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Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed plays. The familiar story of star-crossed adolescent lovers and their feuding families has enjoyed a richly diverse legacy and has been adapted for films, musicals, operas, ballets, and television productions. Despite the play's tragic elements, the work has been endlessly lampooned, particularly the famous balcony scene. Jana J. Monji (2002) reviews a recent parody staged by the Troubadour Theater Company in Burbank, California, featuring American pop music from the 1980s. Titled Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates, the production is characterized as “bawdy fun,” according to Monji, but is definitely not for purists. Dave Kehr (2001) reviews another recent adaptation, Brooklyn Babylon, a film loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. The film, directed by Marc Levin, features rival ethnic groups in Crown Heights, represented by a “hip-hop Romeo” and a “Hasidic Juliet.” Reviewer Heather Neill (2003) notes that Shakespeare's famous play “lends itself to all kinds of interpretation.” Neill reviews two recent unusual stagings in London: the Theatre Vesturport's production of Romeo and Juliet, which featured acrobats on trapezes, and the Splinter Group's production of Shakespeare's R & J, told from the perspectives of four teenage boys.

The original version of Romeo and Juliet was probably written in 1595, and appeared in print in 1597 as the First Quarto (a small, paperback edition). Because of the numerous additions, deletions, and alterations to the original text, Shakespeare scholars disagree on whether the First or Second Quarto (1599) can be considered the authoritative text. Modern critics generally privilege the second edition over the earlier version, which is regarded as a “bad” quarto, or a text written from memory by witnesses or participants in the production. However, scholar Cedric Watts (1995) suggests that the First Quarto is useful for its insight into the way in which the play was originally staged and performed. Contemporary editors have often borrowed stage directions and additional verse from the First Quarto, but the Second Quarto, commonly referred to as the “Good Quarto,” remains the dominant version. Stanley Wells (1996) explores some of the staging and interpretive challenges faced by modern directors of Romeo and Juliet. According to Wells, directors must take into account that audiences have been influenced by a number of derivative ballets, operas, symphonies, and films. These offshoots, Wells asserts, “create images that superimpose themselves on the Shakespearian text, forming expectations in the imaginations of the play's interpreters and audiences which subtly affect our response.”

Character studies of the principals in Romeo and Juliet constitute a great deal of the play's criticism; however, modern scholars have turned their attention to the minor players as well. William B. Toole (1980) praises Shakespeare's skill in creating secondary characters whose dialogue carry significant meaning for the play as a whole. Toole offers the example of the Nurse, whose seemingly insignificant anecdote on Juliet's infancy “foreshadows a theme close to the heart of the play: growth through adversity.” Similarly, Paula Newman and George Walton Williams (1982) explore the characterization of Paris, Juliet's other suitor, as the mirror image of Romeo. The parallel, they claim, is “evident in verbal description, in action, and in dialogue.” Sasha Roberts (see Further Reading) concentrates less on single characters than on the interactions between them, specifically the family dynamics of marriage and parenthood. Roberts concludes that the main focus of the play is “rivalry between civic, household, and church fathers,” stressing the connection between public and private realms. This connection between public and private is further explored by Chris Fitter (2000), who examines the violent behavior of the feuding Montagues and Capulets within the context of the 1595 London riots.

Modern criticism also centers on the nature of Romeo and Juliet's love relationship, described by J. C. Gray (1968) as “that erotic, heterosexual love that is intense, mutual, and short-lived.” That such relationships often end in death is discussed by Laurence Lerner (1986), who maintains that while the play connects love and death, the lovers' feelings do not quite constitute a death wish, since “whatever longing there is for the ecstasy of annihilation, is concealed.” Critical speculation abounds on the specific nature of the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. Some scholars view the play as a tragedy of fate, wherein Romeo and Juliet are victims of circumstances beyond their control, while other view it as a tragedy of character, wherein the couple bears some responsibility for the play's outcome. Ruth Nevo (1969) suggests that Romeo and Juliet forgoes these traditional views, and contends that the play is a “tragedy of chance” (dependent on accident and coincidence), a form unique to Shakespeare in her view. Joseph S. M. J. Chang (1967) contends that the play is not a tragedy of character and disputes the common assessment of the work as primarily a love story; rather, he suggests, “the play exploits a love-centered situation to explore problems of larger import, the abiding concerns of time, death, and immortal aspiration.”

Cedric Watts (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Watts, Cedric, ed. Introduction to An Excellent Conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, pp. 13-22. London: Prentice Hall, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

[In the following introduction, Watts compares the First and Second Quarto editions of Romeo and Juliet.]

Brace yourself for some scholarly jargon.

The First Quarto (Q1) of Romeo and Juliet, a small paperback, was printed in 1597, the Second Quarto (Q2) in 1599. Subsequent versions—Q3 (1609), Q4 (1622), First Folio (1623) and Q5 (1637)—were all derivative, without independent authority. Recent editors suggest (with variations) that Q3 was reprinted from Q2, with some consultation of Q1; Q4 from Q3, again with consultation of Q1; Q5 from Q4; and that the First Folio was based mainly on Q3 and partly on Q4.1

What all this boils down to is that the strange text reprinted in this volume is one of the two early texts from which stem all the familiar modern editions of Romeo and Juliet. Its strangeness exposes by contrast the numerous ways in which the play has been editorially changed (or distorted) to make it congenial to modern readers.

The First Quarto is widely regarded as a ‘Bad Quarto’, a text largely reconstructed from note-aided memory by reporters who may have been actors and who had witnessed (or participated in) one or more stage-productions.2 The Second Quarto is considerably longer, with 3,007 lines instead of 2,232, and is supposed to be based on Shakespeare's ‘foul papers’, i.e. a manuscript in untidy state before being rewritten to yield a ‘fair copy’. A complication is that from time to time the compositor of Q2 was guided by Q1. Generally, modern editors hold Q2 in high esteem and Q1 in low esteem.3

The evidence for regarding Q1 as a memorial reconstruction is complex and often persuasive, particularly in the instances of seemingly anticipatory lines.4 But this interpretative hypothesis depends partly on the notion of ‘Bardic infallibility’: the assumption that whereas material of relatively high quality is Shakespeare's, material of relatively (or allegedly) low quality is someone else's. This assumption is obviously questionable, as is the related assumption that what the reporters or ‘pirates’ were incompetently reporting was mainly what has emerged as Q2: this notion might be termed ‘textual prolepsis’.

The notion of ‘Bardic infallibility’ appears to have influenced the following editorial comments by Brian Gibbons on the speech made by the dying Mercutio:

The middle of the speech in Q1 is not Shakespeare; for his still impatient and headstrong Mercutio, suddenly caught by spasms of physical agony and anguished thoughts [i.e. the Mercutio of the later Q2 text], Q1 substitutes pedestrian hack-writing in dull rhythm, concluded with a dismally banal sententious couplet. The Q1 version recalls the rough shape and length of the speech, recognizes its dramatic function, but does not reproduce the words.

In a footnote, the editor adds:

The non-Shakespearean element in this speech may be a deliberate substitution (or ‘gag’) by the actor concerned, obviously without Shakespeare's endorsement.5

These comments sound authoritative, and may be right; clearly, however, the claim about ‘memorial reconstruction’ depends heavily here on the belief that Shakespeare was incapable of hack-writing and of banal sententious couplets. Yet Shakespeare's writing was highly variable in quality. Compared with the poetic eloquence of King Lear, for example, much of the verse of the earlier 1 Henry VI sounds ploddingly conventional; even within King Lear, there is considerable variation in the quality of the writing; and Shakespeare's plays are liberally sprinkled with sententious couplets which may sometimes be deemed ‘banal’. In the Q2 text of Romeo and Juliet, some passages are relatively mechanical and undistinguished, though others are energetic and vivid; Prologue, Prince, Friar Laurence, Capulet and his wife offer plenty of predictable sententiae.

The editor's footnote about Mercutio's ‘gag’ asserts that this was ‘obviously without Shakespeare's endorsement’: an assertion which is impossible to verify. It draws attention, nevertheless, to the likelihood that Q1 often bears a close relationship to what was actually performed; at times, indeed, Q1 gives a clearer insight into the stage practice than does Q2. Editors concede that some of the ‘omissions’ in Q1 may indicate cuts made for stage performance, and that various features of Q1 not found in Q2 may be actors' interpolations. For instance, the Nurse in Q1 says (uniquely) to Juliet: ‘Well theres a cleane smocke under your pillow, and so good night.’ If this line had appeared in Q2, it would doubtless have been commended as an instance of fine Shakespearean realism, a detail utterly appropriate to the character of the Nurse, and one of the many features which root the lyrical romance of Romeo and Juliet in a fully credible world of domestic activity and familiar mundanity.

Further evidence of the close relationship of Q1 to actual stage productions is provided by a series of stage-directions lacking from Q2. These include: ‘Enter Juliet somewhat fast, and embraceth Romeo’; ‘Enter Romeo and Juliet at the window’; ‘She [i.e. Juliet] goeth downe from the window’; ‘She fals upon her bed within the Curtaines’; ‘All at once cry out and wring their hands’ (when Juliet is discovered apparently dead); ‘They all but the Nurse goe foorth, casting Rosemary on her and shutting the Curtens.’ These provide uniquely valuable information on staging, locations and responses. In what modern texts give as Act III, scene iii, Romeo is prevented from stabbing himself, and Q1 gives the Nurse (not the Friar) the salutary role: ‘He offers to stab himselfe, and Nurse snatches the dagger away.’ Gibbons comments: ‘[I]t is hard to believe it represents Shakespeare's intentions, but Q1 probably records what happened in a performed version of the play.’6 Given that Shakespeare was fully involved in the company's productions (certainly as resident writer, share-holder and actor, and possibly in directorial activities), it seems rash to assume that what actually occurred on stage diverged from ‘Shakespeare's intentions’. Possibly the objection here is founded on the masculist presumption that only a man (the Friar) is capable of the brave action of snatching Romeo's dagger. But the Friar proves indecisive elsewhere, as when he hurries fearfully away, leaving Juliet unaided at the Capulet's vault; whereas the Nurse displays spirit in defending Juliet from her father's fury. The disputed action is, therefore, quite plausibly ‘in character’.

Any editorial attempt to treat Q1 as alien, merely pirated, unauthentic matter, and Q2 as essentially Shakespearean, is defeated by the repeated dependence of Q2 on Q1: a dependence most evident in a long passage which the 1980 Arden edition gives as I.ii.45-I.iii.34, where there is a remarkable degree of equivalence. In other places, however, there is stark difference between Q1 and Q2: for example, in the scene of the meeting at Friar Laurence's cell, and in the scene of parental lamentation over the supposedly dead Juliet. Gibbons assumes that ‘deficient memory’ on the part of the reporters is the explanation.7 It seems odd that ‘deficient memory’ should result in an elaborately different text for each scene rather than an abbreviated but roughly similar text; after all, the latter consequence is what the ‘memorial reconstruction’ theory postulates elsewhere. Guesswork (or Queen Mab) influences scholars' accounts of Q1.

To illustrate some differences between Q1 and Q2, to show how greatly our sense of the nature of the play may be influenced by modern editorial procedures, and to suggest the interpenetration of scholarly and critical considerations, I cite the speeches which in the 1980 Arden edition are located at the end of Act II, scene ii, and at the beginning of Act II, scene iii. First, here is the version offered by Q1:

Would I were thy bird.
Sweet so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherrishing thee.
Good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (breast,
Sleepe dwell upon thine eyes, peace on thy
I would that I were sleep and peace of sweet to rest.
Now will I to my Ghostly fathers Cell,
His help to crave, and my good hap to tell.
                    Enter Frier Francis. (night,
The gray ey'd morne smiles on the frowning
Checkring the Easterne clouds with streakes of light,
And flecked darkenes like a drunkard reeles,
From forth daies path, and Titans fierie wheeles:
Now ere the Sunne advance his burning eye,
The world to cheare, and nights darke dew to drie.
We must fill up this oasier Cage of ours,
With balefull weeds, and precious juyced flowers, [etc.]

Next, here is the version offered by Q2:

I would I were thy bird.
Sweete so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing:
Good night, good night.
Parting is such sweete sorrow,
That I shall say good night, till it be morrow.
Sleepe dwel upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.
Would I were sleepe and peace so sweet to rest
The grey eyde morne smiles on the frowning night,
Checkring the Easterne Clouds with streaks of light
And darknesse fleckted like a drunkard reeles,
From forth daies pathway, made by Tytans wheeles.
Hence will I to my ghostly Friers close cell,
His helpe to crave, and my deare hap to tell.
                    Enter Frier alone with a basket (night,
The grey-eyed morne smiles on the frowning
Checking the Easterne clowdes with streaks of light:
And fleckeld darknesse like a drunkard reeles,
From forth daies path, and Titans burning wheeles:
Now ere the sun advance his burning eie,
The day to cheere, and nights dancke dewe to drie,
I must upfill this osier cage of ours,
With balefull weedes, and precious juyced flowers, [etc.]

Finally, the version offered by the 1980 Arden edition. (Here the square brackets are those furnished in that text.)

I would I were thy bird.
                                                                                                                        Sweet, so would I:
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. 185
                                                                                                    [Exit Juliet.]
Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.
Would I were sleep and peace so sweet to rest.
The grey-ey'd morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And darkness fleckled like a drunkard reels 190
From forth day's pathway, made by Titan's wheels.
Hence will I to my ghostly Sire's close cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.                    Exit.


                    Enter Friar [Laurence] alone with a basket.
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer, and night's dank dew to dry,
I must upfill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.

The reader will notice that though many editors are convinced that Q2 is, in general, superior to and more authoritative than Q1, the 1980 edition not only follows Q1's arrangement of the lines now numbered 184-5 (which is more metrical in its rendering of the iambic pentameter) but also endorses Q1's ascription of line 186 to Romeo rather than to Juliet. Again, Q2 is clearly faulty in ascribing both to Romeo and to the Friar the four lines (now numbered 188-91) describing the dawn. Possibly Shakespeare revised them, and the compositor erroneously set in type both the earlier version and the revised version; scholars subsequently wrangle about which is which.

Whether these four lines should finally be ascribed to Romeo and not to the Friar is mainly a matter of critical judgement. The Arden editor has decided that ‘the lines are characteristic of Romeo rather than the uninventive personifications of the Friar’.8 The reader might argue, however, that since both Q1 and Q2 give these lines to the Friar, and since Q2's additional ascription of them to Romeo may be a mistaken allocation of some marginal rewriting, the Friar should (by two textual votes to one) be allowed these few moments of inventiveness. Besides, if the passage is given to Romeo, the transition from line 187 to 188 is oddly abrupt, particularly as he has good reason to think of this rapturous night as ‘smiling’ rather than ‘frowning’; whereas, if they are given to the Friar, these four lines about daybreak blend naturally with the following couplet about dew at dawn. So although that 1980 edition ascribes them to Romeo's speech at the end of Scene ii, other modern editions (for example, the Cambridge text, 1969, and The Riverside Shakespeare, 1974)9 ascribe them to the Friar's speech at the beginning of Scene iii. Here an ostensibly scholarly matter is clearly also a critical matter depending on, and affecting, judgements of character and pace.

If we turn from such details to the nature of Q1 as a whole, various features leap into prominence. One is its fluid momentum. The absence of numbered act and scene divisions gives the action a fluent continuity which is disrupted by the later convention of dividing the text into formal sections (though that convention is anticipated by ornamental features of Q1).10 The arbitrariness of some of these formal divisions is illustrated by the fact that modern texts which separate II.i from II.ii customarily divide a rhyming couplet so that the first half of it (at the end of a speech by Mercutio) falls on one side of the division, while the second half (at the beginning of a speech by Romeo) falls on the other side. The sense of Romeo's witty responsiveness depends on the continuity of the verse, thus:

… Come lets away, for tis but vaine,
To seeke him here that meanes not to be found.
He jests at scars that never felt a wound …

A larger example of justifiable fluidity is provided by the sequence which begins when Juliet drinks the potion. Modern editions divide the subsequent matter into IV.iv and IV.v, a custom which evoked the following comments from Harley Granville-Barker:

The curtains of the inner stage are drawn back to show us Juliet's bed. Her nurse and her mother leave her; she drinks the potion, and … She falls upon the bed within the curtains … What Shakespeare aims at in the episodes that follow is to keep us conscious of the bed and its burden …, till the bridal music is playing, till, to the very sound of this, the Nurse bustles up to draw back the curtains and disclose the girl there stark and still.

… It is one scene, one integral stretch of action; and its common mutilation by Scene iv. Hall in Capulet's house … Scene v. Juliet's chamber. Enter Nurse …, is sheer editorial murder.11

Another conspicuous feature is the relative brevity of Q1, particularly towards the end of the play. The notion that this is ‘the result of the bad memory of the reporters, especially in the last two acts’12 is clearly questionable. Memory does not necessarily decline between the opening and the close of a play; indeed, one might expect the highly dramatic events of the dénouement (and the poignant speeches of the lovers) to be exceptionally memorable. One explanation might be that the play as originally performed was abbreviated. After all, Romeo and Juliet is usually abridged in stage performances today; lengthy expository speeches, ‘difficult’ passages and ingenious ‘conceits’ commonly tempt the director's deletive pen. Another explanation is that revived by Steven Urkowitz: a ‘bad’ quarto ‘may simply be tentative and exploratory, like any other author's first drafts’;13 the gaps may sometimes represent not failures of memory but merely areas in which the text was later expanded by the author (and by others too, we might suppose; the collaborative nature of Elizabethan-Jacobean stagecraft should not be underestimated). The marked differences between the Q1, Q2 and F1 versions of Hamlet, for example, suggest a complex process of expansion, cutting and adaptation. Different circumstances (including political constraints), different staging at diverse locations, varying availability of actors, audience responses: all these would have their effects on the scripts and performances. Increasingly, the early texts of a particular Shakespearean play are regarded as protean material furnished for (and modified by) the use of players, rather than as approximations to some ever-elusive ideal text which an editor might vainly hope to realise.14

What the Q1 version of Romeo and Juliet makes clear is that, by returning to the early materials in all their diversity, we may see that the range of opportunities, for actors, directors, students and critics, is splendidly wider than the dominance of supposedly ‘authoritative’ composite texts might suggest. Far from being motivated by some antiquarian, archaeological zeal, this present edition of Romeo and Juliet is offered in the belief that it may help to liberate for today's readers and audiences the diverse potentialities of the play.

Notes and References

  1. See G. Blakemore Evans (ed.), The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 1093; Brian Gibbons (ed.), Romeo and Juliet (Arden Shakespeare; London: Methuen, 1980), pp. 1-2; Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 288; John F. Andrews (ed.), Romeo and Juliet (Everyman Library; London: Dent; Vermont: Tuttle; 1993), pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

  2. The ‘memorial reconstruction’ hypothesis (often, recently, attributed to W. W. Greg) was well established by 1874, when P. A. Daniel edited Romeo and Juliet. Parallel Texts of the First Two Quartos (London: Trübner); see particularly p. v. See also: W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 224-35; H. R. Hoppe, The Bad Quarto of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1948).

  3. See, for example: Richard Hosley, ‘The Corrupting Influence of the Bad Quarto on the Received Texts of Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (1953), pp. 11-33; J. Dover Wilson, ‘The New Way with Shakespeare's Texts’, Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), pp. 81-99, esp. p. 96; J. Dover Wilson and G. I. Duthie (eds), Romeo and Juliet (London: Cambridge University Press, 1955), pp. 112-18, esp. p. 117.

  4. See Gibbons (1980), pp. 4-5.

  5. Ibid., p. 6. Michael Allen and Kenneth Muir, on the other hand, say that the dying Mercutio's words constitute ‘[a] splendid example of a speech too good for a pirate’: Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1981), p. xv.

  6. Gibbons (1980), p. 12.

  7. Ibid., p. 7. Wells and Taylor, however, adopt Sidney Thomas's theory that some of this material may have been provided by the playwright Henry Chettle: see Wells and Taylor (1987), pp. 288, 289. Yet another theory is that these markedly variant passages are survivors from an old Romeo and Juliet play (now lost, author unknown) which Shakespeare was in the process of adapting. See F. G. Hubbard (ed.), The First Quarto of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1924), pp. 7-29.

  8. Gibbons (1980), p. 136.

  9. Dover Wilson and Duthie (1955), p. 38; Blakemore Evans (1974), p. 1070.

  10. Neither Q1 nor Q2 has numerical act and scene divisions. In the latter half of Q1, however, the printer has on various occasions deployed an ornamentally patterned band which extends sideways from margin to margin, and which appears at some significant pause, shift or climax in the action. There are eleven such occasions. Eight correspond to modern formal divisions (at the start of: III.v, IV.i, IV.ii, IV.iii, IV.iv, V.i, V.ii and V.iii). The other three appear at (in Gibbons' numberings) III.v.64 (Lady Capulet's entry) and immediately after V.iii.120 and V.iii.169. (The ornamental band may have been deployed to ensure the satisfactory filling of seven of the eight pages in the final gathering, signatures K-[K4].)

    Q2 provides a choric prologue for the material which is now usually printed as Act II. F1 specifies Act I, scene i, but thereafter enumerates no divisions. The familiar numerical divisions of modern texts were introduced by Rowe (1709), Pope (1723) and other eighteenth-century editors.

  11. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare [1930], Vol. 4 (London: Batsford, 1963), pp. 62-3.

  12. Gibbons (1980), p. 8.

  13. Steven Urkowitz, ‘Good News about “Bad” Quartos’, in Maurice Charney (ed.), ‘Bad’ Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp. 195, 196. See also: Tashdip Singh Bains, ‘The Bad Quarto of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and the Theory of Memorial Reconstruction’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 126 (1990), pp. 164-73; Grace Ioppolo, Revising Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 2-5, 89-93; Leah S. Marcus, ‘Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 (1991), pp. 168-78; Eric Sams, ‘Shakespeare and the Oxford Imprint’, Times Literary Supplement, 6 March 1992, p. 13.

  14. The new Everyman edition of Shakespeare's plays reflects the current revaluation of the early printed texts: it restores many features previously regarded as ‘archaic’ and eschewed by editors. The Everyman Romeo and Juliet, while customarily privileging Q2, reduces the number of scene divisions and retains considerably more of the early punctuation and spelling than has been usual, preserving (for instance) ‘Hart’ (for ‘heart’) and ‘Mountague’. Its editor, John F. Andrews, states that, apart from emendations drawn from the other early texts, ‘Everyman declines almost all of the emendations proposed by editors subsequent to the seventeenth century’ (p. xxxvi).

Stanley Wells (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Wells, Stanley. “The Challenges of Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Wells details the legacy of Romeo and Juliet, which includes productions in a variety of media as well as parodies and comic sketches.]

The story of Romeo and Juliet—one of the great myths of the Western world—first appeared fully formed in an Italian version of 1530, and since then has had a vigorous afterlife, not all of it deriving from Shakespeare. It has been frequently reincarnated and recollected in a multitude of forms and media—prose narratives, verse narratives, drama, opera, orchestral and choral music, ballet, film, television and painting among them. Besides being presented seriously it has been parodied and burlesqued; there are several full-scale nineteenth-century travesties of Shakespeare's play,1 and its balcony scene in particular has often formed the basis for comic sketches. Romeo is a type name for an ardent lover, and Juliet's ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ is often jokily declaimed even by people who have never read or seen the play.

Already when, around 1594, Shakespeare decided to base a play on the story, he was able to consult more than one version. He worked closely from The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, by Arthur Brooke (who, like the hero and heroine of the story, himself died young), first published in 1562 and reprinted in 1587. Brooke had used a moralistic French adaptation, by Pierre Boaistuau, of a story by the Italian Matteo Bandello, and Shakespeare probably also read William Painter's translation of Boaistuau in his Palace of Pleasure, of 1567.

Brooke's style is, to say the best, uninspired, but he provided Shakespeare with both a well laid-out story and much valuable detail. Brooke treated the events as historical, ending his poem with the statement that

The bodies dead removed from vault where they did die
In stately tomb on pillars great of marble raise they high.
On every side above were set and eke beneath
Great store of cunning epitaphs in honour of their death.
And even at this day the tomb is to be seen,
So that among the monuments that in Verona been
There is no monument more worthy of the sight
Than is the tomb of Juliet, and Romeus her knight.                    

These lines clearly influenced the end of Shakespeare's play, in which the effect of the lovers' deaths is to some extent alleviated by the consequent reconciliation of their feuding families; and the alleged historicity of the tale continues to be of value to the Veronese tourist industry.

For most people at the present time Shakespeare's play embodies the classic version of the story. But, although it is widely read and frequently performed, it has itself undergone adaptation, sometimes slight, sometimes substantial, in ways that are implicitly critical of the original. The play's ending has proved especially subject to alteration. In a lost version by James Howard performed shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tragedy was endowed with a happy ending (or perhaps one should say an even happier ending: one of my old professors, responding to a lady who said, after seeing a performance of Shakespeare's play, that she wished it ended happily, mischievously asked ‘O, don't you think it does?’) The result was that (as the prompter Downes wrote) ‘when the tragedy was revived again 'twas played alternately, tragical one day and tragi-comical another for several days altogether’.2 Not long after this, in 1680, Thomas Otway wrote a new play, Caius Marius, borrowing much of Shakespeare's dialogue. Apparently Otway was dissatisfied with Shakespeare's conclusion, in which Romeo dies before Juliet recovers from the sleeping potion given to her by the Friar. Otway, clearly—and perhaps rightly—thinking that Shakespeare had missed a good opportunity for an affecting passage of dialogue, conceived the notion of causing his heroine to wake before her lover expired, and gave them a touching duologue. When Theophilus Cibber came to adapt Shakespeare's play, in 1744, he incorporated passages from Otway, including the death scene, with only minor changes, and around the same time David Garrick, in a version that follows Shakespeare's text more closely, nevertheless seized upon Otway's basic idea, while writing a new duologue for the lovers in which they go successively mad. This was accepted into the theatrical tradition, and although the American Charlotte Cushman (playing Romeo) returned to Shakespeare in the mid-nineteenth century, Garrick's version appears not to have been completely abandoned until Henry Irving put on the play in 1882.

Garrick's death scene is easily guyed: ‘Bless me! how cold it is!’ says Juliet on waking, and later, ‘And did I wake for this!’; yet Francis Gentleman, writing in 1770, praised it highly: ‘no play ever received greater advantage from alteration than this tragedy, especially in the last act; bringing Juliet to life before Romeo dies, is undoubtedly a change of infinite merit. The whole dying scene does Mr Garrick great credit.’3 In its day, and for long afterwards, it must have been highly actable—and it gave the performer of Romeo a stronger death scene than Shakespeare had provided. Bernard Shaw, writing in 1894, described his first experience of the play, ‘in which Romeo, instead of dying forthwith when he took the poison, was interrupted by Juliet, who sat up and made him carry her down to the footlights, where she complained of being very cold, and had to be warmed by a love scene, in the middle of which Romeo, who had forgotten all about the poison, was taken ill and died’.4 No modern director would be likely to interpolate Garrick's words into Shakespeare's text, but in more than one production the terrible irony of the situation has been pointed by Juliet's showing signs of life as Romeo dies which are visible to the audience though not to him.5

In the twentieth century English-speaking productions have at least taken Shakespeare's original text as their point of departure, though the dénouement was radically altered in one of Stratford's more iconoclastic versions, the one directed by Michael Bogdanov in 1986. This modern-dress production came to be known as the Alfa-Romeo and Juliet because of the presence on stage during part of the action of a bright red sports car. Characteristically of this director, it had a strong political slant which manifested itself especially in his handling of the ending. Academic critics have suggested that when Montague and Capulet say that they will ‘raise the lovers' statues in pure gold’ they are revealing false, materialistic values.6 Bogdanov translated this suggestion into theatrical terms. His text came to a halt with Juliet's death; the dead lovers were covered with golden cloths and then, during a brief blackout, they sprang to attention and stood as their own statues; the final episode became a wordless media event, as reporters and photographers flooded the scene, the survivors posed in attitudes suggestive rather of a desire to have their photographs published in Hello! magazine than of either true grief or reconciliation, and the Prince spoke part of the prologue—omitted at the start—transposed to the past tense.

In this essay I want to concentrate on the text as it has come down to us in editions based normally on the ‘good’ Quarto of 1599 (though often incorporating stage directions, and occasionally other readings, from the ‘bad’ Quarto of two years before) and on some of the challenges faced by directors who try to translate this text into terms of modern theatre. I do not intend to be judgemental about this text; indeed, I shall deliberately refrain from expressing my own opinions about its theatrical viability. Theatre history clearly shows that lines, speeches, whole episodes that were unacceptable in other ages, and in other theatres than those of today, have been restored to theatrical life in more recent productions. Even so, the programme for Adrian Noble's, in 1995, admitted to the omission of about 564 lines—getting on for twenty per cent of the complete text. That presumably represented Noble's judgement of what could be made to work by his particular actors in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before the audiences going to that theatre in the theatrical conditions pertaining in 1995. It did not, I take it, claim to present an absolute judgement on the text's theatrical viability. Different textual cuts might be made in different circumstances even at the present time; it will be interesting to see if a full text will be presented in the new Globe, and if so, how it will work.

As I have said, twentieth-century productions, at least since John Gielgud's of 1935, in which he and Laurence Olivier successively played Romeo and Mercutio, and which also had Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet and Edith Evans as the Nurse, have tended to play fuller and purer texts than those of earlier ages; the BBC radio production by the Renaissance Theatre Company, available on audio cassette, uses a full text, but that is a special case, and it has to be admitted that even in our time some of the most theatrically exciting productions, including those of Peter Brook at Stratford in 1947 and Franco Zeffirelli at the Old Vic in 1960, have cut and otherwise altered the text extensively, presenting their vision of it in terms of the theatre of their time rather than offering text-centred performances. Indeed, both the directors I have named explicitly rejected engagement with the text's literary values; Brook declared that ‘To come to the theatre merely to listen to the words was the last decadence’, and Zeffirelli is reported to have ‘said repeatedly that he had no use for [the play's] verse’.7 And even directors who have been less radical in their treatment of the text than Brook and Bogdanov have made extensive cuts. Later I shall try to identify some of the main areas that have presented problems, and to suggest some reasons why they have done so.

The modern director's task is complicated by the fact that, since Shakespeare wrote, the story of the fated lovers has attracted many other creative artists, some of whom have drawn exclusively on Shakespeare, some on other versions of the tale, and others who have mixed the traditions. There is no reason, for instance, to suppose that Tchaikovsky went beyond Shakespeare for his immensely popular fantasy overture of 1869 (later revised), or Prokofiev and his choreographers for their ballet, first performed in 1938; on the other hand, Bellini's opera I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) appears to owe nothing to Shakespeare (though its double death scene bears a suspicious resemblance to Garrick's), and the librettists of the only other successful opera based on the story, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867), incorporated Garrick's tomb scene into their work, as does Berlioz (wordlessly) in his dramatic symphony of 1839.

The existence and popularity of symphonic, operatic, balletic, filmic, and other offshoots is relevant to the performance history of the play itself because they create images that superimpose themselves on the Shakespearian text, forming expectations in the imaginations of the play's interpreters and audiences which subtly affect our response to efforts to translate that text into performance. In the wonderful scène d'amour in Berlioz's work, long-breathed phrases accompanied by rhythmical pulsations speak eloquently of passionate yearning in a manner that would not lead listeners to expect the humour that also lies latent in Shakespeare's dialogue; and Berlioz's musical depiction of the gradual dispersal of the masquers into the night, apparently strumming their guitars and humming snatches of half-remembered song, is not only theatrical as well as musical in its effect but appeared to be reflected, whether consciously or not, in one of the more sensitively directed episodes of Michael Bogdanov's production with the dying away of the sounds of motor bikes as revellers left the Capulets' ball. In a different way, the long tradition of scenically spectacular productions, aided and abetted by the popularity of Zeffirelli's film (discussed in later essays in this volume), with its beautiful Tuscan settings, may lead theatregoers to expect visual splendours.

Also relevant to modern theatrical interpretations is the play's complex literary background. Although the often incandescent quality of its verse is responsible for much of the admiration that the play has evoked, at the same time its self-conscious literariness has repeatedly been implicitly or explicitly criticized as detrimental to its theatrical effectiveness. ‘It is a dramatic poem rather than a drama’, wrote Henry Irving, ‘and I mean to treat it from that point of view.’8 For all that, he omitted a lot of its poetry while succeeding, according to Henry James, only in making ‘this enchanting poem’ ‘dull … mortally slow’ and ‘tame’ by ‘smothering’ it ‘in its accessories’.9 The history of critical and theatrical reactions to the play demonstrates the fact that Shakespeare worked in a far more literary mode than has been fashionable in the theatre of later ages, and that its literariness has often been regarded as a theatrical handicap.

In a memorable tribute, T. J. B. Spencer wrote that ‘Nothing in European drama had hitherto achieved the organisation of so much human experience when Shakespeare, at the age of about thirty, undertook the story of Juliet and Romeo.’10 The manner in which the play organizes experience is highly self-conscious and deeply indebted to a variety of literary traditions. Many devices of parallelism and repetition create an almost architectural sense of structure. This structure is defined by the appearances of the Prince of Verona. Some productions bring him on to speak the Prologue, appropriately enough since his three appearances within the action have something of a choric function. We first see him in his own right as he enters to exercise his authority at the height of the brawl between the followers of Montague and Capulet in the opening scene; he makes one formal though impassioned speech, and his departure marks a turning point from the public to the private action of the play as Benvolio, after recapitulating what has happened in lines that are usually abbreviated, describes the symptoms of Romeo's love-sickness for Rosaline. The Prince's second appearance comes at the climax of the play's second violent episode, culminating in the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio, which provokes him to another display of authority as he banishes Romeo, the principal turning point of the action; and he reappears in the final scene to preside over the investigation into the lovers' deaths and to apportion responsibility. His are the closing lines which round off the play, returning it to the condition of myth:

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

The formality evident in the appearances of the Prince recurs in many other aspects of the play's design. Shakespeare is still sometimes regarded as an inspired improviser, and perhaps in some plays he was, but it is impossible not to feel that before he started to write the dialogue of this play he worked out a ground plan as carefully as if he had been designing an intricate building. One could point, for example, to the parallels in function between Mercutio and the Nurse, both of whom are almost entirely of Shakespeare's creation: he a companion and foil to Romeo, she to Juliet, he consciously mocking Romeo's romanticism with high-spirited, bawdy cynicism, she no less earthy but less aware of the sexual implications of much of what she says, each of them involuntarily failing their companion in their greatest need, he through his accidental death which turns the play from a romantic comedy into a tragedy, she because of the limitations in her understanding of the depths of Juliet's love which leave Juliet to face her fate alone. There are parallels too in the design of scenes: the Capulets' bustling preparations for the ball (1.5) are echoed in those for Juliet's marriage to Paris (4.4); and each of the play's three love duets—one in the evening, at the ball, the second at night, in the garden and on its overlooking balcony, the third at dawn, as the lovers, now married, prepare to part—is interrupted by calls from the Nurse.

These features of the play's structure create an impression of highly patterned formality; they may be regarded as dramatic strengths; and in any case a director can scarcely avoid them without rewriting the play, but there are others that have often suffered under the blue pencil. For example, at a number of points characters recapitulate action that has already been enacted before us. In the opening scene, Benvolio spends ten lines satirically describing Tybalt's intervention in the fray between the servants of the Montagues and Capulets; later, after the fight in which both Mercutio and Tybalt are killed, Benvolio again recapitulates what has happened, this time in twenty-three lines of verse; and in the closing scene the Friar, notoriously, after claiming ‘I will be brief’, recapitulates the full story of the lovers in one of the longest speeches of a play that is not short of long speeches. ‘It is much to be lamented’ wrote Johnson, ‘that the poet did not conclude the dialogue with the action, and avoid a narrative of events which the audience already knew.’11

This technique of recapitulation can be, and has been, defended; for example, Bertrand Evans remarks that, ‘far from being a repetitious exercise best deleted on the stage, the Friar's speech is an indispensable part of the total experience of the tragedy; not to be present when some key participants learn how their acts resulted in the pile of bodies in the Capulet tomb—Romeo's, Juliet's, Tybalt's, Paris's—would be to miss too much’.12 Certainly these speeches constitute a challenge that should be accepted by directors concerned to present the text in its integrity; for the actors, I take it, the challenge is to seek out a psychological subtext that will help them to deliver the lines not merely as a summary of what has gone before but as utterances emanating naturally and spontaneously from the characters as they have conceived it. Performers of Benvolio can portray his summaries of the action as the reactions of a well-meaning but puzzled man desperately attempting to make sense of what has happened; the Friar's long speech has been played in more than one production less as a judicial apportioning of blame (which it unequivocally is in Berlioz, where the role of the Friar encompasses some of the functions of Shakespeare's Prince) than as the frightened reactions of a man who fears he has betrayed his responsibility; the reactions of the other onstage characters as he reveals the secrets, previously unknown to them, of the marriage and the potion are no less important than his own state of mind as he speaks. Nevertheless the speech has been implicitly criticized by directors concerned to streamline the action; Peter Brook and Michael Bogdanov omitted it altogether,13 and all twelve of the Stratford productions since Brook's have shortened it, some considerably.

The deliberation of the play's structure is of a piece with its self-conscious, even ostentatious literariness and intellectualism. ‘Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura, to his lady, was a kitchen wench’, says Mercutio of Romeo whom he believes to be still in love with the ‘pale, hard hearted wench’ Rosaline, as if to draw attention to Shakespeare's indebtedness to the Petrarchan tradition, well established in England at the time he was writing, of the besotted lover sighing in vain for an unresponsive beloved—a situation that he was to dramatize directly in the figures of Silvius and Phoebe in As You Like It and that is also related to that of the chaste young man with no interest in ensuring his own posterity who is addressed in the first seventeen of Shakespeare's sonnets. The explicit reference to a major literary influence on the play—also omitted in most modern performances—is a counterpart to the appearance on stage of a volume of Ovid in Titus Andronicus.

The literary form most strongly associated with Petrarchism was the sonnet. The Argument to Brooke's poem is in sonnet form, and Romeo and Juliet, written during the ten or so years when the amatory sonnet cycle was enjoying a vogue greater than ever before or since, makes direct use of the complete form in the Prologue, in the rarely performed Chorus to Act 2, and, famously, in the shared sonnet spoken between the lovers on their first meeting. At a number of other points, too, such as the speech by the Prince that ends the play, Shakespeare uses the six-line rhyming unit ending in a couplet that forms the final part of the sonnet form as used by Shakespeare and which is also the stanza form of his narrative poem Venus and Adonis, of 1593. Other well established literary conventions, less obvious to the modern playgoer, that influence the play include the epithalamium, reflected in Juliet's great speech beginning ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’, and the dawn-parting, or ‘alba’—one of the most universal of poetic themes—which provides the basic structure for the entire scene of dawn-parting between Romeo and Juliet.14

The play's creative use of conventions of lyric poetry is responsible for much of its enduring popularity as perhaps the greatest of all expressions of romantic love; it is complemented and to some extent counterbalanced by an intellectualism manifesting itself especially in complex wordplay that has stood the passage of time less well and has often been censured (and, in recent times, defended) by literary critics as well as being subjected to the more practical criticism of being excised from acting texts. David Garrick, in the Advertisement to his 1748 adaptation, states his ‘design … to clear the original as much as possible from the jingle and quibble which were always thought the great objections to reviving it’. ‘Jingle’ refers to Shakespeare's extensive use of rhyme, regarded by neoclassical critics as indecorous in tragedy; Garrick's modifications—which included reducing the sonnet form of the lovers' declaration to two quatrains—reduced the play's range of poetic style.

‘Quibble’ is, if anything, even more integral than rhyme to the effect of the play as Shakespeare wrote it. Wordplay extends from the bawdy of the servants' comic opening dialogue, through the self-conscious jesting of Mercutio and the often involuntary double entendres of the Nurse, up to passages of quibbling wordplay spoken in wholly serious, even tragic circumstances by Romeo and Juliet themselves. Modern performers and audiences have been educated into an easier acceptance of wordplay than Garrick, partly as a result of its serious use in post-Freudian literature, above all by James Joyce (whose ‘stream of consciousness’ technique is anticipated by the Nurse), and also by studies encouraging an historical awareness of its prevalence in uncomic writings by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, such as John Donne. Even so, cuts made in acting versions of the present day suggest that the quibble is still more easily regarded as an ingredient of comedy than as a vehicle of tragic effect. This springs, perhaps, from too limited a notion both of what Shakespeare may encompass within the portmanteau definition of tragedy, and of the language appropriate to the form—if, indeed, it can properly be called a form. It has often been observed that for much of its considerable length Romeo and Juliet—especially if, as in Bogdanov's production, the Prologue is omitted—comes closer to our expectations of romantic comedy than of such a tragedy as the one that immediately precedes it in Shakespeare's output, Titus Andronicus, to which Romeo and Juliet might be regarded as a deliberately contrasting companion piece. If directors are to realize this script in its full richness they need to free themselves of the conventional connotations of tragedy and to play each episode in its own terms. And if audiences are to meet Shakespeare on his own terms they must find room in their responses not only for the direct if poetically heightened expression of heartfelt emotion that has caused the balcony scene to be valued as perhaps the most eloquent of all depictions of romantic love, but also for the contrived artificiality with which Shakespeare endows even the lovers' language at some of the most impassioned points of the play's action. This is not only a ‘most excellent and lamentable tragedy’, as the title page of the 1599 quarto puts it, it is also, in the terms of the title page of the ‘bad’ quarto of 1597, ‘an excellent conceited tragedy’—which I suppose might be paraphrased as a tragedy notable for the ingenuity of its verbal expression. Under the surface of the play's poetry lies a complicated network of rhetorical figures (examined in Jill Levenson's essay, pp. 44-55) that are rarely recognized by even the more erudite among the play's modern readers. This poses great problems for the actors, as Bernard Shaw recognized when he wrote ‘It should never be forgotten in judging an attempt to play Romeo and Juliet that the parts are made almost impossible except to actors of positive genius, skilled to the last degree in metrical declamation, by the way in which the poetry, magnificent as it is, is interlarded by the miserable rhetoric and silly lyrical conceits which were the foible of the Elizabethans.’15 The conceit with which Juliet imagines her and her lover's fate after death, with its hidden wordplay on the sexual sense of ‘die’, is as extreme as anything in metaphysical poetry:

when I shall die
[or ‘he shall die’, according to the unauthoritative fourth quarto and some later editors]
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
And pay no worship to the garish sun.


Even more difficult, I take it, are the play's several extended passages of dialogue in which characters are required, on the basis of misunderstanding or of false information, to act out emotions that, as the audience knows, the true situation does not justify. One such passage comes just after the lines I have quoted. Juliet's Nurse enters with the cords designed to make a rope ladder to give Romeo access to Juliet at night. ‘Wringing her hands’, as the bad quarto's direction and the good quarto's dialogue tell us, she bemoans Tybalt's death, of which Juliet has not heard, but in such a way that Juliet thinks Romeo, not Tybalt, is dead. In a sense the episode is an extended piece of wordplay on the pronoun ‘he’:

Ah, welladay! He's dead, he's dead, he's dead!
We are undone, lady, we are undone.
Alack the day, he's gone, he's killed, he's dead!


So says the Nurse, speaking of Tybalt, but Juliet takes her to refer to Romeo, and even when the Nurse speaks directly of Romeo—

                                                                                                    O Romeo, Romeo,
Who ever would have thought it Romeo?


Juliet takes her to mean that Romeo is the victim, not the killer. The misunderstanding continues through a long episode in which Juliet again resorts to complex wordplay:

Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ‘Ay’,
And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more
Than the death-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 of my weal or woe.


Not until the Nurse resorts to plain statement is the misunderstanding clarified:

Tybalt is gone and Romeo banishèd.
Romeo that killed him—he is banishèd.


And even then Juliet launches into a highly mannered lament, full of the oxymorons that are a conspicuous feature of this play's style. This scene has regularly been abbreviated in post-war Stratford productions, every one of which has omitted or shortened the wordplay on ‘I’, and most of which have abbreviated the oxymorons.

The artifice both of situation and of style in this scene is bound to have a distancing effect; it displays wit on the part of both Shakespeare and Juliet, yet for Juliet the situation is tragic. She needs to speak her lines with a high degree of intellectual control which may seem at odds with the spontaneous expression of deeply felt emotion. But perhaps this is the point: M. M. Mahood regards the puns on ‘I’ as ‘one of Shakespeare's first attempts to reveal a profound disturbance of mind by the use of quibbles’16 and Jill Levenson too regards Juliet's withdrawal from emotional expression as psychologically plausible: ‘Juliet's prothalamium quickly shrinks to mere word-play and sound effects as she glimpses calamity in the Nurse's report, the swift reduction implying that absolute grief has arrested Juliet's imagination.’17 Those are, I think, subjectively interpretative rather than objectively descriptive comments, but they suggest ways in which the performer may face the need to hold emotion in suspense, as it were, so that we appreciate the paradox of the situation while retaining sympathy with Juliet's plight.

Juliet faces a rather similar situation a little later, when her mother mistakes her grief at Romeo's banishment for mourning for her cousin Tybalt's death combined with anger at his killer, Romeo. She dissembles her true feelings in a series of quibbles and paradoxes:

Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo till I behold him, dead,
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vexed.
Madam, if you could find out but a man
To bear a poison, I would temper it
That Romeo should, upon receipt thereof,
Soon sleep in quiet. O, how my heart abhors
To hear him named and cannot come to him
To wreak the love I bore my cousin
Upon his body that hath slaughtered him!


Johnson comments that ‘Juliet's equivocations are rather too artful for a mind disturbed by the loss of a new lover’,18 and they are shortened or cut in the promptbooks of all the productions I have mentioned except one;19 but perhaps the cleverness of style here is more encompassable than that in the previous scene as an expression of Juliet's bewilderment as she tries to respond to her mother's misplaced sympathy without actually perjuring herself; perhaps, indeed, it should teach us that wit is not incompatible with tragic effect.

The play's most notorious instance of discrepancy between what characters can be expected to be feeling and the manner in which it is expressed is the scene of mourning following the discovery of Juliet's supposedly dead body. The keening starts with the Nurse's words ‘O lamentable day!’, and is taken up successively by Lady Capulet, Paris, and Old Capulet in a formalized liturgy of grief whose repetitions culminate in the Nurse's

O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!
Most lamentable day! Most woeful day
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day, O day, O day, O hateful day,
Never was seen so black a day as this!
O woeful day, O woeful day!


These lines take us into the world of Pyramus and Thisbe; indeed, one of the reasons for the hypothesis that A Midsummer Night's Dream dates from later than Romeo and Juliet (about which I am doubtful) is the suggestion that Bottom's expressions of grief over the corpse of Thisbe burlesque the Nurse's over Juliet. But it is all too easy for the lines to burlesque themselves. The classic objections to the passage were put by Coleridge:

As the audience knows that Juliet is not dead, this scene is, perhaps, excusable. But it is a strong warning to minor dramatists not to introduce at one time many separate characters agitated by one and the same circumstance. It is difficult to understand what effect, whether that of pity or of laughter, Shakespeare meant to produce;—the occasion and the characteristic speeches are so little in harmony!20

Over a century later Granville Barker remarked that ‘even faithful Shakespeareans have little good to say of that competition in mourning between Paris and Capulet, Lady Capulet and the Nurse. It has been branded as deliberate burlesque.’ He attempts a defence, but admits that ‘The passage does jar a little.’21 Most attempts to justify the scene have proposed that the blatant artificiality of the mourners' expressions of grief represents a deliberate distancing effect, forcing the audience to recall that Juliet is not actually dead even though these people believe her to be so. These defences tend to seem half-hearted and lame.22 Scholarship came to the aid of criticism when Charles Lower, observing that the passage is particularly inadequately reported in the first quarto, proposed that this is because the lines were delivered simultaneously in the performance on which that text is putatively based: in other words, that the speeches were intended to convey a generalized impression of mourning, not be listened to in their own right.23 The Oxford editors, while not accepting that this was Shakespeare's original intention as represented in the ‘good’ quarto, nevertheless (in keeping with their aim of representing the plays so far as possible as they were acted) print the direction ‘Paris, Capulet and his Wife, and the Nurse all at once wring their hands and cry out together.’ Whether this represents Shakespeare's own solution of a problem with which he had presented himself, or merely an evasion of it, we can't tell. The scene of mourning, and the episode with the Musicians that follows, have often been omitted and, I think, always abbreviated, even in recent times. Nevertheless, at least one director had anticipated the editors: Peter Holding records that in Terry Hands's 1973 Stratford production this episode, so far from being ridiculous, was

Perhaps the most affecting … successive speakers picked up the tone of lament from their predecessor, overlapping with some of the final phrases and then developing the cry with appropriate personal embellishments. The emotion of the lament was sincere but kept at a certain distance, while allowing the audience simultaneously to enjoy the fact that of course Juliet was still alive.24

The scene was handled in similar fashion in Adrian Noble's production.

