Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Week 04, Romeo and Juliet

Notes on Romeo and Juliet

Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1

It has sometimes been said that Romeo and Juliet is not much of a tragedy because unfortunate accidents seem to be responsible for most of the bad things that happen. There is no prideful Oedipus the King in this play who brings about his own downfall, but I don’t believe Shakespeare follows any unitary model of tragedy—he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one set of materials to the next. A notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure. What, then, is the stuff of tragedy in this play? We are dealing with a primal tragedy of youthful expectations and middle-aged fears, of existential rawness and fear of irretrievable loss. Sigmund Freud wrote that “it is monstrous to see one’s children die.” That is what happens to both houses. As for Romeo and Juliet, they are open to the intensities and extremes of passion that come with first love. Romeo in particular idealizes love and fidelity to an extent that cannot help but be perilous. He hasn’t had the experience to do otherwise. There is a medieval quality to this play so full of turnabouts and sudden emotional passages from mirth to despair.

The Prologue announces that this will be a tragedy not only of two lovers but also of two extended families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Antipathy has become habitual with them, and they have therefore embroiled the entire city of Verona in civil strife. The quibbling servants of the first scene show how trivial the feud has become, and Sampson’s obscene innuendos about Montague maidens suggests that the family feud is easily made to serve selfish purposes, base appetites. There is no nobility in such factional strife. Tybalt and Benvolio are as absurd in prosecuting the quarrel as the low-born servants. The Prince breaks up the current fighting, but it is clear from what he says that he has dealt leniently with such disorders in the past. As in Measure for Measure, the ruler has allowed his subjects’s petty desires to wreak havoc in his realm.

We first hear of Romeo when Lady Montague asks Benvolio where the young man has been hiding himself. He shuns company, and Benvolio soon learns from him that love is the cause. Romeo speaks with considerable wit, but his words are also full of Petrarchan extremes: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity,” and so forth. Benvolio, a somewhat less inexperienced young man, advises Romeo to look around him and compare as many beautiful women as possible with the one who seems to be giving him the trouble.

Act 1, Scene 2

Capulet is very pleased with the prospect of the Prince’s kinsman Paris marrying his daughter Juliet, and he invites the young man to a public feast that also presents Romeo with the opportunity Benvolio is pushing on him. Romeo is dubious, and maintains his distant Rosaline’s matchless quality.

Act 1, Scene 3

The Nurse apparently has been with Juliet from infancy onwards, and she sees the girl’s life as a whole. The bawdy joke made by her husband years ago, here repeated, implies that the Nurse has been preparing Juliet for this time from her childhood. Her words are poignant in that they remind us just how short is the time between carefree childhood and the consequential time of adulthood. Juliet is intrigued about Paris, but no more than that since he is no more than a name to her.

Act 1, Scene 4

Mercutio recounts the legend of Queen Mab to Romeo and others present. The substance of his speech is that this Queen inspires all sorts to follow their own particular desires—by implication, we don’t have a great deal of control when it comes to our emotions and desires. All of this is meant to deflate Romeo’s dream, but the deeper significance of Mercutio’s speech is to put everyone in the same condition as Romeo—a follower of idle dreams. Romeo is not in so light a mood after all—he says, “my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels” (106-09).

Act 1, Scene 5

Benvolio’s plan doesn’t go quite as he had intended since Romeo, upon seeing Juliet, becomes just as smitten with her as he was with his former love. Old Montague and Capulet are willing enough to keep the peace, but the younger generation is always spoiling for trouble. Romeo’s forebodings are fulfilled when Tybalt conceives a hatred for him at the very moment when he falls in love with Juliet. The first meeting between Romeo and Juliet is one of the finest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. Together they speak a sonnet; Romeo takes the lead while Juliet is both passionate and poised. Both are soon dispossessed of any notion that there is a clear path forwards for them.

Act 2, Scene 1

Ever the realist, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about the supposed otherworldliness of Romeo’s new affection. Mercutio stands for the view that any “idealizing of eroticism” is downright silly and perhaps disingenuous, since raw sexuality is always at the bottom of any romantic pose a lover may strike up: of Juliet he can only say, “O that she were / An open[-arse], thou a pop’rin pear! / Romeo, good night, I’ll to my truckle-bed, / This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep” (37-40). He says this to Benvolio, however, and not to Romeo. Mercutio is frenetic and open-hearted in his way, but he’s not inclined to lie around in a chilly “field-bed” to keep watch over the passions of Romeo.

