrmann's work follows the archetypal description of postmodern art as suggested by Terry Eagleton (Harvey 7).

The personalized close-up space of Romeo and Juliet, the solemnity of their love is juxtaposed, and is incommensurable with the space of Luhrmann's city. The city is an “antagonistic, voracious world of otherness,” where different cultures, texts, architectures, and personalities clash and jostle for supremacy (Harvey 49). Metaphysical absolutes, like the love Romeo and Juliet seek to create and preserve, have no place in this world. The close-ups on Romeo and Juliet sometimes “block-out” the setting, conveying some sense of a search for a fantasy world, the illusory “high” that takes them and us beyond immediate physical “realities” into pure imagination.

In a radio interview Luhrmann likened DiCaprio as Romeo to a kind of Rebel Without A Cause James Dean, or a young Marlon Brando in that the character is fighting against many things without exactly knowing what it is he is fighting against. Aspects of the story, as presented by Luhrmann, are linked to Rebel in that Romeo and Juliet are alienated from their elders and, in American teen movie fashion, battling against “society.” But there is a profound difference between the tone of Rebel and Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet because the former does implicitly suggest the possibility of a positive, alternative reality, the resolution of conflicts. In Luhrmann's production the possibility of an ultimate positive, in the portrayal of the lovers, is only fleetingly held out. But DiCaprio's Romeo “doesn't know what he's fighting against” perhaps because the forces opposing him and Juliet are too big and multi-faceted to be contained in being “named.” There is seemingly no possibility of an absolute enduring “positive” to counteract all the “negatives” Luhrmann presents in his collage city of gangs, drugs, violence, oppressive media, intergenerational conflict, warring corporate owners, faithlessness, destructive fragmentation, chaos and despair.

Luhrmann takes after Kozintsev who says “we must see in Shakespeare, not irrelevant struggles of a past, but the vivid realities of the present” (Buchman 8). The obvious disjunction between the verse and the setting in Luhrmann's film throws the verse and its filmic context into a kind of defamiliarizing relief. This disjunction between verse and setting works to make “strange” the familiar, to make “new” the “text(s)” we know as Romeo and Juliet, inspiring the audience to ask new questions about the socioeconomic context of the drama. As Buchman writes, it is lamentable when a film world (mise en scène, camerawork, sound) undermines the force of Shakespeare's poetry. However, “if the film … offers a new context in which one can perceive the action of the drama, if the filmmaker can exploit the potential of cinema to place the language in a new space, a space where it sounds a little different to the ear precisely because it appears so different to the eye, then it achieves its maximum creative potential” (Buchman 63). I suggest that Luhrmann's film has achieved just that.


  1. See for example Gary Taylor's “Wherefore Art Thou, Will?” (in the Guardian, April 24 1999, “Saturday Review”: page 4) where he claims that Luhrmann's film was a straightforward marketing enterprise and, along with Cd-rom and internet Shakespeare sites, “does not really expand the Shakespearean domain” but provides another alternative popular way to satisfy existing markets (especially teenagers who must, apparently against their will, read Shakespeare in school). Taylor describes the film as a vehicle for ‘easy access’ to Shakespeare's work and places the film in the context of an argument that Shakespeare's status, and the scholarly level of attention given his work is falling dramatically. The film was given more serious attention in several papers at the Shakespeare on Screen Centenary Conference in Benalmàdena, Spain, in September 1999. However, several commentators remained skeptical in referring to the conflict between “postmodern” form and “Romantic” sentiment in Luhrmann's film as, at worst, a “weakness” and, at best, an unsatisfactory “contradiction.” Such arguments do, it seems to me, miss the point. The presentation of irreconcilable opposites shapes Luhrmann's film. The central tension is between postmodern notions of destructive fragmentation represented by Luhrmann's mise-en-scène and a Romantic yearning for the certainty of positive absolutes represented by Romeo and Juliet.

  2. In claiming this I argue against James N. Loehlin's who places Luhrmann's film in the company of other recently released Shakespeare films like Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night or Olivier Parker's Othello as employing “mainstream conventions in a straightforward, unselfconscious way” (67).

  3. Harvey distinguishes between the “destructive fragmentation” of postmodernist works which may produce chaotic and/or violent effects and the “positive fragmentation” of modernism. T. S. Eliot's ‘modernist’ poem The Waste Land would be, using Harvey's definitions, an example of “positive fragmentation”: the “heap of fragments” may, for the reader, collide, interact and eventually ‘cohere’ in a harmonious whole greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, the fragments of a postmodernist work, such as Luhrmann's eclectic setting for Romeo + Juliet, interact, collide, and remain in conflict rather than presenting the possibility of some final unification.

Works Cited

Arroyo, José. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Sight and Sound, 3 (1997): 6-9.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. trans. by Richard W. Miller. London: Capo, 1976.

Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt, eds. Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London/New York: Routledge, 1997.

Buchman, Lorne M. Still in Movement. New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Chatman, Seymour. “What Novels Can Do That Film Can't (And Vice Versa)” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. by Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy, 4th edn. New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Collick, John. “Symbolism in Shakespeare Film” in Shakespeare on Film (Shaughnessy), 83-102.

Davies, Anthony. Filming Shakespeare's Plays: The Adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Peter Brook, and Akira Kurosawa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Hapgood, Robert. “Popularizing Shakespeare: the Artistry of Franco Zeffirelli” in Shakespeare on Film (Shaughnessy), 80-94.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell's, 1990.

Kozintsev, Grigori. Shakespeare: Time and Conscience. trans. by Joyce Vining. London: Dennis Dobson, 1967.

Loehlin, James M. “‘Top of the World, Ma’: Richard III and Cinematic Convention” in Shakespeare the Movie, 67-79.

Luhrmann, Baz interviewed by Kim Hill during the “Nine to Noon” show, National Radio: Wellington (New Zealand), 4 February 1997.

Miller, Jonathan. Subsequent Performances. London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986.

Pilkington, Ace. Screening Shakespeare from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’. Newark: U of Delaware P; London/Toronto: Associated UP, 1991.

Shaughnessy, Robert, ed. Shakespeare on Film, New Casebooks ser. Houndmills/Basingstoke/Hampshire: Macmillan PLtd., 1998.

Taylor, Gary. “Wherefore Art Thou, Will?” Guardian Saturday Review 24 April 1999:4.

Welsh, Jim. “Postmodern Shakespeare: Strictly Romeo.Literature/Film Quarterly 25:2 (1997): 152-53.

Worthen, W. B. “Drama, Performativity, and Performance,” PMLA 113:5 (1998): 1093-1107.

Zeffirelli, Franco. “Filming Shakespeare” in Staging Shakespeare: Seminars on Production Problems, ed. by Glenn Loney. London/New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1990: 240-70.

Abdulla Al-Dabbagh (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Al-Dabbagh, Abdulla. “The Oriental Framework of Romeo and Juliet.The Comparatist 24 (May 2000): 64-82.

[In the essay below, Al-Dabbagh examines the way in which Romeo and Juliet is influenced by Arabic culture and concepts, noting that the play's use of imagery related to light and dark reflects the conceptions of good and evil found in Islamic Sufism.]

There has always been a tendency in literary and cultural scholarship to barricade oneself behind narrow specificities and a one-sided sense of “uniqueness,” a tendency that may ultimately give the wrong emphasis to national, cultural, or even racial factors. The truly comparative counterapproach has, however, always reached for the universalist standpoint, from which literary phenomena can be regarded across borders and within a complex variety of cultural contexts. In the field of East/West literary relations, and specifically in the area of Arabo-Islamic legacies in Western traditions, major strides have recently been taken in this direction. Although most of the advance has been in Spanish, and in general medieval literature, such work has implications for nearly the whole of the Western literary tradition. And even though numerous detailed investigations have been successfully accomplished, a systematic overview of the field is yet to be achieved.