Holding's comment reminds us that these texts, for all their undoubted literary quality, are, fundamentally, scripts for performance, and that at too many points we simply lack information about how their author intended them to be realized on the stage. A successful surmounting in any given production of problems that have previously seemed acute may vindicate Shakespeare's judgement, but equally may simply demonstrate the ingenuity of the interpreter. All criticism must be provisional.

Although there are uncertainties about tone in various passages of the play, perhaps its greatest glory is the wide range of its literary style in both prose and verse, encompassing the vivid, frequently obscene colloquialisms of the servants in the opening scene and elsewhere, the more elegant witticisms of the young blades, the fantasticalities of Mercutio, the controlled inconsequentialities of the Nurse, the humane sententiousness of the Friar, the dignified passion of the Prince, the lyricism of the lovers and also the increasing intensity of their utterance as tragedy overcomes them. Even as one attempts to characterize the play's stylistic range one is conscious of the inadequacy of the attempt to do so within a brief compass, but it may at least be worth insisting that the play is not simply, as the novelist George Moore described it, ‘no more than a love-song in dialogue’.25 No play that Shakespeare—or anyone else—had written up to this date deploys so wide a range of literary expressiveness, and very few later plays do so, either. And it is partly as a result of this stylistic diversity and richness that the play offers so wide a range of opportunities to actors. Performers of minor roles such as Samson and Gregory, Peter, and even the Apothecary—who speaks only seven lines, though he is also picturesquely described by Romeo in lines that provide a challenge to the make-up department—can create a strong impression within a short space. On the other hand, some of the more important characters may seem, at least on the printed page, to lack individuality—by which I suppose I mean that their speeches seem more important for what is said than for who says them. Obviously this is true of the two speeches given to the anonymous Chorus, in which the authorial voice is most apparent. Johnson regarded the second chorus as pointless: ‘The use of this chorus is not easily discovered, it conduces nothing to the progress of the play, but relates what is already known, or what the next scene will show; and relates it without adding the improvement of any moral sentiment’,26 and it has almost always been omitted in performance. The obvious functionality of the speeches of the Prince puts them in a similar category, which no doubt is why some directors have had him speak the opening Chorus while, conversely, Peter Brook gave his closing lines to the actor who had spoken the Chorus (who also played Benvolio). The prince is an authority figure who quells the opening brawl with passionate indignation, exiles Romeo for killing Tybalt, and takes command in the final scene; but we know nothing about him personally except that he is a kinsman of both Mercutio and Paris, and feels some responsibility for their deaths:

And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen.


It is just enough to create a sense of personal involvement, and his response—‘We still have known thee for a holy man’—to the Friar's offer of himself as a sacrifice can be moving, but does not invite detailed characterization. Paris is a relatively undercharacterized role, hard to bring to life, and Benvolio—who is more interesting as satirized by Mercutio (3.1.5-33) than in his own right—vanishes without trace soon afterwards. Tybalt is potentially more interesting—in Bogdanov's production he was having an intralineal affair with Lady Capulet—in spite of Shaw's view that ‘Tybalt's is such an unmercifully bad part that one can hardly demand anything from its representation except that he should brush his hair when he comes to his uncle's ball (a condition which he invariably repudiates) and that he should be so consummate a swordsman as to make it safe for Romeo to fall upon him with absolute abandonment …’.27 If these roles constitute challenges to their performers, it is in remaining content with being cast as lay figures: ‘don't do something, just stand there’. The composition of the play requires relative colourlessness from some of its constituent parts.

In other roles the challenge lies mainly in suggesting that the lines of the play have not been just learned by the actor, but spring spontaneously from the character he is playing. Friar Laurence has some characteristics in common with the Prince in the relative impersonality of his many sententious, generalizing remarks, but he has a longer role, plays a crucial part in the play's action, and is far more personally involved with a number of the characters. Though the role is not an obvious gift to an actor, it offers opportunities for suggesting a warmly human, compassionate, and even vulnerable man beneath the clerical garb, as Robert Demeger showed in the Bogdanov production when, looking exhausted after his efforts to rouse Romeo out of his almost suicidal depression, he watched Romeo go off and then, sighing with relief, produced a cigarette from beneath his scapular and took a quick drag on it. And in Adrian Noble's 1995 production Julian Glover virtually stole the show as a Friar who kept a chemistry set on a bench in his cell and, as Michael Billington wrote, “work[ed] up Juliet's death potion from old chemistry books to her fascination’.28

If the challenge to the actor in the role of the Friar is to seek out a humanizing subtext, with other roles the problem lies rather in discrepancies of behaviour or of style which the actor may leave unresolved but, at least if he has been trained in the school of Stanislavski, may otherwise seek to reconcile into some semblance of psychological consistency. For much of the action Capulet seems an amiable old buffer genuinely fond of his daughter; when we first see him he expresses the fear that she is too young to be married and declares

But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart;
My will to her consent is but a part,
And, she agreed, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair-according voice.


Yet when it comes to the point he reacts with uncontrolled violence to Juliet's prayers that she be not forced into a marriage which we know would be bigamous, in a display of angry indignation that culminates in threats of physical violence.

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


Is Shakespeare simply careless of consistency, providing his actor here with a strong set piece, regardless of what has come before? Or is he expecting his actor to lead up to this passage by making what he can of earlier signs of tetchiness in Capulet, as for instance in his harsh words to Tybalt at the dance (1.5.75-87), or even by suggesting, as Bogdanov did, that Capulet is more concerned that his daughter should advance his family's social status than achieve personal happiness? Perhaps modern audiences are more conscious of inconsistency of characterization than those of Shakespeare's time; although I found Bogdanov's capitalist monster a caricature, I was also disturbed by the absence of transition in the Adrian Noble production.

If Capulet's rage is a concerted set piece such as might form the basis for an impressive bass aria in an opera by Handel or Rossini, Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is a solo set piece that actually forms the basis of a tenor aria in Berlioz's dramatic symphony; in fact his scherzetto is Mercutio's only verbal contribution to the work, and—along with the Friar's impressive concluding exordium—the only part of it to use words at all close to Shakespeare's; Berlioz apparently regarded the speech as so important, or at least so appealing, that he also composed an orchestral scherzo, ‘Queen Mab, the spirit of dreams’, which opens Part 4. Within the play it complicates the role of Mercutio in a way that may help to account for the fascination that it has held for actors, audiences, and readers. Mercutio's role—like Shylock's, which also encompasses elements so diverse that they have sometimes been held to be incompatible—has been accused of having taken on a life of its own that endangers the dramatic balance; indeed, according to Dryden Shakespeare ‘said himself that he was forced to kill him in the third act, to prevent being killed by him’.29 This is nonsense, I think; Shakespeare developed the role from a hint in his sources as a foil to Romeo and a counterpart to the Nurse, and Mercutio's death is an essential element in the plot. But the Queen Mab speech has been regarded as a charming excrescence, a piece of self-indulgence on Shakespeare's part that is difficult to integrate into both the play and the role—to Granville Barker, ‘as much and as little to be dramatically justified as a song in an opera is’;30 and more recently Edward Pearlman has proposed that Shakespeare interpolated the speech after completing his first version of the play, remarking that ‘without the Queen Mab speech, Mercutio is consistent and coherent; once the speech is added, his character is incoherent on the page and must be reinvented by the collaboration of performer and audience or by the ingenuity and faith of stage-literate readers.’31 It has also, of course, been defended.32 Richard David wrote that ‘its main purpose … is to create a gossamer sense of uneasy mystery so that Romeo's supernatural forebodings do not fall on altogether unprepared ground’.33 That may be true in terms of the play but probably would not be of much use to an actor trying to reconcile its fancifulness with Mercutio's mocking obscenity elsewhere. But audiences rarely feel it as a problem—or even actors, because for all the accusations of irrelevance this speech generally survives the blue pencil. Mercutio's wordplay, bawdy as it is, marks him as a clever man, and there is a cerebral quality to Queen Mab that is in line with this. In any case the speech is moving into obscenity in its closing lines, when Mercutio's fancy seems in danger of getting out of hand and Romeo halts him in his tracks as if to save him from his over-heated imaginings, provoking Mercutio to deny their validity:

                                                                                                    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 …


in terms that demonstrate the very ‘fantasy’ that he is denigrating. The role seems to me to be one of fascinating complexity rather than of irreconcilable discrepancies; but it certainly faces the actor with challenges in the handling of verse. In recent times it has become complicated by psychological interpretations of subtext proposing that the evident homosociality of the young men verges on, or even merges into, homosexuality. In Terry Hands's Swan Theatre production of 1989 the actor conveyed in both gesture and body language an intense but undirected sexuality that motivated the bawdy; a sense of male bonding not quite amounting to direct homosexuality was conveyed in one of the character's bawdiest passages (2.1), full of fantasies about Romeo's sexuality, in which he leapt on Benvolio's back and groped his crotch as if impelled to mock the absent Romeo by the pressure of repressed impulses within himself. Later he kissed Romeo on the lips, heartily if not lingeringly.

Perhaps the most complete character in the play as written is that of the Nurse, one of Shakespeare's few (if unknowing) gifts to actresses who are no longer able to play young women. The main danger here, in my experience, is sentimentalization. I remember a production at Stratford by John Barton and Karolos Koun in 1965 in which the role was sensitively played by a deeply sympathetic actress, Elizabeth Spriggs, but in which she made what seemed to me to be the mistake of suggesting that the Nurse's attempts to reconcile Juliet to the thought of marrying Paris went against the grain, as if she was doing her duty by the parents while identifying with the desires of the daughter. It was interesting but implausible.

The roles of which I have spoken so far are all ones that can be played by what are known as character actors. Romeo and Juliet themselves come firmly into the category of romantic lead, with all the challenges and problems that the term implies. For one thing, there is the matter of age. Juliet is emphatically and repeatedly stated to be not yet fourteen. This may not have caused difficulties when the role was played by a highly trained boy; now that women have taken over, it is often said that actors with the experience to encompass the technical difficulties of the part will inevitably be too old to look it. But recent directors seem to have more difficulty in casting plausible Romeos than Juliets. His exact age is not given, but too many actors, Ian McKellen among them, in 1976, when he was, I believe, thirty-five,—and, I should say, Kenneth Branagh in the sound recording—try too hard to look and/or sound younger than their years. Henry James wrote that ‘it is with Romeo as with Juliet; by the time an actor has acquired the assurance necessary for playing the part, he has lost his youth and his slimness’.34 Though the role is a passionate one it is not heroic, which may explain why it has appealed to women. By all accounts the most successful Romeo of the nineteenth century was Charlotte Cushman, playing to the Juliet of her sister Susan. Admittedly the text was tailored to emphasize the role. And I think this is a crucial pointer to the principal challenges offered by the title roles. Romeo and Juliet does not accord such prominence to its tragic lovers as Shakespeare's other double tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra does to its, especially at its end. Even more to the point, Romeo and Juliet are not as vividly characterized as the later pair, or, still more importantly, as other roles in the same play, notably Mercutio and the Nurse. Though I spoke of these characters as foils to the lovers, there are times when the actors playing the lovers may feel that it is they who are acting as foils to the supposedly subsidiary characters: Peter Holding remarks that ‘Productions have occasionally been dominated by Mercutio or the Nurse.’35 This no doubt helps to explain why actors go to some pains to find comic touches in the lovers' verse: in the balcony scene, for instance, Peggy Ashcroft got a laugh on ‘I have forgot why I did call thee back,’36 and in Bogdanov's production there was comedy in the lovers' self-absorption, their wonder at each other—‘She speaks’, said Romeo, as if it was a remarkable achievement for Juliet to have acquired the skill at such an early age. This is entirely legitimate, but theatrical changes that have been made at the end of the play, and indeed some critical reactions to it, betray a dissatisfaction with the original script that seems designed to make it conform to expectations that may derive from conceptions of tragedy other than those that were in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote. Garrick, we have seen, expanded the lovers' death scene; Peter Brook, like most directors, severely shortened the last scene; in some performances he even went so far (like Gounod's librettist) as to omit the reconciliation of the houses.37

In part the alterations to the last scene result from practical considerations of staging; it is (as Andrew Gurr notes, pp. 20-5) notoriously difficult to work out exactly how it would have been played in the theatres of Shakespeare's time. Perhaps Shakespeare was not in this play a complete master of practical stagecraft. Perhaps too some of what I have, somewhat neutrally, described as challenges to be faced might more properly be regarded as weaknesses that have to be overcome. I don't want to imply that Romeo and Juliet is in every respect a perfect specimen of dramatic craftsmanship. But I find it interesting that many of the criticisms and alterations to which the play has been subjected over the centuries bring it closer in line with expectations of romantic tragedy, perhaps derived in part from Shakespeare's own practice in later plays; they do not face up to the challenge of interpreting the text as written. They suggest, in short, that perhaps the play's greatest challenge is to our notions of genre. The script can be interpreted in all its richness and diversity only if we abandon the idea that because it is called a tragedy it must centre on the fate of individuals, and accept its emphasis on the multifarious society in which these individuals have their being.


  1. Nineteenth-century burlesques and travesties are reprinted in Shakespeare Burlesques, ed. Stanley Wells, 5 vols. (London, 1977). One of the best is Andrew Halliday's Romeo and Juliet Travestie, or, The Cup of Cold Poison, first performed in 1859, in which Romeo and Juliet catch cold in the balcony scene: ‘Swear not by the boon—the inconstant boon’.

  2. John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus (London, 1708; Facsimile Reprint, Augustan Reprint Society no. 134, Los Angeles, 1969), sig. C3v.

  3. Cited in G. C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 vols. (New York, 1920), I.347.

  4. From an article called ‘The Religion of the Pianoforte’ (The Fortnightly Review, February 1894), reprinted in part in Shaw on Shakespeare, edited by Edwin Wilson (London, 1962), p. 246.

  5. See for example Peter Holding, Romeo and Juliet: Text and Performance (London, 1992), pp. 61-2 for a description of the scene in a 1976 Stratford production directed by Trevor Nunn and Barry Kyle. In Adrian Noble's 1995 Stratford production, too, Juliet showed signs of life before Romeo died.

  6. For example, Marjorie Garber, ‘Romeo and Juliet: Patterns and Paradigms’, in The Shakespeare Plays: A Study Guide (San Diego, 1979), pp. 50-63; reprinted in ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Critical Essays, edited by John F. Andrews (New York and London, 1993), pp. 119-31; p. 131. See also Susan Snyder, p. 96, below.

  7. Jill L. Levenson, ‘Romeo and Juliet’: Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester, 1987), pp. 66 and 97.

  8. Cited in Alan Hughes, Henry Irving, Shakespearean (Cambridge, 1981), p. 160.

  9. Henry James, in an article, ‘London Plays’, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, August, 1882, and reprinted in The Scenic Art, edited by Allan Wade (London, 1949), pp. 162-7; p. 164.

  10. T. J. B. Spencer, ed., Romeo and Juliet, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1967 etc.), p. 7.

  11. Johnson on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Sherbo, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven, 1968), vol. 8, p. 976.

  12. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford, 1979), p. 51.

  13. Judging by the prompt book held in the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Brook originally omitted all the text after Juliet's death (like Bogdanov after him) except for the addition of ‘Brother Montague give me thy hand’ from Capulet and the Prince's concluding six lines spoken by the Chorus, but restored some of the omitted dialogue, including part of the Friar's long speech, in later performances.

  14. The theme is studied in its multiple international manifestations in Eros: An Enquiry into the Theme of Lovers' Meetings and Partings at Dawn in Poetry, edited by Arthur T. Hatto (London, The Hague, Paris, 1965); the section on English, by T. J. B. Spencer, includes discussion of Shakespeare's use of the motif.

  15. From a review of Forbes-Robertson's production, The Saturday Review, 28 September 1895; reprinted in Shaw on Shakespeare, pp. 168-74; p. 173.

  16. M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1968), p. 70.

  17. Levenson, Romeo and Juliet, p. 7.

  18. Johnson on Shakespeare, vol. 8, p. 951.

  19. David Leveaux's, in 1991.

  20. Quoted from The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate (Harmondsworth, 1992), p. 519.

  21. Harley Granville Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series (London, 1930), p. 26.

  22. See, for example, Evans, Shakespeare's Tragic Practice, pp. 42-3.

  23. Charles Lower, ‘Romeo and Juliet, IV.v: A Stage Direction and Purposeful Comedy’, Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975), 177-94.

  24. Holding, Romeo and Juliet, p. 56. Richard David also praises this device as ‘a brilliant solution and one that was genuinely faithful to Shakespeare's intention’: Richard David, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge, 1978), p. 113.

  25. Confessions of a Young Man (1888); edited by Susan Dick (Montreal and London, 1972), p. 143; Moore was responding to Irving's spectacular production, which made him long for ‘a simple stage, a few simple indications, and the simple recitation of that story of the sacrifice of the two white souls for the reconciliation of two great families’.

  26. Johnson on Shakespeare, vol. 2, p. 944.

  27. Shaw on Shakespeare, p. 171.

  28. Guardian, 7 April 1995.

  29. John Dryden, ‘Of Dramatic Poesy’ and other Essays, ed. George Watson, Everyman's Library, 2 vols. (London, 1962), vol. 1, p. 180.

  30. Granville Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 7.

  31. E. Pearlman, ‘Shakespeare at Work: Romeo and Juliet’, English Literary Renaissance, 24.2 (Spring 1994), pp. 315-42; p. 336.

  32. Pearlman summarizes arguments for the speech's relevance in his footnote 20.

  33. David, Shakespeare in the Theatre, p. 115.

  34. First published in ‘Notes from Paris, 1876’, in the New York Tribune, 5 February 1876; reprinted in the Scenic Art, pp. 51-4; p. 54.

  35. Holding, Romeo and Juliet, p. 44.

  36. Levenson, Romeo and Juliet, p. 53.

  37. Ibid., p. 67.

John F. Andrews (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7722

SOURCE: Andrews, John F. “Falling in Love: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” In Classical, Renaissance, and Postmodernist Acts of the Imagination: Essays Commemorating O. B. Hardison, Jr., edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 177-94. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Andrews discusses the effect of Romeo and Juliet on contemporary audiences.]

What happens in Romeo and Juliet?1 What did a dramatist of the 1590s want the “judicious” members of his contemporary audiences to see and hear, and how did he expect them to feel, as they attended the play2 a later age would laud as the most lyrical of all love tragedies? Before I hazard a response to what is admittedly an unanswerable question, I should make it clear that what I'm really posing is a query about the “action”3 of Shakespeare's drama, and more specifically about the effect such an action might have been intended to have on a receptive Elizabethan playgoer.4

O. B. Hardison emphasizes in the commentary that accompanies Leon Golden's 1968 translation of Aristotle's Poetics,5 there is much to be said for interpreting the earliest technical term for tragic effect, catharsis, as a word that means “clarification,” and for conceiving of the experience it describes as one that takes place, not in the characters of a dramatic work, but in the audience that participates vicariously in those characters' thoughts, emotions, and interchanges. Hardison reminds us that Aristotle defines tragedy as that category of imitation (mimesis) which produces pleasure through a cogent representation of fearful and pitiable incidents. He and Golden stress the passage in which the great philosopher observes that realistic renderings of even the most displeasing subjects delight the viewer by assisting perception and eliciting insight. And they infer that when the father of dramatic theory speaks of the purgation that results from a tragedy, he is focusing primarily on the learning any coherently constructed work of art fosters: the sorting out, the clearing away of confusion or temporary misapprehension, that occurs as a responsive spectator notices, and appreciates, an aesthetically satisfying pattern of logical connections. When Aristotle refers to the catharsis that derives from a well-devised imitation of fearful and pitiable incidents, then, Hardison and Golden deduce that he is probably thinking of the enlightenment—the sense of mental relief and psychic release—that a member of the audience enjoys when he or she is able to make sense of a sequence of happenings that initially strike an onlooker as disparate and disorderly.

When we bring this concept of catharsis to bear upon the various species of tragedy, we discover that in some instances the intellectual, emotional, and ethical clarification attained by an attentive theatergoer parallels the hard-earned wisdom of a character who has arrived at self-knowledge through a siege of suffering. In tragic actions which feature this kind of recognition (anagnorisis) the central figure is divested of any impurities of mind or heart that impede “clearer Reason” (Tempest 5.1.68), and he or she acquires a degree of awareness that approximates the comprehension a perceptive member of the audience obtains by tracing and assessing the character's fortunes.6

In some instances the clarity a tragic figure realizes is a judgment that amounts to self-condemnation, as happens in Richard III and Macbeth. In these dramatic sequences the protagonists acknowledge their own guilt and wretchedness in ways an audience can endorse. In other instances the down-cast hero goes beyond an accurate mental evaluation of himself to a remorse that penetrates the conscience, as with the title characters of Othello and King Lear. Here the protagonists feel sorrow for what they perceive themselves to have done, and in the second case if not the first the audience may be led to conclude that the hero has gone a step further—from remorse to repentance, to a resolve to do whatever is required to make amends for the pain he has inflicted on others and cleanse his own soul.

In rare instances a tragic protagonist proceeds all the way to a complete reconciliation with himself, with those he has injured, and with the Heavens. In these sequences the protagonist arrives at a sense of “at-one-ment” that signifies redemption. In dramatic actions in which this kind of conversion occurs the central figure wins deliverance through an epiphany that transports him or her past the point where even the most sage of witnesses can hope to follow. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, for example, or in Milton's Samson Agonistes, the central character is granted a culminating vision in which death is swallowed up in a kind of victory. The hero completes his mission nobly, and as he expires he crosses the threshold to a mysterious but presumably more exalted realm on the unseen side of this world's veil of tears. Here the clarification that takes place in the protagonist surpasses the apprehension of the viewer, and the catharsis that issues in the well-tuned playgoer is akin to ecstatic rapture: a “calm of mind”7 that accompanies the “wonder”8 evoked by powers that move us to awe.

In most tragic actions the audience's catharsis is something that can be more aptly described as a sense of “woe” or “pity”9 for a character whose grasp on reality is shown to be in some way defective. As we watch a misguided protagonist come to grief under the lamentable circumstances that tragedies usually depict, we feel a wrenching disparity between our own observations and those of the focal figure. If we receive the kind of catharsis the usual tragedy is designed to provide, in other words, we emerge with an understanding that is both broader and more lucid than the impaired perception of the lost hero or heroine.

So what do we find when we turn to Romeo and Juliet? Do we sense that the protagonists share our view of what undoes them? Do we feel that in the end they transcend our vantage to claim a better world elsewhere? Or do we finally conclude that they fail in some manner, and lack the insight to assess their failure with the acuity an alert audience acquires by contemplating their “misadventur'd piteous Overthrows” (Prologue.7)?

Adherents can be found for all of these interpretations and more. Many accept the title characters at their own estimate, perceiving them as helpless pawns of conditions they have no means of countering. Some react to them with admiration, even reverence, canonizing them as pure “Sacrifices” of their families' “Enmity” (5.3.304). And a few blame them for intemperance and hold them responsible not only for their own tragedies but for the untimely deaths of several other characters.

Perhaps the best way to enter the world of the play is to take note of its cosmic imagery, its all-pervasive references to Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. If we hope to recapture something of the experience Romeo and Juliet provided its original audience, we need to come away from the tragedy with a conception of what it would have meant in Shakespeare's time to be a victim of “fatal Loins,” to feel like “Fortune's Fool,” and to seize upon the extremest of measures to “shake the Yoke of inauspicious Stars” (Prologue.5, 3.1.144, 5.3.111).

The most important locus for medieval and Renaissance thinking about Fortune and Fate was Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, a Latin dialogue that had probably been written in a.d. 524. Chaucer had used the Consolation extensively in the fourteenth century, and it remained so popular in the late sixteenth century that it was translated into Elizabethan English by no less a personage than the Queen herself. When Shakespeare alluded to the Consolation, then, he would no doubt have assumed that any literate member of his audience would be nearly as familiar with this masterwork as with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Any playgoer who had read Boethius would have known that the Consolation10 involves a conversation between Lady Philosophy and a statesman who has fallen into disfavor and now awaits death. The imprisoned political leader is the author himself, and he calls upon a personification of Wisdom to explain why Fortune has treated him so cruelly. During the exchanges that ensue, Lady Philosophy points out that “Fortune” is properly to be regarded as a fictional abstraction, a symbolic embodiment of the role of mutability in human affairs. To those who view her aright, Dame Fortune is nothing more than a convenient name for the fickle and seemingly irrational “Goddess” who bestows and withdraws such worldly gifts as riches, honors, political office, fame, and pleasure. Lady Philosophy acknowledges that many people mistakenly believe that happiness is to be found in the possession of goods that are subject to Fortune's caprices. But she insists that those who examine their lives carefully will eventually realize that the only felicity which lasts and is free from anxiety is that which is fixed on a supreme good higher than, and unaffected by, the vicissitudes of Fortune. Lady Philosophy doesn't deny that Misfortune is painful, but she insists that if we take it in the right spirit it provides a salutary reminder that everything in this life is fleeting. In the process it encourages us to focus our sights on Heaven, where, according to an even more authoritative spiritual guide, “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:20).11

Many writers used the terms “Fortune” and “Fate” interchangeably, but Boethius drew a subtle distinction between them. For him Fortune was a name for mutability itself, for what we now refer to as blind chance. Fate, on the other hand, was his term for a higher authority that presided over Fortune's seeming arbitrariness. For Boethius, and for subsequent Christian philosophers, Fate (or Destiny, as it was often called) was actually a pagan disguise for Providence, and the author of the Consolation saw it as a cosmic principle that was ultimately benign, though forever shrouded in obscurity.

Boethius was valued in Renaissance England for the way he had adapted Christianity to a quasi-Stoic frame of reference. In similar fashion, Saint Augustine was revered for the way he'd made Christianity fit a quasi-Platonic framework two centuries earlier. Augustine's treatise On Christian Doctrine12 and his monumental discourse on the City of Gold were both familiar to educated Elizabethans, and Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen the author of these two works as a theologian whose writings were fully compatible with Boethius's philosophy. Boethius's dichotomy between those pursuits directed the Supreme Good (which is immutable) and those directed to all lesser goods (which are mutable) would have been accepted, then, as merely another means of expressing Augustine's distinction between those pursuits that lead to the supreme felicity of the City of God (Jerusalem) and those that leave one mired in the confusion and frustration of the City of Man (Babylon).

According to Augustine, all movement of the soul is prompted by the will, and that which moves the will is love. Love, then, is the basic motivating force in human behavior, and it falls into two categories: (a) Sacred Love, or caritas (charity), which urges the will in the direction of eternal life, and (b) Profane Love, or cupiditas (cupidity), which pulls the will in the direction of temporal life. From Augustine's viewpoint, the sole purpose of religion and ethics is to teach believers what things are to be loved and enjoyed in and of themselves and what things are to be employed in the service of true (sacred) love. In his system the proper relation to things (loving and enjoying only the things of God, and using the things of this world solely in obedience to God) is caritas; the improper relation of things (loving and enjoying the things of this world, and abusing the things of God for the sake of temporal things) is cupiditas.

The cohesion between Augustine's theology and Boethius's philosophy becomes evident as soon we note that only those things which are temporal are subject to Fortune. To be under the sway of Fortune, then—to seek happiness by setting one's heart on those goods that are subject to Fortune's bestowal and removal—is to be guilty of cupiditas (misplaced or inordinate love). On the other hand, to rise above Fortune's sphere by aspiring to the immutable Supreme Good—to seek happiness through union with that which lies beyond the realm of Fortune—is to live in accordance with caritas (well-placed and duly ordered love).

But what about the stars? How did they relate to Boethian and Augustinian thought? According to most medieval and Renaissance thinkers, “the Stars” (the Sun, the Moon, the Planets, and the constellations of the Zodiac) exercised a degree of influence on Earth, and this influence conditioned the general and particular destinies of human beings. But it was commonly believed that the Stars could directly affect only the material and corporeal levels of existence. Since will and reason were regarded as spiritual rather than physical (material or corporeal) in nature, it followed that these faculties of the human soul could not be influenced directly by the Stars. Will and reason could be affected by the lower parts of the soul (the senses and the passions), however, if they did not maintain proper control over these earth-bound dominions; and the lower nature (since it was corporeal in composition) could, in turn, be influenced by the stars. If the will or the reason allowed themselves to be usurped by the senses or the passions, then, they became subject to indirect astrological influence and thus to Fortune.13

Let me sum up. As I have observed, Fortune, Fate, and the Stars were perceived in Shakespeare's time as interwoven concepts, and all three were integral to a system of ethics that drew heavily on the writings of Boethius and Augustine. Through these concepts, errant behavior could be depicted by any of several interchangeable means of expression: as unfortunate behavior caused by the influence of the Stars; as irrational behavior caused by the whims of Fortune; as improper and intemperate behavior caused by reason or will's subjection to the senses or the passions; or as disobedient, sinful behavior caused by misplaced or inordinate love. For an alert Elizabethan, the name one applied to wrongheaded behavior was of little moment; the only thing that mattered was that sooner or later a person recognize it as a course that would result in disaster if it continued unchecked.

We should now be in a position to return to the questions posed at the outset. What “happens” in Romeo and Juliet? Do the lovers succumb to forces beyond their control? Do they somehow triumph over the circumstances arrayed against them and emerge as martyrs, as unblemished agents of redemption? Or do they “fall in love” in some ethical and theological sense that would have been meaningful to an audience familiar with Augustine and Boethius?

Suppose we begin our scrutiny of the action by reviewing some of the perspectives the play offers on the protagonists' romantic attachment. The Chorus who speaks the Prologue to Act 2 describes Romeo's sudden infatuation with Juliet as “Young Affection” gaping to be the “Heir” of “Old Desire” (lines 1-2); he goes on to suggest that the only reason Juliet has replaced Rosaline in Romeo's heart is that this time Romeo's feelings are requited (line 5). From the Chorus's point of view, then, what draws Romeo to Juliet is no different in kind from what attracted him to Rosaline. The young hero is simply shifting his attention to a more receptive subject as he responds to the erotic spurring implicit in his name.14

Friar Lawrence's initial response to Romeo's news about “the fair Daughter of rich Capulet” (2.2.58) echoes the Chorus's sentiments:

Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young Men's Love then lies
Not truly in their Hearts but in their Eyes.


In a way that recalls Mercutio, who refers to his friend as “Humours, Madman, Passion, Lover” (2.1.7), and Benvolio, who comments that “Blind is his Love, and best befits the Dark” (2.1.32), Friar Lawrence appears to feel that, notwithstanding its intensity, Romeo's zeal for Juliet is as likely to be a manifestation of “Rude Will” as of “Grace” (2.2.28). Hence the old man's admonition to “love moderately” (2.5.14).

Despite his solemn advice, however, the Friar does nothing to impede the “wanton Blood” (2.4.71) that he and Juliet's Nurse both see in their eager charges. Before he even speaks with Romeo's betrothed, Friar Lawrence agrees to channel the youths' ardor into a clandestine marriage. With the Church's sanction, then, they consummate their vows within twenty-four hours of their initial encounter. So much for moving “Wisely and slow” (2.2.94).15

There can be no question that what draws Romeo and Juliet to each other at the outset is physical attraction. But would it be just to assert that their union is based on nothing more elevated than erotic desires? I think not. The poetry with which they declare their feelings makes it well nigh impossible for us to conceive of any situation in which the protagonists could ever again be severed, let alone drift apart. After all, to preserve herself for the husband to whom she has plighted troth, Juliet defies and deceives her parents, evades a match that would advance both her own fortunes and her family's, dismisses the Nurse when the old retainer's pragmatism becomes the voice of “Auncient Damnation” (3.5.235), and drinks a potion she fears may be lethal. Meanwhile, for his part Romeo proves more than willing to “give and hazard all” (Merchant of Venice 2.7.16) to uphold his pledge to Juliet. As we see the lovers increasingly isolated by events and, more important, by the folly of their elders and the insensitivity of even their closest confidants, we cannot help responding with sympathy for their predicament and admiration for the courage their consecration to each other inspires. By the end of the play it is patent that no one in their society really understands them; they're left completely alone in a world that seems at best indifferent, at worst hostile. In soul-trying times their loyalty to each other is severely tested, and it never falters.

But if the tie that binds Romeo and Juliet is the most precious treasure the setting of Shakespeare's tragedy affords, does it follow that we are meant to regard the lovers' “extreme Sweet” (2.Chorus.14) as a delicacy that supersedes all other treasures? Are we to join our hearts and minds with the protagonists' fathers and erect statues of “pure Gold” (5.3.301) to honor the title characters' fidelity to each other and to love?

Perhaps so, but I find it difficult to locate a lot to celebrate in the events with which the play concludes. Old Capulet and Old Mountague clasp hands at long last, and if only by default a feud that has wrought untold devastation appears to be history. But at what cost? According to the city's sovereign, the only thing that remains when all is said and done is “A glooming Peace”—that and the Prince's haunting pronouncement that “All are punish'd” (5.3.307, 297).

So what are we to make of the mood with which the final scene draws to a close? Is it possible that Shakespeare expected his audience to include the lovers themselves in the Prince's stern accounting of Verona's “Woe” (5.3.311)? Can it be that a relationship so rare it has become proverbial, a bond that appears indissoluble, was meant to be viewed as in some way wrong? The answer, I submit, is yes. I think it more than likely that the playwright intended to have his earliest theatergoers see Romeo and Juliet as protagonists whose tragic flaw derives from the same source as their strength and beauty: the very fact that their devotion to each other is so all-consuming that it eliminates everything else from consideration.16

At their first greeting Romeo bows before Juliet as if she were a “holy Shrine” and he a “Pilgrim”; Juliet accepts this description of their venue and grants Romeo's “Pray'r” “lest Faith turn to Despair” (1.4.209, 212, 217, 219). In the Balcony Scene, the next time the protagonists meet, Romeo describes Juliet successively as “the Sun,” “bright Angel,” and “dear Saint,” and he tells her “Call me but Love, and I'll be new baptiz'd” (2.1.45, 68, 97, 92). Juliet responds in kind and declares Romeo's “gracious Self” to be “the God of my Idolatry” (2.1.155, 156). What this imagery implies is that Romeo and Juliet are forswearing an old creed in favor of a new; their professions, accordingly, are to be understood as the religious vows of converts to a faith that differs from that of their fathers.

In act 3, having just learned of his banishment, Romeo says “'Tis Torture and not Mercy! Heav'n is here / Where Juliet lives” (3.3.29-30). To be exiled from Juliet's presence is, for Romeo, to be condemned to outer darkness. A few hours later, as the lovers are saying farewell on the morning that ends their one night together, their aubade suggests that their lives are now fundamentally “out of Tune” (3.5.27) with the lark, the daylight, and other manifestations of a harmonious natural order. It is thus apropos that after Romeo's departure Juliet asks, “Is there no Pity sitting in the Clouds / That sees into the Bottom of my Grief?” (3.5.198-99). Shortly thereafter she cries “Alack, alack, that Heaven should practice Stratagems / Upon so soft a Subject as my self” (3.5.211-12).

These and numerous other passages demonstrate that the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is a species, however refined, of cupiditas—a form of pseudo-worship in which one's deity is a creature rather than the Creator. Each lover views the other as the Supreme Good. Each accords the other a degree of adoration that Augustine (and innumerable later theologians) had defined as properly directed only to God. Their love becomes a universe unto itself, and when they are deprived of it each of the protagonists concludes that there is nothing left to live for.

But of course if Romeo and Juliet fall victim to idolatry, it is because they also succumb to passion. By indulging the senses and emotions, they allow first the concupiscible (pleasure-driven) and later the irascible (wrath-driven) divisions of the lower, sensible soul to gain hegemony over the rational soul (the reason).

At the beginning Romeo is subject to the melancholy of a frustrated suitor. He keeps to himself, and when he is sighted by even his closest friend he slips into a “Grove of Sycamour” (1.1.124). Romeo is himself a “sick-amour,” a youth afflicted with love-sickness, and his father observes that

Black and portendous must this Humour prove
Unless good Counsel may the Cause remove.


Romeo's reason emits warnings, both in the dream to which he several times refers in 1.4 and in the misgivings he expresses at the end of that scene (1.4.106-11), but the protagonist allows Mercutio's set-piece about Queen Mab to convince him, against his better judgment, to put his fear of “Consequence” out of mind. As the title character consents to attend the Capulet ball, his pivotal comment makes it obvious that what his intellect tells him is being suppressed by an act of will: “he that hath the Stirrage of my Course / Direct my Suit” (1.4.112-13).17

From this point on the hero plunges headlong into action. At his first glimpse of Juliet his senses are so entranced that he is oblivious to the threat posed by Tybalt. Later, in the Balcony Scene, it is Juliet, not Romeo, who expresses apprehensions; he declares “thy Kinsmen are no Stop to me” (2.1.111) and defines himself as a bold mariner (2.1.124-26). Disregarding her instinctive caution, Juliet allows herself to be seduced by such bravado and agrees, against her better judgment, to become the partner of her suitor's rash ventures.

Up to this juncture the concupiscible passions have dominated the behavior of both lovers. Following Romeo and Juliet's hasty marriage, however, the irascible passions begin asserting themselves. Almost as soon as he departs from his wedding Romeo comes upon an incipient quarrel between Mercutio and Tybalt. The fresh bridegroom is not yet ready to reveal his new kinship with the Capulets, and as a result his conciliatory reply to a challenge Tybalt thrusts at him is misinterpreted by Mercutio as an expression of “calm, dishonorable, vile Submission” (3.1.76). Romeo's hotheaded friend steps in to defend the honor he assumes a lethargic and cowardly Mountague is incapable of maintaining for himself. In an urgent attempt to prevent needless conflict, Romeo lunges between the two duelers. Unfortunately the protagonist's efforts at peacemaking prove fatal to Mercutio, and Romeo's ally dies cursing the house of Mountague as vehemently as he had earlier scorned the Capulets.

To this moment in the scene Romeo has “thought all for the best” (3.1.111) For the first time in the play, he has acted with judgment, restraint, and genuine valor. But now he finds himself in an unaccustomed position. By turning the other cheek and trying to comport himself as an honorable gentleman, he has unwittingly made himself appear dishonorable and contributed to a calamity. After a too-brief pause for reflection, he reacts to the “Plague” in his ears by accepting Mercutio's erroneous judgment on measured behavior that the audience will have recognized as anything but “Effeminate” (3.1.113, 121). Casting aside his momentary self-control and rationality, and yielding to an idolatrous concern for the kind of male “Reputation” that demands vengeance,18 Romeo spurns “respective Lenity” to make room for “Fire-ey'd Fury” (3.1.118, 130-31). He disregards the Prince's prohibition against further bloodshed and takes the enactment of “Justice” into his own hands (3.1.187-88).19

The slaying of Tybalt functions as the turning point in the action. Before this development there has been at least a possibility of success for Romeo and Juliet. Capulet and Mountague have both shown a willingness to end the feud, and there has thus been some basis for the Friar's optimism that the marriage of a Capulet to a Mountague might bridge the way to a more harmonious future. With the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, however, the hostility between the two factions is rekindled, and the Prince can see only one way to prevent further carnage: by removing Romeo from “fair Verona” before more “Civil Blood” makes more “Civil Hands unclean” (Prologue.2-4).

By the time Romeo arrives at the Friar's cell in 3.3 he is practically beside himself. Upon learning that he has been banished, he falls to the ground, his abject posture symbolizing the topsy-turvy state of a soul no longer led by reason. In this condition he draws a dagger, and only the Friar's intervention forestalls an instant suicide:

                                                                      Hold thy desperate Hand.
Art thou a Man? Thy Form cries out thou art.
Thy Tears are Womanish; thy wild Acts
Denote the unreasonable Fury of a Beast.
.....Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thy Self?
And slay thy Lady that in thy Life lies
By doing damned Hate upon thy Self?


The answer to the Friar's last two questions will turn out to be affirmative. And the questions and answers that precede them explain why.

In 4.1 Juliet comes to the Friar's cell, like Romeo with a knife, and like Romeo determined to take her own life. Seeing in her “the strength of Will to slay [her] self” (line 72), the Friar suggests a less desperate remedy for her difficulties. He then gives her a potion that will suspend her bodily functions for enough time to allow her to be mourned and buried. Meanwhile he sends a message to Juliet's husband. Due to unforeseen difficulties Romeo fails to receive it, and a day later he has no way of knowing that there is literal truth in his servingman's euphemistic report that the heroine is “well” and “sleeps in Capel's Monument” (5.1.17-18).

Now the protagonist descends into an even deeper depression. Purchasing poison from an apothecary whose appearance resembles that of Despair in Spenser's Faerie Queene,20 he makes his way to Juliet's tomb. Upon his arrival, as he dismisses his man Balthasar, Romeo depicts himself in language that summons up memories of the Friar's rebuke in 3.3.107-17:

The Time and my Intents are savage wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty Tigers or the roaring Sea.


The pertinence of these words is almost immediately borne out when the desperate title character is provoked by an uncomprehending Paris and kills him. Moments later Romeo's portrayal of his “Intents” is illustrated yet again when he downs the liquid he has brought with him to the cemetery:

Come, bitter Conduct, come unsavory Guide,
Thou desperate Pilot, now at once run on
The dashing Rocks thy seasick, weary Bark.


Within seconds Juliet awakens to find her dead husband, and his example inspires her to plunge his dagger into her own breast. Thus does Romeo “slay” his “Lady” by “doing damned Hate” upon himself (3.3.116-17). And thus does Shakespeare emblematize the fatal consummation of a union forged in unregimented idealism.

We should now be in a position to return to the roles of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars in Romeo and Juliet. As we have observed, the protagonists are prompted by their concupiscible passions into an idolatrous relationship that makes them vulnerable to forces beyond their ken. As chance would have it, these forces combine to unleash the irascible passions that destroy Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and eventually Romeo and Juliet themselves. To put it another way, by forfeiting rational governance over their own behavior, the lovers subject themselves to the waywardness of happenstance. They become Fortune's fools (3.1.143). In a sense that they don't recognize, they become “fated.”

In the process, by reducing themselves to menial servants of emotional and astral influences that would have had no power to manipulate them if they had kept their souls under the guidance of reason, they become “Star-cross'd” (Prologue.6). Ironically and sadly, at no point in the action are the “Stars” more securely in command than at the moment when a tragically misled Romeo commits a mortal sin in a futile effort to “shake” their “Yoke” from his “World-wearied Flesh” (5.3.113-14).

It should not escape our notice, of course, that most of the play's other characters are also culpable victims of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. The Capulets have sought to rise in worldly status, using their daughter as an unwilling instrument to that end, and that is one of the reasons we cannot bring ourselves to blame Juliet for disobeying her unfeeling parents. It seems altogether apt that the Capulets' “ordained Festival” turns to “black Funeral”; they learn by bitter trial that on the Wheel of Fortune “all things change them to the contrary” (4.3.170-71, 176). Meanwhile Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris all submit in their own ways to Fortune's turns and suffer the consequences.

Even the sententious Friar can be seen as Fortune's plaything. For a man of the cloth he seems inordinately preoccupied with his worldly standing (hence his well-intended but ill-advised efforts to use unauthorized means to end the city's feuding, and hence his frantic scurrying about to cover his traces and avoid being caught at the graveyard in Act 5), and all of his error-prone judgments and makeshift expedients presuppose an improvident reliance on Fortune's notoriously unreliable cooperation.

In many respects the play's society as a whole is shown to be at the mercy of Fortune, Fate, and the Stars. The setting for Shakespeare's tragedy is, after all, a microcosm of postlapsarian humanity. And in this context the fates of Romeo and Juliet turn out to be a “Scourge” (5.3.294), a divine judgment, in senses that exceed the meaning intended by the Prince.

But how should all of this affect an audience experiencing the drama? Ultimately, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, Romeo and Juliet appears designed to leave us with an enhanced appreciation of what it means, in Christian terms, to be human. If we've profited as we ought to from the action, we will know the protagonists better than they know themselves. And we will understand—alas, in a way that they do not—what brought their story to its grievous denouement.

And how will we appraise the “Death-mark'd Love” (Prologue.9) of these beautiful and pitiable youths? If we have attended to what we have seen and heard, our sentiments will echo the humility and compassion implicit in a sixteenth-century cleric's prayer of thanksgiving. As he witnessed a small company of wrongdoers being carted off to their dooms, he said “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford.”21


  1. I realize, of course, that “What happens in Romeo and Juliet” varies each time the tragedy is performed; this was no less true of productions in the playwright's own lifetime than of those that have occurred in “After-hours” (2.5.2). For a provocative discussion of the impossibility—if not indeed the undesirability—of “definitive” realizations of a dramatic script, see Jonathan Miller's Subsequent Performances (New York: Viking, 1986). For a thoughtful application of Miller's principles to recent interpretations of Shakespeare's most famous lovedrama, see Barbara Hodgdon's “Absent Bodies, Present Voices: Performance Work and the Close of Romeo and Juliet's Golden Story,” in Theatre Journal 41 (1989): 341-59. Hodgson's article can also be found in my collection “Romeo and Juliet”: Critical Essays (New York: Garland, 1993), as can an earlier version of the present essay.

  2. I am acutely conscious of oversimplification when I refer to “the play” as if there were a single rendering of Romeo and Juliet (or of any of Shakespeare's works) that can answer to such a term. What a given person sees or hears on a particular occasion depends not only on the sensibility he or she brings to the encounter but also on what text of the drama is presented and how that text is treated by those who present it.

    In 1597 and 1599, respectively, two versions of Romeo and Juliet appeared in quarto printings. The later version is less crude and appears to be more directly related to an authorial manuscript than the earlier; it advertises itself as “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended,” and (appropriately, in my view) it constitutes the control text for modern editions of the title. Because the Second Quarto is itself flawed in places, however, it too is usually “corrected, augmented, and amended” by modern editors, frequently with material spliced in from the comparatively corrupt First Quarto and less frequently with material drawn from the derivative later quartos—Q3 (1609), Q4 (undated but evidently issued around 1622), and Q5 (1637)—and from the 1623 First Folio (whose Romeo and Juliet appears to have been set from the Third Quarto). An inevitable consequence of the plethora of options afforded the post-Elizabethan editor, director, and commentator is that no two Romeo and Juliets are exactly the same.

    In this essay all quotations from the plays and poems are referenced to the text in The Everyman Shakespeare (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), an annotated edition I have recently completed for the Orion Group. Other Shakespearean quotations derive either from the Everyman set or from its predecessor, The Guild Shakespeare (New York: Guild America Books, 1989-92), an edition produced for the Doubleday Book & Music Clubs. The Everyman text retains a number of features from the early printing that are altered in most of today's editions, and one consequence is that some of the line references in Romeo and Juliet will seem unfamiliar. Everyman treats as a single scene, 1.4, what modern editions usually render as two, 1.4 and 1.5; in similar fashion Everyman's 2.1 combines the usual 2.1 and 2.2, and Everyman's 4.3 combines the usual 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5.

  3. For Shakespeare's own use of the words “judicious” and “action,” see Hamlet 3.2.1-52.

  4. I would underscore the word “might” in this sentence. We have very little information about how Elizabethan playgoers responded to Shakespeare's tragedies, and much of what we do have is subject to debate.

  5. See Aristotle's Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968), particularly 115-20. My thinking on catharsis in Shakespeare has also been richly informed by Hardison's “Three Types of Renaissance Catharsis” in Renaissance Drama, n.s., 2 (1969): 3-22, and by the writings of the late Virgil K. Whitaker, especially in The Mirror Up to Nature (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965), and Roy Battenhouse, above all in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969).

  6. The situation I describe here is the norm for Shakespearean comedy and romance, where catharsis (“dis-illusionment”) must occur in the central characters to bring about the resolution that constitutes a happy ending. I've written in more detail about the relationships between tragedy and comedy in “Ethical and Theological Questions in Shakespeare,” in William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence, ed. John F. Andrews (New York: Scribners, 1985), vol. 2. For further comment on the relationship between “disillusionment” and catharsis in Shakespearean tragedy, see the Editor's Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra in The Everyman Shakespeare (London: J. M. Dent, 1993).

