Herbert McArthur (essay date winter 1959)

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SOURCE: McArthur, Herbert. “Romeo's Loquacious Friend.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 1 (winter 1959): 35-44.

[In the following essay, McArthur examines past critical perceptions of Mercutio in order to determine this character's fundamental significance to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.]

The critic takes a deliberate and well-guarded position to make his assault on major characters and major problems; he comes with his theories and his standards of value, his moral and aesthetic standards, flying in the breeze. A minor character who lies in the way is likely to be pounced on and disposed of without much ado. But if we watch closely we may learn more about the critic than we can from his more self-conscious attacks on a Hamlet or a Lear. His guard is momentarily down; assumptions, including unconscious ones, are more easily detected. Mercutio, who disappears by death in the third act of Romeo and Juliet after several displays of dazzling linguistic fireworks, has invited this kind of bold and impromptu evaluation. A minor character but a rowdy and spectacular one, he can be useful as a testing-ground for Shakespearian critics.

We begin with Dryden, writing in 1672 about “refinement of Wit”, by which he meant what we might call sophisticated speech:

That the wit of this age is much more courtly, may easily be proved by viewing the characters of gentlemen which were written in the last. … Shakespeare showed the best of his skill in his Mercutio; and he said himself, that he was forced to kill him in the third act, to prevent being killed by him. But, for my part, I cannot find he was so dangerous a person: I see nothing in him but what was so exceeding harmless, that he might have lived to the end of the play, and died in his bed, without offence to any man.1

Mercutio, and other examples of stage wit from the earlier seventeenth century, are found inferior in “language, wit, and conversation” to those of Dryden's own day. But this is the fault of an age, not of an author, said Dryden; he assumed the advantages of his age with its “gallantry and civility”, with the polished manners of a fashionable court as its standard of gentility, to be obvious. Mercutio, in short, for Dryden was badly dated. Styles in wit, like styles in furniture and dress, must be forgotten and relegated to the attic before they can be brought out to be admired once more.

When he wrote his general observations upon Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Johnson took Dryden to task somewhat severely for his comments on Mercutio:

Here is one of the few attempts of Shakespeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. … Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, that, in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio's wit, gaiety, and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.2

Dryden declared against Shakespeare because of a change in manners; Johnson is declaring for Shakespeare in the name of unchanging human nature,...

(This entire section contains 5217 words.)

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“those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated.” These two points of view establish the polarity of the area of criticism we are beginning to investigate. One view sees Shakespeare as the mirror of his age, reflecting in Mercutio a fragment of life. The other view sees Shakespeare as the creator of life outside of time, projecting in Mercutio a personality valid in all ages.

Dryden's remark about Mercutio is one of those offhand remarks that so often get quoted and misquoted long after the considered statements of a critic have been interred with his bones. Coleridge paused in a lecture to oppose

an observation, I think by Dryden, (to which indeed Dr. Johnson has fully replied) that Shakespeare having carried the part of Mercutio as far as he could, till his genius was exhausted, had killed him in the third Act, to get him out of the way. What shallow nonsense!3

Others, for example Tieck and Hallam, followed Coleridge in attributing the thought solely to Dryden. In the massive commentary of Gervinus we find the confusion worse confounded:

Our Romanticists, according to their fashion, blindly in love with the merry fellow, have started the opinion that Shakespeare despatched Mercutio in Act III because he blocked up the way for his principal character. This opinion rivals in absurdity Goethe's treatment of this character in his incomprehensible travesty. …4

It is with the Frenchman Guizot that the wheel comes full circle. In his book Shakespeare and his Times he quoted “Dryden” to the effect that Shakespeare did not like Mercutio, and (pointing significantly to the word “courtier” in Brooke's text) claimed that the very reason Shakespeare did not like Mercutio was that his wit was too courtly! Thus poor Dryden's remark came back on his own head when Guizot wrote that though Shakespeare, the champion of the middle classes,

was not bold enough to attack, like Molière, the ridiculous absurdities of the court, he very frequently makes it evident that its tone was a burden to him; and the part of Mercutio seems to have been a great tax upon his taste and uprightness of mind.5

After this confusion it is a relief to turn to someone who actually read Dryden—again a Frenchman—Taine, whose sympathies were with Dryden, who read and quoted his “Defense of the Epilogue”, and who used in the spirit of Dryden the Addisonian distinction between “true” and “false” wit:

Of wit there are many kinds. One, altogether French, which is but reason, a foe to paradox, scorner of folly, a sort of incisive common sense, having no occupation but to render truth amusing and evident, the most effective weapon with an intelligent and vain people: such was the wit of Voltaire and the drawing rooms.

Such, we may add, was the wit of Dryden and Pope.

The other, that of improvisators and artists, is a mere inventive transport, paradoxical, unshackled, exuberant, a sort of self-entertainment, a phantasmagoria of images, quibbles, strange ideas, dazing and intoxicating, like the movement and illumination of a ball. Such is the wit of Mercutio. …

Quoting the Queen Mab speech, Taine comments:

Romeo interrupts him, or he would never end. Let the reader compare with the dialogue of the French theatre this little poem … introduced with incongruity into a conversation of the sixteenth century, and he will comprehend the difference between the wit which devotes itself to reasoning, or to record a subject for laughter, and that imagination which is self-amused with its own act.6

Such irresponsibility, Taine believed, was the inevitable result of the nature of Shakespeare's genius: abandoning himself to his imagination, choosing freely what he saw in his age, heightening and coloring but never idealizing.

Coleridge reinforces Johnson's point of view as Taine reinforces Dryden's. Shakespeare is approached primarily as a poet of the timeless human spirit rather than as a dramatist of Queen Elizabeth's day. Voltaire's “wit consists in a mere combination of words”; but “in Shakespeare the wit is produced not by a combination of words, but by a combination of images.” Coleridge had a different attitude toward what Taine was to call “mere inventive transport … unshackled, exuberant. …” He must have had Mercutio in mind when he wrote the following paragraph, which by the way seems itself to be a good example of what Coleridge meant by the use and combination of images:

The wit of Shakespeare is, as it were, like the flourishing of a man's stick, when he is walking, in the full flow of animal spirits: it is a sort of exuberance of hilarity which disburdens, and it resembles a conductor, to distribute a portion of our gladness to the surrounding air. While, however, it disburdens, it leaves behind what is weightiest and most important, and what most contributes to some direct aim and purpose.7

This is in perfect accord with the theories of Biographia Literaria, where Coleridge wrote that the true poet modifies his images by passion, or by a train of association “awakened by that passion”, so that “they have the effect of reducing multitude to unity, or succession to an instant”; and he may endow his images with a “human and intellectual life” transferred from his own spirit.8 Shakespeare/Mercutio answers to this definition, which indeed was designed for him:

Mercutio is a man possessing all the elements of a poet: the whole world was, as it were, subject to his law of association. Whenever he wishes to impress anything, all things become his servants for the purpose: all things tell the same tale, and sound in unison. This faculty, moreover, is combined with the manners and feelings of a perfect gentleman, himself utterly unconscious of his power.9

At about the same time that Coleridge was delivering the lectures from which I have quoted, Goethe undertook to adapt Romeo and Juliet for the Weimar theater. It is interesting to turn from the Englishman's beliefs, that Mercutio is most essential to the play and is a fine expression of Shakespeare's poetic genius, to the German, whose name for the scenes of Mercutio and the old Nurse was “possenhafte Intermezzisten”. Goethe felt that Shakespeare destroyed the tragic content of the play almost completely,

through the two comical figures Mercutio and the Nurse, evidently played by two beloved comedians. … If one considers the economy of the play carefully, one will notice that both figures and all that concerns them are brought in merely as farcical interludes, which to our logical, conformity-loving way of thinking would be intolerable on the stage.10

Goethe went through Schlegel's translation of Romeo and Juliet with a heavy hand, striking out the “farcical interludes” and rewriting whole scenes. At the same time he reworked Schlegel's verses, smoothing out the lines into a style closer to his own, referring at times to the English text.11 Thus the play may be called neither Shakespeare's, nor Goethe's, nor Schlegel's. It was however a serious attempt on Goethe's part to put what he felt to be a ragged play into shape. It was ridiculous of Gervinus to call Goethe's Romeo und Julia an “incomprehensible travesty”; it is a different play and exists in a completely un-Shakespearian world—an anti-romantic world, while Shakespeare was being installed as lord of the dominions of romantic criticism.

In order to achieve “the economy of the play” Goethe “concentrated” the play:

The rule which I followed was to concentrate and bring into harmony the interesting parts, since Shakespeare, in accordance with his genius, his age, and his audience, dared put together a lot of inharmonious tomfoolery—in fact, had to, to conciliate the fashionable theatrical spirit.12

Voltaire had pointed to the opening scene as a prime example of Shakespeare's vulgarity; Goethe omits it.13 Mercutio, shorn of his Queen Mab fantasy and his self-abandon, becomes a self-conscious and strictly functional figure, his humor changed into that of a bitter and leaner Falstaff. He is made to supply not quite so much comic relief and a little more pathetic irony, as when Goethe inserted a scene at the ball for Mercutio and the Prince, his kinsman, to talk of the foolish brawls and for Mercutio to promise, at the Prince's request, to try to prevent further fights:

That is a cursed race. I'm really surprised that all these youths aren't born into the world with scars, for they are scarcely worth anything. Their hands must be predestined to hold a dagger, for each grasps one and sticks to it like a bird on a limed twig, till he is washed free with blood.
You describe my city very truthfully.
It's just as if all the tailors in Verona were surgeons, and one only needed to walk into the shop and call: Hey, master! Hey, fellow! Boy! Out here with you! Needle and thread, needle and silk! Stitch up my arm, my breast, my belly, as if they were old jackets that had been torn in the same way.(14)

Shifting to blank verse, the Prince persuades Mercutio to help him preserve the peace of Verona by trying to calm the hot blood of the young men on both sides. In the next act, therefore, when Mercutio retains his well-known gibes at the argumentativeness of Benvolio, the significance of the scene was supposedly shifted from the ironic self-revelation of Mercutio's character to the more utilitarian irony of his working, though unsuccessfully, as a friend of the Prince. Yet the scene opens with Benvolio, as in Shakespeare, begging Mercutio to retire from the hot streets. There is a carelessness of execution in Goethe's version which might perhaps have been avoided if he had taken time to rewrite the entire play as his own.

The ultimate reception of Goethe's version, in those decades of Romanticism's upsurge, was of course poor. The Weimar actor Eduard Genast thus recorded his reaction:

In the first act he made a paunchy glutton out of genial Mercutio; the masterly tale of Queen Mab was stricken out, leaving Mercutio sighing for dinner instead; in the second act however he left the character in its original form, so that the whole portrayal wears a double mask.15

Nevertheless, Goethe's Romeo und Julia was staged nine times between 1812 and 1816, including performances in Berlin and Vienna as well as in Weimar. The return to Shakespeare was marked by Tieck's production of Schlegel's uncut version in Dresden in 1823.16

The most intelligent criticism of Goethe's play has been that of Friedrich Gundolf, who recognized that Romeo und Julia, like “Shakespeare und kein Ende!” was an anti-romantic document as well as a serious attempt to achieve a stage-worthy dramatic art, to pull together Shakespeare's “formless work into intelligible, commensurable, examinable form.”17 Goethe believed that in cutting away the ephemerals he was attaining the truest conception of the lasting beauties of Shakespeare's art. He wrote in 1812 to a friend:

I've spent a part of the winter concentrating the Shakespearian piece Romeo and Juliet and purifying this play, so well handled in its more important parts, of all singularities, which though in themselves very valuable, nevertheless belong to an earlier time and a foreign nation and cannot be used any more. … This work was an important study for me, and I have certainly never looked more deeply into the talent of Shakespeare, though he, like everything ultimately, remains nevertheless unfathomable.18

If we stand back and survey as a whole the field of criticism so far marked out, we see that we have defined the boundaries, as they are oriented about the Johnson-Dryden polarity of Shakespeare the immutable genius versus Shakespeare the clever but antiquated Elizabethan poet. On the one side, with Johnson, stand Schlegel and Coleridge, who “saw Shakespeare whole”, for whom Shakespeare's text represented an unchangeable monument of art to which we as audience and critics should adjust ourselves. On the other side, with Dryden, stand Voltaire, and the Goethe of 1812, who wished to free the genuine Shakespeare from the ragged tatters of his motley coat and exhibit his art in the unclothed purity of a Greek statue, much as Dryden had himself rewritten Shakespeare and “tagged” the verses of John Milton. Down the whole list of Shakespearian critics these strands reappear, woven in proportion as each critic inclines to one side or the other. Conventional labels—romantic and neoclassic—do not help much in ticketing the views of the critics. Take for example Coleridge's contemporary, Hazlitt. In his Lectures on the English Comic Writers his position is precisely that of Dryden:

I am not for going so far as to pronounce Shakespeare's “manners damnable, because he had not seen the court,” but I think that comedy does not find its richest harvest till individual infirmities have passed into general manners, and it is the example of courts, chiefly, that stamps folly with credit and currency, or glosses over vice with meretricious lustre. I conceive, therefore, that the golden period of our comedy was just after the age of Charles II. …19

One of the first stumbling-blocks for critics is of course Mercutio's obscenity. As Tieck said, “We are no longer innocent and unaffected enough to hear these jokes as jokes; our morality is thus challenged. …”20 Tacit assumptions about Shakespeare's morality or lack of it may have had much to do with what the critics have said about Mercutio. If one believes, for example, with Robert Bridges, that Shakespeare consciously filled his plays with a great deal of inferior stuff put there merely to please the Elizabethan audience, then the crude sexual humor, sometimes found in the most surprising places, is charged to this motive. Two answers to this objection might be quoted. The first is by Dover Wilson:

… such passages … are as essential to the tone of the play as the characters which speak them are to the play's structure. Once again the magician is assuring us of reality. He is proving that the marvellous blossom of love which forms the main theme of the story is not a mere poet's dream, a pleasing fancy, but a piece of real life rooted deep in the crude common soil of human nature, the nature we all know so well, too well.21

Bernard Shaw put it more succinctly:

I am not an Archbishop. … I think that Romeo and Juliet would be a poorer play if it were robbed of the solitary fragment it has preserved for us of the conversation of the husband of Juliet's nurse.22

It is worth remembering, by the way, how Shakespeare has differentiated two types of indecency in Mercutio and the Nurse: the one sophisticated, the other natural. When the two meet, it is she who is shocked—or feels she must pretend to be.

Undoubtedly the feeling, in spite of Coleridge, that Mercutio is a type rather than a completely rounded individual has been the basis of most Mercutio-criticism. How Coleridge would be disappointed to read, in William Archer's Play-Making, that Juliet's Nurse is “clearly … a piece of character drawing” rather than a piece of psychology.23 For Coleridge, the Nurse shares with Mercutio the quality of being produced by the creative imagination of the greatest of dramatic poets:

We have been told that her character is the mere fruit of observation. … Now, I appeal confidently to my hearers whether the closest observation would have enabled Shakespeare to draw this character of admirable generalization? Surely not.

Mercutio is one of our poet's truly Shakespearean characters, for throughout his plays, but especially in those of the highest order, it is plain that the personages were drawn rather from meditation than from observation. …24

Those critics who take Mercutio as a type have to face a disturbing inconsistency of character: for them the lighthearted, poetic strain which Mercutio shows on the way to Capulet's ball is contradicted by the roughness and indecencies of the Mercutio who teases Romeo as he conceals himself in the shadows of Juliet's garden and who jests impenitently as he dies from Tybalt's stab. To name the best known of these critics is to name a strange group of companions for Taine; they are L. L. Schücking, Bernard Shaw, and to a certain extent Harley Granville-Barker. Shaw's remarks were included in one of his reviews:

Perhaps the most difficult character in the play as far as finesse of execution goes is Mercutio. We see Mercutio in his first scene as a wit and fantasist of the most delicate order. In his next, apparently without any shock to the Elizabethan sense of congruity, he is a detestable and intolerable cad, the exact prototype of our modern 'Arry. The change gives such another glimpse into the manners of that time as you get in Much Ado from the astonishment which Benedick creates by taking to washing his face every day.25

This is of course a typically Shavian sort of remark. It is more disturbing to find someone like Schücking, who has the strongest claim to being considered a very serious and scientific critic, entangled in the same problem. He is speaking of “the clash of character and language in the case of Mercutio's speech about Queen Mab”:

Does this kind of language harmonize with Mercutio's character? He is conceived as a contrast to the soft, sentimental Romeo, infinitely more matter-of-fact than he, experienced and averse to all sentiment and reverie, despising all tenderness and gentle feeling. … We cannot possibly believe that this character … should have so fine an understanding of the Fairy Queen as is shown in this celebrated description. … From the lips of a Fairy Queen or an Ariel such delicate and dream-like music of language sounds natural, but we refuse to accept it as genuine from the mouth of a bully like Mercutio.26

Schücking therefore classifies Mercutio's Queen Mab speech under “Detached Scenes and Inserted Episodes”, a pseudo-scientific formulation of Goethe's “possenhafte Intermezzisten”. Schücking's view (which is perhaps derived from Gustav Freytag's principle of episodical elaboration) means in effect that the critic is enabled to dismiss those scenes which do not happen to satisfy his own conception of a character or his sense of dramatic propriety.

Granville-Barker's discussion of Mercutio is very like Schücking's:

The scene of the procession of the Maskers to Capulet's house (with Romeo a spoil-sport as befits his mood) is unduly lengthened by the bravura of the Queen Mab speech, which is as much and as little to be dramatically justified as a song in an opera is.

We learn little about Mercutio as he goes racketing to Capulet's supper, except that John Bull is often a poetic sort of fellow, or as he returns, unless it be that a man may like smut and fairy tales too: But he is still in the toils of conventional versifying, and a victim besides, probably, to his author's uncertainty about him.

Granville-Barker does however offer, in extenuation of the fault he believes to exist, two arguments, the first a little condescending to Shakespeare, the second very perceptive. The first is that the poet “himself, in some sort, a young Romeo on the turn from a Rosaline of phrase-making to a deeper-welling love”, may have been, quite understandably, capable of writing in quite different styles in quick succession. The other defense is that Shakespeare actually does turn the Queen Mab speech to dramatic use, for he

makes it serve to quicken the temper of the action to a pitch against which—as against the dance, too, and Tybalt's rage—Romeo's first encounter with Juliet will show with a quiet beauty all its own.27

Modern Shakespearian criticism at its best pushes beyond such tentative insights toward a firmly unifying view of the play. A text for the modern view may be found in an early essay by A. W. Schlegel:

Mercutio is, in the construction of the play, a secondary figure. The only significant way in which he enters the action is that his duel with Tybalt leads into that of Romeo … and for that no such prominent and richly endowed character is needed. But it lies in the spirit of the whole that the warring elements of life, stirred to their highest energy, should boil up passionately; for the play is throughout a great antithesis, where love and hate, the sweetest and the most bitter, festivals and dark revenges, fondling embraces and vaults of death, blooming youth and suicide stand directly together.28

In his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature Schlegel reviewed his early essay and intensified his position, providing an unintentional but ironic comment on Goethe's Romeo und Julia:

… I showed why such a particular circle of characters and relations was placed around the two lovers; I explained the signification of the mirth here and there scattered, and justified the use of the occasional heightening given to the poetical colours. From all this it seemed to follow unquestionably, that with the exception of a few plays of wit now become unintelligible … nothing could be taken away, nothing added, nothing otherwise arranged, without mutilating and disfiguring the perfect work.29

This unifying view of Schlegel's may be found reflected in the best of the modern critics, for example E. K. Chambers:

Rosaline must endure Mercutio's jesting, but Juliet is beyond its reach, and as the plot thickens, the jesting itself passes into tragedy, and Mercutio's voice is heard no more.30

or H. B. Charlton:

… the cameraderie and the worldly savoir-faire of Mercutio give him no inkling of the nature of Romeo's passion. The love of Romeo and Juliet is beyond the ken of their friends. …31

or Dover Wilson, who calls the “reprobates”, Mercutio and the Nurse,

the two pillars which support the whole dramatic structure. For the lovers, in the great scenes where they are together, scenes more like opera than drama, chant their passion to each other in immortal verse but tell us little about themselves. Yet somehow Shakespeare must convince us of their reality, must assure us that they are creatures of flesh and blood. He does so by placing characters of the utmost vivacity at their side. …32

The common idea of these remarks is that Mercutio is part of that sordid, trivial, but complacent world out of which Romeo and Juliet must rise to another sphere of values. Robert Penn Warren, applying this contrast of the pure and impure to poetry in general, uses Mercutio as a symbol: “the poetry [of Romeo and Juliet] arises from a recalcitrant and contradictory context; and finally involves that context.”33 Purity needs its opposite to exist.

What seem on a narrow examination to be inconsistencies may nevertheless be part of the poet's plan. We must trust what Schlegel called the “spirit of the whole”, that which in the theatre gives us a memorable performance, not a collection of little skits interspersed with “great scenes”. To suggest that even the Queen Mab scene may be read as part of the whole, I attempt the following reading:

It is the evening of that sweltering day on which the play opens. Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo are on their way, with torches, to Capulet's ball. Romeo has had a bad dream; his mopish behavior stimulates Mercutio to try to dislodge this tedious gravity: as he begins to weave his bewitching spell of fantasy the hot day and the brawls are forgotten. “Queen Mab” is no down-stage cadenza but a background of contrast for the melancholy Romeo. There is a sudden, sharper note of disquiet in Romeo's voice when he interrupts:

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

There is a pause, and the troubled face of Mercutio reappears in the light of the torches. His attempt to dispel all sobriety has reacted the other way. A cold wind from the north has shaken the torch light. He tries to shake the spell, but his voice has changed; it is slower and deeper in tone:

                                        True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being anger'd puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.

Benvolio calls on them both to proceed, but Romeo pauses; in that troubled moment he has had a prophetic glimpse of the future, and for the first time in the play the real Romeo speaks:

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

Up to this moment, when the extravagance of Mercutio breaks through Romeo's artificial demeanor, Romeo has not spoken one line in his own character. He has been only the artificially fashionable “lover” of Rosaline. Shakespeare turns the lyric flight of fancy of the Queen Mab speech into the setting of Romeo's first intimation of approaching tragedy. The speech itself helps us to grasp that fatal dualism of fantasy and reality in the soul of Romeo. And Romeo's ultimate destruction is prefigured in the vulgarization and death of his friend, Mercutio.


  1. Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker (Oxford, 1926), I, 174.

  2. Works (New York, 1809), II, 215, 216.

  3. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (Harvard, 1930), II, 132, 133.

  4. Gervinus, Shakespeare Commentaries, tr. F. E. Bunnett (New York, 1892), p. 218. Cf. Ludwig Tieck, Kritische Schriften (Leipzig, 1852), III, 190; and for Hallam see the New Variorum Romeo and Juliet, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1878), p. 159.

  5. M. Guizot, Shakespeare and his Times (New York, 1852), p. 172.

  6. H. A. Taine, History of English Literature, tr. H. van Laun (New York, 1886), I, 320-322.

  7. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, II, 124, 125.

  8. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford, 1907), II, 16.

  9. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, II, 132.

  10. Goethes Werke (Weimar, 1902), Division 1, Volume 41(1), 67, 68. The author of this article is responsible for the translation when the citation is to a German text.

  11. For line-counting statistics see Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, XLV (1909), 279; the figures in James Boyd, Goethe's Knowledge of English Literature (Oxford, 1932), p. 21 n., are badly garbled.

  12. Quoted in Boyd, Goethe's Knowledge of English Literature, p. 19. My translation.

  13. Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1821), XLIII, 549.

  14. Goethes Werke (Weimar, 1891), Div. 1, Vol. 9, 184-186. The reader will pardon my attempt to render Goethe's pun on Schmarren (scars) and schmarrenlustigers (worthless).

  15. Eduard Genast, Aus Weimars klassischer und nachklassischer Zeit, Errinerungen eines alter Schauspielers (Stuttgart, 1904), p. 109.

  16. Die Weimarische Dramaturgie, ed. E. Scharrer-Santen (Berlin, 1927), p. 52 n.; Rudolph Genée, Geschichte der Shakespeareschen Dramen in Deutschland (Leipzig, 1870), p. 305; Emil Wendling, Goethes Bühnenbearbeitung von “Romeo und Julia” (Zabern, 1907), p. 5.

  17. Friedrich Gundolf, Shakespeare und der Deutsche Geist (Berlin, 1911), p. 346.

  18. Quoted in Boyd, Goethe's Knowledge of English Literature, p. 19. My translation.

  19. William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers (Philadelphia, 1848), pp. 39, 40.

  20. Kritische Schriften, III, 191.

  21. John Dover Wilson, “The Elizabethan Shakespeare”, Aspects of Shakespeare, Studies by Members of the Shakespeare Association (Oxford, 1933), p. 225.

  22. Three Plays for Puritans (Chicago, 1901), p. xii.

  23. Play-Making, A Manual of Craftsmanship (New York, 1934), p. 377.

  24. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, II, 132, 133.

  25. Our Theatres in the Nineties (London, 1932), I, 200.

  26. Levin L. Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1922), pp. 98, 99.

  27. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1947), II, 301, 305, 336.

  28. A. W. v. Schlegel, Werke (Leipzig, 1846), VII, 86, 87.

  29. A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, tr. John Black (Philadelphia, 1833), p. 291.

  30. Shakespeare: A Survey (London, 1925), p. 70.

  31. “Romeo and Juliet” as an Experimental Tragedy, British Academy Lecture (London, 1939), p. 43. A critic in Blackwood's Magazine for 1836 suggested the same thing: “Romeo has no feeling in common with the reckless and somewhat libertine Mercutio … something purer and holier …” (Blackwood's Magazine, XXXVII, 523, 533). Cf. Ulrici, quoted in the New Variorum Romeo and Juliet, p. 452, and George Brandes, William Shakespeare (New York, 1898), p. 103.

  32. “The Elizabethan Shakespeare”, p. 224.

  33. Robert Penn Warren, “Pure and Impure Poetry”, Kenyon Review, V (Spring, 1943), 232.

James Black (essay date spring 1975)

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SOURCE: Black, James. “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15, no. 2 (spring 1975): 245-56.

[In the following essay, Black traces patterns of visual pairing, duplication, and opposition in Romeo and Juliet.]

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The first-act prologue to Romeo and Juliet invites the audience to use its eyes as well as its patient ears. “Our toil”—the actors' efforts—will try to compensate visually for anything that may elude hearing. There is a more confident note here than can be found in Shakespeare's other first-act prologues: “think that you see” is the supplication common to the prologues of Henry V and Henry VIII, while the rather arrogant prologue-speaker in Troilus and Cressida comes armed “not in confidence / Of author's pen or actor's voice.” Whether it is the sonnet form of Romeo and Juliet's prologue that curtails apology, or the assurance about his actors of a dramatist still comparatively new to his trade, it is appropriate that this prologue should emphasize looking as well as listening, for Romeo and Juliet is an especially “visual” play. Its story is told and its tragedy unfolded in a series of pictures as well as in dialogue; and indeed the play is a brilliant exercise in suiting the action to the word in such a way that both actions and words are given special intensity.

Shakespeare's pictorial sense is already active in his very earliest plays. When he turned the Menaechmi into The Comedy of Errors he added a second set of twins, and so obviously relished the possibilities for double exposures and double-takes. But the confusion is artfully controlled, and limited to the characters on the stage. As so much in The Comedy of Errors depends on what is seen, the audience is given the chance to “get its eye in” on the Dromios before being presented with two Antipholi. Antipholus of Ephesus does not appear until III.i; in this scene he orders a jewelled chain which in III.ii is—with much by-play for emphasis—hung around the neck of Antipholus of Syracuse, whom it thereafter identifies. Helped in this way to accept that the twins are visually the same yet different, the audience can go on to consider that philosophically they are different yet the same, for each brother seeking his counterpart finds himself.1 Shakespeare's use of visual effects in other early plays has been noticed by W. Moelwyn Merchant, who says:

In the immature Henry the Sixth plays, one of the principal pleasures at their 1953 revival in Birmingham was to realize Shakespeare's early mastery of stage grouping and symbolism as the plot moved on from tableau to tableau, gathered itself to a significant picture and then dissolved, each stage grouping contributing to a constantly mounting tension. Shakespeare and his contemporaries omitted no visual occasion or device which might add depth and complexity to the meaning and presentation of their plays.2

Each of the “stage-pictures” in Romeo and Juliet which I propose to discuss is shown twice or more than twice, and Shakespeare uses them to lead the careful onlooker through the experience of the play. The most obvious example of repeated pictures is given by the two “balcony scenes,” II.ii and III.v. Each of these scenes perorates in a leavetaking just at dawn (II.ii.184-189, III.v.41-59); in each the “picture” is held for a considerable time of Juliet aloft in the balcony or window and Romeo below in the Capulet “orchard.” The locale, the time of night or morning, the arrangement or disposition of the figures, the drawn-out leavetaking—all these features suggest that the second of these two scenes closes in a reduplication or reprise of the first.

But there is more than a simple repetition of setting and tableau here; more than a “visual rhyme.” When Romeo and Juliet first stood thus at meeting and parting in the Capulet orchard it was dangerous for Romeo to be found there. Juliet's sober warnings were rapturously dismissed by him:

If they do see thee, they will murther thee.
Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet,
And I am proof against their enmity.


Now, in III.v, all Verona is mortal to him: with the killing of Tybalt death and banishment have shadowed their love. Under this shadow it is Juliet who for a moment is desperately impractical—“Wilt thou be gone? … Yond light is not daylight”—and Romeo who protests “I must be gone and live, or stay and die.” When he gives in to Juliet's pleadings it is with a desperate resignation far removed from his former rapture:

Let me be ta'en, let me be put to death;
I am content, so thou wilt have it so …
Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.


Delight in new love and anticipation of future meetings made their second-act parting “such sweet sorrow”; and goodnight was said only “till it be morrow.” But at their next—and final—leavetaking Romeo's forced optimism cannot overcome Juliet's fearful premonitions; he finally gives in to their mutual fears and it is “dry sorrow” which informs this parting:

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


The fact that in each of these scenes the setting is the same and the stage picture reduplicated lends emphasis to the pathetic alteration in the speakers' tones and circumstances. The parallels emphasize the differences: things look the same but are painfully altered. Thus the audience is looking at what it saw before, but is being forced to see more intensely.

This process of intensification by parallel is carried forward when in III.v Juliet is called from the window (as at her former parting from Romeo), this time to receive a “new and deadly blow”3 from an element of the situation which also existed when Romeo first came to the Capulet house. At that time Juliet was officially betrothed to Paris; and still is though secretly married. But in the scene just before her second parting from Romeo her father has arranged for her to marry Paris in three days. In this new dilemma Juliet decides to go to Friar Lawrence, and the scene ends on her painful determination—in parallel and contrast with its counterpart II.ii which closed with Romeo first setting off rapturously from the orchard to tell Lawrence about his good fortune:

Hence will I to my ghostly sire's close cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.


I'll to the friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.


We are, of course, accustomed to thinking of Romeo and Juliet in terms of patterns and re-echoings, but usually it is the patterns of verse and image which commentators on the play have emphasized. The “mighty opposites”4 of the play's language—love-hate, youth-age, light-darkness—can easily be thought of as contributing nearly all the play's energy, with the tragedy impelled more by its verbal kinetics than by its stagecraft. The majority verdict on Romeo and Juliet is summarized by George Ian Duthie in the New Cambridge Edition when he says that it is “in certain important respects a dramatic failure, [but] a great poetic success.”5 Thus it is especially easy to regard Romeo and Juliet as lending itself most properly to “concert performance,” in confirmation of Samuel Johnson's view that we go to the theater only “to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation,”6 or Coleridge's opinion that Elizabethan acting was more or less straightforward recitation.7 But to take this approach is to disregard the prologue's invitation, which I have already mentioned, and to ignore what Hamlet (who knew about plays) calls “the cunning of the scene.”8 Just as patterned speech recurs in sonnets and fragments of sonnets throughout the play so also do visual arrangements on stage.

As in the balcony scenes a stage picture or grouping comes around for a second time complete in its details and with intensified feeling, so when both of Juliet's prospective bridegrooms encounter her at Lawrence's cell another picture is reduplicated. Romeo and Juliet come together at the Friar's cell to be married in II.vi; in IV.i Paris and Juliet also meet there. The scenes are similar in arrangement: priest and bridegroom enter and talk about the marriage, and are joined by the lady, whereupon the young couple talk exclusively to one another. Other details strengthen the parallel. For example, in II.vi Romeo, who has come to wed in a hurry, receives a sermon from Lawrence on the advisability of moderate speed and passion, while in IV.i Lawrence tries to suggest that Paris also should moderate haste: “On Thursday, sir? The time is very short.” When Juliet enters it is Lawrence who in each scene breaks off the conversation to announce her arrival; his words are conventional but the echo is exact: “Here comes the lady.” As with the balcony scenes, the points of similarity serve to emphasize the tragic alteration of mood between these two meetings of Juliet and her betrothed, for the two cell scenes, like the balcony scenes, stand on either side of the play's emotional watershed, which is Mercutio's death. Juliet and Romeo met rapturously at Lawrence's cell, swept along with a passion that Lawrence could only try to direct, not suppress. And although Lawrence at that time sermonized to Romeo in the ominous imagery of fire and gunpowder which is characteristic of the play,9 his counsel was sententiously general. His words to Paris in IV.i are far more immediately anxious, keyed to the urgency of a situation that has developed gravely since last he met a bridegroom at this cell. The images in his dialogue with Romeo in II.vi—“violent ends,” “fire and powder,” “light” and “flint”—are ominous, but also triumphal, especially as they are reinforced by themes of joy and wealth, published or “blazoned” in “rich music's tongue”; the wedding scene has after all its epithalamium as well as its sermon. In contrast to this scene's ardency, the predominant theme in its counterpart is tears,10 good-natured Paris puzzles and sympathizes over Juliet's immoderate weeping for—as he thinks—Tybalt's death. In place of the rich music in which Romeo and Juliet celebrated their love and marriage day there is now wary fencing in stichomythia as Juliet, keeping up a brave and Beatrice-like front, fends off her suitor.

Each repetition of scene is used in Romeo and Juliet as a dramatic milestone—a distance-marker, familiar and arresting because seen before, which furthers as well as marks the audience's guided progress across a tragic landscape. It may also have become clear before now that the process of “visual repetition with emotional intensification” which I have been describing is none other than an adaptation for dramatic purposes of the well-known poetic device of incremental repetition: repetition with a variation that advances the narrative. Romeo and Juliet's reduplicated groupings in orchard and cell serve the function—though much refined—of a refrain in a ballad.

But this function is refined even further than the adding of an emotional charge to a picture seen the second time around. One stage grouping comes around for a third time, and at its second exposure cumulates, rather than fully releases, its charge, which is not to be spent until the optimum moment of the play's catastrophe. The picture in question here is that tableau in which Verona's Prince stands at each of his three appearances in “symmetrical assembly”11 with his feuding subjects the Montagues and Capulets. At regularly-spaced intervals—Acts I, III, and V—Verona's rivalries break into open violence, and the Prince stands to arbitrate between the families in a stage-grouping as cumulatively ominous as Mercutio's thrice-repeated curse, “A plague o' both your houses!” For the increment added to each repetition of the picture is a growing freight of dead youth. Everyone is alive at the end of the first brawl, but when in Act III the Capulets and Montagues again stand to hear their Prince they face one another across Tybalt's dead body, with Mercutio newly dead off-stage. And when in Act V the participants in this same tableau reassemble they do so at the tomb where in plain sight lie Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet. A reminder of Mercutio is added by the Prince:

                                                  Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.


Thus the same basic stage picture is made progressively tragic as it becomes more and more a pageant of death.

Perhaps the fact that only Tybalt's body appears in the second tableau of Prince and families, and not Mercutio's as well, may suggest that Shakespeare was thinking not only in terms of stage pictures but also of economy in the use of this one. As he is dead through an act of revenge for Mercutio's killing, and killed by Romeo, Tybalt's corpse sums up well enough in itself the intensifying situation. The single dead body is a very meaningful addition to the grouping already seen in Act I, but not so much of an addition as to compete with the spectacle of doom that will come at the third assembly in Act V. This is the “cumulative” aspect of the process: the situation as recapitulated in this third-act picture is now much more tragic, but still developing, and in arranging the picture economically with just a single dead body Shakespeare is storing (and building up) the full tragic energy for release in the catastrophe. This is not the only instance in Romeo and Juliet where Shakespeare conserves emotional energy: in IV.v. we see how the Capulet household's reaction to the supposed death of Juliet is carefully handled so as not to vitiate the real feeling which will be called forth when she actually dies.12

Closely linked to the repeated arrangement of Prince and families is the narrative which in each of these scenes recounts the events which have taken place. In I.i.106-115 Benvolio tells Romeo's father and mother how the first brawl started; in III.i.152-175 he recounts how Mercutio and Tybalt came to their deaths. At the play's end Lawrence has a forty-line speech recapitulating all that the audience has seen happen up to the lovers' deaths—a speech which “is often omitted in modern productions as being unnecessary.”13 In fact, of these three speeches, only one has any particular dramatic coloration, and that is Benvolio's second speech, in which he slightly distorts the events he is recounting so as to make Romeo appear less culpable.14 Dramatic interest also is added here by the fierce rebuttals of Lady Capulet. But as Benvolio's first speech and Lawrence's last one are straightforward retellings of events the audience already has seen for itself, why then does Shakespeare include these two narratives, or indeed any of the three? T. J. B. Spencer gives an answer when he says that the Friar's recounting is necessary if there is to be a strong emphasis on the reconciliation of the two families. “We need this quiet narrative speech which helps us to put the sequence of events into true proportion, while we watch the heads of the two families realize what has happened and achieve their reconciliation,” he says; and John Russell Brown suggests the stage effectiveness of the long silence of the Friar's auditors, a silence which bespeaks a growing “corporate acceptance of helplessness and ignorance in the face of catastrophe.”15 I feel it is important to emphasize that as audience we are looking on here as well as listening. What we are seeing as Lawrence explains is the same tableau presented in Act III, where a helpless participant in the tragic events stood by the human wreckage while he outlined the cause to Prince and parents. In each case there is plenty of time to take in the visual details (this time was given in Act I by the Prince's indictment). The additions and alterations to the second and third pictures are the more readily noticed because of this time given to study the tableaux, and because we not only have seen the picture before but also already know the events being recounted. In other words, all circumstances conspire to make the audience look, and look perhaps even a little harder than it may be listening.

The true focus of this stage picture is unquestionably the dead bodies in the tomb or inner stage. And should the audience at any time lift its eyes from the tomb, to look for example at a speaker or at the general picture before it, it would see as an alternative to the bodies of these dead youth nothing but their opposites—living, elderly men and women. For with the exception of that very minor character, Paris' Page, there are no young dramatis personae alive on the stage (Romeo's “man” Balthazar need not be young, and unlike Paris' servant is never addressed as “boy”). Where a young man, Benvolio, reported the details of the last two violent outbreaks, the reporter now is an old man, Lawrence. Hence this third exposure of the stage picture, with all the young protagonists dead and only the elderly left living, works as a great and visible antithesis, a visual complement to the opposites in the play's language, and a tragic summary of the central conflict between youth and age.

As the survivors of the two houses stand before their young dead and listen to Lawrence's story, the picture's emphasis is upon tragic waste. At this stage only the “ancient grudge” has survived, and the spectacle could be a reminder of that dissertation, early in the play, upon issueless death:

When [Rosaline] dies, with beauty dies her store.
Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste,
For beauty, starved with her severity,
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.


Most keenly of all, however, this spectacle of waste—the “plague” of Mercutio's curse—brings home Capulet's early words about Juliet: “Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she” (I.ii.14); and Montague's about Romeo:

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


The reconciliation which Granville-Barker and others call the play's true close16 now is affirmed, and the former enemies delineate the richness of the double monument they will erect. Each is impulsively generous: but as they speak of Juliet and Romeo lying richly in effigy the actual bodies of the children are still there in sight. It is perhaps not fully appreciated that as Montague and Capulet detail the externals of a tomb we are looking on at the inside of one, at its contents.17 Already the parents are, quite understandably, turning Romeo and Juliet into formal abstractions—figures which lie “like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (Twelfth Night, II.iv.117-118). It is the only way in which the elders can come to terms with their sorrow, “bury their strife” and quite literally cover up their guilt. In the disparity between the abstract gesture of a memorial and the seen reality of the bodies it will contain there is a bitter irony, which we might expect from the author of Sonnet 55, which points the futility of “marble [and] the gilded monuments / Of princes,” or from the coiner of the phrase “monumental mockery.”18 Perhaps Capulet senses the irony: he says antithetically: “As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie— / Poor sacrifices of our enmity!” The Prince is conscious of the bitterness of the moment: his expression “a glooming peace” hints at the true cost of this amity.

Thus in Romeo and Juliet first and last things are drawn together. Shakespeare uses for his purpose not only verse whose music and metaphors re-echo but also stage pictures which themselves look after and before—recapitulating what has happened, suggesting what is to come and finally, I believe, summarizing the whole tragic statement. In the assemblies which I have discussed we can see the major opposites of the play: private love in the orchard and cell scenes, public hate in the first two groupings with the Prince and the fusion of both in the final tableau. Perhaps, too, Shakespeare's use of the process which I have described helps answer the question of Benvolio's disappearance from the play. He vanishes just after his account of the second brawl—rather ironically, he fades out at that point of the action where his defense of Romeo has established him as a character in his own right, and not just a sounding-board for Romeo's sighs and Mercutio's wit. His departure has been noticed by editors, though usually only because of the problematical Q1 reading at V.iii.211, where Montague is made to say, “And young Benvolio is deceased too.” “Who would notice the absence of Benvolio … at this moment [of tragic climax]?” asks T. J. B. Spencer, adding that the actor playing Benvolio was required for another role in this last scene.19 But as the participants in Verona's mutinies have reassembled, to place themselves as they did before to “hear the sentence of [their] moved Prince,” the reporter's role which before was filled by a young man has now been taken over by an old one. With nothing to say, Benvolio does not appear, yet in terms of what we see on stage his very absence is eloquent. If he appeared now he would mar the antithesis of young dead and old survivors.

Granville-Barker seems just to have missed Romeo and Juliet's reduplication of scenes in his complaint that it is clumsy stagecraft to follow passionate Juliet in III.ii (where she has just learned of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment) with passionate Romeo in III.iii.20 He is right so far as he goes: the paralleling of these scenes is more neat than progressive; and actors of Romeo know how fiendishly difficult it is to follow Juliet's scene.21 But the scene of Romeo's passion at Lawrence's cell is more naturally answered by Juliet's quietly desperate interview with the Friar there in IV.i, when the impending wedding has made the situation even more threatening. John C. Adams asserts that Shakespeare “regarded the staging of Romeo and Juliet as inseparable from the total effect”22—although he, Richard Hosley, and others who have written (and debated) so usefully on this play have tended to concern themselves more emphatically with how the stage works than with how the play works. When Romeo and Juliet succeeds in performance the director may get the credit, as when Franco Zeffirelli is praised by John Russell Brown for his 1960 production in which “stage-business took its cue from the words spoken. … Phrases … were all directly and convincingly related to the action.”23 It is Shakespeare's art—visual as well as verbal—which has prescribed the play's ideal performance in the first place.

The visual aspect of this art will be put to use again in his tragic maturity—in King Lear, for example. In the final scene of Lear, when Goneril and Regan are tidily dead off-stage, order is given to “Produce the bodies” (V.iii.230). Why should Shakespeare at this point, with Edmund dying on stage and with the calamitous entrance of dying Lear with dead Cordelia imminent, wish to burden his stage with two more bodies? Two answers come to mind: first, that Goneril and Regan have become such symbols of extra-human evil that they must be seen reassuringly dead; second, that Shakespeare wishes the tragic events to end as they began, bringing Lear together again with all his daughters—“The wheel is come full circle.” And did Shakespeare, in an even later phase of his career when considering his stage, his dramatis personae, and the spirit and plot of the play he had in hand, perhaps glance back to the last scene of Romeo and Juliet? Towards the end of this very late play parents of great dignity and with an ancient grudge against one another meet before the inner stage in which their betrothed son and daughter are placed. The inner stage was Romeo's and Juliet's death-place, the persons now meeting before it could be in their assembling as in their old enmity reminiscent of the Montagues and Capulets, but

Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess.

After all, it has been said that in The Tempest “it is as if, at the end of his career, Shakespeare felt able at last to let Romeo and Juliet marry. But Montague must first shake hands with Capulet”;24 and the Romances with their promises of fulfilled and fruitful love (and with effigies which come to life) do counterpoise the tragic waste mourned in Romeo and Juliet. Whether or not Shakespeare deliberately glances at that tragedy in the last scene of The Tempest, it is certain that he knew the theater to be a visual as well as a verbal art. It is with this knowledge that he composes (in every sense of the word) his scenes, and in Romeo and Juliet as in his maturest work invites the audience to “look here, upon this picture, and on this.”25


  1. Cf. Comedy of Errors I.ii.33-40 and V.i.417-418.

  2. Shakespeare and the Artist (London, 1959), p. 17.

  3. This is H. Granville-Barker's description of the new turn of events: Prefaces to Shakespeare, series II (London, 1930), p. 22.

  4. Hamlet, V.ii.62.

  5. Romeo and Juliet, ed. John Dover Wilson and George Ian Duthie (Cambridge, 1955), p. xxxi. All quotations from Romeo and Juliet cite this edition.

  6. “Preface to Shakespeare,” in Samuel Johnson: Selected Writings, ed. R. T. Davies (London, 1965), p. 276.

  7. S. T. Coleridge, Select Poetry and Prose, ed. S. Potter (London, 1933), p. 342.

  8. Hamlet, II.ii.619.

  9. Cf. T. J. B. Spencer's introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet (Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 30-32.

  10. Cf. IV.i. lines 6-12, 29-32.

  11. T. J. B. Spencer's phrase, Romeo and Juliet, p. 276.

  12. See Spencer's commentary on this scene, Romeo and Juliet, pp. 262-263.

  13. Spencer, Romeo and Juliet, p. 277.

  14. By suppressing the provocation that Mercutio gave Tybalt, Benvolio makes Tybalt seem the more guilty and Romeo a more justifiable revenger.

  15. Spencer, Romeo and Juliet, p. 36; Brown, Shakespeare's Dramatic Style (London, 1970), pp. 67-68.

  16. Granville-Barker, Prefaces series II, p. 39; Spencer, Romeo and Juliet, pp. 36-37.

  17. Waldo F. McNeir (“The Closing of the Capulet Tomb,” Studia Neophilologia 28 [1956], 3-8) argues that the Prince's “Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while” is an order and cue for the tomb to be closed. “Shakespeare rightly felt, I think, that leaving the tomb and its contents open to view would interfere with a focus of interest on Friar Lawrence's story and perhaps blur the reconciliation of Capulet and Montague, the relieving note on which the tragedy ends” (7). Granville-Barker, on the other hand, writes of how at the end “plain to our sight within the tomb … Romeo and Juliet lie still,” and points out that Antony and Cleopatra ends with a similar stage effect (Prefaces, series II, p. 30).

  18. Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.153.

  19. Romeo and Juliet, p. 276. Arthur Colby Sprague has found him doubled with Paris on at least one occasion (The Doubling of Parts in Shakespeare's Plays. London, 1966, p. 13).

  20. Prefaces series II, p. 20.

  21. See, for example, John Gielgud, Early Stages (London, 1948), p. 214.

  22. “Shakespeare's Use of the Stage in Romeo and Juliet III.v,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 7 (1956) 149. Cf. also Adams' “Romeo and Juliet as played on Shakespeare's Stage,” Theatre Arts 20 (1936), 896-904 and his letters in TLS [Times Literary Supplement] for Feb. 15, 1936 and May 23, 1936. Other views are expressed by Richard Hosley (“The Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet,” SQ 5 (1954), 371-384), Granville-Barker (TLS letters Feb. 22 and May 30, 1936), George Sampson (TLS letter Feb. 22, 1936), and W. J. Lawrence (TLS letters Feb. 29 and May 30, 1936).

  23. Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 183.

  24. John Wain, The Living World of Shakespeare (London, 1964), p. 231.

  25. Hamlet, III.iv.53.

G. Thomas Tanselle (essay date autumn 1964)

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SOURCE: Tanselle, G. Thomas. “Time in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 4 (autumn 1964): 349-61.

[In the following essay, Tanselle focuses on Romeo and Juliet's references to time in relation to its themes of fate, youth versus age, and haste.]

It is conventional for editors and critics to point out that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare compressed into a matter of days the action that took nine months in Brooke's Romeus and Juliet. They also note that there are a great many time references in the play, and, on the basis of these refererences, they construct a calendar for the events of the plot. But, even though allusions to time are made with great precision in the play, critics are not yet agreed about such a seemingly elementary chronological point as the number of days the plot covers. P. A. Daniel, for example, declared in 1878 that the play ends “early in the morning of the sixth” day,1 and he is followed in this belief by John Munro, among others, who defines the time as “less than six days”.2 Caroline Spurgeon, differing only slightly from these critics in her time analysis, says that the lovers meet on Sunday and die on Thursday night,3 and G. B. Harrison also finds that the action covers five days.4 Raymond Chapman, however, believes that the play ends early Thursday morning and therefore that the events have occurred in four days,5 and Granville-Barker also takes this point of view.6 The fullest of these discussions are the ones by Daniel and Chapman, although Daniel's is nothing more than a summary of the events taking place on each day and Chapman's a brief note making no attempt to list every time reference. W. W. Lloyd in 1856 recognized that this “breathless rapidity of incidents, this hasty interchange” is the “ruling motive with which all the accompaniments harmonize”.7 Recently Brents Stirling has especialy developed the idea of the “haste theme” as a key to the play,8 but he is not concerned with arranging a chronology of events.

Despite the attention which the time question has received, no one has gathered together all the precise time references and examined them. Such a list forms an impressive collection—partly because of its size (showing the extent to which the play is saturated with time allusions) and partly because the precision of the references makes it possible to know the exact time of day of almost every episode. We shall be concerned here, therefore, not so much with general expressions of temporal relationships (such as “soon”, “early”, “late”, “old”, “slow”, “fast”, and the like—which Stirling takes up) as with exact references to particular hours, days, months, and years.

However, the numerous time references do more than merely provide a timetable for the plot. Their unusual frequency and specificity would indicate that they are especially important to Shakespeare in this play and that they are used in other ways than as a calendar. For one thing, they contribute to the effect produced by the dominant imagery of light and darkness; allusion to the hour seems a natural way of intensifying the contrast between day and night, or brightness and dullness. In addition, time references are used to further the characterizations—for example, when Romeo declares that time passes slowly for him in Rosaline's absence, or when Juliet wishes night to come quickly since it will bring Romeo. Time references also contribute to the sense of foreboding which permeates the play, especially through figurative expressions involving day, night, and stars. Finally, the insistence on the time of day increases the reader's awareness that he is watching two impetuous young lovers rushing precipitously through a series of events; Shakespeare does not allow us to forget for a moment that his version of the story involves only a few days.

The fast pace of the events in this love affair is constantly contrasted to the more deliberate action of the rest of the world. Raymond Chapman has pointed out that behind the repeated comments about the hour lies the suggestion that a longer time has elapsed, and he calls this Shakespeare's use of “double time” (a term which Granville-Barker also uses in this connection). His evidence of the “longer time” points to such elements of the play as the Chorus preceding Act II (a technique traditionally used to indicate the passage of time, yet the second act begins where the first act leaves off), the Nurse's comparison of Romeo and Paris (when she has not had time to consider their relative merits), Lady Capulet's statement that Romeo “lives” in Mantua (when he had gone there only the day before), Romeo's immediate expectation of a letter from Friar Laurence (when their plan had involved a longer period of waiting), and Friar John's detention in a house quarantined for the plague (when such detention normally lasted at least twenty-eight days). However, since the short-time references are so precise, we are justified in looking for more exact references to longer periods of time and in feeling that they must serve other purposes than merely to “modify the breathless pace of events and make them more credible.”9 Investigation does indeed reveal that the short-time references are played off against equally exact long-time references and that the “double time” serves the further function of contrasting the behavior of young love with the slower and more considered pace of the older generation. Romeo and Juliet speak mainly of days and hours, rarely of months and years as the older characters do. Thus, in the end, the long-time allusions only intensify the speed of the action, rather than make it more credible, and play an important part in creating the atmosphere of a headlong rush to doom.

That time is one of the chief concerns of the play becomes clear when one looks at all the time references and considers how they perform these various functions. To begin with, the play opens on Sunday morning (since in III.iv.18, it is then Monday).10 We know it is not yet afternoon because Prince Escalus tells Capulet to go along with him immediately, while Montague is to report “this afternoon” (I.i.107). Then, sixty lines later, we learn the exact time, for Benvolio tells Romeo that it is “new struck nine” (167). The concern with time is further illustrated by their conversation. Benvolio says “Good morrow” to Romeo, who asks, “Is the day so young?” This exchange leads to the use of “hours” to establish Romeo's mood. It seems later than nine o'clock to him since “sad hours seem long”; Benvolio then wishes to know, “What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?” (169). In addition to giving the time as nine o'clock, Benvolio has made another specific time reference in this scene—he has already informed Lady Montague that he saw Romeo an hour before sunrise (125).

The second scene takes place on Sunday afternoon, for Capulet's servant and Romeo greet each other with “Godden” (I.ii.57-58), or “Good even” (used any time after noon). Also Capulet, in the opening lines of the scene, implies that Montague has already had his afternoon appointment with the Prince. The conversation, here too, has to do with time since it turns to the subject of Capulet's party. We are told at least four times that the dance will be that evening. Capulet reiterates “this night” three times when he invites Paris to attend (20, 24, 29), and the servant later tells Romeo that the guests are coming “to supper” (78). It is also in this scene that we find the first references to longer periods of time. The extended duration of the feud is alluded to by Paris when he comments that “pity 'tis you lived at odds so long” (5). Paris, however, is another importunate young lover whose eagerness is contrasted to Capulet's deliberation. When Paris asks about his suit, Capulet replies that his answer is “what I have said before” (7), that Juliet “hath not seen the change of fourteen years” (9), and that he will not consider her ready for marriage for another two years (10). This statement should be in the back of the reader's mind in Act III when Capulet, the next day, makes preparations for his daughter's marriage, and in Act IV when he speeds up the planned arrangements. The impatience of the younger generation does, to an extent, upset the time scheme of the older generation.

It is early evening in the following scene, since the Capulet party (which again we are told will be “this night”—I.iii.80) is ready to begin, the guests have arrived, and supper is served (100). This scene makes two contributions to the “longer time”. First, it places the present action in relation to a longer time by indicating the time of year—it is a “fortnight and odd days” (15) to Lammastide (August 1).11 Second, the extended discussion of Juliet's age is a continuation of the older generation's concern with “years” that we saw in Capulet's comments in the last scene. The Nurse even refers to a particular number of years in her figurative expressions: “Now, by my maidenhead at twelve year old” (2). She believes she “can tell [Juliet's] age unto an hour” (11), and she and Lady Capulet agree that Juliet is “not fourteen” (12, 14). Definite numbers of years keep recurring through the Nurse's long speech that follows. Not only does she say twice more that Juliet will be fourteen “of all days in the year, / Come Lammas Eve at night” (16-17, 21), but she comments twice on the “eleven years” that have passed since the earthquake (23, 35).12 Finally, she believes that she will remember the story about her husband and young Juliet if she lives “a thousand years” (46). The whole speech is an attempt to ascertain the chronology of a long period of time, with numbers of years echoing throughout.

The two remaining scenes of Act I occur Sunday night. In the fourth scene Romeo and his friends need torches (11-12); and at the end of the fifth scene Capulet says “Good night” to Romeo and announces that he is going to bed since “it waxes late” (126-128). Three of the functions of time references are illustrated here. There is the connection of time with foreboding when Romeo fears that he and his friends have arrived “too early” (Benvolio thinks they are “too late”) because some “consequence, yet hanging in the stars” will begin to operate at “this night's revels” (I.iv.105-109). Then there is another of those conversations between older people, emphasizing the attempt to figure out the exact “year” when a particular incident occurred. Capulet and an old man of the family discuss how long it has been since they last danced. The relative believes it has been “thirty years”, but Capulet replies that it can be only about “five and twenty years” because they “masked” at Lucentio's wedding. However, according to “Cousin Capulet”, Lucentio's son is thirty, a fact hard for Capulet to believe since the son “was but a ward two years ago” (I.v.35-42). The entire discussion reminds one of the Nurse's reminiscences about the time of Juliet's birth. Finally, Romeo's first description of Juliet connects the light and darkness imagery with the time—the brightness of Juliet contrasted to “this night” (I.v.46-55).

Two more scenes, the first two in the second act, take place late Sunday night. In the first scene, Mercutio and Benvolio make several references to the night. Mercutio surmises that Romeo “hath stol'n him home to bed” (II.i.4), and, when he gives up looking for Romeo, he wishes Romeo “good night” and heads for his “truckle bed” since it is too cold outdoors “to sleep” (39-40); Benvolio, too, speaks of the “humorous night” and the “dark” as congenial to love (31-32). In the second scene, the balcony scene, the contrast between light and darkness is of course most pronounced, with fifteen references to the present night: “this night” (II.ii.27), “night('s)” (52, 75, 85, 139, 140, 166), “dark night” (106), “good night” (123, 142, 154, 185-186), and “tonight” (87, 117, 126). As the scene ends, it is early Monday morning, for Juliet says, “'Tis almost morning” (177), meaning that it is almost light. A dawn setting is a convenient device for juxtaposing light and darkness, and this scene parallels two others—the dawn scene in the third act and the final scene of the play. A significant indication of the importance of time in the play is that, after the lovers have parted, Juliet calls Romeo back to ask him, “At what o'clock tomorrow / Shall I send to thee?” (168-169). (Earlier she had told him to send “word tomorrow / By one that I'll procure to come to thee, / Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite” [144-146].) Romeo answers with the exact time, “At the hour of nine.” Juliet's comment, “'Tis twenty years till then” (170), reveals her attitude in a time expression and contrasts a long period of time with the short ones they have been considering. In the few instances where young people refer to longer times, they do it figuratively to suggest the slow passage of time. Twenty years seems long to Juliet, yet the elder Capulets can allude casually to the thirty years that have passed since they last danced.

It is Monday morning in the third scene of Act II, and the seven succeeding scenes account for almost every hour of that day. Friar Laurence describes the morning (and contrasts it with night) in the opening lines of the third scene: “The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night.” Romeo, on his arrival, says, “Good morrow, Father” (31), and Friar Laurence asks what “early tongue” is speaking, emphasizing the “earliness” (39) of Romeo's rising (33-42). When Romeo reveals that his plan is to marry Juliet “today” (64), Friar Laurence remarks on the rapidity of Romeo's change of affection (67) and, in the last line of the scene, pronounces what (as Stirling recognizes [p. 17]) is the most explicit statement of the haste theme: “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.” Each generation not only thinks in terms of its own time scheme but tries to persuade other generations to adopt that scheme.

By the time Romeo meets Mercutio and Benvolio on the street in the next scene it is much later Monday morning. Romeo bids “Good morrow” to them and Mercutio speaks of the events of “last night” (II.iv.48, 49), but we learn the exact time only when the Nurse enters. She and Mercutio engage in another of those recurrent conversations about the time, and, in this instance, time is used as the basis of what is perhaps Shakespeare's most famous set of bawdy puns. When the Nurse greets Mercutio with a “good morrow”, he makes a point of correcting her salutation to “good-den”;13 she then asks if it is really afternoon, and Mercutio replies that “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” (115-119). He later asks Romeo to go to “dinner” (147). And Romeo tells the Nurse that he and Juliet are to be married “this afternoon” (192) and that he will send a man with a rope ladder “within this hour” (200); before she leaves, the Nurse verifies the time—“This afternoon, sir?” (197). Finally, this scene contains another figurative time expression, again contrasting a short and a long time: Romeo's “A gentleman … that … will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month” (155-157).

Since it is noon (“the sun upon the highmost hill / Of this day's journey” [II.v.9-10]), Juliet wonders (in the following scene) why the Nurse has not returned. She had left when the “clock struck nine” and was to be back in “half an hour” (II.v.1-2), but “from nine to twelve / Is three long hours” (10-11). (At the same time, suggestions of the coming night are interspersed in these noon scenes—II.iv.203; v.76, 78.) When Romeo and Juliet meet in Friar Laurence's cell (in II.vi), we know the time is afternoon from the previous arrangement for the marriage (in II.iv.192), but there is no direct reference to the time. Romeo, however, again speaks of the relativity of time when he asserts that future sorrow will not balance the happiness received from “one short minute” (II.vi.5) with Juliet. The next scene, in which Mercutio and Tybalt are killed, also takes place that afternoon (“Gentlemen, good-den” [III.i.41]), early enough to be considered in the heat of the day (“The day is hot”, “now these hot days” [2, 4]) but “an hour” after the marriage ceremony (117). Not only is the heat (with “the mad blood stirring”) appropriate for this quarrel scene but also the foreboding aspect of time is natural in a scene in which there are two deaths. Mercutio sees that one day can make the difference between life and death: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” (101-102). Romeo carries on the fateful implications of a day: “This day's black fate on more days doth depend” (124). And the Prince, speaking of the banished Romeo, makes the time reference to death even shorter: “When he's found, that hour is his last” (200).

The three remaining Monday scenes occur in the evening. Juliet is impatient (in III.ii) for “love-performing night” (5) and develops this idea (in terms of light and darkness) in the speech that follows, using the word “night” eight more times (10, 17, 17, 18, 20, 20, 24, 29). It is obviously not yet night, since Juliet is wishing for it and since the Nurse uses the future tense in referring to it (“your Romeo will be here at night” [140]), but it must be early evening if Juliet has been married three hours (“three-hours wife” [99]). When Romeo, in the following scene, speaks of himself as “An hour but married” (III.iii.66), he is speaking figuratively to suggest the speed of recent events, since it is clearly much later in the evening. The Nurse tells Romeo to “make haste, for it grows very late” (164), and Friar Laurence bids him “good night” (166); yet it is not so late that the watch at the gates has gone on duty (148, 167) nor the Capulet household retired for the night (“bid her hasten all the house to bed” [156]).

“'Tis very late” (III.iv.5), however, in scene four, a brief scene dealing almost exclusively with time. If Paris had not been visiting, Capulet, “would have been abed an hour ago” (7); therefore Paris wishes “good night” (9) to Lady Capulet, who will ask Juliet her opinion “early tomorrow” (10) since Juliet is overcome with sorrow “tonight” (11). Capulet, though, feels that his wife should speak to Juliet “ere you go to bed” (15) and suggests Wednesday as the wedding day (17); but, when he realizes that it is now Monday (18, 19), Wednesday seems “too soon” (19), so the ceremony is set for Thursday. The name of this day reverberates throughout the rest of the scene, appearing five times in eleven lines (20, 20, 28, 29, 30) as Paris and Capulet turn the matter over and verify the date. Capulet asks, “Do you like this haste?” (22), and Paris emphasizes his impatience with a time figure: “I would that Thursday were tomorrow” (29). The entire conversation in this scene is an attempt to decide on the proper times for doing things (such as speaking to Juliet or having the wedding), and Capulet fittingly brings it to a close: “it is so very very late / That we may call it early by and by. / Good night” (34-36).

Tuesday dawn and early morning come in the last scene of Act III, a scene which conveniently illustrates all the uses of time we have been reviewing. The opening thirty-six lines, in which Romeo and Juliet discuss whether or not morning has arrived, form another in that series of what might be called conversations searching for the solution to a time problem. It is characteristic that, while the Nurse and Capulet look for the answers to such questions as the age of Juliet or the age of a relative, Romeo and Juliet deal with a matter of minutes—whether it is night or dawn. Although Juliet believes (or hopes) that it is “not yet near day” (III.v.1), Romeo points to the light in the east (7-8), which Juliet does see but is unwilling to acknowledge as “daylight” (12). As in the earlier morning scene (II.iii), the contrast between light and darkness is brought out through comments on time (for example, in line 9, with its contrast of “Night's candles” and “jocund day”). And this, in turn, leads to the use of light and darkness (or time) to suggest foreboding: “More light and light. More dark and dark our woes!” (36); “Then, window, let day in, and let life out” (41).

Time is once more the basis of a figurative expression in Juliet's remark,

I must hear from thee every day in the hour,
For in a minute there are many days.
Oh, by this count I shall be much in years
Ere I again behold my Romeo!