The acute absence of such a comprehensive cross-cultural perspective—exemplified here by a lack of awareness or an incomprehension of the Oriental factor in certain Western literary phenomena—can sometimes lead to symptomatically misguided conclusions. This paper, however, is inspired by the broader, comparatist approach. It has been written to offer a corrective to the imbalance in many current interpretations of Romeo and Juliet and to contribute to recent advances in medieval/Oriental studies by extending their spirit to Shakespeare, hopefully as a major stepping-stone to the field of Renaissance humanism generally.

Emphasis falls on the Oriental framework as an important key to the play and on its close link with the genre of Oriental tragic romance, an emphasis needed to foreground a major factor and to redress a crucial omission. Still, the essay should not be read in terms of the narrow, one-sided “interpretation” approach and certainly not of the old-fashioned, cultural aggrandizement streak in comparative studies. Indeed, such a reading would defeat its purpose. The paper offers the Oriental framework as a necessary enhancement for any full appreciation of a complex, multidimensional piece of world literature, hoping to contribute, within its limited scope, to genuinely cross-cultural genre studies.


Three critics have been especially well placed to bring out the Oriental framework of Romeo and Juliet: Ahdaf Soueif and M. A. Manzalaoui, both scholars of English literature of Arab origin, and Denis de Rougemont, a master of comparative studies in the West. Yet each of them managed to overlook or failed to address the connection to be proposed in this essay. The most comprehensive attempt to encompass the play's full range of cultural affiliations—unhappily termed its “symbolic context” by Soueif, the Egyptian scholar and later a well-known novelist—rightly affirms, from the beginning, the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of locating Shakespeare's works within an intellectual, or conceptual, framework. Soueif dismisses the view of Shakespeare as the miraculous natural genius happily “untainted” by any need for systematic thinking. Unfortunately, her essay opts for an eclectic conclusion which, while claiming that Romeo and Juliet can be interpreted within the framework of more than one context, ends disappointingly with a conventional recourse to “the miracle […] that in the fire of creative genius even contradictory material may be drilled to work together in harmony.” The article tries to “harmonize” three different contexts for the play: Christianity, courtly love, and Renaissance Neoplatonism. In the end, it is the critic's own bewilderment that bursts to the surface. The goal of harmonising the Christian with the non-Christian and the physical with the platonic leads to the unsatisfactory compromise of “sticking” to the golden mean as “the safest and most credible path to take” (Soueif 18).

Manzalaoui and de Rougemont, whom one would have thought were the most likely to uncover the conceptual framework overlooked by Soueif, sadly have nothing but the most perfunctory and en passant remarks about the play. Manzalaoui's rich and stimulating essay, on “Tragic Ends of Lovers: Medieval Islam and the Latin West,” mentions Romeo and Juliet only in its very last lines. Could the play have been deliberately preserved for a sequel article, one wonders. On the other hand, de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, a scholarly landmark that undoubtedly stands among the best of its kind in the twentieth century, disappointingly gives a mere four pages to Romeo and Juliet and Milton. The two pages devoted to the play, one of which is a lengthy quotation from Romeo's speech immediately before his suicide, contain some rather tangential remarks about how Shakespeare has been alleged to have been a Roman Catholic and how Verona was one of the main centers of Catharism in Italy. More centrally, he merely states, almost in one sentence, with little attempt at elaboration or argument, that “Romeo and Juliet is the one courtly tragedy, as well as the most magnificent resuscitation of the myth [i.e., Liebestod] that the world was to be given till Wagner wrote and composed his Tristan” (190). It is particularly surprising, in light of the varied origins of the Western concept of love that the book details, that de Rougemont should so one-sidedly relegate the play to the Liebestod myth. Significantly, with the very rare exceptions of Nicholas Brooke and Derek Traversi, his brief remarks have not been elaborated upon convincingly in subsequent criticism of the play.

In a very recent study, however, Robin Wells revisits de Rougemont's thesis and discusses it in ways that are pertinent to our argument. First, the writer succinctly sums up the critical history of the play: “Traditionally the play has been seen as a story of youth tragically blighted by fortune, or by irresponsible parents, or even by the lovers' own folly” (917-18). Then he underlines the point at which de Rougemont enters: “But in 1930 Denis de Rougemont suggested a quite different interpretation. Comparing Romeo and Juliet with the Tristan and Iseult story, he argued that what the play is really about is not tragic waste but the desire for death” (918), elaborating, “In fact, says de Rougemont, Shakespeare's play is the last great resuscitation of the myth before Wagner's Tristan und Isolde” (919). Later in the essay, the writer refutes what he calls two postmodernist readings of the play, by Julia Kristeva and Jonathan Dollimore (920-21), which, he argues, have followed de Rougemont's thesis, and concludes that: “Common to Kristeva's and Dollimore's readings of Romeo and Juliet is an indifference to the text. As postmodernists they are primarily concerned to show that Shakespeare is a precursor of their own ‘perverse counter-intuitiveness’ (Dollimore's words)” (923).

Perhaps the classic case of critical bewilderment to which an unquestioning acceptance of de Rougemont's Liebestod thesis leads appears in M. M. Mahood's remarks in her interesting study of Shakespeare's language. After an introductory discussion of the Shakespearean play upon the word “die” and the general verbal association of love and death in Elizabethan times, Mahood declares that, “In all these aspects Romeo and Juliet appears the classic literary statement of the Liebestod myth in which (we are told) we seek the satisfaction of our forbidden desires.” Already, the parenthetical phrase, “we are told,” reveals the writer's skepticism about the Liebestod thesis, and she continues immediately to reveal her doubts.

Shakespeare's story conflicts, however, with the traditional myth at several points. Tragic love is always adulterous. Romeo and Juliet marry […] Romeo faces capture and death, Juliet the horror of being entombed alive, not because they want to die but because they want to live together […] In contrast to this, the wish fulfillment of the Liebestod is accomplished only by the story of a Suicide pact.

This is very well put even though Mahood's inability to pinpoint the play's true generic origin as well as its language of paradox and oxymoron and the pattern of light/dark imagery associated centrally with it leads her astray once again. Thus she begins by declaring, “When we explore the language of Romeo and Juliet we find that both its wordplay and its imagery abound in those concepts of love as a war, a religion, malady, which de Rougemont has suggested as the essence of amour-passion.” She then takes this declaration back when she arrives at almost the exactly opposite conclusion, maintaining that “the distribution of wordplay upon the concepts of love-war, love-idolatry, love-sickness serve to show that the feelings of Romeo and Juliet for each other are something quite different from the amour-passion in which de Rougemont finds all these disorders.” She finishes her chapter on the play by stating that “Shakespeare insures that our final emotion is neither the satisfaction we should feel in the lovers' death if the play were a simple expression of the Liebestod theme, nor the dismay of seeing two lives thwarted and destroyed by vicious fates, but a tragic equilibrium which includes and transcends both these feelings” (58-60).

And yet de Rougemont's Love in the Western World, when taken in a broader perspective that goes beyond the Liebestod thesis to allow for both the general design of its argument and some points explicitly raised in several key passages elsewhere, makes a considerable advance toward establishing precisely the conceptual framework needed for a work like Romeo and Juliet. De Rougemont chooses the appropriate vantage point of the Oriental antecedents of Platonism and the subsequent transmission through Plotinus of the Platonic doctrine of love to the medieval world, to affirm the Oriental origin of Western culture, and indeed of Western man (“all our races come from the East”) as well as the general convergence detected by modern research “in support of the view that the religious beliefs of East and West had a common source” (62). What is more specifically relevant to my discussion of Romeo and Juliet is de Rougemont's focus on the opposite sets of light and dark as a fundamental dualism, expressive of the mystery of Day and Night as well as of the fatal struggle between Good and Evil in the moral sphere, in a wide-ranging variety of Western and Eastern religions and mythologies.