  7. Samson Agonistes, line 1758.

  8. Hamlet 5.2.375. Among Shakespeare's tragedies, the only one that strikes me as approaching this kind of denouement is King Lear, where (depending on how the final moments of the play are staged) a long-suffering protagonist can be construed either as dying in despair or as departing from “this tough World” with a glimmer of faith and hope that promises to “redeem all Sorrows” (5.3.311, 264). Some see Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra as tragedies that also carry us to the verge of “divine comedy.” I can find some basis for this reading of the Prince of Denmark's final moments, but up to the point where Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness I see little reason to take at face value the allusions to Providence that are usually interpreted as indicating a “sweet Prince” with his heart in the right place. In Antony and Cleopatra I discern no textual warrant for the view that an audience is to be persuaded by the protagonists' grandiloquent assessments of themselves or by the “New Heaven, New Earth” they claim to win by disavowing the “dungy” clay kingdoms they cede at last to Caesar (1.1.17, 35). I discuss Milton's appropriation of tragic form in “‘Dearly Bought Revenge’: “Samson Agonistes, Hamlet, and Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy,” Milton Studies 11 (1979): 81-108. For a fascinating new analysis of the different types of Christian tragedy, I recommend Sherman H. Hawkins's “Religious Patterning in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 50 (June 1991): 151-88.

  9. See Hamlet 5.2.375, and King Lear 5.3.231-32.

  10. The edition of The Consolation of Philosophy that I have used is the translation and commentary by Richard Green (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1962).

  11. Friar Lawrence invokes “Philosophy” in 3.3.55-56 of Romeo and Juliet when he explains to a desperate Romeo that he should welcome “Adversity's sweet Milk.” Both here and later in the play (see 4.3.151-69), the Friar calls attention to Lady Philosophy's teaching that “bad” fortune is actually better for us than what we incorrectly think of as good fortune. In As You Like It, 2.1.1-17, Duke Senior sounds a Boethian note when he observes that “Sweet are the Uses of Adversity.” And in King Lear, 4.1.19-21, Gloster speaks similarly when he says that “Full oft 'tis seen / Our Means secure us, and our mere Defects / Prove our Commodities.”

  12. I am indebted to the translation and commentary by D. W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958). Robertson also discusses On Christian Doctrine extensively in A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962).

  13. For a detailed exposition of the relationship between astrology and medieval and Renaissance psychology, see Walter Clyde Curry's “Destiny in Troilus and Criseyde” in Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1926). Also see John W. Draper, “Shakespeare's Star-Crossed Lovers,” Review of English Studies 15 (1939): 16-34; Douglas L. Peterson, “Romeo and Juliet and the Art of Moral Navigation,” in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1966), 33-46, and James L. Calderwood, “Romeo and Juliet: A Formal Dwelling,” in Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

  14. Romeo's surname in all the original texts is spelled “Mountague.” Given Shakespeare's wordplay on “ague” (fever) in “Sir Andrew Ague-cheek” (as the name of the foolish suitor is rendered in the First Folio text of Twelfth Night), it seems reasonable to assume that the playwright was fully aware of the symbolic potential in “Mount-ague,” a word that related not only to the erotic drives of both lovers but also to the aspirations of the Capulets and to the celestial imagery of much of the play's language. See Love's Labor's Lost 4.1.1-4, for related play on “Mounting,” and compare the aptness of such additional Shakespearean names as Launcelet (“small lance”) in The Merchant of Venice and Fortinbrasse (a rendering of the French Fortinbras—“strong in arms”—that picks up on “Brazen” and “Mettle” when the name is introduced in 1.1.65-102) in the Second Quarto of Hamlet. In 5.3.159 of All's Well That Ends Well, we learn that Diana, the maiden Bertram believes himself to have mounted, derives from “the ancient Capilet,” an Italian family whose surname can be translated “small horse.” In Twelfth Night, III.4.310-11, Sir Andrew Ague-cheek surrenders his horse, “Grey Capilet,” to avoid a duel with the fierce “Cesario.” What's in a name, then? Quite a lot, particularly if we disregard modern editors' “corrections” of Shakespeare's spelling and retain the designations the playwright himself provided. See The Guild Shakespeare, 16:468, for a note on “Doctor Buts” and other symbolic nomenclature in Henry VIII.

  15. See James C. Bryant, “The Problematic Friar in Romeo and Juliet,English Studies 55 (1974): 340-50, for background that might have been pertinent to an Elizabethan audience's perception of the Friar and his role in the events that lead to tragedy.

  16. A. C. Bradley is seldom recalled nowadays, but one of the wisest and most memorable observations ever uttered about Shakespearean tragedy is his remark that “In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him.” In my view, Romeo and Juliet illustrate both this and another of Bradley's generalizations about Shakespeare's tragic protagonists: “In almost all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind.” See Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan & Co., 1904), 26-27.

  17. Here I retain the Second Quarto spelling “Stirrage,” which plays on “stir” (compare 1.1.9, where Gregory observes that “To move is to stir”) and reminds us that Romeo's “Steerage” will prove that “Love” can be considerably more “rough” (1.4.27) than the jesting Mercutio suspects. Romeo's nautical imagery anticipates what he will say to Juliet in 2.1.124-26 (“I am no Pylat, yet wert thou as far / As that vast Shore wash'd with the farthest Sea, / I should adventure for such Marchandise”) and what he will say just before he expires in 5.3.118-22. The Pylat spelling in 2.1.124 may be an authorial allusion to Pontius Pilate; if so, it casts an ironic light on the sacrificial imagery in Capulet's benediction at 5.3.305-6.

  18. We sometimes forget that an excessive love of “Reputation” was regarded as a form of idolatry in the Renaissance. For a consideration of this theme in another Shakespearean love tragedy, see David L. Jeffrey and J. Patrick Grant's “Reputation in Othello” in Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 197-208. Meanwhile, for perceptive observations about the part gender plays in male codes of behavior, see Coppèlia Kahn's “Coming of Age in Verona,” Modern Language Studies 8 (1977-78): 5-22; Marianne Novy's Love's Argument (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Edward Snow's “Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet,” in Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppèlia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  19. In doing so, of course, he disregards the teaching Elizabethans would have been familiar with from the homily Of Obedience (1547) and the later homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion (1574), both of which drew on the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Romans (12:17-13:7) to remind subjects that they should “Recompense to no man evil for evil,” instead leaving to God and his ordained “powers that be” the judging and punishing of crimes. The popularity of revenge tragedy in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater was an implicit acknowledgment that men who prized their honor (their self-respect and their social standing) frequently found it difficult, if not impossible, to submit themselves to passive, long-suffering forbearance, even though they recognized that the code duello was explicitly condemned by the Lord they claimed to worship (see the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:38-44). For a fuller discussion of the ethical, social, and political tensions that resulted from the disparity between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” approaches to the resolution of conflict, see Fredson Bowers's Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), and Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge, rev. ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).

  20. See 1.9.27-54 of Faerie Queene. I owe this observation to Professor Joan Hartwig of the University of Kentucky, who shared it with me in 1971 when we were fellow faculty members at Florida State University.

  21. The earliest version of this essay, “The Catharsis of Romeo and Juliet,” appeared in Contributi dell'Istituto di Filologia Moderna (Milan: Università Cattolica, 1974), 142-75. I am grateful to the editor of that volume, Professor Sergio Rossi of the University of Turin, for permission to publish a revision of the original article. I also wish to acknowledge the degree to which my thinking about Romeo and Juliet has benefited from the writings of others not previously cited in these notes, among them Ralph Berry, “The Sonnet World of Verona,” in The Shakespearean Metaphor (London: Macmillan, 1978); James Black, “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet,Studies in English Literature 15 (1975): 245-56; Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1957); Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 4 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946); Jack J. Jorgens, “Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet,” in his Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977); Harry Levin, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 3-11; M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957); Thomas E. Moisan, “Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The ‘Lamentations’ Scene in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 389-404; Norman Rabkin, “Eros and Death” in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967); Susan Snyder, “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy and Tragedy,” Essays in Criticism 20 (1970): 391-402; and Stanley Wells, “Juliet's Nurse: The Uses of Inconsequentiality,” in Shakespeare's Styles, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

William B. Toole (essay date January 1980)

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SOURCE: Toole, William B. “The Nurse's ‘Vast Irrelevance’: Thematic Foreshadowing in Romeo and Juliet.South Atlantic Bulletin 45, no. 1 (January 1980): 21-30.

[In the following essay, Toole studies the character of the Nurse through an analysis of her speech about Juliet's childhood.]

One of the most fascinating aspects of Shakespeare's dramatic artistry lies in his ability to create minor characters whose highly individualistic manner of speech can on occasion be true to their personalities and at the same time point the audience indirectly in one way or another to something crucial in the experience of the central characters of the drama. A particularly brilliant illustration of this technique may be found in the Nurse's digression on Juliet's infancy in I, iii, 23-48. The digression vividly establishes the mind and character of the Nurse as it foreshadows a theme close to the heart of the play: growth through adversity. To appreciate fully the extent to which this passage is related to the main thematic and structural patterns of the play, we must, after reviewing it, look at it in the light of the protagonists' character patterns, the relationship of eye/star, flower, and gold imagery to the motif of poison, and the symbolic significance of the final tragic actions.


In the scene in question the Nurse has been invited to remain while Lady Capulet sounds out Juliet on the prospect of marriage to Paris. Before the question is put, the topic of Juliet's age comes up and the Nurse begins to reminisce about incidents which had taken place in her charge's infancy. She rambles on at some length about the time of Juliet's weaning, the circumstances accompanying it, and a fall which Juliet had taken in the presence of the Nurse's husband the day before the weaning.

The whole speech, as Professor Sutherland observes, is “a vast irrelevance.”1 The Nurse's prattle comically slows the action of the episode and provides us with a picture of robust indelicacy combined with supremely confident simplemindedness; impressionistically speaking, the character reflected in this passage might be described as the illegitimate daughter of Dogberry and the Wife of Bath. At any rate, it is not surprising to find later at a crucial point in the action of the play that the Nurse can wander morally as well as intellectually far from the point. It is, however, somewhat startling to see the extent to which the irrelevant story the Nurse tells is tied into the main structural lines of the play through connotation, analogy, and contrast.

Let us begin with the last part of the speech. When the Nurse relates her husband's reaction to Juliet's fall, she reflects the simple earthiness of her own personality as well as his; at the same time, however, her amused recounting of the relationship he saw between Juliet's fall as a child and the sexual awakening that lay in the future—“‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit, / Wilt thou not, Jule?’” (I, iii, 41-43)2—is obviously very much to the structural point. As is, for that matter, the child-like directness of Jule's response to a question the significance of which she does not understand—“The pretty wretch left crying and said, ‘Ay’” (I, iii, 44). These lines help to prepare us for what is to come. When Juliet is sexually awakened, the child-like forthrightness she displays in admitting her love—or in admitting that under other circumstances she would have played harder to get—seems linked with that innocent “Ay” of infancy. And the natural earthiness of the attitude toward sex displayed by the Nurse and her husband is both related to and contrasted with what Juliet experiences when she acquires “more wit.” For the powerful sensual attraction she feels for Romeo is blended with an idealism so intense that it can only be stated in religious, spiritual, or supra-lunary terms: “O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon …” (II, ii, 109).

This part of the Nurse's digression follows naturally from her memory of Juliet's falling out with the wormwood-anointed dug and of her own reaction to the earthquake which occurred on the day Juliet was weaned. Her frantic response to the earthquake—“… 'twas no need, I trow, / To bid me trudge” (I, iii, 33-34)—and the manner in which Juliet recoiled from the wormwood led her mind to the episode which had occurred the day before:

For then she could stand high-lone: nay, by th' rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow.

(I, iii, 36-38)3

All of this is wonderfully natural considering the mental processes of the Nurse. And so is her description of the moment of Juliet's weaning; for of all the characters in the play, only the Nurse would have the kind of mind capable of personifying the dove-house under which she sat and juxtaposing her reaction to the earthquake with Juliet's response to the wormwood:

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool
To see it teachy and fall out wi'th' dug!
Shake, quoth the dove-house; 'twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge.

(I, iii, 31-34)

Like the fall which Juliet had taken on the preceding day, this description of Juliet's weaning and of the event which accompanied it, or which the Nurse associated with it, takes on structural significance.4 Juliet's weaning is given comic magnitude through its association with the earthquake, and because of the unregulated intelligence responsible for the coincidence of detail there is nothing artificial about the passage. The reference to the stricken dove-house as part of the presentation of Juliet's bitter weaning is not simply relevant to the mind from which it emerges; it directs us to the central pattern in the play.


Juliet's sexual awakening marks the first step in her development from the child whose docility is reflected in her singsong response to the news of Paris' courtship—“I'll look to like, if looking liking move; / But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make [it] fly” (I, ii, 97-99)—to the wife whose independence is reflected in the resolute action she takes after the Friar has fled in fear from the tomb—“… O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (V, iii, 169-70). Similarly, the Romeo who, near the end of the play, says, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night” (V, i, 34) is a far cry from the Romeo who loved and suffered by rote. That Romeo was well defined by Mercutio's conjuration: “Cry but ‘Aye me?,’ [pronounce] but ‘love’ and [‘dove’]” (II, i, 10). Such contrasts indicate that both Romeo and Juliet experience a very special kind of weaning as a result of the shocks to which their relationship is subjected.

Their characters are, however, not developed in precisely the same way. Romeo's first reaction to adversity calls attention to the flaw which will contribute to his and Juliet's tragedy as he displays the immoderate passion which the Friar has warned him against. Distraught over the sentence of banishment, he cries out for poison or a knife to end his life. Later in his frenzy he attempts to stab himself and the Friar rebukes him for “womanish” tears and “wild acts” (III, iii, 110). Juliet is never presented in so unattractive a light,5 but there is a distinct parallel made between her reaction and Romeo's to the bitter circumstances which began with Tybalt's death. When the Nurse inquires about Romeo, the Friar points to where he is lying “on the ground, with his own tears made drunk” (III, iii, 83); and the Nurse observes that he is “even in my mistress' case” (III, iii, 84).

It is important to note that the Friar's admonition following Romeo's attempt to stab himself anticipates Juliet's final action: “Wilt thou slay thyself, / And slay thy lady that in thy life [lives] … ?” (III, iii, 116-17). By the same token, Juliet's action in taking a potion which she momentarily suspects may be “poison” (III, iii, 24) anticipates Romeo's final action. But where Romeo's womanish and wild frenzy does not do credit to him, the strength of will which Juliet displays in taking the potion compels our admiration. Nevertheless, in spite of the differences which we may observe as the characters of the lovers are developed, ultimately we look at them in the same light. Their final actions reflect the same ambivalent juxtaposition of profound virtue and youthful flaw, and each of the lovers' actions points us back to a preceding action of the other. When Juliet stabs herself, we are meant to be reminded of Romeo's impetuousness earlier; and when Romeo takes the poison, we may well be reminded of the strength of resolution which Juliet had displayed when in order to be reunited with Romeo she underwent a “thing like death” (IV, i, 74).

These cross correspondences point to the essential mutuality of the lovers' characters within the context of the play as a whole. And they also remind us that the contrast between the protagonists we first meet and the lovers we see at the end of the play is not simply the result of love; it is the result of a love which has been deepened and defined, given new dimension, by adversity. The changes we see in them are brought about by a love which realized its potential through the bitter circumstances to which it was subjected and by which it was tested.

If the Nurse's relation of the bitter weaning, an episode which marks a transition from one phase of human life to a higher phase, is designed to point us to the significance of what happens to Romeo and Juliet by the end of the play, then it may be well to note that this movement to a kind of physical independence is presented in conjunction with an earthquake. For this movement of the earth may be meant to provide a correspondence to the far more powerful astral movement which leads to the spiritual development of the characters of Romeo and Juliet. To see the idea reflected by these analogies whole, we must trace the complex manner in which the motif of poison binds together several sets of images and directs our attention to the profound paradoxical point upon which the play comes to rest—one which blends the theme of providential direction with that of human error and achievement.


All of the images we will be concerned with are presented in the two scenes which precede the Nurse's description of Juliet's weaning and initially are connected either to Romeo's relationship to Rosaline or Paris' relationship to Juliet. In Act I, scene i, the comically Petrarchan Romeo, upon being pressed by an amused Benvolio, explains why he is so melancholy. Rosaline will not play the game of love: She is immune to “Cupid's arrow,” “assailing eyes,” and “saint-seducing gold” (I, i, 209, 213, 214). Benvolio suggests that Romeo look for another love, advice which he repeats metaphorically to a skeptical Romeo in the next scene: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye, / And the rank poison of the old will die” (I, ii, 49-50). This suggestion follows Capulet's invitation to Paris to attend his party so that he may enjoy the beauty of “earth-treading stars” (I, ii, 25) and experience the delights of young love, which are comparable to the pleasure brought by “fresh fennel buds” (I, ii, 29) in the spring.

Following the Nurse's digression on the “bitter” weaning, these images gradually become more intensely and ironically focussed on the relationship that develops between Romeo and Juliet. Juliet assures her mother that she will “endart” her “eye” (I, iii, 98) in conformance with the wishes of her parents; and in the next scene Romeo tells a cynical Mercutio of a premonitory dream and of his conviction that there is some event “hanging in the stars” (I, iv, 107) which will “bitterly begin” (I, iv, 108) its process with the pleasures of the evening. At the party it is Romeo rather than Paris who is endarted by the eye of Juliet, and the “new infection” which he takes to his eye ultimately carries with it a poison that will end his life. There is a similar irony in the amused statement which Mercutio makes shortly before the fatal encounter with Tybalt: Believing that Romeo is still infatuated with Rosaline, he assures Benvolio that Romeo is “dead, stabb'd with a white wench's black eye, … the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt shaft …” (II, iv, 13-16).

By means of this Petrarchan imagery, Shakespeare begins to develop through a comic perspective an atmosphere of tragic inevitability. The metaphorical effluence or dart emitted from the lady's eye is associated with poison, connected to the maleficent striking power of the stars,6 and presented as reflexive in its action. Romeo, as we observed, was endarted by the eyes of Juliet, one of the “earth-treading stars” at the party. Then in the first balcony scene, he looks up at her and compares the light of the stars to that in her eyes:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, [do] entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.

(II, ii, 15-17)

And when she expresses concern for his safety, he assures her that there is “more peril in thine eye” (II, ii, 71) than in the swords of her kinsmen. That the endarting action has been reflexive is suggested later when Romeo tells Friar Lawrence of his new love. In response to the Friar's question regarding his whereabouts, Romeo says: “I have been feasting with mine enemy, / Where on a sudden one hath wounded me / That's by me wounded …” (II, ii, 49-51). Unlike Rosaline, Juliet has not been immune to “assailing eyes.”

Following the death of Tybalt, who had sworn to turn Romeo's happiness to “bitt'rest gall” (I, v. 92) and who ironically succeeded in confirming Romeo's premonition of a process in the stars “bitterly” beginning, the idea of death brought about by an endarted or poisoned glance is presented from another angle. Believing that the Nurse has brought her news of Romeo's death, Juliet cries:

Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ay,
And that bare vowel I shall poison more
Than the death [-darting] eye of cockatrice.

(III, iii, 45-47)

It may be well at this point to suggest the significance which this imagistic framework has with regard to the providential theme. It should be regarded as a metaphorical bridge between the opening reference by the Chorus to star-crossed lovers (6) and the Prince's statement at the end of the play concerning the manner in which providence has punished Capulet and Montague (V, iii, 292-93). Part of the meaning which emerges from this structural connection may be expressed as follows: To bring an end to the disorder in Verona caused by the hatred of the Capulets and Montagues, providence made use of a love set in motion by the stars through the eyes of Juliet and subjected to adverse circumstance. The love carried from the eyes of Juliet to Romeo and back again is presented in terms of a poison or death dart because the bitter circumstances they encountered as lovers led them to death.7

The significance of the motif of poison is expanded further through Shakespeare's development of the flower imagery in the play. Old Capulet, thinking of Paris and Juliet, compared the pleasures of young love to the beauty of a “fresh fennel bud” in the spring. Later Juliet described her relationship with Romeo as a “bud” which could ripen into a “beauteous flower” (II, ii, 121, 122). And in the next scene Friar Lawrence, in a speech which most critics regard as choric,8 contemplates the significance of a “weak flower” (II, iii, 23) which has both poisonous and medicinal powers, seeing a correspondence between the potentiality of the flower and man's capacity for “grace” and “rude will” (II, iii, 28).

This line of imagery serves several purposes. Friar Lawrence's observations indicate that free will is as much a part of the world of Romeo and Juliet as providential oversight. And though the primary responsibility is placed on the fathers who have made the lovers the “poor sacrifices of our enmity” (V, iii, 304), it seems clear that Romeo and Juliet must assume a measure of responsibility for what happens to them. At the same time our sense of the loss of something important is heightened through such imagery. Like the lightning imagery,9 the flower imagery is an apt symbol for the beauty and brevity of young love. It is important to observe further that the flower of the love engendered through the senses by the stars exercises its dual potentiality in a single action: By killing the joys of Capulet and Montague, it heals the malignant hatred which has separated the families. Friar Lawrence's philosophical meditation points us to the significance of what takes place at the end of the play, but the complex of meanings reflected in those final actions makes the Friar's wisdom seem simplistic.

Through the association of poison with the image of gold we are led to another profound dimension in the thematic structure of the play. Romeo thought of gold as a means of corruption when, in ruefully commenting on Rosaline's chastity, he observed that she would not “ope her lap to saint-seducing gold” (I, i, 214). Though he thinks of gold in similar terms when he visits the apothecary, the grimness of his observation at this juncture provides ironic counterpoint to that earlier casual reference and thus reflects the impact of bitter experience upon his cast of mind. The gold which he gives to the apothecary in exchange for the instrument of his death is, he says, the real poison of the world for through it men “poison” their “souls” by pandering to the vices of the flesh (V, i, 80).10 Appropriately enought, in view of the network of paradoxes upon which this drama is built, gold is presented from an entirely different perspective at the end of the play. The only light reflected in the concluding lines is that found in the promise of the golden statues which will memorialize the lovers. Here gold is presented not as something which brings about corruption in men but as a symbol of a quality that can enable humanity to transcend the flaws within itself and its environment, and thus to triumph over the inevitability of the canker death.11 If the flower represents the brevity and the corruptibility of human beauty and love, the gold symbolizes that part of it which can endure.


When Romeo and Juliet fall in love, they do so, as the chorus introducing Act II explains, because they have been “bewitched by the charm of looks” (6). This star-directed love was first presented in terms of poison and, as we noted, contributed to the development of an atmosphere of tragic inevitability. But though the sense of loss which attends a tragic action is in no way diminished, by the time we reach the conclusion of the play we have been invited to look at the implications of poison in a different light. Believing Juliet dead, Romeo purchases poison from an apothecary so that he can join his love by separating himself from the world of the senses—from that part of life which is subject to the stars and to the corruption that gold can bring to the hearts of men. His interpretation of poison as a “cordial” (V, i, 85) corresponds to the declaration which he made upon hearing of the supposed death of Juliet: “Then I [defy] you, stars” (V, i, 24). Both statements reflect the quality of his love—a love which has come a long way from the charm of looks with which it began. Ironically enough, in taking the “cordial,” he becomes, in a sense, scourge and minister to his relationship with Juliet; he fulfills the providential instruments which have worked through the pressures of the flesh.

Romeo's interpretation of poison is echoed by Juliet when upon observing the manner in which he died, she attempted to extract the “restorative” (V, iii, 166) from his lips. Thus, through the development of the motif of poison, love, which was presented initially as an infection to which the flesh is heir, is shown to be a power in the universe or a quality in human nature that offers humanity a means of transcending its dull earth. The final actions of the protagonists indicate that their feeling for each other has transcended the world of the senses in which it had taken root and has lived up to the extravagant declarations with which it was first expressed.12 And the gold of the memorial statues, reflecting its potential in itself as a primate rather than in its misuse as an instrument of vice, becomes an appropriate symbol of the level of their achievement.

The motif of poison ties together in various ways the theme of providential direction and that of the human potentiality for corruption and growth. The poisoned effluence of a love directed by the stars takes us first to the bewitchment of appearances and then leads us through the bitter intersection of mischance and misinterpretation to a character-flawed spiritual declaration of independence which results in a glooming peace and the gleam of promised gold.13 The Nurse's irrelevant story of the wormwood weaning provides an important, if rudimentary, index to this complex pattern. And the nice balance of themes which emerges from the pattern itself might be summed up in this way: On the one hand, if providence through the stars engenders a poisoned love in order to bring the still, sad music of humanity from the mouth of outrage, the bitter circumstances directed by providence lead the lovers to the level of transcendence they attain; and on the other hand, if the lovers must bear a measure of responsibility for their fate, they also must be given a measure of the credit for what is created within themselves out of their fate.

A final qualification: Transcendence is perhaps at once too strong and too easy a word for what has been attained by lovers so young and so real. Throughout the play they retain the generic flaws of youth and their final precipitant actions give life to the metaphors which were used to describe the significance of their initial attraction—the stabbing dart or poisonous effluence of love. Thus the instruments of their destruction remind us of the beginning of their love. After taking poison, Romeo, with a kiss, dies on Juliet; and following a kiss, Juliet thrusts Romeo's dagger into her body, its “sheath,” so that she may “die.” The suggestiveness of the final words and actions of the lovers remind us of the sensual basis of their passion14 even as these actions in themselves reflect the extent to which their love has weaned itself from the world of the senses. The movement from idealized sensuality to a kind of sensualized transcendence—this is ultimately what the bitter weaning15 of Romeo and Juliet brings about.


  1. James Sutherland, “How the Characters Talk,” in Shakespeare's World, ed. James Sutherland and Joel Hurstfield (London: Edward Arnold, 1964), p. 127.

  2. All Shakespeare quotations are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans (Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. Professor Sutherland, p. 128, points out that “To get the modern equivalent of this … remark we should have to substitute something like ‘You bet there was no need to tell me to hop it.’”

  4. Joseph S. M. I. Chang, “The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare Studies, 3 (1967), 25, has noted that the Nurse's story is far more than “a comic setpiece.” The point of it, he says, “lies in the symbolic import of weaning, a milestone attained in the infant's progress to death.” And in a more detailed analysis of this portion of the play, Barbara Everett, “Romeo and Juliet: The Nurse's Story,” Critical Quarterly, 13 (1972), 14, attaching special significance to that part of the story which involve Jule's being picked up by the Nurse's husband after her fall, comes to this conclusion: The Nurse's “speech establishes a natural milieu in which earthquake and weaning, a fall and a being taken up so balance that the ill effects of either are of no importance; and insofar as what she says relates to the rest of the play, it helps to suggest that the same might be true of love and death.” My conclusions concerning the significance of the earthquake and the weaning differ from those of Professor Chang and Professor Everett.

  5. Cf. Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 104, who observes that, unlike their prototypes in Brooke's poem, Juliet is more courageous, mature and sensible than Romeo.

  6. E. C. Pettet, “The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet,English, 8 (1950), 123, has pointed out that Shakespeare has fused star and eye images in such a way as to suggest that Juliet “is now Romeo's star, his fate; and, as his star, she has the magical power of transforming night into day, of changing his wretchedness into radiant joy and the bitter hatred of their families into love.” He does not see the manner in which Shakespeare has extended the implications of these images through the association with poison. The brilliant adaptation of this line of the imagery must have been triggered by the following lines in Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957], 291, 292): Fed by the sight of Juliet, Romeus' “houngry eyes”

    … swalloweth downe loves sweete empoysende baite,
    .....So is the poyson spred throughout his bones and vaines.

    (ll. 218, 221)

    And Juliet, who had previously escaped the “sharpe inflaming darte” (l. 231) of love, upon seeing Romeus, became the target of “warlike love” who with “golden bowe and shaft” (l, 229) … sent forth an arrow which “so touchd her to the quicke, / That through the eye it strake the hart, and there the hedde did sticke” (ll. 233-34).

  7. This reading is in line with that of Professor Lawrence E. Bowling, PMLA, 64 (1949), 217, who says that the basic theme of the play is the “wholeness and complexity of things,” as well as that of Paul N. Siegel, “Christianity and the Religion of Love in Romeo and Juliet,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 12 (1961), 385, who observes that the play “dramatizes the concept of a cosmic love manifesting itself through sexual love and working against strife and disorder in society.”

  8. An excellent review of the criticism of Romeo and Juliet which includes a good bit of discussion concerning Friar Lawrence's function in the play may be found in Gordon Ross Smith's “The Balance of Themes in Romeo and Juliet,Essays on Shakespeare, ed. G. R. Smith (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 15-44. The present critical consensus seems to be reflected by the positions of Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1956), p. 92, who notes that Shakespeare establishes the Friar as chorus and then makes him the spokesman for the theme of haste; and by Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1942; rpt. New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 92, who states that “Friar Lawrence is a chorus to the emotions of Romeo, just as … the Prince of Verona is a chorus to the feud.” But there are dissenting voices. To cite two: Robert Y. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 232, maintains that the Friar's behavior “at the tomb is too personal for an authoritative choral figure”; and Ruth Nevo's reading of the Friar's part in the tragedy, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 44, leads her to the conclusion that it should “help to preclude a providential reading of the play.”

  9. Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), p. 312, states that “Shakespeare saw the story, in its swift and tragic beauty, as an almost blinding flash of light, suddenly ignited, and as swiftly quenched.” Professor Spurgeon was the first critic to point out the extent to which the imagery of light and darkness pervades the play.

  10. Professor Ruth Nevo, p. 54, maintains that the “motif of corrupting gold has not been sufficiently integrated into the play's conceptual material to make the observation resound as it should.” It seems to me that this point is valid only if this motif is not seen as a significant part of the ambivalence which is at the conceptual heart of the play.

  11. Warren D. Smith, “Romeo's Final Dream,” Modern Language Review, 62 (1967), 583, sees a different kind of irony in the gold of the statues. Since the play suggests through Romeo's second dream that the lovers have been reunited in another life, the point, he says, lies in the fact that they have need neither of golden statues nor golden rays of sunlight. An even more negative interpretation is that of Roy W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), p. 117, who sees in the gold a “tinge of commercialism.”

  12. Though these actions reflect the youthful flaws of the protagonists, there is no suggestion that their suicides are to be associated with damnation. As Irving Ribner points out, “Then I Denie You Starres: A Reading of Romeo and Juliet,Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, ed. J. W. Bennett, et al. (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1959), p. 284: Shakespeare in this context is not “the theologian illustrating a text … but the dramatist using symbolically a detail inherited from his sources in order to illustrate a greater and more significant truth.” In the Renaissance, he goes on to say, “there was … much respect for the classical notion of suicide as a noble act by which man fulfills his obligations and attains a higher good than life itself, and on the stage suicide was often portrayed in such terms.”

  13. This statement, in a very general way, reflects the most prominent elements that have been singled out by critics as the springs of the tragic action. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearean Tragedy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1948), p. 50, says that the propelling force is “Fate and Fortune.” Seeing the play as a “tragedy of unawareness,” Bertrand Evans, “The Brevity of Friar Lawrence,” PMLA, 65 (1950), 850, observes that “Fate, or Heaven … or the ‘greater power’ … operates through the common human condition of not knowing.” Harley Granville-Baker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol. II (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947), pp. 312-13, states that “in the end” the play is “a tragedy of mischance” but goes on to note that the “two lovers … in themselves … [are] prone to disaster.” H. Edward Cain, “Hang Up Philosophy,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 22 (1947), 201, maintains that in Romeo Shakespeare clearly represents “the consequence which hangs not only in the stars, but in ourselves.” Franklin M. Dickey, pp. 110-11, sees Romeo's character as the key to the tragedy; and Robert Y. Turner, p. 232, points out that Juliet, “like Romeo, makes a deliberate choice in killing herself, a choice which qualifies the absoluteness of the opening statement by the chorus that their lives are star-crossed.”

  14. Cf. Philip J. Traci, “Suggestions About the Bawdry in Romeo and Juliet,South Atlantic Quarterly, 71 (1972), 586, who observes that “the deaths of Romeo and Juliet … are clearly erotic.”

  15. The following passage from Cawdray's Treasurie or Storehouse of Similies, 1600, which is used as a gloss on the reference to wormwood weaning in the Furness Variorum edition of Romeo and Juliet (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1871), p. 45, may lend support to the line I have followed in my analysis:

    “… Even so, though God's Preachers preach unto us, and exhort us to forsake the corrupt milke of the world and of the flesh, yet we seeme deaf still, and are always backward, untill God put upon these cursed teates the mustard and wormewood of afflictions to weane us.”

    Though his homily was published a few years after Romeo and Juliet, it is possible that Shakespeare had read or heard an earlier version. However this may be, it is interesting to see the profound gulf between such hardshell moralizing and the complexity and subtlety of Shakespeare's use of this theme.

Paula Newman and George Walton Williams (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Newman, Paula, and George Walton Williams. “Paris: The Mirror of Romeo.” In Renaissance Papers (1981): 13-19.

[In the following essay, Newman and Williams discuss how Shakespeare's dialogue and action establish Paris and Romeo as mirror images of one another.]

In the structure of Romeo and Juliet, Paris serves the function of a parallel or opposite figure to Romeo, both standing as suitors for Juliet's hand and both lying with her finally in her tomb; but this rivalry, however clear in the lines of the plot, is not realized in the action. Paris and Romeo are oblivious to it, and they do not encounter one another until they meet in death. In the general atmosphere of the play, furthermore, Paris serves additionally as a mirror in which are reflected, at first, Romeo's impetuous youth and, later, Romeo's despairing maturity. The mirroring is evident in verbal description, in action, and in dialogue.

In a play which is notable for the presence of several youths, Paris and Romeo are both described by the terms “youth” and “young” several times in the play, Capulet or his Wife using the latter adjective to describe each of them once.1 Paris and Romeo are both “gentle,”2 and both uniquely among the youths have attributes that are flower-like and “fair.”3 These attributes are, indeed, common enough, but descriptions from three uncommon metaphors also link the rivals—wax, books, and the game of primero.

A man, young lady! lady, such a man
As all the world—why he's a man of wax,


says the Nurse of Paris; and the other confidant, the Friar, says of Romeo,

Thy noble shape is but a form of wax,
Digressing from the valour of a man.


Though the two metaphors are alike, it is the dissimilarity in their application that bears examination. The Nurse's comment intimates that Paris is like a waxen figure, a perfect specimen of a man; the Friar's reproof chides Romeo's manliness as waxen, subject to melting or dissolution, unable to hold its noble shape, changing. Similarly, Capulet's Wife describes Paris as

                                                  this fair volume …
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,


and Juliet, describing Romeo, asks

Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound?


Once again, it is the dissimilarity in the two examples of the same metaphor that is noteworthy. Paris is a perfect specimen of a book wanting only a binding, which marriage to Juliet would provide; Romeo is the complete volume now in its binding already. And thirdly, the Nurse jokes with the unconscious Juliet before her marriage to Paris, using a term from primero, saying that the County Paris “hath set up his rest / That you shall rest but little” (IV.v.6-7); and Romeo grimly echoes that jest with the unconscious Juliet before her marriage to Death, vowing that he will “set up [his] … everlasting rest … With worms that are thy chamber-maids” (V.iii.110, 109). The Nurse's Fescinnine humor alludes fittingly to Paris' short wedding night; Romeo's fatal horror addresses a long and “dateless bargain to engrossing death” (l. 115). The two men are, indeed, a pair, but the imagery bespeaks the difference between them: Paris is young, unchanging, but incomplete; Romeo is young, changeable, maturing, and complete. Romeo describes himself as “young Romeo [who] will be older when you have found him than he was when you sought him” (II.iv.126-8).

Perhaps more remarkable than these verbal parallels and contrasts are the visible contrasts in the actions of the lovers. Paris and Romeo are on stage together only twice, but the alternation of their exits and entrances throughout the play is extraordinary. The juxtapositions of the two lovers provide a visual mirroring of the pair. In Act I, at the end of scene one, Romeo leaves the stage; Paris enters immediately at the beginning of scene two. In the middle of scene two, Paris leaves the stage; after seven lines of the Servant's soliloquy, Romeo enters. This alternation brings the two suitors to our attention as they confront similar situations: Romeo describes his suit to Rosaline, Paris announces his suit to Juliet, and both Romeo and Paris plan to attend Capulet's feast. In Act III the same technique obtains. At the end of scene three, Romeo leaves the stage, and Paris enters immediately at the beginning of scene four; at the end of scene four, Paris leaves the stage, and Romeo enters immediately at the beginning of scene five. This alternation provides the almost obscene juxtaposition of Paris' contract for marriage with Juliet and Romeo's consummation of marriage with Juliet. In Acts IV and V, the third alternation of this kind, Paris and Romeo both receive the news of Juliet's supposed death, the one in Verona at the end of Act IV, scene five, the other in Mantua at the beginning of Act V, scene one. (The two appearances are separated by the comic episode of Peter and the Musicians. If the theory that this section is a later addition of Shakespeare's is correct, then the two suitors are again closely juxtaposed, Paris leaving and, after six lines, Romeo entering.4)

Paris is on stage only once without direct reference to Romeo—in Act IV, scene one. This appearance is precisely what we should expect. In all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the hero is removed from the attention of the audience in Act IV; his place is taken by his opposite (e.g., Hamlet leaves our awareness, going to England; Laertes fills his place, coming from France). Furthermore, Paris appears here in a meeting with the Friar, exactly balancing Romeo's meeting with the Friar in Act II, scene three; in both scenes, the lovers make plans with the Friar for a speedy marriage, and he on both occasions speaks for slowness instead of haste. In addition, Paris meets Juliet at the Friar's cell, as Romeo earlier had met Juliet at the Friar's cell.

The two occasions when the suitors are on stage together are moments of the highest significance. The first is at Capulet's old accustomed feast, where they are unaware of each other but where they both fall in love with Juliet.5 The second is at Capulet's monument, where again, though each identifies the other, neither is aware of the reason that brings the other to Juliet's tomb. After Paris dies at Romeo's hand, Romeo recognizes him. The two lovers meet; Romeo carries the body of his dead rival into Juliet's bridal chamber where all three marry in the same instant that they die in the feasting presence full of light.

The dialogue of the lovers in this scene at Capulet's monument gives additional evidence of the mirroring. Paris speaks to his Page:

Give me thy torch, boy: hence, and stand aloof: …
Give me those flowers. Do as I bid thee, go.

(V.iii.1, 9)

Romeo echoes these instructions, speaking to his Man:

Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron. …
Give me the light: …
                                                            … stand all aloof.

(V.iii.22, 25-6)

The similarities between these two injunctions are striking, but the dissimilarities are more so. Paris asks his boy for the flowers; Romeo asks his man for the mattock and the wrenching iron.6 The flowers represent Paris—freshness and youth and life; the mattock and the iron represent Romeo—death. The contrast demonstrates clearly that Paris is still the fair, young, and gentle youth that he was at the beginning of the play, and that he is no longer the parallel figure to Romeo. Paris offers to “strew … [Juliet's] bridal bed … with flowers”; Romeo threatens to “strew this hungry churchyard with … [his Man's] limbs” (ll. 12, 36).

When Paris apprehends Romeo, Romeo pleads with him to flee, distinguishing between Paris' youth and his own mature manhood:

Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
                                                                                                    … I beseech thee, youth,
… I love thee better than myself;
For I come hither arm'd against myself:
Stay not, be gone: live, and hereafter say,
A madman's mercy bade thee run away.

(ll. 59-67)

The irony of Romeo's words is apparent. Romeo does love Paris better than he loves himself, because Paris is the image of his youth, the “one short minute” of joy exchanged with Juliet ( - 5). Symbolically, Romeo must kill Paris because that part of him is gone and dead. He does therefore come armed against himself. After killing his younger self, Romeo discovers that his antagonist was the “noble Countie Paris,” and he grasps the dead hand.7 His epitaph returns to the metaphor of the book, now combining both of the lovers-as-books in the single volume:

One writ with me in sour misfortune's book.

(l. 82)

Romeo's placing of the dead Paris, the image of his youth, beside Juliet inside the tomb and his own suicide represent the full and final achievement of manhood for both of the young suitors.

To see how Shakespeare has been at pains to establish his contrast we have but to compare the play with Arthur Brooke's poem, Shakespeare's primary source for narrative, character, and metaphor. In the poem, Paris enters the story for the first time after the death of Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo (l. 1845), in effect at the equivalent of III.v.105. He comes to rouse Juliet on her wedding day at the equivalent of IV.v.32, but he takes no part in the obsequies and drops out of the story thereafter (l. 2443). Shakespeare has devised the three juxtapositions (at I.i-ii, at III.iii.iv-v, and at IV.v-V.i); he has realized Paris' visit to the Friar (IV.i) for which there is no original material (except his own anticipation in Romeo's visit); and he has provided the two moments when both lovers are on stage. Shakespeare's intention is clear; his skill is manifest. The source figure is developed in such a way and deployed in the play at such points as to draw specifically the contrast between the two suitors, two young men, the flower of youth blasted as they meet, and dead on arrival at the tomb, their final destination, where they do, indeed, set up, with Juliet, their everlasting rest.


  1. For example, V.iii.59 and I.v.70 (the adjective is used also to describe Tybalt); III.v.114 and I.v.66 (the adjective is used also to describe Juliet and Petruchio). Citations to the Globe text.

  2. For example, I.ii.16 and I.iv.13. Honesty requires the admission that both Mercutio and Tybalt (!) are termed “gentle” also; one would wish to argue that these were special cases.

  3. For example, I.iii.77 and III.ii.73; III.v.222 and III.ii.74.

  4. The dialogue between the exit of Paris and the entry of Romeo consists of two parts: lines 96-101, conversation between the Nurse and the Musicians; lines 102-150, conversation between the Musicians and Peter (Will Kemp). At line 95.1, Q2 (representing Shakespeare's foul papers) reads “Exeunt manet.,” and Q1 (representing a performance) reads “all but the Nurse goe foorth.” At line 101.1-2, Q2 reads “Exit omnes. Enter Will Kemp.,” and Q1 reads “Enters Servingman” (with an “Exit.” for the Nurse after line 99). Dover Wilson suggested that the latter section might have been added later “to give Kemp an extra piece of ‘fat’” (edn. [1955], p. 209). The Q2 “Exit omnes” after line 101 intimates strongly that at one stage of the writing Shakespeare intended to conclude the scene at this point—without benefit of Kemp. But Will Kemp entered, and the scene went on. The fact that in Q2 the prefixes for the Musicians change from “Musi.” and “Fid.” in lines 96-101 to “Minstrel” (or some form of the word) and “Fidler.” in lines 102-150 suggests that the latter section represents a stage of composition different from that of the earlier section; and the presence of the name “Will Kemp” where we should expect “Peter” perhaps indicates the cause or the causer of the addition.

    The present text provides an interlude of 55 lines between the exit of Paris (IV.v.95) and the entry of Romeo (V.i.1), an interruption sufficient to nullify any sense of a significant contrast; Shakespeare's original intention was almost certainly to bring Romeo on stage six lines after Paris had left, following the brief and pathetic exchange between the Nurse and the Musicians, an interruption the same length as that in I.ii. It is easy to understand how Kemp might have insisted on speaking more than had originally been set down for him, and how Shakespeare—reluctantly, we may imagine—allowed him to laugh even though a necessary juxtaposition of the rival suitors was then to be considered.

  5. We must certainly assume that Paris is present at the feast though he is not mentioned in direction or dialogue.

  6. A small point, but perhaps worth comment: Paris' attendant is called ‘boy’; Romeo's attendant is called ‘man’ (V.iii.168,182).

  7. This reconciliatory hand clasp of the rival lovers before Juliet's death bed anticipates the hand clasp of the greater reconciliation (l. 296) that brings peace to Verona and quiet to her streets.

    We may suppose that when Paris threatens Romeo, he lays down his flowers and sweet water and draws his sword. Such a gesture is a gesture of manhood, a maturing that is indicated also in the sternness of Paris' speeches to Romeo. If Paris draws his sword, then he and Romeo are for the first time similarly equipped and armed. Paris too, then, suddenly, becomes a man and, in so becoming, dies.

Dave Kehr (review date 17 August 2001)

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SOURCE: Kehr, Dave. “Hip-Hop Romeo, Hasidic Juliet.” New York Times (17 August 2001): B8, E8.

[In the following review of Marc Levin's Brooklyn Babylon—a film loosely based on Romeo and Juliet—Kehr finds the film's ending unnecessarily ambiguous.]

Brooklyn Babylon begins with some pointed intercutting between a Jamaican rap band in rehearsal and a Hasidic wedding in ecstatic progress. The director, Marc Levin, is establishing images of two cultures on a collision course—the setting is the divided Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn—but he is also suggesting how much the two groups have in common.

Not only do the keening rhythms of the wedding cantor find an echo in the emphatic phrasing of the rap vocalist (played by Tariq Trotter, backed by the Grammy-winning band the Roots), but they also share a common subject matter. The Rastafarian rappers and the Hasidic celebrators find inspiration in the same biblical tale: that of the love of King Solomon for the Queen of Sheba.

It's that very tale, reinforced by references to Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, that shapes all of Brooklyn Babylon. Mr. Trotter, playing a character named Sol, soon meets a Sheba he can call his own, in the willowy form of a young Hasidic woman named Sara (the newcomer Karen Goberman). They meet when a car being driven by Sol's hustling, intemperate manager, Scratch (Bonz Malone), collides with the car carrying Sara and her impatient, family-designated fiancé, Judah (David Vadim), at the borderline separating the black and Jewish sections of the neighborhood.

An argument explodes between the two hotheads, Scratch and Judah, while Sol and Sara exchange moist, wide-eyed looks in the sort of extreme close-ups that can mean only one thing. Mr. Levin, whose Slam won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d'Or at Cannes, remains a divided talent, capable at once of the graceful, unforced associations of the opening scene and the sentimental overkill of Sol and Sara's swooning first encounter.

A yeteran documentary filmmaker (Brooklyn Babylon is only his third fictional feature), Mr. Levin often has problems reconciling his observational talents with his addiction to exaggerated dramatic situations. Just as the understated authenticity of the opening sequences of Slam eventually gave way to a mindless triumphalism apparently inspired by the Rocky films, so does Brooklyn Babylon leave its sociological realism behind as it takes off for the airless upper atmosphere of teenage romance.

Drawn together when they meet again in a flowering park, Sol and Sara begin a clandestine relationship. Though, as Sara says with marvelous understatement, “at home we listen mainly to old stuff,” she immediately warms to Sol's music, which combines Rastafarian mysticism with hip-hop rhythms. Lyrics like “Sheba was black and Solomon was white / Their hearts saw no color, only love at first sight” may lack biblical cadence, but they do get to the point.

Sol invites Sara to his apartment, where, after Mr. Levin makes a bit too much of her lustily devouring the forbidden fruit represented by a grape, they make love with a passionate intensity distilled from the Song of Songs.

When word of their relationship spreads through their respective communities, the two young people find themselves standing at a flashpoint. Continuing their relationship will mean tightening the racial tensions that already grip the neighborhood: Scratch has firebombed Judah's car; Judah has tossed a Molotov cocktail into a Rasta club.

Mr. Levin and his screenwriters—Mr. Malone, who plays Scratch, and Pam Widener—have set up a classical dilemma. Do Sol and Sara end their relationship for the good of the community, or do they refuse to break it off, fighting for the higher good of racial harmony that will come much later, if at all?

It is a question without a simple, satisfying answer, and Mr. Levin does not offer one. Instead, the film dissolves into a series of diminishing anticlimaxes, ending on a note of portentous ambiguity. To the last, Mr. Levin maintains his uneasy balance of reportage and melodrama. The biblical Solomon, at least, knew how to make a decision.

Jana J. Monji (review date 10 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Monji, Jana J. “Romeo Becomes a Bawdy Comedy.” Los Angeles Times (10 January 2002): F49.

[In the following review, Monji maintains that the Troubadour Theater Company's production of Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates was “a wonderfully silly sendup” of Shakespeare's tragedy.]

Romeo (Rick Batalla) has a wandering mustache and a mostly Italian accent. Juliet (Meleney Humphrey) is a giggly rich girl in sneakers. Juliet's mother, Lady Oates (Beth Kennedy), has a makeup job straight from the Barnum & Bailey Circus but is doing a mean mommy dearest impression. The nurse (Michelle Anne Johnson) has a curiously active chest.

Using the music of '80s pop singers Daryl Hall and John Oates, the Troubadour Theater Company has concocted an adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy that's so loose that the threads sometimes show. It's not as well-tailored as the company's 12th Dog Night or as hilariously dippy as the disco version of the Bard's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates, now at the Falcon Theater, is still bawdy fun.

