Wednesday, January 29, 2014

William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zefferelli's 1968 movie

Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!

There is a tragic point at which all common sense says: it's a million to one against, so you might as well give up.

This is the moment when love has to depart from this common sense, whose negative conclusions are death warrants.

When only a miracle can restore what you love, it becomes necessary to set about creating the conditions for a miracle.

And "Nede hath no lawe".


- Ese problema… ¿no será el de “Romeo y Julieta”? ¿Es que sus familias no están de acuerdo en esa boda?

The “situation” in Romeo and Juliet is a formidable statement, with the force of folktale, but it belongs to a much larger class of stories of in which social forces stand in the way of a wished-for marriage between two lovers. In most cultures parents have wished to have a say in their child’s choice of a mate. Perhaps the most usual case in real life is when there is some perceived difference in social class, when B is “beneath” what is due to A’s family. In that respect  Romeo and Juliet idealizes. Here, so far as class goes (“both alike in dignity”) the pair could hardly be more eligible for each other. They are perfectly matched in every respect but one, a historic enmity whose details never concern us – an arbitrary enmity. This is difficult for us to relate to, and Jerome Robbins was the visionary who in 1949 saw that the story could be about a cultural and ethnic clash: originally, he imagined a Roman Catholic Tony and a Jewish Maria, but as West Side Story developed the Jets became N. European-American and the Sharks Puerto Rican. This is such a natural transformation of the story that we tend to try and retro-fit it to Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare follows Brooke in making both families entirely Veronese (whatever unspecific thing this evoked for him) – though Tybalt does say, intriguingly, “This by his voice should be a Montague”.   

The enmity between the Montagues and the Capulets lacks the drive of ethnic/cultural antipathy; it also lacks an economic angle (such as we learnt to enjoy in that child of West Side Story, The Godfather). The family hostility imagined by Shakespeare is very unlike a feud or a vendetta, which would be patriarchally driven and enforced as duty. Here, on the contrary, old Capulet and (probably) old Montague are merely embarrassed by their legacy. Where the hostility still flourishes is among the younger men and the junior followers. It's far more like urban tribes than we might have expected. Some have inferred conclusions from this that tend to disparage the actions of the lovers and their unfortunate outcomes; they say that the lovers should not have acted against their families, that everyone would have come round in time. This is to revert unexpectedly to the moralistic stance of Brooke’s preface of 1562:

A coople of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principall counsels with dronken gossyppes, and superstitious friers (the naturally fitte instruments of unchastitie) attemptyng all adventures of peryll, for thattayning of their wished lust, usyng auriculer confession (the kay of whoredome, and treason) for furtheraunce of theyr purpose, abusyng the honorable name of lawefull mariage, the cloke the shame of stolne contractes, finallye, by all meanes of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappye deathe.

This is not where Brooke’s poem intends to leave us: he leaves a mixed impression, which is what Shakespeare also achieves, though with much greater subtlety. In Shakespeare’s play the dazzle of summer energies produces a range of flowers, of which love is one and violence another; it is truly about society but not in the same sort of way that West Side Story is.


In Act I Scene 2 Capulet advises Paris to contemplate the other beauties at his soirée, not just Juliet; later in the scene Benvolio gives similar advice to Romeo: don’t just mope after Rosaline, but take a look around. Capulet is not a tyrannical father (“My will to her consent is but a part”); Lady Capulet in Scene 3 is considerably more pushy, but Juliet – with no feeling of love in her breast, as yet, -  emphasizes her dutiful obedience as a pretext for holding herself back:

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

However, love is in the air. The parents have in effect licensed it, and Juliet allows that license to open her heart, though not in the direction that her parents plan.  In Love’s Labour’s Lost a similar seasonal, masquing impulse had caused all the young men and young women to fall in love, very neatly into non-overlapping couples. Here, however, an older set look back on love: the Nurse, Lady Capulet, the worldly-wise Mercutio, Capulet sentimentally (“’Tis gone, ‘tis gone…”). Everyone’s talking about it, but where, for this pair of youths, is the real thing? Society, right down to the serving-men, is busy with the apparatus of a setting for love. Tybalt understands the solemnity as a distinctly family affair, a social ritual that a hostile outsider would naturally scorn; in effect, he betrays his consciousness of its intimacy. But Romeo sees himself, self-conscious lover, as different from the “light of heart” who will enjoy a dance. Mercutio wittily discountenances Romeo’s foreboding dream.  

So what happens to Romeo and Juliet is the old old story, across a crowded room, love in the air, all those clichés, but it is in contrast to the simulacra of love that the story surrounds them with, for them it is specific, it is love for a particular person.

But love is a funny thing because the person you care about doesn’t mean anything like the same to the people around you. Unsurprisingly, we older readers (and most of us are going to be older than Romeo and Juliet) end up, in a way, dissing the centre of the story, them. We take more interest in the other characters, we look elsewhere for our involvement, because these lovers are set against this background of older people and of society in motion. Some are more interested in the (entirely self-invented) story of Romeo’s search for the lost father-figure/moral-authority Mercutio than in Romeo’s current love interest – as if Juliet is just the new Rosaline or whoever.