In the more directly literary sphere, de Rougemont argues that the Provençal poetry written by the troubadours of the twelfth century, from which all modern European poetry has emerged, had no precedent, either for its rhetorical forms or for the specific notion of unrequited love that runs as a major theme through it, in any European tradition, and “far from being accounted for by the conditions prevailing at the time, seems to have been in flat contradiction to them” (76). Raising the important question of the non-European origin of the courtly love notion, de Rougemont makes the following telling remarks:

Yet whenever some historian ventures on a theory of how courtly rhetoric came into being, the authorities turn on him with biting irony. Sismondi attributed the origins of emotional mysticism to the Arabs; his theory was disdainfully rejected as monstrous. Diez discerned resemblances in the rhythms and pauses of Arab and Provençal lyric poetry; we are told he must not be taken seriously. […] Thus, no matter what explanation is offered, the authorities are apparently determined to pooh-pooh any attempt to give a meaning to what they have devoted their lives to studying.


Recently, more than anyone else perhaps, Maria Rosa Menocal has written several closely argued and highly scholarly investigations of these issues in the sphere of Hispanic and medieval romance studies. Her general conclusions, like those of the earlier scholars mentioned above and like this more limited attempt with Romeo and Juliet, move very strongly in the direction of foregrounding the Oriental dimension latent in Western literary and cultural trends. Her work has already become a landmark in recent medieval scholarship.

Later, in a key chapter entitled “Arab Mystical Poetry,” de Rougemont moves unhesitatingly to point to the metaphors of Islamic Sufi literature as strikingly akin to those of courtly rhetoric. In particular, he singles out the antithetical relation of the World of Light and the World of Darkness that informs so much of both literatures. In his concluding words he regards it as a matter proven beyond doubt, and in a manner mockingly damaging to those who dismissed it out of hand, that Arabic poetry, particularly Andalusian Arabic poetry, was the major influence on the courtly poems:

Can it be established that Arab poesy actually influenced cortezia? Renan wrote in 1863: “An abyss separates the form and the spirit of Romance poetry from the form and spirit of Arab poetry.” Another scholar, Dozy, his contemporary, declares that Arab influence upon the troubadours has not been established “and it will not be.” Today his peremptory tone makes us smile […] From Baghdad to Andalusia Arab poetry is one, one in language and one thanks to continuous exchanges. Andalusia was contiguous to the Spanish dominions, whose dynasties were mingled with those of Languedoc and Poitou. By now the blooming of Andalusian lyricism in the tenth and eleventh centuries has become well known. The detailed prosody of the zadjal is that adopted by the first troubadour William of Poitiers, in five of the eleven poems by him that have come down to us. To try to establish Andalusian influence upon the courtly poems is no longer needful. And I could fill pages with passages from Arabs and Provençals about which our great specialists of “the abyss which separates” would possibly fail to guess whether they were penned north or south of the Pyrenees. The matter is settled.


What is even more relevant to any attempt at establishing the literary framework for Shakespeare's first tragedy of love is de Rougemont's concluding paragraph that, opening the way for any subsequent discussion of this issue, deserves to be quoted at length:

There occurred during the twelfth century in Languedoc and in the Limousin one of the most extraordinary spiritual confluences of history. On the one hand, a strong Manichaean religious current, which had taken its rise in Persia, flowed through Asia Minor and the Balkans as far as Italy and France, bearing the esoteric doctrines of Maria Sophia and of love for the Form of Light. On the other hand, a highly refined rhetoric, with its set forms, themes and characters, its ambiguities invariably recurring in the same places, and indeed its symbolism, pushes out from Irak and the Sufis, who were inclined alike to Platonism and Manichaenism, and reaches Arabic Spain, then, leaping over the Pyrenees, it comes in the south of France upon a society that seems to have but awaited its arrival in order to state what it had not dared and had not been able to avow either in the clerical tongue or in the common vernacular. Courtly lyrical poetry was the offspring of that encounter.


Significantly, most scholars, since de Rougemont's pioneering work, have continued to affirm the absence of an indigenous, contemporary origin for troubadour poetry and for the courtly notion of love, and the necessity of locating their framework elsewhere. Taking only two of the most recent works in the field, here are the words of Dorothee Metlitzki:

In the eyes of most Arabists, “there can be little doubt as to the influence of Arabic poetry on the songs of the troubadours.” [Metlitzki here is quoting von Grunebaum. She also refers to more recent discussions by scholars like Stern, Gabrieli, and Rosenthal]. Their argument runs as follows: the first examples of Provençal poetry that have come down to us exhibit a strictly conventional pattern both in structure and theme, thus representing not a beginning but an established system. No evolution in the direction of troubadour lyric has been traced in the earlier literature of the West. But there are convincing analogues in theme, imagery, and verse form in the poetry of Spain and Sicily preceding the troubadours and what seems to be the closest parallel to the new poetic system is found with Hispano-Arabic poets [again finding support from scholars like A. R. Nykl and K. Menendez Pidal].


In another, more recent study, Bernard O'Donnoghue concludes that while it is certainly “useful and informative” to study the structures of troubadour society, the latter would not account for their theories of love “because the poetry seems to be sufficiently explained by reference to other schools of love poetry” (10). In fact, he focuses specifically on Tauq al-Hamama (The Dove's Neck-Ring), the famous treatise on love written by the Andalusian philosopher, Ibn Hazm, around 1022, as a most likely influence on courtly love concepts, includes excerpts from it in his book, and sums up the supporting views of other scholars in this field, such as P. Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the Love Lyric (1965), and Roger Boase. He specifically endorses the views of A. R. Nykl, Ibn Hazm's translator and editor, on this decisively Arabic, and especially Andalusian-Arabic, influence.2 He also refers to the “deeply-researched” articles of A. J. Denomy, later collected in his The Heresy of Courtly Love (1947), of which he chooses to make this very relevant summary:

Denomy's argument, in brief, is that, whereas most of the traditional features of courtly love are to be found in the classics, medieval Latin and Arabic (description of nature in the opening; personification of love as a god; love as sickness; fear of loss of beloved; capriciousness of beloved; need of secrecy; the danger of talebearers, and so on), there are three new features in the love of the troubadours: first, the ennobling nature of human love; second, the elevation of the beloved to a position superior to the lover; third, love as ever-unsatisfied, ever-increasing desire. Denomy says these three characteristics can be found neither in any of the literatures mentioned nor in Albegensianism, but only in Arabic philosophy (not Arabic poetry).

(O'Donnoghue 11-12)

Earlier, Lois Anita Giffin had traced the “Martyrs of Love,” both as a conception and a literary genre, in classical Arabic literature, and approvingly cited the results of von Grunebaum's scholarly research to the effect that “the concept of the martyrs of love constitutes an original contribution of Arabic poetry” (106). She regarded her own pioneering study as “only a first step” in a fascinating investigation of matters awaiting further research and discussion, particularly those concerned with “the relations between the theory of profane love and the ideas of the Muslim mystics on divine love, as well as the points of agreement or contrast between the theories of the Arabs and those of medieval and Renaissance European writers” (121).