Front-row seats can be somewhat hazardous for patrons (who might get slightly misted), although no one is really safe, because the actors race into the audience. There are also acrobatics, with audience participation.

This love story parody played earlier at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, and from the looks of it, the troupe has spared every expense on the scenery. The balcony scene involves an exceptional use of stilts.

Too many songs are exhausted during the party scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet. Under Walker's direction, some scenes feel rushed. In the end, the death scene doesn't wind down the play.

Still, the Troubadours' flippancy and physicality are winning. Purists beware.

But for others, this is a wonderfully silly sendup.

Sheridan Morley (review date 18 November 2002)

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SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Romeo Reaches Rock Bottom.” New Statesman 131, no. 4614 (18 November 2002): 46.

[In the following excerpt, Morley finds little to praise in David Freeman's production of Romeo & Juliet: The Musical.]

To understand what has gone so horribly wrong over here with a musical [Romeo and Juliet: The Musical] that has been running triumphantly in Paris these many months, we need to understand something about the French and musicals, which is basically that they hate them. Only in Paris has West Side Story ever flopped, not to mention their very own Les Misérables, whose authors were so depressed by their fellow countrymen's attitude to big band shows that they both settled over here.

Only a nation that has never really set any store by Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins or Stephen Sondheim, not to mention Shakespeare, could have come up with this rock-pop shambles, one best summarised by Romeo as he leaves Juliet's bed after their fateful encounter. “That,” he says unconvincingly, “was the night of my life.” Somehow I think Shakespeare put it rather better.

In an almost entirely unknown cast and (over here, at least) creative team, only our man for all musical seasons, Don Black, carries any weight; and it is hardly his fault that he has not here been able to do what Herbert Kretzmer did with Les Mis, not so much a translation as a total rewrite. Black has, I suspect, stuck pretty closely to the original Gerard Presgurvic score, since the lyrics are far too terrible to be his own.

David Freeman's production is a gala evening of high campery, in which songs are not so much sung as shouted out across the orchestra pit by a cast commendably able not to giggle at such lines as “When will they get it in their heads / That they will never leave their beds?”, a couplet that sort of summarises the tragic finale an hour or three before we reach it.

David Roger's Verona set looks like a nightclub in Barcelona after a rough evening, characters are introduced by lines like “This is Romeo and that's his friend Mercutio”, while the Prince of Verona's near-immortal “Two households with an ancient grudge / Find they really cannot budge” tells you more than you really need to know.

As a schools project for deaf preteenagers who have somehow missed out on the story, the musical has a certain relentless efficiency, and Juliet comes complete with her own Barbie-doll bed-room that sometimes floats through the night sky like something out of ET. The lady who plays the Nurse, Jane McDonald, made her name a couple of years ago on a TV documentary about life aboard a cruise liner, which is presumably why she plays her hitherto-great role like a stewardess aboard the QE2 after a long shift.

Michael W. Shurgot (review date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: Shurgot, Michael W. Review of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 3 (fall 2003): 100-02.

[In the following review, Shurgot states that the massive sets in the Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet left “no room for subtlety in staging or lighting.”]

In Sharon Ott's Romeo and Juliet at Seattle Repertory Theatre, huge, thick black panels, reaching floor to ceiling, textured to resemble the rough stone walls of medieval buildings, dominated the stage. Initially these panels defined the exterior walls of two castles—those of Capulet and Montague—and dark, forbidding streets lighting the way to dusty death. Gregorian chant floated above the stage as young men darted from the dark streets, flashing swords at their enemies. As they tangled and then quickly fled, grieving figures in black, carrying umbrellas, entered from the opposing castles and stopped center stage while bells from within tolled not only for the plague that foils Friar Laurence's plan but also for the generations that rely on violence to settle their quarrels. The oppressive darkness of this forbidding place, with no room for subtlety in staging or lighting, warned spectators to be wary and precluded dramatic tension. Love was already doomed, and the Prologue's reference to “fair Verona” sounded terribly ironic.

Ott captured vividly the generational gap that is central to Shakespeare's tragedy. Kevin Loomis is a large man who physically dominated his wife and especially his much shorter daughter. In 1.3, as she combed Juliet's hair, Suzanne Bouchard as Lady Capulet, who is barely twice her daughter's age, wore a gorgeous red gown and stiff head dress that resembled a cobra's head. She pulled on Juliet's hair several times while combing it as Juliet fidgeted under her mother's control. Later, in 3.5, Capulet, far older than Lady Capulet and quite intimidating, raged at both his wife and daughter, hurling bedding and furniture around the room and finally Lady Capulet herself onto the bed. Lady Capulet cowered before him. Her exit lines to Juliet, “Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word. / Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee,” as she limped off stage terrified Juliet and left her completely alone with her father's rage. Juliet's willingness to risk her life for love seemed here perfectly reasonable. Laura Kenny as the Nurse was robust and charming, but her jollity paled next to Capulet's enraged patriarchy.

The young men were exuberant, quick-witted, and flashy. Benvolio knew that Romeo was in love with love, not with Rosaline, and enjoyed mocking his affections. Ott complicated this male society by playing Mercutio as gay and desiring Romeo and thus jealous of Romeo's infatuation with Rosaline and later with Juliet. His “Queen Mab” speech in 1.4, which he spoke at lightning speed while galloping around the stage, ended with his lying prostrate over Romeo and moving his hips sexually on “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, / That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage.” While waiting for Romeo to appear after the party in 2.1, Mercutio grabbed his crotch as he conjured Romeo to appear by Rosaline's “fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh, / And the demesnes that there adjacent lie”; and he relished the pronunciation of his sexual puns, especially the ambiguity of “in his mistress' name / I conjure only but to raise up him” (italics added). The very vibrancy of the younger generation, plus the explicit and implicit sexual freedom they desired, contrasted vividly with the staid and, except for the Nurse's witty exchanges with Mercutio and Benvolio in 2.4, repressed emotions of the older generation.

As vividly realized as the characters were, they were not the centerpieces of this production. The huge panels moved forward and back and side to side, to create different acting sites—the outer walls of the opposing castles, Juliet's bedroom, the central piazza where Tybalt fights and dies, the Montagues' festive party, the exterior walls and balcony of Montague's castle, Friar Laurence's cell, and finally the tomb in act five—this massive set dominated the production; one sensed that spectators were watching the monstrous walls move, rather than hearing the play's poetry. The balcony scene required Romeo to climb a sheer stone wall and hang on precariously while behind Juliet loomed another equally high wall. The massive walls, dim lighting, and fog that occasionally shrouded the set—resembling the lighting and visual effects of several of Orson Welles's Shakespeare films—suggested dark forces conspiring against the young lovers, whose poetry, even in their initial tender encounter, could not match the physical domination of the set.

The production was not without humor or compelling verse-speaking. Ted D'Arms, a jolly Friar Tuck, was astonished at Romeo's request for a hurried marriage; his explosive “Holy St. Francis, what a change is here!” was hilarious. When the Nurse entered 2.4 looking for Romeo, she wore a head dress with a fifteen-foot train that Benvolio and Mercutio wrapped around her head, blinding her; Peter took nearly a minute to unwrap her, during which she became increasingly agitated, sputtering her lines. Her order to Peter, “Before, and apace,” led them initially in circles and then finally off stage—slowly. Juliet's clock speech opening 2.5, set within the towering walls of her bedroom, demonstrated Cynthia Boorujy's precise pronunciation and studied rhythm that captured clearly the energy of a young woman awaiting news of her lover. When the Nurse arrived, out of breath and still fussing with her head dress, Juliet, jumping nervously on her bed, drove the old woman to exasperation on “Henceforward do your messages yourself” before turning abruptly to Juliet to inquire of her going to “shrift.” The Nurse's sudden change in tone and demeanor was charming.

J. Allen Suddeth's staging of the fight in 3.1 clearly showed Romeo's guilty interference, even as he tried desperately to prevent violence. Equally clear was the sexual passion in Juliet as she awaited the Nurse in 3.2, and Boorhjy's ability to shift emotions rapidly to the despair in her long speech “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” Romeo protested far too much in his encounter with Friar Laurence in 3.3, yet his suicidal angst seemed fitting for a very young man governed by anger, guilt, and desperate longing. One sensed in Ginty's performance exactly why young people would rely on elders for help, thus emphasizing the tragedy of both their rash actions and their ill-starred journey to the tomb. As Juliet drank the potion and fell on her bed, it descended through a trap door, as if her bed of love had become a bier summoned into the earth. The doubling of Allen Gilmore as Montague and the apothecary suggested the elder generation's agency in the deaths of their children, and his slinking away after selling the potion to Romeo anticipated Friar Laurence, another apothecary who escapes punishment, fleeing the tomb lest his agency in the deaths of these impetuous yet innocent lovers be revealed.

In a contemporary updating of the final act, Ott introduced guns, glancing perhaps at Baz Luhrmann's film and creating a contemporary parable of the play's violence. Shrouded in fog, with the huge walls of the hateful castles looming behind them, Romeo and Juliet lay in a final embrace upon the tomb—lovers who, like death, will never abandon their beloved. Figures draped in black, carrying umbrellas as in the opening scene, walked slowly from opposite sides of the stage. Montague and Capulet weakly reached for each other's hands, which came together over the dead bodies of their children, like Friar Laurence's letter, too late.

Heather Neill (review date 3 October 2003)

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SOURCE: Neill, Heather. “High Drama and Tension in a Star-Crossed Classic.” Times Educational Supplement, no. 4552 (3 October 2003): 14.

[In the following review, Neill describes the Theatre Vesturport's production of Romeo and Juliet, which featured acrobats on trapezes, and the Splinter Group's production of Shakespeare's R & J, told from the perspectives of four teenage boys.]

Romeo and Juliet lends itself to all kinds of interpretation. Students who are reasonably familiar with the text will be intrigued by two unusual London productions.

At the Young Vic an acrobatic Icelandic company launch into their native tongue or swing on trapezes to express the extremity of passion. The script has been severely cut (but then, it is curtailed to some extent in any production) but most of the big moments are there and Gísli Örn Garðarsson and Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as the star-cross'd lovers are affecting in the tragic scenes. Gísli, who also directs, describes the circus moments as being like a geyser erupting; repressed passion needs extraordinary means to express itself. Gísli has chosen to invest the authority of the prince in a child (a child who happens to be a gymnast). “All the adults have made mistakes; the child is impressive, pure, spiritual.” Friar Lawrence is a bumbling ex-hippie and the Nurse is played by an overweight man. While enjoying the spectacle, students may consider what new light all this sheds on the text, whether it is permissible to view the play as a comedy which takes a tragic turn, whether the older generation can be seen as ludicrous in their lack of understanding of true feeling, whether Romeo is bent on self-destruction.

The American Shakespeare's R & J tells the story through the eyes of four repressed adolescent school-boys. Together they read the forbidden text (and import scraps of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a couple of sonnets), taking the parts as necessary. The sense of youthful discovery of lust and violence, and the frustration of youth with uncomprehending adults is all there, however, without any hint of drag show or gay drama.

In both productions, Romeo becomes a more decisive character than he sometimes seems. This is really Juliet's play; she is practical and often takes the initiative, while Romeo can be a dreamy boy, even a crybaby. Joe Calarco, director of Shakespeare's R & J, acknowledges Juliet to be “a powerhouse”, but says that, in his boys' school set-up he wanted Romeo to be “passionate, not dewy-eyed. He is a leader”. An imaginative boy, this is his story.

Joseph S. M. J. Chang (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: Chang, Joseph S. M. J. “The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967): 22-42.

[In the following essay, Chang disputes criticism that considers love the primary concern of Romeo and Juliet, citing themes of time, death, and immortality as more important to the play.]

Critical insight has foundered in the case of Romeo and Juliet,1 in part because critics restrict their readings to the level of understanding defined by the two choric sonnets, and in part because students of the play have misread Shakespeare's major artistic tool here, making it subserve their own penchant for analysis of character. For example, since Dowden, it has been commonly accepted that Shakespeare employs a low order of Petrarchanism in the first act to indicate the shallowness of young Romeo's conventionalized devotion to Rosaline.2 Petrarchan oxymorons tediously issue from the boy, when he is not playing the role of the melancholic, only to give way under the pressure of true emotion to genuinely moving poetry. From a man in love with love, he becomes a truly persuasive and compelling instance of romantic love in a play which demonstrates the inherent dangers of such love. It is my purpose here to raise some objections to this analysis by noting its inconsistencies and to demonstrate that the play is controlled by the Petrarchan contrarieties, which are realized both rhetorically and by the action.3 Finally, the tragedy is not primarily concerned with love, any more than first-rate carpe diem poetry is about actual seduction. As in the Elizabethan sonnet tradition,4 the play exploits a love-centered situation to explore problems of larger import, the abiding concerns of time, death, and immortal aspiration.

The fact is that the “bad” poetry of Romeo and Juliet is not reserved for young Romeo of Act I. While it may be convenient to think Shakespeare uses two poetic voices as an instrument of characterization, showing growth through the experience of love, in truth, he does not. Even if we forgive lines 181-88 of the first scene as deliberately hyperbolic—Romeo self-consciously mocks himself before his friends do5—there is the evidence afforded by Benvolio's and Montague's descriptions, all picturing Romeo as the love-struck melancholic. This understanding of Shakespeare's use of poetry to indicate growth in character might be acceptable were it not for Juliet's lines in Act III, after the lyrical experience of the banquet, after the rhapsody of the balcony. Awaiting her husband, she is frustrated with the news of Tybalt's death and breaks out with this fine piece of oxymoronic blubbering:

O serpent heart, hid with a flowring face!
Did ever draggon keepe so faire a Cave?
Bewtifull tirant, fiend angelicall,
Dovefeatherd raven, wolvishravening lamb,
Despised substance of divinest showe:
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damned saint, an honourable villaine.


By the criterion applied to Romeo's

                                        o brawling love, o loving hate,
O any thing of nothing first create,
O heavie lightnesse, serious vanitie,
Mishapen Chaos of welseeming formes,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fier, sicke health.

Juliet is obviously not truly in love with Romeo, only with the idea of love. No one suggests this of course; the answer is that Shakespeare, still a developing artist, cannot control his language. The patent error of such gratuitousness is in supposing the clever artist can in one instance deliberately resort to poor poetry for the subtle end of character development but in another, when true poetic energy is called for, he can only muster forth the same species of language he supposedly knows to be unworthy. The poet capable of Antony and Cleopatra's intensity and concentration is barely evident here, but surely, no poet who can consciously use bad poetry in Act I will two acts later use the same devices and believe them good.

Had it been Shakespeare's intention to write a tragedy of character, based on moral choice, illustrating the dangers of either love or youth,6 he might have chosen to represent the Friar as one of the “superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity)” Arthur Brooke speaks of as abetting “unhonest desire.”7 What Shakespeare did to his source was to heighten Fortune's role, first by carefully removing the stain of sin and secondly by defining Fortune in terms of time and mortality. Moral guilt in Romeo and Juliet is averted by the propriety of their conduct and by the development of the feud. Thus, the “wicked lust” Brooke charges his lovers with is absent, and the “neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends” is rendered meaningless in view of the inveterate feud. The Prince's condemnation of the feud deprives both sets of parents of all moral authority with the audience. As for the suicide, not to mention the two killings, Shakespeare had a greater problem in managing his play, since self-slaughter is a manifest sin. It seems however that Shakespeare intended to ignore this fact. The Friar's recapitulation does not refer to the cause of Romeo's death and only surmises on Juliet's. The man makes no judgment on the sinners; the Prince directs his wrath toward their parents. Critics have urged, not unreasonably, that lyricism supplants theology, poetic lapses and structural defects. That Shakespeare was unwilling to depend entirely on this resource is evident in III.v.207-210 and in IV.i.55-59. In these speeches Juliet declares her will to abide by a contract sealed in heaven, and she places suicide in the context of fidelity. As Friar Lawrence says, “vice sometime by action [is] dignified” (II.iii.22). There is a paradox, if there ever was one, and Shakespeare makes good on it, not by overwhelming a weak story with poetic energy, but by giving it shape, texture and meaning.

Whether or not we care for oxymorons, their function in the play, in Act I and in Act III, is development of theme, not character, and to this end they are consistent, using the same polarities despite fluctuations in poetic quality.8 The effect sought by the use of oxymorons and paradoxes is the same intended by Petrarch—to indicate the irreconcilable oppositions of love, or, indeed, of life itself. “O brawling love!” is certainly third-rate Petrarchanism; it is also the most succinct statement of the play's action, which is so contrived that for every moment of love, there is one of hatred.9 The significance of Tybalt's death extends beyond the inconvenient timing of the event and the problems it creates for the newly married couple. It is precisely timed to intervene the two acts of marriage, the ceremony and the consummation. The killing of Tybalt is the fulfillment of the first scene's comic treatment of brawling love: Samson intended to “push Mountagues men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall” (I.i.21-22). That Romeo kill Juliet's cousin, in effect shedding her blood, is as inevitable as her singling out a hated enemy to love. The same understanding may be applied to the killing of Paris, which Granville-Barker believes “wanton” and with “little dramatic purpose.”10 But again, Romeo is on his way to the ultimate consummation of his love for Juliet, and attending this act of love is one of hatred. Again, rhetoric is realized in action, though at the peril of character.

These instances of brawling love and loving hate are supplemented by poetry, both fine and tedious. The latent aggressiveness of love is revealed in the imagery of Juliet's speech describing how she would possess her Romeo:

                                                            I would have thee gone,
And yet no farther than a wantons bird,
That lets it hop a litle from his hand,
Like a poore prisoner in his twisted gives,
And with a silk threed, plucks it backe againe,
So loving Jealous of his libertie.


When Romeo responds approvingly, Juliet concedes the fatal possibility, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing” (l. 184). Awaiting her husband with a bride's eagerness, Juliet represents herself in the figure of a falcon whose destructive powers shall remain restrained until the proper moment (III.ii.14-16). With these details in mind, it is therefore difficult to allow her ambiguous remarks to her mother to remain at the simplest level of understanding:

                                                                                O how my heart abhors
To hear him namde and cannot come to him,
To wreake the love I bore my Cozen
Upon his body that hath slaughterd him.


Here is fine jesuitical practice, but beyond that, there is the same element of contrariety, touched upon in many ways other than love and hate. The wedding night is not unmitigated ecstasy; the anticipated passion of the soliloquy, “Gallop apace, you fierie footed steedes,” is darkened and substantially altered by the news of Tybalt's death. The ambivalence of

But wherefore villaine didst thou kill my Cozin?
That villaine Cozin would have kild my husband


is, in spite of what may strike us as false notes because of false poetry, entirely proper to the play.

The contrarieties in love, and in life generally, are touched upon in many more instances than can be here discussed. It must suffice to recall quickly that we find oxymorons in the punning before the ball, opposing heavy and light, nimble soles and soul of lead. The gallants burn their lamps by day; they come too late and they come too early, simultaneously. At the feast, the imagery of light and dark, of doves and crows, is pursued. The sweetness of new love will by Tybalt be converted to bitterest gall. In the lover's sonnet, pilgrims do wrong, faith turns to despair, one sin purges another. On the balcony, parting is sweet sorrow. When Benvolio and Mercutio catch up with Romeo the following morning, they all jest on good whores, the new form and the old bench, on Romeo's wit—“a very bitter sweeting.” The copiousness of Shakespeare's invention suggests that the theme of loving hate is not exactly predicated on the modern psychologist's love-hate relationship, though there is indeed a strong resemblance. Rather, loving-hate is the primary instance of a series of paradoxes, and it serves as a focal point for a wider problem. This is verified in the two speeches which develop in detail the problem of life's bitter sweetness, the Nurse's monologue and the Friar's disquisition on herbs.

Far more than a comic set-piece, the Nurse's speech helps define the meaning of the tragedy in placing the action of the play—Juliet's relinquishing to Romeo—within a specific context. In the celebrated speech, the Nurse introduces an abundance of details—the now dead Susan, the earthquake, a pratfall, a bawdy joke, a dead husband—all in reference to another apparently irrelevant detail, Juliet's weaning. The weaning is the central incident, and it is described appropriately enough, in terms of bitter-sweet experience. The wormwood on the dug alters what had been sweet and palatable to something henceforth to be rejected. The point of the anecdote lies in the symbolic import of weaning, a milestone attained in the infant's progress to death. Juliet, at that time, indicated her growing independence in another way,

For then she could stand hylone, nay byth roode
She could have run and wadled all about:
For even the day before, she broke her brow,
And then my husband (God be with his soule,
A was a merrie man) tooke up the child,
Yea quoth he, doest thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit.
Wilt thou not Jule?


Though colored by the low imaginations of the nurse and her husband, the three events—walking, weaning, and capitulating to love's invitation—are of a piece. Neither walking nor weaning is achieved without pain and distress; the same is true of love, whether one understands its pain in Mercutio's or the Nurse's terms, of groaning and bearing the burden of love, or in terms of the exquisite sorrows of parting. Conversely, for the reason that the child must stand alone and never more palate the dug, Juliet must yield to love, when she has wit enough to do so. In reducing Juliet's age from what it had been in the source11 to nearly fourteen, Shakespeare may have increased the pathos of the tragedy, but he also fixed the events at the stage when the heroine passes physically from girlhood to maturity.

The Friar's speech (II.iii.5-30) is congruent with the Nurse's in a number of ways. Both make references to time, of which more will be said later. The Friar contrasts weeds and flowers, sententiously describes the earth as both womb and tomb, and he comments on the wonder that what heals may poison as well. The speech is built of the same antitheses found throughout the play, of light and dark, birth and death, good turning evil. Moreover, both speeches have in common the image of the child at suck, one actual and the other metaphoric:

We sucking on [earth's] naturall bosome finde:
Many for many vertues excellent:
None but for some, and yet all different.

Construed from both speeches, the implication of the image is, clearly, that eventually man must, in the process of attaining maturity, cut himself first from the womb, and then the earth, though, ironically, in so doing he must return to the womb, now a tomb.12

However, the Friar's speech says much more than this, raising the problem which faces the man who seeks to find his destiny. As Romeo enters the stage, the Friar proceeds with his speech:

Within the infant rinde of this weake flower
Poyson hath residence, and medicine power:
For this being smelt, with that part cheares each part,
Being tasted, slaies all sences with the hart.
Two such opposed Kings encampt them still,
In man as well as hearbes, grace and rude will:
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soone the Canker death eates up that Plant.

Here, the paradoxical equipoise is represented in a state of uneasy tension, and the wonder is not that man is compounded of warring elements, but that ultimately one or the other must prevail. The passage obviously applies to the lovers, who have been represented as buds and flowers;13 and we recall that Romeo speaks of the apothecary's poison as medicine (V.i.85), and Juliet kisses Romeo for the restorative yet on his lips (V.iii.166).

The difficulty of the speech is that it does not weigh the alternatives as clearly as the nurse's does. No parent would deny the inevitable need for walking or weaning. But the Friar raises the problem of finding the “true qualities” he so teasingly refers to:

O mickle is the powerfull grace that lies
In Plants, hearbes, stones, and their quallities:
For nought so vile, that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some speciall good doth give:
Nor ought so good but straind from that faire use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Vertue it selfe turnes vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.

The simple contradiction of love and hatred is expanded to include the despised substance which is beneficial, or the vicious act, such as suicide, which under certain circumstances escapes condemnation either as evidence of a womanish disposition or as a sin. One can condemn Romeo and Juliet as having loved immoderately or too hastily, but one must keep in mind that until the point of death, they do nothing without the pious father's consent. In any case, the dualities in men and herbs must eventually be resolved for good or ill. Although the speech does not explicitly provide the scale by which we may evaluate the lovers' actions, it does help advance our ability to cope with the play in reminding us that man is a thing of parts, grace and rude will, senses and heart, even as the love between Romeo and Juliet is a thing of parts.

When Juliet attempts to dissociate Romeo from his name, she claims Montague has no part of his being;

                                                  it is nor hand nor foote
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.


The problem of identity is not so easily solved; Juliet is as wrong as Mercutio is in supposing that he can conjure Romeo by

                                                                                Rosalines bright eyes,
By her high forehead, and her Scarlet lip
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demeanes that there adjacent lie.


If Romeo's being is in his physical parts, then so too is Juliet's, and their love nothing more than Mercutio supposes. Shakespeare is using for dramatic purpose the same device employed in the famous mock-blazen of sonnet 130. In the conventional sonnet tradition, the blazon of love attempts to evoke the essential beauty of the beloved. But in his sonnet and in this play, Shakespeare modifies tradition so that his reader and his audience can realize love has nothing to do with either coral lips or reeking breaths. Thus, the nurse can find no urgent basis for loving Romeo though she concedes his desirability in physical endowment:

Well, you have made a simple choyse, you know not how to chuse a man: Romeo, no not he: though his face be better than any mans, yet his leg excels all mens, and for a hand and a foote and a body, though they be not to be talkt on, yet they are past compare: he is not the flower of curtesie, but ile warrant him, as gentle as a lamme.


In short, though there is every reason, objectively speaking, for a girl to love Romeo, the Nurse does not find him appealing. Capulet is, for this reason, foolish in supposing that Paris can be attractive to Juliet because he is

Of faire demeanes, youthfull and nobly liand,
Stuft as they say, with honourable parts.


The participle stuffed betrays the shallowness of such an appeal, essentially no different from Mercutio's conjurations by flesh. Paris does not exist in his parts, any more than does Romeo, whose name cannot be cut from his body (III.iii.107-109).

Well, then, what's Montague, if it is no part belonging to a man? This question, or some variation of it, is at the core of the tragedy, and lest we forget it, the playwright keeps it before us. Mercutio, finding Romeo able to keep pace with his own wit, presumes his friend to be his old self again: “now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo: now art thou what thou art” (II.iv.93-94). But when despair overwhelms the youth, who seeks to destroy his identity by seeking its mansion, the Friar denounces him,

Art thou a man? thy forme cries out thou art:
Thy teares are womanish, thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable furie of a beast.


Juliet asks, “O God! did Romeos hand shead Tybalts bloud?” and the nurse, with grammatical precision, replies, “It did, it did, alas the day, it did” (III.ii.71-72). This is guilt evaded by a reversal of metonymy, where the part is not equivalent to the whole. Similarly, when Juliet threatens suicide, she dissociates hand and heart:

God joynd my heart and Romeos, thou our hands:
And ere this hand by thee to Romeos seald
Shall be the Labell to an other deed,
Or my true heart with trecherous revolt,
Turne to an other, this shall sley them both.


With minor variations, the theme of parts, with some more truly of a person than others, is developed in Juliet's rejection of the nurse,

                                                                                                                        Go Counsellor,
Thou and my bosome henceforth shall be twaine.


and in Romeo's euphoric statement,

My bosomes Lord sits lightly in his throne.


Of no less importance to the play are the many references and allusions to sexual organs, for they too are parts by which identity may be created. That is, one may either pursue the fulfillment of sexual gratification or the wishes of his bosom's lord. The current of sexuality in the play, extensive though limited to the scenes prior to Mercutio's death, has led to the misunderstanding that Shakespeare obliquely undercuts the lyrical innocence of young love by showing it to be motivated by sexual appetite. As in the standard romantic formula, it is love at first sight for Romeo and Juliet, with the often forgotten difference that neither actually has a direct view of the other, for it is at a masked ball that they meet, and Romeo most assuredly is masked.14 If not literally true that the lovers are veiled from each other's view, the symbolic importance of the masks must be recognized, inasmuch as in the balcony scene, the lovers are muffled by the dark. Juliet questions Romeo thus,

What man art thou, that thus beschreend in night
So stumblest on my counsell?


As for herself “the mask of night is on my face” (l. 85). The effect is, I believe, to minimize the physical attraction each holds for the other. Without denying the urgency of Juliet's longing for her husband's coming, I think Shakespeare intends to contrast the love to which sexual activity is but an important incidental, to the preoccupation with physical gratification marked by Mercutio and the Nurse.15

The Balcony Scene is so managed that, while free from bawdry and eroticism itself, it is framed by these elements. Mercutio, by his conjurations, sets up in the audience's mind the expectation of sexual encounter between Romeo and Juliet. Later, both his friends and Friar Lawrence suppose Romeo to have spent the night with Rosaline. In the company of the gallants, Romeo can match jest for jest with Mercutio, but never in his conversations with Juliet is there a suggestion of sex. The single exception occurs during the Balcony Scene, and its presence there is intended to recall to the audience its expectation—prepared by Mercutio—so that it may recognize the essential purity of the present moment. The exchanged questions,

O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
What satisfaction canst thou have to night?


provoke, for the audience, the obvious answer. Instead, Romeo returns to the language of the pilgrim and begs “Th' exchange of thy loves faithful vow for mine” (l. 127). Love of this sort—and despite our own cynicism, it exists in this play—is consummated in death, not in copulation.

Tumescence and the phallus are referred to repeatedly by the characters of low imagination. In one series of speeches the subject is elaborated upon particularly. Mercutio, before the balcony scene, offers this bit of bawdry:

                                                                                                                                  twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistresse circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it, and conjurde it downe.


Still better and still worse, these parts of love's blazon are incessantly repeated, until they are inescapable when the nurse admonishes Romeo, who at this point has been banished and is in despair:

Stand up, stand up, stand and you be a man,
For Juliets sake, for her sake rise and stand:
Why should you fall into so deepe an O?


Though the language is the same, the virility Romeo is called upon to exercise is of a different order from Sampson's (I.i.20-22). It is with an erect spirit that Romeo will save his beloved, and only in this sense is the Friar's axiom valid: “Woman may fall when theres no strength in men” (II.iii.80). For Sampson and Gregory, for Mercutio and the Nurse, for Susan's prophetic father, it is otherwise; when men have strength to stand, then may women fall. The Friar's consolation might well have been used at the play's end, since it bespeaks the dramatic truth of the tragedy. For Shakespeare persuades us by his art that the physical decay of our heroes is no more significant than the artificial death Juliet takes on wilfully. Juliet's “death scene” of Act IV is an anticipation of the actual suicide, as is the Friar's description of how his herb will divest all her parts of life's image.16 Juliet's speech is better placed there than in Act V, for at the later moment, swift action is demanded. Moreover, the fear before artificial death is as valid as that inspired by an actual threat to life. This is so, not simply because Juliet's terror is manifest, but because actual death, according to the play, attacks only those parts to be numbed by the potion:

Each part depriv'd of supple government,
Shall stiffe and starke, and cold appeare like death.


The upshot of the tragedy is obliquely stated in Friar Lawrence's consolation to the Capulets, who suppose their daughter dead. Because the speaker is a cleric, the tendency is to take his remarks as referring to Christian salvation, though, as has been noted, the problem of salvation and damnation are not insisted upon at the play's close. The speech is coordinated with the play in its reliance on Juliet's parts, that which has its place in heaven, above the clouds, and those which may be claimed by death.

                                                                                                              heaven and your selfe
Had part in this faire maide, now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid:
Your part in her, you could not keepe from death,
But heaven keepes his part in eternall life:
The most you sought was her promotion,
For twas your heaven she should be advanst,
And weepe ye now, seeing she is advanst
Above the Cloudes, as high as heaven it selfe?


The opposition of mortal and immortal parts is reiterated explicitly in Balthasar's report to the banished Romeo:

Then she is well and nothing can be ill,
Her body sleepes in Capels monument,
And her immortall part with Angels lives.


For those who would pursue the ends of their sexual parts, there is a fool's paradise offered (II.iv.176); for Romeo and Juliet, a place among the immutable stars.

The play's movement is not from sinfulness to salvation through either grace or Divine Providence,17 but rather from an alien existence as mortals to one's true abode, figuratively represented in the stars or in heaven. The conflict focusses on the traditional antagonism between body and soul, modified however so that the conflict is not in terms of subordination of the passions. The play instead opposes the irreconcilable modes of being manifest by body and soul, the mortal and the immortal. The crisis is not whether reason can moderate passion, but whether the immortal part can survive in an earthly prison. The theme of parts is eventually brought to the implied opposition of Friar's Lawrence's rebuke.

Why raylest thou on thy birth? the heaven and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth all three do meet
In thee at once.


Romeo longs for death, as will Juliet, and by the play's end, they will have attained it. Birth and death are the moments marking the conjunction and divergence of heaven and earth. The play is so constructed that for Romeo and Juliet, and for the audience which shares their experience, the union is an impossible one.

Capulet misunderstood the truth he spoke in describing Juliet, not yet fourteen, as a stranger in the world (I.ii.8-9). So are all men, whether they have the sensitivity to perceive that fact or not. Romeo's banishment is a felicitous stroke, balancing Juliet's alienation. Benvolio is, therefore, half-right in saying of the dead Mercutio,

That gallant spirit hath aspir'd the Clowdes,
Which too untimely here did scorne the earth.


All death is timely, since time is death's instrument. Hence the propriety of the Nurse's lamentation, which curses the day and not the supposed fact of Juliet's death, a woeful, lamentable, hateful day, a day never so black as this (IV.v.49-54).

The Friar's long recapitulation of the tragic sequence (V.iii.229-69) at the play's close is, thematically if not poetically, valid, in its continual placing of events in the context of time. The Friar refers to time, now early, now late, now exact. The marriage day is stolen, the potion loses its power on “this dire night,” the Friar returns “some minute ere the time” of “the prefixed hower.” Death however is consistently referred to as untimely, and the Friar's speech thereby fulfills a theme already established in the play. Romeo had been apprehensive about the “vile forfeit of untimely death” (I.iv.111) before his meeting with Juliet, and Capulet, gazing on his daughter's still form, had believed that

Death lies on her like an untimely frost,
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.


For the Friar, “Tybalts doomesday” brought his “untimely death,” and side by side in Capel's monument,

                                                                                here untimely lay
The Noble Paris, and true Romeo dead.

As for himself, he is willing to “be sacrific'd, some houre before his time.” Wiser far than the Friar and Benvolio, who had thought Mercutio's death untimely, Ben Jonson understood that his own son's death was timely, being “Exacted by [his] fate, on the just day” (“On My First Son”).

The general note of death touching all the principals which marks the play's end is therefore entirely valid thematically. Lady Capulet hears her death knell, Lady Montague has died, and the Friar, like Capulet early in the play, anticipates his own death. In the First Quarto, moreover, Benvolio's death is reported. Juliet is not singular; no man may “weare out the everlasting flint” ( For these reasons, the Friar's words to Romeo,

Affliction is enamourd of thy parts,
And thou art wedded to calamitie.


apply generally, for all men await the calamity of death which will claim their mortal parts. By the play's end, the strangers are all gone, even as they departed from Capulet's residence, itself a metaphor for the world. On the occasion of the party, when earth-treading stars invaded his home, “well appareld Aprill” supplanted “limping winter,” and “fresh fennell buds” inherited his house (I.ii.27-30). Winter still attends, though, as does the canker, and such a mansion must be abandoned, and the soul's mansion must be sacked for a mansion of love.

What's Montague, then, but that singular part which can escape time's ravages, all else being but “a forme of waxe, Digressing from the valour of a man” (III.iii.126-127)? No less than for the sonnets, time is a major factor in the play, and Shakespeare's careful manipulation of sequence goes beyond the plotter's preoccupation with timing.18 True, timing creates the plot,19 but time in the play is not used to illustrate the youthful vice of impetuosity, but to develop a tragic action centering on the conquest of time.

The preponderance of critical investigations into time in Romeo and Juliet have been concerned with the intervals between events, from the relatively simple matter of the duration of the represented events, to the number of hours between the individual incidents. Among the judgments arising from these inquiries is that the play exhibits “double time”20 with the lovers hasty and precipitous,21 and their parents and the older characters cautious and deliberate. The inconvenient fact that Old Capulet later contradicts himself by insisting upon a quick marriage for Juliet is explained as a relinquishing to the impetuosity of youth.22 Actually, the treatment of time is more complex than the simple association of haste with youthful impatience and deliberation with mature action. For one thing, the elder Capulets do not always move in conjunction: at first, Old Capulet is reluctant to allow Paris' suit, while his wife favors it. The reason he urges Paris to wait is the same his wife uses to promote the match: the girl is nearly fourteen. At that age, Juliet's mother, as did many “ladies of esteeme” in Verona, bore a child (I.iii.70-74); Paris agrees with the proposition that Juliet is at the proper age for marriage. Old Capulet, of course, feels otherwise (I.ii.8-11). However, at another point touching on time, the parents are coordinated in their unawareness of its passage. Remarkably, Lady Capulet is uncertain of Juliet's precise age, a fact which the Nurse provides. Similarly, Old Capulet cannot properly fix the years since last he masked; he grossly underestimates the years since Lucentio's wedding (I.v.31-41).23 In each case, Shakespeare provides a character who is able to define the forgotten date with precision. The dramatic point is clearly that these two individuals, and not older people in general, live their lives unaware of time, though time takes its toll. Before he knows it, Old Capulet must give up his sword for a crutch (I.i.82-83). Rather than instances of sober judgement, the Capulets are the unwitting victims of time's ravages.

But old folks, many fain as they wer dead,
Unwieldie, slowe, heavie, and pale as lead.


Better instead to feign death by yielding one's mortal parts to death so that one may “bound a pitch above dull woe” (I.iv.21).

In contrast to Lady Capulet's unawareness of time is the Nurse's sharp recall of its passage, precisely measured in terms of disaster.24 Susan, who should be Juliet's age, is dead, as is her father. The weaning itself is well fixed in time by the earthquake. Though the event has escaped Lady Capulet's memory, the nurse will remember it a thousand years because of her husband's little joke. Even Old Capulet is not so caught up in the present that he cannot realize his advanced age, and in his best line in the play, he confesses of his youth, “'Tis gone, 'tis gone, 'tis gone” (I.v.26). Reason enough to call throughout the scene, “more light, more light” (I.v.29,89,127), for soon enough the darkness comes to swallow his last hope.

Until he too is caught up in the frantic events, the Friar is singularly free in his own mind of time's pace, standing apart to comment on haste, now in Romeo, now in Paris. It is instructive that despite his self-discipline, his careful planning, and his conscientious observing of his appointed hour at Capel's tomb, he is no more successful in controlling time than any other character. His oft-quoted maxim, “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast,” (II.iii.94) must be counterbalanced by the paradoxical, “Too swift arrives, as tardie as too slowe” ( Slowly done is not always wisely done; one may as well proceed swiftly, for the results are the same. And, as is consistent with the play's thematic structure, there is no middle ground of moderation, though the Friar thinks there is ( His own utter failure as benevolent intriguer is sufficient testimony of his error.

In the sonnets addressed to his friend, Shakespeare offers two resources against fell Time, heirs and art. After the manner of the sonnet tradition, Romeo laments the barren course followed by Rosaline, and he complains of love's effect upon him, fettering him to dull earth. As the play proceeds to demonstrate, Romeo is wrong in both respects. In the tragedy, if not in the sonnets, beauty will survive by the love it inspires, since love is its own value. It can overwhelm its antagonist, death, since death holds power over dull earth alone. That love frees man—rather than burdening man with a soul of lead or staking him to the ground (I.iv.15,16,19-22)—is symbolically demonstrated in the easy movement of young Romeo climbing the stony limits of Capulet's walls (II.ii.66-67). Later, before Balthasar brings news of Juliet's interrment, Romeo speaks of his dream (V.i.1-11), the point of which is too often taken for simple dramatic irony. Shakespeare does not merely wish to sharpen the anguish of Balthasar's news by first having Romeo anticipate joyful news. The imagery is too carefully coordinated with earlier speeches to allow for so limited an intent. He has had a dream; his bosom's lord—that is, that part above all other parts—sits lightly in his throne, and he is again lifted above the ground; and the dream itself represented Juliet's reviving him from death, for even as he prepares to take his deadly “Cordiall and not poyson” (V.i.85), Romeo experiences a lightening before attaining “A datelesse bargaine to ingrossing death” (V.iii.115), a “timelesse end” (V.iii.162). Juliet, in perfect harmony with her beloved, kisses Romeo, paradoxically, to “dye with a restorative” (V.iii.166). For each, the other is quick despite all contrary appearances:

Death that hath suckt the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power upon thy bewtie:
Thou art not conquerd.


Thy lips are warme.


Not only does love have the power to lift man above the limits imposed by his gross body, but it can confer a vitality beyond death. Romeo's error in complaining of Rosaline's cold chastity is that love's immortality is understood in terms of its secondary effects, the propagation of children. Romeo thinks as Old Capulet does when he charges

O she is rich in bewtie, onely poore,
That when she dies, with bewtie dies her store.
.....                    and in that sparing, makes huge waste:
For bewtie sterv'd with her severitie,
Cuts bewtie off from all posteritie.


True as this conventional proposition is, it bespeaks a lower order of truth than that apprehended by Romeo as he first catches sight of Juliet at the ball. On that occasion, there are present “Earthtreading starres, that make dark heaven light” (I.ii.25), and Juliet is manifestly

                                                  a rich Jewel in an Ethiops eare,
Bewtie too rich for use, for earth too deare.


Shakespeare creates the conflict between mortality and immortality in a variety of ways, either by the opposition of time and eternity, or by reference to other symbols suggestive of one or the other. The lovers themselves seek night and create an artificial day, making actual the reported conduct of Romeo, who, while pledged to Rosaline, “away from light steales … locks faire day-light out, And makes himselfe an artificiall night” (I.i.143-46). Though Romeo's affection will change, he is nevertheless correct in his conduct, as Juliet well knows, for

Lovers can see to do their amorous rights,
By their owne bewties,


Miss Spurgeon missed this essential point about Shakespeare's light imagery, equating as she does “the irradiating glory of sunlight and starlight in a dark world.”25 The difference depends upon a realization of the symbolic import of sun and stars, one as the measure of time and the other as the symbol of timelessness. It is by the self-created rays of love that our young heroes can attain a stellar constancy.

There are in the play two schemes of time, that of the real world—incessant and implacable, now too soon, now too late, but ever true to itself, and that measured by the lovers. These timepieces are metaphorically represented, the one traditionally as Phoebus' chariot, and the other, by Queen Mab's chariot. The sun is represented in all its ruthlessness by Romeo's image:26

The grey eyde morne smiles on the frowning night,
Checkring the Easterne Clouds with streaks of light,
And darknesse fleckled like a drunkard reeles,
From forth daies pathway, made by Tytans wheeles.


In addition to the picture of relentless force overwhelming all in the sun's path, there is the promise that the night's dew will be consumed as the sun progresses (II.iii.6), an ill omen for the lovers who have just created the rhapsody of the balcony scene by night, that time when “the earth doth drisle deaw” (III.v.127).

Romeo and Juliet can never exist under the servitude imposed by time, for the rhythms of their lives, now one, are measured by Queen Mab. Far from a poetic but dramatically irrelevant outburst, Mercutio's speech (I.iv.53-95) is central to the play's meaning. Like the sun, Queen Mab too courses through the skies in a chariot, but unlike her opposite,

                                                                                                              she comes
In shape no bigger than an Agot stone,
On the forefinger of an Alderman,
Drawne with a teems of little attomie,
Over mens noses as they lie asleep:
.....Her waggonspokes made of long spinners legs,
The cover, of the wings of Grashoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider web,
Her collors of the moonshines watry beams,
Her whip of Crickets bone, the lash of philome.


In the delicacy of detail, Queen Mab's vehicle is like the chariot Juliet imagines will transport love to her. Love is drawn by “nimblepiniond doves” (II.v.7), and

                                                                      loves heraulds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glides then the Suns beames,
Driving backe shadowes over lowring hills.


Juliet would toy with her imprisoned bird, using nothing more than “a silken threed” (II.ii.181) to confine it.

Queen Mab is not the goddess of love; rather she is the figure of subjective reality, bringing to men the dreams they dream. To the soldier, and to quarrelsome men like Mercutio and Tybalt, she brings the desired realities

                                                            of cutting forrain throates,
Of breaches, ambuscados, spanish blades,
Of healths five fadome deepe.


But for such as Romeo, who dream of love, love comes.27 As with so much else in this play, Mab is a figure of ambivalence, for her confusions, however mischievous, must be yielded to:

                                                                                          this is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night:
And bakes the Elflocks in foule sluttish haires,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maides lie on their backs,
That presses them and learnes them first to beare,
Making them women of good carriage.


With more meaning than Romeo perceives, he charges Mercutio with talking of nothing; but everything in the play is built on nothing, from the “three civill brawles bred of an airy word” (I.i.96) to the love so pure that it transforms Juliet to one like him who

                    bestrides the lazie passing Cloudes,
And sayles upon the bosome of the ayre.


and enables Romeo to master his gross element, to

                                                            orepearch these walls,
For stonie limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do, that dares love attempt.


After all,

A lover may bestride the gossamours,
That ydeles in the wanton sommer ayre,
And yet not fall.(28)


Indeed, Juliet's love for Romeo is for that part which is nothing, being no physical part of the man. The inevitable direction of the drama is that forecast by Juliet for Romeo:

                                                                                                    when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little starres,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish Sun.


Love, Romeo's “any thing of nothing first create” (I.i.183), confers immortality because it is generated from nothing and cannot share in the corruption and decay awaiting all things.

Love, measured by the standards of the world, is inadequate. Fragile because it is compounded of ephemeral realities, love is suspect. Those who know of the secret love—Romeo, Juliet, the Friar—all at one or another time warn of its dangers. When it appears that Romeo will never claim his bride, the Nurse suggests a reasonable expedient. The Friar, though he lends his counsel, sanctions the relationship on peripheral considerations, the feud between the houses. Otherwise, he is dubious. Even Romeo and Juliet have their misgivings. There is a point of divergence, nevertheless, which carries Romeo and Juliet beyond the simple realities of the Friar and the Nurse. Significantly, Juliet first weans from the Nurse, at whose breast she sucked wisdom, and later, from her ghostly father.

The love between Romeo and Juliet is just such a dream as Mercutio spoke of,

Begot of nothing but vaine phantasie:
Which is as thin of substance as the ayre,
And more inconstant then the wind who wooes
Even now the frozen bosome of the North:
And being angerd puffes away from thence,
Turning his side to the dewe dropping South.


Spoken just before Romeo meets Juliet, these lines figuratively anticipate his erratic progress from old love to new love. Moreover, they suggest that the change of affection is not rooted in fickleness, but is rather generated by obvious wisdom in turning from a barren suit to one which is promising. As in Capulet's apprehensions, contrasting barrenness and fertility, the dream of love, though an airy nothing, cannot be satisfied with the nothingness of rejection and must turn to more hospitable climes. There, love can truly come into being, for until it is requited, it is only devotion.

In the management of the imagery, the evanescent nature of love is freely confessed. It is begot of nothing, it is, like the dew, the spider's thread. Moreover,

It is too rash, too unadvisd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning which doth cease to bee,
Ere one can say it lightens.


Love, as Romeo is well aware,

                                                                                                    is but a dreame,
Too flattering sweete to be substantiall.


These lines, among others, are often thought to serve as foreshadowing of tragic consequences for the youth's hasty and immoderate love. In support of this contention are offered the complementary images of gun-powder and explosions.29 Nevertheless, as in the Friar's long speech on herbs, there is an ambiguity in the comparison of love to lightning. Although the enveloping darkness instantly prevails over the brief moment of illumination, that moment itself is precious. The paradox is that however slender the experience afforded by love, it can in its brief span create values otherwise forever obscure. This is the limitation Romeo accepts, and quite rightly, regardless of what the Friar has to say. The Friar, in terms of the perspectives created for this play, speaks a simple contradiction, and not a paradox, in advising Romeo to “love moderately,” for “long love doth so” ( Being outside of time, love is neither long nor short, and Romeo has the higher truth. As an absolute value, it can hardly be moderated without being vitiated.

An understanding of the dramatic use of the devices and themes of Elizabethan sonnet conventions yields an approach to the tragic meaning of the play. Though defective in several respects—one recalls Schücking's charge that Romeo, unlike Troilus, is not truly masculine30—the play creates its tragic effects despite inconsistent levels of poetic accomplishment and inadequate character development. For the tragic issue lies in the exposure of life's impossibility. Death for the Elizabethans was feared “as the conclusion to all accomplishment. It was,” Theodore Spencer explains, “a kind of horrible joke which grinned at impotent desire and mocked all achievement into air. Because death destroyed them, beauty and power and wealth were hollow on their own account, not in comparison to the pleasures of heaven.”31 The play uses love to create a value for life and a means of sustaining it. When that value is threatened by death, the center of the tragedy moves to mortality, an area of experience far more comprehensive than young love. Because the play does not revolve around the eccentricities of the principal characters, it can transcend supposed weaknesses in their conception or execution. Critics have recognized that the play generates pity and pathos, while withholding the final constituent, fear or terror, by which the play achieves stature as tragedy.32 I would claim both effects for the play, for there is a terrible beauty in the inevitable course toward ruin, yet transcended.33 In its own way, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is built around the same awareness which in Hamlet is expressed as the consummation devoutly to be wished, in Antony and Cleopatra as immortal longings, the shackling of accident, and the bolting up of change.

