#14. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Part 2: Romeo and Juliet
The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, also known merely as Romeo and Juliet, is a tragic drama purportedly written by William Shakespeare in London in the mid 1500’s, which is quite interesting in that love was not considered a suitable topic for tragedies in his days. It was thought to be written between 1593-1595, with the play published for the first time in a quarto version in 1597. Most critics feel that it was written between 1594-1595. Romeo and Juliet would become his most popular play during his lifetime, with Hamlet following a close second in the most frequently performed Shakespeare play.
Set in Verona and Mantua (northern Italy) in the Renaissance (14th-15th century), the protagonists make their mark and identify themselves as the star-crossed lovers Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. The role of antagonists is shared by fate and the feuding Montagues and Capulets in the major roles. Tybalt, the Prince, and the citizens of Verona play a minor role as the antagonist. It is through the deaths of the young lovers that the ancient feud between their families is healed.
Although it is foreshadowed as to what will be, the play is told in the present tense. The Chorus’s first speech declaring that Romeo and Juliet are doomed to die and “star-crossed” (Prologue). The lovers’ frequent thoughts of death: “My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (by Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5, Line 140). The lovers’ thoughts of suicide, as when Romeo threatens to kill himself after killing Tybalt (Immediately following Act 3, Scene 3, Line 110). Friar Lawrence’s warnings to behave moderately if Romeo and Juliet wish to avoid tragedy: “These violent delights have violent ends . . . Therefore love moderately” (Act 2, Scene 6, Lines 9–14). The lovers’ mutual impression that the other looks pale and deathlike after their wedding night (Act 3, Scene 5, beginning). Juliet’s faked death by Friar Lawrence’s potion (Act 3, Scene 3). Romeo’s dream-vision of Juliet kissing his lips while he is dead (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 6-9). Romeo’s outbursts against fate: “O, I am fortune’s fool!” (Act 3, Scene 1.126) and “Then I defy you, stars” (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 24).
In the Prologue, the Chorus labels Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed”, and thus sets the stage for the prevailing and accompanying theme of love, the inevitability of fate. With the belief that his beloved Juliet is passed, Romeo proclaims in defiance “Then I defy you, stars” (Act 5, Scene 1, Line 24) tying up in a nice pretty bow the idea that their love was in complete rivalry to fate. There are so many events that contribute to this thought: a never-explained feud between the Capulets and Montagues, the plan of Friar Lawrence gone array, and the timeline difference between Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s rising from the dead.
The theme of love percolates throughout the tale, whether it is in the forcefulness of love or the possibility that love is a cause of violence. Either way, Shakespeare’s version of love is not a dainty mental state (as was seen with Rosaline in the beginning), but rather a brutal, powerful emotion that compels the two to resist family, friends, and society, and in the end, even themselves. The famous line [“Deny thy father and refuse thy name, Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (by Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 35-38) ] is the turning point where love brings the two to deny their families. In Act 2, Scene 1, Romeo abandons his friends Mercutio and Benvolio after the feast at the Capulets for the chance to go to Juliet’s garden. Last but not least, in Act 3 Scene 5, Romeo defies the Prince and returns to Juliet once while she is alive, and then again in Act 5 Scene 1 after she has taken the sleeping potion and is seemingly dead. The themes of death and violence permeate Romeo and Juliet, and they are always connected to passion, whether that passion is love or hate. The connection between hate, violence, and death seems obvious. But the connection between love and violence requires a deeper scrutiny.
Love, in Romeo and Juliet, is a grand passion, and as such it is blinding; it can overwhelm a person as powerfully and completely as hate can. The passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is linked from the moment of its inception with death: Tybalt notices that Romeo has crashed the feast and determines to kill him just as Romeo catches sight of Juliet and falls instantly in love with her. From that point on, love seems to push the lovers closer to love and violence, not farther from it. Romeo and Juliet are plagued with thoughts of suicide, and a willingness to experience it: in Act 3, Scene 3, Romeo brandishes a knife in Friar Lawrence’s cell and threatens to kill himself after he has been banished from Verona and his love. Juliet also pulls a knife in order to take her own life in Friar Lawrence’s presence just three scenes later in Act 4, Scene 1. After Capulet decides that Juliet will marry Paris, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (Act 3, Scene 5, Line 254). Finally, each imagines that the other looks dead the morning after their first, and only, sexual experience (“Methinks I see thee,. . as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (by Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 55–56). This theme continues until its inevitable conclusion: double suicide. This tragic choice is the highest, most potent expression of love that Romeo and Juliet can make. It is only through death that they can preserve their love, and their love is so profound that they are willing to end their lives in its defense. In the play, love emerges as an amoral thing, leading as much to destruction as to happiness. But in its extreme passion, the love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so exquisitely beautiful that few would want, or be able, to resist its power. (Study Mode)
Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers’ struggles against society in the form of public and social institutions that either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love. Such structures range from the concrete to the abstract: families and the placement of familial power in the father; law and the desire for public order; religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These institutions often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example, time and again results in brawls that disturb the public peace.