It is appropriate here to observe that this belated recognition of the Oriental origins of not merely courtly love notions and troubadour poetry, but also of other areas of Western literature, is not unprecedented, and that the contradictory swings of opinion between the full admission of those origins and the outright dismissal of them have been a reflection of more than merely scholarly considerations. As early as Hamilton Gibb's essay, “Literature,” in that pioneering collection on The Legacy of Islam (1931) edited by Sir Thomas Arnold, this complex and contradictory nature of Western scholarly opinion was fully understood:

A new type of poetry, with a new theme, a new social psychology, and a new technique suddenly comes into existence in southern France at the end of the eleventh century. There is little in the earlier literature of France which points in the direction of this development; on the other hand, the new poetry bears some resemblances to a certain type of contemporary poetry in Arabic Spain. What could be more natural than to suppose that the first Provençal poets were influenced by Arabic models? For several centuries this view met with almost unquestioned acceptance. It was never more confidently or sweepingly asserted than by Giammeria Barbieri in the full tide of the classical revival. On the revival of medieval studies at the end of the eighteenth century, when public imagination was still obsessed with oriental romance, the general opinion led by Sismondi and Fauriel maintained the close association of Provençal with Arabic poetry. It was only in mid-nineteenth century that there appeared a revulsion, among both orientalists and students of Romance philology. The critics demanded documentary evidence of contacts between Provence and Andalusia, and failing to find them swung to the other extreme. If one may without malice attribute some share in the reaction to the overheated nationalism which animated all western nations, it must be conceded that no self-respecting Romance scholar was likely to defend the theory of Arabic influence in the face of the contemptuous pronouncement of the famous orientalist Dozy.


Gibb himself concludes, after further review of more recent evidence regarding the points of similarity and coincidence between Andalusian and Provençal poetry that “for the present the claim that Arabic poetry contributed in some measure to the rise of the new poetry of Europe appears to be justified” (191).

As significantly, Gibb goes on, after a brief review of the debt of medieval Europe to Arabic prose literature, to underline what he says may have been the most important Islamic contribution to European literature, namely, “the influence of Arabic culture and ideas on both poetry and prose, whether accompanied or not by material borrowings from Arabic sources” (197, my italics). Among the major areas of such a debt, Gibb cites, in addition to the rise of modern European poetry in Provence, Dante and the whole tradition of Spanish romances that lead ultimately to the birth of the European novel. He may also have included, in this context, the influence of the Oriental maqamat on the rise of picaresque narrative and the picaresque novel in Spain and, later, in the rest of Europe (see Al-Dabbagh). Although Gibb surprisingly devotes only two lines to the Renaissance, moving to the new forms of Oriental literary influence, following Galland's translation of the Arabian Nights, in the eighteenth century and later in the romantic movement, it is precisely this kind of debt, the debt to culture and ideas not accompanied necessarily by material borrowings from specific sources, to which Renaissance texts such as Romeo and Juliet testify.


Appropriately, a discussion of the specific nature of this debt, as a step toward establishing the play's conceptual framework, can best begin with another article in the same pioneering collection, the chapter entitled “Mysticism” by R. A. Nicholson, one of the eminent scholars in this field. The essay affirms from the start the considerable influence exerted by Islamic philosophy, transmitted through Spain, on Christian Europe in the Middle Ages as well as the common ground between medieval Christianity and Islam provided by mysticism (210-11).

Among the Islamic mystics (Sufis), Nicholson rightly singles out Ibn Al-Arabi, who was born in Spain and died in 1240 in Damascus, as the greatest speculative genius. He gives the following account of what he describes as “his system of universal philosophy” as expressed most brilliantly in such works as the Futuhat Al-Makkiyya (Meccan Revelations) and the Fusus Al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom):

Ibnu 'l-Arabi is a thoroughgoing monist, and the name given to his doctrine (wahdatu 'l-wujud, the unity of existence) justly describes it. He holds that all things pre-exist as ideas in the knowledge of God, whence they emanate and whither they ultimately return. There is no creation ex nihilo; the world is merely the outward aspect of that which in its inward aspect is God. While every phenomenon reveals some attribute of reality, Man is the microcosm in which all the divine attributes are united, and in Man alone does God become fully conscious of himself. The Perfect Man (al-Insanu al-Kamil), as the image of God and the archetype of Nature, is at once the mediator of divine grace and the cosmic principle by which the world is animated and sustained. And, of course, the perfect man par excellence is Muhammad. Long before Ibnu 'l-Arabi, the dogma of his preexistence had established itself in Islam. His spiritual essence, the first thing that God created, was conceived as celestial light (nur Muhammadi), which became incarnate in Adam and in the whole series of prophets after him from generation to generation until its final appearance in Muhammad himself.


Nicholson goes on to explain Ibn Al-Arabi's philosophy in the following, pertinent, way:

From the fact that the soul is a mode of divine being, Ibnu 'l-Arabi infers that human actions are self-determined. But his system excludes free-will in the ordinary sense. God himself acts according to the necessity of His nature which requires that the infinite variety of His attributes should produce an infinite variety of effects in the objects wherein they are displayed. This involves the appearance of light and darkness, good and evil, and all the opposites on which the possibility of knowledge depends.


Finally, in addition to the key concepts of the unity of existence, the perfect man, and his special understanding of fate and free will, Ibn Al-Arabi's celebrated religious tolerance and universalism form the last cornerstone of his philosophic system. In the words of one modern, scholarly study, he “proclaimed the actual equality of all religions and creeds in a spirit of maximum tolerance and an orientation to overcoming any confessional and religious alienation between people” (Ibrahim 341).

Nicholson then moves on to point out that Ibn Al-Arabi also provided the intellectual groundwork for the flowering of Islamic mysticism in the East, particularly in Persian Sufi poetry and philosophy, as seen most brilliantly in the love-romance of Nizami, the anecdotal and allegorical writings of Fariduddin Attar, and the Masnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. Of the three, it is Rumi, a contemporary of Ibn Al-Arabi who died in Turkey in 1273, who stands out as the foremost Sufi philosopher of Persia. In an earlier work, Nicholson has discussed one of the central ideas of Rumi, and of Islamic Sufism generally, that reveal a remarkable similarity to Ibn Al-Arabi's central idea of the unity of existence:

But why, it may be asked, has God created that to which men give the name of evil? And since He is the only real Agent, how are we to blame for the actions that we are caused to commit? It is characteristic of Jalalu'ddin that he finds the answer to this old riddle not in thought but in feeling, not in theological speculation but in religious experience. We can feel as one what we must think as two. Every thing has an opposite by means of which it is manifested; God alone, whose being includes all things, has no opposite, and therefore He remains hidden. Evil is the inevitable condition of good: “out of darkness was created light.”

(Idea of Personality 75)

In a yet earlier work, he expounds on Rumi's views on the same issue:

Approaching the question, “Why does God ordain and create evil?” he points out that things are known through their opposites, and that the existence of evil is necessary for the manifestation of good. Moreover, the divine omnipotence would not be completely realised if evil had remained uncreated.

(Mystics 98-100)

The Islamic Sufi conception of the unity of existence (wahdat al-wujud) and the explanation of evil that it provides, as given here by its two most brilliant representatives, Ibn Al-Arabi and Rumi, along with the general tendency and basic principles of their spiritual philosophy,3 provide the most suitable framework for understanding a play like Romeo and Juliet. Furthermore, the play clearly belongs to the tradition of the tragic, Oriental love romance extending all the way from Nizami's Layla and Majnun to the Kurdish Sufi poet Khany's Mum u Zeen in the seventeenth century. About the tradition of the former, we may recall here the appropriate words of Edward Browne: “the romance of Layla and Majnun […] has been since Nidhami's time one of the most popular, if not the most popular, of all love-stories in the East, not only in Persia but in Turkey, where Fuduli of Baghdad gave the sad tale of the Distraught Lover and the Night-black Beauty a fresh impulse towards the west of Asia” (2: 406). However, a detailed scrutiny of this literary tradition, crucially relevant as it is, lies beyond the scope of this paper.