Act 2, Scene 2

Romeo’s romantic idealism is absolute up to this point, as is easy to see by remarks such as, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (1-2). Juliet’s idealism, though strong, shows more regard for the narrow dynastic concerns that hem in the two lovers. Her famous lines, “That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (43-44) capture the dilemma of lovers right up to Shakespeare’s time: love is a universal passion and as such it ought to generate community, but this same passion is hindered by a host of social demands and expectations that are anything but charitable, so that it often creates rifts between individuals and the larger group, which we call “society.”

Juliet reveals her passion fully since at first she doesn’t know Romeo is listening, which spares both of them the awkward task of dissembling their love. Juliet’s language is tinged with realistic (if unfounded) concerns—in particular, she fears that Romeo’s propensity to swear by the moon may indicate rashness rather than constancy. But she is steadfast in her eagerness to marry him, whatever the obstacles. The language of falconry marks Juliet’s desire for Romeo: “O, for a falc’ner’s voice,” she says, “To lure this tassel-gentle back again!” (158-59). There is recognition in such language that desire is essentially a wild thing, not something safe and tame. We can find the same insight, though in a darker vein, in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and other Tudor poets preceding Shakespeare.

Act 2, Scene 3

Friar Lawrence’s pronouncement near the beginning of this scene is instructive: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified” (21-22). The Friar is collecting a basket with “baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers” (6) that will turn out to be useful—and harmful—in a way he doesn’t yet imagine. Shocked by Romeo’s sudden transference of his attentions from Rosaline to Juliet, he nonetheless agrees to perform the secret marriage rite Romeo wants, in hopes of ending Verona’s unrest. The Friar seems to think that the Montagues and Capulets will be charitable and reasonable once they realize two of their own have chosen to marry.

Act 2, Scene 4

Mercutio shows his awareness of how silly the feuding amongst the two houses (especially amongst the younger generation) is: he takes on the persona of a grandsire to denounce “fashion-mongers” like Tybalt (33). Mercutio is in on the hostilities, of course, but he isn’t entirely circumscribed or defined by them. Given the opportunity, he engages with Romeo in a battle of wits, and then takes bawdy aim at Juliet’s Nurse, who has come as the girl’s emissary. Nurse Angelica is not amused. Romeo promises he will arrive in good time to spend the night with Juliet after they are married.

Act 2, Scene 5

In his lectures on Shakespeare, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is at the same time a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse.* It’s easy to see that quality in her here—beset by the impatient Juliet, the Nurse holds her ground for a while, but finally gives the girl the information she wants. Angelica’s circumstances and pace are not the same as Juliet’s: “I am the drudge, and toil in your delight; / But you shall bear the burthen soon at night” (75-76). She is fond of Juliet almost to a fault, but always aware that the young girl is surrounded by a potentially hostile world of causes and effects, of limitations and consequences. Pleasure and idealism are not free.

*The quotation: The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakspeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age. The generalization is done to the poet’s hand. Here you have the garrulity of age strengthened by the feelings of a long-trusted servant, whose sympathy with the mother’s affections gives her privileges and rank in the household; and observe the mode of connection by accidents of time and place, and the childlike fondness of repetition in a second childhood, and also that happy, humble, ducking under, yet constant resurgence against, the check of her superiors!

(http://absoluteshakespeare.com/guides/essays/romeo_and_juliet_essay.htm )

Act 2, Scene 6

Friar Lawrence leads Romeo and Juliet off to perform the marriage ceremony; his advice to Romeo, “Therefore love moderately” (14) is strangely ineffectual, given the Friar’s willingness to facilitate such a hasty, secret wedding.

Act 3, Scene 1

Romeo’s attempt to get between Tybalt and Mercutio results in the latter’s death, and then Romeo is honor-bound to avenge his kinsman. Having slain Tybalt, he laments that he is now “fortune’s fool” (136). The Prince steps in and dispenses his characteristically tempered style of justice, banishing Romeo on pain of death. This decree is mild since, after all, Paris is the Prince’s own kinsman.

Act 3, Scene 2

Juliet is indulging herself in a little romantic idealism around the time of the deadly quarrel: Give me my Romeo, and, when I shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night” (21-24). But the Nurse soon brings her the bad news about Tybalt’s death (over which Juliet is genuinely aggrieved since he was her kinsman) and Romeo’s guilty flight. The Nurse also provides hope, for she knows Romeo is hiding with Friar Lawrence.

Act 3, Scene 3

Banished Romeo is unable to imagine a “world without Verona walls” (17), and when the Friar tries to show him the sunny side of the whole affair, Romeo says with some justice, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel” (64). Romeo’s willingness to kill himself if it will assuage Juliet’s grief over Tybalt shows the depth of this affection that the Friar, as a holy man, supposedly lacks. Friar Lawrence’s advice is that Romeo should make his way to Mantua.