The tragic basis of the drama does not lie in moral or personality defects. Romeo and Juliet is not a tragedy of character. As in the sonnets, love is used as a vehicle for representing, simultaneously, man's subjection to time and decay and man's ability to transcend the limits prescribed by his mortal nature. Paradoxically, by seizing the day, lovers can triumph over time. It is precisely because man is born to die that the play moves inexorably to its conclusion, dateless death. What distinguishes Romeo and Juliet is not their impetuosity, for so too are Mercutio and Tybalt, Lady Capulet and her husband, and the County Paris impetuous. The tragic experience is exclusively reserved for the lovers because they alone perceive, gradually, that the scope and compass allotted by time is not enough. With such an awareness, there is no recourse for a man

But to rejoyce in splendor of mine owne.



  1. All citations are taken from George Walton Williams' critical edition, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet (Durham, N. C., 1964).

  2. See his note to I.i 180 of the Arden edition, as well as Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 3rd ed. (New York, 1881), p. 94. See also, Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), p. 79, and Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1960), p. 32. According to Miss Lu Emily Pearson, in this play “Shakespeare shows first the break between Petrarchan love and natural love” (Elizabethan Love Conventions, Berkeley, 1933, p. 291). George Ian Duthie holds “the poetic inanities of the lamentations of Capulet, his wife, and the Nurse in 4.5 are no doubt intended by Shakespeare to symbolize the poverty of their emotional life and the smallness of their spiritual stature, as contrasted with the richness and greatness of the emotional and spiritual being of the hero and heroine” (Introduction to the edition by John Dover Wilson and George Ian Duthie, Cambridge, 1955, p. xxxiv). E. E. Stoll, commenting on Juliet's lamentation over Tybalt, attributes the lines to “the immaturity of Shakespeare's art,” though he mitigates this criticism by allowing for the dramatic requirements of the situation (Shakespeare's Young Lovers, New York, 1966, pp. 32-33; first printed, 1937).

  3. Especially useful are essays by M. M. Mahood, in Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), pp. 56-72, and by John Lawlor, in Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies III (London, 1961), 123-43. Lawlor amplifies G. Bullough's observation (in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 1957, I, 278) that Shakespeare “makes Romeo's conventional passion express itself in contradictions and paradoxes suited to the pattern of the whole play.” Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage: Rhetorical Devices in Romeo & Juliet (Lexington, Ky., 1966), offers a detailed study of the play's rhetorical figures. Like others, he believes language (specifically, rhetoric) is used “to emphasize the development of character” (p. 97). His originality lies in defending many passages which have been faulted. Juliet's speech (III.ii. 73-79, given below), is “a subtle and extensive complex of figures … [which] serve[s] to refine her intellect and make her a fitting equal for Romeo (if they do not make her his superior)” (p. 36). As with many others, Mr. Evans seems prejudiced in Juliet's favor, though the girl does nothing that Romeo does not do.

  4. On the Elizabethan sonnet, see J. W. Lever's discussion of “the conflict of Love With Time” in The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London, 1956), pp. 246-72. On Shakespeare's sonnets, see G. Wilson Knight, The Mutual Flame (London, 1955), esp. Chapter IV, “Time and Eternity,” pp. 69-103. See also Kenneth Muir's chapter on Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare's Sources (London, 1957), I, 21-30. Though too precise in identifying sonnet 85 in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella and Daniel's Complaint of Rosamund as influences, Muir is correct in the affirmation, “into his play Shakespeare infused the quintessence of Elizabethan love-poetry” (p. 30).

  5. Ernest William Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays (Chapel Hill, 1963), p. 287.

  6. For a recent presentation of this view, see Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely But Too Well (San Marino, 1957), pp. 63-117.

  7. Romeus and Juliet, ed. J. J. Munro (London, 1908), p. lxvi.

  8. Presumably Professor Virgil K. Whitaker had the standard of poetic excellence in mind when he warned “that it is unwise to search the implications of Shakespeare's language too closely, simply because his language is not consistent,” The Mirror up to Nature (San Marino, 1965), p. 111. J. M. Nosworthy attributes the stylistic inconsistencies to Shakespeare's reliance on The Two Angry Women of Abingdon, though the lines of clearest indebtedness to Porter's play are not the worst by any means at all. “The Two Angry Families of Verona,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] III (1952), 219-26. Others have suggested revisions by the playwright to explain variations in poetic quality. I am not here concerned with the problem; regardless of inconsistencies, there is an overriding uniformity based on paradoxical oppositions.

  9. Or of comedy and violence, as Talbert points out with respect to the opening scene (p. 297).

  10. “Romeo and Juliet,” Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1946), IV, 50, n. 10.

  11. In Brooke she is sixteen; in Painter almost eighteen.

  12. See below, n. 29.

  13. Imagery depicting the lovers in terms of flowers and fruit is found in the following passages: I.i. 157-58, I.ii. 10-11, II.v. 44, IV.i. 99, IV.v. 29 and 37. Floral imagery is also applied to their love (II.ii. 121-22) and to Paris (I.iii. 77-78). Eventually the image merges with that of sucking: “Death that hath suckt the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy bewtie” (V.iii. 92-93).

  14. The Stage Direction for I.iv. reads, “Enter Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, With five or six other Maskers, torchbearers.” The text indicates that Mercutio puts his mask on (I.iv. 29-30) and that Old Capulet has his on (I.v. 34-35).

  15. By another avenue, Irving Ribner comes to the conclusion, “it is not really the sight of Juliet which causes [Romeo] to change” (p. 29). Paul N. Siegal concludes, “Intense though their passion is, however, it is exalted.” “Christianity and the Religion of Love in Romeo and Juliet,SQ, XII (1961), 380. Gordon Ross Smith places the tragedy in the context of neo-Platonic aspiration (“The Balance of Themes in Romeo and Juliet,Essays in Shakespeare, ed. G. R. Smith, Univ. Park, Pa., 1965, pp. 15-66). See also Duthie, p. xxxvii.

  16. The Friar's speech is derived from the medieval tradition and, in one sense, entirely conventional (Cf. T. J. Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy, New York, 1960, pp. 26-34). Shakespeare's innovation is in use of a secular context. The lovers overwhelm death, not by reason of their own virtuousness or God's redeeming grace, but because of their commitment to the values threatened by death.

  17. See Ribner, pp. 28-35.

  18. Tom F. Driver finds the handling of time in this play to be Shakespeare's means of “creating on stage the illusion of passing time,” meaning that the young dramatist is concerned with realistic effects. “The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest,SQ, XV (1964), 363-70.

  19. Whitaker claims that coincidence and chance weaken the plot (p.109). Some critics have preferred to speak of fatality, rather than chance. Examples are J. W. Draper, “Shakespeare's ‘Star-Crossed Lovers,’” RES, [Review of English Studies] XV (1939), 16-34; G. L. Kittredge, in his Introduction to Romeo and Juliet (Boston, 1940), p. xii; and Duthie (pp. xvii-xix). Georges A. Bonnard makes an important contribution in demonstrating that “Shakespeare himself is responsible for most of the incidents that render the catastrophe inevitable.” “Romeo and Juliet: A Possible Significance?” RES, n.s. II (1951), 325.

  20. Granville-Barker, IV, 40.

  21. Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character (New York, 1956), p. 19.

  22. “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.” G. Thomas Tanselle, “Time in Romeo and Juliet.” SQ, XV (1964), 360-361. H. Edward Cain, on the contrary, finds an opposition between “Crabbed Age and Youth in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ “SAB, [South Atlantic Bulletin] IX (1934), 186-191. Bonnard's experience of tragic fatality is prompted by the heroes' isolation “in the evil of their world, being unable to understand and participate in the feelings and prejudices of their relatives” (325).

  23. There is some doubt as to whether Capulet knows Juliet's age. When he says to Paris, “Shee hath not seene the chaunge of fourteen yeares, Let two more Sommers wither in their pride, Ere we may thinke her ripe to be a bride” (I.ii. 9-11), he may mean, “I will consent when she is fourteen; but since she is only twelve, I must deny your suit.” In this case, he would be in agreement with his wife in thinking fourteen a proper age, and he would be giving further evidence of his inability to keep track of the years.

  24. In tone and content, the Nurse's speech is faithful to Brooke's poem, ll. 652-660, with the significant difference provided by Shakespeare's addition of the three disasters.

  25. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, 1935), p. 310.

  26. Williams follows Hosley in assigning these lines to Romeo rather than to the Friar, contrary to the practice of most editors. On literary and dramatic grounds, the decision is, I believe, fortunate. See Williams' note on the passage, pp. 119-121.

  27. Norman N. Holland, applying psychoanalytic techniques to Romeo's dream, speaks of it in terms of wish-fulfillment. “Romeo's Dream and the Paradox of Literary Realism,” Literature and Psychology, XIII (1963), 97-104.

  28. True, the Friar goes on to add, “so light is vanity,” but his pejorative remark may be tested against the play's imagery, which approves of lightness, and the play's effects.

  29. Though an instrument of death, the cannon, when compared to poison, is described in paradoxical terms, its breech being compared to a womb: poison takes its effect “As violently, as hastie powder fierd / Doth hurry from the fatall Canons wombe” (V.i. 64-65).

  30. Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1948), p. 55. First published, 1922.

  31. Spencer, p. 231.

  32. Some instances are Brents Stirling: “There is no tragic guilt in this play except the plague of both the houses; no such complexity as Aristotle held essential to tragedy. This play has pity only, no purgation by pity and terror” (p. 17). Whitaker finds the issue of moral culpability confused, and so the principal effect is pathetic: tears are shed “over the needless sacrifice of young love to a cruel world” (p. 113). See also, H. S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), p. 30.

  33. Though Professor Ribner goes further than I am inclined in his Christian reading of the play (pp. 25-28), he comes closer to the truth than most in placing the play in the context of Stoic tragedy. For an excellent discussion of this subject, see Hardin Craig, “The Shackling of Accidents: A Study of Elizabethan Tragedy,” PQ, [Philological Quarterly] XIX (1940), 1-19. In his too brief discussion of this play, Donald A. Stauffer declares, “Love conquers death even more surely than it conquers hate. It sweeps aside all accidents, so that fate itself seems powerless.” Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 58.

J. C. Gray (essay date spring 1968)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4808

SOURCE: Gray, J. C. “Romeo and Juliet, and Some Renaissance Notions of Love, Time, and Death.” Dalhousie Review 48, no. 1 (spring 1968): 58-69.

[In the following essay, Gray discusses Shakespeare's paradoxical treatment of the tragedy's main themes and recommends that readers consider the contradictory nature of love, time, and death in the play.]

The literature of Renaissance England is second to none in its rich explorations of all possible manifestations of human love, in both their healthy and their distorted states. Generally speaking, when one loves God and his fellow man as Christ commanded, one loves wisely and well; one loves with entire affection. But for fallen man in a fallen world, maintaining harmonious and temperate balances in love relationships is among the most arduous of human tasks. Indeed, it is often an heroic task. It is not difficult for Spenser to assert in The Faerie Queene that “loue in thousand monstrous forms doth oft appear” (III, xi, 51)1 and then to illustrate abundantly various deviations (both in degree and kind) from an ideal of love that is a compound of the classical and the Christian. If one follows Spenser's three main categories of human love: “The deare affection vnto kindred sweete”, the “raging fire of loue to woman kind”, and the “zeale of friends combynd with vertues meet” (FQ, IV, ix, 1), then one can perceive something of the variety to be found in English Renaissance literature. Under love for one's kindred, the obedience and respect that Prince Hal demonstrates for his dying father and that Juliet initially demonstrates for her mother illustrate its wholesome form; examples of its perversion are Regan's and Goneril's relationship with Lear and the incestuous brother-sister relationship of Giovanni and Annabella in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In its healthy state, love between friends is illustrated by the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio and the friendship between Pyrocles and Musidorus in Sidney's Arcadia; Marlowe's Edward II and Gaveston and Spenser's Blandamour and Paridell exhibit defective friendship.

Even if one omits these two categories, there remain the numberless variations on the possible relationships under the heading of eros, the “raging fire of loue to woman kind.” The male may love a beautiful female, struggling to bridle his passion against lust, but the female may be cold and unresponsive, proud and disdainful, as are such ladies, derived from the traditions of Petrarch and of courtly love, as Sidney's Stella and Spenser's Mirabella. Or the situation may be reversed and the male may not respond: Lodge's Glaucus (at least at the end of Scilla's Metamorphosis), Spenser's Marinell initially, and Shakespeare's Adonis throughout. Or both parties may be reluctant, as—at the outset—are Beatrice and Benedick.

There are yet further variations. One may love the wrong object; in Arcadia, Queen Gynecia and King Basilius both wrongly love a person worthy of love, Pyrocles disguised as the female Zelmane; deceived, the Red Cross Knight loves an unworthy object, Duessa disguised as Fidessa. Or one may properly love the proper object even under the misapprehension that it is the wrong person: Philoclea, in Arcadia, discovers that she loves the worthy Pyrocles although she initially believes Pyrocles to be her handmaiden Zelmane and thus believes the love to be “unpossible”. Olivia in Twelfth Night may love Cesario not knowing that Cesario is Viola, but an impossible love is suddenly made possible when Olivia marries Sebastian under the misapprehension that Sebastian is Cesario.

Although other variations are possible, there remains one kind of love that frequently excited the Renaissance poet's imagination—that erotic, heterosexual love that is intense, mutual, and short-lived. As it is treated in the Metamorphoses, the love between Pyramus and Thisbe (Book IV) and between Venus and Adonis (Book X) may be considered members of this informal category.2 The love between Hero and Leander and between Troilus and Cressida may be considered other examples from antiquity.3 In each instance the love is generated between the lovers intensely, mutually, and except for Pyramus and Thisbe who grow up together, at first sight.

Long before Shakespeare wrote his play, there is some evidence that Romeo and Juliet were becoming associated with this company of love's martyrs. Thomas Peend in his The Pleasant Fable of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis … With a Moral in English Verse (1565) lists several pairs of famous lovers, and included are Romeo and Juliet together with Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Venus and Adonis. What these stories have in common for Peend is that they illustrate the “viciousness of women”. Peend, along with Arthur Golding, belongs to the long list of the moralizers of Ovid's otherwise vain and amatorious tales, and he is equally willing and able to moralize the Romeo and Juliet love story as he is those he finds in Ovid. Perhaps it was inevitable that the story of Romeo and Juliet would be associated with Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, since it “is extremely similar, on the face of it, to the story of Romeo, which also hinges on surreptitious meetings and an accidental misunderstanding leading to a double suicide.”4 Both involve parental disapproval and death in front of a tomb in Ovid and within a tomb in Shakespeare. Boswell, the son of the biographer, goes so far as to wonder if, after all, the story of Romeo and Juliet “is not the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, enlarged and varied. …”5

The story of Hero and Leander also bears some similarities to the Pyramus and Thisbe story in that it ends in double death if not in double suicide, and in that there is a physical barrier, the Hellespont, between the lovers as there is the physical barrier of the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe. Although Marlowe can hardly be said to be an Ovidian moralizer, he certainly stresses the mutuality and the intensity of the (somehow innocent) attraction at first sight that Hero and Leander experience for the physical beauty of each other: “Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet, / When like desires and affections meet” (II, 20-30).6

The mutual and intense love experienced by these related pairs of lovers is scarcely an unalloyed blessing. Associated with these love stories is the notion that destiny has ordained that such love and such beauty cannot long survive in a mutable and time-ridden world; such beauty as Juliet possesses is “too rich for use, for earth too dear.” Indeed, such a “moral” notion is very strongly hinted at (through the inset story of Mercury's winning the disfavour of the three sister destinies) in Marlowe's poem. Shakespeare is quite explicit on this point. In A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Lysander and Hermia discuss intense, true love. Using images that appear again in Romeo and Juliet, Lysander's speech could easily be made to apply to the love between Romeo and Juliet:

Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany [sic] as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

(I, i, 141-49)

In reply, Hermia admits that such is the given condition of “sympathetic” love, but she also suggests that means by which one might govern and ameliorate such fortune:

If then true lovers have been ever cross'd,
It stands as an edict in destiny:
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love as thoughts and dreams and sighs,
Wishes and tears, poor fancy's followers.

(I, i, 150-55)

Reflected in Hermia's speech is the Renaissance (and medieval) commonplace that it is often possible to make a virtue of necessity; it is sometimes possible for Virtue to withstand and overcome Fortune.7 Friar Laurence repeatedly preaches such a doctrine:

Therefore love moderately, long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(II, v, 14-15)

Juliet, too, in the first balcony scene, recognizes that the love between herself and Romeo

… is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens!”.

(II, i, 160-62)

But Shakespeare is not writing Book II of The Faerie Queene, nor is he dramatizing Aristotle's ethic of the golden mean or Boethius' doctrine on the goddess Fortuna. Rather, he is dramatizing the given conditions of one kind of human love. Friar Laurence, like Hermia, enunciates the moral view that such love ought to be tempered by reason, but Shakespeare dramatically emphasizes that such control is beyond the means of Romeo and Juliet. They can confine their passion within the bounds of holy wedlock, but they can in no way attenuate the intensity and forward rush of their passion. After all, they live in an intemperate world: witness the feud; witness the rashness of Old Capulet, Mercutio, and Tybalt. Benvolio tries to temper the wrath of the feuding parties (as Friar Laurence tries to temper the rashness of the lovers) in both the first and the second street fights, but the citizens of Verona will no more listen to him than will the lovers to Friar Laurence. Juliet does remain practical and hard-headed enough to insist on marriage before consummation, but the contract of love between Romeo and Juliet cannot be faithfully executed in a world of time, and recklessly they draw up a second contract, “a dateless bargain to engrossing Death!” (V. iii, 115).8 The second contract they fulfil as they faithfully, albeit rashly, follow each other into death.

The advantage of seeing the love of Romeo and Juliet as a familiar type of love with certain given conditions is that we may then recognize that, throughout his play, Shakespeare makes two thematic emphases simultaneously. The love between Romeo and Juliet is true and intense star-crossed love, and at the same time it is intemperate and rash. Fortune smiles on the lovers in granting them true love, but Fortune darkly compounds what she gives by setting their love in the context of the feud which makes all the more necessary their love's prudent and temperate management. Their love is, at once, both the smile and the frown of Fortune. In Arthur Golding's famous translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1567) there are two very similar emphases for the love between Pyramus and Thisbe. Their love, the dying Thisbe tells us, is “chaste and stedfast”,9 but in an introductory comment Golding also tells us that “the piteous tale of Pyramus and Thisbe doth conteine / The headlong force of frentick loue whose end is wo and payne.”10

It is precisely in stressing both viewpoints equally and simultaneously that Shakespeare's version of the Romeo and Juliet story is unique.11 The other two most popular Elizabethan versions of the story stress only one or only the other. In the preface to his The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), generally considered to be the major source of Shakespeare's play, Brooke asserts that the story illustrated the tragical end of those who abuse “the honorable name of lawefull marriage.”12 This moralization seems to be as arbitrarily extrapolated from the text of the poem as many of Golding's moralizations seem to be. Brooke apparently is aware of no contradiction when, near the end of his poem, he follows his sources in referring to the love of Romeo and Juliet as “so perfect, sound and so approued loue” (1. 3012). The other well-known version of the story appears as the twenty-fifth novella in the second tome of William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1567), from which Shakespeare may have taken the detail about the two and forty hours of the duration of the potion Friar Laurence gives Juliet. Painter's prose version, like Brooke's metrical version, is mainly based on the French prose version of Boaistuau; the phraseology is often very close.13 And Boaistuau translates the Italian of Bandello, who probably has it from Luigi da Porto's version of about 1530. Painter's thematic emphasis is that of the Italian and French versions and is suggested in his title: “The goodly History of the true and constant Loue between Rhomeo and Iulietta, the one of whom died of Poyson, and the other of sorrow, and heuinesse: wherein be comprysed many aduentures of Loue, and other deuises touchinge the same.” In all these pre-Shakespearean versions, the action of the story is extended over several months, and there is no suggestion that the love is rash and intemperate; it is only star-crossed. Shakespeare does not hold up Brooke's mirror of “unhonest desire”, nor does he hold up a mirror that reflects only “true and constant Loue”. Rather, he condenses the action to a few days, and perhaps taking a cue from Golding's moralization of the Pyramus and Thisbe story, he holds up a mirror of greater optical refinement, one that more nearly reflects a whole picture, a mirror of a love that is both constant and rash.

The dual and simultaneous thematic emphasis that Shakespeare gives the love story in Romeo and Juliet is parallelled and reinforced by the dualistic thematic role played by time. That time was popularly conceived during the Renaissance as both a destroyer and a healer has recently been thoroughly studied and documented.14 Time may be one, the other, or both at once, as Shakespeare's Lucrece explicitly acknowledges in her apostrophe: “O Time, thou tutor both to good and bad” (l. 955). In her long catalogue amplifying the functions and powers of time, Lucrece addresses it variously as an

Eater of youth, slave to false delight,
Base watch of woes, sin's pack-horse, virtue's snare;
Thou nursest all and murder'st all that are.

(ll. 927-29)

But in the succeeding stanzas, Lucrece dwells on the regenerative powers of time:

Time's office is to fine the hate of foes;
To eat up errors by opinion bred,
Not spend the dowry of a lawful bed.
Time's glory is to calm contending kings,
To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light,
To stamp the seal of time in aged things,
To wrong the wronger till he render right.

(ll. 937-43)

Despite his apparent mastery, Time, Lucrece concludes (as do Spenser and Milton), is, in reality, a “ceaseless lackey to eternity” (l. 967).

In Romeo and Juliet, time performs several of the functions listed by Lucrece. Destructively, it eats up youth (Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet), but constructively, it “fines” the hate of foes. The fine the feuding families pay for their hatred is the deaths of their children, who are, in Capulet's phrase, “Poor sacrifices of our enmity!” (V, iii, 304). And that fine writes finis to the feud. And in still another role, time not only dissevers the lovers and leads to death, but Death timelessly joins what in a temporal world was consumed even as it united, an idea associated not only with the Romeo and Juliet story but also with the Pyramus and Thisbe and the Hero and Leander stories. In da Porto's version, the dying Giulietta begs Friar Lorenzo “by the love I have spoken of, that you pray our unhappy parents, in the name of both of us, not to object to leaving in the same sepulcher those whom love burned in one fire and led to one death.”15 Similarly, in Golding's translation, the dying Thisbe prays that one grave may join together what the wall and the enmity of the parents divided in life (IV, 185-91). Donne's epigram on Pyramus and Thisbe plays with the same idea: “Two by themselves, each other, love and fear / Slain, cruel friends by parting have join'd here.” And in his epigram on Hero and Leander, Donne uses the same idea: “Both robb'd of air, we both lie in one ground, / Both whom one fire had burn'd, one water drowned.”

Romeo and Juliet, unable to follow Friar Laurence's teaching to wait out time and “to drink adversity's sweet milk, Philosophy” (III, iii, 55), are propelled into their love for each other with a force that dominates their wills and that permits time to propel them into death. Juliet urges time to “gallop apace”; time will bring her lover to her, but time will take him away again. To be eternally joined, they must escape the sublunar world where time has dominion. Thus the marriage of Romeo and Juliet, their union in time, leads to their union outside time.

There is much talk in the play about those forces that have power to overrule man's will and to turn marriages into funerals.16 Romeo and Juliet repeatedly see themselves at the mercy of forces more powerful than they—the stars, destiny, accident, fortune. Even Frair Laurence refers to “A greater power than we can contradict” (V, iii, 153), but he does not give it a specific name. But the contraries of the love of Romeo and Juliet, and the contrary effects that time and fortune work upon the lovers, imply a kind of balance in the larger order of things, and it remains for Prince Escalus in the closing lines of the play to identify that larger balancing power as providence: “See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (V, ii, 292-3). In seeing that heaven has had a hand in the reversals, ironies, and contradictions, the Prince is merely affirming the Renaissance view that “ultimately fortune herself is, like nature, the tool of God and the educator of man.”17

The love of Romeo and Juliet, because it is rash as well as being true, contains the power to redeem time and to conquer death. Although sonnet 116 speaks of “the marriage of true minds” (certainly a more idealized and more mature love than that between Romeo and Juliet), Shakespeare asserts that “Love's not Time's fool”, but instead endures “even to the edge of doom”—that is, it will last as long as time lasts, until the day of judgment. In his excellent study of Shakespeare's sonnets, J. B. Leishman discovers that “In no other poet, perhaps in no other great secular writer except Plato, do we find such defiance of the world of Time and Appearance (‘phainomena’) as we do in Shakespeare.” Part of Leishman's thesis is that when Shakespeare was writing some of his earlier sonnets “He was too much afraid of the tyranny of Time and too little aware of the growing and counteracting power of Love. He did not then realise (or sufficiently realise) that Love, no less than Time, does not stand still.”18 Similarly, Romeo and Juliet seem to have little faith that the destructive effects of time can be nullified by sustained love, and no awareness at all that time can heal as well as destroy.

Nonetheless, the truth and constancy of the love of Romeo and Juliet afford its power to redeem their parents' hatred and to achieve some sort of victory over time: the lovers are to be memorialized by a pair of statues made of pure gold, and they are to secure a greater degree of literary fame and immortality by means of Shakespeare's play.19 But these redemptive powers of love and time manifest themselves only ironically, in ways which the lovers certainly never foresaw and in ways which Friar Laurence never anticipated. The love of Romeo and Juliet dissolves the hatred of the feud through the means of time and love as Friar Laurence originally intended, but also, ironically, through the means of death which the Friar sought to avoid. Rather than narrowly moralize about wanton women as Peend does, or about the perversion of marriage as Brooke does, or about the woeful end of intemperate lovers as Golding does, Shakespeare dramatically reveals that one thing (love) can turn out to be something quite different (death), but that, on second look, the second thing can turn back again into the first. Time conquers love, but Shakespeare seems to take the Virgilian precept, omnia amor vincit, quite literally, so that love may conquer—at least outwit—time. As Capulet observes when he discovers his daughter apparently dead, “And all things change them to the contrary” (IV, v, 90).

In his first speech in the play,20 Friar Laurence draws an analogy between nature and man. Earth is both womb and tomb of its fruits, and in all of earth's fruits, “Poison hath residence, med'cine power.” Man, too, is fruit of the earth, and he too is compounded of contraries, of medicine and poison, of “Grace and rude Will.” Thus, “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified” (II, ii, 17-18.) Here again Shakespeare echoes Renaissance commonplaces about the mixture of contraries that comprise the fallen world. Euphues, for example, is replete with illustration of the doctrine: “for neither is there anything but that hath his contraries.”21 Spenser, in sonnet 26, has “So every sweet with sour tempered still.” In Paradox 7, Donne tells us “yet we see physicians allow some virtue in every poison.” Francis Quarles' Emblem 7 (Book 2) gives a fuller illustration:

All things are mixt; the usefull with the vaine;
The good with bad; the noble with the vile;
The world's an Ark, wherein things pure and grosse
Present their losseful gain, and gainfull losse,
Where ev'ry dram of Gold containes a pound of drosse.

Probably the roots of this viewpoint lie in the Augustinian view of evil as the absence of good. Whatever the source, this essentially medieval idea remains active in the Renaissance, animating both popular thought and literature. If something is not wholly good, then some of it is bad; good and bad are so inextricably intermixed in the fallen world that it is impossible to have one without the other, and thus Milton can argue in Aereopagitica that as a result of the Fall man can know good only by knowing evil.

In Romeo and Juliet, as in a great deal of the literature of the English Renaissance, love, time, and death all play ambivalent roles. The playwright carefully shows that the love between Romeo and Juliet is simultaneously praiseworthy and blameworthy, that time works simultaneously against and for the lovers, and that simultaneously their deaths represent a kind of gain as well as a poignant if not a tragic loss. As twentieth-century readers of Renaissance literature, we must be constantly alert not to fall into an easy either-or trap inimical to a clear understanding of what we read. Romeo and Juliet is not unique when it stresses that the natural and human condition is one simultaneously compounded of both good and bad, and as readers and viewers of the play, we must have energy enough to respond to a sense of opposites simultaneously sustained. But in being alert to a viewpoint that stresses the contraries that exist within a unity, we must also distinguish between the explicit exposition of the idea and the urgency and power with which Shakespeare dramatizes this theme. During the two hours' traffic of his stage he presents the rash albeit true love that leads to the dissevering albeit unifying deaths of Romeo and Juliet in a fallen world where good is compounded and constantly interchanging with evil and where time can renew as well as destroy.


  1. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (Oxford, 1912). All line references are to this edition and are cited in the text.

  2. Although Ovid emphasizes Venus's passion, clearly Adonis is not reluctant as he is in Shakespeare's poem. On the tradition of a reluctant Adonis, see Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, new rev. ed. (New York, 1963), pp. 141-144.

  3. Although they are not youthful lovers in the throes of first passion, Antony and Cleopatra in the intensity and mutuality of their love and in their love-death may perhaps be admitted to this company.

  4. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), p. 142, n. 25.

  5. Variorum Shakespeare, ed. H. H. Furness, 10th ed. (Philadelphia, 1899), p. 398.

  6. Some of the images suggest links between Shakespeare's play and Marlowe's poem. “Love performing night” will bring Romeo to Juliet, and he will be her “day in night” (III, ii, 17) just as for Marlowe's martyrs to love, “dark night is Cupid's day” (I, 191). There will be “Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light” (I, ii, 25) at Capulet's feast, and in Marlowe's poem, the streets of Sestos “Like to a firmament, / Glistered with breathing stars” (I, 87-88). Throughout this paper all quotations of Shakespeare are from Hardin Craig's edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951) and are cited in the text. The text of Marlowe's Hero and Leander is that appearing in Hebel and Hudson's Poetry of the English Renaissance (New York, 1929).

  7. For discussion and ample illustration of this doctrine in the Renaissance, see Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven, 1962), pp. 64-69. In Hero and Leander, however, Marlowe flatly denies that man has any such power: “For will in us is over-ruled by fate” (I, 168). Further, love “resisted once, grows passionate, / And nothing more than counsel lovers hate” (II, 139-40).

  8. Romeo seals the bargain with “a righteous kiss”. Chew points out that in Renaissance thinking all mortals have a contract with death which they must abide by, having violated God's command (Pilgrimage of Life, p. 245).

  9. Shakespeare's Ovid Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the “Metamorphoses”, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (Carbondale, 1961), IV, 189.

  10. Ibid., The Epistle, ll. 109-110.

  11. One of the most influential views of Romeo and Juliet is that the play is a tragedy of speed and accident and that Shakespeare is portraying the passion and mystery of blinding young love, “suddenly ignited, and as swiftly quenched”. See Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, 1935), p. 312. More recent studies stress the ironies, contraries, paradoxes, and reversals in the structure and the language of the play. A view consonant in a general way with the one presented in this paper is that the play deals with “the wholeness and complexity of things, in contrast with a partial and simple view” (Lawrence Bowling, “The Thematic Framework of Romeo and Juliet, PMLA, LXIV (1949), 198). For a psychological study of the play as “a dynamic image of the impulsive-inhibited ambivalence of the human psyche itself”, see Stephen A. Shapiro, “Romeo and Juliet: Reversals, Contraries, Transformations, and Ambivalence”, College English, XXV (April, 1964), 498-501.

  12. Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London and New York, 1957), I, 284.

  13. For texts of both Brooke's and Painter's version and a discussion of their relationships with Boaistuau, see Origins and Analogues, Part I, ed. P. A. Daniel, New Shakspere Society (London, 1875). For my comments on the relevance of the time schemes in the earlier versions to the time scheme (only apparently consistent) in Shakespeare's play, see “Remnants of Earlier Time Schemes in Romeo and Juliet”, Papers on Language & Literature, II (Summer, 1966), 253-58.

  14. Chew, pp. 12-22. Time is both a destroyer and a “nurse and breeder of all good.” Chew also examines the relationships between Death and Time. They are often iconographically represented as partners, the one with a skull, the other with a scythe. When Time goes, Death comes (pp. 247-50).

  15. Romeo and Giulietta in The Palace of Pleasure: An Anthology of the Novella, eds. Maurice Valency and Harry Levtow (New York, 1960), p. 150.

  16. For example, Romeo's speech at I, iv, 106-113 and Juliet's remark, “Alack, alack, that heaven should practise strategems / Upon so soft a subject as myself!” (III, v, 211-12), as well as the speeches by Old Capulet and Friar Laurence at the end of Act IV when Juliet is discovered apparently dead.

  17. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1943), p. 56.

  18. J. B. Leishman, Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York, 1961), pp. 108, 104.

  19. The literary immortality gained by Romeo and Juliet is stressed even in the earliest versions of da Porto, Bandello, and Boaistuau, and is apparently meant to begin the re-telling of the story by the Friar. In da Porto, Friar Lorenzo is made to re-tell the whole story at the end; in addition, the story is to be carved on the monument erected to the lovers. In Boaistuau, Brooke, and Painter, many epitaphs honouring the lovers' deaths are to be carved on a tomb or a monument. Following is Brooke's version:

    And lest that length of time might from our myndes remoue
    The memory of so perfect, sound and so approued loue,
    The bodies dead, remoued from vaulte where they did dye
    In stately tombe or pillars great of marble rayse they hye
    On euery syde aboue were set, and eke beneath,
    Great store of cunning Epitaphes, in honour of theyr death.

    (ll. 3011-16)

  20. See R. M. Frye's illuminating discussion of this speech in his Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), pp. 216-19.

  21. John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in Elizabethan Fiction, eds. Robert Ashley and Edwin M. Mosely (New York, 1953), p. 103.

Ruth Nevo (essay date spring 1969)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6782

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 9, no. 2 (spring 1969): 241-58.

[In the following essay, Nevo explains the uniquely Shakespearean approach to tragedy employed in Romeo and Juliet that depends on neither providence nor fate as the source of human suffering.]

The plot of Romeo and Juliet stresses the accidental. The fortuitous meeting of Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet's illiterate messenger bearing the invitations he cannot decipher, the chance encounter between Romeo and Tybalt at a most unpropitious moment, the outbreak of the plague which quarantines Friar John, the meeting of Romeo and Paris at the Capulet tomb are instances which come at once to mind. Shakespeare, so far from mitigating the effect of unfortunate coincidence is evidently concerned to draw our attention to it. Bad luck, misfortune, sheer inexplicable contingency is a far from negligible source of the suffering and calamity in human life which is the subject of tragedy's mimesis; while of all the ancient and deep-seated responses of man to the world which he inhabits the fear of some force beyond his control and indifferent, if not positively inimical, to his desires is one of the most persistent. Accident, therefore, mischance, all that arouses a fearful and rebellious sense of the unintelligible and the non-necessitated, powerfully suggests to human anxiety a spectrum of the darker possibilities, whether these be interpreted as a universe dominated by meaningless, mindless vicissitude—the senseless hurrying of atoms, or as a devil-ridden chaos, the satanic void itself. Lear is the play in which Shakespeare presents the anguish of a mind fully facing the threat of chaos, a mind hovering above the void; in Romeo and Juliet when he sets out to dramatize the vulnerability of young love, he places his young lovers not too great a distance from that terrifying terrain.

Romeo and Juliet opens with the casual ruffianism of the Capulet servants, their idle chatter, their random bawdry, their haphazard impulses of sex and aggression. What is represented is the perennial fret and froth of lust and anger. This is indicated by Gregory's attempt to keep Sampson's eye upon the masculine target of enmity: “The quarrel is between our masters and us their men,” and the nonchalant reply of the omnivorous Sampson:

'Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant. When I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids: I will cut off their heads.
The heads of the maids?
Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maiden-heads; take it in what sense thou wilt.


The comic-braggart style of these exchanges and of the subsequent thumb-biting denies seriousness or consequentiality to these petty swashbucklers, so that in what follows the masters find themselves in full scale collision as a result of a chance encounter, the most random, casual circumstances. Yet, since the impulses touched off in Sampson and Gregory are human constants, there is an inevitability about it as well. This is the quotidien reality of the street and it is in Shakespeare an image of the unstable, fluctuating, precarious, potentially explosive, potentially even demonic reality in which the protagonists' lives are set. In Julius Caesar and in Coriolanus it erupts in the mob violence of the death of Cinna and the lynching of Coriolanus. In Romeo and Juliet it is less terrifying if only because it is canalized into the conventional form of the feud—it is not therefore utterly anarchic.

In Mercutio's Queen Mab speech the irrational, uncontrollable forces, the intractable and mischievous “other” that thwarts the will, or enters into subversive alliance with the anarchic appetites, is rendered as no more than impish; but at two of the crucial points in the play's chain of events—Mercutio's death and Friar John's incarceration—it is a plague which Mercutio invokes upon “both your houses,” and an outbreak of plague which keeps the Friar a prisoner. And thus the tone and the degree of seriousness accorded to the ever present threat of mischief deepen in consonance with the tragic shaping of events. Evil in Romeo and Juliet is not accorded the diabolic status it has in the great tragedies, never invades experience, nor undermines the possibilities of existence to the same degree. It is nevertheless present in the very fabric of events, in the interplay of the bad luck which dogs the lovers with the bad habits of ingrown pride in the Capulets and the Montagues.

The conventionalized aggressions of Verona's feuding families mask a violent and intractable will. Capulet's “Hang, beg, starve, die in the street” is Lear in little though it is not that particular relation which is pressed to an issue in this play. In King Lear it is pressed to an issue. But in King Lear random events—spontaneous, unplanned, unprepared for—press towards good, for example, the meeting between Edgar and the blinded Gloucester or Edgar and Oswald; the evil of the will is correspondingly thrown into relief. In Romeo and Juliet random events press towards evil while the willed actions of the protagonists are radically innocent.

Romeo and Juliet is less tragic than Lear, not because it is different in kind, a “tragedy of chance” rather than a “tragedy of character.” It is “less” tragic because the vision of evil in it is less deep, less complex, less comprehensive, less profoundly imprinted upon the consciousness of the characters. Its answer to the question all tragedy asks—Unde Malum?—is more hesitant, more eclectic. Here all is at a lower pitch; nearer to the commonplace and ordinary. Such fools, such daughters, such tempests of the soul as there are in Lear we would go far in life to find. But such fathers, such nurses, such young gallants are at all our doorsteps, within everyone's experience; not rare at all, though rarely depicted. This realism is the play's charm, the particular delight of its mimesis; but it is also the measure of its reach. It is all perfectly accomplished, within its comparatively limited scope, its comparatively limited perception.

It is worth noting, too, that of all the experiences of life which heighten sensibility and bestow gifts of the imagination, youthful love is the classic and common instance; while the familial enmity of elders is the classic obstacle of lovers. It is as much as anything this aspect of the natural and the universally available which is rendered by the largely Anglo-Saxon and almost monosyllabic simplicity of so many of the lovers' exchanges, a refinement of common speech which captures its very essence. “I would I were your bird”; “Dry sorrow drinks our blood”; “But to be frank and give it thee again”; “I am content, so thou wilt have it so.”

A dramatization of accident in human life may fail to achieve tragic form in two opposite ways: by way of melodrama in the dramaturgy of the playwright, or by way of intrusive morality in the interpretation of the spectator. With respect to the former way Aristotle's demand for the necessary or the probable, as opposed to the merely possible and hence insignificant, is palpably relevant.

Intelligibility, that which distinguishes form from phenomenon, requires the perception of consequence. Too high a proportion therefore of incidents totally uncaused—of coincidence, sheer, random chance—would be one way to render a plot untragic. Aristotle's dictum—those incidents have the greatest effect on the mind which “occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another—sets us on the right path, though his example (Mitys's statue falling upon Mitys's murderer) strikes us as over-contrived and far inferior to the complex Elizabethan dramaturgy.1

What is required is an interlocking, an intersection of opposing aspects of reality: the fore-ordained and the fortuitous, the inevitable and the arbitrary, choice and chance, will and the world. Tragedy will properly convey, with varying degrees of rigor, the inextricability in events of the given and the open; but with each knot that is tied, certain avenues are closed, and causes are made, so to speak, to yield up their calamitous consequences. The central knot which is tied in the plot of tragedy, as Aristotle indicates, is to be sought in the reversal, or peripeteia—the point which articulates the recoil of the action. This will characteristically present a nexus of ironies and the paradoxical effect of a coincidence which impresses us as an inevitability.

In the peripeteia of Romeo and Juliet this paradox is powerfully realized. Once again the streets are abrawl, the mad blood stirring, heads as full of quarrels as an egg is of meat. Romeo, aglow from his marriage ceremony, a vessel of good will, happens by the sheerest accident upon the truculent Mercutio and the irate Tybalt, his kinsman of an hour, precisely at the moment when Mercutio's contemptuous dismissal of him—“Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead! stabbed with a white wench's black eye … is he a man to encounter Tybalt?” (II.iv.14-17)—has become true in a sense undreamt of by Mercutio. The good will with which he is filled becomes the cause of the death of his friend and of his own “calm, dishonourable, vile submission” as he then too interprets his behavior. Thus the conventional code of honor vanquishes the good will and Romeo, alone of the participants, suffers the anguish of knowing “what might have been” supplanted by “what must now be,” and of enacting the fatal transformation of the one into the other. Given the circumstances—the companionship of young hotheads acting in ignorant and conventional truculence, given his own character as young man of honor—then what happens as a result of Mercutio's death under his arm must happen, is completely intelligible. Shakespeare's craft has given us a finely turned peripeteia in which the protagonist is responsible for his actions, though he is not accountable for the circumstances in which he must act, and in which these actions recoil ironically upon his own head. His despairing cry “O, I am fortunes fool” richly expresses his sense of the uncalled for, unchosen, outrageous event; of his helplessness in the face of the forces which are ranged against him, which include his own acceptance of the code of honor, and his own grief and self-reproach at the death of his friend “under his arm.”

It is clear that what transforms Aristotle's mere “possibility” in these events into “necessity” is character. And this brings us to the second of the ways in which the dramatization of the accidents of life may fail to achieve tragic effect. It is important to perceive that Romeo's challenge of Tybalt is not merely an instance, as in the stock moralizing interpretation, of a rashness which fatally flaws his character and brings about his doom. If this were so, then the consequences in the play, though certainly possible, would be considerably less moving. The play would be morally exemplary but without tragic significance. Romeo would be too simply to blame, as indeed he has often been held to be, and the great tragic error too simply moralized. And in point of dramatic fact Romeo's action in challenging Tybalt is precisely not rash, though it puts him into great danger. On the contrary it is an action first avoided, then deliberately undertaken, and it is entirely expected of him by his society's code. Indeed by dramatic character properly conceived is meant precisely that propensity in conduct towards the very action imitated by the drama. Some such continuity between action and character is always to be discovered in Shakespearean characterization however richly individualized, diversified, discriminated in the details of idiom or gesture his personages may be. As Fergusson puts it, paraphrasing Aristotle:

The dramatist imitates the action he has in mind, first by means of the plot, then in the characters, and finally in the media of language, music and spectacle. In a well-written play, if we understood it thoroughly, we should perceive that plot, character, and diction, and the rest spring from the same source, or, in other words, realize the same action or motive in the forms appropriate to their various media.2

Thus his tragic heroes are precisely such as will be subject to, or embody, the collision of forces envisioned by the dramatist as the soul of his action.


What the play tells us of Romeo throughout Acts I and II is that he is a young Veronese possessed of honor and imagination, high spirit and amorous melancholy. As such he is one among his companions, but he is set apart from them by his capacity, and his readiness, to be fired by a high passion. The orchard scene (II.i—without the artificial break at l. 45) may be taken as emblematic of this relationship: Mercutio's jesting bawdry, in which Romeo joins with a will when he “is sociable”; his separation from his fellows, as he leaps the garden wall; and his consciousness of what separates them as he observes “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

His being one of them in this way and set apart from them in this way is definitive of his tragic role: in his very character is represented a collision between blind conventional uniformity and imaginative specificity. It is a poignant awareness of this collision that Juliet expresses in her anguished question, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and through her sense of the irrelevance of the mere agreed name to the sweet immediate scent of the rose. It is this collision which defines the relations between the lovers and all Verona, the tragic results of which the drama exhibits. It is this collision which is the soul of the action, determining the form and substance of plot and character alike.

Romeo's sense of social identity and social commitment is greater than Juliet's; his sense therefore of the menace of the powers in whose face he flies, correspondingly greater. He is indeed exposed to the worst blows of Fortune, as any Stoic could have told him, when he makes his happiness dependent upon the unique individuality of another. And this he knows. Johnson wondered why Shakespeare gives Romeo a mood of involuntary cheerfulness immediately before his reception of Balthazar's news:3

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead …
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived and was an emperor.


Apart from the obvious pathos of the dramatic irony, the lines effectively underline by contrast the bondage of dread in which a man lives who has “given hostages to fortune,” so that his deepest dream is of liberation and sovereignty.

At the crisis of the play, as we have seen, he expresses in the despairing cry “O, I am fortune's fool” his sense of his own impotence; and again when he takes the poison the notion of forced obedience to an intractable and hostile power is implicit in his imagery, in the “yoke” of inauspicious stars, and in the legal implications of “dateless bargain to engrossing death.”

                                                                                                              O here
Will I set up my everlasting rest;
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you,
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct; come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!


Whiter, pioneer of image critics, noted the “strange coincidence … between this last speech of Romeo and a former one in which he anticipates his misfortunes … the ideas drawn from the Stars, the Law, and the Sea succeed each other in both speeches, in the same order, though with a different application.”4 The speech Whiter had in mind follows upon Mercutio's “talk of dreams,” and expresses his premonition of disaster together with his hope for the successful weathering of it:

                                                            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!


Whiter is at a loss to discover the “latent association” in this accumulation of images, but the association is easily found when it is remembered that it is not so much the sea as the ship that sails the sea which is the crucial term, and that the sea voyage is an archetypal metaphor for life precisely for the reason that seamanship pits will and skill against that part of nature—the ocean—most challenging, and menacing, to man in its inextricable co-mingling of immutable stellar law and wild waves' chaos. The bark of love, of Tristan, Petrarch, and the sonneteers, and here, is a particular instance of this symbolism, where the great perturbation, the “mindless woe,” has left the boat rudderless, or pilotless, or in some other way endangered its safe passage by rendering it vulnerable.

Romeo's dramatic development is indicated by the invocation, in the first speech, of God's providential guidance, whereas in the last speech he is his own “desperate pilot,” past hope, and therefore resolved to run his seasick weary bark upon the dashing rocks. In Act V he hastens disaster by his very conviction of it. “Then I defy you, stars” expresses a consolidation of his will, a determination to take the one finally free action left, in the Senecan-Stoic view, to a man in extremity. His self-control contrasts with his self-abandonment in the Friar's cell when told of his banishment, but, by a paradox which is only apparent, is the measure of his loss of all hope. Projected dramatically in action, the stubborn intensity of his desire to possess his happiness expresses itself as a sense of an inimical and omnipotent force by which he is doomed. Thus does he register his awareness of his own tragic role, against which he rebels, conjuring up a vision of a contrary role: “all these woes shall serve / For sweet discourses in our time to come” (III.v.54).

It is to be noted that he precisely does not identify his will with Fate as does Ford's Faustian Giovanni. He fights fortune, and defeat is not a foregone conclusion. But his “free” act in defiance of the forces which seem to be conspiring against him or which seem to be condemning his love, brings about an unnecessitated doom more definitively than any other action in the play. The powerful irony of his death scene is that as he swallows his fatal potion he is in fact nearer the fulfillment of his heart's desire than at any other moment in the course of the drama.

The opacity of events, the blindness, or ignorance, or failure to penetrate appearances of the protagonists is, of course, a major tragic theme. It receives its greatest virtuosity of treatment in Hamlet. Here it is announced as early as I.ii when arrives Capulet's illiterate messenger with the invitation which precipitates the entire subsequent action. “I pray you,” he inquires of Romeo, “can you read anything you see?” “Ay,” replies Romeo, “if I know the letters and the language.” In the familiar manner of Elizabethan stagecraft the fool's patter, ostensibly drawing a jest from the discrepancy in wisdom between the learned and the ignorant, actually serves as an ironic commentary upon all human ignorance in knowledge, on all that men do, not knowing what they do. The fool is one of two classic Elizabethan means of dramatizing the limitations of human knowledge. The arras is the other, providing, with its analogues and metaphorical equivalents profound and various images of unawareness. Here, in IV.v. the arras hides the inert body of Juliet from the Nurse's sight as she potters about calling to a slugabed bride, as she believes, to arouse her for her wedding; nor when it is drawn is the truth disclosed.5

Against the ebb and flow of Romeo's hope and fear—charted by the sequence of scenes—are juxtaposed the Friar's Christian forebodings and Christian hopes. The Friar fears the lovers' destruction from their very first abandonment, in his view, to unbridled passion, rash impetuosity, and headstrong will. The Friar's strictures are often regarded as having a choric function in the play, of being, that is, indicative of the point of view properly to be taken of events; certainly his words at their marriage are richly prophetic:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.