The argument here focuses only on the conceptual framework provided by Islamic Sufism, which—we shall see—casts light on certain key features of Romeo and Juliet. “Framework,” it may be necessary to reemphasize at this point, does not entail specific, conscious borrowing so much as a rich cultural legacy upon which the work is generally dependent both intellectually and formalistically, without there being the need of even an awareness of such a dependence. With this perspective in mind, we may begin our examination of the play with Friar Lawrence's speech—after he has finished his gardening and at his very first appearance in the play—which is an elaborate and explicit statement of its central idea. Baffling to many critics who are unaware of the work's Eastern background and the specific Oriental mode in which it is written, the speech, in fact, is a perfect expression of the Sufi idea of the unity of existence and of the seemingly paradoxical co-existence of conflicting elements, most supremely of good and evil, in the heart of things, that we have seen to be central to the outlook of such major Sufi thinkers as Ibn Al-Arabi and Rumi:

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse,
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power;
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, stays all sense with the heart,
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will
And where the worser is predominant.
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.


The relevance of this soliloquy to the whole conception of a play that is about the love of a young couple being born in the midst of the feuding hatred of their families, and of how only the lovers' death can bring about a new life of peace and unity, should not escape anyone. Shakespeare, in fact, very deliberately turns this central idea, this philosophic core of the play, one might say, into a literary motif that runs all the way through it, in the key device of the oxymoron. In addition to lying abundantly at the heart of Friar Lawrence's speech quoted above, oxymora are interwoven throughout the play and are encountered at some of its most important junctures. They appear first in connection with the play's central topic—love—which leads Romeo to describe his dilemma in loving the Capulet Rosaline as

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create,
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-walking sleep that is not what it is
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.


Similarly, Juliet, in the last lines of that opening act, ironically foreshadows the end of the play when she says of Romeo, before knowing who he is: “If he be married / My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (1.5.133-34), and declares, after recognizing him, in words that echo Romeo's own, quoted above: “My only love sprung from my only hate!” (1.5.137). One of the most memorable lines of the “Balcony Scene” (2.1) is Juliet's “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” which closes the scene and leads immediately to Friar Lawrence's soliloquy referred to above. In the third act, Juliet, again echoing Romeo's lines in Act I, comes out with a series of oxymora that give shape to her dilemma upon hearing of the death of Tybalt at his hands:

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


In the poignant parting scene, after the playful argument about the nightingale and the lark, Romeo declares: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3.5.36), but is still more optimistic compared to Juliet's foreboding of death and her intuition that this would be their last meeting: “Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (3.5.54-55). In fact, the oxymora built, in a variety of ways, on coupling love and death dominate the second half of the play. Friar Lawrence tells Romeo, who has just killed Tybalt: “Thou art wedded to calamity” (3.3.3). Juliet's speech before taking the sleeping drug is torn by the two contradictory forces of her love for Romeo and her fear of death. But it is Capulet who best sums up the terms of this particular oxymoron when he discovers Juliet's “death”:

All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral;
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.


And all things changing to their contrary—indeed containing their contrary—is exactly how the play closes in ways best expressed by Friar Lawrence's words to Juliet, just awakened in the family vault: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (5.3.153-54), and later to the prince: “I am the greatest able to do the least” (5.3.223). The prince concludes the play with a return to its central oxymoron: “Where be these enemies, Capulet, Montague? / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (5.3.291-93).

Interestingly, it seems that here, too, the literary embodiment of the conflicting feelings aroused by love in the figures of the oxymoron and the paradox is the product of the same Oriental tradition:

The psychological and aesthetic principles, in particular the tendency to paradoxical expression, inherent in troubadour poetry are incomprehensible without reference to the Graeco-Arabic medical tradition. Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine, a standard textbook in European medical schools, contains a section on love-melancholy or 'ishq. According to medical theory and popular opinion, “dying of love” was more than a mere metaphor: if a man was in love with a woman who refused to bestow her bel accueil or some sign of recognition, then his condition was liable to deteriorate into amor heroes or 'ishq, a species of melancholia and a disease of the imagination, leading ultimately to death. European and Arabic court poets were justified in their use of figures of contradiction such as oxymora, hyperboles and dilemmas, by preconceptions about the nature of love itself. These same medical theories underlie the “paradoxical asceticism” of Sufi poetry, and were known to Ibn Arabi, who likened the stages of meditation to the phases of love-melancholy.

(Boase 124)

Like the oxymoron, the other major motif running through the play—the imagery of light and darkness—also reflects a central feature of the Islamic Sufi outlook. As pointed out earlier, Denis de Rougemont had singled out this specific dualism as basic to many Eastern religions and mythologies generally, and to the metaphors of Sufi literature, the presumed source of European courtly rhetoric, in particular. R. A. Nicholson, supported by nearly all scholars of Islamic mysticism, has pointed out the centrality of the imagery of light (versus darkness) to the Sufi conception of both divine and human love. In one school of Sufism, Ishraqism, or the philosophy of Ishraq (illumination), light, from which the school derives its name, is regarded as the substance of all that exists as well as the basic principle of human knowledge (Ibrahim 288).4 The centrality of this pattern of imagery in Shakespeare's love tragedy, its initial choice, unique in the canon, as well as the manner of its expression, attest to the undoubted relevance of the Sufi conception and framework to this play, in ways that make the question of whether there may be direct borrowings or not beside the point.

Caroline Spurgeon's pioneering study of the patterns of imagery in Shakespeare's work has confirmed the centrality of light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet for conveying Shakespeare's conception of “love as light in a dark world.” It has also underlined the uniqueness, here, of the choice of this pattern of imagery in the Shakespearean canon: “Shakespeare shows no sign of this great interest in light nor of Bacon's almost passionate association of light with intellect, although in Romeo and Juliet we find a beautiful ‘running’ or constantly recurring image which shows that Shakespeare there imaginatively conceives of love as light in a dark world.”5 The point to be made here is that this is precisely the conception of the Muslim Sufis. It should be sufficient to remind the reader here of the major instances only. These are Romeo's words upon seeing Juliet for the first time: “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” (1.5.43-45). Interestingly, when Capulet, in that same party scene, dismisses Tybalt, the chief representative of the dark forces fueling the hateful feud, and prevents him from confronting Romeo, he immediately cries out: “More light, more light, for shame!—” 1.5.86) as if exorcising those dark forces. Again, in Act II, in the Balcony Scene, when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, he breaks out even more tellingly, with: “But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (2.1.44-45). Ex oriente lux. For further foregrounding, Shakespeare connects his two main literary motifs at several points. Friar Lawrence's oxymoron-studded soliloquy begins with

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check'ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path


Later Juliet, the major light of the play, so to speak, in a telling inversion, will cry for darkness and for night as the cloak that hides and brings Romeo to her: “Come, civil night, / Thou sober-suited matron all in black, / And learn me how to lose a winning match” (3.2.10-12). For Romeo, too, in the parting scene in Juliet's bedroom, light and darkness become inverted and paradoxical: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3.5.36). And as the ultimate darkness of death begins to loom over the play, it moves to provide the final variation on this recurrent motif, best expressed by Romeo in the Capulet tomb: “For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light. / Death, lie thou there, by a dead man interred” (5.3.85-87).

Indeed Juliet, as the central light of the play, gives vent to typically Sufi conceptions in some of her most memorable lines, such as the insistence on the supremacy of essence over appearance in her “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (2.1.85-86) and on the endless abundance of true love in her: “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” (2.1.175-77). Later she returns to this theme:

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 the sum of half my wealth.


On this particular image and idea, Spurgeon interestingly observes that “the infiniteness of love, however, is suggested or implied so constantly, and by so many different contexts, that one cannot but believe that here Shakespeare unconsciously reveals his own intuitive view” (149).