When Romeo says “He jests at scars that never felt a wound”, we take it with a trace of irony against the speaker, we think he does not know anything about other people’s scars, and we note avuncularly the self-absorption of the young. We see him instead as the exercise of the will in a particular phase of a larger, seasonal, cosmic pattern:

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb:
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;


Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs: grace and rude will;

Listening to Friar Lawrence, we place Romeo among these generalities. When Mercutio ribs Romeo in his social role merely as a devotee to Love, but is indifferent to (and, in fact, mis-identifies) the individual whom Romeo loves, then we see how this generalizing becomes wrong and irrelevant.

It’s not like any other love,
this one is different, because it’s us.

Much of Romeo and Juliet is about carving out that individual space within an indifferent society.


Or rather, failing to carve it out; but the lovers in the story are doomed, not so much by compelling circumstance as by the pre-existence of the story, which ends with their deaths. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have a source-text, but none follows its source more closely than this one. And Brooke’s poem belongs to the mid-century in spirit.

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

This is true. The sheer bad luck of Romeo not receiving the vital message and of killing himself just before Juliet wakes is heart-wrenching, because of our poignant awareness that his soul trembles on the brink, (if only Juliet would wake up NOW), of a bliss as seeming-miraculous as Leontes’ when the statue of Hermione comes to life. Instead, the lovers are united not in bliss but in despair, having the rare distinction of each being able to die heart-broken for the other’s death.

However, this extremity of woe and the prettily contrived situation that produces it belongs to a literary taste that Shakespeare was fast outgrowing. Brilliantly as he manages the final scene, you can detect a tension between Shakespeare and the story, very easily of course in hindsight when the play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes hilarious mockery of this very artifice. We don’t quite believe that the deaths of these young lovers would really heal up mutual distrust between two families – it would be more likely to inflame it, each blaming the other.

Shakespeare’s main addition to the plot of this final scene is Romeo’s killing of Paris. Romeo, not knowing who Paris is, does try to spare him. But he calls himself a madman, and before that “savage-wild”. Woe is not wholly an appropriate reaction to a scene of wild exaltation in which each lover responds to the silent summons of the other, and in which both Tybalt and Paris are generously invited to participate in a fatal fruition of youthfully savage passions. Their story, Romeo's and Juliet's I mean, remains distinct and isolated from the woeful matter that the two families will remember.


As everyone knows, youth and age are central themes in Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare makes Brooke’s young Juliet two years younger still, to ensure we take the point. To accuse these lovers of lack of judgment is inappropriate. Nor do they have much to say to each other; or rather, they have a great deal, but Shakespeare adapts for them a sonnet language which registers emotions and does not pretend to be naturalistic. When it comes to talking about something the lovers revert flatly to practicalities. They are not chockfull of learning or philosophy or small-talk. They do not debate or discuss.

Hence Shakespeare simply glides past the one point in the action when they have something very serious to discuss, i.e. when Romeo has just killed Juliet’s cousin. The next time we see them together (III V), they have already said whatever needed to be said, and now are once more united in love and in suffering a parting. In fact throughout the play their conversation (which is really not the right word for it) is remarkably restricted.

First, there are the 18 lines of their meeting in I V: trance-like, magical, formal. Then, the great duet when time seems to stand still in II II – 193 lines, of which 135 are actual conversation, because the early part is Romeo hearing Juliet covertly. Third, the brief meeting before their marriage in II VI, around 20 lines in Friar Lawrence’s presence, of which only 11 involve directly speaking to each other. And finally the too brief aubade of III V, which ends so swiftly and in such painful contrast to the balcony scene – “Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu” (III V 59).  In all, less than 300 lines from a total of nearly 3,000. Obviously, the lovers find it hard to meet. But besides, there is nothing they really have to say – not even that they love each other, because that announces itself just in the atmosphere they inhabit when they're together. Shakespeare did not know the metaphors of electricity or chemistry, but he knew about the thing they refer to.

The long conversation in II II is much concerned with the name Romeo, Romeo’s daring, Romeo’s danger. Juliet manifests her love for Romeo in trustingly using his name; she thus accepts him as a close presence in her life, as close as her family. Romeo on the other hand does not call her by her name at all; that name is for soliloquy. His awed respect instead comes out as “fair maid”, “Lady”, “love” – even in that last, with a faint tincture of possession. When, about to be married, he calls her “Juliet”, there is a slight awkwardness in the speech, which she reacts to. In their final conversation, both already harrowed by misfortune, their use of “love” to each other loses all sense of proprietary ownership. They know themselves to be, though married, quite outside the social structures of possession. They now seek only the security of companionship on a dark journey that will not end in this world. 



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