Though they do not always work in concert, each of these societal institutions in some way present the formidable obstacles for Romeo and Juliet. The enmity between their families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine to create a profound conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their heritages. Further, the patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance families, wherein the father controls the action of all other family members, particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position. Her heart, in her family’s mind, is not hers to give. The law and the emphasis on social civility demands terms of conduct with which the blind passion of love cannot comply. Religion similarly demands priorities that Romeo and Juliet cannot abide by because of the intensity of their love. Though in most situations the lovers uphold the traditions of Christianity (they wait to marry before consummating their love), their love is so powerful that they begin to think of each other in blasphemous terms. For example, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry,” elevating Romeo to level of God (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 119). The couple’s final act of suicide is likewise un-Christian. The maintenance of masculine honor forces Romeo to commit actions he would prefer to avoid. But the social emphasis placed on masculine honor is so profound that Romeo cannot simply ignore them.
It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private desires of the individual. Romeo and Juliet’s appreciation of night, with its darkness and privacy, and their renunciation of their names, with its attendant loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of the world will not let him. The lovers’ suicides can be understood as the ultimate night, the ultimate privacy. (Study Mode)
While Shakespeare personalized this story with his gifts of character development, poetic verses, and story embellishments through the use of subplots, the actual plot comes from Italian tales that were eventually translated into English in a lengthy verse by Arthur Brooke in 1562. In Shakespeare’s time it was popular to publish works based on Italian pieces. Quite a few of his more popular pieces follow this trend (The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and, ultimately, Rome and Juliet). It’s possible that Romeo and Juliet’s beginning starts with Metamorphoses (8 AD), a fifteen-book collection by the Roman poet Ovid. Book IV contains a tale about Pyramus and Thisbe. It holds similar points of a family feud and a false belief of a lover’s death. The Ephesiaca, or the Ephesian Tale, a five-part novel written by Xenophon of Ephesus (mid-2nd century CE), also had similarities to Romeo and Juliet, including the separation of lovers and a sleeping potion that feigned death. The Divine Comedy, an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri (1308-1321), is one of the first references to the family names. In canot 6 of Purgatorio, he mentions the Montecchi (Montagues) and the Cappelletti (Capulets). Dante uses his characters for political chastisement.
Come and see, you who are negligent,
Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi
One lot already grieving, the other in fear.
~Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, canto VI, II. 106-8
From there, the story has been reconstructed and retold in session, by several writers. Masuccio Salernitano retold it as Mariotto and Gianozza, in his 33rd novel of his II Novelino (1476). While there are many similarities, such as secret marriage, a collaborating friar, an exile and a forced marriage, Masuccio ends the tale with Mariotto being beheaded and Gianozza dying of grief. Giulietta e Romeo, found in Historia novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (Luigi da Porto, 1530) contained the names of the lovers and feuding families, its location in Verona, and key minor characters similar to Shakespeare’s tale. The lovers’ suicides are the same, as well. It was Matteo Bandello’s version of Giuletta e Romeo (1554) that introduced the minor characters of the Nurse and Benvolio. Pierre Boaistuau translated Bandello’s version in French in 1559, and added a greater sense of moralizing and sentiment, along with rhetorical outbursts. Arthur Brook translated Boaistuau’s version, word for word, with just a hint of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and thus created The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). William Painter also recreated a version of the story in Palace of Pleasure (1567). Shakespeare borrowed from both Painter and Brook’s version and expanded on the characters. The critics have varied in opinion upon this play.
Samuel Pepys, the earliest known critic for Romeo and Juliet, claimed it was the worst play he had ever seen, in 1662. Ten years later, however, the poet John Dryden praised Shakespeare specifically for his character Mercutio. The writer Charles Gildon and the philosopher Lord Kames stated that the play was a failure, as it did not follow the traditional rules of a drama, meaning that the tragedy should be as a result of a character flaw, not as the result of fate.
If Shakespeare could see the evolution of his play, would be displeased? David Garrick excluded Rosaline in his adaption of 1748. He felt that Romeo’s rapid shift of “love” left Juliet viewed as “fickle and reckless”. The critic Charles Dibdin claimed that Rosaline’s role should remain intact to demonstrate the recklessness of the hero, providing the character flaw for the reason of the tragedy.
In the life of Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet was published twice (1597 and 1599), which, when you consider the technology of the printing presses in his day would make it a considerable achievement. To this day, Romeo and Juliet remains unmatched in its level of infamy of passionate but fatalistic love, and it sets the standard for all other stories to come. The title characters are regarded as archetypal young lovers, and have set the stage for such more modern roles as we see in not only classics such as Wuthering Heights, but also more modern pieces like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.
As I will add with all of Shakespeare’s works, it is thought that Shakespeare did not actually write his “works”, and that it was suggested that possibly Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote the pieces in secret to relay a political or moral lesson.