And, finally, it is only through the proper focus on the Sufi framework of the play that the seeming contradiction can be resolved between “fate” and “free will” which has often troubled critics of this play, most recently G. Blakemore Evans in his preface to the New Cambridge edition of Romeo and Juliet.6 Such a focus would also provide the proper philosophic context for the Shakespearean dramatic strategy of portraying “character” as “destiny.” Ibn Al-Arabi, like all the great examples of Sufi thought, firmly rejected the idea of creation out of nothing, and limited the role of interference in the act of creation to that of bringing into concrete existence (wujud 'ayni) only what was potentially known, i.e., existence (wujud 'ilmi). He also gave essence absolute precedence over existence as the cornerstone of his Sufi determinist position. Thus, free choice (ikhtiyar) could only be expressed in conformity with the inner conditions of what is already there.

Moreover, he significantly extended this conception by observing that only when a single thing—action, event, person, etc.—was taken by itself, in isolation from all other things, could its existence seem “free” or “accidental.” But when all things were taken together, in all their causal connections with each other, then it would be discovered that each of them was necessary. In this lay the secret of fate (sirr al-qadar), within which Ibn Al-Arabi resolved the problematic of freedom and necessity. Since everything in the world was necessary, fated, and predestined, where did the freedom of choice lie? The Sufi answer, in essence, is a humanist one. When man understood this secret of predestination and acted in accordance with its requirements, he would act out a noumenal essence, and therefore free a necessary potentiality. Thus man, or the perfect man in Sufi terminology, becomes the agent of uniting freedom with necessity. Achieving this unity, he enters into harmony with the rhythm of the universe and with the rules of existence (Ibrahim 333-38).


As love is the key Sufi vehicle for the human endeavor to achieve human perfection and thus act out the unity of freedom and necessity that is the secret of existence, exemplary destinies like those of Romeo and Juliet, and like those of many of the heroes and heroines of the genre of the Oriental tragic romance, provide obvious patterns. The Sufi framework, however, is not limited only to this genre. Aspects of its clear relevance to the destinies of such Shakespearean heroes as Hamlet and Lear are well worth investigating. It is hoped that these examples, and the general argument of this paper as a whole, will provide a better basis for understanding the play and open the way for similar studies of Shakespeare's other works. One thinks immediately of such key ideas as submission to Providence in Hamlet, the loss of self in order to gain it in King Lear, and life as a sleep or a dream in The Tempest and in other works, as well as the specific Shakespearean treatment of the nature of good and evil, the perfectibility of man and the connection between madness and inspiration, the figure of the wise fool, in the oeuvre as a whole.

For, indeed, it is not only this particular aspect of the content of Shakespearean drama but Shakespeare's thought generally that has, it might seem shocking to say, not been adequately discussed even at such a late date in the history of Shakespeare criticism. One has only to recall some of the key statements in this field—all the way from Bradley's first lecture “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy” in his Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) to an essay like E. R. Elton's “Shakespeare and the Thought of His Age” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies (1986)—to be convinced of this inadequacy. In between these two limits, we had, first, the Eliot/Scrutiny denial that Shakespeare had any thought at all, then a long period of the domination, at least in academic circles, of the conservative caricature of Shakespeare's “philosophic” outlook presented in such works as A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (1934) and E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture (1943) to be summarised and popularized endlessly to students, in such works as, for example, M. M. Badawi's Background to Shakespeare (1981), and down, finally to the current inconclusive, and not too enlightening, debate between the New Historicists and the Cultural Materialists (see Dollimore and Greenblatt). For in spite of the wealth of new detail and the seemingly radical break with previous criticism offered by these two approaches, their historical vision remains limited to a local and contemporary framework and thus lacks the kind of “deep historical” and more broadly comparative framework that seems to be needed for the study of Shakespeare and, indeed, of Elizabethan and Renaissance literature generally.

Needless to say, far from denigrating Shakespeare, a line of inquiry like the one followed in this paper will serve further to amplify the dimensions of his genius. As Hamilton Gibb said of Dante: “the genius of Dante would tower all the higher could it be shown that he fused into one magnificent synthesis not only the great heritage of Christian and classical mysticism, but also the richest and most spiritual features of the religious experience of Islam” (198). This task, for Dante, was of course brilliantly performed by the Spanish scholar, P. M. Asin. His arguments, recently summarized by James Monroe, led Asin to conclude that Dante belonged with the Muslim illuminists of the Ishraqi school, rather than with the Thomists or the Aristotelians, as evidenced by his frequent use of light symbols. Indeed, “the allegorical ascension of the mystic as expressed by Ibn al-Arabi in the Futuhat coincided with the ascension of Dante and Beatrice in the Paradiso” (Monroe 192).

More generally, of course, situating Romeo and Juliet within the framework of the Oriental, Sufi, and quasi-allegorical stories of tragic love should help establish a more solid basis for the intuitive recognition of the medieval origins of Shakespearean drama that has found it difficult to identify more specific connections. This is a point that is widely made but most eloquently expressed perhaps by George Steiner:

Beneath the fact of the development of dramatic blank verse beneath the Senecan spirit of majestic violence lay a great inheritance of medieval and popular forms. This is the live undergrowth from which the later sixteenth century draws much of its strength […] The clowns, the wise fools, and the witches of Elizabethan drama carry with them a medieval resonance […] And one cannot understand Shakespeare's history plays or his late, dark comedies without discerning in them a legacy of ritual and symbolic proceeding which goes back to the imaginative wealth of the Middle Ages. How this legacy was transmitted and how it conjoined with the nervous freedom of the Elizabethan temper is as yet unclear. But we feel its shaping presence even as late as Jacobean drama.


Such a step will entail, above all, a more detailed examination of the Oriental genre of tragic romance—the greatest examples of which have their origins in oral tradition, but which are imbued with the spirit and concepts of Sufism in their second literary stage—that provides, as has been the argument of this paper, a major generic framework for understanding Romeo and Juliet. It should be conducted in the spirit of modern genre criticism best defined by Alastair Fowler:

Traditional genres and modes, far from being mere classificatory devices, serve primarily to enable the reader to share types of meaning economically. Moreover his subsequent understanding is also genrebound: he can only think sensibly of Oedipus Tyrannus as a tragedy, related to other tragedies. If he ignores or despises genre, or gets it wrong, misreading results [sic]. Johnson's blunder over Lycidas and the more recent and even more spectacular critical error of taking Paradise Lost as classical epic with Satan the hero are dreadful examples. Clearly, generic forms must rank among the most important of the signal systems that communicate a literary work.

(“Life and Death” 79)

Recognition of this Oriental framework should also establish Shakespeare's play as an example, perhaps the most renowned example in world literature, of the tertiary stage, to use Alastair Fowler's terms (“Life and Death” 90-92), of tragic romance as a genre. It may be remembered that Fowler's persuasive model of genre development had stipulated an early, rudimentary, but essential stage (in this case, mostly folk poetic narratives of the tragic fates of lovers) followed by a phase of close, literary imitation (represented by the most renowned examples of tragic romance) and, finally, a stage of radical revision that, although rooted essentially in the first two stages, lifts the genre to new heights and along new lines of departure (represented for this essay by Romeo and Juliet). Such a model may also be seen, more familiarly for Western readers than in the case argued here, in the relationship between Lycidas and Paradise Lost and the genres of pastoral and epic as they hark back to classical models. But perhaps the approach to Romeo and Juliet taken in this essay would open the way for more cross-cultural genre studies, particularly those involving the literatures of the East, and help reduce a major shortcoming in the field admitted by Fowler himself, in the preface to his own most recent and most substantial contribution: “The book will seem too audacious to some, to others pedestrian. With few exceptions, for example, it deals specifically with English literature. I am aware of the comparatist's objections to genre studies on a national basis, and agree with them” (Kinds v). The spirit of this candid admission is precisely what is needed for a fuller understanding of many a masterpiece of English literature, and indeed of many other “national” literatures, and for the firmer establishment of the truly comparatist and universalist perspective from which they should be approached.


