It is difficult to begin formulating opinions of Romeo and Juliet: the play has grown to such a height, and built up so many expectations and assumptions – what more can be said? Stephen Greenblatt begins his exploration of this play by likening Romeo and Juliet to Plato’s Symposium. Harold Bloom, in his analysis, brings in the rivaling philosophies of Heraclitus and Empedocles in order to establish the tensions of Romeo and Juliet. Granted, Shakespeare may have been drawing form Greek influence in writing this play, but it seems to me that the aim on both Bloom and Greenblatt’s part is to bring this most popular (in the broadest sense) play into an academic and esoteric sphere: to bring the two lovers, who have run so far away from “Shakespeare” back into the world of Shakespeare, so they may approach it on the same level as other plays. And I must say that I am not claiming to do a better job than either of them.
For Romeo and Juliet – as an entity – have ascended their play in the same way Hamlet rises above his. They have become Love incarnate, a paragon of youth, the symbol for struggle in an oppressive society – they have transformed into paintings, ballets, musicals, zombies &c. Even before their revitalization in the 19th century, the two star-crossed lovers were a success and helped propel Shakespeare into the world as a tragedian (Titus Andronicus was not entirely successful at this, as popular as it was).
Shakespeare even prophesizes this success at the end of the play:
This is, however, a double-edged sword. If the lovers have outgrown their play, so has their love outgrown its context. The love of these two have risen above its lyric roots, its satirical element, and its careful construction: for these reasons, it is often misconstrued. The most prevalent complaint I hear from students who have studied this play is that it is too fake, that “people don’t talk like that.” I have to explain that, even in 1595, people didn’t talk to each other in sonnets (see Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting in I.v). Teachers, directors, and people in general all have a tendency to take this play too seriously, and to ignore the constructed nature of it. Of course the opposite can be equality damaging: look no further than Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. And so I want to take this opportunity to place the two lovers in their proper context, exploring the play as it was before it grew to its present height. To do this, I wish to use as my jumping off point a seemingly minor detail about a very minor character – that is the death of Lady Montague.
Lady Montague dies at the end of the play, concurrently to the climactic catastrophe. We learn of her death from Old Montague. Of course, the simple answer to the question of why does Lady Montague die is given to us by Old Montague:
Simple enough. But it seems to come out of left field at first, doesn’t it? After all that has happened, can the death of a character who is in two scenes (silent in one of them), and has a grand total of three lines – can she inspire the necessary pathos that a tragic death demands? But when we examine this moment in the context of the play, it begins to fit into place.
In Romeo and Juliet, we are dealing with a heightened reality. The play is set in contemporary Verona (that is, around 1595), but it is not a world audience goers would have recognized. Here is just a quick list of some of the heightened reality in this play
Romeo is prompted to this speech by the remains of a previous fight: a fight that has far more to do with hate – and vanity – than love. The idea that everything prompts him to feel the dualistic forces of love would have provoked laughter in an audience forced to study Petrarch in school: this is why Romeo asks Benvolio “dost thou not laugh?” Benvolio is probably the only one not laughing. Mercutio draws this comparison when he notes that Romeo out Petrarchs Petrarch: “Laura to his lady [Rosaline] was but a kitchen wench” (II.iv). While Romeo pines for Rosaline – or when his friends think he pines for Rosaline – he is not a tragic figure, nor one that inspires pity: the Romeo of the first two acts is a comic lover – much in the same way Orlando is in As You Like It.
The timeframe: If you know this play, you probably know the exaggerated timeframe (another aspect that has to be explained to students.) Romeo and Juliet meet on a Sunday evening, propose on Sunday night, marry Monday afternoon, part forever Monday evening, and die together Wednesday night. This is not a normal relationship nor is it meant to be. For all the meticulous timekeeping that goes on in this play, there is a lot of muddling of time. Old Capulet bumbles over what day it is at any given point, probably because he doesn’t seem to sleep at all during the play. There is some confusion of whether the final actions of the play take place on Wednesday or Thursday night (it’s Wednesday) because Old Capulet constantly changes what day it is, or on what day the wedding is supposed to happen. Romeo and Juliet too fumble over the hours. After she learns that Romeo slew Tybalt, Juliet laments:
In the next scene, which takes place at the same time or just after III.ii, Romeo laments
Indecently, I am inclined to believe Juliet here because she has done nothing but wait and count the hours at this point. The discrepancy may be an error, but more likely, it shows how fickle time is in the heat of such passion. Romeo and Juliet, just like their play, overcome time: forcing eternity into four short days.
Given all of this, why should death reflect a natural reality? After the climactic tragedy, should there not be more woe? Should not the grief be as heightened as everything else? Such is why the death – the tragedy – does not end where we expect it to, but continues with one final death.
There is constructed language (the use of lyricism) and constructed reality, but the play itself is also very carefully crafted. There are a lot of parallels that exist in this play – everything seems to be in balance. Fate and Fortune play a large role in the play: we have, after all, star-crossed lovers. There is a sense that someone, some external force, is controlling everything. In The Tempest this force is Prospero, in Romeo and Juliet it is an unseen Author. Or it is the Prologue and the whole thing is meant to be seen as a story: such metafictional interpretations are not too farfetched.
Let’s start with the first prologue. Imagine you are seeing this play for the first time and know nothing about Romeo and Juliet. The Prologue steps on stage and begins his speech:
You get the idea. The prologue points out the inherit constructed nature of theatre and genre. We are dealing with The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – we know that convention dictates that Romeo and Juliet will die. Being so explicitly reminded of this fact at the start of the play does not ruin the play, but adds an exciting element to it. Their death – their suicides – hang over everything that happens in the play: including the first comedic half.
That’s right – the first half of this play is a comedy. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses the figure of Time to transform a clear-cut tragedy (the first three acts of the play) into a pastoral comedy (Act IV), before mudding up the waters of comedy and tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet the transition is more seamless, but the arc of both comedy and tragedy are present. In “The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet” two lovers have a problem that they must overcome. Romeo is saddened because Rosaline will not return his love. Juliet is troubled over the fact that her parents are trying to force a marriage on her. When they meet and fall in love, they are faced with a new problem – they are supposed to be enemies. They overcome their trials and the whole thing ends in a marriage. A straightforward comedy. The first half also contains the prevalent comedic characters of the play: The Nurse, and Mercutio. The Nurse cuts the tension that is the conflict between Juliet and her mother by providing bawdy stories and crude humour.
Mercutio is one of the greatest wits in Shakespeare, and a precursor to Falstaff. The 17th century poet, Dryden, mused about how Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed him. People foolishly think that Shakespeare himself said this, and it is certainly not true. Yet, Romeo and Juliet. as a play would have been destroyed if Mercutio was allowed to live. Mercutio is right at home in the Comedy of Romeo and Juliet, but would never be able to survive in the Tragedy. But I must move away from Mercutio before he kills this post.
So when Romeo and Juliet profess their love and engage in the sublime “balcony scene” – we may luxuriate in their love and their poetry, but the ending – the tragedy – looms.
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
Not much needs to be said here. This is some of the finest poetry written in the English language: heightened only by the fact that we know that it is fleeting. This love is doomed before it began. If we thought that they would have a happy ending then this speech and others might just be sentimental bathetic drivel – but here, this is such unfulfilled yearning that we may smile at the poetry and weep at what we know will happen, and these chaotic emotions fuel this play.
Following the comedic half, we have the tragic half of the play, which begins with the death of Mercutio. Here we begin to see some of the parallels between the two halves. Both begin with a brawl in the street between Montague and Capulet, one that draws the citizens and the Prince. In the comic half, no one is hurt and no con