As usual, “years” is meant figuratively by Juliet to imply a long period of time; and her speech reminds one of Romeo's earlier comments on the relativity of time (I.i.167, 170; II.vi.5). Juliet uses an even shorter period of time to suggest vaguely longer time when she says (of the proposed union with Paris), “Delay this marriage for a month, a week” (201). Even Capulet lists short lengths of time as a way of saying that he has been thinking of Juliet's welfare at every minute: “Day, night, hour, tide, time, work, play …” (178). The name of the fateful day, Thursday, is repeated again in this scene. Juliet is informed four times that her “sudden day of joy” (110) will be “Thursday next” (154), for “Thursday is near” (192); she will be going to church “o' Thursday” (162) or, more specifically, “early next Thursday morn” (113). Finally, this scene naturally contains other clues to the present time of day: “The day is broke” (40); “Are you up?” (65); “up so early?” (67).14

When Juliet confers with Friar Laurence, it is some time Tuesday afternoon, since the friar says that “Wednesday is tomorrow” (IV.i.90) and since Juliet speaks of the evening in the future tense: “Are you at leisure … now, / Or shall I come to you at evening mass?” (37-38). References to Thursday occur four times again in this scene, as Paris talks enthusiastically of the wedding (1, 20, 42, 49). Friar Laurence, in explaining the operation of his potion, creates what has become the most famous of the time inconsistencies in the play, indeed the crux of the time problem; let us postpone our discussion of the “two and forty hours” (105) until we have established the time scheme for the remainder of the play on other grounds. Tuesday is brought quickly to a close in the next two short scenes, which emphasize “tomorrow” since Capulet decides to have the wedding on Wednesday rather than Thursday. This shift causes “tomorrow” or “tomorrow morning” to be mentioned six times (IV.ii.24, 35, 37, 46; iii.8, 22), even though Lady Capulet still feels that “Thursday” (IV.ii.36) would be soon enough. In the first of these scenes it is “now near night” (IV.ii.39), although Capulet will be too busy to go to bed “tonight” (42), and in the second Lady Capulet says “Good night” (IV.iii.12) to Juliet, who wishes to be alone “tonight” (2) to take the potion.

We next have a brief view of the hurried preparations for the wedding in the Capulet household. It is early Wednesday morning: “The second cock hath crowed, / The curfew bell hath rung, 'tis three o'clock” (IV.iv.3-4); “Good faith, 'tis day” (20). Capulet has been up “all night” (10), and the Nurse advises him to get some rest (7-8). The increasing tempo is suggested by the appearance of the words “make haste” five times in thirteen lines (15, 15, 25, 26, 27). The Nurse, in trying to awaken Juliet on her wedding morning, finds her lifeless form and begins the lamentations of the “woeful day” (IV.v.17-64). The discovery is made early Wednesday, and Paris bemoans “this morning's face” (41); yet it is not too early for the musicians to begin thinking about “dinner” (150).

The most numerous of the difficulties in the time scheme occur in the last act. The day is not made explicit, as it has been up to now, but there are several reasons for supposing that it is Wednesday afternoon when Balthasar reports the news of Juliet's assumed death to Romeo in Mantua. He says that he saw Juliet placed in the tomb and started immediately to inform Romeo (V.i.20-21)—thus the two factors involved are the time of the burial and the distance to Mantua. It seems certain that Juliet is entombed on Wednesday, because Friar Laurence, just after the body is discovered, instructs the Capulets and Paris to “prepare / To follow this fair corse unto her grave” (IV.v.92-93) and Capulet speaks of the “festival” becoming a “black funeral” (85); it should also be remembered that Friar Laurence has predicted how Juliet, in “the manner of our country” (IV.i.109), will be buried immediately. If Balthasar left for Mantua after the burial, then, there is no reason that he should not have arrived there later on Wednesday; the distance between the two towns cannot be great since Balthasar and Romeo in Act V return to Mantua in a few hours.15 Finally, in the light of the detailed account of time up to this point, it is unlikely that a whole day would be skipped over, entirely unaccounted for. Two specific references in the scene support this view. First, Romeo speaks of the way he has felt “all this day” (V.i.4), which implies that the day is not young; second, after he learns that Juliet is “dead”, Romeo leaves immediately, saying, “Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight” (34), a hint that it is impossible for him to get back to Verona before nightfall.16

In the absence of specific time references, we can tentatively assign the following scene, in which Friar Laurence learns that his letter has not been delivered, to the same afternoon, Wednesday, following the principle of continuity of action established earlier in the play (Friar Laurence's comment that Juliet will wake in “three hours” [V.ii.25] must be discussed in relation to the “two and forty hours”). If we accept this account of the time, then the last scene of the play opens late Wednesday night and closes at dawn Thursday morning, or exactly four days after the first scene of the play. It is clear that the final scene is set at night from the numerous references to torches or light from torches (V.iii.1, 21, 25, 125, 171) and from the more direct comments involving “night” or “tonight” (14, 17, 21, 121). It is also evident that the scene ends at dawn: the Prince asks, “What misadventure is so early up / That calls our person from our morning rest?” (188-189); Friar Laurence refers to the time his letter was returned as “yesternight” (251)—and he left for the tomb (as we know from the last scene) immediately after Friar John returned the letter; the Prince at the end notices the gloominess of “this morning” (305) since the “sun for sorrow will not show his head” (306).

Such a scheme would satisfactorily account for the time in the play if it were not for three points: the “two and forty hours” of the potion's effectiveness; the “three hours” before Juliet wakes up; and the “two days” (V.iii.176) that Juliet has been buried. These seem to be inconsistent with the time schedule we have just set up. We know that Juliet takes the potion before retiring on Tuesday night—eleven o'clock, let us say. Forty-two hours later would be five o'clock Thursday afternoon—a time which obviously will not fit the final scene, since it would not be dark at five o'clock in the middle of July and since it could not be dawn at the end unless we assume an unduly accelerated representation of the passage of time in this scene. Since Juliet is not found until after three o'clock Wednesday morning, we can assume for argument that she did not take the potion until just before that time; even then she would wake up at nine o'clock Thursday night—or still many hours until dawn. In addition, all this ignores the question of how Friar Laurence knew exactly when Juliet took the potion so that he could make such precise predictions about the time of her awaking: “within this three hours” (V.ii.25); “the prefixèd hour of her waking” (V.iii.253).

These discrepancies have been often noted and often dismissed as unimportant. Grant White, in his 1883 edition, says, “Some critical folk are uneasy because the number of these hours does not exactly agree with the course of events following. No vainer use of time than in endeavor to reconcile S. with himself on such points”; and he concludes that Shakespeare took the forty hours from his source “with no thought of the consequences.”17 Granville-Barker, similarly, remarks, “It is futile trying to resolve these anomalies. Shakespeare wants a sharp conflict set between youth and age; he emphasizes every aspect of it, and treats time of life much as he treats time of day—for effect” (II, 331). It is true that Shakespeare is contrasting youth and age, but the implication here that he is dealing only in broad effects rather than precise details is not warranted. Discussion of such details is not the useless exercise that Grant White described, for our whole attitude toward the play is involved in the way we handle this point. We have gathered together all the exact time references in order to demonstrate how extraordinarily precise Shakespeare is in this play in details of time and to show how most of these details fit into a consistent scheme. In such a framework, how can we reject the few details which will not fit, with some comment about Shakespeare's concern for general effects rather than “unimportant” details? Rather, it would seem that this is a situation urgently calling for an emendation. Whether the carelessness was originally Shakespeare's or a printer's, it is only through emendation that we can preserve the effectiveness of the technique Shakespeare has used successfully throughout most of the play.

Let us begin by agreeing that the time analysis presented above is essentially correct and that the play covers four days—in other words, that a day has not elapsed between Acts IV and V and that Romeo does learn of Juliet's entombment on Wednesday.18 Juliet, then, has lain in the tomb since about midday Wednesday, when people begin arriving there Wednesday night. The statement that Juliet “hath lain this two days buried” (V.iii.176) is in accord with the common method of counting days at that time (as Marsh points out, pp. 422-423). Fractions of days interrupted by night were thought of as separate days; thus, since it is early Thursday morning in this scene, Juliet's first day in the tomb is Wednesday and her second Thursday (even though she has been there scarcely over twelve hours when this remark is made).

Next, in regard to the “two and forty hours”, we must reject Maginn's suggestion that we read “two and fifty hours”.19 Although he reasons that this number of hours would place her waking at the proper time in relation to dawn (approximately three o'clock), it would also place the event on Friday morning, which would mean that a day has passed unnoticed, quite alien to the scheme of time-accounting in the play. (Maginn is reasonable, however, in saying that “those who take the pains of reading this play critically will find that it is dated throughout with a most exact adoption to hours. We can time almost every event. … The same exactness is observed in every part of the play.”) We must also reject Marsh's conjecture of “two and thirty hours” (p. 422) because, unless Juliet went to bed exceedingly early on Tuesday night, this reckoning would set her waking at too late an hour Thursday morning. Marsh himself places her waking at five o'clock in the morning, which means that her retiring came at 9:00 on the evening before the wedding. But even if Juliet went to her room that early (after IV.ii.37), it is safe to assume that she put off taking the potion as long as possible.

The most satisfactory reading, and the emendation here proposed, is “two and twenty hours”. If Juliet went to bed some time between midnight and three o'clock, she would have awakened between ten o'clock Wednesday night and one o'clock Thursday morning. This puts the hour at which Friar John returns Friar Laurence's letter between seven o'clock and ten o'clock Wednesday evening. The hours covered by the final scene (from late Wednesday night to Thursday dawn) are then of no greater extent than those covered by some of the other scenes (III.v; IV.v). This arrangement also makes plausible the shift in the last scene from emphasis on night to emphasis on morning; a later hour would suggest a scene set entirely in dawn, while an earlier hour would not give Romeo enough time to arrive from Mantua. Furthermore, Friar Laurence instructs Juliet to take the potion at night (IV.i.91) and implies also that its effect will wear off at night (IV.i.116); she does take it at night and, as she does so, imagines herself waking at night (IV.iii.37, 44)—incidentally making a long-time reference to “this many hundred years” (40) that the vault has held her family's bones. Thus it is definitely night when Juliet awakes, not evening or dawn, and a period of twenty-two hours fits the time scheme best, as long as we are going to keep the “two” and alter only one word. It is quite arguable, however, that the reading should be “four and twenty hours”, since a day is a more usual period of reference for drugs and medicine, since the time would fit even better, and since it would have been an understandable lapse for the author (or printer) to switch the numbers in his mind (a sort of metathesis) and put down “two and forty” for “four and twenty”.20

This consideration of the time element in Romeo and Juliet suggests three general conclusions about the play. First, although it is a commonplace to point out the freedom and lack of regard for consistency with which Elizabethan dramatists handled time, this explanation will not apply to every time problem in an Elizabethan play. The time problem in Othello is of a wholly different kind from the one in Romeo and Juliet; in fact, it is more characteristic of Elizabethan time problems.21 A statement by G. B. Harrison may stand as representative of the consensus of opinion on the time question: “Shakespeare … was concerned with creating a succession of impressions in the minds of his audience, and not with presenting a series of mathematical problems of time. Months and even years pass unnoticed and unmentioned during the action of many Elizabethan plays. … These … inconsistencies are quite unimportant on the stage. Indeed, the actual passing of time in drama is seldom noticed …” (pp. 1643-1644). No attempt has been made here in connection with Romeo and Juliet to solve such questions as how the Nurse can have praised Romeo “So many thousand times” (III.v.239) in the short period since Juliet met him or how Friar Laurence knows when Juliet took the potion. These matters are indeed similar to the time problems of Othello and are covered by Harrison's comment. But Romeo and Juliet in the main follows a different system. It is full of specific time references which form a coherent scheme of events. Its emphasis on time is not casual but precise and helps establish some of the important ideas of the play—the control by fate, the lyrical contrast of light and darkness, the ruin by impetuous haste.

On top of this, the double time scheme accomplishes more than it is usually credited with doing. In Romeo and Juliet references to long periods of time do not serve to make the time seem less brief or the action more credible. The older characters' references to long periods of time are equal in precision to the young characters' references to short periods; long-time and short-time are both given a great deal of attention, and the contrast of the two suggests what the play is about—youth and age.22 Granville-Barker calls the time contradictions careless but also concedes that they represent “a sort of instinctive artistry”; yet his explanation of the double-time is that “this suggestion of the casual slackness of normal life conveniently loosens the tension of the tragedy a little” (II, 303). Just as there is nothing casual about the time in Romeo and Juliet, so would it be more accurate to say that the leisureliness of the time of the older generation forms a background which makes the tragedy of haste even more tense by contrast. The older generation is part of the tragedy, too, however, since it becomes ineffective and doomed to failure when forced to act with the speed of youth.

Finally, the numerous conversations in Romeo and Juliet in which characters struggle with time questions hint at a concern with the mystery of time that seems peculiarly modern. Time holds a powerful sway over all the characters, as they partially realize in their attempts to ascertain where they stand at any particular moment in relation to past, present, and future. It is important for a person to remember how long it has been since he last masked for a party—otherwise he will be lost in time. The relativity of time, expressed in so many metaphors in the play, is not the least of time's mysteries. That one living in the century of Bergson and Proust should find this in Romeo and Juliet is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that Shakespeare yields up to us what we look for in him and need to find.


  1. “Time-Analysis of the Plots of Shakspere's Plays”, New Shakspere Society's Transactions, 1877-1879, p. 194. Daniel considers the time of the play to be “six consecutive days”, but, since he points out that it ends on the sixth morning, he is really saying that it covers five full days.

  2. The London Shakespeare (New York, 1957), V, 120.

  3. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, 1935), p. 312. Perhaps her view is the same as Munro's, if by Thursday night she means after midnight, or early Friday morning.

  4. Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York, 1952), p. 471. Five days is conventionally given as the time of the play—see also, for example, the edition of William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, 1942), p. 975.

  5. “Double Time in ‘Romeo and Juliet’”, MLR [Modern Language Review], XLIV (1949), 372.

  6. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1947), II, 302.

  7. William Watkiss Lloyd, Essays on the Life and Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1858), sig. LL5v (reprinted from the S. W. Singer edition of 1856).

  8. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 10-25.

  9. Chapman, p. 374. Stirling agrees with Chapman on this point (p. 10). For further examples of the longer time scheme, see Chapman's note, pp. 372-374. He uses “longer time” to mean suggestions that the action has covered a longer period of time; I am using it to mean direct references to long periods of time (which are not necessarily—and usually are not—involved in the timing of the action itself).

  10. All line references are to the G. B. Harrison edition, which follows the Globe text. I discuss the play by scenes for convenience of reference, not because the scene divisions are integral to the time scheme—since obviously they bear little relation to it. The effect of speed would be enhanced by a continuous performance of the play, as suggested by Granville-Barker (II, 323-327). The days are accounted for so completely that it would seem reasonable to have no intermissions between days; indeed, since we have evening, night, and dawn scenes, the impression of a realistic continuity of action would be heightened.

  11. The time of year of the play cannot be stated with assurance, since the “fortnight and odd days” is more vague than most time references in the play. The holiday for apothecaries (V.i.56) offers no clue because the Lammastide reference is not definite enough to base other chronology upon and because Shakespeare gives the apothecary a holiday only in order to keep the inner stage free for the next scene, according to Ralph Waterbury Condee, “The Apothecary's Holiday”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], III (1952), 282. Furthermore, there have been objections to placing the play in the middle of July (two weeks before Lammas), since Capulet has a fire in his house (I.v.30) and Juliet thinks she hears a nightingale, which would not be singing that late in the season (III.v.2-5)—see John Fitchett Marsh, “Shakespeariana”, N&Q [Notes and Queries], LVI (1877), 422. These are not strong objections, however, since it is possible for one to have a fire at any time of year and since Juliet's comment about the nightingale is wishful thinking more than anything else, for she does not want dawn to come. The Lammas reference does not contradict any other clear reference, and the “hot days” (III.i.2-4) would seem to support it.

  12. Charles Knight, in Studies of Shakespeare … (London, 1851), p. 216, considers the Nurse's speech contradictory since the Nurse says that Juliet is fourteen but that she was weaned and could stand alone only at the time of the earthquake eleven years before (or not until she was three). Knight explains the contradiction by saying that Shakespeare, “in defiance of a very obvious calculation on the part of the Nurse”, was making direct reference to the earthquake of 6 April 1580 (and thus that he wrote in 1591). But J. P. Collier, in his edition (London, 1842), also points out the inconsistencies in this speech and comes to the opposite conclusion—that they “render it impossible to arrive at any definite conclusion” about the date of the play (VI, 370; quoted by H. H. Furness in the Variorum Romeo and Juliet [Philadelphia, 1871], p. 44). However, would not a more plausible explanation than Knight's be that the discrepancy is not an oversight on Shakespeare's part, since each number appears twice, but a device for illustrating the unreliability of the Nurse's memory and her generally rattle-brained disposition? In any case, these numbers have their effect in contributing to the long-time scheme.

  13. See Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (London, 1955), p. 100, s. v. “den.”

  14. Capulet's greeting, “God ye godden” (173), causes some difficulty here, since Mercutio's correction of the Nurse in II. iv. 116 establishes “good-den” as an afternoon salutation. However, it is perhaps consistent with the progressive speeding up of the action (Sunday and Monday are covered much more fully than Tuesday and Wednesday) that we pass from early morning to afternoon in a hundred lines. On the other hand, one might say that Capulet's use of this expression in the morning is a reflection of his angry mood; it is a rude way of asking the Nurse to leave and of implying that he does not wish to see her again that day.

  15. Cf. Chapman, p. 374. Chapman, however, feels there is an inconsistency here, since, according to him, it took Balthasar overnight to go the other direction—from Verona to Mantua. But how is it possible for Balthasar to take this long, even in Chapman's own scheme, since he agrees that Juliet's “funeral” is Wednesday and her suicide Thursday morning? We must conclude that Balthasar makes the round trip after the funeral on Wednesday. Marsh (p. 422) uses Friar Laurence's assumption (in V.ii) that Friar John has made a round trip to prove the shortness of the distance. Since the day of these final events is the point we are trying to establish, is it not a circular argument to say that, because Friar John has not had much time for this trip, the distance is short, and therefore the trip takes only a brief time? The present argument bases the time schedule on other evidence, and we can use Friar Laurence's assumption of a round trip as further indication (in addition to Romeo's return) that the distance is short. At the most, Friar John has twenty-four hours for the trip, if Friar Laurence sent him immediately after seeing Juliet on Tuesday afternoon (IV.i.123). If, on the other hand, Friar Laurence waited until he (somehow) learned of the change in wedding plans, Friar John would have had a considerably shorter time.

  16. We can alternatively use this line as evidence that the trip from Mantua to Verona takes less than a day. But we cannot have it both ways—if we use the line to prove that the scene occurs in the afternoon, we are assuming as given that the trip between the towns takes only a few hours, and we are arguing in a circle if we then turn around and say that, since Romeo starts in the afternoon and arrives at night, the trip therefore can be made in several hours.

  17. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Richard Grant White (Boston and New York, 1883), V, 300 n. See also Daniel, p. 193.

  18. Some critics place the opening of Act V on the day after the funeral in an attempt to make the time references consistent (although, even with that extra day, the forty-two hours will not fit properly). Thus P. A. Daniel (p. 194) assigns IV. v to Wednesday and V to Thursday and (at the end) Friday. In the Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke edition (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, n.d.), III, 202 n., the “two days buried” (V.iii.176) is annotated, “The time is here made to tally [with the forty-two hours].” Their phraseology, however, suggests that the consistency is somewhat forced (as it is, in this system, with the necessity of skipping a twenty-four hour period).

  19. William Maginn, Shakespeare Papers, ed. Shelton MacKenzie (New York, 1856), pp. 78-79 n. Maginn's statement is quoted, somewhat condensed, in the Variorum Romeo and Juliet, p. 428 n.

  20. The principal objection to emending this line is that the quartos and the folio all agree in the reading “two and forty”. The authority of this reading is further strengthened by the fact that Q2 is commonly thought to be based on Shakespeare's own manuscript. If Shakespeare did write “two and forty”, the discrepancy in time may have arisen through a revision of some original time scheme and a failure to correct all the time references to correspond with it. But the point here is that, despite the authority of the traditional reading, the inconsistency it creates is so foreign to the method of the play (with its accurate and precise time references) that the line should nevertheless be emended.

  21. But the two are sometimes compared (as in Chapman, p. 372). In Othello the question is one of reconciling two time schemes that apply to the present action; in Romeo and Juliet the long-time consists of references to the past by the older characters, and the forty-two hours is an inconsistency within the short-time scheme of the present. A recent discussion supporting the consistency of time references in Othello is Ernest Bloomfield Zeisler, Othello: Time Enigma and Color Problem (Chicago, 1954). Zeisler, paradoxically, considers the problem “irrelevant” (p. iii)—which, however, one cannot do in the case of Romeo and Juliet.

  22. Hardin Craig, in An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), pp. 41-46, discusses Romeo and Juliet in terms of “the succession of generations” which gives the play its “broadest significance”.


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Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular and well-known plays in the Shakespearean canon, centers on the ill-fated romance of two adolescents, each a member of one of the prominent, feuding families of Shakespeare's medieval Verona. Defying social custom and the dictates of their parents, the passionate young lovers perform a secret marriage ceremony, but a string of misfortunes ends the affair in tragedy. Written circa 1595, the play was an immediate success and has remained one of Shakespeare's most influential works. Critical consensus has tended to view the play as a poetic triumph but a dramatic failure in comparison with the playwright's later tragedies. Confronting this seeming paradox in his 1970 survey of the drama, Douglas Cole (see Further Reading) asks, “How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance?” This question in its myriad forms has preoccupied a host of critics. Cole's answer touches on many of the principal areas of recent interest in the work: its transformation of sources, originality of poetic language, skillfully realized characters, quickly paced fusion of comedy and tragedy, and blended themes of fate and chance. James Black (1975) highlights another element of critical interest: the play's exquisite attention to visual artistry, which has contributed to its sustained popularity on stage. Many critics, including Gerhard W. Kaiser (1977), maintain that what the play lacks in tragic intensity it replaces with lyrical beauty.

While character-centered criticism of Romeo and Juliet has traditionally focused on the drama's title figures, Romeo's friend Mercutio has also attracted a fair share of attention. The near-mythic critical status of Mercutio, who meets his demise midway through the drama, has its origins in the famous remark, attributed to John Dryden, that Shakespeare had to kill this brilliantly realized character “to prevent being kill'd by him.” Whether Dryden ever made such a statement is a matter of speculation, but there is little doubt that Mercutio tends to steal all of the scenes in which he appears. Contemporary interest in Mercutio often reflects on his status as a significant structural or thematic element in Romeo and Juliet. Herbert McArthur (1959), after first surveying Dryden's and other prominent historical assessments of Mercutio, claims that Romeo's close friend, despite his short life span on stage, is a fully developed and consistent dramatic character who helps define both Romeo and Juliet by his presence. Similarly, Raymond V. Utterback (1973) sees Mercutio as an integral component in Shakespeare's depiction of tragic causation, and maintains that the pattern of events leading up to his death becomes an organizing principle in the drama and prefigures a corresponding tragic resolution in the fate of the young lovers. Viewing Mercutio as a youthful trickster figure with symbolic links to the Roman god Mercury, Thomas Browne (1989) argues that the bawdy adolescent draws misfortune upon himself for his actions and helps focus Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy of character rather than of chance. Another figure selected for recent character study is Mercutio's slayer, Tybalt. Jerzy Limon (1995) suggests that while Romeo and Mercutio have received considerable critical attention, few have bothered to adequately analyze the nuances of Tybalt's character. Limon contends that Tybalt's actions appear to be properly motivated by a desire for honor, rather than by anger or cowardice as others have maintained. Turning to the figure of Romeo, Marvin Krims (1999) provides psychoanalytic commentary on the drama's male lead. According to Krims, Romeo fits the psychological profile of a neurotic child exposed to a sexualized trauma in his formative years, one in which he possibly confused innocent lovemaking with a violent assault. In his reenactment of this trauma during the closing scene of the play, Krims contends, Romeo once again confuses an act of love, this time with Juliet, and sublimates it into a tragedy of self-destruction.

The robust performance history of Romeo and Juliet attests to the enduring popularity of the drama, as well as to the modern stage director's prerogative to alter, revise, adapt, and abridge. Theater productions of Romeo and Juliet around the turn of the twenty-first century have demonstrated both the pliability of the drama and the perennial appeal of its emblematic lovers. Reviewing director Michael Boyd's 2000 production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon, Russell Jackson comments on the “austerity” of this staging of Verona, which was devoid of warmth, community sentiment, or religious sensibility. Nevertheless, Jackson finds David Tennant's Romeo and Adrian Schiller's Mercutio well interpreted and effective, and additionally approves of Boyd's fine handling of the erotic subtexts in the drama. Anita Gates (2001) reviews a very different Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City. Contemporary clothing and a hip-hop motif pervaded director Rob Barron's ninety-minute abridgement, which Gates finds to be skillfully molded to please the tastes of modern-day adolescents. In Wilborn Hampton's (2001) review of Terrence O'Brien's Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, he contends that the staging was “uneven” in terms of both individual performances and directorial acumen, but praises Nance Williamson's “genuinely comic” Nurse. In Bruce Weber's assessment of a 2001 production at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, he commends the youthful and energetic cast. Weber asserts that director Emily Mann's extensive text deletions enlivened the play and quickened its pace during a generally lighthearted first half, but blames such cuts for purging the performance of much of its tragic pathos in the grave and serious closing segments of the drama. Two popular cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's love-tragedy, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, have continued to elicit critical interest. Jennifer L. Martin's 2002 analysis offers a comparative look at these works, contrasting Zeffirelli's depiction of innocent youth destroyed by an undeniable fate with Luhrmann's technique of “postmodern montage” and reliance on visual suggestion and allusion to tell Shakespeare's story.

Among the major threads of thematic criticism that have dominated study of Romeo and Juliet is the question of whether the drama should be viewed as a character-driven tragedy of fate or one that relies on fortune or chance as its guiding principle. D. Douglas Waters (1992) contributes to this discussion, contending that the play is a tragedy of fate and fortune influenced by the writings of Ptolemy and Seneca. According to Waters, Shakespeare demonstrated that fate sometimes acts “through chance, human contingency, and accident.” A number of contemporary critics have also studied ideological or cultural factors that contribute to Shakespeare's depiction of society, including late-twentieth-century commentators who have considered the rebellion of Romeo and Juliet as a tacit subversion of patriarchal culture. Kirby Farrell (1989) interprets the actions of the young lovers in disregarding their parent's wishes and following their destructive passions as a direct assault on the symbolic power of patriarchy. In a distinct but complementary assessment, Nathaniel Wallace (1991) analyzes the theme of family conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Verona, concentrating on the process of semiotic revolt in which new cultural metaphors appear to replace the old. Dueling is the subject of Jill L. Levenson's (1995) essay, which emphasizes violence as a “constant theme” in the play, and one coded into the conventions of the culture it endeavors to depict. Robin Headlam Wells (1998, see Further Reading) looks at the satirical element in Romeo and Juliet, suggesting Shakespeare's unrelenting attack on sentimentalism in the work as it critiques the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry and the masculine ideal of the martial hero. Continuing another line of scholarly inquiry, several recent critics have regarded time as a central theme in Romeo and Juliet and have commented on Shakespeare's complex application and manipulation of temporality within the play. G. Thomas Tanselle (1964) points out that the action of Romeo and Juliet is compressed into roughly four days and that references to time and its passing saturate the work. In surveying these references, Tanselle remarks that this perception of time serves to strongly distinguish young and old, and suggests Shakespeare's “peculiarly modern” preoccupation with relativity as his characters attempt to define where they stand in relation to the past, present, and future. G. G. Heyworth (2000) distinguishes between two modes of temporal reckoning in Romeo and Juliet: tragic and romantic time. For Heyworth, the drama foregrounds “the generic insufficiency of time” in romance, and illustrates Shakespeare's power to desynchronize, dilate, and condense time in his drama in order to transform romance into tragedy.

Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-12.

[In the following excerpt from his review of the 2000 Shakespeare season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson comments on the visual austerity of Michael Boyd's staging of Romeo and Juliet, surveys Boyd's directorial innovations, and summarizes the principal performances in the production.]

Michael Boyd's austere Romeo and Juliet was played on a bare platform with a runway down through the auditorium and two walls of plain wood curving into a blind exit at the back of the stage. Verona was not fair in any sense of the word. The play began with a chair hurled across the empty stage, and Sampson and Gregory entered in full flow. Nothing of the sexism and violence of the opening “comic” dialogue was spared; the fight that ensued was bloody and furious. As it reached a climax, the actors froze and a young man walked on to deliver the Prologue—David Tennant, presently discovered to be playing Romeo. After speaking, he exited through the audience, an action echoed at the play's conclusion when Romeo and Juliet emerged from the tomb, passed through the assembled citizens, and walked off down the same ramp into the left-hand aisle of the stalls. For the second chorus Sampson, Gregory, and other servants reappeared, accompanied by braying music, to bawl a bawdy reading of the sonnet, mocking the lovers more savagely and directly than Mercutio (who after all goes to his grave knowing nothing about Romeo's love for Juliet.) These servants provided a leering though mostly silent chorus throughout, appearing “above” during the final scenes in Mantua and at the tomb. Similarly, the “ghosts” of Mercutio and Tybalt returned to watch the action from the same vantage point: Mercutio handed the poison down from the apothecary to Romeo and at some performances, for want of an appropriate understudy, spoke the apothecary's lines. Adrian Schiller played Mercutio with a fine disdain, dying in anger rather than ironic amusement. He was not as pathologically involved in his own fantasy of Queen Mab's sexual dimension (teaching maids to be “of good carriage”) as some actors have made the character.

David Tennant was a personable Romeo, with a strong sense of the humor of his situation—a strategy that works for the first three acts and has real validity in the balcony scene but which does not help enough with the passions of the play's latter part: if anything can carry a modern actor safely through Romeo's hysterics in the friar's cell and onto the firmer ground of Mantua and the tomb, it isn't humor. Somehow or other, Romeo has to take leave of his senses for a while and then defy the stars without seeming foolish. Juliet (Alexandra Gilbreath) was correspondingly lively and likeable, playing the balcony scene as a teenager in love, lolling full-length atop the wall (serving as balcony) with her legs crossed in the air as though absorbed in an endless telephone conversation. “Gallop apace,” coming as usual just after the interval, and the Nurse's arrival with the news of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment were once again cruel tests of the actor's ability to move up a gear emotionally. At times Juliet seemed too intent on explaining rather than living the imaginative language. The gothic extravagance of the potion speech was similarly forced. However, the pathos and anxiety of the parting from Romeo were effective, and she did manage a quiet determination in the face of her parents' wrath, dexterity in handling Paris's approaches, and a resolution less hysterical but still as extravagant as Romeo's in the friar's cell in 4.1.

The production's austerity of setting and costume (by Tom Piper, Boyd's frequent collaborator) included, typically for this team, some moments of telling visual effect and a consistent pattern of symbolism. The friar entered onto a bare stage and lifted up a trap to reveal the earth and vegetation his speech refers to: this subsequently served as the grave in the final scene. The bare walls were illuminated from below at moments of passion and crisis with subtly changing crimson lights or with a frosty blue glare. These moments were also emphasized with haunting, reiterated single notes or simple figures in the musical score (plangent cello, percussion, muted brass) played on the side balconies. Verona was not a bustling place but airless and rather oppressive—there was no street life to speak of. Paris seemed to be in charge of the prince's militia, a militaristic-looking but obviously ineffectual squad. The Capulet and Montague families were richly dressed, with Capulet's wife, in her high bodice, wide skirt, and glimpse of stocking, more glamorous than any of the other women. At Capulet's feast the principal dance was a slow lavolta, miming male sexual aggression and its rather sullen acceptance by the women, which then developed into a chain dance. When the maskers arrived, they beat the ground with sticks in some kind of fertility rite. Capulet's wife enjoyed having Tybalt lift her up by the tip of her stomacher, and Juliet seemed flattered by Paris's attentions. One could see why Juliet's attending this party might be a rite of passage. Along with the accentuated sexual wordplay of the servants, the Nurse, and Mercutio, these features suggested a world of erotic aggression and violence. Political authority, represented in the person of an ancient prince (Alfred Burke) supported on two sticks, was barely effective, and the Nurse was colder and more self-absorbed than is usually the case. Confronted with the desperate situation of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment, she took to fortifying herself with the contents of a hip flask and cowering helplessly against the wall. The friar (Des McAleer) was stern but calmly helpful, at least up to the point of his flight from the tomb. Arrested by the guard and interrogated by the prince, he gave an eloquent (slightly abridged) account of himself and events, but there was no sense of warmth in the community or of their acceptance of him as “a holy man.” One aspect of Boyd's clinical handling of Verona was the absence of all but the barest signs of religious observance. At least this was an antidote to the crucifix-festooned world of Baz Luhrmann's film, but not one lending much support to the play's references either to Christian religion or to the “stars.”

Anita Gates (review date 23 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Gates, Anita. Review of Romeo and Juliet.New York Times (23 June 2001): B7, B14.

[In the following review of Rob Barron's abridged 2001 stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City, Gates highlights the production's potential appeal to younger audiences.]

Benvolio wears camouflage pants, with one leg rolled up to his knee. The Capulets' illiterate male servant constantly listens to his Walkman. The Prince wears a headset. The young people of Verona act out basketball moves, whoop their hellos and practice their martial arts moves. A lot of hip-hop is happening in Theaterworks/U.S.A.'s well-acted, throbbingly high-energy production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater. And when Juliet is told that Paris (a loser who, like the grown-ups, wears suits) wants to marry her, Juliet throws up.

None of this should come as much of a surprise. Theater producers and filmmakers have been trying for eons to make teenagers sit up and take notice that Shakespeare wrote about young people just like them. The last movie incarnation of Romeo and Juliet was Baz Luhrmann's 1996 modern-dress, Elizabethan-language version with Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Florida gas-station shootouts and a black Mercutio in drag. But that may already seem appallingly dated to audience members born in the mid-1980's.

Theaterworks is also going after young theatergoers by making all tickets for the play, which runs through July 18, free.

Like many dramatists, Rob Barron, who wrote and directed this intermissionless 90-minute adaptation, just wants to help adolescents see through the unfamiliar language all the way to the plot, whose basics have always been appealing to the young. Two good-looking teenagers whose families hate each other meet at a party, fall in love at first sight and secretly marry. Just after the wedding, the boy gets into trouble (street violence) and has to leave town if he knows what's good for him. The lovers have one night of passion, then part. When the girl's parents try to force her to marry another man, she fakes her own death with the help of a powerful drug. Thanks to the errors of the adults around them, both lovers end up dead in a misguided double suicide.

The Theaterworks production's cast doesn't always succeed in wringing the full meaning from Shakespeare's language, but the young lovers (Gene Farber and Kristin Sentman) are convincing and sympathetic.

Phillip Clark makes an amusingly blustery Capulet. And Susanne Marley is elegantly effective as Juliet's nurse, in comic moments (“I will take him down. Scurvy knave!”) as well as dramatic ones (the discovery of her young mistress's seemingly dead body).

The original music, by Marty Beller with David Driver, does its job: updating the emotions. Beowulf Boritt's set, dominated by a slanted wall of broken windows, is great-looking and surprisingly evocative as a wide range of settings (from the Capulets' home to Verona's mean streets).

In fact at the end of the scene in which Romeo kills Tybalt (played by a woman, incidentally) and the sound of police sirens fills the air, older theatergoers may swear they've just seen Tony stab Bernardo in West Side Story and that Officer Krupke is on his way. There's a circular kind of logic to that.

Raymond V. Utterback (essay date spring 1973)

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SOURCE: Utterback, Raymond V. “The Death of Mercutio.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 105-16.

[In the following essay, Utterback analyzes the pattern of events leading to Mercutio's death in Romeo and Juliet, maintaining that Shakespeare subsequently repeats this pattern in the main plot of the drama.]

Mercutio is a notorious scene-stealer. His brilliant lines and the intensity, humor, and vigor of his personality give him numerous opportunities to upstage the romantic hero of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with the result that he can often create a stronger dramatic impression whenever he and Romeo appear together.1 Furthermore, Romeo never quite gains Mercutio's approval. The melancholy lover is the butt of the jests of the mocker of love, while Romeo's forbearance toward an insulting foe is an outrage to the quick-witted and high-spirited Mercutio. Only in the wit-combat of Act II, scene four, when Romeo has dropped his affected posture as the despairing lover of Rosaline, do the two young men appear as dramatic equals. Then Mercutio welcomes Romeo as a fit companion, significantly on his own terms:

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


Recognizing the implicit rivalry between these characters, Henry Hallam described the way he thought Shakespeare faced an evident dramatic problem: “It seems to have been necessary to keep down the other characters that they might not overpower the principal one; and though we can by no means agree with Dryden, that if Shakespeare had not killed Mercutio, Mercutio would have killed him, there might have been some danger of his killing Romeo. His brilliant vivacity shows the softness of the other a little to a disadvantage.”3

It has thus been tempting to understand Mercutio's death as a consequence of the exceptional vitality of his character rather than by reference to his actual function in the play. Dryden's well-known remarks, to which Hallam referred, have contributed much to this attitude. What Dryden actually wrote was: “Shakespeare showed the best of his skill in his Mercutio; and he said himself that he was forced to kill him in the third act, to prevent being killed by him. But, for my part, I cannot find he was so dangerous a person: I see nothing in him but what was so exceeding harmless that he might have lived to the end of the play, and died in his bed, without offence to any man.”4 Dryden's story of Shakespeare's alleged remark implies that Mercutio's death results from an arbitrary act of a desperate dramatist and is designed to keep Mercutio from running away with the play. It is apparent also that Dryden himself considered this means of dismissing Mercutio unnecessary and even undesirable. But the comment seeks to explain the dramatic fact by reference to the convenience of the dramatist rather than in terms of its function or justification within the play as a whole. It even tends to discourage inquiry into the latter kind of explanation, since it assumes the arbitrariness of the death of Mercutio.

It may well be this assumption which moved Dr. Johnson to give his spirited reply to Dryden, insisting that Mercutio's death is an appropriately treated and properly presented dramatic action. “Mercutio's wit, gaiety and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.”5 Dr. Johnson certainly credited Shakespeare with greater dramatic inventiveness than did Dryden, and he believed that in dramatizing Mercutio's death Shakespeare fulfilled a dramatic purpose related to the structure of the play. Yet even he contemplated a possible continuation of Mercutio's dramatic existence. His focus of attention is on Mercutio's role while alive, not on the reasons for his death or the effect his death has on the events or characters of the play.6 Dr. Johnson implied that once Mercutio's contribution to the play has been completed nothing prevents his being killed. He did not treat the possibility that the manner of his death may be an essential part of Mercutio's function. For him, Mercutio's death seemed simply the means by which Shakespeare managed to terminate the role and to dismiss a character no longer needed and for whom no more stage time could be spared. But a character rendered superfluous by the progress of the action need not be carried off the stage a corpse—he can be disposed of much more discreetly. Juliet's Nurse and Friar John drop silently out of this play when their dramatic functions have been completed, Casca loses his distinctive dramatic personality in Julius Caesar, and the Fool vanishes from King Lear. A dramatist who feared the rivalry of a secondary character toward his hero would hardly risk intensifying the rivalry by giving the former one of the most brilliant dying scenes at the very moment designed to remove him from the competition.

Dr. Johnson did not define the place allotted to Mercutio in the construction of the play, but his suggestion that Mercutio's death be viewed in terms of the play's structure has considerable merit. As the first death represented in the play, it sharply divides the events.7 Mercutio's death affects the action critically and thoroughly alters the tone of the play. In the midst of the story of romantic love which has occupied the stage, and in spite of the general atmsophere of danger and the predictions of doom, this actual death comes as a shock. It introduces the crucial fact, irrevocable and damaging, that shifts the play into the tragic mode. Before this, despite the various tensions (including those established by the Prologues and the imagery), the events and the hopes of several characters are directed toward the reconciliation of the feuding households in love and toward the possible happiness of the lovers. After it, the play moves toward death and the final reconciliation, in grief, of the heirless families. Such happiness as the lovers enjoy after this event and its immediate consequences is but a private moment stolen from an increasingly hostile world. The hopes of recovering their situation and restoring their union are desperate and prove ultimately vain. The consequences attendant upon Mercutio's death directly dominate the third act and reverberate throughout the play. Mercutio's death leads directly to Tybalt's death at Romeo's hands, which in turn becomes the cause of Romeo's banishment, and this, through an intricate chain of contingencies, leads to the final catastrophe. Mercutio's death is thus a primary motivating force for major subsequent events. Furthermore, in the circumstances which lead to it and in the details of the way it is dramatized there appears a pattern which also governs the primary subject of the play, the tragedy of the lovers.

It seems certain that Shakespeare articulated the events of the fatal scene (III. i) in his own way, for the known sources treat the fight between Romeo and Tybalt without any reference to Mercutio. Indeed, in Arthur Brooke's poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), generally regarded as Shakespeare's principal source, Mercutio is not even named as present at the fatal scene, and though he may be supposed to belong to the group of Romeo's unnamed companions who arrive at the scene of the brawl, these take no explicit part in the action.8 In Brooke's poem, Romeus is walking with his friends in another part of the city when he is informed of a violent battle raging between numerous Capilets and Montagewes. At the scene, Romeus denounces the fighting and calls on his friends to help him part the combatants, but his pacific efforts are fruitless. Instead of bringing peace, he becomes the object of an unprovoked and treacherous attack by Tibalt, who attempts to run him through. Rather than draw his sword at this outrage, Romeus assures Tibalt of his own peaceful intentions and appeals to him to join in an attempt to restore peace. Tibalt replies with a challenge and a blow which would have killed Romeus had he not defended himself. Roused to action by this flagrant provocation, the now wrathful Romeus wounds Tibalt fatally. Romeus is sentenced to banishment as a result of the witnesses' testimony that “the fight begonne was by Tybalt” (l. 1044), a sentence predictably regarded as too lenient by the Capilets and as unjustly severe by the Montagewes.

The events as narrated by William Painter in “The goodly Hystory of the true and constante Love between Rhomeo and Julietta” (1567) are essentially the same as in Brooke's version of the story.9 Thibault attacks an unarmed Rhomeo (whose life is saved only by the mailed vest he is wearing), rejects his appeal for peace, and attacks a second time with such intensity that Rhomeo is forced to defend himself. The judgment of banishment is given at Rhomeo's trial on the grounds that he was acting in his own defense.

Shakespeare altered the story by bringing Mercutio into the conflict and by building up to the principal fight between Tybalt and Romeo in a quite different way, with effects that are far more dramatic than Brooke's or Painter's. He preserved Romeo's peaceful response to Tybalt's provocations, but he made this response the motive for Mercutio's intervention in the quarrel. Mercutio thus becomes the catalytic agent in the situation culminating in Romeo's killing of Tybalt. Shakespeare prepared for Mercutio's actions by characterizing him as aggressive and by revealing his preoccupations. Among the latter, quarreling and swordsmanship have a prominent place. In the Queen Mab speech (I. iv) Mercutio characterizes the soldier at greater length than he does any of the other figures in his catalogue of dreamers. Later, it is he who instantly apprehends the significance of the letter Tybalt has sent to Romeo's house; it is, he says, in particularly vigorous language, “a challenge, on my life” (II. iv. 8). Unlike Benvolio, however, he seems to doubt Romeo's ability to answer it to his satisfaction:

Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead—stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love-song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft; and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?


Mercutio is displaying his contempt for Romeo's lovelorn condition in language both humorous and savage. His terms, “dead,” “stabbed,” “run through,” and “cleft,” belong to the vocabulary of violence. Having ridiculed Romeo's love, Mercutio proceeds to satirize Tybalt, calling him “More than Prince of Cats,” and “the courageous captain of compliments,” thus mocking his affected language and his absurdly precise, fashionable, and “correct” deportment in fighting.10 But the change of spirit which Mercutio discovers in Romeo when the latter arrives on the scene greatly alters his expectations. At that point he even begins to look forward to seeing Romeo fight Tybalt, now that it appears the former has recovered from his absurd lovesickness.

In Shakespeare's version of the events there is no general brawl such as is found in the source narratives. Instead the scene opens quietly with a conversation between Benvolio and Mercutio. They are accompanied by their men, but the latter have no speaking roles. When Benvolio suggests that they withdraw from the public place, on the grounds—well justified as subsequent events show—that any meeting with the Capulets will result in a fight, Mercutio responds with an ironical accusation of Benvolio as a great quarreler. Mercutio expands this idea, much as he expanded the Queen Mab speech, by an amusing and satirical catalogue of instances, in this case occasions of Benvolio's supposed quarreling. Benvolio turns these remarks back at Mercutio, however, with the observation:

An I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter.


Benvolio shows, beneath the surface of this banter, an awareness of the real danger in quarreling, just as he sensed the likelihood of a brawl. While Mercutio is rejecting the implied warning in his customary witty manner, Tybalt enters, accompanied by several companions.

The stage is now divided between two mutually antagonistic groups. Tybalt moves first, taking the initiative with the close support of his companions, and confronts Mercutio and Benvolio. Tybalt evidently wants information about Romeo, who has not replied to his letter of challenge. Although speaking to an enemy with whom he fought earlier (Benvolio) and to Mercutio, whose association with Romeo he obviously despises, Tybalt is at least formally polite. His words, “Gentlemen, good-den: a word with one of you” (III.i.37), are not necessarily hostile, though they may be somewhat peremptory. It is Mercutio who speaks insolently, introducing direct hostility into the verbal exchange: “And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something; make it a word and a blow” (III.i.39). In his response, Tybalt is formally precise, as was suggested earlier by Mercutio's satiric description of his fencing: “You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, and you will give me occasion” (III.i.40-41). Mercutio shows his contempt for such precision in his impulsive reply: “Could you not take some occasion without giving?” (III.i.43).

In the verbal sparring which follows, Mercutio continues to be more hostile than Tybalt. Mercutio is the one who actually makes a move toward his sword with the words, “Here's my fiddlestick; here's that shall make you dance. Zounds. …” (III.i.47-48). The relationship between the somewhat bantering words, the oblique tone, and the threatening gesture is complex and perhaps capable of different interpretations by actors and readers, but there can be no doubt of the essential point, that Mercutio is deliberately baiting Tybalt. Benvolio repeats his warning about being in the public haunt of men, but Mercutio again rejects it, this time defiantly:

Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze.
I will not budge for no man's pleasure, I.


Phrased as a reply to Benvolio's remark, these lines are even more an indication of belligerent and willful opposition to Tybalt. Mercutio seems bent on giving Tybalt the necessary “occasion” to fight.

Into this already strained situation Romeo enters. The established tensions shift upon his arrival. Tybalt ignores Mercutio's provocations in order to take up a quarrel that has prior claim on his attention. But as he turns from Mercutio his language is very surprising: “Well, peace be with you, sir; here comes my man” (III.i.55). This parting speech, from the man who earlier declared his abhorrence of the word “peace” (I.i.69-70), provides a remarkable contrast to the provocative language of Mercutio, and it separates Tybalt from any willful involvement in a quarrel with him. In response, Mercutio transfers to Romeo his own interest in fighting Tybalt. A vicarious satisfaction of his antagonism to Tybalt seems an acceptable substitute for a personal challenge. He puts strong and witty emphasis in his reply on what (he believes) Romeo will do, playing on Tybalt's expression, “Here comes my man.”

But I'll be hanged, sir, if he wears your livery.
Marry, go before to field, he'll be your follower!
Your worship in that sense may call him man.


Mercutio is anxious for Romeo to take up the challenge to Tybalt where he left it, and he is virtually promising that Romeo will fight him.

Tybalt's insults to Romeo are met with restraint and even an offer of love. Tybalt is nonplused; Mercutio is outraged. Shakespeare's technique was to polarize the conflicting social and ethical values in this situation as he exploited the tensions between the code of honor and the ethics of Christianity. As Curtis B. Watson describes the scene: “Romeo turns the other cheek like a Christian pacifist when Tybalt first insults him, both because the Prince has forbidden private feuds and because Tybalt is a kinsman of Juliet (III.i.69-75). Mercutio, on the other hand is the very embodiment of the Renaissance man of honor. He calls his friend's meek acceptance of Tybalt's slander a ‘calm, dishonorable, vile submission!’ (III.i.76).”11 However, Watson apparently has given Mercutio's judgment the priority, rather than Romeo's actual words and actions, for Romeo does not offer “meek acceptance.” He denies that he is a villain, ignores the demeaning word “boy,” and denies having done Tybalt any injuries. Further, in response to Tybalt's ironical reference to the “love” (i.e., hatred)12 he bears Romeo, the latter offers a genuine love, concluding with the statement that he values the Capulets' name as his own. His speeches are magnanimous in content and dignified in tone. His attitude is neither “vile submission,” as Mercutio calls it, nor “meek acceptance,” as Watson describes it.

Mercutio now acts betrayed, outraged, and bitter. He is not angry merely because Romeo has lost honor but because Tybalt goes unchallenged, since, as he puts it, “‘Alla stoccata’ carries it away” (III.i.73). To prevent this he intervenes with his own challenge: “Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?” (III.i.74). Mercutio is taking up Romeo's quarrel as he thinks it should be handled and is simultaneously resuming his own, with a vengeance. He cannot bear to see Tybalt go untouched.

Mercutio virtually forces Tybalt to fight. His insults are more stinging than any others uttered in the scene, and he draws his sword first for an attack. He even threatens an attack whether Tybalt draws or not: “Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out” (III.i.79-81). This threat, even in its superficially jocose language, recalls the sources' description of Tybalt, who in those earlier narratives attacks Romeo with a potentially fatal blow while Romeo is unarmed and unprepared to fight. No more provocation than Mercutio's threat is now required by Tybalt; he draws, and the fight is on.

Mercutio intervened to start a quarrel; Romeo now intervenes to stop one, calling on Benvolio to help. The situation resembles that of the opening scene, where Benvolio drew his sword to part the brawling servants, crying: “Part fools! / Put up your swords; you know not what you do” (I.i.62-63). This measure failed then, as it fails even more seriously now. Tybalt, the man of precise forms and code of honor, treacherously stabs Mercutio under Romeo's arm, and Romeo becomes directly involved in Mercutio's death. Romeo is at first incredulous at the possibility of death as he supports Mercutio: “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much” (III.i.94). It is objectively a valid possibility, but it is soon invalidated by the dramatic facts.

Mercutio's dying words consist of bitter jests based on his mortality, alternating with outbursts of frustrated anger. In the latter he virtually calls Romeo to account:

… Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o' both your houses! Zounds! A dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
I thought all for the best.
Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint. A plague o' both your houses!
They have made worms' meat of me. I have it,
And soundly too. Your houses!


Romeo, as well as Tybalt, is an object of Mercutio's angry outbursts, and both houses are involved as agents of Mercutio's death. A burden of responsibility settles on Romeo, who feels it keenly. He summarizes his situation immediately after Mercutio has been led off:

This gentleman, the prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf, my reputation stained
With Tybalt's slander. …


And the next news is that Mercutio is dead.

Mercutio's denunciation of the feud, “A plague o' both your houses,” strikes a note of impending doom. But it is questionable whether the feud is the proper object of Mercutio's resentment. The enmity of the houses is a condition of conflict that surrounds Mercutio and all the other citizens of Verona. It is a perpetual opportunity for disaster, but Mercutio is not personally involved in it. A kinsman of the Prince who is trying to establish social order impartially, Mercutio is so favored by the Capulets that he is invited by name to their feast (though he prefers to crash the party as a masker instead); on the other hand, he has chosen to be Romeo's friend. He hates Tybalt, but not because he is a Capulet. The family connection does not constitute any part of his denunciations, his animosity is much more personal. He opposes Tybalt's aggressiveness, his manners, his alien values, and his arrogance. The fatal quarrel was not forced on an unwilling Mercutio by the feud. Mercutio was the aggressor who deliberately quarreled with Tybalt and attacked him. A duel between them might have taken place even if Romeo had never appeared on the scene. And when Romeo confronts Tybalt, he seeks to mitigate, not exacerbate the feud. It would be far more logical, then, for Mercutio to blame his own rashness, or Tybalt, or Romeo's interference (as to some extent he does) rather than the feud. But he calls down a plague on both houses, with words like a curse or prophecy which is tragically fulfilled.

In denouncing the feud as he does, Mercutio is minimizing his own responsibility for his death and externalizing the cause of his own misfortune. But it is a complex interrelationship of forces that results in Mercutio's death—the personal antagonisms, the chance meeting, Mercutio's challenge, Tybalt's sword, Romeo's arm. Among these the feud is indeed present as a constant background of violent possibilities, but it remains a remote influence rather than an immediate cause of Mercutio's death.

Mercutio's death is important in the structure of the play for what it leads to; it is a key link in a chain. But it establishes a pattern repeated at other points in the action, and so becomes significant as the primary exhibition of an organizing principle of the play. This pattern comprises, first, a prevailing dramatic situation containing threats, anxieties, dangers, and risks. Shakespeare characteristically made explicit the threatening elements of the situation and placed the spectator in a position to perceive and appreciate the risks. The situation is open, the possibilities for escaping or incurring the risks are both made evident. The overriding condition in Verona is, of course, the opposition of the rival houses and the threat of violent and fatal conflict. At times the violence breaks out, as in the opening scene, but at most times it constitutes a tension that is controlled or at least suppressed. But it provides a constant threatening background against which the characters move. The play receives much of its distinctive character from the sense of threat emanating from this background and the sense that the threat might nevertheless be avoided or overcome. In Mercutio's case the real threat is tangential to the feud; it is personified in Tybalt himself. The risks are intensified by Mercutio's deep personal hostility to Tybalt and his inability to hold his tongue.

Second, a provocation occurs which can actualize threats evident in the dramatic situation. The provocation may be direct and intense, or subtle and implied, but it is a stimulus to the characters, and it triggers the subsequent action. Some provocations do not actually result in violent action, though they tend toward it. Tybalt's address to Mercutio excites the latter, but it does not result in a fight, though perhaps only because the encounter is cut short. Tybalt's insults to Romeo likewise fail to result in the intended clash. Yet the same insults prove an unbearable provocation to Mercutio, and so they result in a fight Tybalt did not intend. The provocations are thus capable of eliciting violence beyond the control and the intentions of those who originate them.

The third element of the pattern is the passionate response to the provocation. Usually there is a sudden and impulsive decision, closely followed by crucial actions. These decisions and actions are made without care or thought for the consequences—though sometimes in defiance of expected consequences—and without reflection or judgment. In the scene described above, Mercutio's sudden challenge to Tybalt as “rat-catcher” and the drawing of his sword represent virtually simultaneous decision and action. The tension of the scene is exploited in this rapid movement; one can observe Mercutio's mental and emotional determination, the verbal challenge, and then the physical action in almost the same instant.

Fourth, a tragic consequence follows the passionate action. Tybalt gives Mercutio a fatal wound and escapes unhurt. This result of his challenge elicits great bitterness from Mercutio, who evidently envisaged nothing but his own victory. A little later Romeo conceives of several possible outcomes of his challenge to Tybalt, all of them of tragic import: “Either thou or I, or both, must go with him [Mercutio]” (III.i.128). In this play it quite often seems that the tragic outcome could have been avoided, just as Romeo cannot at first believe that Mercutio's wound is so serious as to cause death. If the Friar's letter had been delivered, or if Romeo had arrived at the tomb only a few moments later, or if Tybalt had not returned to the place where he stabbed Mercutio, or if any of numerous other events had happened only a little differently, the tragic outcome might have been avoided. But the tragic consequences occur, and they speak for themselves.

Finally, the pattern concludes in a blurring of the sense of personal responsibility for the events by a shift of dramatic attention to the impersonal elements of the situation in which the tragic consequences occurred. There is an almost circular movement back to the first element of the pattern. The play moves from an ominous or threatening situation through the decisions of individuals to the limiting contexts in which their decisions and actions took place. This is sometimes dramatized in terms of an individual's blindness to his own role in bringing about disaster. Mercutio complains about the rival houses, but not his own rashness. And other characters in this play have a strong tendency to view the tragic results of a sequence of events and to ignore the process by which those results came about. It is a kind of selective attention operating to emphasize the general and external causes of the events and to minimize the individual and personal responsibilities of the characters.

The pattern of the events leading to Mercutio's death is repeated immediately in the same scene in the actions resulting in Tybalt's death. Romeo is acting against the background of family enmity and violent conflict, and in the shadow of Mercutio's death. Tybalt's killing of Mercutio constitutes an overwhelming provocation. Romeo makes a sudden and passionate decision, determining on revenge for Mercutio and thus finally allying himself with the code of honor. When Tybalt suddenly reappears Romeo has his opportunity to act immediately. The tragic result is Tybalt's death, with all of its implications for Romeo's relationship with Juliet and the Capulet family. Romeo seems almost stupified by this result, and only Benvolio's solicitude makes it possible for him to escape from the scene. In this state of anguish it is Romeo himself who refers the events to more remote causes than his own decisions and actions, diminishing the sense of personal responsibility for the events as he laments: “O, I am Fortune's fool” (III.i.135). One is confronted now by the tragic results, and the complexities of the human motivations, actions, and decisions which led to those results pale into a general impression in which Fortune receives the responsibility for all, at least if Romeo's point of view is allowed to dominate the dramatic moment.

The pattern is repeated in subsequent crucial actions of the play. Juliet opposes herself against all the tensions and risks implicit in her unauthorized marriage to Romeo. Separated from her husband by the sentence of banishment, she faces a pathetic and terrible dilemma, even hearing threats of a Capulet intrigue to assassinate Romeo (III.v.87-92). But it is the threatened forced marriage to Paris that becomes the inescapable provocation to desperate action. While Juliet acts less precipitously than Mercutio or Romeo, she likewise fixes her course in a moment of passionate resolution, and displays consistently the determination to live up to it:

I'll to the friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.


The intervening scenes are filled with the attempt to work out a “remedy” and its subsequent failure. In the tomb, Juliet's discovery of Romeo's death reinforces her former provocation, and, the friar's remedy now useless, she does take her life in very rapid decision and action:

Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath [stabs herself]; there rest, and let me die.


After this tragic issue of Juliet's decisions and actions, the ascription of the events to more remote causes must be made by others. It is the Prince who makes such a pronouncement after hearing how the deaths of the lovers came about:

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


The many stages of the action and the decisions of individuals are seen here only as “means” to the tragic end. Shakespeare is directing attention away from the sequence of actions and coincidences to the tragic end itself, ascribed to the operation of a vast, external power, and the sense of personal responsibility fades out against this background.

The pattern occurs again in Romeo's actions leading to his own death. Unaware of Friar Lawrence's desperate plan, Romeo hears the news of Juliet's death which provokes his sudden and grim decision to die with her. It is a personal and desperate decision, made in defiance of the stars (V.i.24) though ironically in fulfillment of the star-crossed destiny the prologue to Act I describes. His too precipitate death follows this passionate decision quite rapidly. The pattern is completed when, after his discovery of Romeo's death, Friar Lawrence relates the tragic event to vast and general forces in telling Juliet:

A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents.


Once more the dramatist made the personal responsibility of an individual fade into the background of powerful and impersonal forces.

The actions of Friar Lawrence are also closely related to this pattern. He is acutely aware of the risks in the situation in Verona and in his plan to reconcile the houses through Romeo and Juliet's marriage. Those risks take definite form in the subsequent arrangements for the marriage of Juliet to Paris. But it is Juliet's threat to kill herself (IV.i.52-65; V.iii.234-42) which becomes the provocation that forces Friar Lawrence into devising his extreme plan involving her counterfeit death. The failure of the plan brings about the tragic deaths of both lovers, and Friar Lawrence is left to face these consequences. Unlike the other characters, however, he exhibits a sense of personal responsibility for what has happened; yet in his narration of the events which led to the catastrophe he refers to Romeo's death as “this work of heaven” (V.iii.261) and points out that Juliet killed herself after he had been frightened from the tomb. And he expresses his sense of responsibility only in the conditional mode, submitting himself to others' judgments:

                                                                                                    if aught in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed, some hour before his time,
Unto the rigour of severest law.


To this the Prince immediately replies, “We still have known thee for a holy man” (V.iii.270). Thus even Friar Lawrence's feeling of personal responsibility is left unresolved against the tragic events themselves and the background of fatalistic powers that have brought about the tragic catastrophe.

This structural pattern in Romeo and Juliet manifests the unique quality of the play, for the tragedy contains a powerful emphasis upon external destiny operating in the lives of the characters and an equally powerful depiction of characters making realistic and crucial decisions that are morally significant and responsible. Each emphasis seems essential: the first, if found alone, would make the characters seem merely puppets, while an exclusive emphasis on the second would lead to a heavily moral and judicial conclusion. Shakespeare balanced one motif against the other in attempting the creation of drama that is both vital and tragic. In some respects it is an uneasy and unstable combination, one Shakespeare did not use in his other tragedies, for it is a pattern more of dramatic organization and attention than an exploration of cause and effect in human affairs leading to tragedy. This problem of causation is implicit in such elements of the drama as Mercutio's dying curse on the two houses, since careful examination of his actions reveals that he is much more to blame for his death than is the feud. Nevertheless, the impression of the dramatic moment is that Mercutio is the unfortunate victim of forces outside his control. This is typical of the play—though the characters are seen acting passionately and often wrongly, they are not held up by the dramatist for censure. The final impression of the tragedy is that those who have suffered death have been the victims of vast and powerful forces which have operated for their destruction as well as for peace in Verona.

The basic pattern is strongly established in this play, with its elements of threatening situation, provocation, passionate decision and action, tragic consequences, and ascription of the tragedy to impersonal forces of destiny. The death of Mercutio constitutes the first dramatic statement of the pattern which is subsequently repeated and developed as a major element of the tragedy. Mercutio's death is more than “Exit Mercutio” writ large; it introduces the forces and the pattern of dramatic action that lead to the tragedy of the lovers.


  1. The appeal of Mercutio's part shows itself in arrangements to alternate the parts of Romeo and Mercutio between actors and sometimes in the appropriation of some of Mercutio's lines by Romeo. Margaret Webster, after describing the strong appeal of the part of Juliet to actresses, maintains that Romeo's part is less attractive: “An actor does not feel the same yearning for Romeo; he usually spends days of troubled debate as to whether Mercutio is not the showier part, filled as it is with wit and poetry, with the zest of life and the tragic, wasteful irony of death” (Shakespeare Without Tears, rev. ed. [Cleveland and New York, 1955], p. 149).

  2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. John Dover Wilson and George Ian Duthie (Cambridge, Eng., 1969), p. 44. All references to the play are to this edition, unless otherwise noted.

  3. Henry Hallam, Introduction to the Literature of Europe, 5th ed., 1855; cited in Romeo and Juliet, New Variorum Edition, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia, 1878), p. 159n.

  4. “Defence of the Epilogue [to the Second Part of Granada]: Or an Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age,” Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson (London, 1962), I, 180.

  5. The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson (New York, 1968; repr. of 1765 ed.), VIII, 125.

  6. This emphasis is understandably characteristic of most studies of Mercutio; the brilliance of his life has tended to obscure the significance of his death. Cf. Herbert McArthur, “Romeo's Loquacious Friend,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], X (1959), 35-44; Norman N. Holland, “Shakespeare's Mercutio and Ours,” Michigan Quarterly Review, V (1966), 115-23. Richard Hosley, however, has succinctly observed that Mercutio's death “is the keystone of the plot's structure” (Romeo and Juliet, The Yale Shakespeare, rev., ed. Richard Hosley [New Haven, 1954], p. 171); cf. Romeo and Juliet, New Penguin Shakespeare, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1967), pp. 29-30, and Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London, 1968), pp. 82-83, for treatment of the crucial effect of Mercutio's death.

  7. The effect of this will be missed if, as sometimes happens in productions, actual deaths are represented in the opening Fight Scene. Mercutio's is the first actual death represented in the text.

  8. See Arthur Brooke, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London and New York, 1957), I, 269-363.

  9. William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, Novel 24, ed. Joseph Jacobs (New York, 1966; repr. of 1890 ed.), III, 80-124.

  10. For possible contemporary reasons for Mercutio's attitudes see Adolph L. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing in Romeo and Juliet,SQ, XX (1969), 121-27.

  11. Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton, 1960), p. 356.

  12. Q2 reads “loue”; Q1 reads “hate.”

Gerhard W. Kaiser (essay date 1977)

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

[In the following excerpt, Kaiser presents an overview of the plot, central characters, and themes of Romeo and Juliet, viewing the drama as not only a tragedy of misfortune and explosive passion, but also one of reconciliation.]

After having discussed three of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, we propose now to have a look at one of his earlier dramas, the lyric tragedy Romeo and Juliet. This is a play which brought the young dramatist his first great success, and although Shakespeare had not yet quite found the mature and balanced mastery of his later plays, critics generally agree that Romeo and Juliet deserves being praised as a great work of art1 and is admired especially for its effectiveness as a drama. It is, in the words of a critic, “the first of Shakespeare's plays to excite and sustain any deep concern with humanity in the ills that befall it.”2 However, as concerns the question of its tragic substance the play is usually considered as a failure. This view has been voiced by H. B. Charlton, for example, who writes, Shakespeare's “achievement (in Romeo and Juliet) is due to the magic of Shakespeare's poetic genius and to the intermittent force of his dramatic power rather than to his grasp of the foundations of tragedy”3

Certainly, if viewed from Shakespeare's “four giants”, Romeo and Juliet loses in tragic stature. But if—as John Dover Wilson has it—“an almost superhuman intensity is … the most striking feature” of Shakespeare's four “colossal plays”4—then this most striking feature can be found in Romeo and Juliet too; and it is by no means the only striking feature, nor is it the only characteristic that this drama has in common with the great tragedies.