  1. All of Metlitzki's chapter 8, “The Matter of Araby and the Making of Romance” (240-50), is relevant here.

  2. See especially Nykl's chapter 7.

  3. These topics are discussed in numerous books, but best, perhaps, in all three works by Nicholson and in Browne 1:416-444 (“The Sufi Mysticism”). More recent studies that may be consulted include Corbin, Arasteh, Shah, and Banani et al., especially chapter 4, by William C. Chittick, “Rumi and wahdat al-wujud,” 70-111.

  4. See, in general, Ibrahim 288-306 (“Ishraqism,” chapter 11).

  5. Spurgeon 18, also 64-66, 213, 310-16.

  6. As Evans puts it in his concluding words, “By thus juxtaposing the concepts of Fate and free will, and by the intermittent but powerful play of irony that results, Shakespeare may be seen as attempting to ensure a humanely tempered reaction to his story of young and tragic love. That he juxtaposes these concepts instead of fusing them, as he is able to do in his later major tragedies, may indeed be recognised as a sign of immaturity and inexperience, but it should also be admitted that the play succeeds because of, not despite, what critics have described as Shakespeare's ‘confusion’” (16).

  7. See also Curtius's brief but observant and scholarly remarks that hint at links between Shakespeare's images and rhetoric and those of Oriental poetry, 332-47.

Works Cited

Al-Dabbagh, Abdulla. “The Oriental Roots of the Picaresque.” New Comparison 13 (1992): 56-62.

Arnold, Thomas, ed. The Legacy of Islam. 1931. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Arasteh, Reza. Rumi the Persian, the Sufi. Preface by Erich Fromm. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Asin, P. M. Islam and the Divine Comedy. London: Murray, 1926.

Banani, Amin, Richard Hovannisian, and Georges Sabagh, eds. Poetry and Mysticism in Islam: The Heritage of Rumi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European Scholarship. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. 1904. London: Macmillan, 1965.

Brooke, Nicholas. “Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare's Early Tragedies. London: Methuen, 1968. 80-107.

Browne, Edward. A Literary History of Persia. 1902, 1906. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964.

Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Evans, G. Blakemore. “Introduction.” Romeo and Juliet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 1-48.

Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Mode. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

———. “The Life and Death of Literary Forms.” New Directions for Literary History. Ed. Ralph Cohen. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974. 77-94.

Gibb, Hamilton. “Literature.” Arnold 180-209.

Giffin, Lois Anita. Theory of Profane Love among the Arabs: The Development of the Genre. London: U of London P, 1971.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Ibrahim, Taufic, and Arthur Sagadeev. Classical Islamic Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990.

Mahood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen, 1957.

Manzalaoui, M. A. “Tragic Ends of Lovers. Medieval Islam and the Latin West.” Comparative Criticism 1 (1979): 37-52.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1987.

Metlitzki, Dorothee. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

Monroe, James. Islam and the Arabs in Spanish Scholarship. Leiden: Brill, 1970.

Nicholson, R. A. The Idea of Personality in Sufism. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1964.

———. “Mysticism.” Arnold 210-38.

———. The Mystics of Islam. 1914. London: Routledge, 1975.

Nykl, A. R. Hispano-Arabic Poetry and Its Relation with the Old Provençal Troubadours. Baltimore: J. H. Furst, 1946.

O'Donnoghue, Bernard. The Courtly Love Tradition. Manchester UK: Manchester UP, 1982.

Rougemont, Denis de. Love in the Western World. Trans. Montgomery Belgion. 1939. Revised edition, New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Introduction by Robert Graves. London: The Octagon Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. John Ingledew. London: Longman, 1991.

Soueif, Ahdaf. “The Symbolic Context of Romeo and Juliet.” Cairo Studies of English, Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, 32 (1978): 15-39.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. 1935. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

Traversi, D. A. “Romeo and Juliet.” An Approach to Shakespeare. New York: Doubleday, 1969. 110-39.

Wells, Robin Headlam. “Neo-Petrarchan Kitsch in Romeo and Juliet.The Modern Language Review 93.4 (Oct. 1998): 913-33.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Grudge Fudged.” Times Literary Supplement no. 5090 (20 October 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Duncan-Jones critiques the National Theatre's “Ensemble” production of Romeo and Juliet 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.” Additionally, Duncan-Jones praises the efforts of the actors playing the title roles, but comments that Patrick O'Kane's portrayal of Mercutio was weak.]

I have always wondered whether a Romeo and Juliet in which the play's “two households” were shown as racially different would gain huge power for a modern British audience. In the National Theatre's “Ensemble” production, directed by Tim Supple, the experiment is tried, though perhaps a little half-heartedly. The Montagues are black, as is the Prince (Victor Power). Some minor performances are effectively defamiliarized, such as the extravagantly physical grief of Susan Aderin's Lady Montague for Mercutio, supposedly kinsman both to the Prince and the Montagues. However, confusingly, Mercutio himself is not black, but Irish. Patrick O'Kane is the most tiresomely posturing and solipsistic Mercutio I have ever seen. Nothing in his performance becomes him so much as his angry, protracted death, which, like all the deaths, is performed with painfully writhing conviction. But rather than feeling that an enjoyably entertaining voice has been silenced, audiences are likely to experience considerable relief at Mercutio's death, especially since his teasing of Romeo has always seemed barbed and contemptuous rather than affectionate. Perhaps racial difference from the rest of the young Montagues put O'Kane's Mercutio at a disadvantage. Certainly he has never seemed at all comfortable in their company. Nor has the homoerotic interpretation made fashionable by Baz Luhrmann's film been pursued, though much Luhrmann influence can be spotted elsewhere in this altogether very derivative production.

The racial differentiation of the Capulets and Montagues turns out to throw this well constructed play badly off balance. Their “ancient grudge” no longer looks like pointless prolonged feuding between families whose culture and ambitions are identical, for it appears to derive from antagonisms between races that are all too recognizable, and recognizably intransigent. It is difficult to credit Old Capulet's benevolent tolerance of the gatecrashing Romeo, his dreadlocks glimpsed behind his mask, as a “virtuous and well-govern'd youth”, especially since the excellent Ronald Pickup—who almost uniquely in this production knows how to deliver Shakespeare's verse—eventually develops into an alarming psychotic. Nor can we be easily persuaded that, if everything had turned out differently, these grieving fathers would have come to rejoice in their children's mixed-race union. Yet Shakespeare's text—treated with more respect here than in Michael Boyd's current RSC production—in practice compels us to view the “two households” in a colour-blind way, as when, for instance, the Nurse (a first-rate performance by Beverley Klein) shifts from praising (black) Romeo's manly beauty to praising that of (white) Paris, since no words or lines suggest any particular physical difference between Romeo and Paris. Indeed, like Lysander and Demetrius in the closely associated Midsummer Night's Dream, the young men can almost be played as twins, distinguished only by the eye of love. In practice, the NT's bold decision to attempt different-race casting has surprisingly little effect, and such effect as it does have is more often confusing than clarifying.

The production is full of other details which have not been thought through. It mimics Luhrmann's over-the-top brashness, but lacks his vision and stylishness. Tybalt and Mercutio fight with swords, while Romeo brandishes a machete; meanwhile, the Prince's guard are armed commandos who fire off machine guns at odd moments. They look so silly that it seems the Prince's heavy-handed attempts to control the citizens of Verona are being ridiculed; again, this is unsupported by the text. Though Jonathan Bate, in a programme essay, writes justly of Romeo as “a tragedy that keeps surprising us with flashes of comedy”, such features as the Friar's battered tin hut suggest full-scale farce; yet Lloyd Hutchinson attempts, and to an extent achieves, a rather serious, “pastoral”, interpretation of the (Irish) Friar's part.