Act 3, Scenes 4-5

Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in the Capulet stronghold, and engage in a traditional “argument with the dawn” of Troubadour lineage. Juliet is filled with dread, and tells Romeo, “Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (55-56). When Lady Capulet professes her desire to poison Romeo in Mantua, Juliet pretends to share the same wish, but she can’t bring herself to pretend any joy in the prospect of marrying Count Paris, to whom her father has decided she should be wed “early next Thursday” (112). Old Capulet’s rebuke of Juliet is immediate and harsh—either she will marry Paris or he will disown her. Juliet is the Capulets’ only child, and in her stubbornness the father of the household sees his hopes of dynastic immortality frustrated. The Nurse angers Juliet by professing that it would be best to give in to her father’s wishes and marry Paris.

Act 4, Scene 1

Friar Lawrence sees that Juliet’s situation is desperate, and offers an equally desperate remedy—she will take a drug that induces death-like symptoms for forty-two hours, and then Romeo will come to the tomb of the Capulets and take her away with him to Mantua. This is a common motif in literature: cheating the Grim Reaper, or at least attempting to negotiate a better deal with him. Film students may recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval man plays a game of chess with Death in hopes of gaining more earthly time. The Friar, for a holy man, has a flair for quick-thinking deception, and is able to put his earlier sententia about virtue and vice to good use.

Act 4, Scenes 2-4

Juliet shows remarkable courage and does not shrink from swallowing her potion, even when she conjures the ghost of Tybalt.

Act 4, Scene 5

This is one of the scenes that leaps from joy to despair in a heartbeat. The Capulet parents suffer (or rather think they suffer) an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear. As I mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, Freud’s remark that “it is monstrous to see one’s children die” is appropriate here. And there’s a strong medieval quality to the grotesque imagery here and elsewhere in the play: old Capulet says to Paris, “O son, the night before thy wedding-day / Hath Death lain with thy wife” (35-36). The scene ends with a comic exchange between some musicians who had been summoned earlier by the Capulets and the servant Peter. Together, they introduce a devil-may-care, self-interested attitude into the midst of unspeakable woe. These musicians have little to do with the goings-on of great houses—they are just “working-class stiffs,” as we would say, and they seek their own security and comfort, when the latter is to be had. The scene doesn’t reach the synthesized profundity and silliness of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, but it’s effective all the same.

Act 5, Scene 1

Romeo hears from Balthasar that Juliet’s body lies in the tomb of the Capulets, and, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, he determines “with wings / As swift as meditation or the thoughts of love” to purchase a dram of deadly stuff from a poor apothecary (druggist), and die next to Juliet. The apothecary becomes a base-born “victim” of this noble tragedy, protesting, “My poverty, but not my will, consents” (75).

Act 5, Scene 2

Friar Lawrence learns to his discomfiture that Friar John was detained by townsmen concerned about the plague, so he wasn’t able to deliver his friend’s letter to Romeo.

Act 5, Scene 3

Romeo boldly confronts death and all its accoutrements: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, / Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth, / Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open, / And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food” (45-48). The death-imagery in this play is quite ugly, and throughout it has underlain the graceful words and actions of the young hero and heroine like the grotesque underside of a fair medieval decorative panel or casket. Romeo also confronts the hapless Paris, and kills him, only to die after one last look at Juliet’s body. The “ensign” of Juliet’s beauty is still visible, but the already aggrieved Romeo isn’t able to process this fact in anything but an ultra-romantic way, so surrounded is she by the architecture and trappings of death.

When Juliet awakens, her only comfort is Friar Lawrence, and Romeo’s words in 3.3 about the Friar’s inability to enter into the deep passions of the two lovers ring true: at the critical moment, Lawrence is frightened away from the scene when he hears the watch coming, and leaves Juliet alone. The entirely conventional fate he had imagined for her—delivery to “a sisterhood of holy nuns” (157) is not for Juliet, who embraces Romeo’s dagger and dies, falling directly on his body.

Friar Lawrence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven his less than wise or heroic interventions. As the Prologue promised, the “strife” of the Montagues and Capulets is “buried” by the death of their beloved son and daughter. This family that has dealt in hatred, says the Prince, is justly punished: “heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (293), but neither does he exempt himself from blame since he has been guilty of “winking” (294) at the chaos the two families have long visited upon Verona. Love has indeed brought the warring houses together, but the price is the death of what they hold most dear.

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