When one enters on a discussion of this play it must, however, always be remembered that here one has a young dramatist at work, a poet who, great as he already is, has not yet achieved the final vision of his later tragedies.

More so than in the tragedies discussed above, we will have to interpret this play at great detail, and follow the action very closely, and thus watch the poet shape the tragic experience of the two young lovers, around whom the play centres.



The play begins with a “prologue” which contains a kind of exposition of the contents of the play. The audience is prepared to follow “the fearful passage” of Romeo and Juliet's “death-mark'd love” through “the continuance of their parents' rage: which but their children's end nought could remove.”5 “Two households”, the Montagues and the Capulets, have for a long time lived in animosity and when it happens that their children fall in love with one another, these young lovers are, from the outset, “star-crossed”.

To begin with, this play seems to be about evil in human relationship, displayed by the example of the two feuding families and their unhappy children. And some critics, such as G. B. Harrison, do not hesitate to label the play as an “illustration of the folly of family feuds”.6 However, if one studies the play more closely, it becomes apparent that the opening prologue is somewhat misleading in the simplicity of its summing up of the “contents” of the play.

Very often in Shakespeare's plays the first scenes are significant for the action to follow: it is therefore of special interest to consider the dramatic importance of the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet.

The first scene opens on a public square in Verona where friends meet and talk together, where wanton servants tease their fellow servants, where people also come across each other who do not really want to meet, and where even fights are not so uncommon. Thus, first of all, by showing the gay and yet warlike atmosphere of Verona's street, Shakespeare builds up the background and environment in which the tragic action is to take place, and in which the two figures, Romeo and Juliet are placed.

Although in the prologue we have been prepared to meet the “star-crossed lovers” the opening scene does not present them to us. Shakespeare begins his play with a clash of the two houses Montague and Capulet, but significantly enough, it is the servants who begin the quarrel, and not the masters. Sampson, the servant of the house of Capulet is moved even by “a dog of the house of Montague” (I.i.10), and moved to such an extent that he contrives a fight when servants of the Montagues pass by. It is the “ancient grudge”—of which the prologue speaks—that is so deeply rooted in “masters and men” that there is no need for a special cause to raise the blood; the mere presence of men of both houses in one place is enough to throw the spark into the powder barrel and cause an explosion. Purposefully the two servants insult the serving-men of the hated house of Montague and:

… set this ancient quarrel new abroach


Thus, in the very first scene the leading theme of the conflict between the two families is introduced by showing its actual manifestations. The ancient grudge breaks “to new mutiny” when the servants irresponsibly scuffle with one another, and then involve others too. For it happens that Benvolio, of the house of Montague and friend to Romeo, comes across the fighting men and intervenes in order to “keep the peace”. Unfortunately, at this moment, Tybalt, a hot-head of the house of Capulet, and cousin to Juliet, comes along too, and, drawing his sword against Benvolio, he cries furiously:

          … talk of peace! I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee:

(I.i.77 f.)

and forces the fight on Benvolio, thus emphasizing the folly of the servants.7 It is not enough that these four men should be fighting: old Capulet and old Montague appear on the scene with their wives, and join in the cries of civil war.

It requires the presence of the Prince (Escales) and some sensible citizens—as the representatives of law and order—to part the infuriated fighters on either side. This hatred, then, is shown to affect more than just the two families, as a matter of fact, the whole state is involved.

          Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
.....Will they not hear?

(I.i.88 f.)

the Prince exclaims and then calls the agitators to account.

          If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace

(I.i.103 f.)

These words—implying the Elizabethan idea that death is the payment for civil war—are spoken before Romeo and Juliet have appeared at all, and yet they convey the feeling of foreboding future disaster.

So far the theme that underlies the love story of Romeo and Juliet and causes its tragic ending has been introduced—without, however, involving any of the main characters yet. When Romeo, and then Juliet, are presented on the stage it becomes clear immediately that they have no active part in these quarrels.

Romeo's first appearance is skilfully prepared—from the dramatic point of view—by Lady Montague's asking Benvolio after her son. Benvolio answers that he had seen his friend Romeo in the early morning, but had found him in a very pensive and depressed mood seeking the solitude of a nearby wood.8 Romeo's father describes other, similar symptoms: his son weeps and sighs, he locks himself up in his room during the daytime making an artificial night for himself.

Black and portentous must this humour prove.


is old Montague's feeling, and his words—it is felt—seem to forcecast that something terrible is going to happen.

It is by this description that Shakespeare depicts young Romeo to the audience even before he is seen himself. After Montague's and Benvolio's talk about Romeo, the latter himself appears. Romeo's character which had so skilfully been introduced indirectly through his companion's account, is now put before us and developed, deliberately—it seems to us—before the main action has been started.

Romeo when talking to his friend Benvolio is found melancholy, grieved, moody, lovesick! He starts by enjoying the self-dramatizing melancholy of being desperately in love, and, absorbed in his hopeless fancy for Rosaline, he is quite indifferent to the family feud:

          … O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love

(I.i.179 ff.)

The Romeo of these first scenes is the typical romantic lover: woefully sad, desperate to madness, and using the typical conventional, highly artificial language of the love poetry of the 1590s! He rails against the torments of love, as proud Rosaline will not give in to his “assailing eyes”.

          She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow
Do I live dead that live to tell it now.

(I.i.229 f.)9

Yet one feels that a good deal of Romeo's self-pity is a pose. Romeo is “more in love with love than with Rosaline” H. Granville-Barker writes about the weeping Romeo of the first scene. However, we are presented with a very clear-cut picture of Romeo who, half boy, half man, is floating in a stream of romantic emotions.

His character having been put before us, we are now—in the following scene—prepared to meet Juliet. Her father, old Capulet, and Paris, a young nobleman, are “matchmaking”, Paris having asked for Juliet's hand. We learn that Juliet “hath not seen the change of fourteen years” yet, and are prepared to find her not much more than a child. And so she is. She appears for the first time in I.iii., and her pure figure is contrasted to her gross, foursquare, earthy nurse, who enjoys making more or less indecent remarks, which, however, are either ignored or stopped by Juliet, for whom anything connected with physical love is of no importance yet. Still, the nurse tries to arouse young Juliet's appetite for such matters and helps Lady Capulet in her endeavour to persuade her daughter to marry Paris. (“Go girl, seek happy nights to happy days!” I.iii.106) Juliet at last agrees to have a look at Paris on the occasion of a banquet arranged in her father's house solely for that purpose.

In the next scene Romeo and his friends are on their way to the banquet in the palace of the Capulets, where Romeo, who has learnt of this feast coincidentally, hopes to be able at least to see his adored Rosaline from the distance.

On their way to Capulet's house Romeo proves a spoil-sport as fits his mood, and not even his friend Mercutio's remarks10 and talks of dreams (“which are the children of an idle brain”) can cheer him up. And when Mercutio tries to hurry him on a little for fear of coming too late to the banquet, Romeo replies:

          I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

(I.iv.106 ff.)

In these words Romeo “shows the peculiar clarity which gives quality to a man, marks him off from the happy-go-lucky crowd, and will at a crisis compel him to face his fate.”;11 it is as though his mind is anticipating something of the “fearful passage” which he is about to enter.

In the fifth and last scene of the first act, then, the deciding encounter between Romeo and Juliet takes place.

At the banquet Romeo beholds Juliet for the first time. He is rapt:

          What lady is that, which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?


he asks—and at this very minute Rosaline disappears out of his mind entirely.

Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night

(I.v.54 f.)

Then he comes closer, speaks to her, touches her hand, and falls deeply in love with her.

With lightning swiftness Romeo has changed. He experiences real passion for the first time, and this experience transforms his whole being, indeed turns him from the caricature of a romantic lover into a true human being.12 And Juliet, she is such a child! Shakespeare insists on the youth of the two; he wants to show a real girl and a real boy.

We will not endeavour to spoil the unspeakably tender scene of the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet by discussing it. For minutes nothing seems to exist but the boy and the girl, and moved one follows the touching play of words between the two. Juliet is moved to earnestness by his fervour, but breaks into fun at last, remarking roguishly: “You kiss by the book”. They are so in love, both of them! Their kiss proves it, and at the same time seals their fate.

Secluded they stand, for seconds only, then Juliet is called away. Then Romeo hears who Juliet is, and Juliet learns Romeo's origin. They must realize that outwardly they stand on different sides of a strong dividing line! However, Romeo faces his fate and it is only now that he breaks through to desperate reality. And so does Juliet; when she hears that Romeo is the only son of her family's “great enemy” and realizes that:

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

(I.v.140 ff.)13

—she is no more a child.

Similarly to Othello, at the end of the opening scenes the action of this play has been set in motion and put clearly before us. The poet has introduced lovers from two houses between which there is a ferocious feud, and though the lovers themselves are free of hate and unaffected by enmity they will have to be prepared to fight for their love against the impediments of civil war. However, the importance of the first act goes further than they. Shakespeare, in this first act, makes skilful use of the opportunity to depict Romeo's and Juliet's character.

Romeo, at first, is shown as a moody person, full of the conventional lovers' complaints, emotional, unmanly. When he sees Juliet, however, an abrupt change takes place, a change, we feel, that comes too suddenly, too unprepared, too rashly, as not to make us wonder at Romeo's instability of character. While he had dedicated the whole of his heart to “fair Rosaline” before (“I have lost myself, I am not here, / This is not Romeo, he's some other where.” I.i.203) when he confronts Juliet it is with the same absolute whole heartedness that he dedicates himself to her. This indicates quite unobtrusively a significant trait of Romeo's, his rashness and arbitrariness of judgement. His intemperance is stressed further when he first converses with Juliet. He cannot wait, he must kiss her instantly. And Juliet, she is just the same. Fascinated by Romeo's trembling passion she herself is inflamed and the fire of love is kindled in her.

However, Juliet, in comparison, does not have to withdraw her love from anyone else; she has never loved before, and cannot be moved by her parents to love Paris, her suitor. It is only when she confronts Romeo that her whole heart opens in all purity to “her only love”, and she can yield the whole unbroken, constant strength of first love, in genuine, as yet hidden violence and passion.


In the second act the events are hurried on with great swiftness. After Romeo and his friends have left the banquet, Romeo hides from Benvolio and Mercutio who jest “at scars that never felt a wound” when they conjure him by Rosaline's diverse assets. When they have given up seeking for him, Romeo approaches Juliet's balcony and overhears her sighs and professions of love.

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?


she sighs, and then argues innocently with herself:

          What's in a name? That which we' call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet,
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes.

(II.ii.43 ff.)

and when she bursts out passionately

          … Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name which is no part of thee,
Take all my self.

(II.ii.47 ff.)

Romeo cannot retain himself any longer, stepping forward from where he was hidden, he exclaims, with all the violence of youthful passion:

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

(II.ii.49 ff.)

Without hesitation, without a split-second's reflection Romeo is ready to discard his name, and, surely, it is felt, he would have promised her anything at this minute, rapt as he is in his passion. The duet of love which follows is rightly considered as one of the loveliest passages ever written by Shakespeare.

Although—as Juliet herself says—their “ears have not yet drunk a hundred words” of their “tongue's utterance” (II.ii.58) they are so passionately in love already, that they simply cannot waste any time on “form” and “compliments”, but come to the point right away. Thus Juliet says:

          Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke: but farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me? …

(II.ii.88 ff.)

Romeo's love, and his sincere profession of it, is Juliet's only present concern. In all her fervour, she is yet thoughtful enough to warn him of too quick, too ill-considered, an answer:

          … I know, thou wilt say ‘ay’,
          And I will take thy word: yet, if thou swear'st,
          Thou mayst prove false. …
                                                                      … O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully …

(II.ii.90 ff.)

Romeo, kindled in his love to Juliet to the extreme, swears his love “by yonder blessed moon”, but is rebuked by Juliet, not to swear by

          … the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb

(II.ii.109 f.)

and when he, somewhat at a loss,—great boy that he is—asks her!

What shall I swear by?


Juliet answers:

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

(II.ii.113 ff.)

The god of her idolatry is Romeo to Juliet, after they have known each other not more than an hour, or two!

To an Elizabethan audience this vehemence of passion after such a rash development must certainly have foreboded disastrous consequences.

And in her next words Juliet herself confesses:

          I have no joy of this contract tonight:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden:
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’ Sweet, good night!

(II.ii.117 ff.)

However, these thoughts are quickly followed by others expressing Juliet's desire to become Romeo's wife as soon as possible.

          If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow
.....Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

(II.ii.143 ff.)

Surely, this breathtaking swiftness of decision and this rapidity of development is not coincidental. Shakespeare has insisted on the youth of the protagonists of this play, and now he stresses their precipitance. Every word Romeo and Juliet speak is steeped in a sensuous-spiritual ecstasy, everything they say, and do is meant to hasten the events on.14 Things cannot happen quickly enough for them.

That very same night, or rather morning, for it has become light in the meantime and the “grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night”, Romeo goes to see Friar Laurence to “crave his help”. Friar Laurence is very wise, very understanding, and patiently listens to Romeo's fervent account of his meeting Juliet, who “on a sudden” wounded Romeo's heart.

Again and again this suddenness is stressed. No sooner has Romeo informed the Friar of the essentials than he implores him:

          … this I pray,
That thou consent to marry us to-day.

(II.iii.64 f.)

Friar Laurence is taken aback by Romeo's haste;

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?

(II.III.65 ff.)

He is, at first, distressed by Romeo's sudden change, but when young Romeo makes it clear to him that this time his heart has been seized by genuine and true love, the Friar sees in this unexpected turn a chance of ending the ancient feud between the houses of Montague and Capulet.15 However, when with trembling impatience Romeo begs him:

O let us hence, I stand on sudden haste.


Friar Laurence's answer

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.


is full of meaning.

However, Romeo does not listen to the Friar's council, he does run fast. And Juliet is beset by exactly the same impatience; as the old Nurse has not returned as quickly as Juliet's heart would have wished her to, the girl pours forth restlessly:

          O, she is lame! love's heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams

(II.v.4 f.)

and scolds the Nurse:

Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.


But when eventually the old woman arrives, Juliet runs up to her and cannot wait to hear the news:

… come, I pray thee, speak; good, good nurse, speak.


and the Nurse reproaches her:

Jesu, what haste? can you not stay awhile?


Of course, Juliet cannot. The longer the Nurse withholds her news, the more irrepressibly impatient Juliet grows; holding on to the Nurse, she implores her:

Sweet, sweet, sweet Nurse, tell me what says my love?

until finally the good old soul yields her message, and tells Juliet:

          Then hie you hence to Friar Laurence' cell;
There stays a husband to make you a wife


and this hastening “hie you” is repeated twice:

          Hie you to church; I must another way,
To fetch a ladder, by the which your love
Must climb a bird's nest soon when it is dark:
.....                    … hie you to the cell.

(II.v.74 ff.)

Juliet gladly follows the Nurse's words: with a

Hie to high fortune!


and a farewell to the Nurse she hurries away.

This extreme hurrying on of events is further intensified in the following scene, (II.vi.). Romeo, in the Friar's cell, is waiting for Juliet to come to be married to her. The Friar is in serious thought, and the sense of gloom which was hinted at three times in the opening act, can be felt behind his words when—somewhat solemnly—he says:

          So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after hours with sorrow chide us not!

(II.vi.1 f.)

However Romeo, who lives completely for the present moment, does not think of “after hours”, fierily he bursts out:

          Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
          Then love-devouring death do what he dare;
It is enough I may but call her mine.

(II.vi.8 ff.)

Friar Laurence's words, wisely calling him to moderation, are not heeded seriously by Romeo, whose heart is too full of violent passion. He defies fate, and the impetuosity of his words further intensifies this trait of his character. It is no coincidence that the Friar, once again, speaks a word of warning:

          These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
.....Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(II.vi.9 ff.)

What dramatic irony that just at this moment, when the Friar calls Romeo to moderation and warns him of too great swiftness, Juliet enters the cell like a whirlwind (the stage direction runs: “Enter Juliet somewhat fast”), thus emphasizing the pernicious haste which the Friar reproaches!

When Friar Laurence realizes how deeply impassioned the two lovers are, and how little influence his good council can have on them at this hour, he himself consents to the pact and “will make short work” of marrying the two.

Only one night has passed between Romeo's and Juliet's first encounter and their marriage, and the poet has made apparent by many touches and comments the extraordinary rashness and precipitance with which the lovers hurry their fate on.16 No sooner have the lovers been united in matrimony by the Friar than they want to hurry to the consummation of their love. The Nurse has provided a ladder, so that Romeo can climb into Capulet's house under the cover of darkness without being discovered. Once again Juliet is depicted in her eager impatience, her passionate yearning for Romeo:

          Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging: such a waggoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen.

(III.ii.1 ff.)

In the meantime, however, the situation of the lovers has become more complicated and hopeless than ever, as Romeo has intervened in an unhappy quarrel between the impulsive Mercutio and the hot-headed Tybalt in order to make them “forbear this outrage” and to pacify them, as

          … the prince expressly hath
Forbidden bandying in Verona streets.

(III.i.91 f.)

But in the course of this fight Tybalt, most cunningly and brutally “under Romeo's arm thrusts Mercutio in”.17 When Tybalt who had fled at first comes back, Romeo is flung into a temper. “Quite unjustly fearing that love has made him ‘effeminate’, he opens the attack, now passionately rejecting the manly forbearance with which he had answered his wife's cousin.”18 His sudden change of attitude breaks through in his violent words:

          Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now.

(III.i.128 f.)

Blindly furious and rejecting all reason he fights Tybalt and kills him. It is only when Tybalt lies dead at his feet that Romeo's rage ebbs down and he realizes the consequences of his inconsiderate deed. Too late he remembers the Prince's words, and all he can utter now is “O, I am fortune's fool.”

The Nurse brings the news to Juliet whilst the latter is eagerly waiting for her lover to come to her. After the first shock at hearing the bad news, she realizes that she loves him nonetheless,

Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?


However, his banishment makes her ill at heart. In most daring and passionate words (III.ii.112 ff.) she wails at this cruel blow, and her only wish is to see Romeo once more before he has to leave Verona. Romeo in the meantime, has found refuge with Friar Laurence, and there, in the eremite's cell, Romeo's attitude has changed again. He wails and cries like a child, because he is banished and thus forced to leave Juliet.

With his own tears made drunk


he is the spectacle of a man wanting in resolution and vigour, so that even the Nurse on entering the Friar's cell, calls out

Stand up, stand up; stand, and you be a man:


She tells the Friar that Juliet is in exactly the same state of mind:

          … Even so lies she,
Blubbering and weeping, weeping and blubbering.

(III.iii.86 f.)

Romeo, on hearing of Juliet's despair, draws his sword to kill himself, but is restrained by the Friar's words. Friar Laurence, “the consistent voice of moderation and wisdom”19 warns him that he is truly unfortunate only in giving way to uncontrolled grief.

          Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art:
          Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
          The unreasonable fury of a beast:
.....I thought thy disposition better tempered.
          But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
          Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love:
          Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.

(III.iii.109 ff.)

After this admonition Romeo pulls himself together and “makes haste” (III.iii.164) to visit his young bride secretly.

The exquisite lyrical beauty of the lovers' parting is again underlain and intensified by the absoluteness of their passion.

          … so thou wilt have it so.
I'll say yon grey is not the morning's eye,
'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia's brow.
Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads:
I have more care to stay than will to go:


They have to tear themselves away from each other, so violent is the passion that binds them together.

Romeo, then, leaves Verona for Mantua, obeying the Prince's order. Friar Laurence has promised his help, and when Juliet is forced by her parents to consent to a marriage with Paris, a nobleman, the poor newly-wed girl turns to Friar Laurence and craves his help

          Give me some present counsel …
.....Be not so long to speak; I long to die,
If what thou speak'st speak not of remedy

(IV.i.61 ff.)

Things must happen in the heat, she cannot bear any delays. Gladly Juliet accepts the Friar's suggestion of taking a sleeping-potion so strong that for forty-two hours she would lie as if dead, so that Romeo could meet her at the bier in the family vault of the Capulets, and at her awakening from apparent death, flee with her to Mantua.

As the Friar's letter which was to inform Romeo in Mantua of this plan, is miscarried, Romeo has no idea other than that his love is dead when his man, Balthasar, brings the terrible news. “He knows in a flash what he means to do.”20 Balthasar is worried at Romeo's reaction and asks his master to have patience:

          I do beseech you, sir, have patience:
Your looks are pale and wild, and do import
Some misadventure.

(V.i.27 ff.)

However, Romeo does not know patience. In the following soliloquy he muses:

          … O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!

(V.i.35 f.)

Without hesitation he rouses a poor apothecary and asks him for a strong and effective poison

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

(V.i.63 ff.)

In deepest distress he rushes to Juliet's tomb under the cover of darkness. There he is held up by Paris whom he requests not to provoke him, but, provoked, he kills him in an outburst of fury.21

Then in his tragic misjudgement of the situation he takes poison by Juliet's side, just before the Friar, who could have explained everything to him, arrives. Romeo's last words:

          … O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.

(V.iii.119 f.)

end on the note of quickness and passion. And Friar Laurence's words when he enters immediately after this are

Saint Francis be my speed …


However, he is out-sped by Romeo, and then by Juliet, too, when with a quick thrust of Romeo's dagger she follows her beloved one into the beyond. The play is concluded by the Friar's account of the tragic happenings, and in a perfunctory end, old Montague and Capulet bury their enmity, after the Prince has pointed out to them:

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

(V.iii.92 f.)

There is a “glooming peace” at the end, bearing out what the prologue had hinted at in the beginning. “The stress, at the last, is on the value and effectiveness of love's sacrifice: it has ended ‘the ancient grudge’.” as one critic22 puts it, voicing the general opinion.

However, the stress of Shakespeare's “first deep analysis of tragedy”23 is certainly not on this perfunctory reunion of the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet is not just “a lesson for fathers” as G. B. Harrison has it.24 The effect of this early Shakespearean tragedy—more than of any other of his tragedies—rests on the interplay of character and situation.


The characters of the protagonists are carefully presented and our interpretation has been concentrated on their development in the play.

However, the outward situation and circumstances also play a very important part in Romeo and Juliet. This is already apparent in the Prologue, which speaks of the pernicious influence of “the stars”. (Stars, Fate and Fortune are nearly synonymous in Shakespeare.)25 One must note, however, as F. M. Dickey does,26 that in none of Shakespeare's early plays except for “Romeo and Juliet” have the stars any influence on the plots; and in his later plays Shakespeare either satirizes the attempt to explain conduct and character by astrology, or else he uses astrological predictions mainly for ironic effects.27 “In none of the plots, unless Romeo and Juliet is an exception, do the stars determine the action even though some of the characters think they do.”28 Blind fate, then, is never seen to work in Shakespeare's dramas. (The well-known line from Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind: “There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” (V.ii.230).) The question, therefore, which is of importance to a reader of Romeo and Juliet is whether the lovers are indeed depicted as caught up only in outward fatal circumstances, as “star-crossed” and “fortune's fools”, and their fate as “misadventured”, which would mean that in this play, for once, Shakespeare has written what could be called a “tragedy of situation”, or whether, already in this early “lyric tragedy”—as in his more mature works—Shakespeare has deepened the tragic effect by rooting the core of the tragedy in the character of the protagonists.

Before one can venture to answer this question, one must examine the outward circumstances and accidents that determine the progression of the action.

The first accident that plays a role occurs when Romeo and his friends run into the clown—who cannot read—and thus hear of the banquet and consequently go there (Romeo with the intention of meeting fair Rosaline).29

The next accident of importance happens when Romeo comes across the fighting men, Mercutio and Tybalt, tries to intervene, and finally slays Tybalt. The third, and most influential accident must be seen in Friar John's detention from delivering Friar Laurence's letter to Romeo.

Finally it can be considered an accident that Romeo arrives just a little too early at Juliet’s tomb, or that Juliet awakens just a little too late, or, respectively, that Friar Laurence reaches the vault a couple of minutes too late.

These fatal accidents, as well as the outward circumstances of the family feud, are meant to be considered as the bad fortune which makes the lovers appear “star-crossed”.

This view seems to be confirmed by a few remarks of Romeo's, and one or two of Friar Laurence's. Both Romeo and Juliet have in the beginning a sombre feeling of “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” (I.iv.107), and the same feeling presses on Romeo again after Mercutio's death:

          This day's black fate, on more days doth depend;
This but begins the woe others must end.

(III.i.124 f.)

and soon after this he calls himself “fortune's fool” (III.i.141), Friar Laurence on hearing of Romeo's fatal encounter with Tybalt, says to Romeo:

          Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts:
And thou art wedded to calamity.

(III.iii.2. f.)

and Juliet proclaims, when Romeo has left her for his banishment:

          O fortune, fortune! all men call thee fickle:
If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him …

(III.60 f.)

Later on, when Romeo's man brings the news of Juliet's death, Romeo's first reaction is to curse the stars for his misfortune:

Then I deny you, stars.


Friar Laurence, realizing that his letter has been miscarried, speaks of “unhappy fortune” (V.ii.17).

In the end, after Romeo's killing the Count Paris in the churchyard he calls Paris,

One writ with me in sour misfortune's book


and then Romeo, just before drinking his poison, speaks of shaking

          … the yoke of inauspicious stars,
From this world-wearied flesh …

(V.iii.111 f.)

Friar Laurence, arriving immediately after Romeo has sunk dead, moans:

          … Ah, what an unkind hour
Is guilty of this lamentable chance!

(V.iii.145 f.)

and to Juliet,—who just then wakes from her trance—he says

          A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents …

(V.iii.153 f.)

Taken out of their context these remarks do, indeed, all point at “the inauspicious stars” or at “fickle fortune”, or “a greater power than we can contradict” as determining force behind the lovers' fate. And on superficial reading of the play one could in fact come to a conclusion like that of E. K. Chambers: “Juliet and her Romeo become the shuttlecocks of fate, which, as ever, finds battledores ready to hand in meaningless accident and human stupidity.”30; or, like the one G. B. Harrison arrives at, that “if only Romeo had not been a Montague, if Tybalt had not met Mercutio at the wrong moment, if old Capulet had kept his temper with Juliet, if Friar Laurence had reached the tomb five minutes earlier, then all would have been well. As it is, at every critical moment something goes wrong by unlucky accident.”31 In other words: if there had not been so many unfortunate accidents, if the lovers' stars had not been crossed, the play could have ended happily. “The disaster in the play is caused not so much by some moral issue, but by sheer bad luck.”32

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is, of course, in the end a tragedy of misfortune. However, as our discussion of the play has shown, the play does not turn on “sheer bad luck” only, but there is, we think, “some moral issue” that contributes to the disaster at the end of the play. Shakespeare has taken great pains—as was seen—in the depiction of his characters; and has presented them in their freedom of will, and their freedom of choice. It has been shown that from the beginning the rashness, precipitance and violence of passion is stressed in Romeo as well as in Juliet.33 Rashness and haste in Shakespeare, however, are always connected with an element of “unripeness” and this has disastrous consequences. “Ripeness is all”, but “violent delights have violent ends”, and “they stumble that run fast”! Shakespeare, we think, drives this point home with undisguised force. Clearly, then, one must consider this violent haste, this passionately storming forward, this hideous rashness and absoluteness of mind as a fatal flaw in the lovers' character. In addition, Romeo's immaturity especially is intensified by showing him in many different states of mind, each of which filled with great intensity. (First, he is the typical conventional lover, then a sudden change to true love for Juliet, then peaceloving arbiter, then headstrong, bloodthirsty fighter, afterwards self-pitying weak adolescent, and so on.) Romeo is full of changes, and this, too, implying as it does, a lack of self-knowledge, is part of his fatal flaw.34 But it is this lack of self-knowledge, this impetuous rashness of temper, combined with an element of unripeness that makes Romeo, and to a lesser degree Juliet, too, passion's slave and, consequently, incurs their wrong choice. Having the fundamental choice between reasonable and passionate action, the lovers follow their passions and thus incur the tragic consequences; and some of the “ifs” which critics so readily put forward, now lose in importance. It is no good arguing “all could have been well, if Romeo had not slain Tybalt”, because it is significant that Romeo in his impetuosity did slay Tybalt, in a violent outburst which is typical of his character. Likewise it is no good saying, “if Romeo had arrived at Juliet's tomb some minutes later …”, for, again, it is typical and significant that Romeo should arrive as fast as he can, and take the quickly-effective poison without hesitation.35

As concerns the downright “accidents” in the play,—above all Friar Laurence's miscarried letter—one should bear in mind that accidents very often do play an important role in tragedy, and are part of the total design. Although accidents can, as Johannes Volkelt writes, “with some justification be called irreconcilable with tragedy”, and “special skill in representation is required if a fatal accident which is absolutely necessary for a certain tragic action, shall not weaken the tragic sense”,36 Shakespeare in his tragedies quite often incorporates portentous (consequential) accidents.37 “It is important” Volkelt continues, for the poet “to show that the particular accident … is full of (tragic) sense.”38 This, however, in our opinion, holds true for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare could easily have avoided the fatal accident (of Friar John's detention), but as it occurs this particular coincidence acquires a special meaning; and H. S. Wilson is quite right when he notes: “We are meant to reflect upon this chain of seeming accidents, for they are prominently displayed.”39

If one reflects on these accidents, however, it becomes apparent that there is more to them than mere ill-luck; one feels that this which looks like pure chance conveys the impression that some universal order is visible in the event.40 And when Una Ellis-Fermor states that “a play in which death or destruction comes by accident will fail, however finely imagined, because the catastrophe is not integral to the play and to its underlying thought”,41 we must assure that in Romeo and Juliet the catastrophe does arise naturally from the action and does form an integral part of it. H. Granville-Barker has the right feeling when he writes that “by the time he (Shakespeare) has brought Romeo and Juliet to their full dramatic stature we cannot—accidents or no—imagine a happy ending, or a Romeo and Juliet married and settled as anything but a burlesque.”42 Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not poor melodrama but a carefully wrought tragedy, in which circumstance plays an important role, but in which it is the protagonists' character that bears the decisive stress. Thus, this early tragedy is not much different from the poet's later tragedies in which fate is always inseparably bound up with human conduct.43 This fact however, that Romeo and Juliet is the first strong link in the chain of Shakespeare's tragedies has not been credited for by most critics. An outstanding exception is F. M. Dickey who has realized that “the play is an exceptionally powerful tragedy” in which “the immediate cause of (the lovers') unhappy deaths is Romeo's headlong fury and blind despair.”44 “Romeo therefore is a tragic hero like Othello in that he is responsible for his own chain of passionate actions.”45 Dickey very justifiably stresses the point that in our play “Shakespeare is careful to make Romeo guilty of sinful action under the influence of passion while at the same time making us sympathize with Romeo's agonies of despair”,46 and he concludes: “The patterns of moral reponsibility are necessary to give the action its perspective, and it is these patterns of the destructive as well as the creative force of love and the dependence of fate upon the passionate will which most contemporary criticism neglects or denies.”47 Romeo and Juliet, then, are like King Lear, Othello or Macbeth, characters of fundamental virtue, but diseased by one essential fatal trait. Their passion drives them on headlong, they cannot see because they do not listen to the voice of advice and moderation.48 Like Shakespeare's other tragic heroes Romeo and Juliet have—to apply A. C. Bradley's famous words—“a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind”,49 and thus hasten towards the catastrophe. They cannot “love moderately” and thus “stumble” because they “run too fast”. This trait of their character,—their impetuosity—helps to bring about their tragic ending. It is painful to watch the fatal precipitance with which the lovers “stumble” into their graves, and yet one feels their death to be inevitable.


It is at the end of the tragedy that Romeo in spite of his precipitancy achieves a sense of greatness, when at the side of Juliet's tomb he prepares for death. Looking around Romeo notices Tybalt lying in his “bloody sheet”, and with a sudden warm heart full of fellow-feeling and love, he is ready to atone for his rash killing of Tybalt, and asks the dead “cousin” forgiveness:

          O, what more favour can I do to thee,
Than with that hand that cut thy youth in twain
To sunder his that was thine enemy?
Forgive me, cousin!

(V.iii.98 ff.)

Truly spoken and heartfelt are these words and for a moment it seems as though Romeo through this feeling of pity and repentance is led to a final realization of his true character. But in Romeo's following words, after his last embrace to Juliet, this hint at a self-realization is washed away by the thoughts of his “dateless bargain with engrossing death”. In his last words:

          Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!

(V.iii.116 ff.)

one may at best surmise at something like a self-realization,50 but this is not at all forcibly presented.

However, if this hinted at self-realization has not been presented with the same force as in Shakespeare's other tragedies (especially in King Lear), this lack is outweighed by the shining beauty and greatness of Romeo's and Juliet's love which presents its last great manifestation in the mutual following of the the tragic ending, and just as J. Dover Wilson writes51 that the universe in which a Lear is possible cannot be evil as he is part of it and Cordelia is part of it, one may say with even greater justification that certainly the universe in which an all-overwhelming love such as Romeo's and Juliet's is possible can only be understood as good,—in spite of all the mischances and flaws of character to which man is subject. The quality of the lover's pure feeling emerges triumphant—even in their tragic death—and thus saves the cosmos for us. Significantly enough the drama ends on a harmonious note with the restoration of order in the streets of Verona, and peace between the rivalling houses

The tragic catastrophe, then, is not rooted in a tragic constitution of the universe, but is entirely due to the explosiveness and rashness of the lovers' passion and to the fatal violence with which Romeo and Juliet yield up all reasonable and thoughtful action. Their guilt is not love, but their violent storming forward. The quality of love, on the contrary, presents in this drama the great reconciliation which at the end of the drama does not leave the audience crushed at the lovers' tragic lot, but elated by the superb greatness and unanimity of human love, of which they have watched an outstanding representation.


  1. Romeo and Juliet at its first performance was by far the best tragedy for the stage that had yet been produced in the English language.” G. B. Harrison, [Shakespeare's Tragedies. London 1956], p. 47.

  2. John Lawlor, Romeo and Juliet, in Early Shakespeare. Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 3, Lond. 1961, p. 123.

  3. H. B. Charlton [Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge 1952] (p. 62): Romeo and Juliet “is indeed rich in spells of its own. But as a pattern of the idea of tragedy, it is a failure.” “Even Shakespeare appears to have felt that as an experiment, it had disappointed him.” (op.cit., p. 61 f.) cf. also H. B. Charlton, Romeo and Juliet as an Experimental Tragedy. British Academy Shakespeare Lecture, 1939.

  4. J. Dover Wilson, The Essential Shakespeare, [Cambr. U.P. 1932] p. 112.

  5. This kind of prologue proclaiming an external moral was an accepted feature of Elizabethan stage technique. H. S. Wilson, however, sees more in the prologue than this. He writes: “The Greek tragedians, and their imitator Seneca whom Shakespeare knew better, could count on their audience's familiarity with the story of the play. Shakespeare uses his opening prologue in Romeo and Juliet to establish the same condition.” (On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, Toronto 1957 p. 19)

  6. G. B. Harrison writes: “Romeo and Juliet is thus intended to illustrate rather the folly of family feuds than the sad story of two young lovers: and to the original title. ‘The most excellent and lamentable tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.’ might well have been added in the eighteenth-century manner the moral sub-title ‘Or a Lesson for Fathers’.” (op.cit., p. 48)

  7. “Shakespeare has made Tybalt not simply a man who acts rashly in sudden rage, but the symbol of the will diseased with hatred, of fixed anger without limit. ‘Wilful choler’ implies that Tybalt is kin to the true villains, the mortal sinners like Iago. Not anger but the more terrible extreme marks him …” Franklin M. Dickey, ‘Not Wisely But Too Well’, Shakespeare's Love Tragedies, San Marino, California, 1957, p. 97.

  8. It is interesting to watch the change of tone in Benvolio's language when he begins to speak about Romeo: and Montague, too, answers in the same smooth, lyric language.

  9. H. Granville-Barker. Prefaces to Shakespeare. II, Romeo and Juliet, London 1928, p. 53.

  10. It is interesting to note the nearly symmetrical construction that Shakespeare applies in this play.—As in Juliet's environment love is spoken of in its basest connotations, so it is in Romeo's. Mercutio has more or less the function which the Nurse has with Juliet. This is part of Shakespeare's dramatic technique to achieve an emphatic contrast between that sort of “love” at which Juliet's loquacious nurse and Romeo's merry friend Mercutio are continually hinting, and the genuine, pure and true love that is to enter the hearts of Romeo and Juliet.

  11. H. Granville-Barker, op.cit., p. 53.

  12. This inner change in Romeo is externally marked by the change of his speech, usually a significant indication in Shakespeare's characters.

              Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
    It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
    Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
    Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

    (I.v.46 ff.)

    Although there is still a large amount of conceit in this description of Juliet, this artifice is no longer cold or perfunctory as it has been with Rosaline. It is a lyrical fervour that flames from deep and genuine love or, to borrow Coleridge's distinction (as E. K. Chambers [Shakespeare, A Survey. London, 1925] does, p. 72), Romeo has passed from the sphere of fancy to the sphere of imagination.

  13. It should be noted, however, that it is by the irresponsible servants, who like quarrelling and fighting, and by the fiery hot-head Tybalt, that the feud is freshly kindled. Montague and Capulet themselves, the masters who long ago originated the feud feel rather, tired and ashamed of these endless quarrels, and Capulet admits: “… 'tis not hard, I think, For men so old as we to keep the peace.” (I.ii.2) So, after all, and this is the implicit idea conveyed by Shakespeare, if it were not for the servants and the “Tybalts” who seize on any pretext to fight, the feud could already be at an end.

  14. Note how often hours and time are mentioned. For instance

    At what o' clock tomorrow / Shall I send to thee?
    By the hour of nine.
    I will not fail, 'tis twenty years till then.

    (II.ii.168 ff.)

    And later, in II.v. Juliet says:

              The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse,
    In half an hour she promised to return …
    O, she is lame! love's heralds should be thoughts,
    Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams,

    And in III.iii:

    Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds …
  15. The Friar, from this point onwards, is the controlling figure in the play. The outward action is from now on controlled by him, until the events prove stronger than his hold.

  16. Franklin M. Dickey, in his noteworthy study in ‘Not Wisely But Too Well’, Shakespeare's Love Tragedies, San Marino, 1957, maintains that tragic themes occur in the first two acts but “carefully muted; as a result we have two full acts of almost pure comedy, often uproarious comedy at that” (p. 87). According to Dickey the play consists of two halves, the first one representing “Mozartian comedy, amusing and wistful” (p. 85), using “time-honoured comic techniques and characters” (p. 87), and the second tragedy. Dickey, we think, stresses the comic elements of the first two acts too much, and thus overlooks Shakespeare's skilful presentation of his characters and development of the lovers' tragic fate.

  17. Stage direction (III.i.94). There is a profoundly pathetic and tragic touch about this scene; Romeo who “had thought all for the best” (III.i.109) wanting to establish peace between the combatants becomes the direct cause of Mercutio's, and then Tybalt's death, thus achieving exactly what he had meant to prevent.

  18. F. M. Dickey, op.cit., p. 98.

  19. F. M. Dickey, op.cit., p. 115.

  20. H. Granville-Baker's very apt words; op.cit., p. 56.

  21. This scene has sense only if it is interpreted as a further demonstration of Romeo's rashness of temper. It seems very significant that Romeo understands whom he has put to death only after he has in fury killed Paris. Certainly this stresses further Romeo's passionate will and thoughtlessness.

  22. John Vyvyan, [The Shakespearean Ethics. London 1959] op.cit., p. 143.

  23. ibid.

  24. G.B.Harrison, op.cit., p. 48.

  25. J.W.Draper believes literally that the lovers are “star-crossed”, in the sense of astrological determinism! cf.J.W.Draper, Shakespeare's ‘Starcrossed Lovers', in RES, [Review of English Studies] 1939.

  26. F. M. Dickey, op.cit., p. 90 f.

  27. Thus in “King Lear” for example, Gloucester's belief in the stars makes him an easy victim of Edmund's villainy.

  28. F. M. Dickey, op.cit., p. 90.

  29. H. S. Wilson goes as far as to suggest: “They (Romeo and Juliet) fell in love by accident.” (op.cit., p. 28). [On the Design of Shakespeare's Tragedy. Toronto 1957]

  30. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare, A Survey, p. 72.

  31. G. B. Harrison, op.cit., p. 48.

  32. ibid.

  33. John Vyvyan: “Our first feeling is that the tragedy of these lovers is like a ferment of new wine which bursts the old wine-skins …” Shakespeare and The Rose of Love, London 1960, p. 141.

  34. T. R. Henn's comments: “The flaw in Romeo is a malady rather than a defect of character.” (op.cit., p. 101) [The Harvest of Tragedy. London 1956] is an inappropriate defence of Romeo's character.

  35. cf. H. Granville-Barker, “It is by pure ill-luck that Friar John's speed to Mantua is stayed while Balthazar reaches Romeo with the news of Juliet's death; but it is Romeo's headlong recklessness that leaves Friar Laurence no time to retrieve the mistake.” (op.cit., p. 17)

  36. Johannes Volkelt, Aesthetik des Tragischen, München 1897, p. 88.

  37. For example, Desdemona's loss of her handkerchief, in Othello.

  38. Volkelt, Aesthetik des Tragischen, München 1897, p. 88.

  39. H. S. Wilson, op.cit., p. 28. After this statement, however, Wilson does not draw the consequences which one would expect. Instead he suggests that the play lacks “a larger unity” (p. 30)

  40. One may think of Schiller' words:

              Und was uns blindes Ohngefähr nur dünkt,
    Gerade das steigt aus den tiefsten Quellen.

    (Wallensteins Tod, II.iii.)

    or also of Aristotle's remarks (Poetics, IX, ii):

    again Tragedy is an imitation … of events inspiring pity and fear. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.

    (quoted by F. R. Henn, The Harvest of Tragedy, London 1956, p. 3)

  41. Una Ellis-Fermor, The Frontiers of Drama, New York, Oxf. Univ. Press, 1946, p. 128.

  42. H.Granville-Barker, op.cit., p. 18.

  43. cf. the famous lines in Hamlet, (III.ii.73 ff.):

                        blest are those
    Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled
    That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
    To sound what stop she pleases …
  44. F. M. Dickey, op.cit., p. 102.

  45. ibid., p. 114.

  46. ibid., p. 115.

  47. ibid., p. 117.

  48. Dickey writes: “Shakespeare does not let us forget that disregard of the Friar's reasonable counsel rather than the turning of fortune's wheel dooms Romeo's love.” (op.cit., p. 111).

  49. A. C. Bradley, [Shakespearean Tragedy. repr. London 1957] p. 15.

  50. Dickey goes somewhat far in suggesting: “In his last breath he (Romeo) assumes the responsibility for the wreck of his hopes.” (op.cit., p. 114).

  51. J. D. Wilson, The Essential Shakespeare, Cambridge 1932, p. 126.

Barry B. Adams (essay date March 1968)

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SOURCE: Adams, Barry B. “The Prudence of Prince Escalus.” ELH 35, no. 1 (March 1968): 32-50.

[In the following essay, Adams contends that Prince Escalus is a partially emblematic figure in Romeo and Juliet who represents the double-faced image of prudence and Fortunata and who links the drama's themes of chance, fate, time, wisdom, and divine providence.]

Escalus, Prince of Verona, makes his first appearance on stage relatively early in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. The noisy street brawl touched off by the rival serving men is in full swing, and the Prince at first has trouble making himself heard. When he does finally gain the attention of his “rebellious subjects” he addresses them as follows:

Three civill brawles bred of an ayrie word,
By thee old Capulet and Mountague,
Have thrice disturbd the quiet of our streets,
And made Veronas auncient Citizens,
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partizans, in hands as old,
Cancred with peace, to part your cancred hate:
If ever you disturbe our streets againe,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.


This is the first extended speech in the play, and its delivery by a character of obvious civic prominence in the sudden lull which follows the confused exchange of insults and blows is calculated to gain our attention as well as that of the rebellious subjects. We notice first, perhaps, the stylistic traits which mark the speech as “early Shakespeare”: the heavy alliteration, the studied syntactical balance and parallelism, and especially the somewhat strained word-play in “Cancred … cancred” and “partizans … part.” But the rhetorical manner is not empty mannerism. It is dramatically suited to the speaker and the occasion, and, more important, it introduces in an extremely subtle and allusive way an issue which lies at the heart of the play. Although the present study is concerned ultimately with this larger issue and its bearing on matters of interpretation, it is best to begin with the more immediate question of dramatic propriety.

Speaking in his official capacity as chief political representative of Verona, the Prince is quite naturally concerned above all with the public nature of the disturbance, and as a result the bulk of his speech deals with Verona's “streets” and “Citizens” rather than with the particular individuals involved. His observations are carefully fitted to the abstract peace-hate antithesis spelled out in line 102 and probably hidden behind “civill brawles” of line 96, which appears to be an oxymoron partially obscured by the ambiguity of “civill.” These generalizing and abstracting tendencies, together with the heightened rhetorical manner of address, reflect the authoritative and relatively aloof position which the speaker occupies within the play world. Even though he later claims to have lost a “brace of kinsmen,” his contact with the feud (as well as the love affair) remains essentially impersonal and dispassionate. By insisting on the Prince's responsibility and detachment, Shakespeare from the outset presents us with a character uniquely qualified as observer and commentator, and thus as mediator between play world and audience.

Even more revealing in this connection is the logical structure of the speech. The Prince first presents in brief a summary of events antecedent to those dramatized on stage (96-102); then, in an effort to prevent future violence, he threatens the heads of the feuding parties with the death penalty (103-04). The progression from past to future is clear and orderly, as befits the official representative of the state in a public exercise of his duties. More specifically, it gives concrete form to the speaker's preeminent rationality—the quality that Hamlet refers to as the “large discourse / Looking before and after,” the “capabilitie and god-like reason” which distinguishes a man from a beast (Q2, II.iv.36-38). It is precisely the exercise of this capability which dictates the structure of the Prince's speech: the present moment of “pernicious rage” is seen and presented by the speaker not as an isolated occurrence but as an event which has its roots in the past and which will, unless countered by the force of civil authority, inevitably lead to future disruptions of social concord. The principle of causality implicit in this view of affairs is brought home to the participants only at the end of the play, when all are finally made aware of how their actions have contributed to the tragic catastrophe.2 The audience, on the other hand, privileged to witness more than any of the characters, has the opportunity of seeing the principle in operation; and lest it neglect this opportunity, Shakespeare has given the principle a special prominence at an important juncture early in the play by means of the Prince's Janus-like speech.

The Prince assumes this same Janus-like stance in his two later appearances in the play. His entrance in III.i, again at the climax of a noisy street brawl, brings to a halt the confused fighting which has resulted in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. He first gets from Benvolio a summary of the preceding action (157-80) and then by passing judgment on Romeo (191-92: “And for that offence, / Immediately we do exile him hence”) extends his influence into the future by establishing a necessary condition for the unfolding of the subsequent action. Similarly, his arrival at the Capulet monument in V.iii imposes order on the prevailing confusion stemming from the discovery of the bodies of Paris and Romeo beside the “newlie dead” Juliet. At his insistence and under his firm direction, the most important events lying behind the tragic spectacle are narrated by Friar Laurence (229-69). After this lengthy circumstantial summary has been supplemented by information derived from Balthasar, the County's page, and Romeo's letter (272-90), our attention is directed to the reconciliation which lies in the future—a future which, although it stretches beyond the limits of the play world, is forced on our attention by the plan for erecting statues of the dead lovers, and particularly by the Prince's assurance that “Some shall be pardond, and some punished” (308).

By momentarily interrupting the forward progress of the play as he does, the Prince on each of his three appearances serves to check the generally precipitant haste with which the tragedy develops, and in the breathing spaces thus provided the audience is invited to share his uniquely rational view of affairs in which the present is seen in relation to past and future. One important consequence of this device is that dramatic action, which is by nature dynamic, is at these moments presented as a static phenomenon. To the extent that past and future are both caught up in the present, the movement of events through time is frozen and acquires an almost purely spatial existence. Furthermore, as a result of the careful placement of the Prince's interruptions, this static presentation of the inherently dynamic eventually encompasses the entire play. His three appearances divide the play into four units, with his second appearance, close to the physical center of the play, dividing the bulk of the action into two balanced units of roughly equal length.3 His first and third appearances, near the beginning and end of the play respectively, complete the framing of the two central units and establish boundaries for two additional, incomplete, sections. The pattern which emerges may be thought of in spatial terms and represented as A) B C (D, with the A section extending into the play's past just as the D section extends into the future. B and C stand as completely framed units of action disposed symmetrically on either side of the Prince's second appearance, which serves as their common boundary.

It would seem on the face of it that a pattern of this kind is not accidental; and in fact the conscious and purposeful nature of the symmetrical design is confirmed by the way in which scenes or incidents within the first complete frame or unit (B) are duplicated or closely paralleled in the second (C). Deliberate parallelism is evident, for example, in the two passages in which the impatient Juliet tries to extract news of Romeo from the Nurse. In II.v Juliet is made to suffer through the Nurse's garrulous complainings and irrelevancies before she is assured of Romeo's intentions; she then leaves for Friar Laurence's cell while the Nurse sets about procuring the rope ladder by which Romeo will climb to Juliet's chamber. The general situation and a number of specific details recur in III.ii, where the Nurse, after throwing down the rope ladder mentioned at the close of II.v, muddles through the news of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment, exciting the impatient Juliet to extremes of conflicting emotions before finally agreeing to help the lovers by fetching Romeo from Friar Laurence's cell. In neither situation, it should be noted, can the audience fully share in Juliet's impatience: it has heard Romeo confirm his intentions of honorable marriage (II.iv.191-94), just as it has heard the Prince's sentence of banishment (III.i.191-92). By virtue of its superior knowledge of the context, it is able to view the Nurse's first suspenseful message as no more than a temporary thwarting of Juliet's joyful expectations. When the situation is caught up and repeated within the radically different context of the C-section of the play, the privileged audience can again see beyond Juliet's temporary frustration at the Nurse's incoherences, only this time it sees the impending misfortunes which are to overcome the lovers.

Other pairs of parallel scenes and passages from either side of the Prince's second appearance are arranged to much the same purpose. The excited bustle of preparation for the Capulet ball (I.v.1-16) is echoed in the preparation for the Juliet-Paris nuptials (IV.iv.1-20), with the joyful expectation of the B-frame transmuted to a sorrowful anticipation of the grief and despair which must follow if Capulet's plans for the marriage of his daughter are successful. Seeing Paris at Friar Laurence's cell arranging for his marriage to Juliet (IV.i.1-15), we are reminded of an earlier consultation with the Friar in which Romeo arranged his marriage to Juliet (II.iii). The basic ironies implicit in such parallels are obvious; old Capulet's plaintive observation that “all things change them to the contrarie” (IV.v.90) describes them accurately enough. What calls for comment is the careful way in which actions located within frame B and colored with what the audience recognizes as a generally hopeful or beneficent quality acquire a tragic malignancy when transplanted into frame C. The governing principle, which goes beyond Capulet's comments on the observable facts, appears to be that actions which are themselves neutral or indifferent take on their comic or tragic significance from the frame or context in which they happen to fall. The same principle of change, complicated by an added dimension of irony, can be seen to operate in Romeo's sudden premonitions—the first a premonition of disaster (I.iv.106-11) which is quickly contradicted by the rapture of his first meetings with Juliet, the second a premonition of joy just before Balthasar delivers his mistaken report of Juliet's death (V.i.1-11). It is perhaps worth noting that the parallelism in this instance is reinforced by the fact that each premonition is based on a dream.

The two “window” or “balcony” scenes, one from either side of the Prince's second appearance, illustrate the same pattern of change and point even more clearly to the underlying principle. In the first, the betrothal scene, Romeo remains below, gazing up at Juliet; in the second he descends from Juliet's chamber until he is once again below, while Juliet gazes down at him.4 The difference between Romeo's looking up at Juliet and Juliet's looking down at Romeo is at least poetically valid. In the earlier situation it is Romeo who dominates the scene and from whose point of view the most effective imagery develops: he describes Juliet in terms of sun, moon, heavens, spheres, airy regions, birds, angels, and the like (II.ii.2-32). In the corresponding passage from the later scene, the most compelling piece of directional imagery is put into the mouth of Juliet: “Me thinkes I see thee now, thou art so lowe, / As one dead in the bottome of a tombe” (III.v.55-56). In each case the imagery develops naturally from the immediate theatrical situation;5 but it may also be said to develop from a larger context. In terms of plot structure, the first scene is looking “up” to the marriage, while the second is just as surely looking “down” to the catastrophe at the Capulet's monument. Or, in terms of the symmetrical patterning of events and situations under consideration, the first receives its character from the comic tonality of B, the second from the tragic tonality of C.

The dominant qualities of B and C are not, however, simply matters of tonality. The events of B culminate in the marriage following the end of Act II, those of C in the double suicide of Act V; and insofar as marriage and death, especially in Renaissance drama, are distinctive signs (if not actually determinants) of genre, we may describe Romeo and Juliet as a comedy followed by a tragedy. This is a useful description, as far as it goes; any final analysis of the play, however, must of course treat these two movements as elements of a larger unity. The structural formula most readily available to describe this larger unity is obviously that of the rise and fall of a de casibus tragedy. And one important feature of this kind of tragedy brings us back to Prince Escalus, who represents, among other things, the power of the goddess Fortuna. But before pursuing this line of inquiry it is necessary to return to our earlier observations on the Prince's rationality.

In his repeated examining of antecedents and consequences, his habitual “looking before and after,” the Prince is exercising not simply his “large discourse” of reason but specifically the intellectual virtue of prudence. Or, since the question of naturalistic character portrayal is not of primary interest here, it would be more accurate to say that his characteristic mental activity is meant to represent the nature and operation of prudence as these were commonly understood in the Renaissance. According to the brief but authoritative analysis in Cicero's De inventione, prudence, defined as the knowledge of things good, bad, and indifferent, consists of three “parts,” memoria, intelligentia, and providentia, corresponding to the division of time into past, present and future:

Prudentia est rerum bonarum et malarum neutrarumque scientia. Partes eius: Memoria, intelligentia, providentia. Memoria est per quam animus repetit illa quae fuerunt; intelligentia, per quam ea perspicit quae sunt; providentia, per quam futurum aliquid videtur ante quam factum est.6

Although the idea is not original with Cicero, this particular formulation of it may be safely considered the archetype of a tradition familiar to Shakespeare and his audience.7 The much more intricate and subtle analyses in the De officiis and in numerous medieval treatises on the cardinal virtues, while undoubtedly known in Renaissance England, never succeeded in supplanting this convenient triadic scheme based on the familiar notion of the three modes or forms of time. In the Elizabethan translation of La Primaudaye's French Academy, for example, Cicero is cited as an authority and his three faculties (partes) are rendered as the three “eies” of a faintly personified female Prudence: “With the first [Memorie] she beholdeth the time past: with the second [Vnderstanding], the time present: with the third [Prouidence], the time to come.” Thus “a prudent and wise man, by the consideration of things past: and of that which hath followed since, iudgeth of that, which in the like case may fall out in the time following.”8

Although the first part of La Primaudaye's explanation reproduces the most conspicuous and essential features of Cicero's analysis, the application which follows (“a prudent and wise man …”) introduces a slightly different emphasis. Where Cicero's severely asyndetic formula gives the three partes strictly equal weight, La Primaudaye's application takes its orientation from the third member of the series, which is evidently felt to be the most important or distinctive. This latter arrangement, in which memoria and intelligentia are subordinated to providentia, represents a common medieval and Renaissance modification of the Ciceronian triad, and was perhaps suggested by the accepted derivation of the term prudentia from providentia, either directly or from the participial root providens.9 It stresses the most distinctive trait of the prudent man, which is his attempt to acquire a knowledge of the future. Such a knowledge can only be inferential, of course, and its accuracy will depend on the extent to which the bases of inference—past and present happenings—are fully and accurately understood. What gives validity to the inferential process in the first place is the assumption that the three forms of time are fundamentally of a piece: past, present, and future are so much alike that through careful observation of the first two one can foresee—and thus presumably provide for—the third, which is not subject to observation. The principle is set forth explicitly in 2 Henry IV, where Warwick explains how Richard had been able to prophesy Northumberland's defection from Henry:

There is a Historie in all mens Liues,
Figuring the nature of the Times deceas'd:
The which obseru'd, a man may prophecie
With a neere ayme, of the maine chance of things,
As yet not come to Life, which in their Seedes
And weake beginnings lye entreasured.


Warwick argues that the present (the “Historie in all mens Liues”—in this case the life of Northumberland as it was present to Richard) is a figure or analogy of both past and future to the extent that Richard, recognizing in Northumberland's behavior a pattern of action repeated by other men in “the Times deceas'd,” was able to project that pattern into the future and thus predict the state of affairs currently present to Henry—viz. “the diuision of … Amitie” (79) between him and Northumberland. Some such concept of history evidently underlies La Primaudaye's explanation of prudence and, perhaps, the Ciceronian analysis on which it is based.

The Ciceronian triad appears in a variety of guises in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English works. It is frequently associated with “wisdom” rather than “prudence,” as in Joseph Hall's “Character of the wise man”:

His free discourse runs backe to the ages past, and recovers events out of memory, and then preventeth Time in flying forward to future things; and comparing one with the other, can give a verdict well-neere propheticall: wherein his conjectures are better than anothers judgements.11

Such usage may reflect the shifting of philosophical attitudes toward sapientia which characterizes Renaissance thinking. Traditionally a speculative or contemplative virtue directed toward transcendental truths, sapientia was relegated more and more to the active, practical, and moral sphere, and as a result it frequently became indistinguishable from prudentia.12 In many cases, however, the substitution of “wisdom” for “prudence” is only verbal. Variations of the type illustrated by Arthur Golding's translation from a French moral treatise are obviously of this kind. Golding first cites “Cicero in his booke of inuention” and then speaks of the three parts of “discreetnesse,” which he calls “Memorie, Skill, and Fore-cast.”13 Sir Walter Ralegh, trying to explain the nature of divine providence and distinguish it from prescience, predestination, and destiny, employs a somewhat different set of terms for what is clearly the same concept:

[Divine] Prouidence … is diuided into Memorie, Knowledge, and Care: Memorie of the past, Knowledge of the present, and Care of the future: and wee our selues account such a man for prouident, as, remembering things past, and obseruing things present, can be iudgement, and comparing the one with the other, prouide for the future, and times succeeding.14

In assuming that “prouident” as applied to human affairs will clarify the nature of divine providence, Ralegh is appealing to what must have been common usage; and his description of the provident man makes use of the ideas and formulas ordinarily identified with prudence.

Sir Thomas Elyot's elaborate and ingenious treatment of this virtue, based in part on the same Ciceronian tradition, is of particular interest in connection with Romeo and Juliet. Elyot attempts to elucidate the eight “branches” of prudence in terms of the motions of the dance. One such branch is “circumspection,” figured in the fifth movement of the dance, and under this rubric we find the familiar triadic scheme, for the province of circumspection is to consider “what hath caused profite or damage in the tyme passed, what is the astate of the tyme present, what aduauntage or perile maye succede or is imminent.”15 But the most interesting branch of prudence is that which corresponds to the two-part movement known as the “brawl.” The two parts of this movement figure “celeritie” and “slownesse” respectively, while the virtuous mean between these extremes Elyot designates as “Maturitie”—the kind of caution or deliberation which he feels is best expressed in the proverb “speede the slowly.”16 Friar Laurence's only slightly less pithy variations on the festina lente theme reveal clearly enough his interest in “maturity” in this sense. “Too swift arrives, as tardie as too slowe,” he admonishes Romeo (II.vi.15); and again, with a slight shift in emphasis, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” (II.iii.94). The Friar, of course, is warning Romeo against the extreme of “celeritie” or rashness, one of the vices traditionally opposed to prudence and the one to which the young are particularly susceptible. The confrontation between Romeo and the Friar, in fact, is a perfect illustration of the Ciceronian maxim frequently cited by Renaissance writers in connection with prudence: “Temeritas est … florentis aetatis, prudentia senescentis.”17 In his somewhat unsubtle manner, then, the Friar calls attention to one of the central thematic concerns of Romeo and Juliet.

Another recognizable variant of the Ciceronian triad, this one based on more than the uncertainties of Elizabethan ethical vocabulary, governs Shakespeare's presentation of Prince Escalus. It is given more overt expression in Thomas Heywood's explanation of a pageant in which the god Janus occupies a prominent position. According to Heywood, Janus was reputed by historians to have been “the wisest King in his dayes; remembering things past, and predicting what was futurely to come; and therefore they figured him with two faces. …”18 By eliminating intelligentia, or the “eye” focused on the present, Heywood appears to have departed from the triadic Ciceronian scheme. It is clear, however, that his Janus is thought of as an emblematic figure planted in a localized “present” as it surveys past and future, and as a result the essential features of the Ciceronian idea are preserved, as they are in earlier Renaissance treatments of Janus bifrons by such authorities as Alciati, Cartari, and Charles Stephanus, all of whom associate the Roman deity with prudence.19 It seems never to have been noticed that Shakespeare alludes to this same emblematic figure of the two-faced (or, more precisely, two-headed) Prudence in King John, where the Bastard points out in an ironic aside that the allies Austria and France will be attacking Angiers from opposite sides, to their mutual harm:

O prudent discipline! From North to South:
Austria and France shoot in each others mouth.


Here “mouth” has as its primary referent the muzzles of the opposing cannon, and then, by an easy and barely perceptible extension, the faces of the opposing troops; its further meaning turns on an allusion to the two-faced Prudence, only in this case the faces are seen in a grotesque perversion of the familiar image—confronting one another—to produce a telling picture of imprudence.

While Prince Escalus is not, strictly speaking, an emblematic figure like Heywood's Janus, he does exhibit a striking intellectual bifrontality as he reaches out from a fixed moment in time to embrace past and future events, and this bifrontality is in some respects emblematic. Shakespeare has gone behind the conventional image of prudence to the ethical concept which informs the image; and this concept he communicates not by explicit verbal reference, nor through a visual (i.e., theatrical) image, nor even by verbal imagery, but by means of a distinctive thought process prominently displayed at certain critical moments in the course of the play. This thought process is embodied in and revealed through spoken utterances, which are by nature temporal and discursive rather than spatial and static: we hear the Prince considering first the past and then the future, whereas we see the purely emblematic Janus figure, which enjoys an exclusively spatial mode of existence, attending to past and future simultaneously. Nevertheless, the Prince is at least partially emblematic. Even though he is physically time-bound and thus forced to express his ideas discursively, the intellectual activity embodied in his speech acquires an essentially atemporal mode of existence when it is considered as a completed process. In other words, the mental acts of examining first the past and then the future remain discrete elements in a temporal series only until they are viewed as components of the single intellectual activity known as prudence; at this moment the dynamic and discursive process is perceived as a completed and therefore static and self-contained entity, and to this extent it partakes of the emblematic. And it is this emblematic quality more than the Friar's aphorisms which reveals the full complexity of Shakespeare's interest in prudence. For the bifrontality which is the distinctive trait of the Prince is made to do double duty; it represents not simply prudence but also fortune. It is a vehicle with two tenors, and the interaction of the tenors helps to define the play's meaning.

The image of Fortuna bifrons, although not nearly so pervasive as such ubiquitous iconographical and literary images as Fortuna with her wheel or Fortuna standing on a globe, was certainly a familiar one in Renaissance England. We know, for example, that a dumb-show in Gascoigne and Kinwelmarsh's Jocasta featured “a woman clothed in a white garment, on her head a piller, double faced, the foremost face fair and smiling, the other behinde blacke and louring. …” Needless to say, she is “a plaine Type or figure of vnstable fortune.”20 The same figure appears in Lodge's Rosalynde as part of old Adam Spencer's complaint to Fortune: “‘Fortune, O inconstant friend, that in all thy deeds art froward and fickle. … Thou standest upon a globe, and thy wings are plumed with Time's feathers, that thou mayest ever be restless: thou art double-faced like Janus, carrying frowns in the one to threaten, and smiles in the other to betray. …’”21 The image is perhaps related, at least indirectly, to “Two faces in one hood,” a proverbial expression for deceitfulness. It may owe some of its popularity to Chaucer's rendering of the Boethian phrase ambiguus vultus as “the doutous or double visage” of the blind goddess, although most sixteenth-century Englishings of the Consolatio do not preserve this interpolation.22 In any case, the point of the two-faced Fortuna is clearly the contrasting features, representing good and ill fortune and suggesting the likelihood of abrupt change from one to the other.

The relevance of this image to Romeo and Juliet turns on our earlier analysis of the play in the light of Shakespeare's symmetrical patterning of events on either side of the Prince's second appearance. We have seen how this appearance divides the bulk of the play into two roughly equal spatial units, and how events in the first of these sections are repeated with inverted significance in the second. In this view of the play as a static entity made up of two blocks of action with contrasting tonalities, the emblematic Prince at his second appearance stands as an “image” of the bifrontal Fortuna, whose smiling face and benign influence control the first major section of the play just as her lowering face and baleful influence control the second. The extent of her arbitrariness and her power is suggested by the way in which events and situations are so quickly and radically transformed from comic to tragic.