Amid all the noise and muddle, the two central performances emerge with surprising credit. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an energetic, likeable Romeo who entirely escapes the drippiness to which the role is often subject, and Charlotte Randle is a touchingly sweet and ingenuous Juliet, though the new registers of rhetoric and “acting” that Juliet develops in Act Four seem beyond her reach. There is also one passage in which the company achieves a strikingly successful ensemble effect: Act Four, Scene Four, in which first the Nurse, then Lady Capulet, then Capulet, then the Musicians, discover Juliet “dead”. Often heavily cut, their repetitive lamentations—

O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!
Most lamentable day, most woeful day
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!

—and so on, are played out in full, and the scene is genuinely affecting.

Further Reading

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Andrews, John F., ed. Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, 425 p.

Collection of essays focusing on the play's language and structure, performance issues, and the play as a reflection of Elizabethan culture.

Clemen, Wolfgang H. “Romeo and Juliet.” In Studies in Drama, edited by Ghassan Maleh and Yasser Daghistani, pp. 95-107. Beirut: Dar Al Fikr, 1972.

Argues that traditional style and a “surprising new language” co-exist in Romeo and Juliet, and demonstrates the way in which this duality is present in the play's imagery as well.

Crunelle-Vanrigh, Anny. “‘O Trespass Sweetly Urged’: The Sex of Space in Romeo and Juliet.Cahiers Élisabéthains 49 (April 1996): 39-49.

Maintains that the struggle between young love and patriarchal power over sexual freedom directs the way space and movement in the play are handled.

Dorynne, Jess. “The Insignificant Mother of Juliet.” In The True Ophelia and Other Studies of Shakespeare's Women By an Actress, pp. 63-93. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, Limited, 1913.

Offers a character analysis of the often-overlooked and underrated role of Lady Capulet, stressing that Lady Capulet is the “strongest” character in the play.

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.

Observes that Shakespeare deliberately disregarded contemporary social custom by making Juliet younger than his sources, noting that the average marrying age of Elizabethan women was 25 or 26. Franson suggests that Shakespeare used various references to time throughout the play to symbolize the premature age at which Juliet is to wed.

Garber, Marjorie. “Romeo and Juliet: Patterns and Paradigms.” In Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, edited by John F. Andrews, pp. 119-31. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Asserts that Shakespeare constructed Romeo and Juliet in a manner designed to guide audiences toward a broader understanding of the intricacies of the play's language and structure.

Guenther, Leah. “Luhrmann's Top 40: Shakespeare and the Crisis of Shakespearean Consumption.” Journal of American Culture 22, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 17-23.

Examines the negative critical reactions to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, and contends the director sought to resuscitate Shakespeare for the 1990s.

Halio, Jay L., ed. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995, 155 p.

Collection of essays focusing on a variety of topics, including subversive elements in the play, mythical references, literary contexts, violence, the dueling scene, relevance of Elizabethan theatrical vocabulary, and points of comparison between the first and second Quartos.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. “‘Draw, if you be men’: Salviolo's Significance for Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 163-89.

Contends that Vincentio Saviolo's 1595 fencing manual offers evidence that Shakespeare may have been reacting to this book's diction and general theories in Romeo and Juliet.

Levenson, Jill L. “The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982): 21-36.

Studies the way in which Shakespeare manipulated the language and conventions of Petrarchism as it existed in sixteenth-century England.

Roberts, Sasha. “Family Dynamics.” In William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, pp. 11-33. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1998.

Reviews the topical relevance of Romeo and Juliet in the late sixteenth century, studying the contemporary issues regarding the nature of patriarchal power and its abuse within the family structure.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar. “Lecture I: Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's Young Lovers: The Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto, 1935, pp. 1-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Surveys criticism by scholars who find that the characters of Romeo and Juliet possess flaws that contribute to their tragic fate. Arguing to the contrary, Stoll contends that the struggles Romeo and Juliet experience are generated by their feuding families, and by destiny.

Travers, Peter. “Just Two Kids In Love.” Rolling Stone, no. 747 (14 November 1996): 123-24.

Favorably reviews the performances of Claire Daines and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, noting that Luhrmann's cuts of Shakespeare's dialogue were not as detrimental to the film as the cuts taken by Franco Zeffirelli in his 1968 film rendition of the play.

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

Demonstrates the way in which Shakespeare uses kitsch to as a means of satirizing “sentimental self-deception” in Romeo and Juliet, observing that Petrarchism is employed toward this end.

Whittier, Gayle. “The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 27-41.

Examines Shakespeare's manipulation of the Petrachan sonnet form for dramatic purposes.

Lawrence Christon (review date 2001)

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SOURCE: Christon, Lawrence. “Romeo & Juliet.Variety 382, no. 6 (26 March 2001): 56.

[In the review below, Christon discusses the 2001 Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Peter Hall. Christon's review is mixed, as he points out that some performances were weak, but despite this, the pace of the play never slowed, nor did the production as a whole seem “ragged.”]

Whatever square the blank oval windows of set designer John Gunter's pale palazzo front are supposed to oversee, it isn't quite in the Verona of Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” where hot-blooded Italians, constrained by hierarchy, tradition and proximity, view one another with inflammatory suspicion. Instead, the play is cast in the theatrical never-neverland of multicultural America, where people of many races stand in the living moment, stripped of the antecedent that flavors their identity.

Most of the time this kind of experiment doesn't work, because most people who try it fail to realize that universality is gained through the specific, not the general. In this “Romeo & Juliet,” the Montague family is black and the Capulets are white. But unlike “Othello” or “The Merchant of Venice,” racial antagonism isn't a subtext of the play. So the background element of family wrath tends to shrivel, despite a certain amount of expository finger-pointing, and with it the sense of alarm we feel at watching these kids play with fire.

Instead, the emphasis on Romeo's retribution falls on his murder of Tybalt—and it works; he's a fugitive trying to make it back to the girl he loves.

In general, the production moves solidly through the binding force of director Peter Hall's theatrical intelligence. While some of the performances are uneven, the ensemble is never ragged, even during the moments, particularly in the first act, that feel flat.

But the sweeping, intricate pace never sags, and language that ranges from the plain-spoken to Elizabethan Shakespeare at his most auto-intoxicated neither tangles up nor pales from familiarity.

And there are specifics, those fresh moments an audience hopes for. The heart-stopping instant when Miriam Margolyes' Nurse, heretofore a rollicking tea-kettle figure out of Daumier, thinks she's discovered Juliet dead and doesn't know what to do about it. Dakin Matthews in Capulet's fierce patriarchal reproach of Juliet's mooning teen nonsense. Mark Deakins' prideful Tybalt, eager for a fight. Any number of affecting touches from Lynn Collins' Juliet, caught between teen vulnerability and womanly sensuality, surrendering herself to wherever love will send her, including suicidal grief.

DB Woodside's Romeo is problematic as he works on a variety of externals, including speech, that don't blend into a performance that comes from within. Early on he's overly gestural, ironic (one thing Romeo is not), a touch jive.

But just when you're ready to write him off, he flares into a powerful confrontation with Tybalt, and the performance becomes stronger and less embellished—even if Woodside's speech remains geared to empty sound-studio perfection.

No small tribute is owed Gunter's fluid, elegant set and Robert Wierzel's astute lighting, which captures, for example, the low, sharp sunlight of 8 in the morning streaming through a window.

And if this production has its dead spots, the black portion of the cast is magisterial. Most of all, it reminds us why “Romeo & Juliet” remains a classic tribute to the lyricism of over-full hearts, and love we can long for through others, but not die for ourselves.

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