But it is after all, simply in character, perfectly natural and appropriate to the persona, for the Friar to preach to Romeo upon the disastrous consequences of unbridled passion. It would be a dereliction of his evident Christian duty not to do so. It is similarly the least we could expect of the purveyor of religious instruction to identify the “greater power than we can contradict” with Providence, though he does not presume to know at that point in the play when he is stumbling at graves to what obscure end Providence is thus thwarting his intents; and it is sound Christian doctrine beautifully adapted to the style of reflection of a gentle hermit-apothecary which ascribes to the strange paradoxes of Providence the evil presence of poison in the good herbs of the earth:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified; …
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs-grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.


Certainly the Friar's “grace and rude will” speech has a comprehensive, generalizing, and reverberating quality—the generalizing and reverberating quality of Christian doctrine. How much more bitter an irony is it then that the Friar's own benevolent, would-be “providential” and truly Christian interference in the course of events in fact precipitates the catastrophe as much as anything in the play. His drug is, in the outcome, as deathly as that dispensed to Romeo by his dusty and down-at-heel Mantuan counterpart.

The Stoic-Christian conflict runs deep in Shakespeare, as in the entire Renaissance drama. There is no tragedy which is without its variant. Here it takes the relatively simple and obvious form of a confrontation between a humanistically educated young man and his Christian confessor. Nothing could be more perfectly and completely dramatized, more perfectly in character than the terms of their dialogue, the projection of their separate points of view. Both Romeo and the Friar view their acts and enact their views with a marvellous consistency and propriety. But if action is here being imitated, or realized, in the medium of character in truly Shakespearean fashion, the action which is being imitated represents that blindness to the real state of things which is perhaps Shakespeare's profoundest intuition of the origin of pain and evil.

The question at issue between Romeo and the Friar is the question of love, of that heightened excitement of the senses, emotions, and imagination which accompanies, or gives rise to, sexual passion. And love, in the sense of sexual passion, as Shakespeare well knew, has been the object of more scepticism, suspicion, and disapprobation than any other movement of the human spirit and is included as such in the scheme of neither Stoicism nor Christianity.6 It is to be noted that the lovers, though they respect and revere their spiritual father, and gladly take his practical advice, are totally impervious to his religious instruction. They do not defy or evade, as do Ford's Giovanni and Annabella; they simply betray no awareness, save for Juliet's single reference to the “god of my idolatry,” of the application of religious-moral evaluation or judgment to themselves at all. Since, in their eyes, love is self-justifying, they and the Friar represent two autonomous and mutually exclusive orders of experience, each reflecting upon the other at their points of intersection.

One such pivotal point of intersection is the pilgrim sonnet: the grave and joyful pas-de-deux which is their discovery of each other. This passage, in its implications, is perfectly ambiguous. From the point of view of Christian Agape it is profanity; from the point of view of romantic Eros, epiphany. The two loves, psychologically and historically interdependent, stand to each other, as they have so often stood, in a relation of antithesis, and challenge. The marriage of the lovers is, similarly, a point of intersection. The junction of their desire to be married as quickly as possible and the Friar's anxiety to have them married as quickly as possible is purely coincidental. They are indifferent to the consecrating aspect of the ceremony. Romeo speaks for both when he says:

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.


Whereas to the Friar it is the sacrament and the sacrament alone which can “incorporate two in one” and rescue love from vanity.7

If Shakespeare offers no one-dimensional view of the higher possibilities of love it is nevertheless the higher possibilities that he is concerned to bring out. The dramaturgy of multiple reflection brings each of the characters into analogous and contrastive relationship with the lovers. Romeo is flanked by Friar Lawrence who, with all his own resigned tolerance for youth, regards his doting as a regrettable carnality. He is also flanked by the inimitable Mercutio, who regards the same phenomenon as a foolishness which men invent to torment themselves with when they would be better employed wenching—“a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole” (II.iv.89). Juliet, on the other hand, is flanked by Capulet, whose concern is the very proper one, in a dutiful and affectionate paterfamilias, of prudential matchmaking; and by the Nurse, the epitome of the earthy, the base, the material, and the utterly unimaginative. As naturalist as Mercutio though of infinitely less wit, she is one of Shakespeare's finest creations in the mode of contrast between high and low, base and heroic, rare and common; between comedy and dignity. And in this mode she is the apogee of that view of love as simply either sex or matchmaking which is the bedrock contrast to the lovers' affirmation. To them love is an enlightenment of the human condition perfectly fulfilling all needs of flesh and spirit.


What emerges from the contrasts and the affirmation is related to the definitive importance of the light imagery in the play—is indeed the reason for the definitive importance of the light imagery. The play's rich profusion and variety of light images, generally taken to be symbolic of the natural beauty of youthful love, and of the play's theme of “brilliance swiftly quenched,”8 can be seen to possess a stricter and more cogent relation to the entire dramaturgy of the play. In the steady radiance of the play's imagery there is a progression from the light which is a metaphor for beauty to the light which is a metaphor for knowledge; from that which is a grace of appearance to that which is a gift of insight. Even in “O she doth teach the torches to burn bright,” there is a suggestion of the platonic; while the “feasting presence full of light” is, typologically, a symposium. There is a solemnity about certain of the light images, as opposed to the sensuous delight of others, which allows comparison with the identification of beauty and knowledge through the imagery of light of Marvell or the Milton of the early poems.

What it amounts to is that Romeo and Juliet are possessed of the light. And they alone are possessed of the light, in a Verona to whom the light is beyond comprehension—to whom love is irrelevant. These others, indeed, unrecognizing, unknowing, acting out their natures, bring harm to the light Shakespeare's addition to his source, Rosaline and Paris, are the subtlest reflectors of all. Less clearly modelled, further in the middle distance of the play, attenuated shadows out of courtly love, chaste and devoted respectively, they are cast like a snake's skin by the more robust reality of Romeo and Juliet.

Happy love, observes de Rougemont, has no history.

Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of life, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.9

Because there is so much truth in de Rougemont's view it is important to make distinctions. Romeo and Juliet do not “suffer love.” They suffer because they love; they are exposed to pain and suffering on account of their love; but they do not “suffer love.” Paradoxically enough it is Shakespeare's comedy heroes who suffer love: Titania, Berowne, even Beatrice and Benedick, Viola, because it is through the frustrations and involvements of love suffered that the comic plot weaves its way to make these odds all even in the end. And bearers. But the two whose significant presence in the play is Troilus, Angelo, Imogen, the young man of the Dark Sonnets,—these all suffer love.

But in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare is as revolutionary as Donne: his lovers too are “interassured of the mind,” a mutual pair. Life does not allow them either “the delight of the senses” nor the “fruitful contentment of the settled couple,” but Juliet's “Gallop apace” is remarkable because it contains the promise of both—it is purely erotic, without trace of the mysticism in which sex is mere symbol. And the chiastic formality, the mock-rhetorical reversals and substitutions of their parting aubade (III.v.), suggest not merely the reciprocity of their feelings but also the perspective of life, of jocund day, from which to take in his playful-serious “Come death, and welcome!” It is a parting of which it can be truly claimed that it is “not yet a breach but an expansion”; and the love which is “an interinanimation of two souls” because it is precisely not the “passion that wants darkness and triumphs in a transfiguring Death.” There is no naked sword between these lovers. Theirs is not a desire to die to the world but a most energetic desire to live in it, to survive crises and to have “all these woes … serve / For sweet discourses in our time to come” (III.v.54). And to this powerful complex of feelings their suffering stands in an almost tangential relation.

Their suffering is powerfully delineated. It is Romeo's despair at Friar Lawrence's cell; it is Juliet's horror as she contemplates the Friar's drug; and her greater horror as she contemplates her betrothal to Paris. It is Romeo's realizing his betrayal of Mercutio; it is Juliet realizing the Nurse's betrayal of her. It is Romeo driven to kill Paris, the “good gentle youth.” It is Juliet facing her father's fury.

Juliet's suffering is finely discriminated from Romeo's as is her suicide and indeed her experience of love. Love has its own devouring exclusiveness, its own ruthless priorities:

That “banished”, that one word “banished”,
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts. Tybalt's death
Was woe enough, if it had ended there;
Or, if sour woe delights in fellowship
And needly will be ranked with other griefs,
Why followed not, when she said “Tybalt's dead”,
Thy father, or thy mother, nay, or both,
Which modern lamentation might have moved?


But what is a frantic probing of new and overwhelming experience in Juliet is a shocking violence of repudiation in Capulet's “hang, beg, starve, die in the street” (III.v.204). Essentially Juliet's suffering is the realization of loneliness and isolation. The nurse's repudiation (“Romeo's a dishclout to him”) of all that she believed understood between them, follows her father's and is the more painful as the relationship of confidante was the more intimate.

I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead—or 'twere as good he were
As living here and you no use of him


undermines her confidence in every seeming friend so that to the fear naturally attending the taking of the drug is added a terrible suspicion of the Friar's motives. The poison speech is masterly in its rendering of horror enacted in imagination; the source of its great strength lies in the imaginative pressing to an issue of her knowledge that “my dismal scene I needs must act alone.” It is not of death or of being dead that she is afraid. She is afraid, of course, of a miscarriage of the plan; but her terror is for that moment when she may find herself imprisoned and alone with the appalling dead. What her imagination projects is an image of the ultimate aloneness, the maximum distance which can be travelled by a human being from the sustaining and comforting presence of his kind. That she is ready for this is a measure of her fidelity, not an indication that death is “the one kind of marriage that Eros was ever able to wish for.”

The height of Romeo's anguish is when he sees himself betrayer of his friend to death, and cries in self-reproach and loss of faith, “Thy beauty has made me effeminate” (III.i.114); and the lowest point of his degradation (as the Friar is quick to define it) is his total abandonment to despair at the news of his banishment. The relation therefore of their suffering to their love is the consequential relation of tragedy—the relation which will produce a catharsis of pity and terror. They are exposed to the evil and ignorance of the world, and involved in the evil and ignorance of the world, by virtue of the very gifts of imagination which mark them out as the vessels of tragic suffering.

From the wreckage tragedy depicts, something that is of the spirit survives to effect our reconciliation to the heart-shaking emotions of pity and terror. The scene of their death is the recognition of that survival. Their love has involved them in misfortune, guilt, deprivation, sorrow, and betrayal but it has survived—survived even Mercutio's death, and Tybalt's. It is affirmed by Romeo: “For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light” (V.iii.85-86) and enacted with the most direct simplicity by Juliet: “O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after?” (V.iii.163-164). It is not true to the facts of the play to say that they are married only in death, for their marriage is consummated before Romeo leaves for Mantua. What one can say is that marriage forms their view of their relations with each other from the very first balcony scene, so that death itself is robbed of its sting, is even made welcome, under this figure. This is the effect of the conjugal and erotic imagery of their final scene. The Elizabethan pun contains manifold possibilities and Juliet's “This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die” (V.iii.175) is without doubt a metaphorical sexual act. But it is an act undertaken because she is in love with Romeo, not because she is in love with death. Nor is their death a sacrifice of love, as certain of the Christianizing critics would have it.10

Their death is an act of freedom and of fidelity; hence an affirmation of the reality, vitality, and value of their experience. Nor do we reconcile ourselves to their deaths because they have become immortal in literature whereas “they would have become old and worldly in time.”11 We reconcile ourselves to our pity and terror because we have witnessed one complete cadence of the human spirit, enacted to the full, rendered entirely intelligible. What reconciles us is not what could possibly reconcile us in life. Only achieved art can so order and satisfy our appetencies, our perceptions, and our insights. Shakespeare's dramatic reticence in the context of boldly erotic imagery gives the scene the suggestiveness of an analogue: we glimpse something of the resources of tenderness and gaiety, freedom and self-possession, which lie in the power of an idealized sexual relation to discover. It is with precisely these higher possibilities that a romance tragedy will leave us. For the lovers, all losses are restored and sorrows end. The elders must make of it what sense they can.


  1. “Even matters of chance seem most marvellous if there is an appearance of design as it were in them; as for instance the statue of Mitys at Argos killed the author of Mitys's death by falling down on him when a looker-on at a public spectacle”; The Poetics, trans. Bywater (London, 1920), p. 45.

  2. F. Fergusson, “Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action,” in The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (New York, 1957), p. 116-117.

  3. Variorum, p. 258.

  4. Whiter, Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, 1794, p. 123.

  5. Evans, “The Brevity of Friar Lawrence,” PMLA, LXV, 1950, has an interesting study of Romeo and Juliet in which he traces the patterns of unawareness which culminate in the universal bewilderment at the mouth of the tomb in Act V when the bodies of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet, bleeding though dead three days, are discovered.

  6. Paul N. Siegel, SH. Q. 12, 1961, has drawn attention to the crude and unreconciled mixture of condemnation and glorification in the Elizabethan novella treatment of passionate love. Brooke's poem, which was Shakespeare's source, is of course a case in point.

  7. M. M. Mahood, in her essay on “Word-Play in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare's Word-Play, 1957, confirms the notion of reflection at the points of intersection by finding the most word-play, and the most ambiguous word-play at these points. But the Friar's “O, so light a foot, Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint” (II. v. 16-17) for instance, she finds susceptible through its puns of interpretation in four different and incompatible ways (p. 26). I find it misleading to import into the Friar's attitudes what might at most have been subliminally present to Shakespeare's imagination. It is necessary to distinguish which of the meanings would be probable for the Friar, if we are not to have a new kind of higher-critical disintegration of the dramatis persona. Her view of the kissing sonnet as “social persiflage” to disguise their real feelings seems to suffer from a similar kind of improbability. The essay is reprinted in Shakespeare's Tragedies, ed. Lerner (London, 1963).

  8. Caroline Spurgeon, “The Imagery of Romeo and Juliet” from Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935. Reprinted in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Dean (New York, 1961), p. 72.

  9. Denis de Rougemont, Passion and Society (London, 1940), p. 17. There is a natural congruence between the Friar's view and the neo-Christian analysis of romantic passion of de Rougemont, who sees in the lovers' death “the one kind of marriage that Eros was ever able to wish for.” The Liebestod myth, of which, he claims, Romeo and Juliet is an instance:—

    The myth that has been agitating us for 800 years as spell, terror, or ideal is at one and the same time a passion sprung from dark nature, an energy excited by the mind, and a pre-established potentiality in search of the coercion that shall intensify it.

    (p. 23)

    It is interesting to note yet another version of the death-wish interpretation in the nineteenth-century critic Gervinus:

    In him (Romeo) a hidden fire burns with a dangerous flame; his slight forebodings are fulfilled, not because a blind chance causes them to be realised, but because his fatal propensity urges him to rash deeds; … We cannot accuse fate. … It is Romeo's tumultuous nature alone which exercises justice upon itself

    (Commentaries, p. 835)

    Gervinus's emphasis is of course upon moral psychology, but in all three cases, Friar Lawrence, Gervinus, and de Rougemont, there is an urgency of intent to locate the origin of evil in the play in the intensity of passion itself.

  10. Notably Vyvyan, Shakespeare and the Rose of Love (London, 1960), and Ribner, “Then I denie you starres,” The English Renaissance Drama, ed. Bennett, Cargill, Hall (London, 1961).

  11. Mahood, p. 25.

Laurence Lerner (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7335

SOURCE: Lerner, Laurence. “Shakespeare and Love: Romeo & Juliet.” In Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari, edited by T. R. Sharma, pp. 117-35. Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Lerner explores the connections between love and death in Romeo and Juliet.]

‘Oh she doth teach the torches to burn bright’: Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet transforms his world, and the line tells us, instantly, that it is a play about the transfiguring power of love.

If there ever was a play which had to be in poetry, it is this: for only through heightened language can the heightened quality of the love experience be conveyed. Falling in love can be seen both as extraordinary and as completely natural, as an experience that takes us out of the everyday onto a higher plane, and as one that takes us from sophistication and artificiality into true simple feeling. It is therefore necessary for the poetry of the lovers to be tugged in two directions: towards formality, which provides conventions that take us away from the ordinary, and towards simplicity, to express the need to drop conventions for genuineness. The dialectic between these gives the language its force: to surrender to either extreme would destroy it.

The extreme of formality is represented by the opening exchange of the lovers: their near-stycomythia composes a sonnet, full of word-play upon the love-religion parallel. The passage asks to be spoken in two different ways, and good actors will convey both: on the one hand it should move slowly, with a solemnity appropriate to the dance taking place and (even more) to the fact that this is the tremendous experience of their lives, for which only religious imagery is adequate; but on the other hand there is (certainly from Juliet, possibly from Romeo too) a playful handling of the religious analogy, almost a feeling that a girl must know how to look after herself by keeping the implications of the words at bay: ‘For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss’ (I. v. 99). If the last line is spoken with the emphasis on ‘palm to palm’ (come now, not lips!) it is fencing; if on the last three words, then the fencing can dissolve in the bliss of what is happening to her.

The extreme of directness, on the other hand, is found at the end of the balcony scene, when Juliet calls Romeo back, asks him something trivial, and confesses ‘I have forgot why I did call thee back’. There are no metaphors, no heightened diction, simply the language of being tongue-tied: it could be Love Story or West Side Story, it could belong with our modern celebration of inarticulateness—and yet it couldn't, simply because of the interplay between this and the rich metaphoric language we have had. Such immediacy derives its literary power from the way it breaks free of a previous formality.

Between these two extremes we can see the dialectic of style actually taking place, for instance in the following:

Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow.
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—
O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
What shall I swear by?
                                                                                          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.
                                                                      If my heart's dear love—
Well, do not swear.

(II. ii. 107)

They are trying to break free of the convention that they desperately need. Romeo's two lines are lovely and totally predictable; Juliet interrupts to plead, let us not have these conventions, but she can only do so by describing the moon in equally conventional language. This leaves Romeo inarticulate. For a moment Juliet accepts this, then tries to make up her own convention; as soon as she hears what Romeo makes of it she realizes that she has dropped once more into a protestation that is removed from experience, and she reaffirms her rejection, even if it means silence. She has discovered that what she originally meant was not ‘swear not by the moon’ but a wider prohibition, telling him in general terms not to speak like that. Yet for lovers, striving to escape from ordinariness, there is no other way to speak.

I have tried to suggest by looking, however briefly, at the self-consciousness of the writing, how the special nature of the love experience is conveyed; but I could have set about it in a much more obvious way, by saying that Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight, that they compare love to religion, that they feel premonitions of disaster from the beginning. That would have told us nothing about the particularity of this play, but would have stressed what it has in common with others. Both of these matter: for masterpieces are both higly individual, and the most perfect examples of tradition.

And marriage? The main married couple is Juliet's parents; and thinking of Romeo, we ask with astonishment, was Capulet ever in love with his lady? Did he tell himself that she taught the torches to burn bright, did he climb orchard walls, and swear by the moon to her, and could we conceivably imagine him killing himself for love? We see Capulet in two moods, fussy and authoritarian. He fusses over the ball, making an old man's jokes (‘She that makes dainty, She, I'll swear, hath corns’), ordering the servants about (‘more light, you knaves! and turn the tables up’), a well-meaning, slightly tedious host. We see the same Capulet when he arranges the match with Paris, a little smug in his confidence that his daughter ‘will be ruled in all respects by me’—but why not, for she has never crossed him yet?—and more than a little fussy as he hesitates between Wednesday and Thursday for the wedding. Well-meaning, yes, but there are ominous touches even here: ‘mark you me’, ‘and there an end’. He is used to getting his way, and perhaps the later scene when he plays the heavy father is not wholly unexpected. It is a marvellous piece of comic writing, adjusting the blank verse to the speech rhythms as only Shakespeare can do.

How, how, how, how, chopped logic? What is this?
‘Proud—and I thank you’—and ‘I thank you not’—
And yet ‘not proud’? Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints, gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter's Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.

(III.v. 149)

How utterly different this movement from ‘Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she’ and yet (this is what we mean when we speak of Shakespeare's characterization) it is clearly the same man. Capulet is a wonderful creation, but he lives in a different world from the lovers. The feelings he displays are the pleasure of authority, the wry jokes of old age, and affection for his daughter. There is no sign of affection for his wife: the nearest is when he calls on her to share his grief—‘O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds’—and even there he is simply including her in a feeling that is paternal and familial, and he calls her, as he always does, simply ‘wife’. She has no identity and receives no feelings as an individual, and marriage has nothing to do with romance.

In proposing Romeo and Juliet as a play about the contrast between love and marriage I have ignored what some may feel is a fatal objection, the fact that Romeo and Juliet do actually marry. Now I do not believe this is an objection at all, for what does that marriage consist of? Not of domestic arrangements, children or even cohabitation, but of one marvellously beautiful alba. The song of the lover, compelled by dawn to leave his mistress, was a popular medieval genre, and examples range from the simple and fragmentary to the rich complexities of the Minnesinger—from, say, the simple assertion that the nightingale has ceased to sing and the watchman on the tower is calling the lovers to awaken, to Heinrich von Morungen's ‘Owe, sol aber mir iemer me’.

Oh will there never be a morning,
When he will simply stay
When as night passes we'll no longer
Need to sigh and say?
‘Alas, look, it is day:’
As he, when last he lay
With me would often say.
Then the day came.

We can never say much about the situation depicted in an alba, for lyric poetry after all is not about situations; but we can say with some certainty that the lovers are not married. The intensity comes from the certainty that they must part, and often there is just enough narrative to make it clear that their assignation was a furtive one. The parting of Romeo and Juliet in III. v. is a marvellous example of the transposition of lyric into dramatic. Almost every detail belongs to the tradition of the alba: the song of the nightingale and of the lark, the fading of the moon, the image of the envious streaks. Sometimes it is the man who longs to stay, sometimes the woman who longs to retain him: Shakespeare takes advantage of these alternatives to depict the wavering situation of pleading, danger, longing, resignation, decision; and the songs of the two birds, losing none of their lyrical beauty, acquire a dramatic function.

The 59 lines of this scene are the only lines that Romeo and Juliet exchange after they are married: an alba, followed by brief arrangements (‘I will omit no opportunity that may convey my greetings …’) and then by dark foreboding (‘O God, I have an ill-divining soul!’). With a marriage like that, who needs adultery?

To the enraptured lover, his mistress seems larger than life, his experience is of a bliss surpassing all other pleasures. Only great poetry can rise to the expressing of such feeling, and the greatest of poets is Shakespeare.

Tempests themeselves, high seas, and howling winds,
The gutter'd rocks, and congregated sands,
Traitors ensteep'd, to clog the guiltless keel,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their common natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona.

(II. i. 68)

                                                                                                              O my soul's joy,
If after every tempest come such calmness,
May the winds blow, till they have wakened death,
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas,
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell's from heaven. If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute,
That not another comfort, like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

(II. i. 184)

Both these speeches come from the scene of the arrival in Cyprus, which is the high moment of the action of Othello, and from which everything descends in rapid but complex development to the tragic end. The first, by Cassio, loyal lieutenant and devoted admirer, celebrates Desdemona by the traditional device of the pathetic fallacy: the elements have spared Desdemona because, ‘having sense of beauty’, they have not dared to destroy her. It is not the only conventional device that Cassio uses: Desdemona is ‘our great captain's captain’, in the military imagery so common in love poetry, she is ‘the riches of the ship’, and prays both for her safety and Othello's. The lines have some individual and Shakespearean life (‘gutter'd rocks’), but within a general framework of the traditional. A lesser dramatist would have given that speech to Othello himself; if it is only when we hear Othello's lines that we realize the ordinariness of Cassio's. It is not only that Othello's are more splendid poetically (there is nothing of Cassio's as marvellously mimetic as ‘And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas’, with its one labouring adjective among the monosyllables), or that they contain proleptic elements appropriate to the hero rather than the lieutenant, but above all that they contain an intensity of emotion to make us realize that Cassio's poetry was, after all, simply that of compliment.

Here then is the pinnacle of love, placed at much the same point of the action as the stycomythia-sonnet of Romeo and Juliet; four acts later, both pairs of lovers are dead. But although in both plays love's bliss ends in death there is an obvious and important difference, the difference expressed in a great deal of traditional, especially Bradleian, criticism by calling Romeo and Juliet a tragedy of fate, Othello, a tragedy of character. External circumstances determine Romeo's fate, Othello is responsible for his own. I do not want to reject this familiar view, but to point out a corollary of it, that Bradley himself gives no hint of. What does the ‘tragic flaw’ of Lear or Hamlet or Othello, tell us about them, and about fatherly affection, revenge or love? The answer, surely, will be alarming: love, we see from this play, is dangerous. If it is something within the hero that causes tragedy (and causes the death of Desdemona), we must ask ourselves if even within the high idealization of that poetry (‘O my soul's joy …’) there is the stuff of tragedy, even of murder.

If such love is dangerous, what does it threaten? It threatens, surely, stable social relationships. There is no more place for Othello's excesses, his idealization, his exotic charm, his ultimate foreignness, his striking of his wife, in the institutions of civilized Venice (and on one level, if not the deepest, Venice is the hero of this play) than there is place for the love of Lancelot and Guinevere in the institution of the Round Table—the difference being that in the one case the institutions survive the self-destruction of the individual, in the other case the civilization is destroyed. Such intensity of idealization, teetering if things go wrong to such intensity of retributiveness, seems quite incompatible with the complexities of interaction by which two people learn to know one another, each adjusting to the other's individuality. In short, it threatens marriage.

Shakespeare's other great love tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, is the very opposite of Othello in both plot and poetry: its vast untidy structure, with its innumerable rapid changes of scene, its huge number of characters, its action stretching from Egypt to Rome in one direction and Parthia in another, and lasting for an indeterminate number of years, invites us out into the infinite reverberations of its wildly inventive poetry; whereas Othello is the most tightly constructed of all Shakespeare's tragedies, the one which almost observes the unities, uses virtually no prose, builds each scene carefully to interact with the others, echoes with the most complex Shakespearean irony, and whose poetry is intricate and inward-looking. So it is appropriate that in Antony and Cleopatra love is the rival to political and marital responsibility in a gigantic clash of loyalties, whereas in Othello marriage is destroyed from within.

It is necessary for Othello's marriage to be on the one hand something settled and solid, so that we may see the full extent of the destruction, and on the other hand something that never got going, so that we may see the appalling—and rapid—inevitability of the disaster. To achieve this paradox Shakespeare used the celebrated double time-scheme. We no longer believe that the sustaining of two incompatible time schemes in the play is a sign of Shakespeare's clumsiness, or even of the fact that he knew what he could get away with: it enhances the play, for both versions contribute something positive. By the short time-scheme (which is the more prominent) the action takes 48 hours, and the couple sleep together only once: a couple who sleep together only once is a common feature in stories of extra-marital love, and the repeated sharing of the bed is the most obvious, and one of the commonest ways of representing marriage—as we see from the longer time-scheme:

What sense had I of her stol'n hours of lust?
I saw't not, thought it not, it harm'd not me,
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio's kisses on her lips;

(III. iii. 344)

In Cinthio, Desdemona and the Moor are married for years. Shakespeare used that version in speeches like this one in order to convey the full horror of jealousy, contrasting it with this domestic familiarity; and in doing so he has, after all, made it a marriage. Here at least for a moment he is showing us intensity of passion in a marital setting

One brilliant detail removes the double time-scheme when it is no longer needed, in Act V. This is Desdemona's instruction to Emilia to lay on her bed her wedding sheets. No doubt this assumes the longer time-scheme (the phrasing is odd if she means the sheets she'd had last night, even if these had already been changed and were ready again), but at the same time it abolishes it. Once again it is to be the bed of lovers, of the virgin bride, not the familiar domestic couch. The fact that we can see the bed as both familiar and terrifyingly strange expresses the ambivalence of love, the content so absolute that it can commit murder, so that the perfect marriage is the most deeply threatened.

So far I have treated Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy, and the parallels drawn have been with other tragedies. But it was written between 1594 and 1596, and the vocabulary and versification give it the feel of the comedies Shakespeare was writing in the mid-1590s. For a full sense of the context of the play, we need to look at the comedy of love as well as its tragedy.

It is obvious how the comedy of love will begin and end. Boy and girl meet and fall in love in Act I; they marry in Act V; something has to fill up the intervening space. On one level, everything that happens in between must function as an obstacle, delaying their union.

Ay me: for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth,
But either it was different in blood …
Or else misgraffed in respect of years …
Or else it stood upon the choice of friends …
Or if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death or sickness did lay siege to it.

This is clearly a literary passage, meant to sound like a recital of the narrative forms of love. Hermia hasn't yet any experience, she is simply classifying (more graciously than the clumsy prose of this article) the ways a love story can unfold. Most of the obstacles she lists are external: war, death or sickness, and above all family: and the play built on these will be a story of adventures—how to overcome the obstacles, how to outwit the parents. A Midsummer Night's Dream itself reminds us of a simple and famous example of this, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, separated by a wall, destroyed by a lion. It hardly seems fair to these lovers to take their story from Shakespeare's parody, but the mechanicals did at any rate get the facts right. The Pyramus and Thisbe story is relevant to that of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the lovers also escape into the woods, but relevant only as a point of departure: if they had met lions in the woods, if after many adventures they had reached the wealthy aunt, the play would have been a comedy of love's adventures. Instead, what they find in the wood are the obstacles that result from love itself, confusions of identity, rivalry and quarrels, resulting from the fact that choice of the beloved object is after all as arbitrary as being in the way when the juice of a flower is squeezed. When these complications are cleared up, the original obstacle is not overcome but simply removed, as Theseus now decides it's time for a happy ending and, for no reason whatever, overbears the will of Egeus so that the couples can all be knit in the Temple.

What Shakespeare has done to the plot is playfully to turn the adventures into a rehearsal of love's inherent difficulties. For adventures are not in the end very interesting in a love story, their relation to the love being merely accidental. What can Pyramus say, when he finds Thisbe dead?

I am cause of this felonie,
So it is reason that I die
As she is dead because of me.

That is what Pyramus says in Gower's version. But he is not the cause; or if he were (say for turning up late) it would be for a reason accidental to the love. It is when the obstacles are internalized that the details of the action, and the language of the lovers, constitute an exploration of the nature of love.

A blending of internal and external is provided by the familiar theme of the heroine in disguise. The cause for Shakespeare's heroines dressing up as pages is usually an adventure impinging on them from without (Viola's shipwreck, Rosalind's banishment) though it is also, on occasion, the fact that the man has gone off (Julia, Helena); but when the disguised girl meets her lover we have an opportunity for something far more interesting than adventure. In the case of Rosalind and Orlando, for instance, the disguise gives Rosalind two personae, and enables her to express two contrasting attitudes to love. The first essential for any actress playing Rosalind is to realize that two selves can only be mingled if they are, in the first place, separated; and to divide the whole of her part, in the scenes with Orlando, into those remarks she makes as Ganymede, and those in which Rosalind breaks out. Thus after teasing Orlando about horns, and after his reply, which ends ‘and my Rosalind is virtuous’, ‘Ganymede’ replies, ‘And I am your Rosalind.’ Celia's intervention—‘it pleases him to call you so’—is surely a hasty re-erecting of the barrier that Rosalind's impetuosity has knocked down, and makes it clear that ‘I am your Rosalind’ came of an impulsive need to tell the truth. The clear distinction between the two sets of remarks is much easier to sustain because of the Elizabethan convention of the impenetrability of disguise: simply because the audience is willing to omit questions of whether Orlando is likely to spot who she is, she can play her dangerous game of brinkmanship with superb theatrical effect, unhindered by naturalistic probability There is scope for different interpretations, of course, of which remarks are to be spoken in which persona.

Then love me, Rosalind
Yes, faith will I, Fridays and Saturdays and all
And wilt thou have me?
Ay, and twenty such

(IV.i. 104)

The last remark is obviously by Ganymede, but what about the previous one? I have seen a Rosalind say ‘Fridays and Saturdays and all’ in the teasing voice of Ganymede, and another say it in uncontrolled surrender, on the brink of betrayal, and each was superb: there is even scope for variety if it is taken as a Ganymede remark, on whether the whole sentence is playful or whether she pulls herself up after saying ‘Yes faith will I’ as Rosalind. But although the details of application are variable, there can be no doubt that a clear-cut alternation is essential.

This alternation of personae corresponds to two contrasting attitudes to love, the lover's and the cynic's. Rosalind believes men are trustworthy and love will last. Ganymede doesn't. Ganymede's cynicism is explicit. Rosalind's trust bursts out through her loss of control. And so the retelling of those beloved stories of faithful lovers takes on a unique flavour.

Troilus had his brains dash'd out with a Grecian club, yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have liv'd many a fair year though Hero had turn'd nun; if it had not been for a hot midsummer night, for (good youth) he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with cramp, was drown'd, and the foolish chroniclers of that age, found it was Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies, men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not fer love.

(IV.i. 88)

Why is that last sentence among the most moving in all the literature of love? Because everything in the situation has shown us that Rosalind doesn't ‘really’ believe it. She is hopelessly in love herself, and her scepticism and commonsense are a kind of antibody, engendered by the passion in her veins. She is all Ganymede now, in the sense that she's not betraying herself, but I would like to see an actress say it smiling, as if that was her happiest moment.

Disguise was a standard device of Elizabethan love comedy but no one else used it with the consummate skill of Shakespeare. Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster, for instance, shows at least as good a theatrical sense as As You Like It (to which it is indebted), but with none of the same psychological exploration. In Philaster, two sympathetic women both love the same man; and we are not told that the hero's page is really the heroine in disguise until she is unmasked. This is a better recipe for suspense and excitement, but we have only to think of what would be lost from the scenes between Julia and Proteus, Rosalind and Orlando. Viola and Orsino, if we did not know who the pretty youth was, to realize the difference between true drama and theatrical competence.

Adventure is not essential to the comedy of love. Why should not the intricacies and obstacles of courtship make their own pattern? There is after all a good analogy for this, that of dancing. The couple perform elaborate movements as an expression of their ambivalent relationship, involving attraction and repulsion, delay and consummation: the most beautiful movements are often those involving most opposition, yet all their driving force comes from the impulse towards union.

We owe the love comedy based on the courtship dance to John Lyly. Almost all his plays show several pairs of lovers involved with one another through rivalry; they end happily through magic or impossible magnanimity; and they have little action, consisting largely of the recital in patterned prose of the dilemmas of love:

Unfortunate Apelles, and therefore unfortunate because Apelles! Hast thou by drawing her beauty, brought to pass that thou canst scarce draw thine own breath? And by so much the more has thou increased thy care, by how much the more thou hast shewed thy cunning: … O Campaspe, Campaspe, art must yield to nature, resaon to appetite, wisdom to affection.

The speech is three pages long, and never for one moment does art yield to nature, or the careful antitheses to the impulses of appetite. Lyly was a schoolmaster, and wrote his plays for children: to hear a trained boy picking his way through these rhetorical figures would make it clear what an elegant game they are, a delighting in verbal skill, not a rendering of experience. Few famous writers can be less congenial to the twentieth century than Lyly. Our love poetry tends rather to the coital grunt and the gasp than to these polished recitations. Are Campaspe (1584) and Endimion (1591), then, mere historical curiosities or is there some way of bringing their intricate patterns to life? For Shakespeare there was; the method of parody. Shakespeare's early comedies, and especially Love's Labour's Lost (1595) are closely related to Lyly; and so is Romeo and Juliet. In both these plays there is actual dancing, as well as the dance of words; in both there is euphuistic verbal intricacy:

‘Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous and it pricks like thorn.’
‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love,
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.’

(R. & J. I. iv. 25)

The relation of such a ‘set of wit well-played’ to Lyly is twofold: the verbal skill of the original is both bettered and rejected. To say that Shakespeare is parodying Lyly is true, if we remember that the good parodist needs the same skill as his victim—and in this case has more. The way to bring artificial verse to life is to insert reminders of the actualities of experience which it ignores: as Mercutio's bawdy wit mentions aspects of love that would hardly have been in place in the mouths of those clever schoolboys or perhaps it would be truer to say that it incorporates the jokes that the school boys made offstage. The verbal dance of Love's Labour's Lost is superb, and makes Lyly look an amateur; yet it is full of suggestions that we should not take it too seriously and at the end, in the moment of marvellous simplicity when Marcade brings the news of the Princess's father's death, all dancing ends, and any wooing that takes place now needs to be direct: ‘Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief.’ Yet Berowne has said this before, and not found it easy to carry out (‘Sans sans, I pray you’), and his honest plain words now include ‘Behold the window of my heart, mine eye’, and even a request that takes us back to courtly love, ‘Impose some service on me for my love.’

The rejection of eloquence under the power of true emotion is a recurrent theme in Shakespearean comedy: yet the artistry that is rejected is also retained, sometimes with marvellous subtlety. Romeo's calf-love for Rosaline is completely euphuistic, full of references to Cupid the marksman, and not unsuitable for Lyly's boys (perhaps the references to chastity are a little explicit, but by the time Mercutio has made fun of them they are made to seem innocence itself). Only after meeting Juliet is he capable of the directness of: ‘I shall forget, to have thee still stand there, / Remembering how I love thy company’ (II. ii. 172). Yet though Romeo learns simplicity when he falls in love, he does not lose his eloquence, and his highest poetry (like that of Viola) comes from the interplay of simplicity and wit, immediacy and formality.

Here then are some of the possible variants of the comedy of wooing. What they all have in common is the overcoming of obstacles, and what all the interesting ones have in common is the acting out of a pattern of coming together and staying apart, of emotional surrender and sceptical detachment, that corresponds to the emotional experience of preparing for sexual union.

In medieval romance, love exists outside marriage and is adulterous, with tragic consequences for the lovers, and perhaps for the society. In Shakespearean tragedy we may have the same pattern, or love may enter marriage, but only to destroy it. In Racine, unlawful love is doomed, and may destroy the lawful in the process. These are tragic patterns, and with love comedy we are in another world, but we are still never shown the successful incorporation of love into marriage. The comedy ends in a wedding: the dance concludes, and the couple live happily ever after. We do not look beyond the ritual ending to see how time will keep the promises. One of the fathers, Prospero, actually points this out: ‘So glad of this as they I cannot be, / Who are surprised with all.’ The tired sympathy of middle age has its place at the wedding too—or, in the case of The Tempest, is so prominent that even the wedding is pushed beyond the edge of the play.

The supreme refusal of the world is death; and the supreme rejection of the bond of reason and one's fellow men would clearly be the coupling of love and death, the Liebestod. Everyone knows how common it is for lovers in literature to die together. When we ask ourselves what the nature of the connexion is between love and death, several kinds of answer are possible.

There could be a narrative answer, a psychological answer and a lyrical answer. The narrative answer would tell us whether the lovers die together, or separately, and whether or not they sleep together before-hand. That in turn would imply an answer to the psychological question, do they want to die, and do they see it as a surrogate for sexual experience? The lyrical answer will enact the same conceptions at the level of local verbal effects instead of plot.

In early literature the narrative answer is almost always that they do sleep together. Death is not presented as a surrogate for sexual experience, but rather as its fitting sequel. Neither Antony nor Othello, Romeo nor Tristan, die virgin. The change comes with Racine, then with Wagner, who changed the story so that Isolde slept neither with Tristan nor with Mark. It is hard to be sure if this change makes the Liebestod more respectable or more pornographic.

Isolde's aria over the body of Tristan is the most famous Liebestod of all, though as it happens Wagner himself called it the Verklarung (transfiguration), reserving the term Liebestod (which he invented) for the Prelude, Unable at first to believe in his death, she insists that he is alive, and insists that the bystanders believe her (‘Seht ihr, Freunde. Seht ihr's nicht?’). As she continues, the sense in which Tristan is alive becomes less and less personal, and her union with him more and more a pantheistic union with the elements:

Are they waves
Of fragrance flowing?
Odours coming
Odours going?
Should I gulp them
Till I'm seated
By the swell
Should I breathe
And melt in air,
With the odours

She could be saying ‘He is made one with Nature’, but not in the measured pentameters in which Shelly mingles philosophic concepts with the sob of Nature's universal music; rather in something like a pure sobbing, a pure emotion of the surrendering of individuality. This is conveyed not only by the obvious incantatory effect of the short lines, but the synaesthesia, the bewildered loss of clarity that actually seems to take place in the self-questionings (soll ich athmen, soll ich leuschen), and the unattached words that float verbless (ertrinken—versinken—unbewusst—hochste Lust; at the end of the aria (and the opera). Both verbal and musical echoes connect this with the sexual ecstasy of Act II, which constantly plays with the idea of courting, defeating, indulging in death. Sexual love and death both involve the dissolution of personality and Wagner is showing their identity.

It is easy to see why this is the classic example of Liebestod. In every sense, death is seen as the surrogate for love—in the narrative sense, in the psychological (the lovers constantly reject day and long for night), and the linking of death and union in the imagery is reinforced by the music: indeed, the music is primary (as befits Wagner's later theoretical position on the Gesamtkunstwerk), and there is something inherently inadequate in discussing the text of Tristan and Isolde. But though inadequate it need not be misleading.

If Liebestod is like this, we shall not find before Wagner—one is tempted to say ‘before Freud,’ since the idea of the lovers wanting death instead of consummation seems to presuppose unconscious wishing; and Wagner (writing in the very year of Freud's birth) had sniffed out what he needed of psychoanalytic theory. Gottfried Tristan calls on death when his love is at its happiest: when Brangane tells him about the potion, and that it will be the death of them both, he answers: ‘Whether it be life or death, it has poisoned one most sweetly! I had no idea what the other will be like, but this death suits me well.’ Is he speaking light-heartedly, or in delighted earnestness? If the former, it is dramatic irony; if the latter, it suggests that death has a sexual meaning. These are the two traditional forms of Liebestod, and both are important. A clear example of the first is Othello's invocation of death at the high moment of love: ‘If it were now to die, / 'Twere now to be most happy.’ Dramatic irony can be easy, even crude; or it can be subtle and moving. If we are not to feel that a simple point is being made at Othello's expense, then there must be a sense in which he is asking to die, even though the wish has not entered consciousness.

The other possible interpretation of Gottfried's passage—that Tristan is punning on ‘die’—seems to be characteristically Elizabethan. The sexual meaning of ‘die’ is certainly found in Elizabethan poetry: it is frequent in Donne, and there are at least two incontrovertible examples in Shakespeare. I do not find it easy to decide whether it is used in Romeo and Juliet—what looks like the most likely instance comes from the Friar! Romeo's dying ‘Thus with a kiss I die’ would be weakened if taken as word-play, for the clash between dying and sex, visually present to us on the stage, is best rendered verbally as a clash between ‘kiss’ and ‘die’ in which each keeps its own meaning. Whether this pun was based on popular usage or purely a literary device (I suspect it was the latter, since there is no evidence for a colloquial sexual meaning) it merely implies the possibility of linking the two ideas. It does not suggest—word-play never can—what exactly the relationship is between death and orgasm.

The Wagnerian idea of death as a surrogate for sex is not explicitly present in Romeo and Juliet or Othello; but in their exploration of the complex connexions between the two they come very close to it. The lovers die together, in one case on their marriage bed, in the other in a tomb in which they lie together in a posture that could be a visual pun on the two metaphoric meanings of ‘sleeping together’. And though death has not replaced sex, it is notable that both marriages contain only a single act of intercourse, as if sex were only a symbol and once is enough: the second sexual act is the joint death. And on the lyrical level both plays, and above all Romeo and Juliet, couple death and sex in their most moving imagery:

Shall I believe
That insubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in state to be his paramour,

(V. iii. 102)

Personification is such a standard poetic device with the unoriginal, that it is striking to find it as a sign of such powerful originality. It enables Romeo to see death as a rival and thus to connect death and sex more explicitly than he could otherwise have done: and the resulting triangle, plus the physical repulsiveness of the usual representations of death, enable him to express disgust along with his love, so that the speech contains our ambivalent response to the connexion—that to die is to achieve perfect love, and that to die is a horrible substitute for love. Our knowledge that Juliet is not dead weakens the tension (her beauty is not a sign that death is supreme love, and the abhorred monster has not slept with her) but not much, since we can simply regard Romeo's point as proleptic (even the ‘first night audience’ has a shrewd suspicion that Juliet is going to die).

Shakespeare's third great play of love is different from these two, and for at least four of its five acts is not a play of Liebestod at all. The love of Antony and Cleopatra is defiantly associated with life, all the more defiantly for their being no longer young. Even in his first statement of the bliss of love and defiance of the world, when it would have been so easy to say, This is the moment to die, Antony does not: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged Empire fall: here is my space …” (I. i. 33). These are images of destruction, but of a destruction that will take place around them, leaving them unharmed. The image for their love is ‘the nobleness of life.’ They do not see themselves as dying: they ‘stand up peerless’. And so although Antony dies in Cleopatra's arms, this is not seen as a consummation:

I am dying Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses, the poor last
I lay upon thy lips.

(IV, XV, 18)

If this was really Liebestod, that would be their finest kiss, not the poor last: death, which has to be importuned, is here getting in the way of their love. The point is even clearer when Cleopatra speaks:

And welcome, welcome. Die where thou hast lived,
Quicken with kissing: had my lips that power,
Thus would I wear them out.

(IV. xv. 38)

Could any protest be more intense? Every word suggests life, and the desperation that sobs in the last sentence expresses her helplessness because death is coming. Out of this intensity comes her lament—that greatest lament in poetry—when Antony does die, introduced by a line of marvellous simplicity, the wail of a betrayed child who had trusted Antony could not do that to her: ‘Noblest of men, woo't die.’

When Cleopatra dies we have something different. Now love and death are associated, and perhaps there is no more profound lyrical expression of the Liebestod than her marvellous image: ‘The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, / Which hurts, and is desired:’ (V. ii. 295) just as there is no more perfect expression of death as a sexual swoon than ‘As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle / O Antony!’ (V. ii. 311). What has happened in the meantime is of course that Antony has died. The true Liebestod, we realize, is that of the lover who dies second. Only she (it is usually she) can really see dying in terms of joining the other.

And yet even this is not like the death of Isolde: for that, we need a new factor, that did not exist in the consciousness of 1607. We can call it pantheism, if we are clear that it is not the stiff intellectual pantheism of Spinoza and his followers, but an emotional experience that flows out of the Romantic movement. Isolde sees herself disappearing into impersonality: what she is going to do is summed up by the word verhauchen, to melt into a breath. Cleopatra's death involves no loss of identity. ‘I am again for Cyndus to meet Mark Antony’: she is setting out on a very specific experience, full of proper names:

                                                                                Methinks I hear
Antony call, I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act.

(V. ii. 283)

Such a remark is unimaginable from Wagner's Isolde. She is in a state of ecstasy, but Cleopatra is not; and this awareness of particular experience that Cleopatra retains gives even to this poetry of dying an impression of vitality. Did ever dead lovers intend to be as much alive as these two? ‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand. / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:’ (IV. xiv. 51). It is the other souls who will couch on flowers, while the lovers walk by; and their ‘sprightly port’ makes it clear they will be keeping their individuality.

In Shakespearean tragedy, then, whatever longing there is for the ecstasy of annihilation, is concealed: On the surface, death is resisted, or invoked only in irony. The post-Romantic, even the post-Freudian, world is there, but unconsciously.

Chris Fitter (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11965

SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Fitter discusses the violence in Romeo and Juliet within the context of the 1595 London riots.]

                    Famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.
The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it


“The aesthetic,” as contemporary literary theory has taught us, is “contextually mobile.”1 Construed within mutating fields of ideological sensitivity and projection, textual “meaning” lives in metamorphosis. Pressed into normative service, as Gary Taylor and Michael Bristol2 have shown, by innumerable regimes of hierarchy and sensibility, Shakespeare's plays in particular have become “products to be wrested if possible from the grip of history and inserted instead into the matrix of tradition.”3 The traditional constructions of the academy, depoliticizing and frequently unhistorical, may easily miss or domesticate the political risk and challenge decoded by earliest audiences, cued by their cultural moment to meanings circumstantially immanent. Conversely, social contexts centuries later may re-expose an old cutting edge of political suggestion, even polish it to a new and threatening sharpness. In the late 1980s, for instance, it was reported in the British press that Israeli authorities had prohibited possession of Hamlet by imprisoned Palestinians. In the crisis years of the intifada, the lofty classic of scholarly veneration, the headache of a million Western schoolboys, had begun emitting intolerable signals. To its readers now it heroized a suicidal devotion to extra-judicial assassination; and for its seditious content, Hamlet had to be proscribed.