The foregoing analysis of Prince Escalus' bifrontality points to one of the central critical questions of Romeo and Juliet. Simply put, in terms of what Northrop Frye calls the “reductive formulas” commonly applied to tragedy,23 is the play a tragedy of fate or a tragedy of character? Do we attribute the deaths of the protagonists to the arbitrary workings of some external, superhuman power—fate, destiny, chance, fortune, or the like—and stress the innocence and helplessness of the lovers? Or do we insist on their undeniable rashness, their headstrong disregard for the counsel of their elders, and view their deaths as a logical, just, or fitting result of their behavior? The reference in the Prologue to the “starre-crost lovers,” as well as similar references elsewhere in the play, would seem to encourage an application of the first formula, and in fact modern criticism has for the most part tended toward a fatalistic reading of the play. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to find something like a “character flaw” in the lovers, especially if we are guided by some of the stricter moral judgments of Friar Laurence. In the figure of Escalus, however, Shakespeare has implicitly rejected both positions, at least in their more simplistic forms. By uniting in his bifrontal Prince the antithetical concepts of prudence and fortune, he invites us to abandon the reductive formulas in favor of a more comprehensive and imaginative interpretation.

The opposition between fortune—by definition the power of unreason and disorder—and the intellectual virtue of prudence is a commonplace. In a Christian universe, of course, there is no place for Fortuna, and as a result the classical demi-goddess and the concept represented by her had by the time of the Renaissance long ceased to have any distinctive meaning, at least for careful thinkers. She was seen as an agent of God, and thus not really irrational at all. Or else she was conceived of not as an objective force, or even a personification of an objective force, but as a poetic fiction designed to characterize an imperfect way of looking at reality. Through the proper exercise of his reason, man in effect “destroys” Fortuna by piercing through the apparent confusion of existence to perceive its rational design, thereby making himself impervious to the hardships and disappointments of life.24 Although this latter “remedy” is commonly represented as the victory of Virtue or Wisdom over Fortune, it is not unusual to find Prudence as antagonist and victor.25 In any case, “virtue” in these contexts, whether used in its restricted ethical sense or in its wider, more radical sense, embraces both “wisdom” and “prudence”; and the conflict with fortune, however expressed, is essentially a conflict between the human and the superhuman—or the putatively superhuman.

But the emblematic bifrontality of Prince Escalus suggests something other than a conflict or opposition. By uniting the normally antithetical concepts in a single figure, Shakespeare is insisting that prudence and fortune are not always distinguishable from one another. Although they are logical opposites, in some cases they produce effects which are remarkably similar. Natale Comes, in his paraphrase of a saying attributed to Athenaeus, makes the same point about wisdom and chance, correlatives of prudence and fortune: “Longissimè à sapientia Fors dissidet. / Sed multa perficit tamen simillima.26 The tragic irony of Romeo and Juliet arises from just such a conflation of the rational and the irrational.

Shakespeare's working out of this tragic irony is best explained in terms of the analogy between prudence and divine providence—an analogy evidently related in some way to the derivation of the former word from the latter. The traditional Christian doctrine of providence rests on the idea of an omniscient being to whom all time is present simultaneously. What man with his limited perception of reality conceives of as past and future is interminably, immutably, and immediately present to the divine mind; and the divine mind, governing absolutely from its vantage point in the “eternal now,” is known as providence.27 Prudence, on the other hand, represents man's attempt to adopt this divine mode of perception; to the extent that his discursive reason is able to embrace past and future in the present, man is approaching the atemporal, providential view of existence. In Hooker's words, he is “affecting resemblance of God in the constancy and excellency of those operations which belong unto [his] kind,” and in so doing he is manifesting the universal tendency of all creatures to “covet more or less the participation of God himself.”28

The specific analogy between prudence and providence, implicit in Ralegh's description of the “prouident” (i. e., prudent) man quoted above …, is developed at length by George Wither in verses intended to elucidate his emblem of Janus bifrons and its motto “Pando recondita”:

          In true Divinity, 'tis God alone,
To whom, all hidden things are truely knowne.
Hee, onely, is that ever-present-being,
Who, by the vertue of his pow'r all-seeing,
Beholds, at one aspect, all things that are,
That ever shall be, and that ever were.
          But, in a Morall sense, we may apply
This double-face, that man to signifie,
Who (whatsoere he undertakes to doe)
Lookes, both before him, and behinde him, too.
For, he shall never fruitfully forecast
Affaires to come, who mindes not what is past:
And, such as doe not, oft, before them looke,
May lose the labour, that's already tooke.
By, sometimes, looking backward, we behold
Those things, which have been done in times of old;
By looking wisely forward, we foresee
Such matters, as in future-times will bee:
And, thus, we doe not onely fruits receive,
From that short space of time, in which we live;
          But, by this meanes, we likewise have a share,
          In times to come, and, times that passed are.(29)

Wither's “true Divinity” is, of course, providence, while his “Morall sense” refers to prudence. The transition from one to the other is an easy and natural one since both concepts are included in the single emblematic figure of Janus.

What makes the analogy between prudence and providence less than a perfect correspondence is, ultimately, the fact that one is temporal and the other eternal. Since man is necessarily time-bound, his attempt to imitate the divine mode of perception can never be totally successful. Even if he can avoid rashness or temerity—forces which interfere with the very exercise of reason—he cannot expect to have at all times a knowledge of past and present sufficient to ensure completely reliable inferences about the future. As a creature existing in time, he can anticipate and provide for his future only by inferring its nature from past and present events. However valid or correct the inferential process may be, the truth or accuracy of its results will obviously depend on the extent of his knowledge of past and present. Man's temporality, in other words, puts him at the mercy of ignorance; and ignorance, as Evans has convincingly demonstrated, is the decisive force impelling the tragic action of Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt's behavior in the opening scene of the play is attributable in part to his ignorance of Benvolio's intentions; in the final scene Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead. The most crucial actions between these two points are all dependent in some way on the characters' lack of knowledge: Romeo and Juliet fall in love before they know one another's identity; old Capulet, well intentioned but unaware of Juliet's marriage to Romeo, helps to bring about the catastrophe by pressing his plans for his daughter's marriage to Paris; and most important, Balthasar's report of Juliet's death—a report which brings about Romeo's premature return to Verona—is founded on ignorance. It is this report, and not the detention of Friar John and the consequent failure to deliver Friar Laurence's letter to Romeo, which triggers the tragic catastrophe.30

The audience, as we have seen, is consistently more knowledgeable than the characters. But although it is technically “omniscient,” it is not precisely “providential.” Only Shakespeare can lay claim to a fully realized, instantaneous view of the dramatic action in its totality. The audience, like the characters, is subject to time, but by virtue of its continuous and unimpeded view of a succession of events which move from present to past, it can make accurate inferences about what is to come. It cannot, however, achieve the playwright's providential vision—a vision which is tantamount to control over future events—and to this extent it is helpless.

The Prince, of course, is even more helpless because more ignorant. Considered simply as a character within the play world he is a model of prudence, clearly superior to the other characters in this respect. But although he comes closer than the others to the providential view of affairs, even he fails, precisely because his knowledge of events is incomplete. His rationality is therefore unable to “destroy” the power of fortune, and as a result events fall out in ways unintended and unexpected—that is, they happen by “chance” or “accident” in the strict sense of these terms. But the Prince is more than a character within the play world. He is also an emblem of prudence, and his “failure” in this capacity is an index to Shakespeare's artistic success. The very instability of a symbolic figure in which prudence merges with fortune epitomizes Shakespeare's purpose in Romeo and Juliet. In this view of the play, the underlying tragic conception as embodied in the bifrontal Prince—the character who mediates between play world and audience—turns out to be more sophisticated and profound than most critics have been willing to admit. For Shakespeare is in this play fundamentally concerned with the tragic limitations of man's most ennobling faculty, his “god-like reason”—a faculty which, forced to operate in time and always endangered by ignorance, produces effects virtually indistinguishable from those commonly attributed to the blind, two-faced Fortuna.


  1. Quotations from Romeo and Juliet are from the critical edition by George Walton Williams (Durham, N. C., 1964); act, scene, and line references agree with those of the Globe edition. Except where noted, other of Shakespeare's plays are quoted from the 1623 Folio.

  2. See Bertrand Evans, “The Brevity of Friar Laurence,” PMLA, LXV (1950), 845-46.

  3. According to the conventional scene divisions of modern texts, each unit consists of twelve scenes.

  4. The staging of these scenes is discussed by Richard Hosley, “The Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet,SQ, V (1954), 371-79. Cf. John Cranford Adams, “Shakespeare's Use of the Upper Stage in Romeo and Juliet, III.v,” SQ, VII (1956), 145-52.

  5. Cf. Wolfgang H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London, 1966), p. 67. Clemen notices the “metaphorical character of the situation itself” in II.ii, but does not comment on the similar character of the situation in III.v.

  6. De inventione II.53.

  7. Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery: Some Mediaeval Books and their Posterity (Princeton, 1966), chap. II and Appendix. See also Erwin Panofsky, Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, XVIII (Leipzig and Berlin, 1930), pp. 2-6, and Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New Haven, 1958), p. 45, n. 1.

  8. The French Academie, trans. T[homas] B[owes] (London, 1586), p. 105. Cf. Criseyde's lament in Chaucer's Troilus (V. 744 ff.): “‘Prudence, allas, oon of thyn eyen thre / Me lakked alwey. …’” The three eyes of Prudence are referred to again in William Leighton's Vertve Trivmphant (London, 1603), stanza 70. In Titian's Allegory of Prudence the Ciceronian triad is represented by the three human faces of different ages set above a three-headed beast. See Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York, 1955), pp. 146-68 and Fig. 28. More prosaic treatments of the Ciceronian partes appear in Lydgate's Minor Poems, Part II, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken (EETS: OS 192; London, 1934), pp. 17-20; Cornelius Valerius, The Casket of Iewels, trans. I[ohn] C[harlton] (London, 1571), sig. D6v-D7.

  9. Other examples of the modified triad in [Gerard Legh], The Accedens of Armory (n. p., [1568]), sig. A6v, and Dominic Mansion, The Myrrour of Good Maners, trans. Alexander Barclay (n. p., n. d.), sig. A6. Cf. the motto of Titian's Allegory of Prudence (Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, pp. 148-49): “Ex praeterito praesens prvdenter agit ni fvtvram actionem detvrpet.” For the etymology of prudentia, see [Guillaume de la Perriere], The Mirrovr of Policie (London, 1598), sig. H3; Robert Stephanus, Dictionarium seu thesaurus Latinae linguae (Venice, 1551), s. v. prudens.

  10. Analogues from classical writers are cited in Matthias A. Shaaber's New Variorum edition (Philadelphia, 1940), p. 228. See also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia IIae, quaest. 49, art. 1 ad 3.

  11. Heaven vpon Earth and Characters of Vertves and Vices, ed. Rudolf Kirk (New Brunswick, 1948), p. 148. Cf. Richard Day, A Booke of Christian Prayers (London, 1590), fols. 46, 66v; Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus linguœ Romanœ & Britannicœ (London, 1584), s. v. prudens; Mansion, trans. Barclay, sig. A6.

  12. Eugene F. Rice, Jr., The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom, Harvard Historical Monographs, XXXVII (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), pp. 36, 149-56, 163-77, et passim; Josephine Waters Bennett, The Evolution of “The Faerie Queene” (Chicago, 1942), pp. 221 ff.

  13. Jaques Hurault, Politicke, Moral, and Martial Discourses (London, 1595), p. 157.

  14. The History of the World (London, 1614), p. 15.

  15. The Boke Named the Gouernour, ed. Henry Herbert Stephen Croft (London, 1883), I, 254.

  16. Ibid., 242-44.

  17. De senectute VI.20. Quoted with insignificant variations by Robert Stephanus, Dictionarium, s. v. prudentia; Cooper, Thesaurus, s. v. prudentia.

  18. Dramatic Works (London, 1874), V, 364.

  19. Andrea Alciati, Emblematum libellum (Venice, 1546), fol. 6v, and Emblemata (Lyons, 1551), p. 24 (reproduced in facsimile by Henry Green in Vols. IV and V of the Holbein Society's publications, Manchester and London, 1870 and 1871); Vincenzo Cartari, Imagines deorum (Lyons, 1581), p. 31; Charles Stephanus, Dictionarium, ed. Nicholas Lloyd (London, 1686), s. v. Janus. See also Guillaume de la Perriere, Le Theatre des Bons Engins (Paris: Denis Janot [1539]; facs. ed. Gainesville, Florida, 1964, pp. 12-13), and the English translation by Thomas Combe (London, 1614), Embleme I. Prudence is described as a two-faced donna in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (Milan, 1602), p. 224. In some later editions of the Iconologia, the donna is explicitly associated with Janus.

  20. Early English Classical Tragedies, ed. John W. Cunliffe (Oxford, 1912), p. 139.

  21. Ed. W. W. Greg (London, 1907), p. 57. See also Greene's Menaphon (1589), ed. Edward Arber (London, 1880), p. 29; Stephen Hawes, The Pastime of Pleasure, ed. William Edward Mead (EETS: OS 173; London, 1928), ll. 3036, 3109, 3161; Machiavelli, Di Fortuna, in Tutte le Opere, ed. Francesco Flora and Carlo Cordié, II (n. p., 1950), p. 709. Other examples of the two-faced Fortuna are mentioned by Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven, 1952), pp. 48-49, and Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1927), pp. 42-43.

  22. The passage in question occurs in Book II, prose 1 of the Consolatio. When the same phrase appears again in Book II, prose 8, Chaucer translates ambiguus simply as “doutous.”

  23. Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1966), p. 209.

  24. For a few representative treatments of these ideas in English Renaissance sources, see Remains of Myles Coverdale, ed. George Pearson (Cambridge, 1846), p. 240; The Writings of John Bradford, ed. Aubrey Townsend, I (Cambridge, 1848), 212; The Two Books of Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches, ed. John Griffiths (Oxford, 1859), p. 478; the dedicatory epistle to Leicester in Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (ed. W. H. D. Rouse, Carbondale, Ill., 1961, ll. 320-31); The French Academie, pp. 254, 307, 468-69, 477-78; The Book of Sir Thomas More, ed. W. W. Greg (Malone Society Reprints, 1911), p. 79 (Addition III, ll. 1-3).

  25. See, e. g., Patch, Goddess Fortuna, p. 48, n. 3; Lydgate's “Mumming at London,” ll. 142 ff., in Minor Poems, Part II, ed. MacCracken; El Libro de la Fortuna: 200 dibujos inéditos de Jean Cousin, facs. ed. Ludovic Lalanne (Buenos Aires, 1947), Lámina 109; The French Academie, pp. 335-36.

  26. Mythologiœ … libri decem (Paris, 1583), p. 338 (Lib. IV, cap. ix). Ralegh quotes the same verses and translates as follows (History of the World, p. 17): “From Wisedome Fortune differs farre. / And yet in works most like they are.” Cf. Giovanni Pontano, De Fortuna, Lib. II, cap. viii (Opera [Basle, 1566], I, 857), and Panofsky, Hercules am Scheidewege, pp. 26-27.

  27. The classic formulation—which shows the influence of Plato (Timaeus 37C-38C) and Augustine (Confessiones, Lib. XI, cap. xiii, xiv; De Trinitate, Lib. XV, cap. vii; etc.)—is Boethius' “interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio” (De Cons. Phil., Lib. V, pr. vi). Cf. Montaigne's “Apologie of Raymond Sebond,” in Essayes, trans. Florio (London: Everyman's Library, 1910), II, 325 (here drawing from Plutarch); The French Academie, p. 407; Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (New York, 1964), p. 82.

  28. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London: Everyman's Library, 1907), I, 165.

  29. Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (London, 1634), Book III, no. 4. The same analogy is implicit in the first pageant of the Chester cycle, ll. 13-14, where Deus Pater refers to his “perpetuall prudens.” Two manuscripts contain the interesting variant “provydence” for “prudens.” See The Chester Plays, Part I, ed. Hermann Deimling (EETS:ES 62; London, 1892), p. 10.

  30. “The Brevity of Friar Laurence,” pp. 851-62.

Wilborn Hampton (review date 15 August 2001)

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SOURCE: Hampton, Wilborn. Review of Romeo and Juliet.New York Times (15 August 2001): E5.

[In the following review of Terrence O'Brien's Romeo and Juliet for the 2001 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Hampton finds the staging uneven in terms of both individual performances and O'Brien's mostly comic directorial additions to the play.]

One of the more persistent peculiarities of American culture has been the insatiable urge of actors, directors and audiences to pass hot summer nights congregating in city parks or country meadows for performances of the plays of William Shakespeare. Pioneered almost half a century ago by Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival, the notion that declaiming Elizabethan blank verse is as much a part of summer as ice cream or watermelon has now grown into a national tradition.

For New Yorkers, one of the more bucolic settings for observing this ritual is the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, now in its 15th season and staging as its second offering of the summer an uneven production of Romeo and Juliet that nonetheless has some unexpected compensations.

The plays are performed under a large tent on the grounds of Boscobel Restoration in Garrison, N.Y. Boscobel is an early-19th-century house regarded as an especially fine example of Federal architecture, and its surrounding lawns and woods provide a sylvan backdrop. The back of the tent is open, affording the audience, sitting on three sides of a bare earth stage, a view of a grassy expanse leading to a woods in the distance. The one drawback is that inside the tent, the temperature on sultry evenings rises to sweltering levels until the sun sets. It is cooler after nightfall, of course, but then the bugs come out.

Terrence O'Brien, the festival's director, has used several ploys to keep the audience's attention on the play rather than the view. He keeps the actors moving in and out of the tent, with some scenes, like the opening brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues, starting on the lawn, then spilling onto the stage. Other scenes are played in the aisles or even behind the audience. Romeo, for example, begins the balcony scene prowling around the perimeter of the tent, as Juliet stands at the rear of one aisle.

Mr. O'Brien has also plumbed the text for as much comic relief as he can find and has even added some clowning of his own, always risky in a tragedy. In the orchard scene, for instance, Romeo takes a pratfall, and Mr. O'Brien underscores any possible sexual innuendo or double-entendre by having his actors grasp their codpieces or gyrate suggestively.

He has more success with other innovative touches. The dance at the Capulets' ball is imaginatively choreographed by Amy O'Brien, with the maskers, dressed like Halloween “Romeo and Juliet” are mixed. For his star-cross'd lovers, Mr. O'Brien has cast two young actors—Sean McNall, a recent college graduate, and Katherine Creel, a recent high school graduate. While they bring a youthful naïveté to the roles and give glimpses of emerging talent, there is not a lot of chemistry between them.

One of the real joys of the production is the performance of Nance Williamson as Juliet's nurse. Ms. Williamson, who enters jogging with a Walkman in this mostly modern staging, has a fine ear for Shakespeare's poetry and turns the Nurse into a genuinely comic role. Stephen Paul Johnson delivers a credible reading of Friar Laurence.

Chris Edwards as Mercutio and Michael Borrelli as Tybalt bring a firebrand's energy to their respective roles but, like some others in the cast, are inclined to shout to carry emotions. Mr. Edwards's Queen Mab soliloquy, for example, reaches a rousing intensity to rival Antony's funeral oration or Henry V's exhortation at Agincourt.

Thomas Browne (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Browne, Thomas. “Mercutio as Mercury: Trickster and Shadow.” Upstart Crow 9 (1989): 40-51.

[In the following essay, Browne evaluates Mercutio as an adolescent trickster figure and considers his thematic significance in Romeo and Juliet.]

Romeo leaps over the orchard wall on his way to Juliet, and Mercutio, the mock magician, “conjures” with a series of extravagantly bawdy jokes. But when he doesn't get an answer out of his friend, Mercutio gives up: “Romeo, good night. I'll to my truckle bed.”1

This is one of those archetypal moments of adolescence: after going to the big dance in the highest hopes, the young men who failed to find their Juliets now gather on a street corner, resigned to going home alone, and they are envious of one of their group who may have been successful. Mercutio strikes what very well may be a rueful note, for, as far as we can tell, he has nothing to look forward to but his “truckle bed,” the bed of a child. Romeo's leaping over that garden wall is a rite of passage, an initiation, that Mercutio may envy. In spite of his elaborate joking about sex, nothing in the play indicates to us that Mercutio has any experience of the world. In fact, Romeo seems to be growing up faster than Mercutio.

But a long tradition of critical comment has regarded Mercutio as not at all the adolescent. One is struck in particular by how many major figures—Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Dowden, as well as many important critics of our century—have admired Mercutio for his sophistication. His charm is easy to see. But sophistication? Why have critics so often treated Mercutio as the older brother, the wise advisor of Romeo, when in fact it is Romeo who seems to be the one who is maturing, passing Mercutio and Benvolio by? Since Dryden described him as an example of the “refinement of wit” of the Elizabethan gentleman,2 critics have found various kinds of perfection in him. Thus Dr. Johnson spoke admiringly of his “wit, gaiety and courage.”3 Coleridge described him as “the perfect gentleman;”4 H. B. Charlton speaks of his “worldly savoir-faire.” Norman Holland pictures him as “almost an older brother” to Romeo;5 Granville-Barker, who also sees him as older than Romeo, finds a “wholesome self-sufficiency” in him.6 John Hankins detects in Mercutio “a unique blend of critical acumen, delicate fancy and obscene levity.”7 Alfred Harbage finds “a hard vein of common sense.”8 But where is this “acumen” and “common sense”? Wasn't it Mercutio's insensitivity to what was happening around him, his lack of understanding, his willful need to fight Tybalt, that got him killed—and Romeo and Juliet, too, in the long run?

I think that, instead of seeing Mercutio as mature, it's more likely that Shakespeare saw in him something closer to childishness, or at least adolescence.9 He owes a large part of his character, I believe, to Shakespeare's conception of the youthful trickster figure, Mercury. It is true, of course, that Mercury was not only trickster, but messenger, god of eloquence, god of merchants, even god of wisdom in some of his manifestations. But the connection between Mercury and the trickster has been carefully established by several authorities, including Karl Jung, Karl Kerenyi, Paul Radin and Norman O. Brown.10 When we review the Elizabethan conceptions of Mercury as the trickster figure, we will find many suggestions that the youthfulness of Mercury especially struck the mythologists. He is a boy or an adolescent in many of his appearances on the stage as well as in many references to him in the mythological handbooks and in the lore of astrology and alchemy.

If it can be established that this trickster Mercury influenced Shakespeare in his treatment of Mercutio, then the next step is to ask whether the twentieth century's recognition that the trickster figure is a manifestation of the Jungian “shadow” is important in looking at Shakespeare's play. The connection between shadow and trickster figure has been established by Jung in several of his essays; for example, in “on the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” he speaks of the trickster as “a sort of second personality, of a puerile and inferior character,” and adds, “I have, I think, found a suitable designation for this character-component when I call it the shadow.”11 Paul Radin, author of the standard book on the trickster, says that each of us

In the career of Trickster sees his own instinctual and irrational self, unanchored, undirected, helpless, purposeless, knowing neither love, loyalty nor pity. Isolated, he cannot grow nor mature. He can do nothing with the two fundamental appetites, hunger and sex.12

What did the Elizabethan playgoers bring to the theater that would prepare them to see the Mercutio that I see, the “puerile” trickster figure as Romeo's shadow? Certainly the audience was more aware than we are of the traditional roles and characteristics of Mercury, or the Hermes of Greek mythology. They lived with his image, whereas we see only the winged messenger on the cover of the phone book. A variety of references to Mercury—in the plays of Shakespeare's day, in the mythologies, in the astrological treatises, and in the alchemical discussions—can suggest to us what Shakespeare and his audience thought of him.

In several of the plays we can find Mercury in the role of childish trickster. In the learned Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels we find Mercury playing the role of a witty page—a “crack,” or young boy, as he's called.13 In one of Jonson's masques, Mercury Vindicated, Mercury is tiny, as we'll see in discussing the alchemists. In the old play of Locrine the clownish boy, Strumbo, is identified with Mercury.14 In Lyly's The Woman in the Moon, Mercury is the instructor of Pandora in trickery.15 Thomas Heywood's Love's Mistress, or the Queen's Masque presents the story of Cupid and Psyche with the “young Mercury” befriending Psyche and angering Venus as a result of his trickery.16 In Heywood's dialogue, “Mercury and Maia,” Mercury complains to his mother that he's tired of serving as Jupiter's servant, tired of having to get up early “to sweep the house / Where all the gods must banquet and carouse. …” But Maia warns him, “thou art young, … hazard not stripes of him that sways above.”17

The same view of Mercury is found in the many mythological handbooks of the day. Abraham Fraunce's Countess of Pembroke's Ivy Church is a typical example. Here Mercury is “Jove's pretty page, fine filcher Mercury,” and the “crafty and cunning master Mercury.” Fraunce's treatment emphasizes the shifting nature of Mercury as he “worketh divers influences in men's minds,” making them everything from thieves to advisors to princes.18 Barnaby Googe, translating Palingenius in The Zodiac of Life, describes Mercury as the “swiftly fleeting restless imp of Jove.”19 Both Fraunce and Googe suggest Mercury's youthfulness. But several handbooks are more specific in this respect. Natalis Comes, for instance, describes Mercury as a juvenem formosum, a handsome youth.20 Richard Lynch's compendium, The Fountain of Ancient Fiction, tells us “The ancients depictured his forme in the likenesse and shape of a young man without beard.” Lynch tells us too that Apuleius pictures Mercury as “a verie youth, hardly attained to full virilitie.”21

Like the mythologers, the astrologers must have been an important influence on Shakespeare's conception of Mercury. The father of astrology, Ptolemy, assigns the years before sexual development to Mercury, whose influence is supplanted by that of Venus at puberty.22 And the Renaissance writer, Giraldi, charting the planets' changing influences through a lifetime, assigns the periods of the juvenis et adolescens to Mercury's influence.23

Ben Jonson's Alchemist, providing a good transition from astrology to alchemy, shows us how the popular imagination conceived of Mercury as diminutive. When Face and Subtle, alchemists who will use astrology or anything else to bamboozle their clients, are trying to persuade Drugger that they can make him a successful businessman, they find evidence of his business acumen by pretending to read his hand. His little finger, the mercurial finger, dominates, and thus he will be a roaring success at business—Drugger, the least Mercurial of persons!24

For the serious alchemist, it was the shape-shifting quicksilver that offered promise of wealth, wisdom, or whatever, if only Mercury could be transformed. But however the alchemists sought the trickster in the alembic, the boy Mercurius never came forth to turn quicksilver to gold. Only in Ben Jonson's masque, Mercurie Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court, do we see the child manifest himself, and then it is only to flee from the alchemists, who chase him about the stage fruitlessly, while he mocks them, in the best trickster fashion. He even calls out to the audience to help:

One tender-hearted creature, or other, save Mercury, and free him. Ne're an olde gentle-woman i' the house, that has a wrinkle about her, to hide me in? I could run into a serving-woman's pocket now; her glove, any little hole.25

The bawdiness of Jonson's diminutive trickster would be right at home in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech!

Carl Jung's interest in the alchemist's world as a reflection of psychological truth is especially important here, since his seminal idea of the “shadow,” and the relation of shadow to trickster, is, I believe, one key to understanding Romeo and Juliet. Jung comments on the figure of Mercurius as the alchemists saw him: “a real trickster who drove the alchemists to despair” (XIII. 203). As Jung discusses the many-sided nature of Mercurius, whom he calls duplex and versipellis, he also points out the traditional role of Mercurius as a child or youth (XIII. 217). Several illustrations in Psychology and Alchemy show the young Mercury, including one in which he is sealed inside the “hermetic” vessel (XII. 238, 251, 324). The boy is dangerous: “fairytale and alchemy both show Mercurius in a predominantly unfavourable light,” Jung says, and speaks of his “dark and dubious quality” (XIII. 241). He is a creature of lower life: “The texts remind us again and again that Mercurius is found in the ‘dungheaps’” (XIII. 232). The trickster, Jung says, is “an absolutely undifferentiated psyche that has hardly left the animal level” (I. 260).

Although Jungian critics have not discussed Mercutio as an example of Jung's shadow/trickster, Falstaff has been seen as Prince Hal's shadow by Edith Kern, in a recent article in The Upstart Crow (1984), and Alex Aronson, in Psyche and Symbol in Shakespeare, says:

Falstaff, Shakespeare's most accomplished trickster figure, is … the “shadow” thrown by the Prince's persona, his unconscious projected outward and assuming the most obvious archetypal shape.26

An even more obvious archetypal shape, I believe, can be found in Mercutio, since he adds the element of youthful irresponsibility to the pattern. The contrast between Romeo and Mercutio is not, I must admit, as thoroughly developed as that between Falstaff and the Prince. But when we look carefully at Romeo and Juliet, we can see evidence that the figure we are looking for in Mercutio, the trickster/shadow, is there.

As we meet the young men on the way to the ball in Act I, we might get a first impression from Mercutio's language that he and Romeo are, in fact, interchangeable, rather than contrasting figures. When Romeo bemoans the fact that his soul of lead “stakes me to the ground,” Mercutio pronounces,

You are a lover, borrow cupid's wings
And soar with them above a common bound.

(I. iv. 17-18)

He sounds for a moment as if he too could sentimentalize over Rosaline with extravagant phrases. But this is the end of the Petrarchan images for Mercutio, and next he engages in a series of typically bawdy remarks emphasizing erection and detumescence. As Norman Holland says, “Raising up seems to represent for Mercutio a child's ithyphallic notion of virility.”27 Thus Mercutio jokes about sinking in love, of oppressing love, of weighing the woman down, of pricking love, beating it down all in a half-dozen lines. This is the substance of the “eloquence” that Mercutio has inherited from his patron saint, Mercury, who is, after all, at least as well remembered for his ithyphallic statues, or “herms,” as he is for his fostering of eloquence.

But after all this bold talk of sex, Mercutio asks for a visor to hide his face and his “deformities.” Is this just another joke, or is he in fact unsure of himself as he goes to the ball? Nothing in the play suggests to us that he is romantically, or sexually, involved with a woman. He “jests at scars who never felt a wound,” and not only has he never been wounded, but he perhaps has had no real experience of sex beyond talking about it with the boys.

Then Mercutio is prompted to his Queen Mab speech about the power of dreams. How right it is that the trickster Mercutio should show such affection for the trickster Queen Mab! Jung remarks that the trickster as shadow “frequently appears in the phenomenology of dreams as a well-defined figure” (I. 270). Mercutio's speech has prompted a great deal of discussion among critics who find it surprising, at the least, and perhaps “out of character.” But the dream is perfectly explicable in terms of Mercutio's character: what we see is a childish indecisiveness. Why, as the young men are on their way to the ball and the chance for sexual experience (not romance—Mercutio would pooh-pooh that, of course), does Mercutio choose to go into a long-winded recital that certainly strikes us as a set piece, not completely spontaneous, no matter how witty and extemporary Mercutio may be? Is he hanging back because he is, in fact, unsure of himself, this young man whom so many seem to think of as a lady-killer right out of Restoration comedy? The Queen Mab speech is not particularly bawdy, in spite of references to Mab's visiting lovers and pressing the maids. It is as if the Mercutio we've been introduced to, the bawdy expert on sex, is no longer before us. It's Benvolio who seems to understand what is going on as Mercutio is telling us that dreams are as inconstant as the wind:

This wind you talk of blows us from ourselves:
Supper is done, and we shall come too late.

(I. iv. 97-98)

What happens to Mercutio at the ball we don't know; our attention is riveted on the perfection of Romeo and Juliet's beautiful meeting in the “good gentle pilgrim” sonnet. After the ball Romeo presumably goes to the Capulet home, and he is followed by Mercutio and Benvolio. When the two come onstage, it's Benvolio, not Mercutio, who is really searching for Romeo. Note that Mercutio has less enthusiasm for the chase:

Romeo! My cousin Romeo! Romeo!
He is wise,
And on my life hath stol'n him home to bed.

(II. i. 1-3)

Mercutio is thinking of his own “truckle bed.” But Benvolio knows where Romeo has gone: “He ran this way and leapt this orchard wall.” Thus we see that Romeo is actively avoiding his friends, hiding from them; as Benvolio says a few lines later, “he hath hid himself among these trees / To be consorted with the humorous night. / Blind is his love, and best befits the dark.” They have no idea that Romeo is on the way to high adventure, the highest adventure in all of the literature of love. While Mercutio does his bawdy conjuring, Romeo bides his time, and then goes to Juliet's balcony. John Vivyan makes a perceptive comment about the opposition between Mercutio and Romeo, pointing to Mercutio's reference to the medlar-tree, with its connotations of the female genitalia:

Witty, smutty—and immeasurably wide of the mark. Romeo is not under a medlar-tree; but in a few moments he will be under Juliet's balcony. … Not even Shakespeare could have contrived antitheses more arresting than the medlar-tree and Juliet's balcony, the poperin pear and love's pilgrim, who has come to the shrine of his own heart's saint—a place so beautiful that we know it must be holy.28

In Vivyan's allegoric interpretation, Mercutio is “the man of earth,” opposed to Romeo as “man of spirit,” and Romeo's growth is to a higher level of love on the Platonic scale as he transcends the values of Mercutio.

The next morning Mercutio and Benvolio are busy looking for Romeo. And they seem totally unaware of what has happened. Again Mercutio mocks the high-flown romantic love that he thinks is victimizing Romeo, tormented by the “pale-hearted wench, Rosaline” and the “blind bow-boy.” When Romeo comes along, Mercutio jokes about Romeo without his roe, “minus his manhood, … as if he were a depleted rake fresh from the bawdy house,” as the New Cambridge Shakespeare editor, G. Blakemore Evans, puts it (p. 107). Does Mercutio really think that Romeo is merely mooning after Rosaline, or does he suspect that his friend has found some real sexual involvement? At any rate, what follows is the wit-cracking, logic-chopping passage that is such a deadly bore—those single-soled jests, sorely short on substance. Where we might expect Romeo to tell Mercutio, and Benvolio, about Juliet, he is content to go along with Mercutio's tired jokes. Is it fair to speculate that perhaps Romeo doesn't tell Mercutio about Juliet because he fears Mercutio will mock her as he mocks Rosaline? But not all readers find the single-soled jests so disappointing. Granville-Barker says,

When their battle of wits is ended—a breathless bandying of words that is like a sharp set at tennis—suddenly, it would seem, [Mercutio] throws an affectionate arm round the younger man's shoulder.

Then Granville-Barker quotes with approval the passage in which this supposedly older Mercutio praises the Romeo who now is like himself: “Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art …” (II. iv. 72). For Granville-Barker, Mercutio's remark expresses “Mercutio's creed in a careless sentence! At all costs be the thing you are.”29

This is the thing that Mercutio is, but is this truly Romeo? The real Romeo is the person who has gone beyond standing around in the street making elaborate jokes to kill time. And even here we find that when Mercutio tries out more bawdy jokes, talking of driveling love that “is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole,” it is Benvolio who answers him with another bawdy wisecrack. Now Romeo is silent, except to close the byplay with “Here's goodly gear,” which may, it must be admitted, be part of the string of bawdy puns, if Evans is right in saying that Romeo's “gear” refers to sexual organs (p. 110). But it is more likely that Romeo is introducing us to the nurse, goodly gear indeed, as she appears onstage.

If it is the old Romeo in this scene, we see him only for a moment. With the nurse, his new life reasserts itself, though Mercutio is completely unaware of what is going on, showing here, as he does whenever he appears onstage, a remarkable lack of empathy with Romeo. Is there something that keeps him from responding to the real force of Romeo's new life? As Jung says, “It is practically impossible to get a man who is afraid of his own femininity to understand what is meant by the anima” (I. 271). Note that the only woman Mercutio talks to in the play is the Nurse, hardly an anima figure, and his treatment of her might strike us as very cruel, were she not so able to take care of herself when it comes to the bawdy side of life.

It is significant that, with all the indecent suggestions between the Nurse and Mercutio and, later, between the Nurse and Peter, Romeo avoids the bawdy completely. Perhaps it is the image of Juliet in his mind that keeps him apart from the wisecracking. It is true that another bawdy joke has been imagined in Romeo's comment to the Nurse that Mercutio loves to hear himself talk, “and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month” (Evans, 112). If this is in fact a bawdy joke about Mercutio's lack of sexual prowess—his inability to stand to—it would indicate that this new Romeo feels superior to Mercutio, confident as he is of Juliet's love.

Of all his appearances, the duel scene, of course, shows us Mercutio most clearly, and here the conflict between him and Romeo is obvious. For it is Mercutio who is directly responsible for the tragedy, as many readers have noticed. Mercutio is spoiling for a fight. And even though Romeo must sense how wrong Mercutio has been to insist on the fight, he cannot free himself from the violent and childish side of himself that, like Mercutio, will seek out death rather than love.

Benvolio sees the truth. Playing the straight man for Mercutio's caricature of him as the wrathful man spoiling for a fight (obviously a projection of Mercutio's own character), Benvolio says, “And I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter” (III. i. 26). In other words, Benvolio sees that Mercutio, always irresponsible, is living on the edge; in fact, Benvolio is prophetic, for within “an hour and a quarter” Mercutio will be dead, never having experienced a life more complex than his adolescent aggressiveness and bawdiness.

This young man who is so loved by so many commentators has to be blamed for what happens. Harold Goddard exemplifies this view at its best when he says that the cause of the quarrel Shakespeare “places squarely in the temperament and character of Mercutio.”30 Goddard points out that he is the one whose sword is out before Tybalt's: “Here's that shall make you dance,” he says to Tybalt, and either puts his hand to the hilt or actually draws the sword. In Zefferelli's film, Mercutio makes the sword stand before him like a phallus, the sword becoming Mercutio's toy, the trickster's toy so common among other tricksters, those fools whose swords are of lath. But Mercutio's is real enough, and he is ready to fight, when Romeo comes along, and Romeo amazes Mercutio by refusing to fight: “O calm, dishonorable, vile submission,” he says to Romeo. And he forces Tybalt to fight—not that Tybalt is hesitant.

But what is it that drives Mercutio here? Is it only that “vile submission” of his friend? How much “real concern” (Harbage's phrase)31 does Mercutio have for Romeo? Note that he says to Tybalt as he prepares to fight him, “Come, sir, your ‘passado’.” He thus refers back to the earlier conversation he had with Benvolio about Tybalt's newfangled style of fighting. Here he seems to want to test his weapon against Tybalt's new toy.

At any rate, he blames Romeo for his wound. He knows he is dying. We can't blame him completely for his failure to face facts. But at the same time there is something childish about his petulant cry, “why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.” He has no real reason to complain about Romeo here, or about both houses. He has brought the plague on himself.

But Romeo cannot see this. He sees only that Juliet's “beauty hath made me effeminate, and in my temper softened valour's steel!” The sword, the dangerous toy, has been bent, detumescent, and his “reputation stained,” as he puts it. And so he kills Tybalt.

And then he blames fortune for what has happened: “O, I am fortune's fool.” Jung comments on how often we blame jinxes or “accidents” for what is really our own doing:

The so-called civilized man has forgotten the trickster. He remembers him only figuratively and metaphorically, when, irritated by his own ineptitude, he speaks of fate playing tricks on him or of things being bewitched. He never suspects that his own hidden and apparently harmless shadow has qualities whose dangerousness exceeds his wildest dreams.

(I. 267)

Romeo can't outgrow that part of himself which is so dangerous, that part which in fact has taken over the role of determining his life, so that he betrays Juliet when he kills Tybalt—and thus precipitates the play's tragic catharsis. Jung says that “the one standing closest behind the shadow is the anima” (I. 270). His explanation of the remark is puzzling, as Jung can be, but he points to the opposition between shadow and anima and their paradoxical closeness to one another: sexuality and spirit, child and adult, hate and love, Mercutio and Juliet, poised on either side of Romeo. And it is Mercutio who wins out.

Some would blame the stars for the deaths of the lovers. My emphasis on the role of Mercutio in the play and what he symbolizes in Romeo add weight, I believe, to the argument that, in spite of all the perfunctory references to stars and fortune, it is finally a tragedy of character. The play puts its weight on the inner struggle of Romeo who tries to walk—so unsuccessfully—on the balance line between opposing forces. Though he fails, he fails nobly, having tried valiantly to live by the rule of love in a world that holds violence more important. The young lovers at the end have a kind of dignity in their deaths that we may not recognize because it is easy for us to feel superior to youthful error. It is true that after Tybalt's death and the news of his banishment, Romeo strikes every reader as childish, “blubbering and weeping” at the Friar's cell. But we should remember the resolution in his words when he learns of Juliet's supposed death, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight,” and the nobleness as well as the pathos of his words in the tomb, “My love, my wife.” In the Friar's cell, “blubbering and weeping,” he attempts suicide, and we find it melodramatic. At the end, when he kills himself, we find it tragic.32

One of Jung's comments suggests clearly the source of tragedy in that what life requires of us is so difficult to achieve: how do we reconcile that puerile trickster within us, that Mercurial shadow, with our higher self, our Juliet? How do we reach that integration?

The unity of our psychic nature lies in the middle, just as the living unity of the waterfall appears in the dynamic connection between above and below.

(I. 269)


  1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). Subsequent quotations from Romeo and Juliet are from this edition.

  2. A useful summary of criticism on Mercutio is found in Herbert MacArthur, “Romeo's Loquacious Friend,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 35-44.

  3. MacArthur, p. 35.

  4. MacArthur, p. 38.

  5. MacArthur, p. 43.

  6. The Shakespearian Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 82.

  7. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 336.

  8. Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), p. 856.

  9. Marjorie Kolb Cox, in the Psychoanalytic Review, analyzes “Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet,” pointing out that “when Romeo finds the true object of his love, he must leave Mercutio along with his primary loyalty to the preadolescent male peer group” (63 [1976], pp. 379-92). The feminist critic, Coppelia Kahn, also sees the limitations in Mercutio, who embodies a part of the masculine world that “promotes masculinity at the price of life.” (“Coming of Age in Verona,” in The Woman's Part, ed. Lenz, Greene and Neely [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980]).

  10. See Edith Kern, The Absolute Comic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), chapter four, “The Absolute Comic and the Trickster Figure.”

  11. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (New York: Bollingen Foundation, [1959-63] I, p. 262. Subsequent references to Jung's work will be from the Bollingen edition.

  12. The World of Primitive Man (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1953), p. 339.

  13. Works, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-53), IV, II. i. 4-9.

  14. Ed. Jane Gooch (New York: Garland English Text Series, 1981), IV. iii.

  15. Complete Works ed. R. W. Bond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1902), IV, IV. i. 4-11.

  16. Dramatic Works (London: John Pearson, 1874), IV, pp. 216-18.

  17. Dramatic Works I, p. 98.

  18. Ed. Gerald Snare (Northridge: California State University, 1975), pp. 96-97.

  19. Ed. R. Tuve (New York: Scholars Facsimiles, 1947), p. 186.

  20. Mythologiae, (Venice [1567], Garland Reprint, New York, 1967), p. 134.

  21. (London [1599] Garland Reprint, New York, 1976), Qii.

  22. Tetrabiblos, trans. W. G. Waddell (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, 1940), p. 443.

  23. De Deis Gentium (Basel [1548] Garland Reprint, New York, 1976).

  24. Works V, I. iii. 49.

  25. Works VII, 11. 30-34.

  26. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 55.

  27. “Mercutio, Mine Own Son, the Dentist,” in Essays on Shakespeare, ed. G. Ross Smith (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965), p. 11.

  28. Shakespeare and the Rose of Love (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), pp. 157-58.

  29. Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 336.

  30. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), I, p. 125.

  31. William Shakespeare: a Reader's Guide, p. 151.

  32. For a recent statement of this view of Act V see G. Blakemore Evans' introductory essay to the New Cambridge Romeo and Juliet, cited above. The essay by John Vivyan in Shakespeare and the Rose of Love is also helpful on this point.

David M. Bergeron (essay date March 1977)

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SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “Sickness in Romeo and Juliet.CLA Journal 20, no. 3 (March 1977): 356-64.

[In the following essay, Bergeron explores Shakespeare's use of the language and imagery of illness as a central tragic metaphor in Romeo and Juliet.]

If we have cut our critical teeth on tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and The Revenger's Tragedy, we may have some difficulty in locating the tragic sense in Romeo and Juliet. Indeed some theatre directors choose to present it as a comedy, emphasizing Mercutio, the Nurse, and the sacrificial nature of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet which ultimately bring reconciliation of the Capulets and Montagues, virtually a felix culpa. That this play differs markedly in design from Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth is undeniable, but I believe that no degree of emphasis on sacrifice can truly mitigate the tragedy that occurs. The play in fact becomes a tragedy as it turns away from its comic possibilities.1 It finally more nearly resembles the Pyramus and Thisbe story than it does A Midsummer Night's Dream.

One of the imagery and thematic threads that run throughout Shakespeare's drama is sickness; in the tragedies illness is not susceptible to cure, while typically in the comedies a healing agent or device makes all whole. The concrete, physical examples of sickness are subsumed in the larger, metaphorical pattern which allows the dramatist to construct the play-world either with spiritual disease and corruption (tragedy) or with graceful healing and reconciliation (comedy). The remedies offered in tragedy are ineffective, while in comedy they are efficacious.

Despite the initial festive quality of Romeo and Juliet—its feasts, dances, love stories—the play abounds with images of sickness, boding the tragedy to come. This pattern of imagery has largely gone unnoticed,2 but I believe that it provides another means of defining the tragedy. Romeo gives a clue to the imagery in his first appearance. Outlining his troubled response to love for Rosaline, he sums up the nature of love in a series of oxymorons, including “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health …” (I.i.178).3 While this may seem fairly tame and conventional stuff, the paradox of “sick health” is arresting, implying the threat to health which exists in this play as the images of disease and illness give rise to a tragic world of disorder, fragmentation, and finally death. The polarities of sickness and health suggest a tragic axis on which the play turns, and on the plot graph of this play tragedy is a function of illness and health. In the analysis which follows, one can chart both the categories of disease and the attempts at remedies, thereby answering in one way at least, how the play is tragic.

The maladies in the play may be categorized as illness of body, of spirit, and of body politic. The physical ailments cover a rather wide range of problems with varying degrees of seriousness: the bump on the head which Juliet received as a child (I.iii.53); the corns mentioned by the elder Capulet at the dance (I.iv.19-20); the suggestion by Mercutio that Romeo may have the pox (II.iv.51-52); the aching bones, backache, and headache suffered by the Nurse (II.v.26, 48, 50); Juliet's anemia (III.v.157); the unruly spleen mentioned by Benvolio (III.i.155); Tybalt's onslaught of choler (I.v.90); Romeo's vague “distemp'rature” (II.iii.40). In addition to actual problems the characters are aware of the crucial importance of health. As the Capulet household busies itself with preparation for Juliet's forthcoming wedding to Paris, the Nurse urges Capulet to get to bed: “Faith, you'll be sick to-morrow / For this night's watching” (IV.iv.7-8). But he insists on his health: “What, I have watched ere now / All night for lesser cause, and ne'er been sick” (9-10). That boast turns back upon him with sharp irony as a few minutes later he learns of the apparent death of Juliet. When Balthasar arives at Mantua in V.i, Romeo's first questions and statements concern health: “Is my father well? / How fares my Juliet? That I ask again / For nothing can be ill if she be well” (14-16). But of course Balthasar brings “ill news.”

Individually considered, the physical maladies may not seem very important, but collectively they add to the tragic tone and epitomize a world infected and in need of healing. There are at least two instances of physical sickness which are dramatically crucial and which help determine the tragedy. One is the shedding of blood in III.i, the moment at which the play clearly turns toward a tragic inevitability. Benvolio notes in the opening lines that there is “mad blood stirring” in Verona, and within a few minutes that mad blood manifests itself in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, reminding one of the words in the Prologue that civil blood would make civil hands unclean. Mercutio's cry for a surgeon goes unheeded; and his curse of “A plague o' both your houses!” (89, 97) may have more literal tinge to it than one usually thinks. In the next scene, III.ii, the Nurse reports to Juliet the horrible events that have happened, emphasizing the wounds and blood she has observed. Coming as it does shortly after the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in II.vi, this new sickness is juxtaposed paradoxically to the potential health implicit in the lovers' wedding, thus echoing Romeo's early oxymoron of “sick health.” Medically, the shedding of blood is often necessary and may lead to healing, but ironically in the play this event is both cause and effect of sickness—the ultimate result of a festering sore between the households and the trigger to further tragic action.

The series of physical illnesses culminates dramatically in the report of Friar John in V.ii, that he did not get to Mantua because in the name of visiting the sick in Verona he and a fellow friar were sealed up in a house suspected of containing “the infectious pestilence” (l. 10). An actual sickness has thus prevented the dramatically crucial letter from reaching Romeo. Shakespeare's device here seems perfectly consistent with the pervasive images and reports of illness. Thus in III.i, with the shedding of blood and here in V.ii, with the plague, all possibilities for averting tragedy are lost, and we now await the inevitable. While on a worthy mission Friar John is detained in a house of apparent pestilence, as Romeo and Juliet with their own worthy motives will be sealed in the tomb of death.

Though emotional stress of various degrees afflicts a number of characters, the sickness of spirit most discussed is lovesickness, which has both its literal and figurative aspects. It is, of course, an illness frequent in Shakespearean comedy, for example, in Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. Before Romeo enters the play, his kinsmen discuss his condition, the humor that troubles him. Montague tells Benvolio: “Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow, / We would as willingly give cure as know” (I.i.152-53). It is soon clear that Romeo suffers from love, which he characterizes as “a madness most discreet” (l. 191). Benvolio urges him to discuss the problem, but Romeo responds: “Bid a sick man in sadness make his will. / Ah, word ill urged to one that is so ill! (200-201). Later Romeo points out that he has been wounded by love, “enpierced with his shaft …” (I.iv.19). The more profound ailment comes of course in his new love for Juliet, having survived the “sickness” for Rosaline. Romeo opens the famous balcony scene with reference to sicknes: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound” (II.ii.1). When he sees Juliet, he likens her to the sun that kills the envious moon, “Who is already sick and pale with grief” (l.5)—this moon whose “vestal livery is but sick and green” (1.8). But Juliet's premonitions here and in III.v.54-57, imply the threat to their healthy love; her “ill-divining soul” is alert to the troublesome paradox of sick health.

From the Prologue which opens the play to the closing lines of the drama, a metaphorical sickness in the body politic envelops the world of Verona, namely, the ancient grudge between the Capulets and Montagues, which finally spawns heartbreaks and death. The fact of these warring houses frames the action, implying the disorderly and unhealthy world of Verona. Only the deaths of Romeo and Juliet finally expunge the illness, but, of course, at a great and tragic price. Though in some sense the play is a “domestic tragedy,” the larger, external world of the festering conflict between families is forever colliding with the will of the lovers. The public conflict in I.i, and III.i, finds its counterpart in the private resentment expressed in the Capulet festive scene in I,v, where the rash Tybalt recognizes Romeo as a Montague, “our foe” and would “strike him dead” for the family's honor. At the play's end the Prince points out to the Capulets and Montagues: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (V.iii.292-93). The tomb offers mute testimony to the destructive illness that has infected the households.

But what about the attempts at healing? Remedies, prescriptions, and “physicians” are present, but singly or collectively they fail. The breathless and aching Nurse in II.v, asks for a “poultice” (1.66) but receives none. Feeling her woes and sorrows, she asks for “aqua vitae” (III.ii.87), but to no avail. And when the Nurse discovers the seemingly dead Juliet, she again cries out for “Some aqua vitae” (IV.v.16); but such a prescription is pointless. The dying Mercutio asks for a surgeon (III.i.97), but none is to be found. Thus even these practical maladies and wounds know no healing.

Resorting to the Friar for help (IV.i), Juliet receives his prescription, a potion which will induce a death-like state. This medicine suggests a way of gaining health for the distraught couple; but in the privacy of her chamber Juliet wonders: “What if it be a poison which the friar / Subtly hath minist'red to have me dead …” (IV.iii.24-25). It is no poison, though its effect aggravates rather than cures the situation. Certainly Juliet's parents must assume that she is dead; and death, not Paris, is the ostensible bridegroom. Laying rosemary on the corpse takes the place of the expected festive wedding.4

The prescription most often discussed and finally sought to resolve the ills of the play-world is poison, underscored by the fourteen times that the word is used in the play—the highest incidence in all of Shakespeare's drama. Arden of Feversham, Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, and The Duchess of Malfi represent a small, partial list of Renaissance tragedies that utilize poison in some dramatically significant manner. In one of this play's most important thematic speeches Friar Laurence notes that within the flower that he holds, “Poison hath residence, and medicine power …” (II.iii.24). There is no clearer statement of the paradox of “sick health.” As with the flower, so with the play: comedy and tragedy are potential in the same situation; healing could come, or poison work its fatal power. When night's candles have burned out and Romeo parts from Juliet at their last meeting, Juliet assumes the role of outrage at this man who has killed her kinsman Tybalt. She says to her mother: “… I never shall be satisfied / With Romeo till I behold him—dead …” (III.v.94-95); and she promises that if a man could be found “To bear a poison,” she would “temper it” and offer it to Romeo (l. 98). Surely these words must haunt Juliet in that final moment in the tomb as she awakens to find her Romeo indeed poisoned.

It is Romeo who seeks poison from the Apothecary in V.i, a quest that counterpoints the innocent potion given Juliet by the Friar—the potion-poison dichotomy corresponds to the “sick-health” paradox. Romeo asks for “A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear / As will disperse itself through all the veins / That the life-weary taker may fall dead …” (V.i.60-62). The Apothecary has such “mortal drugs” though to sell them is illegal. But Romeo will not tolerate the nicety of the law and thrusts gold on the Apothecary, claiming that money is “worse poison to men's souls …” (l. 80). Both literally and figuratively Romeo pays a dear price for what he insists with ironic self-justification is not poison. Instead, he calls it a “cordial,” but there is no heart-saving medicine in it. Cordials assist health; poison produces sickness. And Romeo's early paradox gets yet another twist.

As we know, poison in the closing scene of the play seals the tragic doom of the lovers. Preparing to drink the fatal potion, Romeo refers to it as “bitter conduct,” “unsavory guide” (V.iii.116); and he sees his “seasick weary bark” as now run aground on the dashing rocks. He drinks and exclaims with a fine ambiguity: “O true apothecary! / Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die” (119-120). Juliet finds the cup of poison and chides her lover for not having left a “friendly drop” for her (l. 163); so she kisses the lips, hoping to find poison “To make me die with a restorative” (l. 166), echoing her lover who called the poison a “cordial.” By this point in the action the lovers are willing to distort meaning, to designate that which kills them as a balm for their weary souls. But there is no health for them. The axis of “sick health” has become a polarity with tragic waste pre-empting comic fruitfulness and life.

In addition to these “medicines” there are several characters who function as possible “physicians,” but in fact there is no adequate agent who can bring about healing, no efficacious doctor. The Nurse might be expected to provide a cure, but such is not the role the dramatist has laid out for her. Instead of offering Juliet a way out of her dilemma, the Nurse rather cynically suggests that Juliet ought to go ahead and marry Paris since Romeo has been banished. The apothecary trafficks in poison rather than life-sustaining medicines. Only Benvolio truly offers a cure, but for a minor infection—Romeo's lovesickness for Rosaline. Benvolio's remedy is that Romeo should give liberty unto his eyes and “Examine other beauties” (I.i.226). He further suggests to Romeo:

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


As Franklin Dickey observes: “Benvolio's reasonable prescription for Romeo's complaint emphasizes the textbook nature of the illness.”5 The cure works as Romeo abandons Rosaline at the sight of Juliet. Lovesickness is, then, readily susceptible to treatment and cure, though not without irony: the healthy Romeo hopelessly falls for Juliet and the new infection knows no final cure.

The Prince has a potential healing role; certainly he diagnoses the illness in the state and warns that if left unchecked, the disease will consume the families. His three appearances come at timely moments which call attention to the nature of the problem and the need for a remedy. He interrupts the squabble in I.i, and urges:

… you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins!
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemp'red weapons to the ground …


He asks the Capulets and Montages to curb their “cank'red hate,” but the enmity erupts into murder in III.i. Here the Prince orders surgery by banishing Romeo from Verona, but again no permanent healing comes. As he presides over the unraveling at the play's end, the physician Prince rightly blames the families for the fatal illness that has befallen Romeo and Juliet and chides himself “for winking at your discords …” (V.iii.294). As a result, “All are punished” (l. 295).

At the dramatic and thematic center of the search for a cure is Friar Laurence, but he too is ultimately unsuccessful; in fact, he, ironically, exacerbates the illness. In his speech in II.iii, he observes the conflict between medicine and poison, the paradox of sick health. He finds in nature both “baleful weeds” and “precious-juicèd flowers,” a dazzling array of contraries (l. 7). Noting the duality in nature, he can also perceive it in men, the tension between “grace and rude will” (l. 28); “And where the worser is predominant, / Full soon the canker death eats up that plant” (29-30)—health gives way to sicknes. So perceptive a person has the capacity to reconcile, to heal; his failure to do so is another measure of the play as a tragedy.

When Romeo in the first flush of his new-found love for Juliet arrives at the Friar's cell, the Friar immediately senses that something is wrong, believing that Romeo is “uproused with some distemp'rature …” (II.iii.40). But Romeo says that he and Juliet suffer only the wound of love, and he pinpoints the problems for the Friar: “Both our remedies / Within thy help and holy physic lies” (51-52). This man who understands the medicinal power of herbs is now called on for spiritual medicine, and indeed he hopes to turn the family rancor into love (l. 92). He understands the potential for a universal spiritual cure; thus he consents to perform the sacrament of marriage for Romeo and Juliet, with all its healthy, “comic” possibilities.

But the frantic Romeo who confronts the Friar in III.iii, is suicidal: “Hadst thou no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife, / No sudden mean of death …” (44-45). Friar Laurence calms Romeo's agitated spirit and sketches a strategy, a possible cure, that will permantly and safely unite the lovers. In her final speech of Act III Juliet sets out to the Friar's cell: “I'll to the friar to know his remedy” (III.v.243). And she greets him in IV.1: “Come weep with me—past hope, past cure, past help!” (l. 44). She cries out for a “remedy,” and the Friar says: “… if thou darest, I'll give thee remedy” (76). He gives Juliet the potion and dispatches letters to Romeo in Mantua. Tragically, the cure does not work, and the holy physician must watch his patients die. His final suggestion of escape to Juliet in the tomb goes unheeded; instead death and contagion prevail. Friar Laurence is not the cause of the sickness in the play, but he is able to do little to assuage it. Given the sickness prevalent in the play, both physical and metaphorical, and the ineffective prescriptions and physicians, there can be little doubt of the tragic action and tragic spirit.


  1. For an excellent discussion see Susan Snyder, “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy into Tragedy,” Essays in Criticism, 20 (1970), 391-402.

  2. Most students of the play's imagery have discussed the light-dark imagery as dominant. See, for example, Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935). Curiously out of the 204 images that Miss Spurgeon notes in the play a mere eight are categorized under the heading “Sickness and Medicine” (Appendix IV, p. 366). I think that she has greatly misjudged the importance of this category of imagery. See also, E. C. Pettet, “The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet,English, 8 (1950), 121-126.

  3. All references are to The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969). For a full discussion of the oxymoron device in the play see Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage: Rhetorical Devices in “Romeo and Juliet” (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966).

  4. Cf. the Nurse's linking in a joking manner of rosemary and Romeo which becomes indirectly explicit now at Juliet's “death” (II.iv.195).

  5. Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1957), p. 79.

Kirby Farrell (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Farrell, Kirby. “Love, Death, and Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 86-102. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Farrell probes the patriarchal subtext of Romeo and Juliet and the play's subversive critique of this social system.]


Recent criticism has tended to depict patriarchy primarily as an authoritarian institution for the regulation of society. Where Elizabethan theorists praised the system for its order, we now have difficulty seeing beyond its flagrant injustices and limitations, especially its misogyny. Yet repression is not the whole picture. What made patriarchy tolerable, even valuable, to so many Elizabethans? No one in Shakespeare's Verona, for example, openly rebels against patriarchy. Like Romeo, Juliet blames fate that she “must love a loathed enemy” (1.5.141); she desperately tries to placate her father with “chopt-logic” (3.5.149). For all their touchiness about being thought slaves, even the servants are willing to fight for their houses. Why would individuals consistently subordinate their desires to the will of a patriarch?

The answer I read from the play is that like religion, patriarchy provides crucial symbols which validate the self and enable people to imagine that they can transcend death. Anxiety about death pervades Romeo and Juliet. The word “death” itself shows up more often here than in any other work in the canon. In the lyrical balcony scene (2.2.53-78) no less than in the ominous Prologue, love is “death-mark'd.” Yet even before his first glimpse of Juliet, Romeo worries that “untimely death” will overtake him (1.4.111). This “black and portentous” dread, I shall be arguing, dramatizes the breakdown in Verona of patriarchy's ability to control anxiety about death and unconsciously anticipates the dangerous consequences of that breakdown.

Patriarchy itself evolved from ancient systems of social order based on heroic leadership and strength. Insofar as he became a symbol of personal vitality and mythologically the progenitor of his people, the hero objectified the will to life and its opposition to death. As the term hero-worship itself implies, such a figure was usually invested with supernatural powers. Renaissance patriarchy combined ancient heroic models with forms drawn from Christianity, which revered “the Lord” and projected a heroic drama in which the heavenly father and his son triumph over a rebellious servant, Lucifer, and confer eternal life on the obedient children who identify with them.

Like Christianity, in which priestly fathers commonly exercised worldly as well as spiritual influence, patriarchy gave a local master superhuman sanction. Elizabethan theorists associated the father with the king and with God himself: it was he who created, defined, and validated his child's personality. He granted and guaranteed the psychic life of all who depended on him. The faithful servant or child could share in the father's righteous potency with a heightened sense of vitality and invulnerability tantamount, as Ernest Becker would say, to a conviction of immortality (Becker 1973). Tasso reveals the underlying premise in reporting that he confided in his patron “not as we trust in man, but as we trust in God. It appeared to me that, so long as I was under his protection, fortune and death had no power over me” (Bradbrook 1980, 73).

In early modern England “no one in a position of ‘service’ was an independent member of society. … Such men and women, boys and girls, were caught up, so to speak, ‘subsumed’ is the ugly word we shall use, into the personalities of their fathers and masters” (Laslett 1971, 20-21). Dependents necessarily cultivated the worshipful self-effacement psychologists call transference: living vicariously through a master who reciprocally lived through his house. The father's strength energized the entire family. In this perspective patriarchy was a process that consolidated diverse wills into one extraordinary will and generated a communal feeling—in effect, a spell—of immortality.

At the same time, like God's majesty, patriarchal potency included powers of annihilation as well as of love. The prince seeks to control his “rebellious subjects” by threatening their lives (1.1.97). Old Capulet roars a murderous curse at the uncooperative Juliet: “Hang, beg, starve, die in the streets” (3.5.192). More than mere discipline is involved here, for he who commands death seems to transcend it. In Otto Rank's words, “the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying” (Becker 1973, 99). In Verona the fathers' command over death remains symbolic. Nevertheless, even a child's unconscious anxiety about a rejection akin to death must have reinforced identification with the father.

In such a system only self-effacement brought a share in the father's power. Autonomy equalled rebellion and meant a rejection tantamount to death. In theory, either one identified with one's master and vicariously shared his power by lording it over inferiors (as Sampson and Gregory would dominate rival servants and women) or one was dominated. Dreading to be thought slaves—“That shows thee a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall” (1.1.13)—the Capulet servants associate aggression on behalf of their master with escape from the nullity of servitude. Yet their inferiority is the creation of their masters and produces volatile ambivalence in them. They summarize their situation with an ambiguity too dangerous to be consciously faced: “The quarrel is between our masters, and us their men” (1.1.19-20)—not merely between houses but between masters and servants.

In seeking to dominate, the servants act out the submerged values of their masters. Since patriarchy is founded upon the promise of security to dependents such as women, Sampson imagines humiliating his enemy by violating his women. Likewise, he appropriates the patriarch's role of godlike judge when he fantasizes that he “will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads” or maidenheads (1.1.24-25), equating rape with execution. By contrast, Romeo acts out patriarchy's benevolent generativity when he first approaches Juliet, assigning her an identity (the sun) and commanding her to arise and claim her rightful place in the order of things (2.2.3-9). These examples reflect one of the crucial paradoxes of the play's imaginative world: that even those who seemingly oppose patriarchy internalize patriarchal values.

The marriage old Capulet would make for his daughter helps to explain the willing self-effacement of dependents. By meekly wedding the paternally sanctioned Paris, thereby making him a patriarch in his own right, Juliet would fulfill her father's will and also transform herself. Lady Capulet fetishizes Paris as a book of spellbinding value that “in many's eyes doth share the glory” (1.3.91). By marrying him, Juliet too would be glorified and would share in “all that he doth possess, / By having him, making [her]self no less” (1.3.93-94). With its connotations of worship, “glory” exactly expresses the religious assumptions underlying the patriarchal system. By compelling admiration from others, Juliet's marriage would exalt her and by extension her parents. For a dependent deference can be a means to vicarious triumph.

In Verona, however, patriarchy is under stress. The prince envisions himself protecting the city's declining “ancient citizens” from the turmoil of “rebellious subjects” (1.1.82, 97). At the same time romance has begun to rival patriarchy as an alternative mode of love and deliverance. As a result, the fathers' demand at the least for deference and at the most for total self-sacrifice or death sets off a violent chain of events. Social patterns and preoccupations inherent in the patriarchal system create conflicts that make rebellion inevitable.

In patriarchy the conviction of well-being depends on mystification, since in the end a master's strength is finite and people do helplessly die. Any threat to that spell jeopardizes the community's sense of security. The principal threat, however, is succession (Farrell 1984, 87-93). Sooner or later a son must take his father's place. As a result an aging father may become apprehensively tyrannical, or his child disenchanted and rebellious. Withdrawing his strength from the father, weakening their shared identity, the child cannot help but evoke dread.

Since the system polarizes roles into extremes of dominance and submissive identification, the moment when those roles at last reverse may be terrifying. Having made mothers of his daughters, as the Fool protests, King Lear suddenly becomes as powerless as a child who is subject to whipping and utter effacement. Hence the potential violence of paternal retaliation. Acting the righteous judge, a father can pronounce doom on an unruly child and thereby—however painfully—make the child's loss confirm his own vitality.

One solution to the problem of succession splits the conception of power. The father becomes an unmoved mover, as it were, a conscience-figure or judge who controls a seemingly static house or kingdom by directing his powers of life and death inward in the form of blessings and executions. By contrast, the annihilation of enemies acts out the heroic mastery of death, and that power may be delegated to sons and followers. In this way the potency of the father remains incontestable.

Since Verona has no outside enemy, however, heroic aggression is turned inward. When old Capulet calls for his broadsword, for example, he is about to assault old Montague, who is tacitly his “brother” in relation to the patriarch who governs them, the prince. In this context the otherwise peculiarly gratuitous feud is a device that allows males to seek forbidden self-aggrandizement by scapegoating rivals, and each house kills in the name of righteousness. Although the feud helps to preserve the illusion of immortality essential to patriarchy's survival by providing a safety valve for aggressive feelings against masters, it only postpones the inevitable crisis of succession.

Hence the need to glorify the submission of the child while elevating the father to “be as a god” (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1.1.47). The model for that submission is Christianity, in which the central action is the atonement of the son with the omnipotent Father. Christ resists Satan's temptation to personal dominion over the earth and by self-sacrifice earns eternal life for humankind. While God remains the unmoved mover, his son struggles in the world and earns through his faithful death a resurrection that transforms him from lamb to fatherly shepherd, from victimized mock-King of the Jews to the militant warrior who will harrow Hell and rout Antichrist in the last days. In this arrangement the shepherd/warrior ambiguously shares in the identity of the Father without threatening his preeminence as everlasting judge.

In a fallen world, however, as Renaissance sectarianism made plain, the urge to rebellion remained strong. Reformers repudiated the patriarchal pope and feuded with each other, seeking to dethrone each other's “false” god and win the eternal life afforded by the true Father. The English, typically, construed their own rebellion as the rescue of true faith from Antichrist. The patriarchal analogue to religious schism is Verona's feud. Like rival dispensations, each house kills in the name of righteousness. Cursing Benvolio, for example, Tybalt cries, “I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee” (1.1.71). In psychoanalytic terms fanaticism such as Tybalt's suggests a reaction formation, a means of suppressing one's own taboo impulses by killing off the devilish enemy of authority one might otherwise become.

In Verona as in Christianity the patriarchal role is split between incontestable control and heroic expansiveness, yet the reconciliation of roles is repeatedly subverted. Prince Escalus functions as conscience and judge, commanding obedience “on pain of death” (1.1.103). But the prince seems weak, and his unruly “sons” deviously aggressive; although they profess obedience, they repeatedly maneuver for power. Instead of suffering abuse, as Christ did, they perpetuate a rivalry in which every little indignity contributes to a rising spiral of violence. The rivalry itself ambivalently allows “sons” to challenge and curry favor with their lord. Capulet, for example, insists on Juliet's marriage to the prince's kinsman, Paris, which presumably would give him an edge over his rival, Montague. His scheme not only expresses the mentality of the feud but also signifies an effort to identify with the supreme source of strength in Verona. Not surprisingly: for in a larger context these “sons” are themselves fathers covertly challenged from below.

Within his own house a lord such as old Capulet is himself a weakened conscience, his role as warrior being appropriated by actual or surrogate sons, such as Tybalt, and below them by unruly servants. Tybalt, after all, boldly usurps the role of warrior lord. Wishing to assault Romeo at the ball, he tests his surrogate father's authority to the limits, provoking old Capulet to roar: “Am I master here, or you?” (1.5.78).

As a potential son-in-law Romeo himself is tacitly a rival son with Tybalt, competing to inherit Capulet's power. Like old Capulet and old Montague, Tybalt and Romeo displace their resentment of superior authority onto one another. Furthermore, Romeo scales the patriarch's orchard wall to steal his daughter's heart and thereby his posterity, yet he denies all hostility in himself and others: “There lies more peril in thine eye / Than twenty [Capulet] swords” (2.2.71-72). Eventually, as Verona's sons destroy one another, Romeo will join Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris in the graveyard.

As the means of producing new life and one means of mediating the child's eventual appropriation of the parent's position, marriage becomes the object of intense parental control. As old Capulet insists, “[all] my care hath been / To have [Juliet] matched” (3.5.177-78). Ideally, such intimate control compensates the father by corroborating his will even as it guarantees an undying line of posterity. Hence the tragic nature of the parental dread that spurs Juliet's defiance. Lamenting Tybalt's death and prevented by the prince's edict from taking comfort in the usual fantasies of triumphal revenge, old Capulet keenly feels his own mortality: “Well, we were born to die” (3.4.4). Promptly he makes a “desperate tender / Of my child's love” to Paris (3.4.12-13). For a moment he loses faith in his own ordained mastery and tries to secure the future by force. Bullying his daughter to wed Paris and thereby fatally alienating her, the old man brings on the horror he seeks to dispel.

Let me emphasize that we are looking at a system of behavior. Without imputing Machiavellian motives to Prince Escalus, for instance, it should be noted that the feud actually serves to protect his limited power from expansive ambitions from below. By blaming the fathers, he can exercise his threat to execute troublemakers and thus “maintain his posture as a decisive ruler” (Brenner 1980, 50). Until the night of the ball at least, the fathers have similarly profited from the distressing competition between feisty sons impatient for power.

The feud presupposes, then, that one “son” may kill another to identify with the father's strength as warrior-hero. With the emphatic symmetry of “Two households, both alike in dignity” (Pro. 1), Capulet and Montague are virtual alter egos, as are Tybalt and Romeo and, in the opening brawl, the opposed servants. Externalized, the doubling plays out fratricidal rivalry. Fully internalized in a vulnerable character, patriarchal conflicts may produce self-murder. And that, I maintain, is what finally destroys Romeo and Juliet.


For all their lyrical tenderness, Romeo and Juliet create their love out of the tragically conflicting materials of their own culture. In Romeo's changing desires, for instance, the chorus sees a struggle to inherit a father's position: “Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie, / And young affection gapes to be his heir” (2.Pro. 1-2). The lovers attempt to evade the world of the feud, yet in making love they unwittingly act out patriarchal and Christian forms. Construing love as worship and substituting the beloved for father and God, they seek apotheosis in each other. Out of the resulting turmoil comes death and “a glooming peace” (5.3.305): an equivocal vision of redemptive destruction that resists any ready evaluation.

In an imaginative world where children grow up transfixed in the aura of a protective lord or else face terrifying nullity, we should not be surprised that love may reproduce in a beloved the engulfing, life-giving power of godlike parents. Insofar as the polarization of power in Verona requires either continual submission or the devious homicidal assertiveness of the feud, love's mutual worship answers profound needs. For if individuals become disenchanted with absolute security and heroic aggression, as Romeo and Juliet do, they need alternative convictions to sustain them. Love is therefore counterphobic not only as any system of immortality must be but also as a defense against the anxious demands of an ideology whose spell is no longer wholly efficacious.

Romeo envisions Juliet as a supernatural being, a masculine “bright angel” and “winged messenger of heaven” who overmasters awestruck “mortals” so that they “fall back and gaze on him” (2.2.26-32). At the same time, Romeo's vision expresses the infantile wish to be chosen by, and identified with, a majestic father, as is shown by the gender of the angel. His imagination finds fulfillment in the paradox of empowering self-effacement at the heart of patriarchy. The fantasy's completion comes in Romeo's dream that Juliet has awakened him from death and ordained him an emperor, the paramount patriarchal role (5.1.9).

Juliet participates in the same fantasy when she equates orgasm and immortality in her cry,

Give me my Romeo; and when I shall die,
Take him 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.


Like “all the world,” Juliet will be subsumed as a worshiper in Romeo's apotheosis. If his transformation into stars alludes to Caesar's apotheosis as a “goodly shyning starre” in Ovid, as one editor has suggested (Gibbons 1980, 170), then Juliet is envisioning an analogue to Romeo's dream that sexual love (her kiss) can revive him from death to become an emperor. By “dying” through sexuality “are happy mothers made” (1.2.12). By the same means, reciprocally, may a woman make a youth an immortal lord. In its imagination of power this fantasy is profoundly patriarchal. Like Romeo's vision of the angel, however, this celebration of all the world absorbed in the face of heaven also suggests a worshipful infant's concentration upon the all-important, life-giving face of a parent.

The lovers' mutual worship expresses a generosity, subverted or repressed elsewhere in Verona, that balances their self-destructiveness. In their lovemaking, for example, Romeo and Juliet repeatedly fantasize that deathlike self-effacement can lead to apotheosis. Repudiating their own names (2.2.34-57), loving in darkness, they try to be invisible in hopes of escaping patriarchal control. They imagine innocent self-nullification that excuses their actual defiance of their fathers even as each casts the beloved in the role of life-giving lord. When Juliet wishes Romeo were her pet bird, a “poor prisoner” (2.2.179) whose liberty she would be “loving jealous of” (2.2.181), Romeo eagerly assents. Yet Juliet declines to dominate him, protesting that “I should kill thee with much cherishing” (2.2.183).

Finally, however, their behavior is equivocal, and that doubleness makes their self-effacement perilous. Confronted by Tybalt after his secret marriage, Romeo tries to play possum and placate him. Yet Romeo's passivity allows Tybalt to use him as a screen, thrusting under his arm to kill Mercutio (3.1.103). Immediately guilt and anger overwhelm Romeo. His will released, Romeo first turns against Juliet—“Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,” he cries, “And … soft'ned valor's steel” (3.1.113-15)—and then, murderously, against Tybalt.

In this crisis actual uncontrollable death breaks the spell of symbolic immortality, and the underlying patriarchal structure asserts itself. Defeated by Tybalt's “triumph” (3.1.122), called a “wretched boy” (3.1.130), Romeo feels overwhelmed by “black fate” (3.1.119-20). In reaction he tries to reassert heroic control over death by levying a death sentence on Tybalt (3.1.129). Rebelling—against the emasculating “angel” Juliet as well as against the would-be master Tybalt—Romeo discharges his rage at a rival “son” and alter ego. In the complex of motives that produces the lovers' suicides this process is important. For there the part of the self that identifies with the patriarch and demands mastery finally punishes with death that part of the self that for the sake of love would suffer enemies and surrender all claims to worldly power in the hope of deferred rewards. The internalized father slays the weakening child.

Because the basic patriarchal structure governs even rebellion, desires for autonomy tend to call up opposite roles organized around fantasies of death and omnipotence. When Gregory and Sampson jest about breaking the law, for instance, they promptly fantasize about slavery and execution, and then, in reaction, about annihilating their enemies. Similarly, the Juliet who would make Romeo outshine Caesar is also the paralyzed child who helplessly hears her parents wish her dead. Exposed in his rebellion by the murder of Tybalt, the Romeo who would be an emperor (5.1.6-9) abases himself, feeling himself put to death by the mere word “banishment,” with which the friar, like a patriarchal judge, “cut'st my head off” (3.3.21-23). Taunted as a slave by Tybalt (1.5.55), Romeo goes to his doom with grandiose defiance of slavery, vowing to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (5.3.111). Death and omnipotence are two faces of the same fantasy. Their dissociation contributes to the irrational violence of the feud as well as to the lovers' “mad scenes”—Romeo's tantrum on the floor of the friar's cell and Juliet's near hallucinatory collapse as she dispatches herself with the sleeping potion.

It happens that we can glimpse the origins of this polarization of the self in Romeo and Juliet. Heading toward the Capulets' ball, Romeo worries about “some vile forfeit of untimely death” that may overtake him before he can redeem the “despised life clos'd in my breast” through some heroic act (1.4.111, 110). His imagery implies that he has mortgaged his life and will lose it since the term will “expire” before he can pay. Punning, he fears an untimely debt as well as an untimely death, one that will “forfeit” his “despised life.” A sense of guilty inadequacy makes him expect the punishment of death or foreclosure.

In patriarchy, however, the child owes the godlike father a death inasmuch as he or she holds life at the father's will. In Theseus's summary of the doctrine, the child is “imprinted” by the father, and it is “within his power / To leave the figure or disfigure it” (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1.1.50-51). What is more, the child owes a debt of obedience or self-effacement, in which guilty wishes for autonomy are repressed in a symbolic death. Where patriarchy splits into the roles of the father who is a judge and the son who is a warrior, the son additionally owes this conscience-figure a debt of heroic glory, which may have to be paid by risking his life. Such a debt produces the self-hate in Romeo's “despised life” and helps to explain his desperate reassertion of lost valor in the murder of Tybalt.

Juliet's behavior also reveals an underlying psychic debt, the origin of which surfaces in the nurse's account of Juliet's weaning (1.3.16-57). Though physically capable, the child angrily resisted her own independence. Her first efforts at autonomy led to a fall, and the fall brought not parental support and further self-assertion but a surrogate father's queasy joke that a woman lives to fall: “Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit” (1.3.42). Yet Juliet's fall produced “a perilous knock” and implied a threat of death, especially for a child whose alter ego Susan is “with God” (1.3.19).

In falling, Juliet gave her “brow” “a perilous knock,” the same injury she imagines inflicting on herself upon awakening in the monument. Trapped in the suffocating family tomb—within reified patriarchy itself—she fears she will be overcome by guilty rage and destroy her brain, seat of the self and forbidden autonomy. In turn she would punish herself by means of a “great kinsman's bone” (4.3.53), metonymic parental force. As in the anecdote about weaning, a venture toward autonomy produces (in her mental life) first a fall toward death, then trauma.

The nurse's husband's joke tacitly proposes a patriarchal solution to counter the fall toward death. A “fall backward” into sexually submissive marriage and motherhood will rescue the child from the terrifying fall toward autonomy at the cost of being able literally to stand on one's own two feet. Juliet consents to pay a debt/death through a marriage that will at once efface and exalt her. Girls must fall sexually to be redeemed by a new lord and win posterity for the family and themselves, even as young males must be willing to fall in battle to win immortalizing glory.

In this imperative of self-sacrifice lies the germ of the idea of a play-death such as Juliet acts out by means of the friar's potion. Her fall in a death-counterfeiting sleep would appease an outraged parental judge and lead to a lordly resurrection from the family tomb with the banished Romeo. Making Verona new in amity, Juliet would be fulfilling a patriarchal fantasy comparable to Romeo's dream of love awakening him from death as an emperor. The play dramatizes the pervasiveness of this fantasy in Verona. In engineering Juliet's resurrection, the ostensibly humble friar gives himself a godlike role—he plans literally to raise her from the grave. Uniting the lovers and aspiring to atone for all Verona, he parodies old Capulet's marriage plans, implicitly correcting them, as if to prove himself “the best father of Verona's welfare” (Brenner 1980, 52). “Ghostly sire” (2.2.188) and worldly father are implicitly competitors in the larger system of patriarchal rivalry.


Reconstituting patriarchal forms to serve their own desires for autonomy, Romeo and Juliet never openly defy their parents. Yet with the wish for autonomy comes a veiled recognition of the suffocating claims their parents make on them. Their parents' will to subsume each child's identity comes unconsciously to seem to the lovers like cannibalism. The monument that embodies her family in Verona becomes to Juliet an imprisoning mouth (4.3.33-34) and to Romeo a devouring “maw,” womb, and mouth (5.3.45-47). Just as the mother becomes an expression of the father's will, and the father expresses ideologically the life-giving and potentially life-withholding generativity of the mother, so the tomb conflates the parents into one ravenous orifice.

As in Lear's fantasy of the savage who “makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite” (King Lear, 1.1.116-18), the threat is not merely of parental wrath or incestuous desire but also of cannibalistic self-aggrandizement, a frantic hunger to incorporate more and more life in order to overcome death. Such aggrandizement is the more terrible for being sharply felt by the child and yet invisible. In effect, the lovers fear an infantile voracity such as a once-subsumed child, having at last come to dominate, might release against its own offspring. Since monuments objectify a claim to transcend annihilating time, the “hungry” tomb expresses patriarchy's deepest and most primitive drive, the drive for survival.

We need to remember that the father's claims to mastery over death are corroborated in his role as judge and even executioner. If the father is a god, as Theseus decrees, he is also always potentially death himself. In this respect the prince's struggle to contain the feud is a struggle—echoed in the world outside the Elizabethan theater—to reserve for a supreme patriarch the right to command death.

At its most benign this power thrillingly confirms the lord's generosity. By conspicuously sparing the child's life, the father (or monarch) makes the love between them incalculably valuable. Thus, in his amorous submission to Juliet, Romeo exults, “O dear account! my life is in my foe's debt” (1.5.18). At its most terrifying, when internalized by the child, such power generates intolerable insecurity, as in Romeo's dread of the hostile stars and his suicidal sense of doom.

From this standpoint, the lovers' suicides reflect the dynamics of patriarchal control. To master her fate, Juliet would play a lordly role (“myself have power to die” [3.5.242]) as Cleopatra does to escape Caesar. Unconsciously, however, the introjected imperatives of the parental judge can make suicide a form of execution in which an alienated conscience destroys a rebellious self, as in Juliet's vision of dashing out her own brain with an ancestral bone, the objectified will of the father. Likewise Romeo's conscience punishes him with suicidal self-hatred. Banished for his defiance, he “[falls] upon the ground … / Taking the measure of an unmade grave” (3.3.69-70). Angry at Juliet for his own defiance in slaying Tybalt (3.1.113-15), he turns his anger against himself, fantasizing that his own name has murdered her (3.1.102-5). With Juliet he calls down punishment on himself, as Elizabethan noblemen routinely did in speeches from the scaffold professing love for the queen: “Let me be put to death. / I am content, so thou wilt have it so” (3.5.17-18); “Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so” (3.5.24). Ambiguously, however, he calls Juliet “my soul” (3.5.25), so that this execution is also internalized.

As patriarchy's internal conflicts become intolerable, its radical connection with death threatens to surface in consciousness, most equivocally in the personification of death by parent or child. Old Capulet envisions death as a young, rivalrous inheritor who has “lain with” Juliet and usurped his control over her (4.5.36). His description of his adversary exactly fits Romeo. In the Capulets' monument Romeo himself, in turn, personifies death as a rival. Death is a warrior-king whose “pale flag” has not yet fully “conquered” Juliet (5.3.93-96). Then the rival becomes an “amorous … lean abhorred monster” (5.3.104), who will make Juliet his “paramour.” Romeo imagines Juliet sexually enslaved in the palace of a monster who is also a warrior-king.

This fantasy projects the long-denied dark side of the patriarchal forms in which the lovers have construed each other. Romeo dissociates from himself as Death the part of him that would be made an emperor by Juliet's kiss. In this final moment of tenderness he rejects the devouring triumphalism latent in all patriarchy. He repudiates the death that “hath suck'd the honey” of Juliet's breath. Otherwise Juliet, by loving such an emperor Romeo, would be submitting to rape, like the women Sampson fancies “ever thrust to the wall” (1.1.16). Sampson identifies with patriarchal tyranny, the same tyranny that Romeo at last projects on death and vows to resist to the end of time.

Giving his own life with chivalric honor to rescue Juliet from a monster, Romeo finally plays out the sacrificial, warrior's debt of the son to his father. Even as he sacrifices himself in part for patriarchal values, he would “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (5.3.111) in a final repudiation of the fathers. This is the fatal paradox at the heart of patriarchy: when rebellion against a myth is insidiously possessed by that myth, it serves the myth. In taking his own life to defend Juliet's sexuality against the rival warrior-king Death, Romeo gives new life to Verona's feud.

At the end of the play benevolence takes disturbing form in the funerary statues the fathers decree. Still thinking in terms of demands, Capulet vows, “This is my daughter's jointure, for no more / Can I demand.” To this Montague replies, “But I can give thee more.” Thereupon he boasts that he will make Juliet the golden cynosure of all true lovers: “There shall be no figure at such a rate be set / As that of true and faithful Juliet” (5.3.296-304). The father's economic vocabulary and competition call to mind the psychic debts felt by the children and the ominous economic term Romeo associates with death—“engrossing” (5.3.115). In addition, such greedy possession calls to mind Romeo's imagery of the tomb as a “detestable maw,” a womb of death (5.3.45). The metaphors place the young in an engulfing parental womb that would suffocate, not grant, life. The womb and the sexually enslaving monster express the parents, whom the lovers love and fear and also, unknowingly, hate.

Now that marriage and the sword have failed, the fathers would reconstitute their conviction of immortality by re-creating their children as holy martyrs to love, “poor sacrifices of our enmity” (5.3.304). As icons the children will be fabricated into exemplary types. Yet there must be a difference between the golden statues and the poignant individuals we have seen. That difference is of course the basis of the play's critique of patriarchy. In the end it also measures the dramatist's need to honor the structure of power outside the Globe Theater and no doubt in his own upbringing, while onstage—and in the sympathies the play evokes—it enacts a challenge to that power.

Audiences have often interpreted this challenge as a justification of romantic exaltation, even as various critics have taken it to legitimate the lovers' aspirations to autonomy. By contrast, at least one historian maintains that the original Globe audience would have felt obliged to condemn the play's disobedient children (Stone 1977). However, if we understand patriarchy as a system of beliefs evolved to control anxiety about death, these contradictory responses to the play appear in a new light. Seizing on a limited truth, each tries to protect the illusion of security at stake in the play, either by revaluing the social order (for example, by postulating its reform through love) or, more often, by repudiating patriarchal values on behalf of a substitute system of beliefs. Like the voices onstage, we too need to fortify ourselves against the prospect of annihilation.

Because of the danger of offending an audience, especially an audience of Elizabethan patriarchs, the play does not forcibly disenchant its myths. Instead it creates conditions in which imagination might discover itself as a tissue of beliefs. Such a recognition would at least momentarily turn the imagination against itself, showing the triumphal verities onstage and off to be as compulsive and insubstantial as dreams. In such a moment of alienation the self could begin to appreciate its dependency, even (to echo Sampson and Gregory) its enslavement. In that dizzying moment lies the possibility of change and, perhaps, a new ground for love.

Although Romeo and Juliet seems to me deeply disenchanted at its core, it dramatizes the imagination's resilience in the face of annihilation. As London, and Shakespeare himself, survived devastating plague in the early 1590s (a catastrophe echoed in 5.2.8-12), so the play registers the shock of mortality to a privileged system of belief. The final lines show Verona turning blasted life into art (“never was a story of more woe” [5.3.309]), as Shakespeare himself, having sensed the darkness beyond the bright dreams of culture, would go on generating fictions that engage that darkness, including the flagrantly dreamlike late romances.


The quality of disenchantment in Romeo and Juliet suggests a Shakespeare who was radically equivocal about authority and creativity. As the son of a modestly eminent father of declining fortunes, Shakespeare may have discovered early in life that patriarchy could no longer make good—if it ever had made good—its promises and demands. Perhaps, as in Romeo and Juliet, a disenchanted son used his obligatory self-effacement to evade an ineffectual father. Making himself invisible, “an artificial night” (1.1.140), Shakespeare may have cultivated a poetic passion through which he pursued his own destiny. After all, Romeo's daring imagination wins him the prized daughter of a lord and, belatedly, the admiration of an entire city that has misjudged him. Analogously, Shakespeare forsook his father's world and sought his fortune in the theater—a psychic orchard, so to speak—where he could influence the hearts of some of the most important people in England while earning fame and the place of a gentleman.

Let me develop this fanciful metadramatic analogy a bit further. Himself an agent and beneficiary of change, the young artist must have sympathized with the Romeo who steals Juliet—old Capulet's posterity—by his imaginative passion. Yet Romeo can find no way to reconcile this poetic autonomy with the harsh daylight world of the city; and since it may tragically internalize patriarchal values, poetry's intoxicating power may be untrustworthy or even fatal. Shakespeare's own solution was to use poetry to lure the city, London, into the theater of the Capulets' tomb where exaltation could be gloriously expended again and again for profit, insight, and mutual pleasure.

Shakespeare's was a personality, then, that learned to transform its own aggression and aspirations into vicarious heroic forms that could bind the sympathy of others, at least for one intense, profitable moment, and then be ambiguously relinquished. Rather than endorse or repudiate the world's verities in art, as conventional writers did, Shakespeare dramatized their natural irrationality—their status as fantasy. He presented not the doctrine of patriarchy, for example, but the network of veiled assumptions about death and heroism that the doctrine implied. He put that elusive psychic reality before audiences as a mystery or a dream (“or did I dream it so?” [5.3.79]). To be sure, he let an onstage chorus of conventional wisdom interpret the dream (“All are punish'd” [5.3.295]) in order to escape retaliation for arousing wishes and fears presumably repressed (or banished) by many in his audience since early childhood.

Recognition that people live by strategic fictions such as patriarchy opens up all aspects of behavior for negotiation and therefore provides a basis for consensual relationships and, not incidentally, the artist's own creativity. Disconnected from underlying physical forces and appetites, by contrast, a cultural fiction may be a terrifying illusion, a candle lighting fools the way to dusty death. If disenchanted, Shakespeare saw, human behavior may reduce to a fierce appetite for domination and nurture tenuously held in check by ruthless strategy: in Verona a feud, or in the imagery of the history plays a dialectical struggle between a king and ravenous wolves.

Hence Shakespeare's equivocation. Like the strong-willed yet famously slippery Queen Elizabeth, whose regime revived old forms such as chivalry to disguise its innovations, he survived public life in a world of homicidal religious and political rivalry by honoring venerable cultural forms while re-creating them. In one sense his genius lay in devising ways of making disenchantment healthy. His own Romeo and Juliet appears simply to echo Brooke's familiar, lifeless Romeus, although in fact it functions as a sort of pun on Brooke's story, producing a new meaning. Such a quibbling imaginative stance permitted devious self-assertion in the ostensible service of deference. As a result, although Shakespeare retired to the outward life of a country patriarch in Stratford, his actual relationship to that role is a mystery.

With its tendency to loosen the self's desperate attachments to the world and make reality dreamlike in moments of crisis, Shakespeare's style of equivocation must have helped control the dread of death, as had patriarchy. In addition, it enabled him to devise new forms of authority for experience: for example, to reconstitute patriarchy in the theater itself, where he vicariously commanded “his” spellbound audience's sympathies even as he urged spectators to exercise their own autonomy (“as you like it,” “what you will”). For as he wittily deferred to the spectators, the dramatist was implicitly redefining them and directing their fantasies toward a new vision of life. Invested with ambiguous cultural authority (“the Lord Chamberlain's Men,” “the King's Men”), Shakespeare created a surrogate, provisional family that could console for death by encouraging imaginative sympathy in the spectators and clarifying relationships in the world outside the theater that were already evolving beyond the drastic bonds of patriarchy.

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. 1973. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.

Bradbrook, M. C. 1980. Shakespeare: The Poet in His World. London: Methuen.

Brenner, Gerry. 1980. “Shakespeare's Politically Ambitious Friar.” Shakespeare Studies 13:47-58.

Farrell, Kirby. 1984. “Self-Effacement and Autonomy in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Studies 16:75-99.

Gibbons, Brian, ed. 1980. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. London and New York: Methuen.

Laslett, Peter. 1971. The World We Have Lost. 2d ed. New York: Scribner's.

Stone, Lawrence. 1977. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper and Row.

Bruce Weber (review date 26 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Romeo and Juliet.New York Times (26 September 2001): E5.

[In the following review, Weber praises Emily Mann's “fresh and inviting” 2001 production of Romeo and Juliet at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, noting the adolescent exuberance of the cast and engaging pace of the performance.]

Veronese teenagers in the time of Shakespeare may well have behaved with a different decorum from today's Americans. but that doesn't mean they weren't equally in the thrall of newly rampaging hormones. For contemporary audiences—particularly young audiences—one of the more straining aspects of Romeo and Juliet is the verbal eloquence that literature's twitchiest adolescents are able to muster even as they ache to scratch the primordial itch.

In Emily Mann's perky production of this paradigmatic romantic tragedy at the McCarter Theater here, the twain meet in Shakespearean poetry delivered by actors in distinctly modern pose. And though the show is far more effective in its first half, before Tybalt's mortal duel with Mercutio reminds us that the Montague-Capulet rivalry is gravely serious and destructive, the accomplishment of the show is in its vivid illustration that there is idiom in body language as well as in spoken language.

On a handsomely unadorned and pale-painted set by Neil Patel that resists being period-situated—its abstract design includes two balconies and manages to suggest interior and exterior walls—the performers have obviously been encouraged to prove the play's timelessness, to illustrate its reach into our age with modes of behavior we easily recognize. Before intermission at least, the collision of verbal and behavioral styles proves great fun to watch.

The imaginative actors include David Cromwell as Friar Laurence, who advises Romeo with the casually wry older-brotherliness of a well-meaning Little League coach; Myra Lucretia Taylor, who brings attitude to Juliet's nurse; Stephen Rowe as Capulet, a stern father who, like an executive away from home too much, is completely out of it where his daughter is concerned; David Greenspan as a self-aware servant, amused by his own illiteracy; Remy Auberjonois, who plays Mercutio with the crowing strut of a rebel without a cause on little sleep and too much coke; and Joe Wilson Jr., whose Tybalt has the self-importance and imposing physical stature of a football player defending school spirit.

But mostly the engaging spirit of the show is owing to the two leads, who get the excesses of junior high jumpiness just right, which is to say they overdo it to the point of entertainment and no further. Romeo and Juliet is often used to introduce Shakespeare to young readers and young theatergoers for its relevance to their own puberty-stirred lives; Juliet was not yet 14, after all. But you'd be hard pressed to find a production in which the actors play as effectively and familiarly young as they do here.

Their love-at-first-sight attraction gives them both attention-deficit disorder. Both actors are very young themselves. Jeffrey Carison, a handsome Prince Valiant type who affects a loose-limbed and distracted physicality that makes him irresistibly moony, is 24. Sarah Drew, a slender, long-haired woman with a demure mien who shows us a young girl's surprising fierceness by suddenly snapping into athletic freak-out mode whenever Romeo is on Juliet's radar, is a student at the University of Virginia; she recently turned 20.

Their chemistry together manages both the innocence and the heat of igniting first passion. And they are, both individually and together, quite funny. Under Ms. Mann's direction the balcony scene is deliciously, refreshingly antic, a giggle-inducing charmer.

The trade-off here is that with the lighthearted tone so well established, the play's abrupt shift toward tragedy makes the gears of the production grind audibly. The inevitability of the tragedy has to tickle the audience ominously from the beginning, which is why Shakespeare opens the play by dramatizing the feud between the families in a slow build of hostilities between individual characters until a brawl erupts.

One of Ms. Mann's substantial text cuts is made here, however; she gets right to the melee and then, resolving it quickly, to the lovers. The result is a quickening of the pace, an audience-inviting leap into the heart of the matter, but it hurts the production later by not establishing the deadly seriousness of the rivalry between the clans. The show never becomes as grim, in the end, as it is jaunty in the beginning, so even in the deaths of the hero and heroine the production never takes on the genuinely awful sadness that the waste of young lives should evoke.

There are some rumblings that the show, which runs here through Sunday, may move to Broadway; and it would be good to have it in New York, especially at a smaller Broadway house where the actors would not have to fill the cavernous, dialogue-swallowing space of the McCarter and where Romeo and Juliet, a family drama after all, would benefit from a more direct and intimate connection with an audience.

It's also true that at this moment, with theaters going dark and city spirits wobbling, celebrating liveliness and youth is a fine thing to do. This fresh and inviting Romeo and Juliet does that very well.

Jerzy Limon (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Limon, Jerzy. “Rehabilitating Tybalt: A New Interpretation of the Duel Scene in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet”: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 97-106. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, Limon interprets Tybalt's behavior in Act III, scene i of Romeo and Juliet in terms of Elizabethan codes of honor and the drama's themes of chance and misfortune.]

Although the first scene of act 3 of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a decisive moment, indisputably forming the turning point in the development of the action and the dramatic tension of the work, it is nevertheless possible to gain the impression that not all its constituent elements have been satisfactorily interpreted and explained. It has to be stressed that the consequences attendant upon Mercutio's death directly dominate act 3 and reverberate throughout the remainder of the play. Mercutio's death leads directly to Tybalt's death at Romeo's hand, which in turn becomes the cause of Romeo's banishment, and this, through an intricate chain of contingencies, leads to the final catastrophe. All the events leading to Mercutio's death are thus of considerable importance to our understanding of the play, which may consequently influence actual theater productions. For this reason, I shall concentrate on the crucial scene, 3.1, which provides a primary motivating force for the major subsequent events.

Whereas the behavior of Romeo and Mercutio in this scene has been the object of detailed analyses,1 the role of Tybalt has been apprehended in what might be called a one-sided fashion. As a rule, commentators have limited themselves to affirming the incontestable fact that he kills Mercutio and perishes later by the hand of Romeo—without investigating the typically Shakespearean subtlety of the motive of his behavior. It has of course been observed that Tybalt's guilt is extenuated by the fact that he is brazenly provoked to a duel by Mercutio. For instance, Raymond V. Utterback's interpretation is typical: “Mercutio now acts betrayed, outraged, and bitter. He is not angry only because Romeo has lost honor but because Tybalt goes unchallenged. … Mercutio is taking up Romeo's quarrel as he thinks it should be handled.”2 Despite this, however, Tybalt is customarily treated—both by Shakespeare scholars and by theater directors3—as a headstrong adventurer who without due cause seeks revenge on innocent Romeo. But is it true that Tybalt has no due cause? After all, he himself recalls the “injuries / That thou [Romeo] hast done me” (3.1.65-66). Further, there is the hitherto unexplained fact of Tybalt's flight, just after he has inflicted the fatal wound on Mercutio. The stage directions in the first quarto edition (1597) refer explicitly to the escape: “Tibalt vnder Romeos arm thrusts Mercutio in and flyes.” Why does he escape? Not, surely, for fear of Romeo, since it was precisely Romeo, and not Mercutio, that he was seeking; in any case, he comes back in a moment to face him. Nor can it be because he mortally wounds a man, since this is the object of the combat. What, then, is the reason?

An attempt to offer a convincing answer to this question must begin with a close analysis of the motives for Tybalt's behavior, seen “from his own point of view”—that is, from the point of view of the Renaissance gentleman, for whom matters of honor were of vital importance. Let us consider first the impulses that drove Tybalt along the road of revenge. The touchstone here was the appearance of Romeo at the Capulets' ball, to which he had not been invited. His irregular intrusion might well be considered as an insult to the house, and therefore to the family. We should not be surprised, then, by the reaction of the inflammable Tybalt at the moment when he recognizes the unbidden guest, who, to make matters worse, comes from a house rent by a feud:

Fetch me my rapier, boy. What, dares the slave
Come hither, cover'd with an antic face,
To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?
Now by the stock and honour of my kin,
To strike him dead I hold not a sin.


Tybalt is not only personally insulted, but he makes it abundantly clear that it is his family's honor (“our solemnity,” “honour of my kin”) that is at stake; he is, moreover, convinced of the justice of his indignation, in accordance with the principles of honor mandatory at the time. This is also why not even the murder of Romeo would be, in his view, “a sin.” Restrained by Capulet, he yet swears vengeance:

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


Although this is not shown directly on the stage, or rather, in the text of the play, Tybalt proceeds to action. On the next day at daybreak, he sends a letter to Romeo, probably containing a challenge to a duel. This is mentioned by Benvolio to Mercutio:

Tybalt, the kinsman to old Capulet, hath sent a letter to his [Romeo's] father's house.
A challenge, on my life.
Romeo will answer it.


Mercutio is quite right in believing that the letter contains a challenge (there is no further mention of this in the text), but Benvolio is mistaken: Romeo makes no reply to the letter because, having spent the night with Juliet, he had not yet reached home and in fact did not read the letter. Benvolio's comment has yet another meaning. When he calmly asserts that Romeo will answer the challenge (and, if necessary, proceed to a duel), he implies that Romeo will comport himself as a man of honor, since to leave such a challenge unanswered would be a dishonorable act. From Tybalt's point of view, by failing to answer his letter Romeo showed that he did not take him seriously, thus adding insult to injury. Perhaps, moreover, Tybalt judged that Romeo—having heard of his skill at the lists—was not turning out to be as brave as befitted a gentleman and was sitting out the storm somewhere in the town, in hiding. In the play Mercutio refers to Tybalt as “the very butcher of a silk button” (2.4.23). He alludes to a story of Rocco Bonetti, the Italian fencing master who established a popular fencing salle in Blackfriars and boasted that he could hit any English fencer on any button. This, according to Adolph L. Soens, had by the 1590s become an allusion to pride of skill in fencing.4 Anyway, it is Mercutio who stresses—objectively, it seems—Tybalt's superior qualities as a fencer. This, then, is why at about noon—not having had a reply to his letter—Tybalt loses patience and personally goes in search of Romeo to administer a suitable lesson and deal him severe punishment for the “wrong-doing.”

It is worth mentioning that when it comes to their meeting, Tybalt refers to his rival by the term “villain,” which does not necessarily denote “criminal” or “malefactor.” Indeed, this would be unwarranted invective. One of the definitions given by the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] is “a man of ignoble ideas,” that is, a man without a code of honor or a man who does not observe the code. Shakespeare uses the word in this sense in other plays (see The Comedy of Errors, 5.1.29ff.). From this one can infer that when he addresses Romeo with the words “thou art a villain” (3.1.60), Tybalt is thinking of what in his judgment is the dishonorable behavior of Romeo, who (a) attends the ball uninvited, (b) does not reply to the letter containing the challenge, and presumably (c) avoids the meeting.

Of course, as a consequence of the unfortunate sequence of circumstances, when it actually comes to the meeting Romeo knows little of what is in Tybalt's mind; in the first place he is not aware that he was recognized at the ball, and in the second place he has not yet been home and has not read the letter. The behavior of Romeo, who expressly avoids quarrel, is the more comprehensible since he has just become married to Juliet; Tybalt, knowing nothing of this, has already been his kinsman for “an hour.” Mercutio does not know about this either and judges that after a night of frolicking with Rosaline, Romeo will be in no fit condition for a duel with such a skilled fencer as Tybalt. It is Mercutio who earlier in the play admitted that Tybalt

… fights as you sing pricksong, 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.


And in the same scene he expresses his worries about the result of the duel:

Alas poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft. And is he a man to encounter Tybalt?


By provoking Tybalt to a duel—and there is little doubt that he is the aggressor—Mercutio replaces Romeo in the discharge of what he considers the honorable obligation.5 Everything, indeed, is enacted in accordance with the Elizabethan code of honor, which provided for a relative or close friend to replace a combatant who was not capable of fighting. In the opposite case—that is, if Romeo was physically fit (in Mercutio's opinion)—to relieve him of the obligation of the duel would be a dishonorable act. Tybalt avoids quarrelling, but when Mercutio's taunts become unbearable, he too draws his rapier. Critics generally agree that Mercutio virtually forces Tybalt to fight, but the difference in my approach is that I propose a different motivation for Mercutio's aggressive behavior.

Thus, as the duel begins, Romeo strives to avert a disaster. He shouts to Benvolio: “Draw, Benvolio, beat down their weapons” (3.1.85), which leads one to suppose that Romeo was not armed. If he had a weapon, he would surely have done himself what he asks Benvolio to do. Let me recall that during the Capulets' ball, the young gentlemen present were not armed: when Tybalt recognizes Romeo, he asks a servant to fetch his rapier. Romeo has not been home since the previous day, and when Tybalt meets him, he is on his way from the chapel and marriage to Juliet. However, Benvolio does not interfere in the duel, so Romeo calls on the gentlemen present to part the combatants: “Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage” (86); but when this is without effect, he reminds them of the Prince's ban on duels in Verona (on pain of death). When he sees that all his efforts are of no avail, he leaps between the combatants with the cry “Hold Tybalt! Good Mercutio!” (89). The stage direction informs us that at this moment Tybalt thrusts his rapier under Romeo's arm into the body of Mercutio, after which he runs away (“flyes”).

The immediate question is: why does Tybalt run away? He is not a coward, after all. And in any case, what could he be afraid of? It appears to be an uncontrolled reflex act, the motives for which I shall try to establish. It must be something exceptional, seeing that Tybalt—who is very sensitive in matters of honor—resolves on the highly dishonorable act of running away. Was he really horrified by the shameful act of administering that crafty thrust under the arm of Romeo, taking advantage of Mercutio's momentary inattention? But how do we know that the thrust was so treacherous? Hardly anyone noticed it, after all, except Tybalt, who must certainly have felt how deeply the blade penetrated the flesh. Even Mercutio himself appears to be surprised when he confirms laconically, “I am hurt” (91). If Tybalt's guile had been intended by Shakespeare, then the duel would have been played out in such a way that no one would have been left in any doubt. But in fact there is doubt. The whole event takes place unnoticed, seeing that Mercutio has to inform his friends standing close to him (and the spectators in the theater) that he has been wounded. Characteristic, too, is Benvolio's surprise: “What, art thou hurt?” (93), while Romeo takes Mercutio's black humor at its face value and belittles the “scratch”: “Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much” (96). The amazement of the witnesses at the whole incident is thus beyond dispute. They are surprised to learn that Mercutio is hurt; they seem not to have noticed themselves.

How, then, do we know that the thrust was administered craftily? We gain this information mainly from the report of Benvolio when he describes the course of events to the Prince. This report is apparently delivered in the heat of the moment, and yet it is remarkably artful. Seeking to efface the guilt of Mercutio and Romeo, Benvolio lays the blame on Tybalt alone, and in a clearly tendentious manner at that. The inconsistency of Benvolio's statements with the facts has been noticed before, but in this case, scholars have made an exception, unreservedly accepting precisely that part of the description when Benvolio says: “… underneath whose [Romeo's] arm / An envious thrust from Tybalt hit the life / Of stout Mercutio … (169-71). This, then, is a rather detailed description, acting upon the imagination of the hearers, but one cannot help wondering how Benvolio was able to remember such details in view of the fact that previously—that is, during the duel—he did not notice anything and indeed was amazed that anything had happened. Not even Romeo, Mercutio's closest friend, reproaches Tybalt (when the latter returns) with killing Mercutio out of guile. The only person who speaks of “envy” is Benvolio—and this at the moment when, recounting the facts to the Prince, he tries to cleanse Romeo of all blame to show that he had to avenge the death of his treacherously slain friend. Thanks to the particular way in which he presents the course of events, he gains what he intended: the Prince commutes the death sentence to one of banishment. Thus this is not a description that can be relied upon without reservation. Yet this is precisely what happens traditionally in stage management and in critical scholarship.6 The only exception known to me is Franco Zeffirelli's film version of the play, in which Tybalt's thrust is shown as accidental. In all other productions and in critical interpretations the infamous Tybalt, profiting by a moment of distraction on Mercutio's part, delivers him a treacherous thrust, after which—horrified by his own action—he flees.

Is this really the only way to interpret the flight of Tybalt? We have already reflected on the trustworthiness of Benvolio's words, and in this light it is by no means certain that Tybalt's deed was so disgraceful that he himself was horrified by it. Did he resort to treachery? To answer this question, and at the same time to indicate another possible interpretation, we must return to the moment when Romeo leaps in between the combatants and once again consider the technical particulars of the duel. If we take for granted that Romeo was unarmed, we have a full explanation of his helplessness and irresolution—shown in the fact that instead of jumping to action energetically himself, Romeo first asks Benvolio to act, and then the gentlemen to intervene—resulting from his knowledge of the danger that he would face by leaping unarmed between the combatants. This is why Romeo decides to act only as a last resort—one might say in desperation—when he sees that no one will do it for him. The danger came from the fact that Romeo might run onto the rapier's blade, thereby becoming the unintended victim, one without a weapon and unable to parry a blow.

It seems not improbable that this is what happened: let us imagine that Tybalt strikes in order to hit Mercutio, when suddenly, as if from below the ground, Romeo appears before him. Fortunately Tybalt is an excellent swordsman and always a man of honor: although it is Romeo who was to have been his victim, it was forbidden to even so much as scratch a third person (the one not taking part in the duel), so at the last moment he changes the direction of the thrust (which cannot now simply “hang in the air”) and buries the blade into the open space between the trunk and arm of Romeo. And then he feels something that he did not foresee or intend: the blade strikes flesh. It is a mistake to conclude that Tybalt profited by Mercutio's temporary inattention and treacherously dealt him a thrust from under Romeo's arm while he was not looking. That would have been a dishonorable act, inconsistent with binding principles. Mercutio found himself quite by chance in this place that was to be fatal to him; only an unhappy sequence of events causes Tybalt to hit him. The fact that Tybalt's deed was not premeditated or even intimated in advance to anyone is convincingly confirmed for us by the amazement that all the bystanders express. The fortuitousness of Mercutio's death would, moreover, be in harmony with the general character of this early tragedy of Shakespeare, in which chance and misfortune play a dominant role.

Thus when Tybalt, who does not want to injure Romeo, changes the direction of his thrust and strikes the unsuspecting Mercutio, he immediately realizes what has happened. He—almost oversensitive in matters of honor—has committed a shameful act, unworthy of gentleman. Chance imprints a stain on his honor and that of his family. This is what terrifies him; this is why he loses his head and reacts in a manner that is natural at such times—he runs away. After a time, however, he pulls himself together and, more or less composed, returns, to—well, why does he return? To meet Romeo again? Or perhaps to show that his flight was no more than a weakness of the moment?7

There must have been something irrational about Tybalt's reappearance on the stage, however, since Romeo describes him as follows: “Here comes the furious Tybalt back again” (123). Does “furious” mean “enraged” or “deranged” (cf. OED)? This second interpretation appears the more probable. Of course Tybalt may also be “enraged,” but it happens in his inner self and for reasons that he knows best. From the point of view of Romeo, on the other hand, Tybalt is simply “deranged,” and it is precisely from this madness that the misfortune comes that he must now avenge: Romeo, after all, still cannot understand the motives underlying Tybalt's behavior. There can be no doubt that Tybalt fully realized that his sudden flight from the field of battle would be attributed to cowardice. So he comes back to wipe away the disgrace that, in his eyes, covers the good name of his family. The outcome of the duel, from this point of view, no longer has much significance since in the eyes of the citizens he would always remain compromised—Benvolio's account, after all, would easily be believed. For him, it is vital that he return. He is psychologically very far from a state of equilibrium, and it is perhaps for this reason that—shaken, enraged, and “mad”—he succumbs in the duel. And yet he is an excellent swordsman; Mercutio had earlier, and not without reason, feared for the fate of Romeo. Must we, perhaps, assume—as has been done before—that Romeo surpasses himself, and thanks to technical superiority forestalls Tybalt, dealing him the fatal thrust? Or perhaps—and this seems more likely—Tybalt's nerves let him down, so that he died through lack of concentration. It is worth recalling that this duel is very brief. In the stage directions we find a curt description: “They fight. Tybalt falls.” No one says a word; perhaps no one had time to say a word. Benvolio describes it as follows (and here he has no particular reason for concealing truth):

And to't they go like lightning: for, ere I
Could draw to part them, was stout Tybalt slain.


It is not, of course, important whether Benvolio really intended to separate them; what is important is that this intention serves to specify the duration of the duel.8 This is confirmed, in a sense, by Romeo himself, when he stands as if petrified over the dead Tybalt, as if he could not believe with his own eyes the truth of what had happened. Benvolio urges him: “Romeo, away, be gone! … Stand not amaz'd” (134-36). Is he astounded at the ease with which he has dispatched his adversary? It seems that only Tybalt's mental state can convincingly explain the fact that such an experienced and skilled swordsman can, in a split second, succumb to a youngster. This mental state, in turn, was provoked by the duel with Mercutio and by its fortuitous and unhappy end.

I do not, of course, claim that the above solutions are the definitive and final explanation of the questions touched on. They do constitute, however, one possible interpretation. As is usual in Shakespeare, there are many of these. This is particularly the case in theaters, where the director's arbitrary interpretations not uncommonly impoverish the psychological structure of the characters and their actions on the stage are deprived of the hallmarks of verisimilitude. For this reason also, this article may be considered as a proposal for staging, deviating admittedly from traditional theatrical realizations of Romeo and Juliet but faithful to the text of the play and likewise to its great author.


  1. The fullest account is given by Henryk Zbierski in his Droga do Werony (Poznań: Wydawnictwo UAM, 1966), 203-25.

  2. “The Death of Mercutio,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 111.

  3. With the notable exception of Franco Zeffirelli's film. The original version of this essay was written in 1979 and appeared in print in 1983, before the author had a chance to see that film.

  4. Adolph L. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 121-27.

  5. Utterback states explicitly that “Mercutio virtually forces Tybalt to fight” (“Death of Mercutio,” 111).

  6. Among others, Utterback concluded his article with a typical commentary: “Tybalt, the man of precise forms and code of honor, treacherously stabs Mercutio under Romeo's arm” (111). However, in more recent scholarship Benvolio's “strategic” misinterpretation of facts has been noticed; cf., for instance, Joan Ozark Holmer, “‘Myself Condemned and Myself Excused’: Tragic Effects in Romeo and Juliet,Studies in Philology 81 (1984): 328-29.

  7. Holmer's is a characteristic interpretation of Tybalt's return: “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 ‘neighbor-stained’ (1.1.80)? Shakespeare's darker exploration of man's ‘rude will’ contrasts sharply with Franco Zeffirelli's version of this scene in his well-known film” (“‘Myself Condemned,’” 359).

  8. The surprising discrepancy between the duration of the duel as suggested by the text and that of theatrical tradition was noticed by Zbierski, Droga do Werony, 225.

Neil Genzlinger (review date 9 May 2002)

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SOURCE: Genzlinger, Neil. Review of Romeo and Juliet.New York Times (9 May 2002): E5.

[In the following review, Genzlinger characterizes the cast of Shepard Sobel's 2002 staging of Romeo and Juliet at the Pearl Theater in New York City as generally “workmanlike” in their roles, but admires a few powerful moments in the otherwise spare production.]

Everyone knows that high school proms, rampant at this time of year, are a dangerous idea foisted upon us by the formal-wear industry. Yet for generations, parents have looked the other way, dressing up their teenagers like adults and sending them out to indulge.

In the East Village, however, the Pearl Theater Company is challenging this tradition with a grim, sometimes violent play that shows in stark terms what can happen when hormones stampede. The name of the play? Romeo and Juliet.

Yeah, Romeo and Juliet. Because, you'll recall, the whole sad chain of events is set in motion at a dance. Where, oh, where were the chaperons?

Not that this production reimagines Shakespeare's play as a prom gone wrong; the Pearl company is dedicated to the opposite approach, presenting classics as the playwrights wrote them.

But of course Shakespeare endures because his works have resonance in the modern world, and the very fact that the Pearl's production is so back-to-basics leaves you free to explore those echoes on your own. If you don't care for the prom theme, you can read “Israeli” and “Palestinian” every time the Capulets and the Montagues draw swords. If you don't like the Middle Eastern spin, these days you might find it meaningful that the catalyst for the youths' destruction is a clergyman.

The Pearl's production, running in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing, may be too aggressively bare-bones for some. As imagined in Beowulf Boritt's set, brown was the only color back in Shakespeare's time. Kenny Schutz's lighting leaves no doubt which scenes take place at night; sometimes it strains the eye.

And most of the performances earn the dreaded “workmanlike” stamp: perfectly solid but not memorable. In the title roles, Christopher M. Rivera and Rachel Botchan are not (by appearances, at least) young enough to wow you with their precociousness, yet not old enough to bring impressive technical skill to the roles.

That said, the production, directed by Shepard Sobel, hits full stride at the two points where it matters most. Just before intermission, thanks largely to some convincing swordplay and a nice turn by Eric Sheffer Stevens as Benvolio, a jolt goes through the room, and you get a sense of what the play's first audiences might have felt when what had been a fairly mild, almost comic story suddenly turned ugly. And again at the end, everything—the dim lighting, the brown-on-brown—suddenly seems just right for the somber moment. At one recent performance, there was a moment of stunned silence when the stage went dark.

Marvin Krims (essay date November 1999)

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SOURCE: Krims, Marvin. “Romeo's Childhood Trauma?—‘What Fray Was Here?’” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, 3 (November 1999): article no. 991022.

[In the following essay, Krims offers a psychoanalytic reading of Romeo as the victim of a sexualized childhood trauma later reenacted in the concluding scene of Romeo and Juliet.]

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves …

Despite its popularity, some critics have considered Romeo and Juliet flawed because it is “not tragic in the Aristotelian sense on the grounds that the outcome does not flow out of the faults of the characters but results from fortuitous happenings” (Cox 379). Psychoanalytically informed criticism, however, has shown again and again that, if one reads the characters as “real people,” their unconscious conflicts will provide a logic or psychologic to their tragic fate. If we think of Romeo—or Romeo's language—as speaking within an analytic situation, what do his words sound like to a clinical ear? I believe they show a reason for his self-destructive behavior.

Psychoanalytic explorations of Romeo and Juliet have identified a number of unconscious factors which might affect the two protagonists' personalities: primitive pre-oedipal drives and defenses (Rothenberg); intrapsychic hatred dissipated by the feud, thus enhancing passion (Kristeva); a basic linkage of love with the death instinct (Rabkin); miscarried adolescent need to find non-incestuous objects (Cox). For Romeo, critics have suggested phallic violence impelled by a patriarchal structured society (Kahn); inhibition of aggression (Kernberg); depressive character structure (Shapiro).

These studies transform Romeo and Juliet from a chronicle of fortuitous happenings afflicting young lovers into a representation of the corrosive effect of unconscious forces. These studies, however, do not concentrate on early developmental issues. I believe that we can enrich our understanding if we pretend Romeo is a real person with a childhood and residues of that childhood in his unconscious. To be sure, we need to construct his childhood from his language, since it is never mentioned in the text. But if we are willing to do that, I think we can infer a repressed childhood trauma in Romeo.

Repressed childhood traumata tend to elude repression and induce disguised reenactments of the original trauma later in life. Understanding puzzling aspects of a character's behavior as a reenactment of childhood trauma would help explain his or her paradoxical actions and the unconscious processes underlying his or her words, thoughts, and feelings. Discussing the impact of childhood trauma, Warner (47) points out that early traumata, particularly primal scene experiences, have “a decisive effect upon the person, his neurotic symptoms, his relationships with others, his style of thinking and feeling—in other words, it is a contributing factor in much of what we take an individual person to be.”

I suggest that, if one listens clinically to Romeo's words, one hears indications of just such a traumatic experience in childhood as would drive him toward his tragic fate. I believe it is a reenactment of childhood trauma that prevents Romeo from “putting Juliet on his horse and making for Mantua” (Mahood 57) and thus avoiding the catastrophe entirely. In particular, I will scan Romeo's words before he meets Juliet for indications of inner conflict caused by childhood trauma and then will examine the “tomb scene” as a reenactment of that trauma.


As the play opens, friends and family are concerned about Romeo's unhappiness. Shapiro (1964) points out Romeo's depression early in the text manifested in his “despised life” and his conviction of an “untimely death” (1.3.104; all my references are to the Riverside Shakespeare). Shapiro also perceptively detects Romeo's suicidal thoughts before he learns of Juliet's “death.” Immediately upon seeing the apothecary's shop, he thinks of suicide (5.1.50-52).

His friend Benvolio attempts to discover what troubles him: “What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?” (1.1.163). At first, Romeo is cryptic, evasive; “Not having that which, having, makes them short” (164). Then he reluctantly reveals the true cause of his misery: he is in love with a woman who rejects him: “Out of her favor where I am in love.” (167). This woman, Rosaline, is not only uninterested in him, she has no interest in any man: “She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow / Do I live dead to tell it now” (223). Moreover, Rosaline is a Capulet, a family that has sworn enmity to Romeo's family, the Montagues. But, despite his clear knowledge of her oath of chastity and her lineage, Romeo remains hopelessly in love. He could hardly have chosen a less available woman.

Romeo considers Rosaline the sole cause of his misery. It is as if his life and happiness were entirely in her hands; he treats his love for her as if it were inevitable (like the the “destiny neurotics” in Freud's “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”). But surely the real cause of his unhappiness is his own choice of such an unavailable woman, not the woman herself. He never asks himself the crucial question: With the many women available to the scion of an aristocratic family, why does he love Rosaline? And if he fell in love with her before he knew of her vows and family, why does he not accept the impossibility of the situation, mourn the loss, and move on to a more available woman? Instead, he perceives himself as helpless in his present situation, unable to heed Benvolio's advice to “forget to think of her” (225) and “examine other beauties.” (228).

Granted, we are dealing with the conventions of courtly love. But if we consider Romeo as a real person, not a convention, his sense of complete dependency on Rosaline for his happiness and his perception of himself as helpless closely resemble the feelings of a small child for its caretaker. To a clinician, such feelings may represent repressed childhood memories displaced onto his current situation. If so, his attachment to the rejecting Rosaline can be interpreted as a reenactment of a childhood rejection.

From a developmental perspective then, Romeo's perception of his situation is accurate: a woman is the cause of his sadness but the perception is anachronistic. Romeo is unconsciously reliving his childhood, a time of helplessness and dependency on the will of another. At some time in these early years, a trauma might have occurred which he experienced as rejection and against which he defended himself by repression. This repressed trauma now expresses itself in his “choice” of a woman with whom he reenacts the trauma in disguised form.

According to this construction, Romeo's “Out of her favor, where I am in love” (167) takes on additional meaning. His words reflect repressed memories from childhood, when he loved a woman (“where I am in love”) but suffered a traumatic rejection (“Out of her favor”). He now reexperiences this rejection with Rosaline.

The fact that Rosaline never appears in person in the text then becomes a dual metaphor for Romeo's inner life. On one level, her absence indicates that her identity is unimportant; her only role is someone with whom Romeo repeats his early trauma. (He refers to her by name but once and then only to deny his love for her in 2.3.45.) On another level, her absence symbolizes the loved woman (presumably his mother or perhaps his wet-nurse) who must have been unavailable to him—at least sometimes. Friar Lawrence recognizes the unreal nature of his love for Rosaline and chides him “For doting, not for loving.” (2.3.47).

Benvolio responds in a genuine way to Romeo's “Out of her favor where I am in love” with:

Alas, that love, so gentle in his view,
Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof.

Romeo then replies with a couplet of his own, referring quite conventionally to Cupid:

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!


On the surface of the exchange, Benvolio contrasts Cupid's gentle appearance with his harsh nature, while Romeo laments that the blindfolded god should find “pathways to his will.” But it is Romeo's troubles with Rosaline that they are discussing here—not Cupid's nature. Perhaps then we should read the “his” in both couplets as a reference to Romeo.

If we take “his” to refer to Romeo, we learn more about Romeo's attachment to Rosaline. Benvolio's is telling Romeo he is naive to think that love is gentle. (Kernberg reads this naivete as an indication of neurotic inhibition.) Love is not always gentle, Benvolio instructs his troubled friend. Love can be harsh, demanding, even overwhelming: “tyrannous and rough in proof.” But Benvolio could have spared these words: Romeo's traumatic experiences in childhood—now repeated with Rosaline—have already taught him love's ungentle ways.

Romeo's couplet in reply (reading “his” as Romeo) mocks Benvolio's “Alas, that love”. Romeo informs him that he too knows something of love. He points out that love “should” mocking Benvolio's “should” also be gratifying and “see pathways to his [Romeo's] will.” But this is precisely Romeo's problem. Love's pleasures do not find a pathway to his will. Instead they continue to elude him. Accordingly, Romeo's words here focus inquiry into just why it is that love does not find a pathway to his will, in contrast with say, Benvolio, who seems to have little trouble finding love.

Romeo's couplet can thus be read as a paradox: he seeks a pathway to a woman to whom there is no pathway. In his pursuit of Rosaline, he is a sighted man behaving as if he were “without eyes,” his view “muffled still.” (Later [1.1.232] he compares his situation to that of a blind man.) In articulating this paradox, Romeo acknowledges that there is something which leads him to search for pathways where obviously none exist. This acknowledgment is important for it suggests that Romeo has some awareness that he is not simply a helpless victim of Rosaline's unavailability, that there is something—perhaps within himself—that compels this futile search for love.

This acknowledgment, however indirect, seems to cause Romeo distress, for he immediately changes the subject: “Where shall we dine?” Perhaps he is threatened by this confrontation with an enemy even more intimidating than the Capulets: there is something completely unknown within himself that prevents him from finding love. Or, perhaps, on a still deeper level, Romeo changes the subject because even his mere wishful fantasying for love evokes memories of his childhood trauma and the resulting anxiety causes him to think of something more comforting—food.

Suddenly his thoughts shift again, this time for external reasons: he comes upon a brawl between the two servants of the two families. The sight floods him with imagery and oxymora in the Petrarchan tradition:

                    O me, what fray was here?
Yet tell me not for I have heard it all:
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-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

(1.1. 173-182)

Romeo registers his shock with a stream of oxymora, paradoxes, and metaphors so dense that it is difficult for a reader to assimilate. As Whittier observes, “The very speed of the sequence prevents the experience of any single trope, an overabundance of figures in quest of form” (32). For that reason, Romeo's tropes here invite examination for indications of early trauma. This profuse, agitated, contradictory string of words sounds (to this clinician) like the associations of an analysand who might have experienced early childhood trauma. Just as a description of a traumatic experience by a patient can overwhelm a therapist, reproducing in the therapist some of the effect of the original trauma, so these tropes can overwhelm a reader. This fits Rothenberg's observation: “When he wants to express wishes, fears, and anxieties that derive from the early stages of mental life, Shakespeare characteristically turns to the use of metaphor” (533).

On the surface, the words convey Romeo's reaction to the brawl. Overwhelmed by what he sees, he expresses his turmoil by heaping oxymoron upon oxymoron. (Interestingly, later in the play, Juliet also heaps up oxymora in reaction to a brawl: “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical / Dove-feathered raven [3.2.75-79]. Does she, too, suffer from early trauma?) Romeo is responding to what is arguably the ultimate paradox: love can create hate. Importantly for my reading, he ends the cascade of oxymora with the paradox that preoccupies him now: “This love feel I, that feel no love in this.” He thus reverts to the theme of the opening lines of the verse: his hopeless love for Rosaline. It is as if the brawl—and his reaction to it—were merely transient interruptions of his unhappy preoccupation. Thus his reaction to the brawl forms the body of a verse that begins and ends with his attachment to a rejecting woman. Accordingly, one can read Romeo's words as associations to this attachment, as Whittier (29) and Dalsimer (79) do. Interestingly, despite his intense reaction, Romeo does not speak of the brawl itself again in the rest of the scene.

The scene of a brawl is all too familiar to Romeo (“Yet tell me not for I have heard it all”). Still, he reacts with his cascade of exaggerated figures of speech. This overwrought reaction to a rather tame mélée—by Early Modern stage standards—seems excessive to me. Dalsimer, who understands Romeo's words here as within the Petrachan convention, suggests that “Shakespeare here is smiling at Romeo” (80). Whittier (29) regards these words as “Romeo's poetic excess.” Rabkin's (1967) view that the oxymora are not simply “a rhetorical device but a definition of [Romeo's] life” is more in accord with my reading. The brawl stirs up these repressed memories and the painful affects connected with them, which then express themselves in his choice of phrase.

Although he knows brawls well enough, Romeo seems uncertain about what he sees. Is this about hate or love? To most of us the brawl would seem to be about hate and people hurting each other. And yet somehow, for Romeo, it is more about love and people loving each other. Why then, of course! It must be about both: a fusion of hate and love, of hurting and loving, brawling love and loving hate. This confused imagery seems to overwhelm him and he tries to deny the reality of what he sees: “That is not, what it is.” He tells himself that he is just imagining the whole thing, creating a mere fantasy, anything, created out of nothing. He is reacting to the sight of the brawl rather like a small child who witnesses a shocking, traumatizing event and who needs to deny the reality of what he perceives and cannot comprehend.

This defensive denial does not contain the anxiety, though, and the cascade of oxymora continues: with heavy lightness, serious vanity, and the rest. Is this serious, a danger situation? Or is it pleasurable frivolity? Or somehow both? And what are those frenzied forms (“Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms.”)? Are they separate people fused together? One misshapen form? It seems to be both: a chimera of separate people who have somehow lost their individuality and blended into misshapen chaos, the “beast with two backs” in Iago's idiom.