In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the play's immediate political context has been obscured by a long tradition of appropriation of the play's meaning for an ethos of romantic “transcendence.” Yet if aesthetic meaning turns out to be ineluctably conjunctural, then the founding meaning of any work—should we seek it—of a popularly acclaimed and widely performed drama such as Romeo and Juliet must be sought with an eye not only to the long-term “structural” beliefs of the era, but to topicality.4 To read this play in the light of events in London between 1594 and 1596—the escalating inter-class youth violence, the fear of dearth between 1594 and 1597, and the sensational London riots of 1595 which the combination eventually precipitated—is to recuperate just such an originary and contingent salience, lost to posterity.

A recent and valuable essay by Jill Levenson has highlighted the importance of violence in the drama: “With its feud, street fight, dueling, casualties, and deployment of combat imagery, Romeo and Juliet offers a panoramic view … of violence in Elizabethan England.”5 Criticism of Romeo, however, has addressed only aristocratic bloodshed, which was but one term of the dialectical violence of contemporary London and of the play. At the heart of a war-torn, over-taxed, and now hunger-threatened nation, London in the mid-1590s was a congested, polarized, and angry city, in which the Crown and its officials had become hated, and the Lord Mayor made to fear for his life. This context of dearth and citizen violence, erupting in riot after riot, has never hitherto been noted in criticism of Romeo [Romeo and Juliet] criticism; and examination of the play in this light reveals an implicit populist subtext of mordant political suggestion. As the Crown and its agents turned a blind eye to aristocratic mayhem, and imposed upon the sometimes technical violence of famine-fearing lower-class Londoners punishments so severe that they triggered riots, Romeo and Juliet argued a counter-definition of the moral characters of elite and common citizenry. Shakespeare's humanitarian instincts crafted within the romance narrative a critical perspective on sated, indulgent wealth, and structurally juxtaposed the hunger, illiteracy, and toil of the poor. These relatively populist sympathies conferred on the drama—for an audience of London commoners at that particular historical juncture—many elements of a play of political protest.


The riots of June 1595 proved merely the sharpest flashpoint of violent tensions in class relations that had erupted sporadically in London from at least the 1580s, and that were notably exacerbated by food and price anxieties from 1594 through 1597. These general conditions thus existed as a resonant context of Romeo at whatever point between 1594 and 1596 the play was written. The year conventionally assigned for Romeo's composition is 1595, which seems likely since the June riots of that year may have been the particular stimulus to the play's creation. “The London riots and rebellions of 1595 constituted the most dangerous and prolonged urban uprising in England between the accession of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Long Parliament,” notes Roger Manning. “There were at least 13 insurrections, riots and unlawful assemblies that year in a dozen parts of London and Southwark, of which 12 took place between 6 and 29 June.”6 Martial law was imposed on July 4. (“For now these hot days is the mad blood stirring,” notes a fearful Benvolio at 3.1.4.)

Violent clashes in London that had “pitted apprentices against gentlemen … and against their servingmen”7 can be traced to at least June 1581, when apprentices fought the retainers of Sir Thomas Stanhope at Smithfield (toward which traditional sparring ground Gregory and Sampson appear bound at the play's beginning, as Edelman has noted.)8 When the ringleader, accused of seeking to inflame one thousand apprentices “to make a rebellion against the gentlemen,” was whipped for his offence, the apprentices rescued him from the cart on which he was being punished. Further large-scale brawls between gentlemen and apprentices are recorded for June 1584 on two successive days outside the Curtain theater, and against Lincoln's Inn in 1590. The fragmentary nature of these documents makes it impossible to know, as Ian Archer suggests, the full extent of rioting before the 1590s (p. 3). However, the number of apprentices in London doubled between 1580 and 1600, reaching at least 30,000, and the number of domestic servants was equal or greater.9 Further, the crisis-ridden condition of London's textile workers—many of whom inhabited “the Maze,” a pauper's “warren of tenements” which abutted the Southwark theater district—led to serious, class-based rioting in May 1592, and the closing of the theaters.10 The riots of June 1595 began when a silk-weaver, who had reviled to his face the government of Mayor Spencer—hated for his wealth and judicial severity—was arrested but then freed by a crowd of 200 or more persons.11 As Richard Wilson puts it, “The modernist nostalgia for Elizabethan England as a model of some classless, pre-industrial Gemeinschaft cannot withstand the picture that is emerging of London's crystallizing class consciousness in the acute social and economic crisis of the 1590s” (p. 40).

Crisis seems precisely the term. C. S. L. Davies has suggested that the conditions of plague, war, and famine produced in the 1590s “what may well have been the low point in the living standards of the mass of the European population, at any rate since the Black Death.” It is now a commonplace that following the harvests of 1594-1597, perhaps the most catastrophic in English history, those years “experienced the most sustained and severe inflation of prices in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and culminated in the lowest real wages in English history in 1597.”12 Real wages in the 1590s were on average 22 per cent lower than in the preceding decade; and, ominously, London was still “filling out at the bottom.”13 “Thousands of new apprentices, discharged mariners and soldiers, deserters, and vagrants … arrived each year [adding] to the overcrowding and confusion of the city and its burgeoning suburbs.”14 The impact of the failed harvests on a city whose population had doubled between 1580 and 1600 “more than doubled the price of wheat and carried that of barley, oats, peas and beans, the food of the poor, proportionately even higher.”15 An anonymous treatise of Edward's time had asked, “What faith and allegiance will those men observe towards their prince and governor which have their children famished at home for want of meat?”16 That popular disaffection in the 1590s reached an extraordinary pitch was perhaps inevitable. As Curtis C. Breight's recent work demonstrates, the decade saw the most extensive use of judicial torture in English history, rampant inflation, crushing taxes, and in more than a decade of war against the Spanish empire, the impressment of over 100,000 men (on a class basis). The casualties of war were such as to make “by modern analogy … Elizabethan losses during the war period about fifty times worse than American casualties in Vietnam.”17 The “permanent background of potential unrest” which characterized social relations in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, when, as Christopher Hill puts it, “a naked basis of force underlay social relations,”18 erupted into “an epidemic of disorder”—35 riots and unlawful assemblies—in the last two decades of the century.

Famine seems eventually to have penetrated to the poorer pockets of London, for as Andrew Appleby records, 1597 saw an exceptional number of recorded burials across seven inner-city parishes (pp. 138-40). But it was the fear of hunger, triggered by soaring prices, that typically provoked popular demonstration.19 “The dearth which doth now raigne in many parts of this land … maketh the poore to pinch for hunger, and the children to cry in the street, not knowing where to have bread. And if the Lord do not stay his hand, the dearth may be yet much more,” wrote the Oxford preacher (and later Archbishop) George Abbot in 1595.20 Such fears seem to have set in as early as November 1593, when Lord Cobham referred to “the present dearth of corn.” By January 1594 the Aldermen of London had ordered a letter to Burghley requesting a ban on grain exports. Even before the first disastrous harvest failure, it was reported in London (in July 1594) that “the poorer sorte … are cheefely pinched with the dearthe,”21 and a committee to consider corn imports was established in the capital. M. J. Power develops the picture: a letter from the Lord Mayor to Burghley of September 1595 declared the city's wheat store to be already exhausted; in October he requested that any corn ships taken on the high seas be dispatched to London. November saw London commandeering food from other counties; and through 1594-1595 various sites were sought in the city for the storage of any incoming grain (pp. 372-74). The Stationer's Register lists a work entitled The poor man's Complaint on November 5, 1595, and Sundrye newe and artificiall Remedies against famyne … upon the occasion of this present Dearthe in the following August. It was in this climate of anxiety that Romeo and Juliet, with its food motif and its scenic juxtaposition of hunger with careless patrician feasting, seems to have been composed and performed. It was these conditions, too, that produced what Ian Archer notes to have been the first food riots in London since the 1520s (p. 6).

On June 12, 1595, in response to the soaring of food prices in London, a group of apprentices at Billingsgate had compelled the sale of fish at the price established by the Lord Mayor. The following day, in Southwark, another group of apprentices forced the sale of butter at 3d a pound rather than the 5d that the butterwomen were asking. They also issued a proclamation (simply endorsing the law of England) that butter be brought for sale to the market, not sold in inns or private houses.22 When officials attempted to make arrests, an indignant crowd sought to prevent the taking of prisoners. On June 15, they went on to attack the Counter prison, and rescue prisoners on their way there. An inquest by the Lord Mayor established that there had been at the “butter riot” “nothing ells but a great concourse & presse of people for buying of butter & other victuals without any force or other disorder.”23 Nevertheless, the Privy Council, acting through the Court of Star Chamber, overrode the judgment of the Mayor and enforced exemplary punishment—of apparently innocent men—so that on June 27, the “butter rioters” were whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned.

Such harsh punishment generated popular outrage. It stood in severe contrast to conditions in the countryside, where magistrates were normally lenient toward food rioters who confined themselves to traditional rituals of price regulation. For the term “riot” here is a graphic misnomer: these actions were something very different from our concept of riot today. The medieval ideal of the commonwealth traditionally maintained the doctrine of a “fair price” and of fair market practices, to be observed by millers, bakers and others, and insured by the authorities. When in times of dearth magistrates proved lax in enforcing market regulation, “food riots” developed which were but the orderly and semi-official initiatives of “disciplined crowds operating according to values which were shared to some extent by the elite in actions designed to remind the magistrates of their duties.”24 Since in the imposition of traditional prices the crowds merely exercised the office of the clerk of the market, we do better to term such activity (as does E. P. Thompson) “taxation populaire.” We must “appreciate that riot was a negotiating strategy,” insists Archer, designed to prod negligent officials—who might well be turning handsome personal profits from the escalation of prices—into tightening up market regulations. In this, the June 1595 food riots were successful. Moreover, such action was ritualized, to reassure the authorities that no political rebellion was intended.25 This was precisely the kind of assessment affirmed in Mayor Spencer's report.

Despite the clarity of such Tudor semiotics of class friction, and despite the element of traditional moral legitimacy to such “taxation,” the Crown, as we have seen, imposed flogging and imprisonment on the butter rioters. The consequence was a protest in which a crowd of 1,800 people gathered in Leadenhall and Cheapside, tore down pillories, attempted to break into the Counter and release prisoners, and finally proceeded to the Lord Mayor's home, where they erected a scaffold outside his door and dared him to come out.26

The period 1581-1602 saw more riots in protest of perceived injustice in sentencing than food riots: fourteen of the former as against twelve of the latter.27 Anti-injustice riots could arise when a double standard in punishment of violence occasioned in an affray was handed down. In 1591, following a skirmish between felt-makers and the Knight Marshall's men, as Manning recounts, a Crown officer accused of manslaughter was released on bail, while a felt-maker was for the same crime hanged (pp. 207-08): a sixteenth-century analogy, perhaps, to the protest riots in Los Angeles over the Rodney King verdict. Or they might be sparked as protests against “the harshness and partiality of justice” (p. 219) frequently commanded of the Mayor and Court of Aldermen by the Queen and Privy Council, whose interventions included on occasion orders for the torture of prisoners under interrogation. In consequence, “Examinations of prisoners in the Marshalsea revealed that they talked freely of rebellion and killing the Queen” (pp. 201, 208).

Friction between Londoners and Crown officials, Manning adds (p. 207), therefore continued through June 1595, to culminate one Sunday afternoon in the astonishing Apprentice's Insurrection of June 29. A thousand people, including husbandmen, vagrants, “apprentices” (a term used vaguely by contemporaries to denote the youthful lower classes generally), discharged soldiers, silk-weavers, shoemakers, and girdlers gathered at Tower Hill, armed, according to the authorities, with pikes and bills, clubs, swords and daggers (p. 210). They brandished much the same assortment of weapons as in the opening brawl of Romeo and Juliet. The assembly and cohesiveness of so variegated a group, flourishing a banner defiantly, embodied a kind of elementary class-consciousness: one sustained, when the watch attempted to disperse them, by a former soldier sounding a trumpet to rally their forces, so that they were able to drive back the watch into Tower Street.28 At this point the line had been crossed between riot and rebellion, whose “governing rules were quite different.” The symbolism of carrying flag and trumpet were, as Buchanan Sharp notes, “acts associated since the late middle ages with the levying of war” (pp. 285-86). In Archer's assessment, however, the scale of disorder was scarcely such as to produce a “generalised social crisis in which all men of property feared for their lives” (p. 7). Revolution was not in the offing. The Lieutenant of the Tower, for instance, actually hindered the efforts of the Mayor's officers in making arrests, in order to score points in his long-running jurisdictional squabbles with the City. Nonetheless these actions led the Crown, deeply fearful of the alliance of apprentices and soldiery, to the exceptional step of hanging, drawing, and quartering five apprentices, and establishing martial law.

Given the limited threat to authority even of the Tower riot, and the firm, if not draconian order established by the Provosts-Marshalls, whom even constables soon came to disobey,29 and given, too, the continuing price rise and fear of dearth in London, a sense of the many moral ambiguities of the entire month's events was presumably strong in the minds of most citizens. If the popular protest had grown out of hand, it had been innocuous enough initially, and had moreover been moved to rebellious violence by the harsh and anti-traditional responses of the Crown. Among the poor and “the middling sort,” at least, opinion in London must have been urgent and divided. It is to precisely such conditions of fertile ambivalence that Shakespearean drama so often is drawn.

The lower-class violence of 1595 had begun with essentially public concerns: with peaceful attempts at popular market regulation, and with mass protests against the ensuing harsh punishments and interrogation by torture. Aristocratic violence in London, however, was of a very different nature, for it was characteristically a matter of endemic gang-feuding among the titled. As Lawrence Stone has written, “In London itself the fields about the city and even the main arterial roads were continual scenes of upper-class violence. Bloody brawls and even pitched battles occurred in Fleet Street and the Strand, and little protection could be offered by the authorities until hours or days after the affair was over.”30 “The behavior of the propertied classes, like that of the poor, was characterized by the ferocity, childishness and lack of self-control of the Homeric age,” he notes; while the language of “men of high social standing is often so intemperate as to be almost deranged” (p. 108). Aristocratic retainers became little better than thugs, “armed bullies ready to serve their master's turn against his enemies, whether the poor and defenseless” or “a rival magnate,” and were “ready to beat up or even occasionally to kill at a word from their master” (pp. 98, 109). The savagery of the so-called nobility acknowledged no rules. On getting his enemy Thomas Hutchinson to the ground, Sir Germaine Poole, for example, bit off “a good bit of his nose and carried it away in his pocket” (pp. 108-09). To the running brawls of the aristocracy Elizabeth turned a blind eye. Indeed, her occasional protective intervention in the trials of peers arraigned for killing in street fights permitted great courtiers such as the Earl of Oxford and Sir Thomas Knyvett to commit in their feuding “murder after murder with complete impunity” (pp. 112-13).

In so tolerant a climate, it is no surprise that the nobility raised the stakes in civil violence to a new level of deadliness, when in the 1580s they introduced use of the rapier. Previously fighting had been conducted, as Edelman notes, with the heavy standard slashing sword, weighing at least three or four pounds, and a buckler or small shield (pp. 25-26, 35). “These weapons,” comments Stone, “allowed the maximum muscular effort and the most spectacular show of violence with the minimum threat to life or limb. Fighting with them was not much more dangerous than all-in wrestling” (p. 118). The rapier, however, could run a man through the body as fast as lightning. Combined with the code of honor (punctilio) establishing the rules of obligations to challenge even trivial slights, it introduced the duel to England with the inevitable high death toll. Beyond limiting rapier length to “one yarde and halfe a quarter of the blade at the uttermost,”31 Elizabeth I took no further measures against swordfighting. Dueling consequently increased during the 1590s, as Levenson notes (pp. 85-86). England thus became, according to a contemporary, a country “wherein a poor man was hanged for stealing food for his necessities and a luxurious courtier … could be pardoned after killing the second or third man.”32


Romeo and Juliet is permeated by such turbulence, class antagonism and passionately contested injustice. Although its political overtones constitute significant dimensions of the drama, summoning powerful cultural reflexes to its allocations of sympathy and antipathy, I am not, of course, denying that the play's central concern is the romance of the young lovers. (By 1598, I suspect, many of the conjunctural overtones of “protest” here would have disappeared, along with the dearth). Nor do I suggest Romeo to be an essentially negative figure. However, Shakespeare's genius for moral complication and abrupt reversals of sympathy or expectation does take on a political dimension in the characterization of Romeo, Capulet, Mercutio and the Prince.

Although the narrative line dramatizes topical popular angers and anxieties that may be relatively straightforward, the play's vision grows more complex through the closeness with which political concerns are woven into the central ambiguities of the exquisite yet lawless romance. In the behavior of Romeo, for instance, Shakespeare establishes resonant contemporary vignettes of both sneering, well-fed patrician and reckless rebellious hero. Associating love with an imagery of violence,33 the play plunges the feelings of its hero and heroine into amorous riot, “violent delights [that] have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume” (2.6.9-11). The essential narrative pits passionate youthful rebellion against unfeeling authority: (“Romeo … Deny thy father and refuse thy name”; “Call me but love and I'll be new baptis'd” (2.2.34, 50). Romeo himself twins eros and riot—“O, brawling love, O loving hate / … Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms” (1.1.174, 177)—and Juliet would have him safely fettered to her “Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves” (2.2.179). Capulet threatens his daughter, should she refuse to go to Saint Peter's Church to marry Paris, that he will “drag thee on a hurdle thither” (3.5.155), the frame on which condemned traitors were dragged to their execution. A few lines later, he curses her with resonant contemporary terms, “Hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets!” (1.192). Romeo and Juliet's love, then, is defiant of authority, figuratively linked with violence, and associated with outcast and criminal status. Like the political riots in the minds of their participants, it transgresses a traditional order in the name of a higher principle. Like the impassioned popular initiatives of moral redress that the authorities called riots, its course of action offers, through a temporary and problematic disruption, the potential of a lasting harmony when all is clearly understood—and in this the play shows it to be successful (“O brother Montague, give me thy hand,” 5.3.295). It is tempting to speculate that Shakespeare, constrained by censorship, has displaced the urgent ethical paradoxes of the riots—the rebellion yet “higher” justification—onto a framework of romance, where political morality can be subject to debate and problematization on the wide public stage.34

Less speculatively, the play is manifestly concerned to address street-violence directly, too, hurling it repeatedly across center stage from the opening cross-class mêlée to a pointedly blood-drenched finale. Just as Elizabeth had notoriously authorized torture as a response to the riots, Shakespeare's Prince Escalus confronts “Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace” with threatened “pain of torture” (1.1.79, 84). In the heated contemporary context, however, such draconian monarchical measures had been directed exclusively against lower-class violence, so that Shakespeare's treatment of violence and punishment assumes the aspect of a populist counter-indictment. Romeo and Juliet lays the blame for “mutiny” and civil bloodshed, even by the lower classes, at the door of the urban nobility, and contrasts a citizen activism of laudable responsibility, rebuking specifically the catastrophic effects of a royal double standard in punishment of bloody disorders.

Shakespeare took his primary characters and events from the 1562 translation from the Italian by Arthur Brooke and evidently knew Brooke's narrative well. In foregrounding peer-led mayhem, however, Shakespeare departed from Brooke, and restructured the entire story with symmetrical clarity through reiterating scenes of aristocratic fighting in public spaces. The opening, closing, and central scenes (the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio) feature patricians incorrigibly bent upon violence, and each involves the active intervention of regal authority itself, in the gathering of an entire community disturbed by “new mutiny,” as “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (Prol. 3-4). Brooke's version had featured no opening brawl, giving merely a general statement of bloody feuding. Nor had Brooke introduced a belligerent Mercutio intent upon fighting Tybalt, a departure producing two fights in mid-play. Shakespeare likewise invented a closing duel with Paris, for a subsequent finale of slaughter.

There is thus far more to the play's portrayal of violence than that generalized, “patriarchal” definition of masculinity through violence of which critics have written:35 in a context of class-generated violence, of officially allocated class culpability, and of differential class punishment, the play unsurprisingly dramatizes class-differentiation in the character of violence. The accusatory language of Prince Escalus is appropriately dynastic: the “head, spring and true descent” of such “outrage” (5.3.216-17) is to be traced, the play suggests, to the upper classes. “Now by the stock and honour of my kin,” explains Tybalt, in an obligingly pointed couplet, “To strike him dead I hold it not a sin” (1.5.57-58).

The opening riot, with its “neighbour-stained steel” (1.1.80), manifestly underscores the proclivity to violence of the ruling households of Capulet and Montague. Sampson and Gregory are no free-booting scrappers but enthusiastic agents of their masters' wills. Entering dressed in servants' livery, they subserve a traditional feud: “The quarrel is between our masters and us their men” (1.1.19). Sampson's excited brag—“I will show myself a tyrant” (1.1.20)—suggests a glamorized brutalism mediated from the ruling class model: cutting off heads bespeaks seigneurial verve. The opening jokes and display of lower-class snobbery—“We'll not carry coals.” “No, for then we should be colliers” (1.1.1-2)—embodies the sparring superciliousness of retainers of the great, reiterated later in Peter's battle of wits with the musicians (4.5.112-13), and presented elsewhere in the comic snideness of Malvolio and the murderous arrogance of Oswald. Capulet and Montague themselves leave no doubt as to the font of reckless belligerence, when they rush onstage with eager calls for their weaponry.

Shakespeare maximizes the scale and disorder of the fracas, specifying a “washing blow” (1.1.60), stipulating an array of weaponry (swords and bucklers, long sword, rapier, clubs, bills, and partisans), and bringing on a stream of further combatants as more retainers apparently arrive, along with citizens attempting to part them (see line 112). Further, he appears to allocate the most formidable and most implacable violence not to the retainers but to their masters, in the graphic person of “the fiery Tybalt.” “Peace? I hate the word, / As I do hell, all Montagues, and thee” (1.1.67-68). Positioning Tybalt carefully at the center of this mêlée, Shakespeare's treatment of him is notable in three respects. First, it was a conscious departure from Brooke to bring Tybalt onstage so early in the action. Second, Shakespeare's specification that Gregory and Sampson were armed with sword and buckler will here find its point: for Tybalt, as an aristocrat or gentleman, bears a rapier, and probably a dagger. The contrast between the jocular and hesitant retainers with their largely nominal weaponry, old-fashioned and clumsy, and the unappeasable patrician who closes upon Benvolio with lethal rapier, serves not just to escalate the violence but to highlight the greater threat to life posed by the city's most privileged youth. Third, Tybalt “swung about his head and cut the winds” (1.1.109). These blows, as Edelman and others have noted, identify Tybalt as fighting in the Spanish style, with its stylized cuts from the shoulder, elbow and wrist (p. 176). Mercutio's later comments, on Tybalt as fencing “as you sing prick-song” and fighting “by the book of arithmetic” (2.4.20; 3.1.103), confirm the identification. Tybalt's erect back and skipping feet contrast sharply with the Italian crouch of Benvolio, favored by the English. The identification of fighting styles would not have been lost on an audience accustomed to displays of fine swordplay traditionally staged at theaters, both as competitive fencing for prizes and as part of a play's action. Although this contrast in fencing styles appears not to have been politicized by Edelman or others, we need only recall that in 1595 England was awash with rumors of a second Spanish Armada (finally launched but shipwrecked in October 1596) to recognize that to “Spanish” Tybalt is to demonize him—and through him the upper-class violence of which he is the most virulent representative.

Romeo is not exempted from this perspective. We are reminded of his class's propensity, not only by his actions but by his language—“My man's as true as steel” (2.4.194)—and by Juliet's: “Romeo that did spit his body / Upon a rapier point” (4.3.56-57). The killing of Paris, a final outrage introduced by Shakespeare, is particularly bloody, as we may deduce from the triple references it evokes. “What blood is this which stains / The stony entrance of this sepulchre?” asks the Friar. He then speaks of “masterless and gory swords / [That] lie discolour'd.” Entering shortly afterwards, the Watchman notes that “The ground is bloody” (5.3.140-44, 171). The special bloodiness of this “foul murder” (5.3.196) may thus well have warranted use of the contemporary “special effect”36 of concealing a vinegar-soaked or blood-filled bladder under an actor's armpit, to burst and saturate him at the right moment as if skewered.

Moreover, as Alan Dessen has noted, “the contrast between the two lovers of Juliet, one with flowers and sweet water, the other ‘savage-wild’ with mattock and crow of iron, could hardly be more striking.” That contrast would have been further heightened if, as Dessen speculates, the “tomb” into which Romeo forces his way was imaginary, rather than a verisimilar onstage structure. “If Romeo uses verisimilar tools to pantomime an opening of an imagined tomb,” then the action would be emblematic, Dessen perceives. It could become a “highly disturbing” image, of violation and frenzy of smashing one's way inside the jaws of death, “the savage-wild lover using a mattock and a crow of iron to rip open whatever separates him from his beloved.” These may even have been the weapons used to kill Paris.37

The sustained and prominent rebuke of patrician violence structuring the play further includes that excoriation of punctilio as an unworkable code noted by Levenson (pp. 86-88, 92, 94). Ungoverned by the providential agency its proponents posited, its death-toll is catastrophic. As Dessen points out, Q1 makes it clear that even Benvolio dies: “the wiping out of the younger generation is complete.”38 Finally, whereas the rhetoric of Elizabethan authority was demonizing indolent apprentices as the source of affrays, and Brooke had presented but a single pugnacious nobleman (in Tybalt), Shakespeare is at pains to reiterate an ominous scene of idling patrician youths disposed to customary enlivenments of violence.39 Establishing Mercutio as another roving, insatiable belligerent youth (in Brooke he is merely a once-glimpsed, sedentary philanderer at home among “bashfull maydes”), and surrounding both Mercutio and Tybalt with a constant band of unnamed followers,40 Shakespeare presents Verona's “rebellious subjects, enemies to peace” (1.1.79) as the warring gangs of the aimless rich. The irony in a 1595 context would be particularly relished. In response to the June riots Lord Burghley had issued an order urging that the City's masters—conceived, of course, as naturally peaceable—should restrain their apprentices: conceived, as usual, as the debased and natural source of public disorder.41Romeo and Juliet is an extended and graphic refutation of this conveniently one-sided and ideological myth of the genesis of contemporary violence.

The double standard in official punishment of violence, which was triggering anti-injustice riots in 1595, is also hinted within the play. The most obvious instance is the Prince's direct self-castigation for his disastrous Elizabeth-like lenience toward peer rioting. “I, for winking at your discords too, / Have lost a brace of kinsmen” (5.3.293-94). More subtly, the play closes with a threat of underclass punishments to follow: “Some shall be pardon'd, some shall be punished” (5.3.307), concludes the Prince—although just a minute earlier (or less) he had publically declared “All are punish'd” (5.3.294). The contradiction was unlikely to be lost on an audience inescapably aware of the recent food riots and their dramatic aftermath. The Friar, clearly terrified and cringing in his speech, is pardoned. However, Romeo's treacherous incrimination of the Apothecary whom he had bullied into breaking the law—a transaction Romeo had carefully noted down in an explanatory letter and left for discovery upon his person—suggests a grim fate ahead for that desperate victim of patrician hectoring should he prove identifiable. The threatening indeterminacy of the Prince's words that end the play, specifying retribution ahead, though not for whom, nor of what severity, must have recalled to the memories of many in the audience just that state of fearful anticipation of the authorities' reprisals against rioters, familiar from the summer. Brooke, by contrast, had cheerfully and approvingly related the execution of the apothecary: “Thapothecary, high is hanged by the throte, / And for the paynes he tooke with him [torture?], the hangman had his cote” (ll.2993-94). Shakespeare's play, in sharp contrast to Brooke (and to Zeffirelli's influential modern film version), thus closes on a note of suspense: its post-crisis settlement juxtaposes freshly formed beau monde solidarity with overtones of authoritarian menace for members of the serving classes: the apothecary, the nurse, her “man,” and perhaps Romeo's “man,” who had fetched the “cords” by which Romeo reascended to Juliet in “the secret night” (2.4.185).

We should note, finally, the role of Shakespeare's citizenry. Having cast the armigerous class as the essential source of riot, and shown the disastrous lenity accorded their incorrigible violence in contrast to the menace of reprisals hanging over the heads of underclass protagonists, Shakespeare represents the citizenry as a kind of anti-mob: a collective body (the citizens are unnamed) whose spontaneous activism is prompt and responsible. Here again he differs from Brooke, whose narrative pits the feuding families directly against the Prince's troops—“The townes men waxen strong, the prince doth send his force” (l.1039)—and contains no concept of citizen intervention. On the contrary, in Brooke's account of the fray between Tybalt and Romeo, townspeople simply choose sides with the warring families (ll.983-84). Shakespeare chooses to introduce concerned citizens making arrests: “Up, sir, go with me. / I charge thee in the Prince's name obey” (3.1.141-42). His patrician brawlers are nervously aware that the citizens will do so: “Romeo, away, be gone, / The citizens are up” (3.1.134-35). Shakespeare introduces, too, a considerable depth of anger felt by the citizens toward privileged hooligans and their lineage: “Strike! Beat them down! Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” (1.1.70-72). In the context of official criminalization of, and reprisals against, London citizens for their recent collective actions in spontaneous price regulation, it seems hard to resist the implication that Shakespeare is through this aspect of the drama crafting, once again, an implied and populist counter-definition of the role of the actors in the dusty mêlées of that desperate London summer. Having shown a society violent from the top down, its ruling class fixated on feuding, its endemic brawls glamorizing brutality, its fashionable new weapon disastrously lethal, its sovereign injudiciously lax, Shakespeare presents citizens whose concerted initiative—uncommended by their Prince—serves the good of the commonweal.


“Where shall we dine?” inquires Romeo casually, in the year of a second disastrous harvest and London food riots. Some acts later he goads the starving Apothecary from precisely that vantage of confident, well-fed privilege. “Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness, / And fears't to die?” he sneers. “Famine is in thy cheeks, / Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes, / Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back” (1.1.171; 5.1.68-71). Shakespeare's drama consistently places its gangs of disruptive idlers in contexts of abundant consumption, set against a backdrop of citizen dearth and toil. As such, Romeo and Juliet's elements of political protest include not only a counter-indictment of aristocratic lawlessness, but the structural presentation of the ground of popular discontent in extreme economic inequity and unsympathetic class relations.

To appreciate the force of the play's opposition of feasting and hunger, and to preempt the charge from modern literary critics of projecting nineteenth- and twentieth-century social-democratic sentiments back upon an age politically alien, we need to recall that the contemporary social teachings of both church and state enjoined a practical mutual Christian solicitude, insisting that wealth was possessed in public stewardship.42 Although “a consideration which secular-minded twentieth century historians are apt to downplay,” the paternalistic medieval ideal of the Commonwealth, with its charitable redistributivist ethos, “was no empty rhetoric,” since as Archer points out, “it provided a set of values to which the disadvantaged could appeal, and because it shaped popular expectations of their rulers” (pp. 57, 54). The speeches of London's aldermen were “suffused in a commonwealth rhetoric”; London civic rituals, such as the Lord Mayor's processions, honored commonwealth ideals of mutual concern and service in placing freshly clothed paupers at the front of processions. The clergy reminded the rich in general that their wealth obliged them to “an active duty to care for the poor, in giving alms … and in showing forbearance to poor debtors” (pp. 52-57). The sharers in Shakespeare's company were likewise obliged by custom, Gurr records, to show “good-neighbourliness” through payments to the poor (p. 69). In times of dearth, while the poor were commanded to patience, the rich were exhorted not only to acts of charity, but to moderation of their feasting. Lord Burghley, described by a contemporary as the “very Cato of the commonwealth,”43 was only acting within this centuries-old tradition when in 1596 he issued through the Privy Council an order for the Restraint of Eating. Power records that a letter of August 8 to the Lord Mayor and aldermen complained of “the custome of greater fare and excessive dyet” in London, and commanded the citizens “to use a more moderate and spare diet, to leave great feastinges and superfluous fare and to be contented with fewer dishes, converting the rest to the releif of the poore” (p. 376). The Lord Mayor accordingly ordered citizens to forego two suppers per week, and to donate what was saved to the poor. The Privy Council order, exhorting “a better abstinence used than hath bin,” was repeatedly reiterated that year and the next, by the Council and by the Queen herself, while the Archbishops of York and Canterbury likewise instructed the clergy to urge the rich again to moderate their consumption, and increase their charity to the poor.44

These hallowed traditional teachings became urgent public standards at the forefront of popular consciousness as the continuing food and price crisis inevitably escalated class antagonisms. The Elizabethan elite, as Archer notes, were highly sensitive to “criticism for harsh treatment of the disadvantaged” (p. 55), while the Elizabethan underclasses produced libels such as this one, circulating in London in 1595: “For seven years space they [the rich] have fed on our flesh, on our wives and children … ; oh, who is the better for all the dearth? The rich.”45 The original audiences of Romeo and Juliet, wealthy and poor alike, must consequently have been highly sensitized to portrayal of the class relations of wealth.

Capulet is a primary focus here. Shakespeare conferred on Juliet's father intriguingly anti-populist overtones: “Hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets!” (3.5.192). As a rich and prominent member of the urban elite, he must have suggested to many in the audience a profile of the London rich in general. Since he is also extravagant, authoritarian and self-absorbed, is it possible that the figure of Capulet suggests London's leadership, the complacent and unpopular aldermen? That in the alienated paternalism of the domestic father is analogized the city father? Aldermen were “invariably the wealthiest members of city society” according to Archer (p. 51); and the traditional precepts on curbing lavish feasting, particularly when freshly urged by clergy and Council, were, as Power reflects, “doubtless unpopular with the aldermen” (p. 385), and presumably often ignored. The aldermen, moreover, were tending to neglect market regulation in the 1590s: Archer notes they were “more ready to discipline marginal groups like fishwives and other hucksters than they were to restrain the wholesaling interests at which much popular anger was directed” (p. 55). During the crisis years of 1594-1597, Power reports, the Court of Aldermen actually levied fewer fines against bakers for producing underweight wheaten loaves; failed to insure city-wide poor relief, leaving this to parish officers; and had in their “complacency” to be “galvanized” by the Parliament of 1597 to assume such a role (pp. 374-78). They instead expended most of their energy during the crisis years demonizing the underclasses as the source of disorder, to the point of introducing in February 1596 street cages in which the disorderly were incarcerated (pp. 374-80)—a circumstance which again lends particular ideological irony to the presentation of those figures of urban nobility, Capulet and Montague, as themselves heading households of belligerent public disruption.46

Although foodstuff prices soar in London, Capulets and Montagues and their rank inhabit a virtual Land of Cockayne. “Sirrah,” Capulet orders a serving man, “go hire me twenty cunning cooks” (4.2.2): his only worry, it seems, is for a suitably vast and superior cuisine. Capulet's household is persistently identified with the tantalizing condition of food awaiting. “Madam,” cries a servant to Lady Capulet, “The guests are come, supper served up, you called” (1.4.100). Capulet's two feasts punctuate the action. At the first, where Romeo and Juliet meet, Capulet begs the disguised departing Montagues, with gloating false modesty, “Nay, gentlemen, prepare not to be gone, / We have a trifling foolish banquet towards” (1.5.120-21). This trifling banquet opens appetizingly with a stage direction for servingmen to “come forth with napkins”; and conspicuously involves reference (1.5.6) to a “court cupboard” (used for public display of wine, fruit, and silver plate), that is possibly presented onstage (we hear of the command for its removal with the plate). Busy servingmen enter shouldering baskets of food: “Things for the cook, sir, but I know not what” explains one of them at 4.5.13. The household menials share surreptitiously the patrician plenty: “Save me a piece of marchpane” begs one of another (1.5.8). The second feast, to celebrate the wedding of Juliet and Paris, causes Lady Capulet only one worry: “We shall be short in our provision, / 'Tis now near night” (4.2.38-39). The following morning, nonetheless, presents an imminent embarras de richesse.

Hold, take these keys and fetch more spices, Nurse.
They call for dates and quinces in the pastry …
Look to the bak'd meats, good Angelica:
Spare not for cost.

(4.4.1-2, 5-6)

The food predictably catches the attention of the musicians, mocked for their low income (“musicians have no gold for sounding”) by Peter: “Hang him, Jack. Come, we'll in here, tarry for the mourners, and stay dinner” (4.5.136, 140-41).

The Capulet household enjoys no monopoly, however, of the theme of well-fed revels. Romeo's insouciant “Where shall we dine?” (1.1.171) is echoed by Mercutio's “Romeo, will you to your father's? We'll to dinner thither” (1.4.139). Jarringly unappreciative of his privilege, Romeo expresses his lovesickness for Rosaline by declaring himself “Shut up in prison, kept without my food, / Whipp'd and tormented (1.2.55-56). These are the same conditions that befell the butter rioters: motivated by hunger, then imprisoned after the “torments” of whipping and the pillory. It is at just this moment, as if social perspectives were called for, that Romeo is interrupted by an illiterate member of the lower classes. “God gi' good e'en; I pray, sir, can you read?” (1.2.57). “Ay, mine own fortune in my misery,” responds Romeo, unbudged from self-pity. Such contrasts haunt the play; and they probably helped target Romeo for some audience derision or antipathy, as reflected in the thematic “effeminating” of Romeo remarked by many critics.47 “Like a mishaved and a sullen wench / Thou pouts,” the Friar comments (3.3.142-43). Romeo, perhaps infuriatingly, is associated with feasting. “I have been feasting with mine enemy,” he relates to the Friar. Conversely, approaching Juliet's tomb, he threatens Balthasar, should he follow, that “I will tear thee joint by joint, / And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.” The tomb is a “detestable maw,” “gorg'd with the dearest morsel of the earth” (5.3.35-36, 45-46). Breaking into its “jaws,” he declares, “I'll cram thee with more food.” Juliet's body, he feels, makes the vault “a feasting presence” (1.3.45; 5.3.48, 86). Shakespeare, it seems, will not leave the theme of food alone. (In fact he will return to it, in the context of food riots once again, in Coriolanus, in whose background, as critics have noted, is the Midlands Rising of 1607.)48 In the light of such imagery, Juliet seems to function as a further, if “sublime,” appetite of the self-indulging Romeo: “dearest morsel” (5.3.46) of a leading scion of the banqueting class. Certainly, it is in the context of a recurrent concern with food and hunger that Romeo's climactic encounter with the famine-haunted Apothecary takes place.

The contrast with Brooke's treatment of this incident, so charged in Shakespeare's version, is again instructive. Both narratives explain the Apothecary's motivation in breaking the law to be the bite of poverty. “For nedy lacke is lyke the poore to compell / To sell that which the cities law forbiddeth him to sell” notes Brooke laconically (ll. 2573-74). Brooke's Romeo, however, does not indulge in pauper-bullying, but simply asks for poison. His Romeo has no recourse to taunting, for Brooke presents the Apothecary as eager to break the law, immediately “inflamed” by the sight of “glittring gold.” “The wretch by covetise [not, we note, by reluctant desperation] is wonne” (ll. 2576, 2581), glosses the censorious (and self-contradictory) Brooke. His Apothecary becomes a somewhat sinister figure, prompt to sell poison, who whispers conspiratorially in Romeo's ear (l.2584). He appears to believe the “poyson stronge” is for murder, since Romeo gives no hint of suicide as the intention. By contrast, Shakespeare's Apothecary had been asked for a dram that would kill “the life-weary taker” (5.1.62). Moreover, he initially resists the illegal request; and even as he caves in before Romeo's persuasions, he registers his moral disapproval of the transaction: “My poverty, but not my will consents” (5.1.75).

Although Shakespeare's Apothecary becomes a figure for whom any audience, especially famine-fearing commoners in 1595, may feel sympathy,49 Shakespeare's Romeo becomes more problematic. Defined in terms of haughty class superiority even as he seeks the means of final self-sacrifice to love, Romeo—whose loudness of voice surprises the Apothecary (5.1.57)—commands his lowly instrument with peremptory authority: “Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor.” Twenty lines of preceding meditation (5.1.35-55) on the Apothecary's penury—“Sharp misery had worn him to the bones”—have evoked in Romeo not pity, but merely a sense of the man's fitness as a tool in shady dealings, an assessment tinged by contempt. “Beggar” (l.56), “beggarly account” (l.45), and “caitiff wretch” (l.52) convey the tone of indiscriminate class condescension somewhat similarly to the way that the Elizabethan authorities classified a range of lower-class ranks and occupations with the vague and disparaging term “apprentice.”50 The callous instrumentality here may even carry echoes of those contemporary libels circulating in London that accused aldermen and magistrates of turning the commons' hunger to personal interest through forming pactes de famine.51 Certainly, the conclusion of their business touches one more time the nerve of contemporary anxiety: “Farewell, buy food, and get thyself in flesh,” bids a sardonic Romeo (l.84).

Nothing in the drama, however, has prepared us for the breathtaking radicalism of Romeo's well-chosen line of persuasion:

The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.”


In simple monosyllables, with patronizing plainness, Romeo spells out, as though to a child, the brutal catechism of class-consciousness. Perhaps nowhere else in the Shakespearean canon is there a more candid instance of ideological subversion. The very essence of the spirit behind the London riots, and behind dozens of others across England in the two closing decades of the sixteenth century, seems summed up here: the nation's laws are inimical to the interests of the poor, and quietism only leaves the poor clamped in their hopeless condition. The case seems yet sharper coming from one for whom the Prince himself recently “hath rush'd aside the law,” as Friar Lawrence remarked (3.3.26). Having digested this recognition that his class privilege extends to the law itself, Romeo turns it witheringly upon the apothecary. Moreover, Romeo's demystification of law as repressive social control is diagrammed to incite immediate lawbreaking. In the political context of the riots and their aftermath, it is remarkable that Shakespeare dared to do this, and even more remarkable that he got away with it.

Perhaps one factor in his success here was the strategic impact of the gloss that he cunningly allocates Romeo as soon as the Apothecary has capitulated: “There is thy gold—worse poison to mens' souls, / Doing more murder in this loathsome world / Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell. / I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none” (5.1.80-84). These sentiments would prove immediately reassuring to authority and its censors, for in disparaging wealth as injurious to its possessor, they paradoxically articulated an article of dominant ideology, and thus closed the scene on the safe note of orthodoxy. The dispraise of riches and privilege as a burden unappreciated by the vulgar was a favorite courtly trope in the sixteenth century, enunciated in Castiglione for instance, and reiterated in Elyot's Book of the Governor.52 Shakespeare similarly presents the transfiguration of wealth into oppression elsewhere: in Henry V's self-pitying dismissiveness of “the intertissued robe of gold and pearl” and “thrice-gorgeous ceremony,” for instance, which disallows him the contented sleep of the peasant, and in Richard II's readiness to exchange riches for simplicity (“I'll give my jewels for a set of beads; / My gorgeous palace for a hermitage; / My gay apparel for an almsman's gown”). Elizabeth herself was to remark to Parliament in 1601 that “To be a king and wear a crown is more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”53 Romeo's words thus enunciate an established aristocratic piety and provide his dangerous earlier perspective with a kind of ideological alibi: the law may deny the poor opportunity for enrichment, but they are in fact better off without it.

Further extenuation lay in Brooke. Introducing Brooke's Romeus and Juliet long ago in the first volume of his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Geoffrey Bullough accurately terms it “a leaden work,” and remarks that “The surprising thing is that Shakespeare preserved so much of his source in vitalizing its dead stuff.”54 Shakespeare's unusually close dependence on his source may thus have been a conscious tactic, securing himself an easy line of defense of a content only now rendered dangerously “political” by current events. For although Shakespeare modified Brooke to suit his own purposes, the playwright had shrewdly found a tale in which reckless upper-class violence, a self-accusing lenient prince, and poverty-driven crime (the Apothecary) all lay innocuously to hand.


The opposition of feasting and hunger that Shakespeare has woven through his play is but one element in its sustained populist sensitization to social inequity. The exotic high fashions that the wealthy can parade are not only mocked by Mercutio but exhibited by Romeo, who apparently sports a “slop,” the wide, loose breeches of the French style (“There's a French salutation to your French slop,” snorts Mercutio, at 2.4.45). Further, Jean MacIntyre has noted that “the play may well have strained the wardrobe resources” of the company, given its requirements for costuming forty-one speaking parts, many of which require “best apparel.” Such costuming demands must have furthered the class-polarization emphatic in the play; for as MacIntyre interestingly observes (without politicizing the perception), “By parsimony with some characters' costumes, Shakespeare may have been compensating (or over-compensating) for the lavishness of apparel at the Capulet feast late in Act one.”55

Privileged idleness allows Romeo a perverse and highly fashionable nocturnalism, wandering abroad before dawn, then locking himself up during daylight to “make himself an artificial night” (1.1.138), so that he loses his sense of time (1.1.158-59), just as Capulet and Paris can spend all night together in celebrating the betrothal to Juliet. “Get you to bed. Faith, you'll be sick tomorrow / For this night's watching” the Nurse scolds Capulet (4.4.7-8). Their wealth is repeatedly displayed in an effortless tipping and procuring. Romeo dispenses coins to the Nurse for bringing Juliet's message, to Balthasar in the churchyard, and of course to the Apothecary for his poison, while Juliet sends a ring to her “true knight” (3.2.142; 3.3.162). Capulet dispatches first a servant for “twenty cunning cooks,” then the Nurse for baked meats (“Spare not for cost”). At the play's conclusion the bereaved parents pledge themselves to erect statues of the lovers, astoundingly, “in pure gold.” The contemporary context is again suggestive. In 1595 the hated Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Spencer, against whom death-threats were made, whose home was threatened with arson, and outside whose door the rioters had erected a gallows, was bitterly nicknamed, for his great wealth, simply “Rich” Spencer.56

In sustained contrast to the conspicuous wealth and tantalizing feasting is the insistently scripted presence of toiling underclasses. In another notable departure from Brooke the drama counterpoints gangs of idle patrician youths to knots of busy servants, who bustle in repeatedly to service their superiors' demands. 1.3 closes with a frantic servingman who emerges from hall and pantry to announce supper served, “everything in extremity,” his own need to dash away and wait at table, and the plea that Lady Capulet “follow straight.” Capulet's feast (1.5) opens with the entry of at least three servants who bear the napkins and prepare the table while Romeo's exuberant masquers “march about,” then bundle away joint-stools and cupboard, turn the tables up (a complex operation, as an Arden note suggests, requiring removal of pegs, lifting of table tops, and stacking of these with their trestles against a wall) and supply more light. Stage directions decree that 4.2. begin with “two or three servingmen” taking orders for guests and cooks. Again, at 4.4.13 “three or four servingmen” enter “with spits and logs and baskets,” to be peremptorily ordered by Capulet, “Make haste, make haste!” and “Sirrah, fetch drier logs!” All major characters have their personal servants. The Nurse, her bones (she claims) aching, sums up the point of so much intrusive stagecraft: “I am the drudge, and toil in your delight” (2.5.76).

The contrast of indolent privilege and toiling subaltern is not thus a mere empiric “reflection” of a class-stratified social formation, but a representation calculated, in a time of heightened and bloody class friction, to appeal to populist sentiments. Romeo is perhaps the principal figure of such political targeting, his self-pitying aristocratic self-absorption several times juxtaposed directly to underclass disadvantage or misery in such a way as to highlight his enviable social privilege.

One final example may serve to illustrate how much of the play's original meaning has been lost through the combination of a traditional scholarly exegesis which pays little attention to the plays as plays, and the depoliticized interpretation of the play as essentially honoring a “transcendent” love. In 1.5 we have, in Romeo's first sight of Juliet, some of the most celebrated lyric lines in the English language. “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright,” gasps a Romeo forever transfigured. “Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear” (1.5.43, 46). The original feeling generated, however, appears to have been rather more complex and problematic than the uplift of the exquisite. Bustling near Romeo are servants harried by Capulet's repeated commands to produce more light: “More light, you knaves,” “More light! More light!” and “More torches here” (ll.27, 86, 124). In the midst of such activity, Romeo's words, directed to a servant failing to produce better light—

What lady's that … ?
I know not, sir.
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright” [italics mine]—

acquire overtones of rebuke or mockery. His line on Juliet's beauty as “too rich for use” may resonate likewise with the disparaging, privileged values of work-free leisure. This dimension to his transports would not be missed by a popular audience, with its vocal component of maids and servingmen, porters and mechanics, apprentices and laborers. In the midst of sublime ecstasy, Romeo is also in the midst of the frictions of class. In 1595 in particular, how could he not be?