To a clinician, Romeo's tropes here suggest childhood exposure to the primal scene of adults making love and exposure at a time and at an age when he was particularly vulnerable to such a trauma. I say “particularly vulnerable” because many children in the world grow up exposed to primal scenes and do not seem to be traumatized. Also, other childhood traumata might be inferred here, for example, sexual abuse. Romeo's “This love feel I, that feel no love in this” fits such a construction. Nevertheless, primal scene trauma seems to me most likely in view of Romeo's reaction to the brawl. In this construction, memories of the overwhelming feelings and perceptions (really misperceptions) caused by this childhood exposure were repressed but now are mobilized by the sight of the brawl. They then find expression in Romeo's contradictory words.

By contrast, Mercutio says, after the Capulets' ball, “I'll to my truckle bed” (2.1.39), that is, a trundle-bed bed stored under a bed of regular height and commonly used for children sleeping in the same room with adults. His casualness suggests that he has worked through his exclusion from the parental bed. He can therefore be more sophisticated about love than Romeo.

Consistent with this construction, Romeo's “still-waking sleep, that is not what it is” could refer to the impaired reality testing of a drowsy young child in the parental bedroom. (Thus Romeo's “That is not what it is!” can be read as anticipating the current controversy over the reality of memories of childhood trauma.) Half asleep, perhaps his view obscured, he cannot be sure of what he sees: brawling love? loving hate?

“O heavy lightness, serious vanity” and “feather of lead” would then refer to Romeo's infantile confusion about the physical aspects of parental copulation. Is it a crushing burden (“heavy”) or a lightness, vanity, wickedly (heavily, seriously) borne? His oxymoron of “cold fire” could then represent both the passion of the copulating couple and Romeo's own feelings as he watches, perhaps excited, yet ignored and excluded (“cold”) from the process. He is—for a while “Out of favor, where I am in love.”

This combination of overwhelming stimulation and rejection occurring early in childhood would also induce hate in Romeo. He would have projected this hate onto the lovemaking couple and thus reinforced his misperception of the process. This in turn contributed to his fantasy that loving is fused with hating and lovemaking merged with hurting. The anxiety associated with these fantasies now compels him to avoid the possibility of consummating his love by attaching himself to a woman sworn to chastity. Romeo refers to this in the penultimate line of this dense, frantic verse: “This love feel I, that feel no love in this.”


Romeo retains this painful attachment to Rosaline, even as he is on his way to the Capulets' feast, only agreeing to go because Rosaline might be there. He tells his friends:

I am too sore enpierced with his shaft
To soar with his light feathers, and so bound
I cannot bound a pitch above a dull woe;
Under love's heavy burden do I sink.



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


Referring directly to Rosaline, Romeo extends the imagery of his reaction to the brawl, even using some of the same words: “light feathers, love's heavy burden.” His bawdy “pricks like a thorn” plays with his confusion of loving and hurting. As Kristeva observes, “Did not Romeo … go to the Capulets' feast knowing it was a feast of hatred?” (221).

As soon as Juliet appears, however, this painful attachment to Rosaline abruptly vanishes. He falls in love with Juliet at first sight:

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.


Suddenly, Romeo is able to heed Benvolio's advice to forget to think of Rosaline, because he finds another beauty—and another Capulet. This immediate substitution of Juliet for Rosaline without an interval of mourning is another indication that his attachment to Rosaline was not based on real love but on a need to relive trauma. (Kristeva suggests that “the ease with which Romeo switches from Rosaline to Juliet may be explained because they both proceed from the same source of hatred, the Capulet family” [225]).

Since Romeo simply exchanges women without changing himself, the traumatic effect of the primal scene remains with him. Inevitably, it will express itself. But now he loves a woman who returns his love; therefore the trauma no longer expresses itself as it had with Rosaline. Instead, the locus for expressing of the trauma shifts from his troubled relationship with Rosaline to the feud between the families. Romeo will now reenact his trauma within the context of the violence of Verona. The unconscious hate, observes Kristeva, “goes unnoticed because it is swept along by a hatred one can look in the eye—the familial, social curse is more respectable and honorable than the unconscious hatred” (221). Since Romeo no longer needs an attachment to a rejecting woman for the reenactment, the displacement frees him for a loving relationship with Juliet. He, of course, will have to pay a heavy price for this “freedom.”


The reenactment reaches its culmination in the scene at the tomb. His rival Paris arrives first at the tomb to mourn the seemingly dead Juliet:

Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—
O woe, thy canopy is dust and stones!—
Which, with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans


Paris's “true love's rites” are interrupted by Romeo. He plans love rites of his own: destruction of himself and eternal fusion in love-death with Juliet. “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.” Furious because he has lost Juliet, he dismisses his servant:

The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

He tears open the tomb: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, / Gorg'd with the sweetest morsel of the earth.” When Paris tries to stop him, he can scarcely contain his fury:

                              I beseech thee youth,
Put not another sin upon my head
By urging me to fury: O, be gone!
By heaven, I love thee better than myself.


Paris is unrelenting, however, and Romeo, unable to contain himself any longer, fights and slays him. In doing so, he lives out, in a “womb of death,” the “brawling love and loving hate” of the primal scene, expressed earlier mostly in words but now in violent action. He is no longer the withdrawn, inhibited character of Act I who avoids violence and cannot seem to find love. Deranged by the loss of Juliet, his actions now rush precipitously along like his earlier flood of oxymora.

Romeo then enters the tomb:

O my love! my wife
Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not yet conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death's pale flag is not advanced there.
.....                    Ah, dear Juliet,
Why are thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids.


Romeo (like Paris before him) imagines the tomb a bed-chamber, and so revisits the scene of his childhood trauma. Death makes love to Juliet now; she is his “paramour.” Unsubstantial Death is amorous and has sucked the honey of her breath. Yet Juliet lives in death (“beauty's ensign yet / Is crimson in thy lips”), an oxymoron resonating with his earlier “Sick-health' and “still-waking sleep.” As Romeo watches helplessly, Juliet waits breathlessly for Death to “advance his pale flag.”

Romeo now reenacts the primal scene one last time. He is determined finally to frustrate his rival, join the woman he loves forever, and “never from this palace of dim night / Depart again.” For the traumatized child in Romeo, Juliet is not Juliet, nor is she dead. She is mother and now she seems about to abandon him for another, his all-powerful, deadly father. Once again he is the jealous child who wishes to possess the woman he loves and exclude all others. But his efforts are doomed. Failure was part of the original trauma, and he must repeat this failure as well. In defeat, he turns his impotent fury against himself:

                                        O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world worried flesh. Eyes look your last.
Arms take your last embrace! and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here's to my love! O, true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die


Romeo's “yoke of inauspicious stars” echoes the prophecy he made before meeting Juliet: “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date”(1.4.106-108), and now he fulfills his own prophecy.

In taking his own life, Romeo lives out the final act of the primal scene. He makes love to Juliet, embracing, kissing, and finally dying (playing on the well-known Elizabeth metaphor of death for orgasm). In the act of love he destroys himself like a shipwreck. This fusion of lovemaking with destructiveness represents coitus as it is misunderstood by the child: an act of violence between the parents. In the finale, Romeo acts out his earlier, “O brawling love! O loving hate” on Juliet's very body. The fury and guilt of the traumatized child finds final expression through the apothecary's drug. Romeo lives out a fantasy that, by dying, he lives on with Juliet “in everlasting rest.” As once he had hoped in childhood, they will “never from this palace of dim night / Depart again.” He thus reenacts his earlier oxymoron “still-waking sleep.” He and Juliet are now fused in a “misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms” for all eternity.

Works Cited

Cox, Marjorie Cob. (1976) “Adolescent Process in Romeo and Juliet,Psychoanalytic Review 63: 379-389.

Dalsimer, Katherine (1986) “Middle adolescence, Romeo and Juliet.” In Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Standard Edition 18: 7-64. London: Hogarth Press.

Kahn, Coppèlia (1981). “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew.” in Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kernberg, Otto (1980). “Adolescent Sexuality in Light of Group Process.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 49: 27-47.

Kristeva, Julia (1987). “Romeo and Juliet: Love-Hate in a Couple.” In Tales of Love, trans. Leon Rudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mahood, M. M. (1957) Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen.

Rabkin, Norman (1967). Shakespeare and the Common Understanding. New York: Free Press.

Rothenberg, Albert (1973). “Infantile Phantasies in Shakespearean Metaphor: The Fear of Being Smothered.” Psychoanalytic Review. 60: 205-222.

——— (1973). “Infantile Phantasies in Shakespearean Metaphor: Scoptophilia and Fears of Ocular Rape and Castration.” Psychoanalytic Review 60: 533-556.

Shapiro, Stephen. (1964) “Romeo and Juliet: Reversals, Contraries, Transformations and Ambivalence.” College English 25: 498-501.

Warner, William Beatty (1986). Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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

Nathaniel Wallace (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Wallace, Nathaniel. “Cultural Tropology in Romeo and Juliet.Studies in Philology 88, no. 18 (summer 1991): 329-44.

[In the following essay, Wallace analyzes the theme of family conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Verona in Romeo and Juliet, concentrating on the process of semiotic revolt in which new cultural metaphors appear to replace the old.]

Shakespeare's Verona in Romeo and Juliet has been perceived as moribund and stylized, and the lovers' relationship has been contrasted to the city's decadence as an uncorrupted preserve.1 Yet a reassessment of Verona and its celebrated lovers reveals that the city is hardly static and that Romeo and Juliet cannot extricate themselves from the determinations of their culture. This literary Verona, neither cityscape nor actual place but rather a repository of cultural representations, is undergoing a multifaceted transition from feudalism to a stage of civic prosperity and cooperation implied but never fully defined.2

In invoking tropes that have cultural as well as rhetorical applications, the critic can argue that metonymy is being challenged by metaphor, or, to advance a generalization amplified below, that Verona's tendencies toward tradition and continuity have met with indiscriminate impulses toward innovation. In rhetorical terms, the trope of metonymy entails the substitution of words on the basis of contiguity (as part for whole), while metaphor involves exchange according to perceived or possible resemblances.3 Broadly applied, metonymy and metaphor serve to categorize a diverse array of relations and transpositions in a culture or everyday life. In cultural contexts, metonymy is the principle of tradition, of connectedness in all its manifestations, especially as regards the structures that inform and characterize a society, while metaphor is the principle of exchange, of dissolution, and of the replacement of the customary by what is unfamiliar. The generally received view of the drama is partially valid, but only inasmuch as it foreshadows a key distinction: In the Verona of Romeo and Juliet, metonymy is evinced by a multitude of conventional perspectives and patterns of behavior, while metaphor is most clearly revealed by the lovers' assertions of independence, the profusion of tropic invention displayed by several of the characters, and frequent references to commercial and other exchanges.

The semiotic staging in this fictive Verona is one of rebellion against a dominant set of codes rather than a simple transformation from old considered as metonymy into new formulated as metaphor. Also, the confrontation is hardly a matter of a straightforward dichotomy, for example one between feudal and capitalist economies. Although the dramatist does not offer overly abundant evidence of the precise nature of the transition, there are sufficient indications that in his Verona, some segments of society are losing authority while others are acquiring it. Moreover, the existence of two sets of assumptions, corresponding to metonymy and metaphor, is clearly signaled as personages interpret and manage situations proficiently when they work within the cultural framework of which they are most definitely a part, but stumble when they stray into an alien area.

Most plainly metonymic is Friar Laurence as he represents the medieval assumptions that each word denotes one thing, and that each thing has a definite meaning or value. Virtue can indeed turn to vice by being misapplied (2.3.17), but the process by which such inversions occur is comprehensible and subject to prediction. The Friar would live in a world that always conforms to one's expectations, when evolving values and modes of perception, affecting poetry, commerce, marriage, and other spheres of human life, would seem to make the sublunary domain exempt from prediction.4

Similarly disadvantaged is Prince Escalus, a petty patrician lord whose authority appears superannuated. In spite of his stern demeanor in 1.1.94-101, his word is as much ignored as heeded; his real power is only gradations more than that of the influential, named families of Verona. His pronouncement that “some shall be pardon'd, and some punished” (5.3.307), does not reveal a convincing restoration of civil order in Verona, nor is there indication that such order has existed for some time. A centralized authority would have done much to locate the feud within a political space. The Prince's inefficacy is comprehensible if he is seen as more reflective of a British than an Italian context. He thus appears hindered by a conflict between manorial and monarchical forms of government. The former has slipped into impotence while the latter has not attained adequate articulation. Like Friar Laurence's, the Prince's foiled attempts to mediate a crisis betray weakened metonymy or dissolving social structures.

The houses of Montague and Capulet, on the other hand, represent and uphold inflexible values. Again, despite Shakespeare's sparing use of cultural detail, some commentary beyond mere conjecture can be offered. Both families are “alike in dignity” (Prol. 1), and their venerable lineage is manifest when Juliet expresses her horror at the prospect of slumbering in a vault “where for this many hundred years the bones / Of all my buried ancestors are packed” (4.3.40-41). Yet old Capulet is frank and business-like, his depiction differing little from that of a merchant.5 Also significant is the fact that the two families have “thrice disturb'd” (1.1.89) Verona's civic tranquility and can flaunt the Prince's will with impunity. In the final scene, the surviving patriarchs glibly pledge gold memorial statues, an indication that they can tap no mean reserves of wealth. Romeo has ample money to tempt Rosaline (1.1.212) and to pay a premium price for his fatal dram.6 Familial prosperity is also confirmed in Capulet's view of Juliet as “the hopeful lady of my earth” (1.2.15); there is in fact something of import to be inherited. Rather than remnants of a degenerate and declining aristocracy, the families represent a long-standing merchant class that has now gained real affluence and has become nearly indistinguishable from the nobility as a whole.7

In Romeo and Juliet, the achievement of prominence through capitalist enterprise is hardly accompanied by a relaxed or enlightened social existence. As Maurice Dobb points out in a still useful interpretation of historical contexts that retains validity when transferred to the fictive world of dramatic conflicts, “while the influence of commerce as a dissolvent of feudal relationships was considerable, merchant capital remained nevertheless in large measure a parasite on the old order, and its conscious rôle, when it had passed its adolescence, was conservative.”8 Accordingly, Capulet's discourse is patriarchal. He assumes that his daughter's love is an attribute of his own will (3.4.12-14), and he obtusely misapprehends her sentiments when they are at variance with his own. His eagerness to betroth Juliet to Paris, the Prince's noble kinsman, is not surprising. These families, now that elevated social standing has been attained, wish to secure it by asserting themselves as paragons of decorum and supporters of the prevalent conventions, of metonymy in short.9

Revelatory in this regard is the apparently marginal interchange between servants of the Capulet house in Act 1.1. The jests Sampson and Gregory trade about coal and colliers are a reminder that the growth of the coal industry was rapid during the Elizabethan period.10 An ambiance of transition is thus evoked at the very beginning of the play. And in expressing disapproval of this grimy activity, these remarks exploit the distinction between gentility and vulgarity. Amid general flux, the servants impose as authentic and prestigious the social self that is only metonymically theirs by virtue of their master's status. The allusions to coal-mining also confirm that Shakespeare's frame of cultural reference, however mediated or refracted by the endeavors of his art, is ultimately England rather than Italy.

The energy involved in this process of social leverage cannot be readily stabilized. As money was accumulated during the closing decades of the sixteenth century, traditional models of economic and social circulation, such as the guilds, were disrupted.11 So along with the desire of an ascending middle class to become guardians of values and authority, numerous dislocations were inevitable, with deleterious effects on the individual's sense of security. As Karl J. Weintraub points out in qualifying Burckhardt's assertion that Renaissance man no longer conceived of himself only through social categories, “The more the power of the traditional models weakens (even if only by a growing degree of indifference), the less security a man finds in his cultural context, in his political and economic reality.”12 Self-fashioning could thus prove an isolating and distressing as well as exhilarating process. As the restrictive yet protective confines of social metonymy receded, the individual discovered a world of uncontrolled metaphor, of unpredicted and perhaps undesirable exchanges.

Émile Durkheim's classic discussion of the causes of suicide is applicable. Durkheim argues that a rapid increase in power and fortune can be just as disorienting as a sudden decrease. If human needs are no longer satisfied in their usual fashion, and social forces are given unaccustomed liberty, the individual can no longer distinguish between what is possible or just and what is not. With greater vitality comes greater irritability, and a state of anomie or unregulated desire results.13

The lawlessness and normlessness associated with anomie clearly have a place in Shakespeare's Verona. As a variety of cultural metaphor, anomie is evident in a comic context as Capulet's unlettered servant is unexpectedly asked to read an invitation list (1.2.38-44). In his confusion, he comments on the disturbance of the traditional categories of labor, an event that upsets the usual ordering of needs, desires, and satisfactions.14 Relevant too is Benvolio, who seems inexplicably melancholic when he declares that he felt “one too many by my weary self” (1.1.126) on an occasion when he saw Romeo, whose emotions he judged, no doubt rightly, by his own. Benvolio's dark humor and Romeo's habit of spending hours in despondent isolation are in keeping with a cultural context in which basic supports of selfhood have disintegrated.

Anomie obviously contributes to the feud as retainers and kinsmen of the two rising families ignore the Prince's interdiction and respond to the disequilibrium of their own desires. Yet the feud involves more than anomie pure and simple and emerges as a metaphor for the discord between competing cultural tropes. In this fictive Verona, evolving values and perspectives have ruptured a social matrix that, even if it was never truly all-embracing, is suggested in the Prince's evocation of “the quiet of our streets” (1.1.89) and is implicit in Capulet's “old accustom'd feast” (1.2.20), during which the traditional harmony of host and guest is disturbed (1.5.60-91). There is in any case no single, comprehensive framework to which the drama's varied actions, characters, and speech-acts can be referred. In the midst of this confusion of signs, desires, and diverse but sharply defined behavioral codes, a new equilibrium is imperative. The unchallenged ascendancy of one of the feuding families would accomplish the self-authorization of a segment of society. The change and competition that have brought the unit to prominence—and could just as well effect its decline—would then reach a conclusion. The peace that Tybalt professes to hate (1.1.67) is ultimately flux as a continuous condition of life in Verona. The rivalry, therefore, expresses the resistance of metonymy, or the impulse toward cultural pattern, to metaphor, or the impulse toward unqualified innovation and play. Amid this transition and within the feud, the unfortunate involvement of Romeo and Juliet occurs.

Once one reads past or beneath the verbal cadenzas and dream-like encounters of the drama, it is apparent that much about the romance is gilded. Because of the enclosures of Veronese metonymy, there would have been little likelihood of the lovers' interest in each other if both had not been members of ascendant families. Social constraint also leads their relationship directly into the confinement of marriage and denies the youthful pair any opportunity for, or indeed thought of, an exploratory involvement. And it is clear that Romeo's tendencies toward melancholy and suicide are among the anomic aspects of the transition and have quite a lot to do with the tragic dénouement. As Romeo declares early in the play, he anticipates a fatal consequence that will

                                                                                                    expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.


Such words hardly allow for optimism about a love relationship, nor does Romeo's extravagant definition of love as “a madness most discreet, / A choking gall, and a preserving sweet” (1.1.191-92). During the course of the drama, Romeo moves beyond the element of Petrarchan cliché in this definition to vivify its tropes. References to and accusations of Romeo's madness are frequent enough (for instance 1.2.53, 5.1.28-29; 5.3.67) to indicate that his aberrations exceed those of ordinary lovers. Also, his reflections on suicide (5.1.49-53) are combined with an impulsiveness that contributes to the demise of the young couple.15

Romeo's discourse is primarily that of the Renaissance courtier, and he encounters difficulties when he attempts to move outside of the semiotic world of the Elizabethan sonneteer, as events in the drama quickly require him to do. He is strongly associated with those aspects of the text that suggest that any given thing can become any other thing through metaphor, and that commercial or other transaction can exchange one item of virtually any category for another of the same or different category. A primary source of dramatic terror in the play arises from the capacity for metaphors (as in the above definition) or even casual remarks to be exchanged for reality at some point.16 Early on, Romeo is said to create “an artificial night” (1.1.138), a figure that attains tragic realization in the suicides of the two lovers. And the radiantly fantastic catalogue of the Queen Mab speech (1.4.53-94), delivered by Mercutio, the drama's most aggressive champion of the metaphoric spirit, is curiously exchanged for the morbid accumulation of dried matter in the shop of the Mantuan apothecary (5.1.42-48).17 All that now remains of the couple's romance, it seems, is the metaphoric trace subsumed in “old cakes of roses” (5.1.47).

In his quest for love, Romeo often has recourse to the rhetoric of commercial exchange, an inevitable discursive mode of the merchant class that has become a repository of Veronese culture. Rosaline, he complains, will not “ope her lap to saint-seducing gold” (1.1.212). Benvolio later offers to ease Romeo's frustration by having him view women fairer than Rosaline; for Benvolio as for Romeo, it is a question of assessing, of rating feminine beauty. In the celebrated passage (1.5.44-48) in which Juliet is compared to a “rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear” (1.5.45), the evaluative element is again stressed. Young lovers typically find each other attractive, but when does an appreciation of personal qualities begin for Romeo? Certainly not when he declares,

                                                                                                              wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.


The material dimension of Romeo's love is further expressed as he quantifies and anticipates “the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight” (2.6.4-5). At this moment, Romeo wants only the completion of the marriage contract: “It is enough I may but call her mine” (2.6.8). Such words depict an acquisitive view of romance, with matrimony a form of property right.

Romeo is, indeed, poorly acclimated to the rich metonymic world of human attachments. Admittedly, he often reveals (as does Juliet) a nostalgia if not an affinity for continuities, especially when he responds to his loved one's call:

It is my soul that calls upon my name.


This statement at first appears deeply metonymic, with Juliet conceived of as a crucial portion of the entity Romeo. However, it is in precisely this area of intimate liaisons that Romeo's character is most fully problematized. The conjunction of soul and material self has been unhinged, so that a detached persona is represented as speaking. And the following two lines confirm that Romeo has been scuttled, as it were, between conflicting registers of discourse:

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


The apparent recourse to the language of emotional bonding immediately recedes into uninvolved observation and tropic play as Romeo comments on rather than participates in a love-relationship.

If the couple's involvement cannot be extricated from Verona's conflict of paradigms, of which the feud is a significant expression, it is also worth considering how the interaction of Romeo and Juliet might exemplify rather than transcend the feud. The romance, despite its idyllic aura, cannot be divorced from persistent conflicts between Montague and Capulet, male and female, father and daughter, lettered and unlettered. Juliet's entreaty to Romeo represents an impossible wish:

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.


Juliet desires the instant triumph of cultural metaphor over metonymy; she is unaware that within the familial oligarchy of Verona, such easy detachment of the individual self from one's position in the social order is not feasible. Romeo's words are thus broadly meaningful, and not just humorously ironic, when he proclaims, “I am proverb'd with a grandsire phrase” (1.4.37). Also, dissension is signaled by the names of the lovers; in a drama in which discussion of names is a favored pastime, it is useful to recall that “Romeo” suggests the sonorities of “Montague,” just as “Juliet” does those of “Capulet.” This apparently superficial reminder of the feud gains further significance when some key interchanges of the lovers are examined.

The couple is perhaps as united as they ever are in their opening sonnet, when a rhetorical framework provides a gentle contrapuntal movement that later sharpens into expressions of genuine difference. Regrettably, the sonnet as metaphoric exercise has become tinged with social metonymy in the Verona of the drama. It is impossible for Romeo and Juliet to realize the higher metonymy of a freely elected emotional attachment beyond the feud.

Juliet's subdued chiding—“You kiss by th'book” (1.5.109)—foreshadows other disagreements while revealing discontent with the web of formality in which the romance is entangled. Her statement—“I have no joy of this contract tonight” (2.2.117)—marks a disruption in the rather harmonious flow of dialogue between the pair as they barter emotions and promises. Also disclosed is an undertone of despair that, unfortunately, is never eliminated from their relationship. Dissonance continues on a subtle level as the lovers converse in 2.2. An especially problematic interchange takes place in 2.6 as Friar Laurence prepares to perform the sacrament of marriage:

Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heap'd like mine, and that thy skill be more
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air, and let rich music's tongue
Unfold the imagin'd happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter.
Conceit more rich in matter than in words
Brags of his substance, not of ornament.
They are but beggars that can count their worth,
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.


This complex passage, sonnet-like in its compression, interweaves several of the themes and conflicts of the drama. On the most obvious level, Juliet counters Romeo's fondness for Petrarchan eloquence and its metaphors with a preference for a direct, unornate discourse. Yet underlying tensions should not be overlooked. Romeo, as a participant in a culture in which repartee and rivalry are ingrained, challenges Juliet to exercise her own talents. She makes a semblance of refusing in poetically adroit language that bluntly rejects Romeo's rhetoric as inflated. Paradoxically, using commercial language as Romeo does elsewhere, Juliet denies quantification and the validity of her companion's aesthetics in pointing toward a world of feeling, of essence, beyond language. Juliet here tends toward ontology, while Romeo prefers the verbal sign and desires from Juliet an impromptu text in a sense written if not to be recorded. Romeo might seem the more thoroughly metaphorical of the two lovers, but it is he who refers to the “happiness that both receive.” At the same time, this metonymic link is deflected, “imagin'd.” In her response, the bond of Juliet's true love is hyperbolized from the outset and can only be conceived of as an “excess.” Within the context of the drama, the interchange is a contest of linguistic skill, parallel to that between Romeo and Mercutio (2.4.37-102), and witnesses a volatile psychological space. Gently or not, Juliet is in any case competing with Romeo.

These lines can be dismissed as lovers' banter only if viewed in isolation from companion passages later in the text. Most of the couple's dialogue betrays disagreement or tension over perceptions and purposes. Especially relevant is 3.5, when Romeo and Juliet conclude their sole night together by debating whether day has arrived or not. Reflecting a general concern with interpretation, Juliet argues,

It was the nightingale and not the lark
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear.


Romeo agrees, but only with remarks that foreshadow and, going beyond Petrarchan hyperbole, show resistance, perhaps resentment, with regard to Juliet's “reading”:

          Let me be ta'en, let me be put to death,
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.


However much Romeo and Juliet may seem to be enraptured with one another, it should not be forgotten that Juliet has found herself sexually involved with her cousin's murderer, who earlier soliloquized, “O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate” (3.1.115-16). Similarly, her anger over this homicide (3.2.73-85) and subsequent retraction (3.2.90-95) testify to real ambivalence.

The various tensions of the romance reach a tragic resolution with the deaths of the youthful pair.18 Viewed together in the abstract and within the context of the play, their suicides adhere to the paradigm of dueling. Tropologically, the deaths indicate that metonymy has been unsuccessfully challenged by metaphor as represented by the verbal performances and daring actions of the young couple. At the same time, the destruction of the new generation suggests that the traditionalist ideology lodged in the ascendant houses cannot long survive.

While it is more than obvious that one lover is dead before the other takes fatal action, Juliet would have had no motive for killing herself had it not been for Romeo's morbidity and gross misreading. Fascinated as usual with the verbal sign, Romeo made his decision to die on the basis of the news of Juliet's death (5.1.17-21), rather than in response to a verified occurrence.19 Juliet's suicide, on the other hand, can be viewed as a genuine reply to Romeo's. Even—or especially—in death, their competition continues. Because the emulative dimension of their final, implied encounter is usually overlooked, the conclusion of the drama is of doubtful significance to many readers. Juliet attempts to do Romeo one better but fails. Her clumsy dagger-death cannot match the impressive gesture of Romeo quaffing the poison, nor does her closing soliloquy (5.3.161-69) effectively rival that of her deceased husband. As elsewhere, male discourse is here ascendant. Juliet's dying eloquence ill supports comparison with the rhetorically proficient final statements uttered by Romeo and Mercutio, but she nonetheless manages to convey—“O churl” (5.3.163)—a sense of the ambivalent feelings that haunted her liaison with Romeo.

That the deaths can be regarded as part of the feud is confirmed by old Capulet when he remarks,

This dagger hath mista'en, for lo, his house
Is empty on the back of Montague,
And it mis-sheathed in my daughter's bosom.


Capulet, informed of the recent violence in the tomb, believes that his daughter, after reviving, has been slain in renewed feuding. Capulet is satisfied that the weapon ought to have killed someone, preferably a Montague, in whose bosom it would have been appropriately sheathed. At the same time, he subsumes Juliet's final metaphor, which is infelicitous in the context of her dying moment, into the world of paternal discourse, where it is in keeping with his own brusqueness.

The proposed gold statues have appeared to a number of readers as an improbable resolution of the feud between the two families.20 Indeed, the Verona of the play has evinced throughout a culture of gentlemanly honor and perfunctory rituals, from the masked ball to Montague's remonstrance to his son's corpse:

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


An ending of feuding is thus implausible. The flippant substitution of gold statues for the lovers, besides demonstrating the donors' wealth, is only a gesture of acceptance of metaphor, a mode of cultural discourse rejected in the couple's deaths. In view of the battle waged between genders, the erection of the statues seems doubly facile:

There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie.


It is noble of the bereaved fathers-in-law to pledge such memorials, but the competitive spirit of matching verbal or physical thrust for thrust has not been eliminated. Romeo and Juliet will be equals in remembrance as they were not in life, and all evidence of tension between genders and families will be erased. Through a material stratagem, the young pair will become serene and idealized.

The violence of the conclusion thus develops partially out of the feud. Equally meaningful as an underlying condition of the couple's demise is the conjunction of violence and love, especially sexual love, at numerous points in the drama. Such references are problematic and surpass what can be ascribed to Petrarchan clichés (as at 2.3.46-47) of Cupid's wounds. As Friar Laurence observes,

          These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.


Sexual love does not emerge as a variety of healthy metonymy in this Verona. In a different society, the marital union the Friar proposes might have proven a valuable response to the intense desire Romeo and Juliet display for one another. Although his maxims often have limited application, the Friar astutely perceives that the lovers' involvement will resemble the destructive union, a kind of failed metonymy, of fire and gunpowder. Thus, the intimate contiguity of Romeo and Juliet consists only of a single encounter rather than the repetitions of a typical marriage.

The Friar's image is perhaps emblematic of the status of sexuality in Verona. The vocabularies of love and violence are tragically intertwined, and erotic intimations (as in the double-entendre, “die”) are often tied to those of bloodshed. The deflowering of a virgin is only one facet of this phenomenon: sexuality becomes almost a category of dueling in Verona. As the Nurse complains of Mercutio,

I'll take him down, and a were lustier than he is, and twenty such jacks.


And when Romeo says of Juliet,

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper soften'd valour's steel.


—his words are deeply ambiguous. Even his manifest admiration of Juliet's beauty is not without troubling implications:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?


Beneath Romeo's radiant imagery is a residue of violence. Similarly disturbing is Juliet's declaration, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing” (2.2.183). Also, her plea to night—

Give me my Romeo; and when I shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars.


—envisions a virtual sparagmos for her lover.

The curious conjunction of sex and violence in Verona is a sick metonymy that no doubt arises out of the climate of the feud and is first voiced in Mercutio's prurient recommendation:

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


Both the feud and Mercutio's exhortation of rough love can be seen as consequences of conflicting cultural tropes. As the old order disintegrates, anomie is inevitable, and violence disseminates within a poorly defined social and semiotic space. Yet these two elements, the feud and rough love, cannot be mistaken as synonyms or variants of the same phenomenon. The feud, on the one hand, enunciated most stridently by Tybalt and Paris, concretizes the resistance to change. (Yet even Tybalt does not escape the rise of metaphor as he strives to disrupt Capulet's feast and “convert to bitt'rest gall” (1.5.91) the sweetness of the lovers' initial encounter.) Sexual violence, in contrast, suggests the attack of metaphor, represented most plainly by Mercutio and then by Romeo, on metonymy or connectedness in any form. The corporeal dissolution into little stars that Juliet anticipates is an especially vivid example of the radical assault of the desire for release and innovation on even basic structures.

There is perhaps no “true ground of all these piteous woes” (5.3.179), for the feud is only a nexus of discords. Romeo and Juliet more clearly represents a state of cultural siege than the full nature of either the edifice being challenged or of the new synthesis that might replace it. Progress would certainly have been achieved if the equilibrium toward which the play seems to point should promote intimate personal relationships that reflect volition, stable yet elating sexuality, and predictable processes of exchange. The liaison of Romeo and Juliet has been found deficient, but it could only transpire between a ruptured social matrix and the chaotic play of language and values. Their deaths memorialize the power of their culture to gather and disperse passions, meanings, and allegiances.


  1. Especially relevant are the comments of Harry Levin, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 9, and Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 69-70.

    Quotations of the text of Romeo and Juliet are from Brian Gibbons' Arden Shakespeare edition (London: Methuen, 1980).

  2. For insightful discussions of sixteenth-century England and the transition from feudal to early modern society, see Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 33-220; J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth: 1558-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 235-79; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983), 37-102; and Richard Halpern, “John Skelton and the Poetics of Primitive Accumulation,” in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 225-29.

  3. Useful commentary on the Jakobsonian distinction between metaphor and metonymy is offered by William Kerrigan, “The Ego in the English Renaissance,” in The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will, ed. Joseph H. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 272-80, and Alexander Gelley, Narrative Crossings: Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 46-48. Of particular value is Roman Jakobson's essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in Fundamentals of Language by Jakobson and Morris Halle (The Hague: Mouton, 1956), 55-82.

    For an Elizabethan view of metaphor and metonymy as pleasant but deceptive rhetorical devices, rather than as intriguing pathways of understanding or analysis, see George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 154-55 and 178-81.

  4. The transition implied here echoes that analyzed by Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 32-91.

  5. A similar observation is made by Gibbons, 87n.

  6. The episode of the apothecary is one of the few in which Shakespeare draws upon economic references in his pretext, Arthur Brooke's narrative poem, “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.” See ll. 2567-88 in the edition of Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957, 1: 284-363). In general, Shakespeare injects a commercial dimension into Brooke's straightforward, moralistic narrative. An appreciation of the role of financial language in the play is shown by Jill L. Levenson, “The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982): 34n, and Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 104-5.

  7. Black, 258-59, emphasizes the augmented importance of money and financial gain in Elizabethan society. Dobb, 18-20 and 123-24, argues that the closing decades of the sixteenth century represent a key transitional period in the development of capitalism. A middle class composed of prospering merchants and others, as a result of the accumulation of wealth, could now invest in production and was no longer limited to such activities as the mere transfer of goods.

    J. A. Sharpe is deeply sceptical of the notion of a rising bourgeoisie during this period. See his Early Modern England: A Social History, 1550-1760 (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), 176. C. G. A. Clay makes clear that the intensity of this trend is indeed subject to exaggeration, but his carefully presented evidence also reveals that at least in London, the wealth and impact of a merchant vanguard were increasing. See Economic Expansion and Social Change: England, 1500-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), I: 197-210; II: 76-79.

    Clay's cautious assessment indicates that behind the myth of the new Tudor middle class, there was an element of reality that could be incorporated into the muthos of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

  8. Dobb, 89.

  9. Lawrence Stone argues that “conspicuous consumption” was prevalent during the Elizabethan and Early Stuart eras: “It is new wealth which sets the standard of novelty, of fashion, and of opulent display, simply because wealth is not a sufficient source of honor in itself.” See The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 185.

    Frank Whigham writes of the quandary of the newly prominent individual as well as of others sensitive to the challenges of social mobility: “there arose a basic governing principle of the display of effortlessness, Castiglione's sprezzatura, designed to imply the natural or given status of one's social identity and to deny any earned character, any labor or arrival from a social elsewhere.” See Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 33.

    Both of these comments have bearing on the view that the social staging of Romeo and Juliet involves newly influential families eager to convey the impression of continuity and exemplarity.

  10. As J. U. Nef observes, “Wood was the fuel of Thomas More's Utopians. Coal first steals into literature with the great Elizabethans. … Elizabeth's reign marks the beginning of an epoch in the history of British coal mining” (The Rise of the British Coal Industry [London: George Routledge, 1932], I: 14).

  11. See Dobb, 124, and Sharpe, 143. Also useful are the observations of A. L. Beier in “Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London,” in London, 1500-1700, ed. Beier and Roger Finlay (London: Longman, 1986), 160-62.

  12. “Autobiography and Historical Consciousness,” Critical Inquiry 1 (1975): 841. A similar point is made by Stephen Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” in Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, ed. Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), 34-35. Also relevant are the comments of Natalie Zemon Davis in the same volume, “Boundaries and the Sense of Self in Sixteenth-Century France,” 53 and 332n.

  13. Émile Durkheim, Le Suicide (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1912), 280-81. For a useful survey of perspectives on anomie before and after Durkheim, see Marco Orrù, Anomie: History and Meanings (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987). Of particular interest is the chapter “Anomy and Reason in the English Renaissance,” 64-93.

  14. Durkheim, 281. For a brief and useful analysis of Durkheim's emphasis on the socially integrating function of the division of labor, see Joachim Israel, “Alienation and Anomie: A Dialectical Approach,” in Alienation and Anomie Revisited, ed. S. Giora Shoham and Anthony Grahame (Tel Aviv: Sheridan House and Ramot, 1982), 104.

  15. For insightful discussion of Romeo's tendency toward self-destruction, see Marilyn Williamson, “Romeo and Death,” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 129-37.

    On the relationship in general and its cultural context, Ralph Berry's view is intriguing: “The world of Romeo and Juliet, shared by Benvolio, the Montagues and Capulets, and the Prince, is a world of fixed relationships and closed assumptions. They appear as quotations, and they speak in quotations: the cliché, of which the sonnet is exemplar, is the dominant thought-form of Verona.” See The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form (London: Macmillan, 1978), 40. It is more accurate, however, to describe Verona as beset by competing modalities of discourse rather than as controlled by the extreme metonymization that Berry indicates.

  16. A related perspective, with emphasis on the bringing to life of Petrarchan topoi, is thoughtfully developed by Levenson, 22ff. Capulet's lament on the occasion of Juliet's apparent death (4.5.84-90) offers a perception of the disruptive force of metaphor in its broadest sense: “all things change them to the contrary” (90).

  17. Mercutio and Romeo, it is evident, inhabit the same semiotic universe, but Joseph A. Porter disassociates the former from the latter: “Mercutio is essentially active and Romeo reactive or passive.” See Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1988), 103. Yet the commitment to metaphor is strong in both characters.

  18. A valuable examination of the lovers' relationship, the feud, and the fatal conclusion of the drama is presented by Coppélia Kahn, “Coming of Age in Verona,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. C. R. S. Lenz, C. Greene, and C. T. Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 171-93. Yet Kahn finds the focus of intensity in the play not in opposing tropes or discourses but in “the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society” (171).

  19. Also, the metaphor/metonymy conflict is echoed in Romeo's failure to read correctly the signs of life that he has detected in Juliet's face as she slumbers. He discourses figuratively of her beauty with impressive agility (5.3.92-96), but he is unable to combine these signs, to make the connection that she is still alive. His interpretive powers are weak when emotional attachments are at issue.

    Gibbons' remarks, 53, on this passage are valuable.

  20. See, for instance, the comments of William C. Carroll, “‘We were born to die’: Romeo and Juliet,Comparative Drama 15 (1981): 67-69, and Edward Snow, “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: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 189.

  21. For a contrasting point of view, see Novy, 99-106. Novy indeed finds, 105, an “identification of sex and violence” in Verona, but she defends the idea, 100, that Romeo and Juliet somehow “establish a role-transcending private world of mutuality in love.”

Jennifer L. Martin (essay date September 2002)

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SOURCE: Martin, Jennifer L. “Tights vs. Tattoos: Filmic Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet.English Journal 92, no. 1 (September 2002): 41-6.

[In the following excerpt, Martin compares Franco Zeffirelli's and Baz Luhrmann's cinematic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, concentrating on their differing styles, representation of the drama's central characters, and interpretations of its most well-known scenes.]

Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann present very different interpretations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that imply how these directors see the world and what they value. After reading the primary text, students can sharpen their critical thinking skills by comparing the two films in terms of particular scenes, directorial intention, mis-en-scène, etc., as Shakespeare scholar and film critic H. R. Coursen suggests. The result of this line of thinking is that there is no one “correct” version: “In other words, actors and directors collaborate with the original work” (3).

When students are encouraged to view film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in this light, they will inevitably view them more critically. A valuable technique that Coursen suggests is for students to view the same scene from a variety of film adaptations. He notes, “Comparing and contrasting the same scene in two or more versions of the same script teaches the student to look for detail” (5). Students will also begin to notice the actors' and directors' interpretations of Shakespearean text and the fact that these interpretations differ vastly from film to film, a realization that will encourage them to take more ownership of the text. Teaching students to be more critical of media sources will help them to view film/television as a text that can be deconstructed. As Coursen suggests, “Instead of merely seating students in front of the tube, we can unashamedly make what appears there the focus of study. If we help students to understand the media, we empower them” (8). In order to do this, however, we must begin to look at film critically and develop a vocabulary through which to discuss the nuances of film art.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet present very different filmic approaches to the play and vastly different ideas about the two young lovers and their relationship to the world and each other. Zeffirelli's film casts two very young and virtually unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, in the roles of Romeo and Juliet. The director's vision of adolescent love is one of immediacy and immaturity. The young lovers, particularly Romeo, act impulsively and are naive pawns in a deterministic world. Zeffirelli's view of adolescence is one of impertinence and naiveté. His film is melodramatic and linear, highlighting the role of fate and the sense that the story of Romeo and Juliet could not have ended any differently. Luhrmann's interpretation of Shakespeare's text, on the other hand, pays homage not only to the primary source, but also to filmic versions that came before. However, Luhrmann's depiction of the two young lovers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, marks a definitive departure from Zeffirelli's in that his two lovers are more grounded and reflective and show more of an inner maturity and strength of character; his depiction of adolescence through these two characters is more worldly. Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet makes much use of flashback and flashforward to add to the drama of the script. His style suggests irony and downplays the role of fate in the story.


Zeffirelli's version begins with the prologue dubbed in as a voiceover, signifying the omnipotent role that fate plays in the lives of the two young lovers. We are then quickly led into the scene of battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This fray is not glamorized. On the contrary, it seems to affect the entire village. As David Kranz states, “Zeffirelli uses close-ups in the opening brawl of his Romeo and Juliet (1.1) to underscore the violence of the action and possibly to relate this destructive passion to the upcoming love of Romeo and Juliet, which is similarly photographed” (347). We are soon shown the scene when Paris asks Capulet for his only daughter (1.2). When Capulet responds to Paris's comment, “Younger than she are happy mothers made” (216) with “And too soon marred are those so early made,” (13) he notices Lady Capulet through a window, and she gives him an evil glare as if to validate his statement. This is an interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text—a difference that alludes to the often-dismaying situation women are placed in regarding the business of marriage. Another interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text is Zeffirelli's implication that physical love exists between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. This insinuation is made explicit in Lady Capulet's plea for justice after Tybalt's death (3.1).

In Zeffirelli's interpretation of the Capulet feast (1.5), Rosaline is depicted—a difference from Luhrmann's version—and Romeo is focused on her until he sees Juliet. His immediate transference of affection demonstrates his emotional immaturity and his need for immediacy in matters of love. Romeo and Juliet seek each other out with their eyes, and Zeffirelli makes much use of the close-up. As Kranz states:

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet uses numerous close-ups on the young lovers to help us feel their passion and side with them against Veronese society. This is especially evident in Act 1, Scene 5, the Capulet ball, where juxtaposed close-ups of Romeo and Juliet are interspersed with medium and full shots during an elaborate Renaissance dance.


The focus on the eyes of the two lovers illustrates their innocence, inexperience, and naiveté.

The balcony scene (2.2) in Zeffirelli's version focuses on the physical attraction the two lovers have for one another. Zeffirelli makes much of the fact that the two lovers share an intense physical passion. During the marriage ceremony (2.6), Friar Lawrence has to physically keep the two apart, for they cannot keep their hands off each other; they are impulsive and seek immediate gratification. When Romeo learns of his banishment and Juliet of her inability to avoid the arranged marriage to Paris, the two are desperate and hysterical. The Friar acts as the calming, paternal figure for them both.

Zeffirelli's interpretation of the conflict between Tybalt and Mercutio (3.1) is one of playful bantering; the two seem to enjoy joking with one another and to share a mutual admiration and respect. Tybalt looks absolutely dismayed when he realizes that he has wounded Mercutio, a sense of regret that is absent from Luhrmann's version. In the film, it is Romeo's impulsiveness that has caused this death.

When in Friar Lawrence's cell after killing Tybalt (3.3), Romeo's grief manifests itself as whiney and immature. Friar Lawrence strikes him and is represented as an authority figure. Romeo is shown here as an impulsive youth, unable to control himself. Zeffirelli here depicts adolescence as an emotional, impulsive time; wiser, adult forces must contain adolescent desires.

At the Capulet tomb where Juliet is to be buried, Friar Lawrence smiles and then remembers himself, as he presides over the ceremony. We are given the sense that the Friar's intervention will triumph. However, his paternalism soon turns to cowardliness in the film. The Friar's line, “I dare no longer stay,” is repeated several times, suggesting his fear; likewise, he is not given the chance to explain the events that lead to the two deaths, as he is in the primary text. Romeo and Juliet are carried out together on a platform, dressed in their wedding clothes, as if to signify their idealization. The Prince's last lines, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings. / The sun for sorrow will not show its head. / Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardoned, and some punished; / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (306-11) are dubbed in a voiceover as Lord Capulet and Lord Montague walk out together, followed by Lady Capulet, Lady Montague, and the others, truly signifying the resolution of the strife between the two families.


Luhrmann's interpretation begins with a television newscaster reading the prologue, which is then repeated in both voice and text as we are introduced to the setting, Verona Beach, and the cast of characters. Capulet and Montague are CEOs of corporations. Luhrmann's interpretation of the play is postmodern in that it pays homage to other Shakespearean works (e.g., a store on the beach is named “The Merchant of Verona Beach,” a run-down theater in town is named “The Globe,” and the name for the local cleaners is “Out, Out Damn Spot Cleaners”) and to other film adaptations of the play. For example, Luhrmann takes Zeffirelli's incestuous overtones between Lady Capulet and Tybalt and makes them more explicit. According to Levenson:

Luhrmann's revision also reflects its era, perhaps most specifically, in its postmodern style: it echoes key figures in film history, from Busby Berkeley to Federico Fellini to Ken Russell; it uses techniques and images familiar from television networks (MTV) and genres (evening news, Miami Vice). At times it even looks back to strategies originating with Garrick, such as the encounter of Romeo and Juliet in the tomb.


A striking difference in Luhrmann's version is his use of religious imagery. The Priest (Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare's primary text) has a tattoo of a cross on his back, religious statues loom ominously over the action, and Juliet's room contains scores of angels and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Although the society depicted in this version is fast-paced and violent, perhaps the religious imagery illustrates the spiritual aspect of the love between Romeo and Juliet. The love between DiCaprio's Romeo and Danes's Juliet is strikingly more tender and not so violently immediate and physical as that depicted in Zeffirelli's version. Simultaneously, Luhrmann's use of religious imagery also suggests that religious dictates represented by the preponderance of religious icons are inadequate in explaining the confusion of postmodern life.

The society Luhrmann depicts is more violent. The initial brawl between the Capulets and Montagues results in the blowing up of a gas station. Tybalt is depicted as being more violent and more menacing in this version. For example, in the first scene of battle, he draws his gun on a young boy and says “bang.” Luhrmann does much to demonize the majority of the Capulet family. At the Capulet feast, Tybalt is dressed as a devil and is shown growling; the Capulet boys are dressed as skeletons. Lord Capulet strikes Lady Capulet in Act 3, Scene 5 when Juliet refuses to marry Dave (Paris). Also, Lady Capulet is depicted in an evil light. Although she was married at a young age, not only does she not sympathize with her daughter (as the primary text indicates), but she is also cruel and cold to her and takes an active role in the plotting of the marriage. Luhrmann depicts Lady Capulet as possessing power “behind the scenes.” Furthermore, she is represented not as a mother, but as a licentious woman, a depiction that may be an allusion to Lady Capulet's “dirty look” to Lord Capulet in Zeffirelli's earlier version, mentioned previously. Finally, in Act 3, Scene 1, after the death of Tybalt, Luhrmann takes Capulet's stoic lines from the primary text: “Not Romeo prince; he was Mercutio's friend; / His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt” (186-88) and gives them to Montague. Perhaps Luhrmann's purpose in demonizing the Capulets is to highlight Juliet's goodness and innocence, which leads to her acceptance of a man of the Montague clan.

Romeo and Benvolio learn of the Capulet feast via television. In Zeffirelli's version, some attendees of the feast are masked, but in Luhrmann's version it is a costume ball. The Montague boys are dressed humorously—Mercutio as a drag queen, others as Vikings, in kilts, etc. Luhrmann's costuming of Romeo and Juliet illuminates his projection of their personalities. Juliet is dressed as an angel, illustrating her innocence and purity. This choice of costume echoes other filmic depictions of Juliet, including Zeffirelli's. However, Claire Danes's Juliet is not so naive as the Juliet of Olivia Hussey. As Gerrie Lim states, “Here's a Juliet who walks that fine line between the naivetè of youth and the passion of someone much wiser than her age would allow” (2). Romeo is dressed as a soldier, with a chain mail suit, and he is more “warlike” in this version. He is not the weeping innocent shown by Zeffirelli. He shows more strength and is more reflective upon his actions. For example, in Act 3, Scene 1, when Romeo kills Tybalt, the camera pauses on his face for a long close-up in which we see a sense of bewilderment, regret, and disillusionment. This emotion is reinforced in Act 3, Scene 5, when Romeo is awakened from his first and only slumber with Juliet by a flashback of the murder he has committed. He yells the line, “I am fortune's fool,” (138) while looking up at a religious statue that is under construction. Luhrmann's ironic use of mis-en-scène here seems to suggest that fortune does not play as great a role in the lives of his characters as it does in other versions. Also, his depiction of creation under construction illustrates the self-consciousness of his own creation (the film) via his use of textual and filmic allusion; his film is definitely a postmodern construction.

We first encounter Juliet in slow motion, while she is submerged in water; Juliet is portrayed as peaceful and innocent. In contrast, the Nurse's and Lady Capulet's movements are sped up while they search for Juliet. With this technique Luhrmann seems to be poking fun at these characters, demonstrating their ridiculousness and frivolity. In fact, Luhrmann depicts Lady Capulet as possessing more power and influence than does Zeffirelli. She is shown flirting and conspiring with Dave (Paris) in this film version. She is also depicted as being a more angry and corrupt character. She kisses Tybalt openly. Her affection for him is much more explicit than in the Zeffirelli version. For example, in Act 3, Scene 1, Lady Capulet clings to the body of Tybalt after he is slain, and she attempts to attack Benvolio when he explains the events in question. In Act 3, Scene 4, when Capulet explains to Paris why he cannot woo Juliet, as she is distraught over the death of Tybalt, Luhrmann gives one of Capulet's lines to Lady Capulet. When Capulet states, “She loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly,” (3) it is Lady Capulet who replies, “And so did I” (4).

Another interesting difference in Luhrmann's version of the Capulet feast is that Romeo takes drugs, offered to him by Mercutio. As he begins to hallucinate at the feast, he speaks the line from Act 5, Scene 3: “Thy drugs are quick” (120). Just prior to his taking the drug, he envisions his own death; Luhrmann inserts a flashforward sequence of Romeo entering the Capulet tomb, “well-neoned” with crosses.


There are many scenes in these film versions of Romeo and Juliet that would be interesting to compare and contrast in the classroom. The balcony scene in Act 2 is vastly different in the two versions. In Zeffirelli's version, Juliet contemplates her love on her balcony, and ample attention is paid to her breasts. This detail gives credence to the notion that Zeffirelli's version focuses highly on the physical aspects of the love between Romeo and Juliet. In Luhrmann's version, there is no balcony. Romeo and Juliet meet on equal footing. Juliet is not raised to a pedestal as is often depicted. She is shown walking around a pool and lamenting that Romeo is a Montague. When Romeo finally speaks to her, she screams, and the two fall into a pool. Luhrmann's use of water in his mis-en-scène is common when showing the two lovers. When Romeo and Juliet first spot each other at the Capulet feast, it is through an aquarium. The promise of their union is made in the pool, and Romeo falls into the pool after meeting Juliet on their one night together. This use of water suggests a purity, a spiritual component to their love, which is absent in Zeffirelli's version.

Another interesting scene to examine is Act 3, Scene 3, when Romeo is in Friar Lawrence's cell after learning that he has been banished. In Zeffirelli's version, as noted previously, Romeo is seen crying and wailing. He is on the floor and unable to maintain his composure or control his emotions. In Luhrmann's version, Romeo is not weeping and wailing in Friar Lawrence's cell, nor does the Friar (the Priest in Luhrmann's version) chastise him as if he were a child. He is depicted as more of a friend or an equal than as a paternal figure.

A final scene worthy of analysis is that of the two lovers in the tomb—Act 5, Scene 3. In Zeffirelli's version, Romeo returns to Verona without being detected. There is also no interaction with Paris, as in the primary text, but Romeo does speak to the body of Tybalt, lying next to Juliet. In this version, Romeo dies before Juliet awakens. When Friar Lawrence leaves Juliet, after repeating “I dare no longer stay,” (159) four times, she takes Romeo's dagger and quickly thrusts it into her chest. In Luhrmann's version, Romeo returns to Verona with police chasing him. What he says to Paris in the primary text, “tempt not a desp'rate man” (59), he shouts to the police, with his gun drawn. There are no Tybalt, no Paris, and no Priest in Luhrmann's version of the tomb scene, suggesting that his Romeo and Juliet are more isolated and alienated than are Zeffirelli's. Perhaps the major difference between the two films is that in Luhrmann's version Juliet awakens to see Romeo take the poison, and Romeo realizes his mistake. He is still alive when she kisses his lips to attempt to taste the poison. He then speaks to her, “Thus with a kiss I die” (120). Then there is silence. Claire Danes's Juliet then kills herself with a gun, but it is a more thoughtful and calculating death than the hasty and quick death of Olivia Hussey. We then see flashbacks of their loving union, as the two lie dead on top of one another in the funeral chamber, well lit with candles. The coroners then carry the bodies out. The two are not glorified in death and are not made to look attractive or idealized, as in Zeffirelli's version. Luhrmann's version ends with a television newscaster reading the Prince's last six lines, followed by the static of a TV screen. We do not see the overt resolution of the two families, as is made clear in Zeffirelli's version.


By providing students the vocabulary to discuss the genre of film, we can encourage them to look for detail and to analyze film in ways they never have before. It is important to teach students about film technique, at least in a rudimentary manner, so that they are able to more adequately understand directorial intention and view film as interpretative text. Concepts such as flashback, flashforward, and mis-en-scène will be helpful in introducing students to the genre of film. It is not always necessary to show films in their entirety (for example, some teachers may want to avoid the brief nudity scene that occurs in Zeffirelli's version), although showing films from beginning to end will give students the full picture of what the director attempts to illustrate. Analyzing particular scenes from at least two Shakespearean film adaptations will provide students with the notion that there is more than one way to view a text. They may then discuss which versions they feel are truer to the primary text or truer to their personal interpretations of the primary text. Often it is difficult for students to understand that there may be various valid interpretations of a text. Bringing the genre of film to the teaching of Shakespeare in the classroom will encourage students to see the possibility of multiple interpretations and will perhaps provide them with more confidence in their own interpretive abilities.

Works Cited

Coursen, H. R. “Theories, Techniques, and Resources.” Teaching Shakespeare with Film and Television: A Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. 1-10.

Kranz, David. “Cinematic Elements in Shakespearean Film: A Glossary.” Riggio. 341-60.

Levenson, Jill L. “Romeo and Juliet on the Stage: ‘It Is a Kind of History.’” Riggio. 114-26.

Lim, Gerrie. “Endless Love.” Movie Review: Romeo and Juliet 6 July 2001.

Riggio, Milla Cozart, ed. Teaching Shakespeare through Performance. New York: Modern Language Association, 1999.

Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Harold Perrineau. Fox Video, 1996.

Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Leonard Whiting Jr., Olivia Hussey, and Milo O'Shea. CIC Video, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Eds. Sylvan Barnet et al. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963. 479-523.

D. Douglas Waters (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Waters, D. Douglas. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90.

[In the following essay, Waters contends that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of fate and fortune influenced by the writings of Ptolemy and Seneca.]

In critical discussion of Romeo and Juliet in the last three decades or so, there are at least three significant ways of approaching the play: 1) traditional character-study as the key to the tragedy, 2) a recent de-emphasis on the genre of tragedy in favor of discussion of culture, sexual difference, and ideology, and 3) the role of fate as the key to the tragedy. The complexity of these issues necessitates clarification of my own critical stance. First, I think the character-study critics have overemphasized the study of character in this play, but not because I think, as Christopher Norris writes in “Post-Structuralist Shakespeare: Text and Ideology” (1985), that character-study in itself is naive.1 Still, what Norris writes might have at least some bearing on Romeo and Juliet. Second, I admit that my representation of many current approaches to this play as de-emphasizing the genre of tragedy is in itself a debatable judgment and one possibly subject to some few slight exceptions of which I am not aware. Third, I intend here to open up the debate about fate and fortune in Romeo and Juliet and to reargue their importance in the play's tragic pattern. I shall operate in the hybrid tradition of historicist/formalist concerns for ideas in history which possibly have some bearing on the form of the tragedy. I am conscious of the dominant influence of Murray Krieger's Theory of Criticism: A Tradition and Its System (1976), Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory (1979), Words About Words About Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Texts (1988), and other works including his introductory essay in The Aims of Representation: Subject/Text/History (1987), where he agrees with David Carroll's emphasis in another essay in this same volume, “Narrative, Heterogeneity, and the Question of the Political: Bakhtin and Lyotard.” Here Carroll refers to the frustration and reaction recent critics have made “to the fact that formalism in some form or other just won't go away no matter how often and how forcefully history and politics are evoked to chase it away.”2 Carroll then adds significantly:

Another version of formalism always seems ready to rise out of the ashcan of history to take the place of previously discarded versions. This may in large part be due to the fact that the critique of formalism has too often taken the form of a naïve, precritical historicism, one whose shortcomings certain types of formalism (for example, a certain Russian formalism and early, critical structuralism) have quite effectively exposed and challenged. Such critiques, rather than being post-formalist (or post-structuralist, if this term has any sense), are really preformalist (prestructuralist). Perhaps the problem even is not really how to become post-formalist at all, as if one could ever really leave the problem of form behind, but rather how to establish a critical perspective on form and history that does not depend on either formalist or historicist, post-formalist or metahistorical assumptions.3

In an essay entitled “Poetic Presence and Illusion II: Formalist Theory and the Duplicity of Metaphor” Krieger makes a significant distinction between “narrow formalism” and “broad formalism.” A narrow formalism, which was associated in various ways by various critics with the once “New Criticism” in America, “equated formalism with aestheticism as a doctrine which would cut the art object off from the world while treating only its craftsmanlike quality as an artifact.”4 This definition of narrow formalism has been erased by the efforts of structuralists and poststructuralists during the last three decades. Krieger defines broad formalism as follows:

At its broadest, formalism must recognize (and has recognized) the several elements in the aesthetic transaction to which the word “form” may be applied. There is the imaginative form as it is seen, grasped, and (it's to be hoped) projected by the mind of the poet; there is the verbal form, at once diachronic and synchronic, that is seen, grasped, and projected in the course of the reader's (or, in stage production, the audience's) experience; and there is the form that becomes one of the shapes which culture creates for its society to grasp its sense of itself.5

These broader concerns with form bring us “closer to that original sense of form bequeathed to us by its Kantian heritage, a sense of form which ties it at once to our vision of the world.”6 Krieger elaborates as follows:

This would make nonsense of those anti-formalist claims that denigrate the study of form by seeking to empty form out, excluding all worldly relations from it. … [Form] is what gives us the shapes of our world, the creation of the worldly stage and its objects within which we move. … Form in this sense is primal vision and, far from escaping reality for empty shows, it becomes power that constitutes all the “reality” which we feel and know. A formalism deriving from such a fundamental notion of form—precisely the notion of form which philosophers have left with us for two centuries—must be phenomenological as well as anthropological from its very outset.7

Though Krieger is not discussing Shakespeare and though I shall not be concerned here primarily with literary theory as such, I mention these assumptions because they are the groundwork for my study of tragic form in Romeo and Juliet. The chief bone of contention in tragedy being form and the chief neglect among structuralists and post-structuralists being literary form, it is easy to see why relatively few books have been written on the nature of tragedy, either Shakespearean or otherwise, in the last decade or so. In this context, my purpose is to reargue the importance of fate and fortune in the tragic pattern of Romeo and Juliet. But first I must examine some recent treatments of the tragedies in general and Romeo and Juliet in particular. Terry Eagleton in William Shakespeare (1986), a book which is, of course, not typical of all approaches, writes about plays in all genres and explains that he does so with “no particular attention to generic divisions, the importance of which seems to be overrated.”8 Stephen Greenblatt's recent book, Shakespearean Negotiation: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (1988), is less interested in tragic patterns (which many recent critics assume to be either static or unimportant or both) than in defining what he sees as Shakespeare's larger cultural and political ideas. Though Greenblatt concedes the importance of genre, included in what he calls “formal and linguistic design” which “will remain at the center of literary teaching and study,” he says that in this book he intends “to look less at the presumed center of the literary domain than at its borders” in an attempt, by tracking “what can be glimpsed, as it were, at the margins of the text,” to offer “insight into the half-hidden cultural transactions through which great works of art are empowered.”9

Madelon Gohlke in “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms” (1980) gives a provocative reading of Shakespeare's tragedies in the light of Theseus' words in A Midsummer Night's Dream (quoted in Gohlke's title); she asserts that there is in the tragedies “a matriarchal substratum or subtext within the patriarchal text. The matriarchal substratum itself, however, is not feminist.” She views Shakespeare's tragedies “as a vast commentary on the absurdity and destructiveness” of the masculine defensive posture of defining “femininity as weakness” and of instituting “the structures of male dominance designed to defend against such an awareness.” Her frontal attack on Freud's concept of “femininity as weakness” is a healthy tonic in itself, an idea worth further consideration in relation to the tragedies; but the formal design of the tragedies will not always fit into her Procrustean bed of sexual difference. But this is not the place to argue about tragedies other than Romeo and Juliet; though I do not wish to deny that, as Gohlke notes, Romeo momentarily perceives “himself as having been feminized by love,” I simply reply that this attitude does not, in itself, cause the tragedy.10 Fate is against both of the lovers—but this is to anticipate my argument.

I wish to glance now at the article by Edward Snow, “Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet.” The main contribution of this article, as I see it, is not his main point—the sexual difference of the lovers—but his implications about the positive value of love in both title characters. Review of his thesis is unnecessary here—for my concern is with his slight attention to the tragedy (or more correctly his dismissal of it) and what I see as a wrong-headed interpretation of Romeo's alleged limitations in love as his apparent sharing of something “with the male protagonists in Shakespeare's darkest treatments of love and sexual desire.” Snow admits to the practice of what contemporary critics are fond of expressing metaphorically as reading not the text but the margins of Shakespeare's text: Romeo and Juliet's subtler affirmations have to do not with romantic love but with female ontology.”11 This is quite all right if one chooses to respond to “the margins of the text” in such a way, but surely one can also—if she or he wishes—take an old-fashioned look at the text of Romeo and Juliet itself. When she does, she will find after all that the real text is a tragedy regardless of how we may pretend that it is not. The tragic fate of the lovers—not their sexual difference—forces them both (not just Romeo) to experience a lack (not in themselves) and an estrangement (but not from one another). I think one of the best recent analyses of Shakespeare's early love tragedy is Coppélia Kahn's “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet,” a part of a chapter in her Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (1981). Much of what she writes about love and “the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society, which Shakespeare shows to be tragically self-destructive,” is reasonable and very well taken. Shakespeare's creation of our deep sympathy for Juliet as she is bullied by her authoritarian father is enough in itself to justify many of Kahn's remarks about the inhumanity of patriarchy in Verona. Her stress on the feud is also effective, but only as far as it goes: The inheritance from their feuding parents “makes Romeo and Juliet tragic because it denies their natural needs and desires as adolescents.” But I wish here to contest the validity of Kahn's view that “the feud in a realistic social sense is the primary force in the play—not the feud as an agent of fate.”12 In order to show the weakness of this assumption I intend, as I noted above, to reopen this complicated, long standing, and important controversy.13 Thus, I shall contend that Romeo and Juliet is indeed a tragedy of fate, and I shall argue the relevance of astrological ideas (including fate and chance) in Ptolemy and Seneca and the concept of fortune (chance) in Seneca. Kahn's concessions in this regard are quite revealing:

Undeniably, the feud is bound up with a pervasive sense of fatedness, but that sense finds its objective correlative in the dynamics of the feud and of the society in which it is embedded.14

Again, she grants the following point:

It cannot be denied that through the many references to fate Shakespeare wished to create a feeling of inevitability, of a mysterious force stronger than the individuals, shaping their courses even against their will and culminating in the lovers' death.15

But her real point is that fate is really unimportant in the play, making the following assertion, which, as she reminds us, Gordon Ross Smith made in 1965:

The play employs fate not as an external power, but as a subjective feeling of the two lovers. And this subjective feeling springs understandably from the objective social conditions of life in Verona.16

In arguing for Shakespeare's use of fate in the tradition of Ptolemy and Seneca, I shall glance in both directions—toward the current critics in the tradition of Gohlke, Snow, and Kahn and toward the traditional critics of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's, who were mainly character-study critics. Unlike most traditional criticism which discusses Romeo and Juliet in the light of astrology or fortune, I propose treating the play in light of both these elements, for Seneca is in much the same astrological camp as Ptolemy and in his plays and prose works discusses fortune quite often.17

Just as fate and fortune (chance) are both significant in Ptolemy and Seneca, Shakespeare makes similar use of fate and fortune in Romeo and Juliet; specifically, the dramatist's treatment of astrology is much more like that of Ptolemy and Seneca than the usage of English Renaissance astrological writers such as Christopher Heydon, Richard Harvey, and Robert Burton. The dramatist does not, for example, even hint that a Christian God is behind the stars, unlike the others mentioned here who, in the words of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), contended that the stars “rule us, but God rules them” (I. ii. 4.).18 F. E. Robbins, the translator of the Tetrabiblos in the modern Loeb Classical Edition, notes significantly that Ptolemy “took, in general, an Aristotelian position philosophically, though his predilection for mathematics led him to regard that division of science with far greater reverence than the more biologically minded Aristotle.” Robbins reminds us, “The book is a systematic treatise on astrology but it should be remembered that in Ptolemy's time” astrology and astronomy were the same “and that he called what we mean by ‘astrology’ … prognostication through astronomy.”19

Ptolemy divided the subject of astrology into two areas: universal aspects and particular aspects. Universal or general astrology, which treats the movements of planets, the sun, and the moon and their influence throughout the realms of nature and nations, is developed in Books I and II; and particular or “genethlialogical” astrology, which treats the influence of celestial bodies on the destiny and fortune of individual human beings as parts of the realm of nature, is developed in Books III and IV. In both theory and practice Ptolemy stressed the importance of prognostication. He anticipated and answered the objection about the “uselessness of prognostication” based on the assumption “that foreknowledge of events that will happen in any case is superfluous.”20 He argued, first,

that even with events that will necessarily take place their unexpectedness is very apt to cause excessive panic and delirious joy, while foreknowledge accustoms and calms the soul by experience of distant events as though they were present, and prepares it to greet with calm and steadiness whatever comes.21

This much is based on the assumption that some things in the world happen by necessity. Then Ptolemy, taking recourse to a set of “first causes” correspondent to concepts perhaps implied in Aristotle's “unmoved mover,” admitted that “the movement of heavenly bodies … is eternally performed in accordance with divine, unchangeable destiny”; in Aristotelian fashion again Ptolemy was interested in discussing changes in “earthly things,” not in defining the nature of ultimate causes. Here, again paralleling Aristotle, Ptolemy emphasized the fact that “the change of earthly things is subject to a natural and mutable fate, and drawing its first causes from above it is governed by chance and natural sequence.22 And here is where astrology is focused; Ptolemy cleared up one popular misconception about necessity as follows:

We should not believe that separate events attend mankind as the result of the heavenly cause as if they had been originally ordained for each person by some irrevocable divine command and destined to take place by necessity without the possibility of any other cause whatever interfering.23

In order to clarify this assumption further Ptolemy employed his famous distinction between universal and particular astrology as follows:

Some things happen to mankind through more general circumstances and not as the result of an individual's own natural propensities—for example, when men perish in multitudes by conflagration or pestilence or cataclysms, through monstrous and inescapable changes in the ambient, for the lesser cause always yields to the greater and stronger; other occurrences, however, accord with the individual's own natural temperament through minor and fortuitous antipathies of the ambient.24

Ptolemy believed the heavenly bodies operate by necessity but contended that, in the government of earthly things, where chance and natural sequence have parts to perform, necessity is not absolute but a matter of degree. Some earthly events therefore take place necessarily, and others take place contingently.

Seneca treated astrology in Questiones Naturales (63 or 64 a.d.) and “De Consolatione ad Marciam.” In the first mentioned work, for example, he discussed the significance of comets through the use of a sympathetic analogy comparing them with astrologers or “the Chaldaean soothsayers who tell what sorrow or joy is determined at birth by the natal star.”25 He accepted here what Ptolemy later called particular or “genethlialogical” astrology and what people in Shakespeare's day called “judicial” astrology. Seneca's emphasis again on the limitations of the Chaldeans appears in the following passage from Questiones Naturales (II. 32):

The Chaldaeans confined their observations to the five great planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn plus the sun and the moon). But do you suppose that the influence of so many thousands of other bright stars is naught? The essential error of those who pretend to skill in casting the horoscope lies in limiting our destinies to the influence of a few of the stars, while all that float above us in the heavens claim some share in us.26

He asked Marcia to imagine, in “De Consolatione ad Marciam,” that the sun, moon, and “the five planets … whirl through their unwearied rounds” and to imagine also that “on even the slightest motions of these hang the fortunes of nations, and the greatest and smallest happenings are shaped to accord with the progress of a kindly or unkindly star.”27 Here are anticipations of Ptolemy's universal astrology and perhaps even particular astrology. Seneca's well-known stress on fate as an unalterable force appears in Natural Questions (II. 34, 35, 36, 37, and 39) and his plays. He defined fate as “the binding necessity of all events and actions, a necessity that no force can break.”28

As Kahn is herself aware, many traditional critics assume that Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet never makes unambiguous allusions to the astrological importance of individual nativities;29 still he does give details which are suggestive of it. With the “foresight” of an astrologer, he has the Chorus (the Prologue to Act I) foretell that:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.


Connecting here the “star-cross'd lovers” and “the fatal loins of these two foes” (the feud), Shakespeare suggests some malignant influence from the stars at the times of the lovers' birth.30 To the degree that the lovers are “star-cross'd” and their love is “death-marked,” to that degree these references can be interpreted in the light of Ptolemy's particular astrology. Here the stars can symbolize fate as external circumstances both cosmic and social (not just social as Kahn would have them). In harmony also with Ptolemy's view Shakespeare underscores Romeo's following sense of foreboding and/or premonition of fate:

                                                            My mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

(I. iv. 106-11)

This is an example of the dramatist's practice of having characters, in the words of Don Cameron Allen in The Star-Crossed Renaissance (1941), “assuming that stars dominate the flesh and perhaps the spirit of man.”31 Romeo suspects that this night will ultimately be fatal to him, as indeed it will be. After many “misadventures” (which are not all the fault of the lovers themselves) and when he hears the news of Juliet's supposed death, Romeo defies his stars, again a symbol of “inauspicious” fate:

Is it (e'en) so? Then I (defy) you, stars!

(V. i. 24)

Upon reaching Juliet's tomb and after having killed Paris, Romeo vows to put his body beyond the influence of the stars:

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

(V. iii. 109-12)

As in the instance of Oedipus leaving Corinth so as not to kill his “father” and yet killing Laius, his actual father, on the road to Thebes, in Sophocles's play as well as Seneca's, Romeo and Juliet's malignant fate, symbolized by the “inauspicious stars,” ironically uses their deaths for its own ends.

If one objects that there are too many Christian allusions in Romeo and Juliet for Ptolemy's and Seneca's ideas to have much, if any, significance, I respond that Shakespeare's Christian setting in Renaissance Verona came from his source, Arthur Brooke's narrative poem, The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), with all the paraphernalia of institutionalism such as the church, the priest, the daily mass, the religious and cultural conventions of marriage, and Juliet's authoritarian parents. These are mere outward trappings of Christianity, and in no way do they indicate an interest on Shakespeare's part in Christian theology as Roy W. Battenhouse and others would wish us to believe.32

If one wishes to do so, he or she might explain Shakespeare's use of fate in Romeo and Juliet in terms of what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in a discussion of I Henry IV, the dramatist's use of “subversiveness,” but not necessarily in an exclusively political and social context.33 As I have suggested, fate in the play can be seen in a number of instances other than in the Prologue to Act I: the first street fight, where the Prince's doom of death for the next offenders will ironically affect Romeo, and the “star-cross'd” lovers' meeting and falling in love before learning that they are enemies.

Shakespeare shows that fate works not only through the feud but also through chance, human contingency, and accident. That fate works through chance occurrence is also suggested in a number of ways: for example, by having the illiterate servant ask Romeo to read Old Capulet's list of invited guests, by Romeo seeing Rosaline's name on it and attending the party, by Romeo later attempting unsuccessfully to avoid a fight with Tybalt, and by the miscarrying of Friar Lawrence's letter. Shakespeare, in the scene where Mercutio and Tybalt are killed, has woven together the workings of fate, fortune (chance), and human contingency. True, some philosophers and some literary critics are quick to assure us that if all things occur by the necessity of fate, then fate would exclude chance and human contingency. But neither Ptolemy nor Seneca contended that all things are controlled by fate to the point of excluding everything else. I have explained that Ptolemy believed “unchangeable destiny” governed the heavenly bodies and that Seneca claimed fate was, in some sense, unalterable. However, Ptolemy, as was also noted earlier, conceded that “earthly things” are controlled by “natural and mutable fate,” and Seneca agreed that some events in this world occur by chance without any conflict with fate. So, coming back to the duel scene, we can see that fate as a mysterious, cosmic force operating in external circumstance in connection with the feud forces Romeo into a fight with Tybalt. The hero tries to be a peacemaker, but Tybalt's insult to him is challenged by Mercutio, the latter getting himself killed in the circumstances which are now obviously beyond Romeo's control. So his attempt to avoid a fight is useless; he is involved in spite of his trying to avoid such involvement. He cries:

This day's black fate on moe days doth depend,
This but begins the woe others must end.

(III. i. 119-20)

In these fatal circumstances fortune (chance) aids fate by causing Mercutio's death (while Romeo stood between him and Tybalt) and by abandoning Romeo to irrational forces. The element of human contingency works in a number of ways, including Tybalt's refusal to accept Romeo's reason for not fighting, Mercutio's taking Romeo's part and thus fighting for his friend's honor, and Romeo's thinking “it all for the best” that he step between Mercutio and Tybalt. The chance killing of Mercutio by Tybalt is thus in harmony not only with fate but with the cosmic and social chain of events against Romeo. Now that Romeo fights Tybalt and kills him there is indeed a sense in which he is, as he says, “fortune's Fool” (III. i. 136). Now Fortune, who is not interested in morality or justice, has not only not given the good individual (Romeo as peacemaker) a break by allowing him to avoid a fight but also has aided fate in that Mercutio's chance death by Tybalt has brought Romeo into a fight at last. At this point Fortune turns her back on Romeo, using him as a plaything in that she abandons him to irrational forces. As the Chorus in Seneca's Hercules Furens puts it, “O Fortune, jealous of the brave, in allotting thy favours how unjust art thou unto the good!”34 In pseudo-Seneca's Octavia the Chorus connects fate and fortune (chance) as follows: “Our mortal race is ruled by fate, … each coming day … brings ever-shifting chances.”35 Here fate does not exclude chance but works through it. In the Chorus' lament in Seneca's Hippolytus we have the same ideas on fate and fortune (chance): “Fate without order rules the affairs of men, scatters her gifts with unseeing hand, fostering the worst …” (1: 399) and “How chance whirls round the affairs of men!”36 Fate is without order to the extent that it sometimes works through chance. Again, in the duel scene, where Mercutio meets his death by chance and human contingency, Fortune has been unfair to the brave Romeo, just as fate, a necessary cosmic and social chain of external events, has been against the lovers from the beginning. Here also fate works through chance. When the compulsion of external circumstances (including the chance killing of Mercutio) renders Romeo susceptible to irrational forces within himself, he exclaims:

Away to heaven, respective lenity,
And fire (-ey'd) fury be my conduct now!

(III. i. 123-24)

So in this duel scene where Tybalt is killed by Romeo, Shakespeare shows that there are pervading here, as elsewhere in the overall structure of the drama, the dooming presence of fate, fortune (chance), human contingency, and irrational forces involving Romeo in the violation of the Prince's law, a law which he has tried to avoid breaking.37

Another emphasis by the dramatist on the interaction of fate and fortune (chance) occurs just after Juliet calls on Fortune: “Be fickle, Fortune: / For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, / But send him back” (III. v. 62-64)—where Old Capulet by chance insists that Juliet marry Paris, accelerating matters from Thursday to Wednesday. Those critics intent on condemning the lovers, and thus clearing God of any responsibility in their piteous destruction, must simply ignore this element outside the control of the lovers. Shakespeare also has Juliet protest the unfairness of her fate as follows:

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?

(III. v. 196-97)

This is not unlike the protests of characters in Seneca's plays. Megara, the wife of Hercules in Hercules Furens, says, “Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth”;38 and Jason, in Medea, like Juliet doubting the existence of pity in the clouds, seems momentarily to doubt the existence of justice: “O holy justice, if in heaven thou dwellest, I call thy divinity to witness.”39 And Oedipus in Seneca's Oedipus: “By fate are we driven; … all things move on in an appointed path. … To each his established life goes on, unmovable by any prayer.”40

Again, instead of making fate a force—as Kahn and others say—existing subjectively only in the minds of the lovers, Shakespeare shows objectively in the plot itself that the lovers' fate includes such chance occurrences as Friar John's failure to deliver Friar Lawrence's letter to Romeo—a failure which Friar Lawrence refers to as “unhappy fortune” (V. ii. 17) and as an “accident” (V. iii. 251)—Romeo's reception of the untimely message of Juliet's supposed death, Friar Lawrence's late arrival at the Capulet monument, Romeo's death, and Juliet's awaking only after Romeo's death. Upon seeing Romeo dead, Friar Lawrence exclaims, “Ah, what an unkind hour / Is guilty of this lamentable chance!” (V. iii. 145-46). Though as a Christian priest the Friar might apologize according to Christian options, his statement to Juliet—“A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (V. iii. 153-54)—would in the context of the play make some orthodox Catholics and especially most Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists and some Church of England men like Jewel, Whitgift, William Fulke, and others) cringe because it could remind them of classical ideas of Ptolemy and Seneca; in Greenblatt's terms the cosmic implications of fate would be too subversive for comfort. It is no wonder that, unlike Shakespeare, the Christian critics blame the lovers rather than cast any reflection on God by reading fate as a cosmic force. Shakespeare apparently had no worries about his unorthodox implications—or apparent contradictions.

Critics—usually character-study critics—too easily assert or imply that if Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of fate, then fortune, action on the part of the characters, and accident are out of place.41 All these stipulations—which in fact Shakespeare's practice defies—may hold for philosophy and/or literary theory, but all we need to remember is that tragic drama is not philosophy. And where the latter is violated—as it is in Romeo and Juliet—we must jettison not the drama but the theory. Those critics who deny that Romeo and Juliet is a successful tragedy of fate do so on grounds foreign to the play itself; if we attend to the classical concepts of fortune and fate in the play, the tragedy can be seen as effective indeed in a somewhat similar manner as that of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. As Kenneth Muir noted in Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence (1972),

It may be suggested the fate of Oedipus depends even less on character than Romeo's does, and not many would question the greatness of Oedipus Rex.42

In the light of recent discussions which do not define the tragedy in the play (or in Kahn's separation of the feud from fate and banishing the latter) and in the light of the impasse of traditional criticism which denies that it is a tragedy, it will perhaps be permissible for me to summarize here what makes the tragedy. Romeo and Juliet has two young people of the utmost worth, dignity, and importance who are mainly victims of cosmic, natural, and social circumstances beyond their control. Their love and loyalty to each other endear them to the extent that we are conscious of the fact that they are nobler and more praiseworthy and hence more important than any other character in the drama; their attempts to live together on their own terms allow them to grow toward maturity and thus elevate their worth as human beings. Fate in collaboration with fortune (chance), human contingency, and accident upsets the timing of the events in their efforts to live together as husband and wife. The tragedy is that fate as cosmic and social circumstance works against them and does not allow them to prosper. Because they live and die on their own terms, they and their love triumph in death. They triumph spiritually in that they win even when they lose. But paradoxically this is their tragedy, that the timings of fate are so against them throughout their short career as lovers that they are doomed to die as the only means of destroying their parents' strife (and we have known this fact from the beginning). If we feel that the price which they had to pay was too much for the social gains that were accomplished—and surely this is what we do feel—then perhaps that very feeling bespeaks the power of the play as a tragedy. Only if we demand a priori that tragedy be of only one kind—tragedy of character—can we pretend that the workings of fate, fortune, and accident disqualify Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.


  1. Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 47-66. Much of the research for this article was made possible by a sabbatical grant from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire School of Graduate Studies and University Research Committee during the Fall 1987. I wish to thank especially Dr. Ronald N. Satz, Dean, Graduate Studies, and Director, University Research, for this generous support of my studies on the tragedies of Shakespeare.

  2. David Carroll, “Narrative, Herterogeneity, and the Question of the Political: Bakhtin and Lyotard,” The Aims of Representation: Subiect/Text/History, ed. Murray Krieger (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 69-106, 69-70.

  3. Carroll, p. 70.

  4. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion: Essays in Critical History and Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 139-68, 140.

  5. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, pp. 140-41.

  6. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, p. 141.

  7. Krieger, Poetic Presence and Illusion, p. 141.

  8. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. ix.

  9. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 3-4.

  10. Madelon Gohlke, “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lentz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 150-70, esp. 161, 163, 162, and 159.

  11. Shakespeare'sRough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, eds. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 168-92, esp. 173 and 170.

  12. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 84, 85.

  13. Though Kahn herself gives a useful review of this controversy (84-85), that by Gordon Ross Smith, “The Balance of Themes in Romeo and Juliet,” is more complete in Essays on Shakespeare, ed. Gordon Ross Smith (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 15-66, but these accounts have been superseded by G. Blakemore Evans's treatment in his “Introduction” to the New Cambridge Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), treating the most vexing questions as follows:

    Is Romeo and Juliet in the usually accepted sense a successful tragedy or an experiment that fails to come off? Is the play a tragedy of Fate or a tragedy of character? Or is it both?

    (p. 13).

    As everyone recalls, there are many responses to each of these questions. To the first, there are those, like H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), who contend that it is unsuccessful, hence a failure as tragedy (mainly because of Shakespeare's stress on fate); in contrast to this view, there are those, like Franklin M. Dickey, “Not Wisely But Too Well”: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1957), and John F. Andrews, “The Catharsis of Romeo and Juliet,Contribute Dell' Instituto Di Filologia Moderna, Serie inglese (I. Milano: Catholic Univ., 1974), pp. 142-75, who think it is a successful tragedy. To the second question—whether it is a tragedy of fate or a tragedy of character—some like Andrews, again, argue that it is a tragedy of character. As G. Blakemore Evans, Kahn, and Gordon Smith remind us, the older view—taken by Boas (1896), E. K. Chambers (1929), E. E. Stoll (1937), and Bertrand Evans (1950 and 1979)—is that it is a tragedy of fate. One complicating factor is that many character-study critics link the tragedy up with Christian theology—another aspect which some critics of our time do not really accept and which no one has thus far attempted to refute. The emphasis on the Christian ideas of Providence, destiny, and fortune has been supported by Irving Ribner in “‘Then I Denie You Starres’: A Reading of Romeo and Juliet,Studies in English Renaissance Drama in Memory of Karl Julius Holzknecht, ed. Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall, Jr. (Washington Square: New York Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 269-86, and John F. Andrews (1974) but, again rejected by Bertrand Evans (1950 and 1979), who does not really try to define any tradition other than the Christian view; he does reject traditional Christian ideas of Providence and fate and, in “Fate as Practiser: Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 22-51, suspects “that Fate is malign and aware rather than benign and unaware” (32). Unlike Bertrand Evans, I am interested in my paper in re-evaluating Romeo and Juliet in terms of classical ideas of fate and fortune. My purpose is to show that this aspect of the play, which many contemporary critics ignore, is important to an understanding of the tragedy's form and meaning.

  14. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 84.

  15. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 99.

  16. Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 99.

  17. See such background studies as Howard R. Patch's The Goddess Fortune in Medieval Literature (New York: Octagon Press, 1961; first prtd. 1927), p. 4, and Frederick Kiefer's Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1983), p. xvii, both showing the prevalence of Fortune and chance. Kiefer treats sixteenth-century “doubts and fears of a culture whose faith in providential design was at times precarious” (p. xvii). He devotes Chapter I, “Pagan Fortune in a Christian World,” to medieval and Renaissance popularity of Fortune, to “the efforts of Christians to come to terms with a pagan symbol of change and contingency,” p. 2.

  18. Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (Philadelphia: Clayton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1875), p. 130.

  19. Robbins, ed., Claudius Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, 1940 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1964), pp. vii, citing F. Boll, Studien (1894) pp. 66-111, 131-63, and ix. This edition is used throughout.

  20. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  21. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  22. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23, italics added.

  23. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, p. 23.

  24. Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, I. 3.11, pp. 23 and 25.

  25. Seneca, Physical Science in the Time of Nero Being a Translation ofThe Questiones Naturalesof Seneca, trans. John Clarke, with Commentary and Notes by Archibald Geikie (London: Macmillan, 1910), VII. 28, p. 302.

  26. Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales, II. 32. p. 81.

  27. Seneca, “De Consolatione and Marciam,” Moral Essays, trans. John Basore, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1965), II: pp. xviii, 2-3, p. 59; II: xviii, 3, p. 61.

  28. Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales, II. 36, p. 84.

  29. The arguments by E. B. Knobel, “Astronomy and Astrology,” Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age (1916), 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 1: 444-61, and Carroll Camden, “Astrology in Shakespeare's Day,” Isis, 19 (1933), 26-73, are, in my estimation, the most useful. The article by Moriz Sondheim, “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time,” Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2 (1938-39), 243-59, which asserts that Romeo and Juliet is not a tragedy of fate in the sense that the influence of the stars is crucial, is offset by that of John W. Draper, “Shakespeare's Starcrossed Lovers,” Review of English Studies, 15 (1939), 16-34; but this latter work and that of James C. Smith, “Ptolemy and Shakespeare: The Astrological Influence on Romeo and Juliet,Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Conference 7, 2 (1982), 66-70, do not make distinctions between Renaissance and medieval implications on the one hand and on the other hand those of classical writers like Ptolemy and Seneca.

  30. See also Kent's words in King Lear: “It is the stars / The stars above us govern our conditions” (IV. iii. 32-33). Though there are variously contrary views given characters in other plays (for example, Cassius in Julius Caeser [I. ii. 139-41]; Helena in All's Well That Ends Well [I. i. 216-19]; Prospero in The Tempest [I. ii. 178-84]; and Edmund in King Lear [I. ii. 118-33]), in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has the Chorus give premonitions of the ill workings of fate as seen in the stars. I quote throughout from Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  31. (New York: Octagon Press, 1966), p. 167.

  32. See Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 103, 128-29, and 150 on Romeo and Juliet. See also Ribner and John F. Andrews on theology in the play.

  33. Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 43.

  34. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1960). l: p. 51.

  35. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies. 2: p. 485.

  36. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies. l: p. 399 and l: p. 411.

  37. The idea of Edward H. Cain, “Romeo and Juliet: A Reinterpretation,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 22 (1947), 163-92, that Romeo “perishes because of a tragic flaw or weakness in his character” (p. 190), is not exact, for this medieval and Renaissance scale of values cannot, as I attempt to show in my text, account for classical ideas of fate and fortune in the play; Shakespeare did not limit himself to the presentation of a tragic flaw in the lovers, as Cain himself admitted. Too many chance happenings and accidents occur in the course of the play so that not everything can be attributed to the weakness of the lovers.

  38. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: p. 29.

  39. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: p. 265.

  40. Seneca, Seneca's Tragedies, l: pp. 515 and 517.

  41. Those who judge the play a failure as tragedy include H. B. Charlton, G. B. Harrison, and Clifford Leech. In Shakespearian Tragedy (1948) Charlton wrote that “as a pattern of the idea of tragedy, it is a failure” (p. 61). Harrison complained in Shakespeare's Tragedies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), about Shakespeare's use of “unlucky accident” or “sheer bad luck” (p. 48) and the immaturity and lack of “fullness” in the lovers—both maturity and fullness, he wrote, “tragedy requires” (p. 64). And Leech, in “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeleine Doran and Mark Eccles, eds. Standish Henning, Robert Kimbrough, Richard Knowles (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), concludes, “we cannot find that tragedy has fully emerged” and “(it) is above all the casualness of the play's cosmology that prevents us from seeing it as tragedy fully achieved” (p. 73).

  42. (London: Hutchinson Univ. Library, 1972), p. 35.

Further Reading

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Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Cock-a-hoop.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 91-5.

Explicates the phrase “set a cock-a-hoop” used by Capulet in Act 1, scene v of Romeo and Juliet, regarding it as an expression of “masculine self-assertiveness and self-display.”

Cole, Douglas. Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Romeo and Juliet” A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Douglas Cole, pp. 1-18. Englewood Cliffs: N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Surveys the sources, contexts, structure, and themes of fate, time, and the balance of good and evil in Romeo and Juliet.

Fein, Susanna Greer. “Verona's Summer Flower: The ‘Virtues’ of Herb Paris in Romeo and Juliet.ANQ 8, no. 4 (fall 1995): 5-8.

Highlights a possible allusion to the plant Paris quadrifolia (commonly known as “truelove”) in regard to Count Paris, who makes a shallow and ephemeral offer of love to Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

Fitter, Chris. “‘The Quarrel Is between Our Masters and Us Their Men’: Romeo and Juliet, Dearth, and the London Riots.” English Literary Renaissance 30, no. 2 (spring 2000): 154-83.

Offers a sociohistorical reading of Romeo and Juliet that emphasizes the context of social violence in late Elizabethan England. Fritter focuses particularly on the London class riots of 1595 and the fear of famine between 1594 and 1597, around the time the play was written and first performed.

Kiliński, Janusz. “Elements of Neo-Platonism in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 16 (1984): 271-77.

Analyzes the relationship of Romeo and Juliet in terms of the doctrine of transcendent love found in Renaissance Neoplatonic thought.

McCown, Gary M. “‘Runnawayes Eyes’ and Juliet's Epithalamium.” Shakespeare Quarterly 27, no. 2 (spring 1976): 150-70.

Studies Juliet's soliloquy in Act III, scene ii of Romeo and Juliet as a slightly altered version of the classical lyric genre of epithalamium.

Nosworthy, J. M. “The Two Angry Families of Verona.” Shakespeare Quarterly 3, no. 3 (July 1952): 219-26.

Claims that Henry Porter's drama The Two Angry Women of Abingdon was written before Romeo and Juliet and likely influenced Shakespeare's play.

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

Illuminates Shakespeare's proclivity to “satirize sentimental self-deception”—from the clichés of Petrarchan love poetry to the destructive potential of the masculine heroic ideal—in Romeo and Juliet.

Whittier, Gayle. “The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 1 (spring 1989): 27-41.

Reads Romeo and Juliet as a thorough reworking of Petrarchan poetics.

Jill L. Levenson (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Levenson, Jill L. “‘Alla Stoccado Carries It Away’: Codes of Violence in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet”: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 83-96. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, Levenson discusses the centrality of violence—depicted in the numerous acts of dueling—in Romeo and Juliet and its displays of ambition, power, and competition.]

Now malice and hatred ouerrunneth all, strife and rancor are the bellows of quarrels, and men vpon euerie light cause enter into more actions of defiance, than for any iust occasion offered in respect of iustice and honour.

—Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise (1595)1

If the character of Hamlet results from an encounter with early modern codes of violence, the whole of Romeo and Juliet anticipates that meeting.2 The protocols of fighting inform the narrative of the earlier play, not only facilitating the mechanics of plot but also adding political implications. In the novella versions of the love story one dangerous confrontation occurs: the fifth incident in a sequence of twelve, the brawl between Montagues and Capulets that leads to Romeo's banishment.3 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.4

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.5 Repeatedly the text calls for weapons as props: swords and bucklers, rapiers, clubs, and partisans in 1.1; rapiers and apparently daggers in 3.1; Romeo's dagger in 3.3; Juliet's knife in 4.1 and probably 4.3; Peter's dagger in 4.4; rapiers and a dagger in 5.3. Often they make emblematic comments on the action. In the first scene Prince Escalus commands, “Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground” (1.1.85), and they lie on the stage in disarray for Romeo to notice soon after he enters (line 171). 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” (line 204). The demands of the text imply that all of the male characters, except Friar Laurence, wear weapons or have ready access to them. At the Capulet ball Tybalt, outraged by Romeo's presence, orders his page, “Fetch me my rapier, boy” (1.5.54); on the day after the feast Peter neglects to defend the Nurse with the weapon he carries (2.4.147-50). Friar Laurence, like the Apothecary, has poison at hand (2.3.20); Lady Capulet plans to order some (3.5.88-91).

Weapons and fighting occur not only in the play's action but also in its dialogue. As a topic of conversation they open the first scene in the exchange between Sampson and Gregory, a conversation that will be later echoed by Peter and the Musicians at the end of 4.5. They distinguish Mercutio's speeches: his fantasy of Queen Mab includes the soldier who dreams “of cutting foreign throats, / Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades” (1.4.83-84); his characterization of Tybalt portrays a duelist in the Spanish style:6

O, he's the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing pricksong, 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 reverso, the hay.


Mercutio's caricature of Benvolio as a quarreler 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” (3.1.24-26).7

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. 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.”8 Among the tropes connected with this stereotype are military equipment and assault.9

The fusion of metaphors begins crudely in the conversation of Sampson 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, 20-22). 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 arm'd,
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 example, 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” (2.2.72-73). 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” (2.3.46-47). 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” (2.4.13-16). Before the wedding, in a famous passage Friar Laurence imagines the ends of violent delights as the igniting of gunpowder by fire (2.6.9-10). 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 (3.5.6-8). Finally Romeo defies the stars, determined to end his grief with poison so potent “that the trunk may be discharg'd of breath / As violently as hasty powder fir'd / Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb” (5.1.63-65).10

Allusions to violence at every level of the text reflect, among other things, a reality of late-sixteenth-century England. Proclamations against fighting in public had been issued by Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth.11 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.12 As Tudor strategies increasingly contained the capacity for violence, and therefore the power, of the aristocracy, some infractions continued to escape them. By the 1590s Queen Elizabeth's policies were taking 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.13 Lawrence Stone has described this conflicted state of affairs—manifestations of violence constrained by government—as “the dying spasms of a primitive society.”14 With its feud, street fight, dueling, casualties, and deployment of combat imagery, Romeo and Juliet offers a panoramic view not only of violence in Elizabethan England but of a style of life rapidly losing its vital force. In the midst of its chaos and death Prince Escalus seems to mirror Elizabeth's conduct: temporizing and procrastination, “studied neutrality.”15

More specifically the play reflects a contemporary preoccupation with dueling. 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.16 Replacing the pitched battles and trial by combat of the feudal system, dueling represented the appropriation of aristocratic power by the Crown. Similar to other Tudor appropriations, this one took place indirectly. The rapier itself kept dueling under control, at first because of its danger and later because of the ethical code which that danger provoked. By the time Romeo and Juliet was composed in the mid-1590s, three manuals dealt with both the art of defense and the code: Sir William Segar's The Book of Honor and Armes (1590), Giacomo di Grassi's His True Arte of Defence (1594), and Saviolo's Practise (1595).17 Like members of his audience, Shakespeare was familiar with the material in these publications, and he may even have known Segar and Saviolo.18 Certainly he parodied the more absurd fine points throughout his dramatic career, from Love's Labor's Lost to Cymbeline.19 With Hamlet he would explore a contradiction most striking 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.20 With Romeo and Juliet he examines this contradiction less than he adapts it to provide a context for the love story.

In attempting to moralize the duel, di Grassi's manual offers the most perfunctory rationale. Thomas Churchyard's prefatory letter introduces the book as a means of preserving life and honor; the author promotes his instruction for the use of honorable men in defending their country and women's reputations as well as conquering foreign armies. Before he launches into the handbook of weapons, paces, and wards, di Grassi has two sections titled “The meanes how to obtain Iudgement” and “The diuision of the Art,” where he concludes: “Iustice (which in euerie occasion approacheth neerest vnto truth) obteineth allwaies the superioritie, I say whosoeuer mindeth to exercise himselfe in this true and honorable Art or Science, it is requisite that he be indued with deep Iudgement, a valiant hart and great actiuitie. …”21

Segar refers to classical authorities as support for unsustainable assertions such as this: “the lawes of all Nations … permitted, that such questions as could not bee ciuilie prooued by confession, witnesse, or other circumstances, should receiue iudgement by fight and Combat, supposing that GOD (who onelie knoweth the secret thoughts of all men) would giue victorie to him that iustlie aduentured his life, for truth, Honor, and Iustice.” In the course of his treatise on the protocols of combat (the challenge, the lie, choice of weapons, and so forth), he takes many opportunities to extol reason, honor, and the pursuit of truth in fighting: “who so choseth to fight against reason and truth, ought bee reputed rather a beast than a Christian, and a furious foole rather than a reasonable creature.” His fifth book lists ten qualities or virtues required by the man professing arms; it includes fortune along with discretion, patience, constancy, and good looks.22

In Saviolo's Practise moral issues thread their way through the first book, part of the dialogue with illustrations through which the author gives practical instruction in the use of rapier along with dagger. Those issues become prominent in the second book, “Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels,” often making Saviolo sound like Friar Laurence. As he discourages his readers from fighting “for the false against the truth, and for the bad against the good,” he reasons: “Forasmuch as man is principally distinguished by his reason from brute beastes, as often as hee shall effect any thing without reason and with violence, hee worketh like a beast, and is transfourmed euen into a verye beast. …” At once he delivers a homily, “We are not to follow the opinion of the vulgare,” which has resonance in the second act of the play:

Wee see that the earth dooth naturallye bring forth venemous thinges, and thornes, and hearbes, and Plantes, either not profitable or hurtful, all which as a mother she dooth nourish, without any helpe of mans labour: but those that are good & profitable and helpful, she receiueth with noisomnes like a stepmother, so as they haue need of continual culture & yeerly renouation. And that which wee see in the earth of the seedes of things, is likewise seene in men of good and badde mindes: for the bad through our naturall corruption is conceiued, receiued, and generally embraced of vs all: whereas the good is vnwillinglye receiued, and we stoppe our eares least wee should heare of it. …23

Saviolo argues that one should undertake combat only “for loue of vertue, and regarde of the vniuersall good and publique profite,” and one should never become involved in the process of challenge without just cause or certainty of guiltlessness.24 Repeatedly he states that God distributes justice in duels, punishing those who may seem to have right on their side as well as those who display insolence, contumacy, or malice.25

In the fight scenes of Romeo and Juliet this moralizing and its paradoxes, central to the dueling code, remain conspicuous by their virtual absence. Only Romeo in 3.1 attempts to resist combat without just cause. As Holmer notices, Shakespeare alters Brooke's melee at this point to give Romeo a moment of decision.26 Before Mercutio's injury Romeo chooses not to observe punctilio; he does not accept Tybalt's challenge by giving the lie. As Mercutio dies offstage, he reflects on matters of honor presently at stake:

This gentleman, the Prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf—my reputation stain'd
With Tybalt's slander—Tybalt that an hour
Hath been my cousin.


But the news of Mercutio's death turns Romeo into one of Saviolo's bestial men, and fury prompts his attack on Tybalt as well as his response to Paris in 5.3. Soens remarks that Mercutio and Tybalt seem to fight alla macchia, without formal dueling ground, permission, challenges, and legalities.27 In fact all of the duelists finally ignore not only the procedures but also the ethics of fighting. The only speaker for those moral values is Friar Laurence, who in his futility may demonstrate what Zitner calls “the impoverishing simplism of codes.”28

Although the ethics of dueling fade into the play's background, one or two features of etiquette remain in 3.1 and the practice stands out boldly. For members of the late-sixteenth-century audience, the fight scenes possessed immediacy in more ways than one. The men shared familiarity with the techniques and idiom of fencing: most of them, like the actors, carried rapiers, and many were expert swordsmen; they gossiped about the fencing schools as well as the latest fatalities.29 Even more to the point, large numbers of them attended fencing competitions, a form of entertainment related to theater. The association of fencing masters, incorporated since 1540, made public competitions for prizes a requirement for their students; they gave the competitions wide exposure, advertising them through processions, placards, handbills, and invitations to other fencers. Attracting large audiences, the prizes “shared with the theaters the distinction of being banned by the city authorities.”30 Edelman draws another link between theaters and fencing prizes: theaters (and innyards before them) often served as venues for the contests, making a historical connection between two kinds of “play.”31 While authorities censured both prizes and theaters, they also condemned both fencers and actors. Documents that locate theaters as sites for prizes identify both sorts of players as participants in subversive activities.32

All of these circumstances indicate the kind of impact dueling in Romeo and Juliet would have had on the Elizabethan stage: audiences must have expected convincing reenactments.33 At the first performances spectators probably anticipated one match, Romeo against Tybalt; in the event they witnessed four, Benvolio against Tybalt initiating the series. We can assume, as John Dover Wilson does of the swordplay in Hamlet, that viewers followed every move of the combatants and every turn of fight with close attention.34 Adding charge to this atmosphere, the identification of dueling with theater and duelists with actors must have given experience of the play a titillating air of prohibition.

Verisimilitude informs many aspects of the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, from the opening of the first scene. In light of the play's time scheme, Edelman's analysis of the well-known stage direction “Enter Sampson and Gregory, with swords and bucklers” shows the two servingmen making their way on a Sunday morning to a Veronese equivalent of Smithfield. They carry weapons appropriate to their status, prepared for any eventuality at the sort of place where Londoners met for fencing contests and the odd duel. According to the document that supports this interpretation, Edmund Howes's continuation of Stow's Annales, the bellicose pair spend their time in recreation both out of fashion with the upper classes and politically incorrect:

This field commonly called West Smithfield, was for many years called Ruffians hall, by reason it was the usuall place of Frayes and common fighting, during the time that Sword and Buckler were in use. … This manner of fight was frequent with all men, until the fight of rapier and dagger tooke place and then suddenly the generall quarell of fighting abated which began about the 20. yeare of Queen Elizabeth [1579], for untill then it was usuall to have frayes, fights, and Quarells, upon the Sundays and Holidayes.35

When they confront their opposite numbers, however, the unintended parody of the dueling code that results is entirely up to date. Sampson hesitates to make biting his thumb an official challenge, a position that keeps Abraham from giving the lie. With feints and ambiguities the servingmen reach an impasse, illustrating Saviolo's definition of “foolish Lyes.”36

The impasse ends quickly with a sighting of Tybalt, but not before Sampson and Gregory have an opportunity to demonstrate their “washing” blows, fencing strokes that slash with great force, coarse preliminaries to Tybalt's style of dueling.37 Unlike the servingmen, Tybalt ignores all formalities and plunges aggressively into a fight vivid in its contradictions. Afterward Benvolio describes to Montague what the audience would have seen:

                                                                                          in the instant came
The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepar'd,
Which, as he breath'd defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal, hiss'd him in scorn.
While we were interchanging thrusts and blows
Came more and more, and fought on part and part. …


As Soens explicates Benvolio's speech, Tybalt's cutting of the winds identifies his Spanish style of fencing, since the favored Italian school in England disapproved of the cut. The Spanish style, controlled and elegant, required the fencer to move through a complex geometrical system of passes; it created a handsomely choreographed image that George Silver describes in his Paradoxes of Defence (1599):

This is the maner of Spanish fight, they stand as braue as they can with their bodies straight vpright, narrow spaced, with their feet continually mouing, as if they were in a dance, … and if anie thrust be made, the wards, by reason of the indirections in mouing the feet in maner of dauncing, as aforesaid, maketh a perfect ward. …38

Of course Tybalt's style contrasts with his unruly temperament. At the same time it produces an effective contrast with Benvolio's Italian mode of fencing, which places the duelist in a crouch as he thrusts at his opponent. The audiences at early productions of Romeo and Juliet would have seen in this encounter a demonstration of two competing styles of fence, the Spanish filling out with xenophobic features Shakespeare's broad characterization of Tybalt as a villain. When Citizens enter “with clubs or partisans” (69.1), the eye-catching pas de deux becomes part of a brawl corresponding to an Elizabethan street fight. The Prince manages, with some difficulty, to control the tumult; no one is hurt.

Like 1.1, the second fight scene begins with parody of the fencing code. Mercutio's sketch of the duelist in a tavern and his anatomy of quarrels, fit for a William Gaddis novel, not only mock current fashion but express his own readiness to fight. “And I were so apt to quarrel as thou art,” Benvolio responds, “any man should buy the fee simple of my life for an hour and a quarter” (3.1.31-33). At this point Tybalt appears in what Maynard Mack would call an “emblematic entrance”; he embodies the stereotype that Mercutio has just ridiculed.39 Tybalt observes punctilio for a while in this scene, as several critics have noticed.40 Having sent a challenge and received no answer, he seeks Romeo on this hot afternoon to complete the proper arrangements for a duel. Now Mercutio ignores decorum, the sequence of challenge and question, goading Tybalt to fight at once:

… Gentlemen, good e'en: a word with one of you.
And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow.
You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, and you will give me occasion.
Could you not take some occasion without giving?


Obstinate and hostile, Mercutio offers to engage with Tybalt in swordplay that would put his Spanish fencing to the proof: “Here's my fiddlestick, here's that shall make you dance” (47-48). Benvolio reminds them both of the Prince's edict, a version of Tudor measures against public fighting (49-52); Tybalt, single-minded, turns away from Mercutio and follows the code in pursuit of Romeo: “Well, peace be with you, sir, here comes my man” (55).

Irony turns the next events into a dark travesty of dueling etiquette and practice. Antagonizing Tybalt, Romeo's charity and patience incite the former to dispense with the code: “Therefore turn and draw” (66). In the same impulsive spirit Mercutio takes up the quarrel that Romeo declined: “Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out” (79-81). The fight itself replays the counterpoint of Spanish and Italian styles from 1.1, until Romeo intervenes without the kind of precaution Saviolo recommends in this type of situation:

… at such time as you shal happen to be enforced to defende your selfe on the sodaine, let no man come neere you, for it is very dangerous: and I speake this because I have seene the like doone verye often, and found it confirmed by great experience. And to saye some thing of parting, I will by the way declare thus much. That hee that will parte two that are fighting, must go betwixt the both, hauing great regarde that he nether hindreth one more then the other, nor suffereth the one more to endanger his enemie than the other. …41

As a result Romeo places his friend at a disadvantage to the Spanish style, and Mercutio dies by “a scratch, a scratch,” a Spanish thrust.42 That thrust is repaid in the last contest between modes of dueling, a “lightning” encounter, according to Benvolio's description (174). In view of what the audience has witnessed, this narrative sometimes modifies the truth to exonerate Romeo and Mercutio. Benvolio gives an account of Romeo's conciliatory gestures and, in epic terms, of Mercutio's bout with Tybalt, but he fails to relate many transgressions of dueling protocol (154-77).

By the play's last scene the honor code has virtually disappeared: Paris tries to arrest Romeo, whose resistance provokes their fight. Evidence from the text corroborates Soens's reconstruction of this encounter without daggers: Friar Laurence discovers only swords at the entrance of the tomb, and Juliet finds Romeo's dagger on his person (5.3.142, 167). Combined with other details of staging, this makes it seem likely that the pair fight with rapiers and torches in a benighted tableau of destruction that sets the stage for the catastrophe.43

As a constant theme, violence in Romeo and Juliet complements the political implications of the sonnet idiom, the play's literary code: mastery in each demanded skill and had as its purpose establishment of social position. The connection between fighting and rank assumed its Elizabethan form over the course of a century; the link between verse and status had been forged in the 1580s, when sonnet sequences became part of courtly love, that complex mode of play at the highest reaches of Elizabethan social life. Addressing Queen Elizabeth in the Petrarchan style, courtiers expressed their aspirations to power in the conventional language of love; they borrowed the sonneteer's amatory theme, suppliant's posture, and literary credentials. 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.”44 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.

Shakespeare voiced doubts about this medium in his own sequence, using the conventions not only to appeal for patronage but also to record the struggles of a poet writing within the system.45 In Verona he imagines a city where everyone speaks or enacts the Petrarchan idiom. The Elizabethan language fraught with political metaphor belongs to the city's regular discourse on love and rivalry, its two motifs. Delicately that language accompanies more obvious signs of social ambition, the Capulets' marriage arrangements in particular. Like the Tudor gentry they reflect, the Capulets treat marriage as “an act of economic diplomacy.”46 Their speech characterizes them, and it hints the cause of their imminent loss.

Although this older generation seems prepared to give up the feud, the city cannot escape animosity and public fights. In this tension it reflects the other set of rules central to the play. The code that regulated violence in the late sixteenth century determined the way the aristocracy, manipulated by the Tudors, tried to shore up its depleted power. As Parker summarizes the unspoken credo, “rank … was identified with honour, which in turn was identified, for men at least, with public reputation for courage.47 But the contradictions inherent in the protocol upset this equation. The code's demands of skill as well as just cause, and its rationalization of Providence, made it difficult to ascertain either courage or honor; they invited abuse by those who coveted higher status, tempting them to observe expedient parts of the code and to ignore the rest. Moreover, punctilio blurred the distinction between serious and trivial offenses, while it allowed confrontation between the nobility and men of lower classes.48

Impelled by duels and fighting, Romeo and Juliet consistently deprecates them both. Three times it shows a visually striking match, a contradiction in styles of fence, 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 behavior at great feasts to strategies for avoiding conflict with a “friend”49—demonstrating over and over that it does not work. With the fight between Romeo and Paris it illuminates the devastation.

Shakespeare's narrative situates the lovers in a world governed by two codes regulating ambition or power; both systems bring with them a political attitude, a disposition toward competition and advancement. As a result, the play's setting corresponds with that of its audience. The audience shares the values that Mercutio satirizes in his Queen Mab speech and that Romeo disparages in his exchange with the Apothecary. When Romeo and Juliet adapt the public language of amatory verse to their secret union, applying it as a medium of desire and self-expression, they produce “a compelling cultural fantasy” in conditions that reflect Elizabethan life.50 Swept up by the predetermined sequence of events, their fantasy barely survives its own creation. Amid the hubbub of economic negotiation and general hostility, the protagonists speak an unpolitical private language of mutual love. Incredibly their voices rise, however briefly, above the din.


  1. A facsimile of Saviolo's Practise appears in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, comp., introd. James L. Jackson (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972); the epigraph is taken from p. 449.

  2. The argument of this paper is modeled on S. P. Zitner's seminal essay “Hamlet, Duellist,” University of Toronto Quarterly 39 (1969): 1-18. For another important analysis of an English Renaissance play and the semiotics of combat, see Brian Parker, “A Fair Quarrel (1617), the Duelling Code, and Jacobean Law,” in Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, ed. Martin L. Friedland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 52-75. Joan Ozark Holmer has recently added to this critical discourse, studying Romeo and Juliet as Shakespeare's response to Saviolo's Practise in “‘Draw, if you be men’: Saviolo's Significance for Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 163-89.

  3. For a description of the original sequence, see my article “Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare,” Studies in Philology 81 (1984): 328-29.

  4. 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,Studies in Philology 88 (1991): 345-62. In concluding this informative article she writes: “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” (362). The image suggests, rather misleadingly, a static composition.

  5. A. Forbes Sieveking's early account 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 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), 2:394, 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.”

  6. See Adolph L. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 121-27.

  7. Mercutio sounds as if he has rewritten a leaf or two from Saviolo's book. In His Practise Saviolo warns against dishonorable quarrels: e.g., a gentleman should not become engaged by “foolish Lyes” (353-58) or wrong other men's servants (“according to the prouerbe, loue me and loue my dogge,” 325).

  8. Leonard Forster, The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 51.

  9. 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,Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982): 21-36.

  10. These examples are the most obvious ones; others are subtler. For instance, George Silver reports in Paradoxes of Defence (1599) that an Italian fencing teacher named Signor Rocko, who came to England “about some thirtie yeares past,” was known for having his students wear lead soles in their shoes to make them more nimble in fighting (in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, 562). Compare Romeo's exchange with Mercutio at 1.4.14-16.

  11. See Charles Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare's Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 17, 174-75.

  12. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 229-32.

  13. Ibid., 245.

  14. Ibid., 239.

  15. Ibid., 233-34.

  16. Introduction to Sir William Segar, The Book of Honor and Armes (1590) and Honor Military and Civil (1602) (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975), [4]. Quotations of Segar's The Book of Honor and Armes come from this facsimile.

  17. 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 honor abridges Saviolo's. For the complicated connections, see Ruth Kelso, “Saviolo and his Practise,Modern Language Notes 39 (1924): 33-35. Di Grassi's volume was originally published in Italian in 1570.

  18. See Bornstein, Introduction, The Book of Honor and Armes, [5], and Zitner, “Hamlet, Duellist,” 17-18, n. 16.

  19. Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous, 20-21.

  20. This contradiction is central to the arguments of both Parker and Zitner.

  21. Giacomo di Grassi, His True Arte of Defence, in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, 4, 8, 15-18.

  22. Sir William Segar, The Book of Honor and Armes (1590), A2-A2v, H, O-O2.

  23. Saviolo, Practise, 451, 453-54.

  24. Ibid., 382, 385.

  25. Ibid., 202-203, 381, 469.

  26. Holmer, “‘Myself Condemned’,” 357-59.

  27. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing,” 123, n. 10.

  28. Zitner, “Hamlet, Duellist,” 15.

  29. This information comes from Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing,” 125, and Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous, 173.

  30. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing,” 125.

  31. Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous, 5-6.

  32. Ibid., 6.

  33. Edelman (Brawl Ridiculous, 7-9) argues persuasively for verisimilar swordplay, a style that coexisted with the symbolic conventions described by Alan C. Dessen.

  34. What Happens in Hamlet, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 287.

  35. Edelman's discussion of Sampson and Gregory appeared first as “A Note on the Opening Stage Direction of Romeo and Juliet, I.i” in Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 361-62, and then as part of the second chapter of his book, 34-35. My quotation from Howes's continuation of Stow comes from the book, 35.

  36. See Saviolo, Practise, 353-58.

  37. For this definition see the OED under “washing” (ppl.a.2) and “swashing” (ppl.a.2).

  38. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing,” 123-25. Silver (Paradoxes of Defence, 14) is quoted on 125.

  39. This term appears in his essay “The Jacobean Shakespeare,” reprinted in The Tragedy of Othello, ed. Alvin Kernan, Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: New American Library, 1963), 229.

  40. See, for example, Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous, 178, Holmer, “‘Myself Condemned’,” 351-52, and Raymond V. Utterback, “The Death of Mercutio,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 109-10.

  41. Saviolo, Practise, 337.

  42. Soens, “Tybalt's Spanish Fencing,” 126-27.

  43. Ibid., 122, n. 7.

  44. Arthur F. Marotti, “‘Love is not love’: Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order,” English Literary History 49 (1982): 408. I have treated this subject at greater length in “Romeo and Juliet: Tragical-Comical-Lyrical History,” Proceedings of the PMR Conference 12/13 (1987-88): 31-46.

  45. See, for example, Sonnet 76.

  46. Lauro Martines, Society and History in English Renaissance Verse (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 100.

  47. Parker, “A Fair Quarrel,” 56. Parker is concerned especially with the early seventeenth century, but this generalization applies to the last decade of the sixteenth as well.

  48. Parker, “A Fair Quarrel,” 56-57.

  49. Saviolo, Practise, 322, 217-18.

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

Ronald Knowles (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “Carnival and Death in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 36-60. London: Macmillan, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Knowles applies Mikhail Bakhtin's cultural theory of the carnivalesque to Romeo and Juliet, particularly in regard to the drama's themes of love and death.]

As the title Rabelais and His World indicates, Bakhtin is primarily concerned with medieval culture, but he does offer many fascinating asides on the carnivalesque in the early modern world, and in Shakespeare particularly. ‘Shakespeare's drama’, he writes, ‘has many outward carnivalesque aspects: images of the material body lower stratum, of ambivalent obscenities, and of popular banquet scenes.’ He also suggests that ‘the analysis we have applied to Rabelais would also help us to discover the essential carnival element in the organization of Shakespeare's drama. This does not merely concern the secondary clownish motives of his plays. The logic of crownings and uncrownings, in direct or indirect form, organises the serious elements also’ (p. 275).

In this essay I shall argue that Shakespeare's inheritance of carnival or festive culture finds expression in Romeo and Juliet by means of the three Bakhtinian categories indicated above: the body, bawdy and the banquet.1 I shall argue that the complex figure of Juliet's nurse can be seen beyond her obvious comic realism as representing something much larger, the Bakhtinian ‘grotesque body’ as well as ‘mock’ Fortune. Secondly, Capulet's ‘old accustom'd feast’ (1.2.20),2 though not a public carnival, has carnivalesque elements, along with the highly structured comedy of the servants and musicians, generally. Thirdly, there are the many instances of proverbs and bawdy wit in the play. Together these three elements contribute to much of the comedy, but this comedy has a profound cultural ambivalence. The issue is ultimately not so much Carnival versus Lent, as life versus death. For Bakhtin the triumph of life is always expressed by the laughter of the people.

In most discussions of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare's most radical carnivalesque innovation usually goes unacknowledged. In drama, romantic love was commonly the subject of comedy. Shakespeare challenges the worlds of myth and legend which conventionally provided tragic heroes and heroines by introducing the first romantic tragedy. Critics have indeed always recognized the preponderance of comic materials in Romeo and Juliet though nearly all modern productions severely cut the carefully placed comic scenes of Act 4. A carnivalesque critique of Petrarchan love in the play is found in several forms, but perhaps most tellingly in the technique of burlesque juxtaposition in scenic structure. The subjective world of idealized love is seen to resist the social world of festival and to succumb to ‘star-cross'd’ fate in spite of all the ministrations of an earthly Fortune which is benignly represented in the domesticated and naturalized figure of Juliet's nurse. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet will always remain the fulcrum, but the cultural dimensions of the play reach back to the collectivity of joyous carnival on the one hand, and on the other look forward to what Bakhtin calls ‘the interior infinite’ (p. 44), the capitalist culture of individualism which developed out of the Middle Ages.

For Bakhtin the ideology which carnival challenged derived from the dogma of Catholicism. In Romeo and Juliet the ideology of romantic love is conjoined with that of the death cult of the second half of the fifteenth century which persisted into the Renaissance, particularly in painting, illustrations and emblems linking love, festivity and death, as we shall see.

Three associated ideas underpin Bakhtin's theory of carnival culture: ‘the material bodily principle’, ‘the concept of grotesque realism’ and ‘the collective ancestral body’ (pp. 18-19). The occasion of carnival itself makes apparent the relationship of the materialist principle with the pattern of the cyclical year in which the ecclesiastical is naturalized by seasons, in contrast to the eschatological rigours of linear time, from creation to doomsday. All these ideas are implied in the Nurse's speech in her first appearance on stage (1.3.2ff).

Juliet's nurse is a metamorphosis of Bakhtin's material bodily principle. Lower-class comic garrulity, taken from a hint in the source, always runs the risk of critical condescension—perhaps nowhere more so than in Coleridge's reference to the Nurse's ‘uncultivated understanding’3—but the discernible carnivalesque pattern of the Nurse's references transcend critic, character and caricature. The boy-actor or actress of the Nurse should appear aged. Shakespeare made the disparity in age between Juliet and the Nurse even greater than in his source by lowering Juliet's age from 16 to 13 while following the original reference to the Nurse as an ‘ancient dame’.4 Her senility is indicated by her relative toothlessness, ‘I have but four’ (l.13) she says, and her physical appearance should be consonant with this.

The Nurse's first words in response to Lady Capulet's ‘where's my daughter’ (l.1), ‘Now by my maidenhead at twelve year old / I bade her come’ (ll.2-3) ironically parallel her with Juliet, who will also lose her maidenhead at thirteen in the course of the play. Youth, puberty, virginity and the onset of sexual life are evoked as part of a pattern of natural human growth. The religious imprecation ‘God forbid’ (l.4) follows the endearments ‘What, lamb. What, ladybird’ (l.3), thus aligning human and divine affection and concern in terms of the natural world. Following her first query concerning ‘Lammas-tide’ (l.15) the Nurse embarks on what has become known as ‘the Nurse's speech’, which includes two more references to ‘Lammas Eve’ (ll.17, 21), Juliet's birthday. These are the only references to this festival in Shakespeare's works. This, again, aligns the religious with the natural; Lammas, or loaf-mass day, with old age and birth. Lammas day is the first of August, a harvest festival at which loaves of bread made from the first ripe corn were consecrated. Harvest is often found as a metaphor or analogy for death (for example ‘all flesh is grass’, Isaiah 40.6), but here death is transformed into life in the provision of sustaining food. Ominously, Juliet is to be cut down by death before Lammas eve, preempting the natural harvest of her body in the fructification of marriage. Juliet is paralleled with the Nurse's daughter: ‘Susan and she—God rest all Christian souls— / Were of an age’ (ll.18-19). The phrase ‘Well, Susan is with God’ (l.19) is free from regret or sadness, and the recollection of the earthquake in the same context as Susan's death and Juliet's weaning suggests again both death and birth, disaster and generation, as natural occurrences, just as ‘Shake! quoth the dovehouse’ (l.33) converts danger and death to laughter and life. (The weaning is important for the iconography of the Nurse as Fortune and will be returned to shortly.) The established pattern of the naturalization of the religious, a carnivalesque inversion, is extended in the juxtaposition of ‘by th' rood’ (l.36), ‘God be with his soul’ (l.39) and ‘by my holidame’ (l.43) with the Nurse's recollection of her husband picking up Juliet after an accident:

‘Yea’, quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’


A dead man is brought to life in comic anticipation of young Juliet eventually fulfilling her sexual nature, a cyclic continuity of life emphasized by the Nurse's hyperbolic vindication of the triumph of nature over time.

The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay’ …
I warrant, and I should live a thousand years
I never should forget it.

(ll.44, 46-7)

Remembered as a toddler, Juliet is then anticipated as a bride: ‘And I might live to see thee married once’ (l.61). After Lady Capulet's literary conceit on ‘the volume of young Paris' face’ (l.81) concluding ‘By having him, making yourself no less’ (l.95), the Nurse roundly adds ‘No less, nay bigger. Women grow by men’ (l.95), thereby completing the cyclic pattern of her speech with yet further generation. This sense of cyclic generation is continued within a festive setting when old Capulet exchanges reminiscences with his cousin at the revels, looking on the young masquers, recalling their youthful masking, weddings and birth (1.5.16-40). But as we shall see, this carnivalesque dance of life is haunted by the late medieval dance of death.

In the Nurse and Juliet we have in emergent realism a splitting of the image of the grotesque body. Bakhtin remarks that ‘in the seventeenth century some forms of the grotesque began to degenerate into static “character” presentation and narrow “genrism”’ (p. 52). In earlier culture the images of the ‘real grotesque … present simultaneously the two poles of becoming: that which is receding and dying, and that which is being born; they show two bodies in one.’ Elsewhere Bakhtin points out terracotta figures from antiquity, of ‘senile pregnant nags … laughing … it is pregnant death, a death that gives birth’ (p. 25). As an example of an image of the duality of the body surviving but only as ‘a pale reflection of its former dual nature’ Bakhtin cites the suckling of a child (p. 322), and refers to Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe in which the German poet speculates that in a lost painting called ‘The Weaning of a Child’, then attributed to Correggio, ‘the sacred becomes all-human’ (p. 252). Unfortunately, in his consideration of Romeo and Juliet, this carnival inversion of Goethe's views did not extend to the Nurse and Mercutio, for ‘these two figures, and what surrounds them, come in only as farcical interludes, and must be as unbearable to the minds of the lovers on the stage as they are to us’.5 Carnival laughter, central to Bakhtin's theory, annoys Goethe as merely ‘farcical interludes’, but Shakespeare's mixture of comedy and tragedy may be seen as an insistent festive laughter resisting the prescriptions of neoclassicism, though to some extent compromising with genre by giving a certain kind of comedy to the lower orders. The Nurse's laughter echoes a whole culture, not simply a character from below stairs. In Bakhtin's terms, Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare embodied the Renaissance conception of laughter in its ‘deep philosophical meaning’, affording ‘one of the essential forms of truth concerning the world’, when ‘the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint’ (p. 66). In the Nurse's speech and laughter life-affirming joyousness subsumes the metaphysics of religion and death, banishes fear, and celebrates the regenerative cycle of organic being—the essence of carnival.

As the Nurse represents a certain kind of love and life which is contrasted in the play with romantic love and death, so at a conscious level, probably taking a few hints from Chaucer, Shakespeare seems to have contrasted malign fate with the Nurse as benign fortune. The Nurse, like Friar Laurence, has several functions within the play beyond the limitations of naturalist character furthering plot. In his ramified presentation Shakespeare includes both pragmatic carnivalesque and human limitation. Howard R. Patch's The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature6 still remains one of the best sources of information on the subject and the following references are indebted to this study. In one of the seminal works of western culture, Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, Fortune as nurse says, in Chaucer's translation, ‘Whan than nature brought the foorth out of thi modir wombe, I resceyved the nakid and nedy of alle thyngs, and I norissched the with my richesses’.7 In Renaissance iconography Fortune is consequently depicted with the right breast exposed and bearing a cornucopia.8 Changeable Fortune laughs and cries; we have heard the Nurse laughing and she later weeps.9 Perhaps the most common attributes of Fortune are her fickleness and the idea of her as a strumpet. ‘O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle’, Juliet cries; and later in the same scene the Nurse declares, ‘Romeo's a dishclout to him’ (3.5.219), fickly transferring her allegiance to Paris. Earlier the Nurse approaches Romeo seeking ‘some confidence’, upon which Mercutio exclaims ‘A bawd! A bawd! A bawd!’ (2.4.126, 128). To add physical emphasis to this symbolic incrustation on realist character, Shakespeare has Juliet insist, impatient of the Nurse's return from Romeo, ‘O, she is lame’ (2.5.4). This echoes a detail of Chaucer's depiction of Fortune in The Book of the Duchess, ‘she goth upryght and yet she halt’.10 Shakespeare's suggestion is in direct contrast to the source in Brooke, where at one point the Nurse rushes home ‘with spedy pace’.11 This is made into a rather blatant joke immediately after by Juliet, who responds to the Nurse's ‘Hie you to the cell’ with ‘Hie to high fortune! Honest Nurse, farewell’ (2.5.78-9). In contrast to the comedy of the Nurse and Fortune's hobbling, Fate and death will strike with tragic haste.

However, it is in the evocation of the nurse weaning Juliet that Shakespeare most finely balances traditional iconography and dramatic character:

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug.


Patch comments, ‘As we thirst for her gifts, so Fortune gives us sweet and bitter to drink, by turns honey and gall’.12 Romeo, as yet in thrall to Rosaline, invokes this commonplace: ‘A madness most discreet, / A choking gall, and a preserving sweet’ (1.1.190-1). It is repeated by Tybalt when restrained by Capulet at the feast: ‘but this intrusion shall / Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt'rest gall’ (1.5.90-1). Finally, the Nurse is linked to nature herself on whom ‘divers kind / We sucking on her natural bosom find’ (2.3.7-8). Like the Nurse and Fortune, nature provides honey or gall, or, in Friar Laurence's words, ‘poison’ or ‘medicine’. The Friar's speech here (2.3.1-26) espouses a concept central to both Bakhtin's thought and Shakespeare's representation of death and carnival, and will be returned to. The Nurse's love and comedy provide a carnivalesque contrast with romance and tragedy, but mock-Fortune is no match for blind Cupid, blindfold Fortune and masked Death.

Bakhtin sees carnival as a cultural form of opposition, subversion and liberation from what he terms the ‘official’ ideology propounded by the ecclesiastical orthodoxy of the Middle Ages, whereas Shakespeare's use of the carnivalesque in Romeo and Juliet provides a contrastive frame for the inherent values of romantic love as it had developed in literature by the late sixteenth century into an amalgam of courtly love, Petrarchism and neo-Platonism. Many critics have looked at those elements variously considering them as comic, satirical or burlesque. They have primarily looked at the first half of the play, often without giving due weight to the later comic scenes of the Nurse's response to Juliet's seeming ‘death’ and the festive-funeral musicians (4.5). More broadly considered, comedy can be seen to draw on the carnivalesque and to become something of a touchstone in a cultural critique of romantic tragedy.

First, it might be said that it is difficult to understand how, if Shakespeare had intended to present only a poignant tragedy of ideal love, he chose to emphasize Romeo's first love, Rosaline, who is swiftly passed over in the source. Garrick dropped all references to her entirely. In the early exchanges between Benvolio and Montague, Romeo is pictured as having ostracized himself for love, and his behaviour is explained in heavily parodic Petrarchan language (1.1.116ff). Having discovered the identity of Romeo's lover who is included in the list of Capulet's guests, Benvolio challenges Romeo with:

Go thither and with unattainted eye
Compare her face with some that I shall show
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.


Immediately on entering the Capulet festivity, with a single glance at Juliet and without any prompting whatsoever from his friend, Romeo confirms Benvolio's scepticism:

So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows …
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.

(1.5.47-8, 51-2)

This change happens without any such externalized agency as the magic potion of love-in-idleness administered to the lovers by Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The paradox of love as both arbitrary and absolute creates a richly comic moment which is developed in the scene and in what follows not least when Mercutio unwittingly echoes Romeo's words, ‘Romeo! Humours! Madman! Passion! Lover! / … Cry but “Ay me!” Pronounce but “love” and “dove”’ (2.1.7,10), and then goes on, unaware of Romeo's new love, to evoke the chaste Rosaline in comically inappropriate erotic terms. Again, Friar Laurence assumes that Romeo has been with Rosaline. This Romeo hastily denies with ‘I have forgot that name, and that name's woe’ (2.3.42), but his language inadvertently recalls Juliet's ‘What's in a name?’ (2.2.43) and their amorous wordplay on ‘forgetting’ (2.2.170-5). Little wonder that the Friar continues to chide:

Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forgotten? Young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes.