The players and their playwright know where in this contrast of life-styles and dignities they themselves are sited. If in the “two-hours' traffic of our stage” anything should “miss,” apologizes the Prologue, “our toil shall strive to mend” [italics mine]. The unusual term “traffic” (rare, notes the OED, before 1600), normally signified trade or commerce; and allied to the Nurse's emphatic word (“toil”), the players mark—perhaps announce—discrete awareness of their own class-position. Technically classified as retainers, laboring in an intensely precarious new profession, and often poorly paid, it is no surprise that Elizabethan dramatists and licensed players could be sympathetic at a time of crisis to the perspectives of the subordinate classes. The fortunes of the two groups in fact were frequently linked: following the 1595 riots the Lord Mayor urged the Privy Council in September to suppress the theaters, as having helped “infect” “the late stirr & mutinous attempt of those few apprentices.”57 Such circumstances lent direct economic incentive to the theater to become, in diplomatic degree, spokesman and defender of a commons demonized by authority.


In the light of the sensitivity to class tension and populist sentiments traced above, certain moments of the play reveal lost political valences. When, for instance, the discovery of Juliet's “corpse” by her heartbroken parents is suddenly “capped” by a series of jests among Peter, the Nurse, and the musicians, the comedy would seem to function not as a lapse of “taste” or as abrupt comic relief, but as supplying a form of audience “retaliation” against the banquet-happy and authoritarian Capulets. By involving the audience in a burst of merriment that actively contradicts the Capulets' suffering, the sharp juxtaposition constitutes another “populist” refusal of sympathy for the grief of the elite that we have seen structuring the presentation of Romeo. The pointedly visible onstage contrast between the doomed bustle of the Capulet household and Juliet's “deathbed”—apparently unremoved and in plain view from 4.2 to 4.5—may likewise have afforded the audience (since they know what Capulet does not) a kind of “conspiratorial” gratification as they anticipated an imminent counterstrike against the domineering will of the sybaritic master of the house.

At two points in the play, thinly veiled political language takes on new bite. Gregory's line in the opening minutes of the play, for example, “the quarrel is between our masters and us their men” (1.1.17), can project the meaning “the quarrel is that of the masters against us their servants,” rather than “the quarrel is between two masters, and involves their respective servants.”58 If spoken as an admonition, with a clear break after the word “us,” the line is at once disambiguated: “the quarrel is between our masters and us, their men,” Witty and skeptical Gregory, who has been puncturing the bragging of Sampson, thus establishes a note of contemporary political resonance from the play's opening minutes, with the exasperated retort to a fellow serving man to get his priorities straight and remember what class he belongs to. Shakespeare's ingenuity in producing ambiguous, politically charged sentences was one of a number of his tactics for outflanking Elizabethan censorship.

The disagreement between Gregory and Sampson proves highly topical. Its suggestion that the kind of class-solidarity manifested in the Apprentices' Riot was emergent and contingent is borne out, I suggest, by a contemporary tract. The Student's Lamentation,59 circulating within a few weeks of the Apprentices Riot, remarks just such divisions among apprentices, claiming that the riot had failed to draw greater numbers precisely because many apprentices had felt their primary duty to be to their masters and had reported the imminent mass gathering to them.

Another instance of veiled political suggestion is Friar Lawrence's disquisition upon “nature.” Curiously extended across eighteen lines, the passage achieves relevance to the body of the play if recognized to be an oblique commentary on class relations.

For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good that, strain'd from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified [my italics].


Construed as social symbolism, the first couplet is innocuous enough, implying the value and social contribution of even the lowest classes. The next couplet regrets the “revolt” of those of “true birth”: a sentiment applicable to Romeo and his class, whose “abuse” of violence the play dramatizes. The final couplet packs a sting, for if the “vice” to which “virtue turns” is violent disorder—as the play seems to suggest—then the last line implies that this violent disorder may be sometimes “dignified,” as in riots over food prices or injustice, for instance. Interpreted as veiled political allegory, the passage becomes one more expression of an indignant popular perspective in the year of the mass riots.

There will be readers, perhaps many, who will view the kind of interpretation of Shakespeare set forth here as hopelessly tendentious. Shakespeare, they will affirm (as has Alvin Kernan in his latest book),60 was a thoroughly conservative playwright; and his interests were largely apolitical. Romeo, moreover, is essentially a romantic hero, and the play dwells upon love, not politics. I would argue that presentation of Romeo and Juliet's love does not preclude focus on its enabling political conditions; and that Shakespeare reveled in irreducible complication, thematic, moral and political. The love between Romeo and Juliet certainly possesses rare sensitivity, beauty, and sanctity. Yet their love is deeply shadowed—as traditionalist criticism has long acknowledged—by the obtrusive Roman Catholic imagery that articulates its inception (“shrine,” “pilgrim,” “palmer” and “saint” at 1.5.92-104), by the “feminization” of Romeo which it effects, and by the Renaissance horror of suicide which terminated it. Why, then, should we rule out the political as a further dimension of such sustained artistic ambiguity? At the climax of Romeo's apotheosis, as he eternalizes his passion and presses into “death's dateless night,” we are propelled, yet again, and by his penultimate sentence, into memory of others' physical pains—those of the victims of poverty: “O true apothecary,” he cries, “Thy drugs are quick!” (5.3.119-20; italics mine).

The overtones of political protest projected in their cultural moment an intriguingly ambiguous relation toward authority. They were not “radical” in any modern political understanding of that word, but rather “medieval populist”; and as such they embodied the paradox of a loyal disaffection or licensed indictment. For the play's demystifying criticism of the city's ruling classes could claim to be a dutiful echo of higher authority, since its barbs echoed the ancient civil ideal of Commonweal paternalism shared by monarch, church, and Privy Council. Romeo and Juliet takes advantage of the contemporary conflict between levels and traditions of authority to establish its skeptical portrayal of the urban rich, since 1594-97 saw considerable friction between city leaders and the Crown.61 Capitalizing on the tension between ruling-class blocs, Shakespeare was able to critique the lower authority from the protective shelter of the higher. It was a pattern, after all, often repeated in the period, as the court protected the public theaters against the wrath of city fathers who would close them. Such “legitimated” subversion resembled the popular seizures of grain and price-fixing actions that continued to break out around the country until the successful harvest of 1598. Shakespearean drama, it seems, was mindful of “unaccommodated man” long before the dark climactic explosions of King Lear.


  1. All references to and citations of Romeo and Juliet are from the Arden edition, ed. Brian Gibbons (London, 1980). Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Or Toward a Revolutionary Criticism (London, 1981), p. 126.

  2. Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (Oxford, 1989); Michael Bristol, Big-Time Shakespeare (New York, 1998).

  3. Eagleton, Benjamin, p. 126.

  4. See Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988).

  5. Jill Levenson, “‘Alla stoccado carries it away’: Codes of Violence in Romeo and Juliet” in Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” ed. Jay L. Halio (Newark, 1995), p. 86.

  6. Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances 1509-1640 (Oxford, 1988), pp. 200, 208.

  7. Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, England, 1991), pp. 3-4.

  8. Charles Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare's Plays (Manchester, 1992), pp. 35, 173.

  9. Manning, p. 191.

  10. Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Detroit, 1993), pp. 34-39.

  11. Manning, pp. 208-09. On hatred of Mayor Spencer, see also Archer, p. 56.

  12. C. S. L. Davies, “Popular Disorder,” in The European Crisis of the 1590s, ed. Peter Clark (London, 1985), p. 244; M. J. Power, “London and the Control of the ‘Crisis’ of the 1590s” in History 70 (1985), 371.

  13. Archer, pp. 10, 13.

  14. Manning, p. 187.

  15. Joyce Youings, Sixteenth Century England (Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 270. Wheat prices rose from 17.61 to 36.56 shillings per quarter between 1592-1594, and thence to 40.34 in 1595, and 47.61 in 1596, as R. B. Outhwaite, “Dearth, the English Crown and the Crisis of the 1590s” in The European Crisis, ed. Peter Clark, shows in his table on p. 28. In Famine in Tudor and Stuart England (Stanford, 1978), Andrew Appleby details the price increases during these years of cereals eaten by the poor: rye, for instance, had risen by 1596 to 5.68 times its price in 1593 (p. 6).

  16. Quoted in Whitney R. D. Jones, The Tudor Commonwealth 1529-1559 (London, 1970), p. 53.

  17. Curtis C. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era (New York, 1996), p. 232.

  18. Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution (Wokingham, 1980), p. 21.

  19. Manning, pp. 204, 315.

  20. George Abbot, An Exposition unto the Prophet Jonah (1600), p. 204; in Appleby, Famine, p. 141.

  21. Outhwaite, p. 28.

  22. Manning, p. 205; Archer, p. 6. On food riots elsewhere in England in 1595-96 see Appleby, p. 142.

  23. Manning, p. 205.

  24. Archer, p. 6.

  25. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (Feb. 1971) 76-136; Archer, pp. 6-7; Buchanan Sharp, “Popular Protest in Seventeenth Century England” in Popular Culture in Seventeenth Century England, ed. Barry Reay (New York, 1985), pp. 271-88.

  26. Manning, pp. 204-05, 209, 314.

  27. Manning, p. 202.

  28. Manning, pp. 209-10; see also Breight, p. 88.

  29. Manning, pp. 178-85; Power, p. 380.

  30. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965, rpt. 1967), p. 112.

  31. In Edelman, p. 174.

  32. In Stone, p. 120.

  33. Levenson, pp. 84-85.

  34. The dramatization of a right of popular intervention is not unique to this play. Richard Strier demonstrates that King Lear endorses political resistance theory of the most radical type, in “Faithful Servants: Shakespeare's Praise of Disobedience” in The Historical Renaissance (Chicago, 1988), pp. 104-33.

  35. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley, 1981), pp. 82-103; Marianne Novy, “Violence, Love and Gender in Romeo and Juliet” in Romeo and Juliet, Critical Essays, ed. John F. Andrews (New York, 1993), pp. 359-71. Most recently, Robert Appelbaum in “‘Standing to the Wall’: The Pressures of Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (Fall 1997), has sought, in ahistorical and depoliticized terms, to link the play's representation of violence to “masculinity” as a fixed if contradictory “regime of gender performance” (p. 254), and can thus write of “citizens harmoniously toiling under the prince's law” “within a town where history seems to have temporarily come to an end” (p. 271).

  36. Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, third edition (Cambridge, Eng., 1992), pp. 182-84.

  37. Alan Dessen, Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary (Cambridge, Eng., 1995), pp. 191, 194-95.

  38. Alan Dessen, “Q1, Romeo and Juliet and Elizabethan Theatrical Vocabulary,” in Halio, p. 113.

  39. It may also be that the marching, drumming and masquing activities of the Montague youths, so prominent in 1.4 and 1.5, were designed and performed to suggest patrician counterparts to the rituals and parades of the apprentices.

  40. The stage direction for 1.4 specifies, in addition to Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, “five or six other masquers and torchbearers,” while that for 3.1 stipulates “Mercutio, Benvolio and Men,” with line 34 introducing “Tybalt, Petruchio and Others.”

  41. Power, p. 379.

  42. For traditional Christian teachings on stewardship, see Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Maryknoll, 1983); R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth, 1922, rpt. 1980), chapter 1. On state and church ideals and implementation of charitable relief of the poor, see Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages (New Haven, 1986).

  43. British Library, Lansdowne MS 74/42; in Archer, p. 38.

  44. Appleby, pp. 144-45; Power, pp. 376, 385. Bishop Gervase Babington was similarly to urge in 1604 the application in times of dearth and plague of the biblical redistributivist principle of Jubilee, by which debtors were to be released, and lands sold through pressure of poverty returned to their original owners (Leviticus 25.9-55). The theme recurs throughout the seventeenth century among radicals and the distressed, yet there remains, as Hill comments, “much research to be done on the underground flowing of this tradition.” The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1993, rpt. 1994), pp. 164-67.

  45. Libel at Norwich, 1595, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Salisbury MSS, vol. 13, pp. 168-69; in Clark, p. 44.

  46. The precise social rank of Capulet (and of Montague) appears impossible to pin down. Some editors such as Brian Gibbons in the Arden assume Capulet to be a nobleman, and give his wife as “Lady Capulet.” Other editions deny them aristocratic status. The indeterminacy I suggest to be deliberate, permitting the characters to evoke both the feuding nobility (in the play's presentation of violence) and the wealthy city fathers (in the feasting theme).

  47. See Francois Laroque's summary of the gender transposition of Romeo and Juliet in “Tradition and Subversion in Romeo and Juliet” in Halio, pp. 29-31.

  48. See chapter 6 of Annabel Patterson's Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, 1989), pp. 120-53.

  49. Shakespeare himself was particularly well placed to appreciate the pathos of an independent business man humbled in his workshop by the advent of penury, the wares of his “needy shop” now “thinly scatter'd to make up a show” (5.1.42, 48). Eight years earlier, following years of apparent financial precariousness, his father had been finally expelled from the borough council, and sued, too, for his brother Henry's debts. The sadness of the vulnerability of his father would not have been lost on the son.

  50. Manning, p. 193.

  51. Archer, p. 55.

  52. The theme is briefly discussed without reference to Shakespeare by Frank Whigham in Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984), pp. 112-116, under the heading “The concealment of exploitation” (pp. 112-16).

  53. Henry V (4.1.265-74); Richard II (3.3.146-54); Elizabeth is quoted by Carolly Erickson, The First Elizabeth (1983; rpt. New York, 1997), p. 399.

  54. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London, 1957), I, 277-78.

  55. Jean MacIntyre, Costumes and Scripts in the Elizabethan Theatres (Alberta, 1992), pp. 141-44.

  56. Manning, pp. 208-09.

  57. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, (Oxford, 1923) IV, 318.

  58. Just before going to print, I discovered that Kirby Farrell has recorded a similar observation on the opening scene, recognizing a “volatile ambivalence” toward masters in the Capulet servants, and noting that the feud provided “a safety valve for aggressive feelings against masters.” See Farrell, chapter 8, “Love, Death, and Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet” in Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill and London, 1989), pp. 133, 135. However, his essay exposits the drama's concerns with power on the psychoanalytic rather than the political level, focusing “patriarchy” rather than class relations, and characterizing the former as “a system of beliefs evolved to control poisonous anxiety about death” (p. 145). Consequently, “the quarrel is between our masters and us their men” constitutes for the servants “an ambiguity too dangerous to be consciously faced” (p. 133).

  59. Archer, p. 7.

  60. Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King's Playwright (New Haven and London, 1995), postulates a Shakespeare assiduously propagandist in the monarchical cause, “the leading apologist for kings in his or any other time” (p. 95).

  61. Archer, pp. 35-37; Manning, p. 207.

Thomas Moisan (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6356

SOURCE: Moisan, Thomas. “‘Now Art Thou What Thou Art’; or, Being Sociable in Verona: Teaching Gender and Desire in Romeo and Juliet.” In Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, edited by Maurice Hunt, pp. 47-58. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2000.

[In the following essay, Moisan examines gender issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.]

That gender has a good deal to do with the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, that Romeo and Juliet derives its tragedy in no small measure from the relation between the love of the eponymous protagonists and what is expected of them, or what they expect of themselves, as a male and female in Verona, has been a thesis often and in various forms compellingly rehearsed in recent criticism of the play. To heed such criticism and teach Romeo and Juliet with an ear for what gender can tell us about the nature of its tragedy has, as Joan Ozark Holmer notes, enriched the possibilities of the play for students (“Practices” 191-92). For one thing, to do so helps students parse the tragedy in social terms, inviting them, for example, to view Romeo and Juliet not simply as male and female but as male and female in—or, to recall the pointedly anthropological title of Coppélia Kahn's influential piece, “coming of age in”—Verona. Nor is this identification of sexual identity with social prescription a mere imposition of late-twentieth-century psychosocial theory on an early modern text. Indeed, we hear this identification articulated in a celebrated instance within the play by one of Verona's two foremost social-psychological theorists, Mercutio: momentarily pleased with Romeo for acting like one of the guys, Mercutio intones in holistic and mystificatory benediction, “Now art thou sociable, now art thou / Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as / by nature” (2.4.89-91). And, of course, we hear it in an equally notorious malediction by the other, less secularly humanist social-psychological theorist, Friar Lawrence: momentarily displeased with Romeo for his reluctance to patiently accept the dilemma that Friar Lawrence himself has had a significant hand in creating, the Friar hits, as it were, below the belt, taking Romeo's behavior as evidence of not acting like one of the guys and, thus, of acting unnaturally:

Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art;
Thy tears are womanish, thy wild acts [denote]
The unreasonable fury of a beast.
Unseemly woman in a seeming man,
And ill-beseeming beast in seeming both […].

(3.3.109-13, bracketed word in original)

In turn, in the degree to which the action of the play seems to draw notions of identity (including sexual identity) and social expectation into a combustibly conflictual nexus, rendering it impossible, for example, for Romeo both to do what Verona expects of a man and to love Juliet in Verona, the consideration of gender offers students an interpretative alternative to the classic, Aristotelian decorums for tragic action and character against which the play had long been rather invidiously measured. To allot gender a role in what makes this tragedy tragic is to liberate our teaching of Romeo and Juliet from such narrowly generic questions as whether the play's tragic instrumentality is overly dependent on the aleatory; whether the play's protagonists are not so much tragic as pathetic victims of Fortune and poor timing, dramatic scions of—if less tragically mirthful than—Pyramus and Thisbe; and ultimately whether this play is less mature and, by implication, less satisfactory than those we associate with Shakespeare's tragic maturity, Hamlet, for example, and Shakespeare's Jacobean tragedies.

Still, though the consideration of gender provides students with a social calculus with which to delineate the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, this approach is not unproblematic. For it could be asked whether, in deposing Fortune or bad luck as the primum mobile of the tragedy, the attention to gender that has marked recent criticism of the play runs the risk of enshrining a mystificatory and reductive determinism of its own. If we accept, for example, Susan Snyder's powerful account of the powerful control of ideology and the feud over gender roles in Verona (“Ideology” 88-92) or concur with Jonathan Goldberg's argument that “what the ending of the play secures is a homosocial order” (“Open Rs” 219), are we not being asked to see Romeo and Juliet once again as victims of a controlling social order that has no place for their love or for their subjectivity as lovers and characters? In rejecting what Verona and its feud ordain for its male and female children, have Romeo and Juliet been given no choice but to die, not Fortune's fools, to paraphrase Romeo, but society's pawns?

That the answers to these questions are not uncomplicated testifies to the fact that Romeo and Juliet has long been perceived in the theater and in the classroom to have a power that transcends a paraphrase of the play's pathetic premises, a power derived at least in part, I would contend, from audiences' and students' recognition in the play of the force of desire: immanent, ineluctable, nonnegotiable, and—as the recurrent ability of the play to evoke current events and the most powerfully self-destructive impulses of adolescence demonstrates—subversive and dangerous.1 In what follows I argue that in Romeo and Juliet gender and desire are integrally, but intricately, related and that to examine the inscriptions and prescriptions of gender in teaching Romeo and Juliet is inevitably to bring gender and desire into a tangency that highlights the irruptive force of desire and the repressive function of gender. Indeed, even as we are led to see gender as a socially constructed and ordained decorum, as a set of expectations that, to recall the mystificatory rhetoric of Mercutio's and Friar Lawrence's formulations, elides sexual identity and social behavior, placing what we are by art in apposition to what we are by nature, we are simultaneously made aware of, to recall Goldberg's word “energies” (“Open Rs” 226), forces erotic and libidinal that resist the prescriptions of gender. In fact, what may get lost in deterministic readings of the play, in the Althusserian sense of ideology as omnipresent and inescapable, is the possibility that Romeo and Juliet's love is not only a casualty of the way things are in Verona but also a danger to it.

To look at Romeo and Juliet through the lens gender provides is ultimately to invite students to consider the ambivalent relation of the play to the very structures and ideology the play would seem to represent. Exposing gender as a powerful but vulnerable patriarchal construction designed to repress or contain volatile realities, over which the structures and strictures of gender and patriarchy are ultimately powerless, the play simultaneously mystifies its own inability to explain those forces that would undermine the patriarchal order. The play persistently retreats, like Romeo in his Petrarchan oxymorons, into a discourse of conundrums: witness the paradox of civil blood making civil hands unclean with which the prologue describes life in Verona (4) and the paradoxical cohabitations and contiguities Friar Lawrence ponders in his garden—poisons and medicines in herbs, grace and rude will in humankind (2.3.23-28). Indeed, departing a bit from readings that take Romeo and Juliet's love as something opposed to, stolen from, and a casualty of the patriarchal, masculine violence metonymized in the Capulets and Montagues' feud (Gohlke; Kahn; Novy), I offer students the alternative that if we see both Romeo and Juliet's love and the violence of the feud as phenomena that, like death, are impervious to patriarchal control, then the love and the feud, though circumstantially opposed, become uncannily parallel symptoms of the imponderables at the heart of human experience from which the play derives its sense of tragedy.

For evidence of how gender is implicated in the social structure of Shakespeare's Verona, we do not, of course, have long to wait. Initiating the rich social cacophony that constitutes the opening scene of the play, the exchange between the Capulets' loyal retainers Sampson and Gregory turns the question of what it means to be “civil” in Verona into a seminar on what Robert Appelbaum has called the “ambivalent prosthetics of masculinity” (252), namely, to stand or to stir? How richly this passage serves as a paradigm for the semiotics of gender and sociability in the play! Adumbrating other exchanges between young men who seem not to have much to do with their time, the dialogue affords an inventory of all the things likely to happen when young men get together in unspecified outdoor sites in Verona, or what Benvolio later calls “the public haunt of men” (3.1.50): they pun, distinguishing themselves as males by differentiating themselves from females, and their puns veer allusively toward sexuality and violence; they play, and their play merges seamlessly with actions freighted with heavy consequences. A linguistic economy unites their sexual and martial selves into one masculine identity, making them what they are, by art as well as by nature, and enabling them at once to keep their “tool” and “naked weapon” “out” (1.1.31, 33) and to elide the boundary between sexual fantasy and “naked aggression.” Ludic and trivial, Sampson and Gregory impart some of their triviality to their masters and social superiors who follow them directly onstage in that, as Kahn has noted, the latter parody their inferiors by taking up the brawl Sampson and Gregory have helped to reignite (174 [Lenz, Greene, and Neely]). And inasmuch as the lethal feud is sustained by such lightweights as these, the feud itself, to anticipate one of Romeo's phrases, assumes a “heavy lightness” (1.1.178) and becomes one more of the oxymorons that make life in Verona what it is.

Still, one other truth about gender, or, rather, the genders, in Verona that students can hear heralded in this opening exchange—and it is a point so obvious as generally to go unnoted in criticism—is how rigidly and profoundly the sexes in Verona are segregated. Here, of course, we might say that Shakespeare takes his cue from his putative source, Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, a poetic narrative in which the protagonists exist for long stretches in relative isolation, attenuated mainly by the confessions each shares with a confidante, and surrogate parent, of the same sex—Romeo's “ghostly sire” (line 559, Munro ed.), Friar Laurence, and Juliet's Nurse (341-47, 557-60, 565-86, 619-30). Yet in translating Brooke's verse narrative into the scenic divisions of the stage, Shakespeare creates units of dramatic action that, in giving us a far more vivid sense of Verona as a living, breathing—if somewhat dysfunctional—social organism, divide that organism as much by gender as by hierarchies of rank and status. Indeed, rather like the “[t]wo households, both alike in dignity,” whose feud is the donnée of the play (prologue 1), males and females in Romeo and Juliet do not mingle much in public and, not coincidentally, when they do mingle it is in moments of chaos or some other form of social disorder. Both sexes appear, for example, in the terminal stages of the riots in acts 1 and 3 and in the turmoil that attends the carnage in the Capulets' tomb in act 5. The sexes also mingle, of course, at Capulet's masked ball, an event that, by Capulet's own description, is very much about a setting aside of rules. At the ball, such social niceties as those governing who may have a special claim to whom are suspended in favor of a more open invitational and empirical wooing process (1.2.20-33), the disruptive consequences of which need no recapitulation. And when, in quest of Romeo, Juliet's Nurse happens on a group of males hanging out, her appearance is greeted by Romeo as well as by his friends with hilarity and verbal abuse and insinuation about her likely profession (2.4.101-44). Nor is it only when a female enters a male domain that the play reaffirms this segregation by gender. When in a paroxysm of domesticity and micromanagement Capulet concerns himself with culinary details for the upcoming nuptials of his daughter and Paris, the Nurse, with a freedom of address she nowhere else displays toward Capulet, conflates slurs on his gender and social status in a single epithet of social derision, dubbing him “cot-quean” (4.4.3-8).2

And, indeed, to remind students that in contemporary performance the two sexes would have been represented onstage by actors of the same sex only sharpens their sense of the social taxonomies dividing Verona's physical space into gender-coded, homosocial realms, realms that acquire definition only when their boundaries are violated. In turn, students are quick to speculate on what else these divisions may tell us about the relations of the sexes in the play. Though students are not particularly interested in gender as an abstract concept, they are interested in the roles played by gender and desire in shaping those relations—or, rather, those nonrelations. After all, apart from Romeo and Juliet, men and women in this play seem not to have relations, at least not intimate relations; on the contrary, they glance at and away from one another along a frontier of emotional sublimation and rhetorical double-dealing. To be sure, as we saw in Sampson and Gregory's dialogue, men talk about women and sex a fair amount, though, of course, they do so punningly, as if allowing the drift of language to carry them to topics they are not supposed to discuss. And when references to women arise, one may question whether they do so from the force of desire or from the desire for argumentative force. The exchange between Gregory and Sampson unfolds less as a dialogue than as a verbal joust, in which contra Gertrude, there is less matter and more art. Their exchange is a forerunner (for duller wits) to the virtuoso competition in paronomasia we will hear later in the wild-goose chase staged by Mercutio and Romeo, their verbal jousting a part of the rhetorical educational tradition that located masculinity, as Walter Ong has argued, in verbal prowess (129-39), or what John Donne calls his “masculine perswasive force” (Elegies, “On His Mistris,” line 4). One may well cite the misogyny in the crude and sexually violent verbiage about women that segues into the crude and violent clash with employees of the Montagues. The abuse of women in this patter lies not in any emotional vehemence Sampson and Gregory display but in their detachment. The rape they envision is matched by the rhetorical rape they perpetrate in seizing on women as tropes and translating women into general categories (“weaker vessels [who] are ever thrust to the wall”), into accessories by alliteration to the Montague clan (“any man or maid of Montague's”), and lastly into metonyms for the violence Sampson will visit on the Montagues: “'Tis all one” (1.1.16, 12, 21).

This opening exchange offers but a snapshot of the emotional ethos in which Romeo and Juliet live, move, and have their being and in and against which they take their love. The exchange represents Verona as a world in which men evince their masculinity in their proclivity for divorcing sexual reference and emotion and for sublimating feelings of desire through an array of rhetorical devices. The Verona of Romeo and Juliet is a world students can savor for its remarkable emotional dishonesty, a world where efforts at displacement tend to be most successful at revealing their own strenuousness, marginalizing desire while simultaneously keeping it visible on the margins of discourse, never fully dispelling its emotional residue. Exemplary is the frequent use of puns or double meanings, which, in imbedding sexual valences among the competing possibilities, keeps these valences diffused and unacknowledged but ever present. “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk'st of nothing” (1.4.95-96): in halting Mercutio's revery on Queen Mab just as Mercutio has made reference to sexual copulation, Romeo's characteristically repressive intervention undoes itself with its own cleverness. Though the allusion to female genitals conveyed in the secondary sense of “nothing”—a pun into which Romeo strayed earlier in the play (1.1.182)—indicates precisely what Romeo seeks, as it were, to abort in Mercutio's monologue, the very secondary-ness of the allusion has the effect of keeping open by suggestion, indeed, italicizing, a subject Romeo wants to change. Like other instances of men's erected wit in the play, this one keeps repression and suggestions of desire in a liminal embrace.

In his rhetorical virtuosity, no one in the play is more masculine—or more liminal—than Mercutio; that is, no one invokes with greater urgency the powers of “masculine perswasive force” at once to exorcise desire, only, then, to make us feel more keenly its encroachment. We feel the repressive force of Mercutio's wit in the verbal foreplay to his lethal exchange with Tybalt. Here Mercutio deflects the sexual potential in Tybalt's remark, “Mercutio, thou consortest with Romeo,” by purposefully mis-taking “consort” in its musical sense, thus turning Tybalt's derision of Mercutio and Romeo's relationship into a slur on their social standing: “Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels?” (3.1.45, 46). In the fullest discussion to date of Mercutio and the implications of his masculinity, Joseph Porter maintains that “Mercutio's essential subtextual address is to Romeo, and it is a Mercurian summoning away from love to the fellowship of men, guarded with warnings of the consequences of not heeding” (Shakespeare's Mercutio 114). In Porter's reading, the Queen Mab speech is aimed by Mercutio at “changing the subject away from Romeo's woes” but gets “carried away” by its “oracular” self-absorption (105), careening, in the process, into that territory which, we have seen, Romeo peremptorily declares to be “nothing.” Actually, Mercutio, with Romeo's help, does a better job of changing the subject several scenes later (2.4.37-101). On the morning after the fateful night of the ball, a conversation that begins with Mercutio's taxing Romeo for his effeminizing enthrallment to love finds the two friends engaging each other in a wittier version of the sort of contestation we encountered between Gregory and Sampson. One would expect students to find this wild-goose chase of an exchange easy to resist, so dependent is its wit on the secondary and tertiary meanings of words unfamiliar in their primary sense; still, students find pleasure in the pleasure Mercutio and Romeo derive from each other and in the game of contorting each other's words to create a deconstructionist's delight, a metadiscourse that calls attention to the power of words to forge their own connections while making reference to, well, nothing—in its primary sense:

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


In an act that opened with Romeo deserting his male companions and urging his “dull earth” to “find thy centre out” in the person of Juliet (2.1.2.), the flight of the wild-goose chase is spectacularly centrifugal. And yet it is Mercutio who brings the chase back to its point of origin; having reprimanded Romeo at the outset about love, Mercutio cannot refrain from homilizing on the subject at the end, even as he seals Romeo, as we have seen, in the tribe of the sociable (2.4.88-93).

Still, is there no space in the aggressively masculine world of Verona for feminine discourse? When women are with other women what do they have to talk about, and does their discourse show the same anxieties about desire that we have heard among the males? Showing his penchant for controlling all discourse, Mercutio, of course, presumes to answer for women, or, at least, for “maids” (2.1.36). He suggests, rather parenthetically and with a touch of uncharacteristic faux delicacy, that “when they laugh alone” the thoughts, or at least the language, of maids evince the same preoccupations and inflections we have by now come to associate with males in general and with Mercutio in particular. Fantasizing about Romeo fantasizing about his beloved, Mercutio imagines Romeo sitting “under a medlar tree” (2.1.34), wishing

          his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open[-arse], thou a pop'rin pear!


Now, how Mercutio would know what maids call medlars when they laugh alone we cannot say; nothing in his references to love and sexuality would suggest that he enjoys intimacy with the opposite sex. Still, and acknowledging the sexual and textual vagaries of the anal reference to which Goldberg has called attention recently (“Opens Rs” 229-30), I find no less interesting in this moment the implications of its virtuosic indirection, its blend of a double ventriloquism and preterition that gives Mercutio license to vocalize what he puts into the mouths of maids and what he has taken from and put into the mind and mouth of Romeo. This is one of the crossover moments, like the Queen Mab speech, that, at least in twentieth-century representations, have given Mercutio hints of the histrionic flamboyance and gender bending of the shaman or performance artist—witness Mercutio's over-the-top drag performance at the Capulets' ball in Baz Luhrmann's recent film.3 And yet, as we listen to Mercutio, avatar of masculinity, pretend to negotiate the private recesses of what maids say when they laugh alone and what Romeo wishes for under a medlar tree, we are also reminded at once of the frail partitions on which distinctions between genders in the play depend and of how sexuality and repression interact uneasily to maintain those partitions.

Earlier in the play, of course, we have already witnessed this unease in women's discourse with one another, in the scene in which Lady Capulet, with the Nurse at hand, conveys to Juliet Paris's proffer of matrimony (1.3). This is a scene remarkable for its centrifugal stresses and for the discomfort and fissions the proffer either reveals or causes. Least uncomfortable, it would seem, is the Nurse. While not, and not having been for some time, a maid, the Nurse is not reluctant here to refer to sexuality with an earthiness consistent with the vocabulary Mercutio attributes to maids “when they laugh alone.” But even in telling and retelling the joke about Juliet's early discourse, the Nurse can claim, modulo the addition of some anatomical embellishment from the barnyard, only to be reporting the (conveniently unverifiable) discourse of others—her deceased husband and the almost but not quite infantine Juliet:

And yet I warrant it had upon it brow
A bump as big as a young cock'rel's stone—
A perilous knock—and it cried bitterly.
‘Yea,’ quoth my husband, ‘fall'st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ It stinted and said, ‘Ay.’


While Juliet peremptorily checks the Nurse's own efforts to insinuate sexual desire by ventriloquism—“And stint thou, too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I” (1.3.58)—Lady Capulet would rather talk about books. That is, faced with the task of saying why Juliet should be thrilled to accept Paris's offer (an offer Lady Capulet has seemed uncomfortable in delivering and Juliet uncomfortable in receiving), Lady Capulet textualizes desire, rendering passion as something akin to bookbinding, with Juliet playing the part of a book cover (87-94).

In textualizing Juliet's sexual self and repressing the vision of female sexuality the Nurse has so generously evoked, Lady Capulet writes Juliet into the Petrarchan discourse in which Romeo is so snugly encased and which, students quickly recognize, is as much about keeping lovers apart as it is about bringing them together, turning even kissing, as Juliet acutely observes in her critique of the kisses Romeo has bestowed on her at their first encounter, into something to be done “by th' book” (1.5.110). In this poetic ethos, Romeo and Juliet encounter each other initially through gendered decorums of words and movements and are retailed as disembodied collections of a limited number of body parts, their interaction an intricate exercise in metonymy and synecdoche. Indeed, noting that there is no stage direction that has Romeo remove his mask in approaching Juliet, Ronald Knowles has quipped that “if Romeo remains masked until the kiss, it means that Juliet has instantly fallen in love with a visor and a quatrain” (75).

“‘But ah,’ Desire still cries,” Philip Sidney's Astrophil ruefully observes, “‘give me some food’” (71.14). As we know, desire not only articulates its appetite but also sets about to satisfy it rather quickly in Romeo and Juliet, yielding Romeo twice the number of kisses, students find it instructive to learn, in little more than a sonnet's worth of dialogue than Sidney's Astrophil achieves in almost a thousand lines of Stella-gazing and wheedling. As Gayle Whittier has demonstrated, Romeo and Juliet, which writes itself and its protagonists into the lexicon and decorums of the Petrarchan sonnet, collapses the stasis of that poetic world into the onrushing events and “uncomfortable time” of the play's dramatic action (32-33). And even as dramatic action vies to displace poetic control, so desire threatens the decorums of gender and the social grammar of the play, voicing itself, in Juliet's plaintive apostrophes in the balcony scene, as an instrument of social disintegration: “'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; / Thou art thyself, though not a Montague” (2.2.38-39). Here students can recognize the socially disruptive force of passion in the inversion of the Petrarchan norm, as Juliet turns the conventional enumeration and idealization of the lady's parts into an exercise in material dismemberment, isolating the name Montague as an abstraction by divorcing the name from all the parts of Romeo's body with which being a Montague has nothing to do, the sexual suggestiveness of Juliet's inventory rendered audible by its abrupt detour into unspecificity: “What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, / Nor arm, nor face, [nor any other part] / Belonging to a man” (2.2.40-42, brackets in original).

François Laroque has commented on the ways in which the language and respective positioning of Romeo and Juliet in this scene reverse and, thus, subvert gender roles in the play; with Juliet literally “on top,” Romeo “is thus spatially dominated by Juliet and this places him in an inferior, passive position” (29-30). And, indeed, this image of Romeo rendered passive by love is only amplified by the erotic violence of Juliet's prothalamic hymn to night in 3.2; here Juliet's vision of the stellification through dissection she would like Romeo to undergo “when I die,” suggests that, whatever delights may await Romeo in the stars, consummation might not be beneficial to his sublunary health (21-25).

Still, what are we asking our students to see in such images? In part, of course, these images associate desire with female desire, drawing on deep veins of contemporary misogyny to suggest that desire is dangerous because it subjects one to the voraciousness of female sexuality. Thus it could be said that in the very process of representing the subversion of gender roles, images of desire in this play bear a recuperative force and reinforce the assumptions of difference on which the notion of gender depends. In this way, the play evokes, and might seem to affiliate itself with, the social moralism and misogyny of its likely source, Brooke's poem, which in its prose epistle, “To the Reader,” offers the narrative to follow as a cautionary fable depicting “unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire [and] neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends” (lxvi) but which, in subsequently characterizing Juliet as a “wily wench” and “jennet” (717, 723), relies on the pre-fitted epithets of literary misogyny.

At the same time, however, in calling our attention to gender roles as roles, as constructions that reveal one to be what one is as much by art as by nature, the play bears an obviously subversive potential. For a reminder of that potential we can point to a recent off-Broadway production in which a quartet of male actors play male students who put on Romeo and Juliet as a diversion, in the process eliding, or exposing as fragile, the boundaries between male and female and between reality and make-believe (Marks). It is not, of course, only through such examples of late-twentieth-century gender-bending theatrical practice that students can grasp the subversively rhetorical representation of gender in Shakespeare's text. For gender repeatedly assumes a reactionary function in the play, becoming less something that one always is than something to be invoked at moments that threaten patriarchal discipline and discourse. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that ideology of gender is especially conspicuous, and figures like Capulet and Friar Lawrence are particularly paternalist and “masculinist” in their prescriptions, at those moments when rude feelings and inexorable realities irrupt to elude those prescriptions and challenge that ideology (Moisan, “‘O Any Thing’” 131-32). And, indeed, we never feel more keenly the improvisatory character of gender than when gender is applied to something that is neither male nor female, especially to the ultimate inexorable reality in the play, death. If sometimes death is accepted as something, albeit sad, that happens (3.4.4), at other times, when death frustrates patriarchal or male prerogatives, it gets personified as a male, and an obnoxious and sexually predatory one at that, and, thus, is rendered recognizable, if not manageable, by being engendered. So it is that in the remarkable “lamentations” scene we encounter death as the rapist and importunate son-in-law who has deprived Capulet of his daughter and of his right to bestow her in marriage (4.5.35-39); as the “detestable” figure who displaces Paris and leaves him feeling, among other things, “beguiled” (4.5.55-56); and later as the conquering antihero and amatory rival Romeo apostrophizes in the Capulets' tomb (5.3.87-105).

Ultimately, however, to consider the representation of gender in Romeo and Juliet and the play's tendency to invoke gender as a means of rationalizing the inexplicable and uncontrollable is to sense the difficulty the play has in explaining itself. We sense this all the more at those moments at which the play draws our attention to the conflict—so often noticed in recent criticism—between Romeo and Juliet's love, on the one hand, and what it means to be masculine in Verona, on the other. “O sweet Juliet,” Romeo declares at, perhaps, the most conspicuous of these moments (3.1.113), when Mercutio has been mortally wounded, “hurt under [Romeo's] arm” (3.1.103), “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper soft'ned valor's steel” (114-15). Responding to this passage, students cannily hear in it the inflections of self-exculpation and ask whether one trait essential to being masculine in Verona is an instinct for shifting the blame to women when one's masculinity has failed one. Even more cannily, they wonder how much weight we are to assign gender as a source of tragedy in the play when, only twenty lines or so later, Romeo has come up with a more numinous, if more nebulous, entity to blame, self-pityingly declaring, “O, I am fortune's fool!” (136). Gender, that is, becomes one of a number of discourses auditioned in the search for an interpretative paradigm.

Here again, to be sure, the play could be said to absorb and put in Romeo's mouth some of the excuse mongering and finger-pointing of Shakespeare's source in Brooke, who, as if not fully sure of the generic demands of his story or of whether he is obliged to make someone or no one responsible for its “tragical matter,” has his narrator distribute blame widely to take no chances. Part moralistic censurer of wickedness and “unhonest desire,” carping at “drunken gossips,” “superstitious friars” (“To the Reader” lxvi), delusional, lustful lovers (429-32), and, as we have seen, wily wenches (717) and jennets (723), part sentimentalist and Boethian fatalist, decrying the cruel spins of Fortune's Wheel (935-46), Brooke indulges his craving for accountability in the detailed recitation of penalties Escalus metes out at the end of the poem (2985-3004).

In Shakespeare, however, the retributive desire of Escalus to affix responsibility through an assignment of penalties and pardons gets deferred, the deferral at once an indication of the play's need to explain itself and an acknowledgment that any explanation will have managed to elude the bounds of the play. Even as the play defers and diverts attention from the kind of sentencing tribunal that preoccupies Brooke, however, we must ask what it is that Shakespeare leaves onstage instead. The critic Nicholas Brooke once termed Romeo and Juliet a “spectacle of human experience” (256); what we see onstage before the Prince calls everyone off could as easily be called a spectacle of recuperation, in which the surviving patriarchs vie with each other in one last attempt to circumscribe Romeo and Juliet in death within the social decorums the lovers transgressed in life. In addition to noting the implications for Verona's future in the competitive edge to the patriarchs' rapprochement here, students find in the patriarchs' “civil” public-works plans a disquieting and repressive materialism that would transform the passionate, flesh-and-blood lovers into his-and-her statues, equally “rich” and the best of their kind in town (5.3.298-304)! Here the social order, having failed to control the passion of the lovers, would control the representation of that passion and in this way mirror the mimetic activity of the play itself. At the same time, the diversionary effect of the patriarchs' lurch toward social reconciliation offers a simulacrum of the role the social prescriptions of gender perform throughout the play. Indeed, as Escalus declares victory and withdraws, pulling everyone offstage to have “more talk of these sad things” (5.3.307), he only frames the silent space onstage as the site of the destructive “extremities” of desire, the power of which the prescriptions of gender in Romeo and Juliet serve both to conceal and to reveal.


  1. See Holmer (“Practices” 192-93) and Barbara Hodgdon (“Absent Bodies” 341-45) for comments on the relation of the study and performance of Romeo and Juliet in recent years and heightened concerns over the social implications of the play.

  2. In notes on this passage, both G. Blakemore Evans in the New Cambridge edition of the play and Brian Gibbons in the second Arden edition cite the doubt raised by one commentator that this line could be the Nurse's, given its insubordination. But both Evans and Gibbons defend the ascription: for Evans the remark merely bespeaks the Nurse's “privileged” and, thus, protected position in the household (167); for Gibbons the Nurse's comment is of a piece with the normal “vulgarity” of her language, while her exchange with Capulet is “wholly consistent with the presentation of the domestic affairs and manners of the Capulet household” (207).

  3. Though clearly more adherent to the boundaries of gender than in Luhrmann's film, associations of Mercutio's theatrical flamboyance with complexities in his sexual representation are not inaudible in older film versions of the play. Porter cites the blending of “effeminacy” and “phallic zaniness” in the earringed John Barrymore's Mercutio in the George Cukor version (189), while both Porter (Shakespeare's Mercutio 191-92) and Jack Jorgens discern in what Jorgens calls the “mercurial showmanship” (84) of John McEnery's Mercutio in Franco Zeffirelli's film a deep and suggestively sexual attachment to Romeo.

Works Cited

Books and Articles

Appelbaum, Robert. “‘Standing to the Wall’: The Pressures of Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 251-72.

Brooke, Arthur. Romeus and Juliet. Ed. P. A. Daniel. London: New Shakespeare Soc., 1875.

———. Romeus and Juliet: Being the Original of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Ed. J. J. Munro, 1908. New York: AMS, 1970.

———. The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Bullough 284-363.

Brooke, Nicholas. Shakespeare's Early Tragedies. London: Methuen, 1968.

Donne, John. The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Gohlke [Sprengnether], Madelon. “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms.” Lenz, Greene, and Neely 150-70.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs.Queering the Renaissance. Ed. Goldberg. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 218-35.

Greene, Robert. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Ed. J. A. Lavin. London: Benn, 1969.

Hodgdon, Barbara. “Absent Bodies, Present Voices: Performance Work and the Close of Romeo and Juliet's Golden Story.” Theatre Journal 41 (1989): 341-59.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. “‘O, What Learning Is!’ Some Pedagogical Practices for Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 187-94.

Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.

Kahn, Coppélia. “Coming of Age in Verona.” Modern Language Studies 8 (1977-78): 5-22. Rev. and rpt. in Lenz, Greene, and Neely 171-93; and in Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981. 83-103.

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

Laroque, François. “Tradition and Subversion in Romeo and Juliet.” Halio, Romeo and Juliet: Texts 18-36.

Lenz, Carolyn Ruth Swift, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Marks, Peter. “What Light? It Is the East, and Juliet Is a Son.” Rev. of Romeo and Juliet, dir. Joe Calarco. New York Times 23 Jan. 1998: B3.

Moisan, Thomas. “‘O Any Thing, of Nothing First Create!’: Gender and Patriarchy and the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama. Ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1991. 113-36.

Novy, Marianne. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Porter, Joseph A. Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Brian Gibbons. Arden Shakespeare, 2nd ser. London: Methuen, 1980.

Snyder, Susan. “Ideology and the Feud in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 87-96.

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

Audiovisual Materials

Cukor, George, dir. Romeo and Juliet. Film. With Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, and John Barrymore. MGM, 1936. Videocassette. 126 min. Available for purchase only on 1/2″ videocasette from Filmic Archives, The Cinema Center, Botsford, CT 06404-0386.

Luhrmann, Baz, dir. William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Film. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Brian Dennehy. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1996. Col. 120 min. Available for rental and purchase on 1/2″ videocassette from local video-rental stores.

Zeffirelli, Franco, dir. Romeo and Juliet. Film. With Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, and Laurence Olivier. BHE Verona Productions/Paramount Pictures, 1968. Col. 139 min. Available for purchase only on 1/2″ videocassette from Filmic Archives, The Cinema Center, Botsford, CT 06404-0386. Possibly available for rental on 1/2″ videocassette from local video-rental stores.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464


Burt, Richard. “No Holes Bard: Homonormativity and the Gay and Lesbian Romance with Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital, edited by Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds, pp. 153-86. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Surveys the gay and lesbian performance history of Romeo and Juliet.

Conrad, Peter. “Romeos, Juliets, and Music.” In To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival, pp. 47-93. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Discusses various adaptations of Romeo and Juliet involving the replacement of Shakespeare's words with music.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs.” In Shakespeare's Hand, pp. 271-85. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Maintains that the deaths of Romeo and Juliet serve a social function in the uniting of the two houses and the restoration of social order.

Hagerty, Bill. Review of Romeo & Juliet: The Musical. Hollywood Reporter 376, no. 8 (19-25 November 2002): 21, 80.

Explains why the musical version of Romeo and JulietRomeo & Juliet: the Musical—was a big hit in Paris but failed to find an audience in London.

Hartley, Lodwick. “‘Mercy but Murders’: A Note on a Subtheme in Romeo and Juliet.Papers on English Language & Literature (1965): 259-64.

Analyzes the role of the family feud in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Herman, Vimala. “Discourse and Time in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.Language and Literature 8, no. 2 (June 1999): 143-61.

Examines time as represented through various verbal strategies in Romeo and Juliet.

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

Contends that the relationship between Romeo and Juliet eventually develops into the divine love associated with Neo-Platonism.

McLuskie, Kathleen E. “Shakespeare's ‘Earth-Treading Stars’: The Image of the Masque in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 63-9.

Examines the masque as a device used to introduce Romeo into the Capulet household.

Moisan, Thomas. “Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The ‘Lamentations’ Scene in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 34, no. 4 (winter 1983): 389-404.

Addresses the excessive rhetoric associated with the scene in which Juliet, taken for dead, is mourned by her parents and her nurse.

Roberts, Sasha. “Family Dynamics.” In William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, pp. 11-33. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1998.

Analyzes the play's complex treatment of relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives.

Stavig, Mark. “Every Thing in Extremity.” In The Forms of Things Unknown: Renaissance Metaphor in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. 59-87. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1995.

Discusses the metaphorical patterns in Romeo and Juliet.

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

Explores Shakespeare's use of Petrarchanism as a satiric device 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.

Notes the influence of the Petrarchan sonnet on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

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Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 76)


That Which We Call a Name: The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet

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