The dramatic interplay of such references serves to compromise, if not undermine, the evident partiality of a purely romantic response created by traditions of performance from Garrick to Franco Zeffirelli, in which most of the comedy was cut to emphasize romance and pathos.13 Moreover, if we return to the Capulet festival aspects of the staging suggest a further comedic dimension.

As the young men make their way to the Capulet house visors are distributed. Most likely these would have been full-face visors, like those in Much Ado About Nothing (2.1), of a grotesque nature and attention is specifically drawn to this detail in Mercutio's dialogue:

Give me a case to put my visage in:
A visor for a visor. What care I
What curious eye doth quote deformities?
Here are the beetle brows shall blush for me.


For Bakhtin the mask reveals ‘the essence of the grotesque’ (p. 40) in the carnivalesque conversion of the fearful into the funny, an analogue to carnival death in which the hideous becomes humorous. Tybalt identifies Romeo by his voice since his visage is ‘cover'd with an antic face’ (1.5.55); Capulet restrains Tybalt from violence; and Romeo pays court to Juliet with a quatrain which develops into a sonnet in an exchange on the Petrarchan commonplace of the lover as pilgrim worshipping at the shrine of his ‘saint’.

In the source ‘All dyd unmaske’,14 but Shakespeare does not indicate any unmasking in an explicit stage direction. In fact the stage directions He kisses her at ll.105, 109 were provided by Rowe and Capell in response to the cue lines ‘Thus from my lips’ (l.106) and ‘You kiss by th' book’ (l.109). Romeo has seen Juliet's beauty, so she is not wearing a lady's half-mask. Harley Granville Barker simply assumed that ‘Romeo, his mask doffed, moves towards her’.15 This is far from certain. Although recognized by Tybalt and identified to Capulet, for Romeo to have unmasked would surely have given such provocation as to have cancelled the hospitality which initially admitted the masked revellers. But if Romeo remains masked until the kiss, it means that Juliet has instantly fallen in love with a visor and a quatrain. If Romeo unmasked at the beginning of the ‘sonnet’, then Juliet falls for someone she doesn't know, albeit handsome, who recites modish love verses. However it is seen, idealized romance is rather undermined in contrast with the source, which stresses that Romeo's love-lorn complexion convinces Juliet of his devotion.16 The prologue to Act 2 may imply something less than ideal in the comment that both were ‘Alike bewitched by the charm of looks’ (l.6).

The Arden editor, Brian Gibbons, points out that the Act 2 scene division inaugurating the famous balcony exchange between Romeo and Juliet is traditional and convenient for reference, though in fact Romeo's first line—‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’—rhymes with the preceding line of Benvolio, ‘Go then, for 'tis in vain / To seek him here that means not to be found.’ More significant, given this fluidity of the Elizabethan stage, is the fact that one of the most celebrated scenes in romantic literature begins with the grossest example of explicit bawdy in the play echoing in the audience's ears, Mercutio's

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


Surprisingly, Bakhtin only touches on bawdy in passing, though he recognizes that it is fundamental to the carnivalesque acceptance of life in its derisive ‘degradation’ of high to low: ‘mockery and abuse is almost entirely bodily and grotesque. The body that figures in all the expressions of the unofficial speech of the people is the body that fecundates and is fecundated, that gives birth and is born, devours and is devoured, drinks, defecates, is sick and dying’ (p. 319). Bawdy can give expression to revulsion and lead to pornographic hatred as in Othello, Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. On the other hand, almost throughout Romeo and Juliet bawdy is used not only for structural and thematic contrast, but for something larger and more positive—the carnivalesque embrace of existence.

Bawdy reduces passion to the lower bodily stratum. It demystifies the romantic with the physical. Romantic love privatizes passion by subjectifying experience, and excludes life by claiming all existence. Perhaps John Donne summarizes the situation most succinctly and ironically, ‘She is all states, all Princes, I, / Nothing else is.’17 The literary imagery of Petrarchan love alienates further with its elitist cult of suffering and isolation, and in the excesses of poets like Marino and Serafino subjectivity becomes merely a reified rococo artefact. Shakespeare sees both the comic and tragic implications of dramatizing Petrarchan conceits in contrast with bawdy.18 Bawdy reflects the collective levelling culture of carnival. Sex is part of life and bawdy imagery reflects not sonnet sequences but the marketplace, the tavern, the kitchen, the farmyard, and so on—nature and society as one. However vulgar, bawdy is social in its humorous relation, person to person, in anecdote, proverb or joke, and this is duplicated in the theatre with the collectivity of laughter.

Mercutio's vulgarism, though characteristic of his bawdy wit, here draws on folk culture in the dialect names for fruits popularly considered to resemble in shape the male and female sexual organs. Sex and fruit compound the carnival images of earth and body mutually sustaining and reproducing. From such a point of view this is not obscene but a comic affirmation shared by ‘maids … when they laugh alone’ (2.2.36), that is, amongst themselves. In contrast to such earthiness Romeo's romantic expostulation invokes the celestial: ‘It is the east and Juliet is the sun!’ (2.2.3). The incipient comedy of such contrast is increased by Juliet's seeming deafness at this point and Romeo's consequent descent into near-bathos: ‘She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?’ (1.12). Juliet's eventual interjection in what has been appropriated as one of the most celebrated of love overtures, again adding a touch of burlesque, is merely ‘Ay me’ (l.25), precisely fulfilling Mercutio's parodic prediction of 56 lines earlier. The staging here indicates that Juliet cannot see Romeo, who is listening—‘Shall I hear more’ (l.37)—‘bescreen'd in night’ (l.52), but she eventually recognizes his voice: ‘Yet I know the sound’ (l.59). Instead of romantic union in love, at this point the lovers are spatially, psychologically and socially separated from each other and others. Thus it is rather difficult to accept the idea of maturity accorded the thirteen-year-old Juliet in this scene. Later, awaiting fulfilment of ‘amorous rites’, Juliet's language of love (3.2.1-30) converts the physicality of orgasm—‘… come Romeo … when I shall die’—into the poetic transcendence of passion. Yet as we shall see, the literalness of death once more is anticipated. Here, in the balcony scene the Nurse's calling voice (ll.149, 151) is like the voice of reality, structurally placed in answer to Romeo's

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


The social mode of bawdy is perhaps nowhere better seen in the play than in Mercutio's ribald chiding later in the act in which he effects a carnivalesque rescue of Romeo, a rescue albeit like carnival itself, only temporary. As we have seen in the alternating structure so far, after the balcony exchange Romeo has to endure Friar Laurence's sober criticism, and on entering in the following scene he faces Mercutio's welcoming witty play on his name.

Without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified. Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura, to his lady, was a kitchen wench—marry, she had a better love to berhyme her—Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so …


Early in his introduction Bakhtin hints at the ‘comic crownings and uncrownings’ (p. 11) of carnivalesque inversion in Shakespeare and others. This is the case with Petrarch throughout the first half of Romeo and Juliet and here, in particular, the laureate poet is ‘uncrowned’. Seizing on the anomaly of Petrarch's chaste love, Mercutio laughs at the metamorphosis of carnival sex, ‘flesh’, into Lenten ‘dried herring’, as if this love was actually life-denying.19 Brian Gibbons points out that the OED cites this passage as an illustration of ‘roe’ as the sperm of male fish.20 Conversely the romantic heroines of legend and history are travestied in a mode anticipating a figure frequently referred to by Bakhtin—Scarron. Romeo responds with extensively witty word-play culminating in Mercutio's bawdy capitulation—‘I was come to the whole depth of my tale and meant to occupy the argument no longer’ (ll.98-9)—which, in fact, is a victory, ‘Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo’ (l.89).

Mercutio's laughter at Petrarch's Laura as a kitchen maid has been anticipated earlier in a carefully structured scenic interpolation which is a perfect cameo of Shakespeare's carnivalesque method in Romeo and Juliet, and has a specifically Rabelaisian echo. This is Act 1, scene 5 where the stage directions. ‘They march about the stage, and Servingmen come forth with napkins’ indicate the entry of Romeo's group into the Capulet household. Immediately preceding this is Romeo's speech of foreboding which recalls the tragic motif of the prologue:

                                                            … my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.


As the servants enter a question immediately introduces a Rabelaisian note: ‘Where's Potpan?’ (1.5.1). Amongst the 64 cooks of book IV of Gargantua and Pantagruel is ‘Pudding-pan’ in Urquhart's translation, ‘Piepan’ in the modern Penguin edition.21 Whereas Romeo has a fated assignation at the revels, the servants are arranging their high jinks below stairs.

Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou loves me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell—Antony and Potpan!


It seems unlikely that these lovers will exchange Petrarchan conceits—Susan Grindstone's carnivalesque surname says it all, alluding to motion in coition and an avid sexuality wearing out the male. Yet, as we have seen above, sex and the body are also combined with nature and sustenance in a regenerative cycle. All harvest corn will be threshed and the seed ground for flour to make bread to feed people. The servants and their girlfriends will enjoy food and sex with their own banqueting and revels while ‘the longer liver take all’ (1.5.15), a proverbial relegation of death, in direct contrast to Romeo's apprehension of ‘some vile forfeit of untimely death’ (1.4.111). Carnival death is subsumed into the social and natural cycle in which human and harvest seed ensure life, whereas Romeo and Juliet are singled out by another kind of death for extinction.

It has been argued, with some justification, that Romeo and Juliet in large part dramatizes the proverb festina lente, hasten slowly.22 But much more central than this cautionary morality is the philosophy of nature as espoused by Friar Laurence drawing on proverbial knowledge encapsulating the carnivalesque. From this point of view the play dramatizes a dialogism between high and low cultures—between the Renaissance philosophy of love and proverbial folk wisdom, between emergent subjective individualism and communal consciousness. At the centre of the play we hear from the Friar:

The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb:
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find.


This proverbial knowledge gains particular force in English with the rhyming agnomination of ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’, a rhetorical figure at the heart of the play and a figure which both unites and divides the later middle ages and the Renaissance. In his lengthy chapter on ‘The Grotesque Image of the Body’ we find in Bakhtin:

Death, the dead body, blood as a seed buried in the earth, rising for another life—this is one of the oldest and most widespread themes. A variant is death inseminating mother earth and making her bear fruit once more … Rabelais speaks elsewhere of the ‘sweet, much desired embrace of … Mother Earth, which we call burial’ … This image of burial is probably inspired by Pliny, who gives a detailed picture of the earth's motherhood and of burial as a return to her womb.

(p. 327)

In a speech combining the rhythm of the seasons, human growth and social festivity, Capulet explains of Juliet to Paris that ‘Earth has swallow'd all my hopes but she; / She is the hopeful lady of my earth’ (1.2.14-15). Carnival and capitalist notions seem to be played against each other here if the second ‘earth’ is taken as referring ambiguously to either Capulet's body, alive and dead, or to his lands. Given the prevalent references to age and youth, summer and winter, the cyclic carnival element is to the fore, earth as womb and tomb.

The design of Romeo and Juliet does not fall into a simple division of a tragic following upon a comic movement, and neither is there an unbridgeable dichotomy between the language of romantic love and sexuality, as we have seen above. Until Act 5 comedy and tragedy alternate. ‘My grave is like to be my wedding bed’ (1.5.134), Juliet remarks, while Romeo later declares, ‘Then love-devouring death do what he dare’ (2.6.7). Many proleptic notes like this are sounded throughout the play. In contrast, the carnival world persists in the midst of death; Menippus laughing in the underworld is a favourite image for Bakhtin (see p. 69), whereas in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio jests at death, ‘you shall find me a grave man’ (2.1.99). But carnival surrenders to tragedy at the close. More precisely, the reversals in Capulet's ‘festival’/‘funeral’ speech (4.5.84-90), agnomination again, pattern Act 4 as a whole. In scene 1 Juliet evokes the horrors of the charnel house and death-shrouds, whereas scene 2 opens with proverbial jokes about cooks licking their fingers. In scene 3, just before taking the potion, the horrors of being entombed are vividly before Juliet. And then the carnivalesque world of food and the body is heard once more—‘more spices’, ‘They call for dates and quinces’, ‘Look to the bak'd meats’ (ll.1, 2, 5). The Nurse as weeping Fortune discovers Juliet's body in scene 4, and the festive musicians decide to stay on for a funereal free meal. The homiletic association of death and musicians is of great importance and will be touched on shortly. Suffice it here to note how the social festive world vies with the medieval horrors of death, and eventually with the development of death as lover.

In Act 5, in the Capulets' tomb, the festive is finally superseded by the counter-carnival triumph of death, and carnival day and festive light are extinguished by tragic darkness. Capulet's feast was to ‘make dark heaven light’ (1.2.25), but Montague had acknowledged that his son ‘locks fair daylight out / And makes himself an artificial night’, a ‘black … humour’ that indeed proves ‘portentous’ (1.1.137-9). Yet ‘night’ also gives expression to the most potent love language in the play, touched on above.

Come gentle night, come loving black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and when I shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars …


The orgasmic reading of ‘die’ is now commonplace and the proleptic punning equally so, but ‘black-brow'd night’ bears re-examination in a context in which Juliet recalls her first meeting with the masked Romeo on a festive occasion, ‘So tedious is this day / As is the night before some festival’ (3.2.28-9). The speech is remarkable for its affirmation and conversion of sexuality to poetry, and in effect offers an inherent rebuff to bawdy, but this in turn is severely qualified, yet again, by ‘death-mark'd love’. ‘Black-brow'd night’ recalls the ‘beetle [i.e. overhanging] brows’ of Mercutio's grotesque visor and anticipates the ‘overwhelming brows’ (5.1.39) of the death-like apothecary who delivers the deadly potion. ‘Black-brow'd night’ seems part of a half-realized metaphor of night as a masquer at the revels. Romeo the antic masquer brings both love and death. In this the iconographic complex of death, festivity and romance in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century graphic art is recalled, particularly that of the ‘Dance of Death’.

Shakespeare would have first encountered the iconography of the ‘Dance of Death’ as a child. John Stow noted in his copy of Leland's Itinerary that this imagery, common to all Europe by the beginning of the sixteenth century, was found on the wall of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon.23 The ‘Dance of Death’ was otherwise known as the ‘Dance Macabre’ from its original attribution as ‘The Dance of Machabree’, as it appears in John Lydgate's translation.24 The original fifteenth-century French poem with accompanying illustrations adorned the walls of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris. Lydgate's version was similarly used with illustrations in old St Paul's cathedral, where it became an object of devotion for Sir Thomas More contemplating death without us, and within us.25 Holbein's 41 woodcuts for his work, commonly referred to as The Dance of Death, are well known and they became the basis for the psaltery of Queen Elizabeth's Book of Common Prayer (1569) with the number of border illustrations of The Dance of Death expanded to 71.26

The Dance of Death might well have arisen in response to the horrors of the Black Death, but from a larger perspective it was a development of the death obsession of the Middle Ages as exemplified in Pope Innocent III's De Miseria Condicionis Humane (1195) which was circulated throughout Europe in manuscripts and books, and translated by George Gascoigne in his The Droomme of Doomes Day (1576).27 This literature focused on bodily corruption, death, burial and decomposition, with Death the leveller used to reinforce the hierarchy of the Church. In The Dance of Death the estates of man, and eventually woman, are led off to their inevitable end. Tomb sculpture often reflected this worm-ridden fate.28

The Dance of Death strikes at the heart of carnival since it concentrates on final bodily putrefaction, whatever might await the soul, whereas carnival celebrates bodily regeneration on earth. As the word ‘dance’ implies, music and dancing reflect the festive world of carnival, banqueting and romance. Throughout Romeo and Juliet Capulet's household reflects both this revelry and impending death. As we have seen with the old Capulets looking on at the revels (1.5) the carnivalesque is affirmed in spite of Romeo's forebodings. Acts 4 and 5 with the preparations for the wedding feast, festive musicians, and so on, reverse this, finally succumbing to death, tragedy and the tomb. Romeo and Juliet was performed within a culture in which the iconography of death had persisted, yet with some degree of development in which moral censure of the carnivalesque and festive partly displaced the homiletic corpse or skeleton. All this is reflected in the design of play.

Arthur Brooke's source had provided the commonplace from which Shakespeare developed. In Brooke Romeo pursues his love 'till Fortune list to sawse his sweete with sowre’, until ‘all his hap turnes to mishap, and all his myrth to mone’.29Romeo and Juliet's ‘womb’/‘tomb’, ‘festival’/‘funeral’ have been touched on. Brooke's figure of agnomination, ‘myrth’/‘mone’, echoes what seems to have been a source for English Renaissance rhetoric, St Gregory the Divine (Gregorious Nazianzen). In his translation of Innocent III, Gascoigne cites St Gregory on the contrasts to joy in a heavenly Creator; ‘all other myrth is mournyng, all other pleasure is payne, all sweete soure, all leefe lothsome, and all delyghtes are dollorous’. John Lyly's Euphuism would appear to owe something to Church Fathers like St Augustine and St Gregory as John Hoskins notes, while providing his own carnivalesque-lenten example in ‘feasting’/‘fasting’.30 The conflation of antitheses in the iconography of death partly developed from this homiletic rhetoric, and particularly seized on images of the carnival and festive, above all music, masks and dancing. In Thomas Nashe's diatribe Christ's Teares Over Jerusalem (1593), just a few years before Romeo and Juliet, we find: ‘Your morne-like christall countenances shall be netted over and (Masker-like) cawle-visarded with crawling venomous wormes’.31 The most well-known dramatic example is, of course, Vindice in Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) holding a skull and declaring; ‘It were fine, methinks / To have thee seen at revels, forgetful feasts’, to ‘put a reveller / Out of his antic amble’ (3.5.89-93). This is precisely what the illustrations of death did.

In Bruegel's still harrowing painting ‘The Triumph of Death’, which included several motifs from the ‘Dance of Death’ sequences, we see in the lower right-hand corner a cloaked and masked death overturning flagons of wine, disrupting feasting and gaming as a jester tries to hide, while two lovers, blithely unaware, sing and play music accompanied by another unseen death.32 Similarly, in a Dürer woodcut a shrouded figure introduces a corpse into a banquet. Most of the guests, including two lovers, are too engrossed to notice.33 In Ripa's Iconologia (1603) Death is masked and in a burden carries ‘musical instruments … of worldly joys’ along with symbols of power and pleasure.34

Shakespeare's musicians in Act 4 do not convert festival to funeral, mirth to moan, but persist in a carnival humour with Peter, the Capulet servant. The carnivalesque element is uppermost as, before their actual entry, the musicians' festive music is heard even as Juliet's ‘dead’ body is discovered. The original stage direction at 4.4.20 is ‘Play music’, as Capulet says, ‘The County will be here with music straight, / For so he said he would. I hear him near’ (4.4.21-2). As the Nurse, Capulet and Lady Capulet heavily bemoan death, comedy supervenes since the audience knows that Juliet is drugged, not dead—in the midst of death we are in life, the reverse of the iconographic tradition.

In at least nine of Holbein's woodcuts for The Dance of Death death and music are associated, nearly always, with death as a musician. Number 35 shows newlyweds seemingly engrossed in each other while Death dances before them striking a festive tabor, an image reflected in the Bruegel painting. The fifth illustration shows the entrance to a tomb with half a dozen partly clothed skeletons playing instruments which compound festival with funeral—crumhorns, kettle drums, a hurdy-gurdy, a shawm, and so on. There is an apocalyptic element here whereas some earlier sequences, such as the 1491 La grande Danse macabre had included ‘The Orchestra of Death’.35 A variant of this tradition is found in Pierre Michault's fifteenth-century poem La Dance aux aveugles which in an illustrated Geneva manuscript shows the three ‘blind’—or blindfolded—ones, Cupid, Fortune and Death, disposed in a triptych. At the foot of each panel seated musicians look on awaiting those led to this dance of death.36Romeo and Juliet reflects Michault's structure as the lovers move from Cupid's blind, or masked, passion through fatal misfortune to death with, at one point, musicians in attendance. Queen Elizabeth's prayer book separates the musicians from death. As they play a skeleton looms behind. And in contrast to the carnivalesque death-birth, tomb-womb cycle we have seen in the Nurse's speech particularly, one of the woodcuts shows Death behind a nurse cradling her charge, with the words ‘give suck no more; for I am at the door’.

Emblems and paintings not directly concerned with eschatological death nevertheless endorsed an anti-carnivalesque view of music, dancing and love. Joos van Winghe's Nocturnal Party (1588) depicts masked musicians joining in with dancers before a statue of Venus.37 Drunken abandon make the moral implications quite clear. More directly pertinent to Romeo and Juliet is Otto van Veen's emblem entitled ‘Voluptatum Usurae, Morbi et Miseriae’ (‘Pleasure's Usury, Sickness and Misery’) in his Horatii Emblemata, 1612.38 Masked dancers accompanied by a masked musician with a drinker and a venal couple looking on dominate the foreground. In the background gamblers play, an old man grasping a cupid-putto is admitted, while at the rear on a darkened sickbed reclines a figure whose urine is being examined in a glass bottle by a physician. Arthur Brooke's source for Romeo and Juliet indirectly provides a comment since precisely at that point quoted above where he considers ‘myrth’ and ‘mone’, he draws on the same moral commonplace which gave van Veen his title, the metaphor of usury for pleasure; Fortune ‘payd theyr former greefe with pleasures doubled gayne, / But now for pleasures usery ten folde redoubleth payne.’39 In the polyglot verses beneath several lines from Latin sources once again we find predictable antitheses of pleasure and pain, joy and tears, glossing van Veen's picture. Van Veen and Brooke both share a common moralizing outlook. Sickness and death follow upon indulgence of vice. Shakespeare's comparable scene, the revels with the aged Capulets looking on, affirms the carnivalesque by including age with youth suggesting a triumph of life.

But this is not to be. As James Black has noted of the repeated stage picture of the prince of Verona and his feuding subjects, with youth killed off and the aged solemnly gathered; it ‘is made progressively tragic as it becomes more and more a pageant of death’.40

On entering the tomb Romeo's language recalls the carnivalesque death-earth-womb but transforms it into death as a ravenous monster, a traditional hell-mouth.

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death
Gorg'd with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.


Inside, the sight of Juliet's beauty transforms her surroundings. Complementing her earlier speech when she had related night, death, and festival, Romeo says, ‘her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence, full of light’ (5.3.85-6). As his first glimpse of Juliet was in the midst of revels and banqueting, an image as we have seen associated with the entrance of death, so the tomb scene inverts this and festival enters into the midst of death. Analogously, as he was lover at the festival, so death is lover here:

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


And so Romeo rivals death who can only be the final triumpher as Bruegel rehearsed in a title which Petrarch bequeathed to the Renaissance in The Triumph of Death from his Trionfi.41 In carnival there can be no triumph of death, only a triumph of life in human generation. Echoing the sonneteers, Romeo had said that Rosaline's chastity ‘Cuts beauty off form all posterity’ (1.1.218). Romeo and Juliet were briefly lovers but now it is her beauty which is cut off from all posterity. This is the larger, more inclusive sense of tragedy, from a carnivalesque perspective: not simply the poignancy of their deaths, but that only death came from their love, not the renewal and thus reaffirmation of life. When Capulet follows Juliet to the tomb that will be the end of his line. And the same for the Montagues since Brooke included the detail that Romeo's ‘parentes have none other heyre, thou art theyr onely sonne’.42 The funereal gold statues are no substitute for the warmth of new life. But carnival can never really be defeated. It finds new life in new forms as long as there is comedy. It is said that The Dance of Death itself arose partly as a homiletic reaction to a peasant custom—of dancing in graveyards.43


  1. This essay, a slightly edited version of that published by Shakespeare Survey (49, 1996: pp. 69-85), has benefited from comments on readings of preliminary drafts at the Reading Renaissance Research Seminar, and the ‘Shakespeare, Carnival and Society’ wing of Reading's Literature and History Conference, 1995. At the former my attention was drawn to Kent Cartwright's extensive and subtle chapter ‘Theater and Narrative in Romeo and Juliet’, in his Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response (Pennsylvania: Pennylvanian State University Press, 1991). In his concentration on the central topic of ‘spectatorial distance’ he alludes several times to the Bakhtinian carnivalesque functioning within the play in ways close to my own, but we differ fundamentally concerning Romeo and Juliet's love. He sees it as part of, I see it as opposed to, the carnivalesque.

  2. All references are to Brian Gibbons (ed.), Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1980).

  3. Terence Hawkes (ed.), Coleridge on Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), pp. 87-8.

  4. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. I (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York, Columbia University Press, 1964), pp. 295, 1.344.

  5. ‘Shakespeare ad Infinitum’, in Oswald Le Winter, Shakespeare in Europe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 66.

  6. Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927).

  7. Ibid., p. 56. F.N. Robinson (ed.), The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 330.

  8. Ibid. Achille Bocchi, Symbolicarum Quaestionum de Universo Genere [Bologna, 1574], ed. Stephen Orgel (New York and London: Garland, 1979), G1r.

  9. Patch, p. 44.

  10. Ibid., p. 37, Robinson, p. 273, l.622.

  11. Bullough, p. 303, l.673.

  12. Patch, p. 52.

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

  14. Bullough, p. 290, l.169.

  15. Prefaces to Shakespeare, second series (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1930), p. 8.

  16. Bullough, p. 297, ll.413ff.

  17. A.J. Smith (ed.), John Donne. The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971). See ‘The Sun Rising’ p. 80, ll.21-2. Romeo exclaims: ‘Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out’ (2.1.2); cf. ‘The Sun Rising’ 1.30—‘This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere’.

  18. For an argument opposite to that made here, see Ann Pasternak Slater, ‘Petrarchism Come True in Romeo and Juliet’, in Images of Shakespeare, ed. Werner Habicht, D.J. Palmer and Roger Pringle (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988), pp. 129-50.

  19. For a parallel interpretation see François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 210.

  20. Gibbons, p. 144.

  21. The Works of Francis Rabelais by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Motteux (London: H.G. Bohn, 1849), Vol. 2, p. 311. The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 535.

  22. Marjorie Donker, Shakespeare's Proverbial Themes (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1992), ch. 2.

  23. J.M. Clark, The Dance of Death (Glasgow: Jackson Son and Co., 1950), p. 15.

  24. Two manuscript versions of Lydgate's poem, with further collation, ed. Florence Warren and Beatrice White, are published as The Dance of Death (The Early English Text Society, no. 181, London: Oxford University Press, 1931).

  25. ‘The Four Last Things’, The English Works of Sir Thomas More (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode; New York, Lincoln MacVeagh, 1931), Vol. I, p. 468.

  26. See Francis Douce, Holbein's Dance of Death (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1898). The Queen Elizabeth prayer book reproduced here is the version by William Pickering, London, 1853. See Ruari McLean, Victorian Book Design (London: Faber: 1963), pp. 10-12. The woodcuts were by Mary Byfield. I am indebted to Christopher and Phillipa Hardman for help with this reference.

  27. Robert E. Lewis (ed.), De Miseria Condicionis Humane (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978), pp. 3-5 survey the transmission of manuscripts. John W. Cunliffe (ed.), The Complete Works of George Gascoigne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), Vol. II, The Glasse of Government and Other Poems and Prose Works, pp. 209-450.

  28. See ‘The Vision of Death’, ch. XI of J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York: Doubleday, 1954).

  29. Bullough, p. 310, ll.932-46.

  30. Directions for Speech and Style (1599), ed. Hoyht H. Hudson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1935), pp. 16, 37. Gascoigne, p. 398.

  31. Ronald B. McKerrow, The Works of Thomas Nashe (London: A.H. Bullen, 1904), Vol. II, pp. 138-9.

  32. See Walter S. Gibson, Bruegel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 116.

  33. Willi Kurth, The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer (New York: Arden Book Co.), illustration 15. I am indebted to Pat Righelato for this reference.

  34. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim and New York, 1970, ‘istromenti de l'allegrezze mondane’, p. 340.

  35. Le Sentiment de la Mort au Moyen Age (Montreal: L'Aurore, Les Editions Univers Inc., 1979), p. 199.

  36. Bruno Roy, ‘Amour, Fortune et Mort: La danse des trois aveugles’, in Le Sentiment de la Mort au Moyen Age, pp. 121-37. The illustration is reproduced in Erwin Panofsky's seminal chapter ‘Blind Cupid’, in Studies in Iconology (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), plate XLVI.

  37. Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984), p. 177.

  38. Otto van Veen, Horatii Emblemata, New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1979, pp. 38-9.

  39. Bullough, p. 310, ll.953-4.

  40. James Black, ‘The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet’, Studies in English Literature 15 (1975), p. 250.

  41. D.D. Carnicelli in his edition of Lord Morley's Tryumphes of Frances Petrarcke (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971) provides much useful introductory material, pp. 1-74.

  42. Bullough, p. 289, l.120.

  43. See Lydgate, The Dance of Death, p. xiii.

G. G. Heyworth (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Heyworth, G. G. “Missing and Mending: Romeo and Juliet at Play in the Romance Chronotope.” The Yearbook of English Studies: Time and Narrative 30 (2000): 5-20.

[In the following essay, Heyworth concentrates on the Ovidian spatio-temporal dynamics of Romeo and Juliet, and the drama's paradoxical juxtaposition of tragic and romantic time.]

Assume for a moment that Romeo and Juliet is not about star-crossed lovers or feuding families, but more profoundly about the generic insufficiency of time that afflicts everyone and everything to do with romance, author as well as characters. Poetically and emotionally, temporal insufficiency is necessary for romance as a genre, a quality that brings it into close relationship with tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet succeeds as a romance because it confirms the besetting, archetypal anxiety of all lovers, that they will not be able to transform the accident of a single meeting into the necessity of a life together, one moment into an eternity. And yet the play's success as a tragedy depends upon preventing the lovers' desired synchronicity from enduring in life, a generic countermovement to love's dilation of the moment. The interference of romantic and tragic rhythms, the mutual dependence of temporal modes in tragic and romance plots, is perhaps the most important poetic issue at stake in Romeo and Juliet, and one to which Shakespeare was alive. In adapting his most proximate source, Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), Shakespeare telescopes the chronology of the story from roughly nine months to four days, Thursday to Sunday. Then, as if in a conscious attempt to fit too much into too little, to force a tragic outcome, the prologue hurries the events once more, recasting the question of story-time as a dramatic problem,

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which but their children's end nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Prologue, l. 9)1

Sudden angst and unjustified urgency is the mood the Chorus seems to want to foist upon us. The fictional journey we are about to embark upon is a ‘fearful passage’, made all the more so by the scant two hours allotted its course. Is that enough time, we ask, to see the story through to its end?

The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Doubtless Shakespeare knew that two hours, like the lovers' abbreviated four days, is inadequate and would force the cast to step up what Granville-Barker calls the play's ‘quickening temper’,2 even to the point of hurrying lines past an audience struggling to keep pace with the plot. Indeed, the Chorus anticipates the likelihood of lines' going unheard, an important motive that strangely has been overlooked. To counter the ‘quickening temper’ it incites, the Chorus first begs the audience's patience: ‘if you with patient ears attend’. Then, following the aural image, it puns on the word ‘here’, ‘What here [‘heare’ Q2] shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend’, promising to recapture the missing gist of the story with acting (‘our toil’) as supplement to dialogue. The prologue's final couplet is the key to understanding what is going on temporally and spatially in the rest of the play. Missing and mending is not only the major task of the plot (lovers' assignations missed, misunderstandings and feuds mended) but a strategy of dramatic composition, one that acknowledges the insufficiency of the two-hour playing time and seeks to mend it by stretching the plastic unity of time and place.

At the risk of subsidizing too heavily the significance of the homonymic connection between ‘here’ as location and ‘hear’ as audition, I would like to suggest that this pun stands at the threshold to a poetics of romance mistiming and misplacement. In theatre, hearing or being here establishes a character's presence or absence. For the most part, Romeo and Juliet are not here and choose not to hear; for the bulk of the play they are, in the eyes of their families, missing, an absence which generates the frequent calls of ‘where’ and returns of ‘here’. What follows is an elaborate game of hide and seek, of watching and calling and missing, part Narcissus and Echo, part Pyramus and Thisbe in inspiration and all transacted against the chaotic, foreshortened timeframe of the Phaethon story. My aim, in this essay, is threefold: first to trace the Ovidian chronology of Romeo and Juliet in terms of the Phaethon paradigm; next to listen to the lovers ‘tear the cave where Echo lies’ as Juliet says, to hear the narcissistic wordplay that measures out the space in which tragic love abides; and finally to understand Shakespearean romance as a game turned serious.

Julia Kristeva has remarked upon two symptoms of altered time in Romeo and Juliet. First is its foreshortenedness, a ‘compression of time caused by the imminence of death’. The second may be called a dramatic asynchronicity in which the ‘rhythms of meetings, developments and mischances’ result from an ‘incompatibility between the amorous instant and temporal succession’.3 Bakhtin arrives at a similar conclusion for romance as a whole. He proposes the term ‘chronotope’, literally ‘time-place’, to refer to the spatio-temporal framework in which romance characters interact, a framework signalled by ‘a logic of random contingency, which is to say, chance simultaneity (meetings) and chance rupture (non-meetings), that is a logic of random disjunctions in time’.4 Shakespeare's Verona transacts its business in the rhythms and disjunctions of a romance chronotope and yet syncopates crucially into tragic timing as well.

‘Tragedy’, said Aristotle, ‘endeavours to keep so far as possible within a single circuit of the sun’ (Poetics, 1449b 13-14). A friendlier model to Shakespeare's sensibilities is the temporal distortion in Ovid's Phaethon story in the Metamorphoses.5 The young Phaethon is allowed by his father Phoebus to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky, marking one day. The chariot soon careers out of control, wreaking worldwide havoc. Though Ovid's myth opens to spatio-temporal order: Phoebus's attendants, Day, Month, Year, Century, and the Hours stand about his throne at equal distances (‘spatiis equalibus’), Phaethon's unruly transit soon disrupts that necessary distance both spatially and temporally. The sun passes scorchingly close to earth causing the measured passage of hour and season to warp in slingshot orbit. In his prologue, Shakespeare must certainly have considered the conjunction of Aristotle's generic sun with Ovid's cosmological version. Both solar models are present in Shakespeare's concept of generic timing.

In Romeo and Juliet, this hybrid solar motif measures dramatic time calibrated to the eccentric rhythm of romantic and tragic anxiety. In the aftermath of the swordplay of Act I, Scene 1, Lady Montague asks Benvolio worriedly where Romeo is. Benvolio replies that he saw him, ‘an hour before the worshipped sun ❙ Peered forth the golden window of the east’ (I. 1. 109-10). From that moment on, ‘the fearful passage of [the lovers'] death-marked love' promised in the prologue follows the path blazed originally by Phaethon's fearful transit. Each mention of time finds the lovers slightly out of synchronization: Romeo is first spotted an hour before the rising hour of dawn, then, greeted by Benvolio's ‘Good morrow cousin’ several hours later, he responds, as if in his own continuum,

                                                            Is the day so young?
But new struck nine.
                                                            Ay me, sad hours seem long.
Was that my father that went hence so fast?
It was. What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?
Not having that, which having, makes them short.
In love?
Of love?

(I. 1. 151)

Of time, rather. The dilation Romeo experiences is seconded more succinctly by Juliet's ‘in a minute, there are many days’ (III. 5. 45). Slow time moving within an artificially fast frame is at once the motor force behind Romeo and Juliet's experience of love and the most serious impediment to its realization.

As the play progresses, its chronology becomes more anxious and more pronouncedly Ovidian, especially after the lovers meet and look ahead to the difficulty of future meetings across the barricades of parental opprobrium. The wall-divided love of Pyramus and Thisbe which culminates famously in mistimed tragedy finds close parallel in the difficult love of Romeo and Juliet whose houses are divided by walls of familial antipathy. Bakhtin's ‘logic of random contingency’, of meetings and non-meetings, incubates into the play's defining obsession, emerging eventually as the fear that ‘one day, one hour, even one minute earlier or later have everywhere a decisive and fatal significance’ (p. 94). Meeting places the lovers at risk of fatal timing. Thus, when Romeo and Juliet arrange that he will meet the Nurse at nine on the morning of their marriage (II. 2. 167-69), sunrise breaks over Friar Lawrence with an ominous charioteering metaphor of calamity narrowly averted:

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

(II. 3. 1)

The spectre of Phaethon is disastrously attendant upon the day's nuptials. As Juliet marks time from nine till the Nurse's return at twelve, the sun's laboured climb parallels her perception of agonizing slowness, the festina lente of anticipated reunion. As Jonathan Bate aptly remarks, ‘from this point on, its [the sun's] motion—and with it that of the play—can only be downward like Phaethon's’.6 Indeed, Friar Lawrence warns Romeo, ‘violent delights have violent ends’ (II. 6. 9), a fate linked intimately with the problem of asynchronicity, as he says ‘too swift arrives as tardy as too slow’ (l. 15).

Taken in tandem, these last two phrases express the governing paradox of the play: how the generic movement of the plot, romance to tragedy, violent delight to violent end, correlates to the perceived flow of time, too slow (romance) and too swift (tragedy). Juliet herself seems to recognize this paradox at the moment she learns Romeo is a Montague. She too augurs tragedy, ‘Too early seen unknown and known too late’ (I. 5. 138). To Benvolio's ‘Supper is done, and we shall come too late’, Romeo replies,

I fear too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despisèd life closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

(I. 4. 106)

The chiasmus of Juliet's too-early-and-too-late conceit expresses in microcosm the temporal structure of the play as a whole. If marriage marks the highpoint of the romantic plot, one moment of coincidence, then death represents the crux of the tragic plot and renewed synchronicity. In between, however, time is one beat out of step to fatal effect. The sun metaphor is inextricably connected through Ovid's Phaethon to the movement from romance to tragedy.7

But there is more to say about the poetic reading Shakespeare makes of Ovid and the complex relationship between tragic and romantic time signatures in Romeo and Juliet. After the synchronicity of marriage at the midpoint of the play, time again staggers and becomes oppressive, separating the lovers and distinguishing the plot-types. A temporal chiasmus occurs. Formerly time ran retrograde to love's consummation; now it hurries the lovers against their will toward a determinate end. In the rhetoric of the latter scenes is a perceptible resistance to closure. When Capulet arranges Juliet's second marriage to Paris we sense in the old man's disquietude a shift into a fast-forward, tragic chronotope that runs against his unconscious will:

Acquaint her here of my son Paris' love,
And bid her—mark you me?—on Wednesday next—
But soft, what day is this?
                                                                                          Monday, my lord.
—Monday ha, ha! Well, Wednesday is too soon,
A 'Thursday let it be—a 'Thursday, tell her,
She shall be married to this noble earl.
Will you be ready? do you like this haste?

(III. 4. 15)

That ‘the time is very short’, as Friar Lawrence declares significantly in the first line of Act IV, manifests itself in the stuttering anacoluthons that interrupt Capulet's thought and speech. The proximity of a definite date, of finite time, lends the language of the later acts a frantic, importunate quality.

The Phaethon story engages the question of romance continuity versus tragic closure on another front. Montague and Capulet end the play hand in hand. At once a travesty of their children's marriage ceremony and an echo of the ‘pilgrim's hands’ clasped at the lovers' first encounter, the final scene returns us full circle to the feud of the prologue, putting an end at last to ‘the continuance of their parent's rage’ (l. 10). Peaceful closure may have replaced the continuance of strife, but it is bought with the sacrifice of a greater, flesh-and-blood continuity. Romeo and Juliet are only children. With their death the direct line of each family comes to a dead end: both fathers will die without a successor. Romeo and Juliet ends, then, with an image of derelict fatherhood mended in intent by peace, but not restored to the natural cycle of generation.

Besides its allegory of temporal chaos, Phaethon is also a story of a father and son. In Romeo and Juliet, the movement of up and down, beginning and end, sunrise and sunset traces the play's parental argument. We first see Montague's fatherly concern when he notes the irony of the rising of the sun as compared to his son's setting retreat into darkness,

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son

(I. 1. 125)

After a brief appearance in Act III, his next and final entrance is accompanied by the same inversion of up and down, sunrise and sunset as in Act I. The old man is guided to his son's corpse by the Prince: ‘Come, Montague, for thou art early up ❙ To see thy son and heir now early down’ (V. 3. 208-09).

In retrospect, the imagery of an inverted solar cycle stands out as a signal of the dysfunction inherent in Montague and Romeo's relationship. Montague is a concerned parent to be sure, but one delinquent in counsel and control. Fatherhood, like all else in this Ovidian chronotope, is either mistimed or absent. As if in retribution for their negligence, both fathers (Montague and then Capulet) make a final gesture at conciliation: they promise to erect golden statues of each child. Where Ovid commemorates Phaethon's death with a marble tomb inscribed with an epitaph, Shakespeare marks their fall with the gaud and irony of competition over a pair of gold statues.

The Phaethon paradigm opens a chronotopic rift in Romeo and Juliet whose tragic consequences Shakespeare seeks to contain and mend with closing promises of romance renewal in despite of tragedy. From this perspective, the play's ending appears as a concession to generic exigency. The problem of dramatic asynchronicity and its resolution, however, is not limited to the generic architecture of beginning and end, and the figures of sunrise and sunset. The rift is tectonic, penetrating deep into the linguistic structures that underpin the play's temporal scaffolding, the lines, words, and syllables which juggle meaning in dialogue.

Staggered time disrupts logical sequences, impeding the characters' fundamental ability to know things either firsthand or by report, to hear messages and to see clues. Linguistic disjunction, though present in the opportunities for missed or misheard meaning from the prologue onward, reaches its incoherent crux in Act III, Scene 2, the scene following Juliet's ‘Gallop apace you fiery-footed steeds’ soliloquy and the point in the play at which the flow of time is most drastically distended. Struggling to interpret the Nurse's dire message, Juliet sees her doom reduced to a matter of ‘bare vowels’ and ‘brief sounds’. In her frantic lament we again feel the stirring of short time within a fast frame whose effect is now linguistic and visual. Timing here distorts the significance of sounds and sights by abbreviating them. Juliet asks a simple question, ‘Hath Romeo slain himself?’, but demands a monosyllabic answer, ay or no, too short for a full account.

                                                                      Say thou but ‘ay’,
And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more
Than the darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I, if there be such an ‘ay’,
Or those eyes shut, that makes thee answer ‘ay’.
If he be slain, say ‘ay’, or if not, ‘no’:
Brief sounds determine my weal or woe.(8)

(l. 45)

The tortured coupling of vowels each charged with a different denotation (I (self), ay (yes), and eye(sight)) forms a parcel of associations too densely packed for any playgoer to unravel fully in the few moments in which it is delivered. But perhaps this is the effect Shakespeare wants to illustrate: another case of ‘What here/hear shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend’. Juliet's all too brief sounds demonstrate in the audience's too brief interpretive time the hermeneutic insufficiency she herself is experiencing.

This passage has provoked vexed criticism.9 It may be viewed as a fugue of jumbled media whose inwrought motif counterpoints sights (eye) with sounds (I/ay), what is seen with what is articulated. Earlier Juliet, commenting to Romeo on the celerity of their engagement, inaugurates this pattern of disjunction in the memorable imagery of lightning ‘which doth cease to be ❙ Ere one can say “It lightens”’ (II. 2. 119-20). Lightning is a deceptive kind of illumination not merely because it is ‘too sudden’ but because the thunder does not accompany the flash, the sound the sight. Later, with the Nurse, the pace of the action is no longer too sudden but too slow; the décalage between what is seen and heard, however, still obtains. At this moment in the play what the Nurse has seen does not synchronize with what she says, causing Juliet to infer mistakenly that Romeo is dead. Her answer does not conform to the required ay or no, but it does respond to Juliet's theme of eye and I/ay, visual and verbal signals:

I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes
(God save the mark!), here on his manly breast:
A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse,
Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaubed in blood,
All in gore blood;

(III. 2. 52)

concluding, ‘I sounded at the sight’. What she means is ‘I swooned at the sight’ or in Elizabethan English ‘swounded’. But Shakespeare's choice of the variant form ‘sounded’ is not, I think, without significance. There is a tradition behind the wordplay which, if we swerve to follow, should lead back again to Ovid, adding method to Juliet's anguished homophony.

At his most froward, Shakespeare creates fruitful misunderstandings in the plot by shattering language and then playing with the random shards. Individual letters, their sounds and shapes become pieces in a pedantic game of misreading and mishearing exploited to humorous and at times cruel effect. Juliet's ‘I am not I, if there be such an “ay”’, is less a sign of verbal distress or confusion than an articulation of a deep-rooted ambiguity. ‘I am not I’ expresses the lack of equation (InI) between sign and signifier, sight/sound and meaning, and by extension the radical doubt that lovers, like letters, can ever successfully couple. Consider Juliet's retort to Romeo at the balcony,

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’;
And I will take thy word; yet if thou swear'st,
Thou may'st prove false: at lovers' perjuries
They say Jove laughs.

(II. 2. 90)

Her linguistic cynicism, Ovidian at heart (she quotes Ars Amatoria, (I, 663: ‘Iuppiter ex alto periuria ridet amantum’), is justified: ‘Ay’ is both the assent that inaugurates the lovers' bond and the sound uttered when it is broken. But it is more too than a sound of pain. ‘Ay’ in Romeo and Juliet is simultaneously the basic syllable of grief and of bitter disillusionment with language, the brief sound of woe uttered in the face of an irrelative world where language fails to connect people in time and place.

The misunderstandings that plague Romeo and Juliet grow out of a quibble over letters and grow into an increasingly desperate discontinuity between intention and expression, literal and figurative, fact and message. Missing threatens ultimately to isolate the lovers from each other like Narcissus and Echo, by disrupting the means by which they synchronize in time and place. In Romeo and Juliet, the Narcissus and Echo myth acts as a model for a linguistic game of hide-and-seek gone awry: watching which begets hiding which begets calling. Romeo, like Narcissus evading pursuit, is the hider; Juliet, like Echo, is the caller; and the families participate as attendant callers, watchers and seekers. In the rest of the essay, I would like to explore the acoustic and visual elements of this game.

In his classic study of the sociology of games, Johan Huizinga identifies three salient characteristics of play, the third of which is its separateness in time and space.

Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. This is the third main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place. […] Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over’. […] A closed space is marked out for it, either materially or ideally, hedged off from the everyday surroundings. Inside this space the play proceeds, inside it the rules obtain.10

Delimiting play time is the express concern of Romeo and Juliet's prologue. It accomplishes a specific task: to survey the limits of the peculiar ludic dimension that is drama, and to make the audience aware of the spatio-temporal rules which govern it. We are compelled to share the angst of mistiming: missed words, missed meetings, missed meaning, personalizing the experience of romance by making us enter its chronotope.

Missing is also a consequence of location. Shakespeare's romances go to great pains to define spaces onstage that are just large enough for characters to conceal themselves or their words yet small enough for them to spy and eavesdrop on each other. Effectively, Shakespeare opens a romance niche at the cusp between the public and the private, a space of uncertain signs rife with echoes and illusions.

The game of hide-and-seek in Romeo and Juliet needs to define ludic space onstage, to travel the margins between public and private, and generically to shift from game to earnest, romance to tragedy. Romeo hides three times in the play, first as part of his lover's game and then, when hiding turns to enforced banishment, the lusory version to the tragic, out of mortal jeopardy. Following Tybalt's death, the Prince decrees new, condign rules to hide-and-seek: ‘Let Romeo hence in haste, ❙ Else, when he is found, that hour is his last’ (III. 1. 185-86). Indeed, the next time Romeo is found is in the tomb; the game has ended. While the lovers live, and even in death, they try to enclose themselves in a world remote from public traffic, yet still within a community. Many of Romeo and Juliet's most important moments occur on the periphery of public space where the rules of Ovidian-style hide-and-seek obtain. Shakespeare stakes out those boundaries vocally with calls of ‘where’ and answers of ‘here’ that act like sonar to establish a character's presence or absence and draw the effective perimeters of hearing and mishearing.

Earlier, I made the claim that the prologue introduces the potential for mishearing in the play with a pun on the words ‘miss’ and ‘here’ [hear], linking the act of hearing to the fact of being present, comprehension to synchronicity in time and place. Now, if a character's mishearing is a consequence of his not being ‘here’, then it stands to reason that when he mishears he is not present. But if he is not present then he could not hear at all. To mishear, therefore, a character would have to be absent-in-presence, or present-in-absence. How does Shakespeare convey such in-betweenness on the stage of Romeo and Juliet? Moreover, if the romance chronotope exists at the juncture between the private and the public, how does Shakespeare create a space that qualifies as both? In answering these questions, let us consider how he correlates space to hearing in the initial group scenes and compare them to later private scenes.

Following the incivilities of the first scene, Prince Escales addresses the crowd that has gathered:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbour-stainèd steel—
Will they not hear?—

(I. 1. 72)

Already the potential for mishearing has been realized. Not that the Montagues and Capulets cannot hear, but that amidst the crowd of citizens, the Prince's call is not selective enough for the offenders to know they are being spoken to. Unheard the first time, the Prince must cultivate an intimate voice for a public arena, one which singles out a group within the group, or in actor's parlance, he must learn to project. Once the crowd has dispersed, the Montagues are left alone on stage to talk among themselves. Brilliantly, the scene records the movement from public speech to private speech, public hearing to intimate hearing, leaving us with an incipient sense of the vocal parameters of the stage.11

Capulet's party, the next group scene, heightens the earlier tension between private and public by narrowing the stage from street to hall and making presence and absence an enforcible matter. A feeling of dangerous play, of boundaries transgressed, now pervades the atmosphere of the hall. First, the Montagues' uninvited attendance compromises its privacy. And yet, because it is a masked ball everyone is in a sense absent-in-presence. Anonymity is the presiding rule of this game, allowing guests to ‘hear all, all see’ (I. 2. 30) as Capulet advertises to Paris, and yet not be seen or heard per se. While the stage may be narrow, the scene, as we begin to learn from the actors' calls, can be made to seem any size necessary simply by showing the range at which characters fail to hear each others' voices. Of course, artificial acoustic boundaries are easily intruded upon; overhearing is a threat to privacy from anywhere on the stage since all voices, no matter how soft, must carry into the audience. Tybalt, listening in on the Montagues, discovers Romeo by his voice: ‘This, by his voice, should be a Montague’ (I. 5. 53) and communicates his discovery in protected whispers to Capulet.

On such a stage, privacy is a near impossibility. In the second fight scene Benvolio acknowledges explicitly the desire to retreat from public space, urging Mercutio to take his quarrel with Tybalt elsewhere:

We talk here in the public haunt of men:
Either withdraw unto some private place,
Or reason coldly of your grievances,
Or else depart; here all eyes gaze on us.

(III. 1. 43)

Against this backdrop of paranoid surveillance, Juliet employs two vocative strategies designed to isolate Romeo and herself from the crowd and to communicate intimately despite intrusive listeners. At first she assumes an Ovidian voice, ‘tearing the cave where Echo lies’, whose brief iterations, like their namesake's, fail to lure her love closer. When she does manage to summon Romeo into presence, however, it is with the falconer's voice, a metaphor which evolves delicately during the course of the first balcony scene. Here she trains her lover to her timbre,

Hist, Romeo, hist! O for a falc'ner's voice,
To lure this tassel-gentle back again:
Bondage is hoarse, and may not speak aloud,
Else I would tear the cave where Echo lies,
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine
With repetition of my Romeo's name.

(II. 2. 158)

Her predicament is similar in the private sphere to that of the Prince in the public. Whereas he must project to be heard by his desired audience, she must whisper her shouts and communicate a message to one person and one alone so as to combat the kind of overhearing and vocal detection that Tybalt practised upon Romeo.

In a chapter entitled ‘How to Lewre a Falcon litely manned’ in The Book of Faulconrie (1575), George Turberville describes Juliet's intended method, ‘goe further off and lewre hir […] using the familiar voyce of the Falconers as they crie when they lewre’ (p. 107). Although the word ‘hist’ is an unattested example, it probably belongs to falconry's vocabulary of calls.12 In the process of becoming the other's bird (Romeo cries: ‘I would I were thy bird’ (II. 2. 182)) the lovers are learning not merely to recognize each other's voices, but to use the method and vocabulary of private speech. Their vocal imprinting finds perfect expression in the metaphor of hawk-training. When Romeo cries ‘My niësse’, a renaissance audience would have understood that a niësse is a nestling hawk still in its eyrie and an animal at the ideal age to be captured and trained, just as the young lovers are training each other. Some would most likely know, as well, that the first lesson in falconry is ‘To make your Hawke know your voyce’, and that such training requires retreat to a dark, secluded, ‘secrete place’ exactly like Juliet's garden.13

As is often the case, Shakespeare's extended metaphor here bears a marked symmetry to the fine details of the subject being compared. Not merely are the young lovers like young hawks in training, they employ the same esoteric calls and occupy the same ‘secrete places’: the balcony as a niësse's arboreal perch which the Nurse has already prefigured (‘I must […] fetch a ladder, by the which your love ❙ Must climb a bird's nest' (II. 5. 71-73)), the gloaming seclusion of the garden. Their senses are finely tuned to an accipitrine world, finding private meaning as does the falcon in bird calls. For Romeo in the second balcony scene, the voice of the lark, the falcon's most common prey, bids flight while Juliet's nightingale bids a falconer's return. Finally, both inhabit a domain whose limits are like the hawk's. At once prisoners bound first by familial ties and then by mutual love like the falcon by his gyves, they are yet native to a boundless airy realm augmented in scope by heightened senses of night vision and hearing.

In the Narcissus tale, Ovid illustrates the idea of language as a spatio-temporal problem in the frustrated dialogue of nymph and ephebe: a call followed by an answer which, as an echo, is really not an answer but another call and so on. Emotionally and physically, Narcissus and Echo never coincide. While Narcissus is absent in feeling, Echo is absent in body (she withers away), present everywhere in sound but nowhere in flesh. The paradox of presence-in-absence is one that Shakespeare signals in Romeo and Juliet with a kind of ubi est topos.

Both Romeo and Juliet are first introduced in the play on a question of their locale. Lady Montague asks ‘O where is Romeo’, and Lady Capulet ‘Nurse, where's my daughter? call her forth to me’. Elsewhere, Benvolio and Mercutio call Romeo without success in the first scene. Romeo's removal in time to the earliest hours of the morning matches his removal in place to the covert of the wood and later the garden which in turn matches the locus amoenus Narcissus enters to separate himself from the other youths. Unlike Juliet's eventual ‘Madam, I am here’ (I. 3. 7), Romeo answers ‘I am not here, ❙ This is not Romeo, he's some other where’ (I. 1. 188-89). At each remove, Romeo's separateness doubles an Ovidian romance paradigm, while drawing Juliet away into a shared removedness. The vocative topos emphasizes not only the angst surrounding the lovers' absence, but their joint isolation, an isolation which becomes a unity in time and place in their own, private chronotope.

The rest of the play's action can be viewed as a series of intrusions upon the lovers' intimate sphere. There are attempts to enter it (Paris), calls to lure one out (Mercutio, Benvolio), and claims to belong within (Lady Capulet, Nurse). Entry, however, is protected by a system of voice recognition. ‘Ay, me’, an interjection that gains in significance as the play continues, becomes the shibboleth for inclusion in Act I. Mimicking a conjurer summoning a spirit from the realm of lovesickness, Mercutio takes up where Benvolio's calls to the hidden Romeo leave off:

He ran this way and leapt this orchard wall.
Call, good Mercutio.
                                                                      Nay, I'll conjure too.
Romeo! humours! madman! passion! lover!
Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh,
Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied;
Cry but ‘Ay, me!’

(II. 1. 5)

Romeo resists Mercutio's conjuration as a trespass on his privacy; for the same reason Paris will resist Romeo's supposed trespass in the tomb scene:

Fly hence and leave me […]
Stay not, be gone; live, and hereafter say,
A madman's mercy bid thee run away.
I do defy thy conjuration.

(V. 3. 60; 65)

Similarly, Juliet awakening in the tomb asks the Friar: ‘Where is my lord? ❙ I do remember well where I should be; ❙ And there I am. Where is my Romeo?’ (V. 3. 148-50). He can do no better than urge her to leave her dead husband, to which she delivers the mordant rebuke ‘Go get thee hence, for I will not away’ (V. 3. 160). In the romance chronotope, the third wheel or terzo incomodo as Harry Levin calls him, must remain the odd man out.14 Mercutio's ineffectual request for an ‘Ay, me!’ contrasts with Juliet's instant success when she utters the words a scene later to the hidden Romeo and he replies: ‘She speaks’ (II. 2. 25). Hers is truly the falconer's voice that, upon pronouncement of the magic syllables, brings her bird from absence-in-presence into full presence, admitting him to the intimate sphere. He knows her voice. Indeed, intimacy is the only criterion for admission. Juliet also rejects both her mother and the nurse's bid for coincidence and re-asserts instead her own separateness. Thus, the consequence of the vocative topos for both lovers is the same: isolation from the public traffic of the play, and in their mutual isolation a shared presence-in-absence, a union in their own chronotope.

Hide-and-seek in the Ovidian mode is tantamount to a game of exclusion from and inclusion in a private sphere to which recognition of voice or image is the entrance ticket. All the more complicated, then, is the predicament of Narcissus who must recognize himself first before he can admit another into shared intimacy. As with Narcissus, the ultimate obstacle to Romeo and Juliet's mutual inclusion is self-recognition, while the danger is the illusion of recognition. Juliet, when she learns he has killed Tybalt, must overcome her suspicions that Romeo's beautiful image disguises a mirror reality within: ‘Despisèd substance of divinest show! ❙ Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st’ (III. 2. 77-78). And the affected Romeo of the first act, whom Coleridge rightly blames for being narcissistically ‘in love only with his own idea’,15 does learn selflessness in love, such that he may say to his rival and mirror image Paris, ‘I love thee better than myself’ (V. 3. 65).

Narcissus, at the moment of recognition, exclaims ‘Iste ego sum’ (I am he). The early Romeo and Juliet refuse self-identity: ‘I have lost myself […] This is not Romeo’; ‘I am not I’. If Shakespeare's wordplay justifies indulgent interpretation, ‘Ay, me’, the only call that successfully brings the couple together in space and time, represents their moment of self-knowledge, translating Narcissus's ‘Iste ego sum’ into a rough equivalent, ‘I, me’: a romance anagnorisis.

‘In speech’, writes John Hoskins in Directions for Speech and Style (c. 1599), ‘there is no repetition without importance’.16 Repeated words, he suggests, amplify in psychological significance as they recur. In truth, however, it would be fairer to say that repetition is a mode of meaning for the spectator. Blinkered by proximity or participation, the characters in Romeo and Juliet find instances of repetition random and incoherent. For Romeo and Juliet as for Narcissus and Echo, the tragic experience is not edifying. For us, however, their story has meaning as a poetic unity in the Aristotelian sense: that is, a completeness defined by the limits of time and place imposed upon an action. It is meaningful because we watch at a remove from the action, further even and thus wider in scope than the watchers within the play who yet manage to glean something from their witness. Two kinds of watching by two different audiences thus take place in Romeo and Juliet: the intimate and the critical. The first both invites and inhibits the second. Critical watching must never give way to action lest the watcher be drawn into the chronotope and lose sight of the action's broader unity; for to enter the romance chronotope is to abandon the context of meaning.

The closer the watchers in Romeo and Juliet come to involvement, the more they defeat each others' purposes. In Act IV, the Friar proposes to Juliet that while she sleeps out her little death in the tomb, he will join Romeo in watching her wake (IV. 1); in the opposing camp, Lord Capulet announces his intention to stay awake in order to help Paris with his contending suit (IV. 2). A watched pot never boils, so the saying goes, and by the same logic, watched lovers can never elope, have sex, and kill themselves. The underlying assumption is that just as watching invites action, it inhibits action.

Far from preventing tragedy, however, the Friar's vigilance which is at once active and disengaged, compounds it. He is neither distant enough to watch well nor near enough to act well: he arrives too late to watch with Romeo Juliet's revival and prevent his premature suicide, and leaves too soon thereafter to prevent Juliet's return coup. The job botched, Friar Lawrence tries desperately to hide the evidence by disposing of Juliet ‘among a sisterhood of nuns’ before the Watch comes to watch his watching. Ultimately, the Friar's negligence at watching implicates him in the crime of not acting.

In the final scene, the various games of hide-and-seek, calling and watching culminate in an indictment not merely of the Friar but of the feuding families for the time they have let pass without acting, for their indulgence in meaningless child's play that has served only to forestall real solutions, for their inability to draft a language strong enough to bridge the gulf between them. In relief stands the example of Juliet and Romeo who overcome their temporal and linguistic disjunction through decisive action. Now, with Friar Lawrence's trial, Shakespeare recapitulates the sequence of mistimed events that results in tragedy, outlining for the characters and the audience once again the defining events of a romance chronotope and the problem of mistiming and misplacement that characterizes it. Friar Lawrence begins and ends his defence with an admission of guilt by omission:

I am the greatest, able to do least,
Yet most suspected, as the time and place
Doth make against me of this direful murder […]
                    and if ought in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed some hour before his time.

(V. 3. 223; 266; my italics)

The Friar's alibi finds him at the right place but always a moment in retard:

But when I came [to the Capulet's vault], some minute ere the time
Of her awakening, here untimely lay
The noble Paris and true Romeo dead.


The servant Balthasar's alibi, on the other hand, mentions only place, and his departing right after:

I brought my master news of Juliet's death,
And then in post he came from Mantua
To this same place.

(l. 272)

Effectively, both witnesses exculpate themselves, ‘mend’ their complicity, by arguing that because of mistiming they were and yet were not there, an argument that summarizes the fundamental tragic paradox of presence in absence which unites the motifs of watching and hiding, calling and echoing.

Tragedy, indeed all poetic expression, arises out of absence and in opposition to a presence.17 There must be an unknown, a missing element that destabilizes the plot productively, that frustrates meaning, while at the same time providing an authoritative presence against which the characters struggle in their attempt to mend it. The time it takes for this cycle to be completed decides the genre of the work. In epic, with its vast scope and multiple characters, the completion of this cycle or chronotope is long: Homer, as Northrop Frye reminds us, called it periplomenon eniauton and Vergil labentibus annis.18 In romance, where the plot depends upon the encounters of a single couple, the chronotope is short. Ovidian time concentrates the move from absence to presence into a series of actions and verbal exchanges between two people, or as Bakhtin says meetings and non-meetings. Meaning appears abrupt in such an abbreviated timeframe. It is not insignificant therefore, that Shakespeare accords a two-hour time span to a romance, rather than say a history; a time span which by most accounts is wholly insufficient for the play to be performed. Two hours is not a mistake, I would suggest, but the acknowledgement of a chronotope that is inherently insufficient for its subject, which must truncate and distort its account for a quick burn, for who could bear a middle-aged Romeo and Juliet?


  1. Romeo and Juliet, ed. by Blakemore Evans, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). All subsequent quotations from the play will be from this edition.

  2. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 305.

  3. Tales of Love, trans. by L. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 213.

  4. The Dialogic Imagination, trans. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 92.

  5. Petrarch's image of Time guided in the chariot of the sun in Triumphus Temporis, l. 46, was influential in Renaissance poetics. Panofsky argues the importance of Phaethon's chariot to Renaissance iconography, citing the work of Nicholas Poussin, in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 93.

  6. Ovid and Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 177.

  7. See the introduction in Romeo and Juliet, ed. by Brian Gibbons (London: Routledge, 1980) p. 58; Bate, p. 177; J. C. Gray, ‘Some Renaissance Notions of Love, Time and Death’, Dalhousie Review, 48 (1968), p. 64.

  8. Q2 substitutes ‘I’ for ‘ay’ in lines 45, 48, and 49; see Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 36, n.

  9. Dr Johnson's comment on Shakespeare's penchant for the pun, that it is ‘the fatal Cleopatra for which [Shakespeare] lost the world and was content to lose it’, has attracted more credence for its wit than its substance deserves. Blakemore Evans expresses Johnsonian prejudice in his note on this passage (p. 32). See also Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, ed. by Robert Sandler (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 26; Kristeva, p. 215.

  10. Homo Ludens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), pp. 9, 19. See also Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (New York: Free Press, 1961), p. 7.

  11. James Calderwood sees a similar spatial distinction in the scene between public and private, commenting upon ‘the two divided spheres of the opening scene, the public quarrel in the streets and Romeo's private dotage on Rosaline’ (Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 118).

  12. Turberville cites ‘wo, ho, ho’, ‘hey lo’, and ‘hey, gar, gar’ as various commands.

  13. Turberville, p. 143.

  14. See Levin's chapter on ‘Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet’, in Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

  15. Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare, ed. by T. Ashe, (London, 1885), p. 323.

  16. John Hoskins, Directions for Speech and Style, ed. by H. Hudson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1935), p. 12.

  17. See Harold Bloom, ‘Poetic Crossing: Rhetoric and Psychology’, The Georgia Review, 30 (1976), 495-524 (p. 495).

  18. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 318.


Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 65)


Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 87)