Romeo and Juliet
By Dennis Abrams
The earliest known critic of the play, Samuel Pepys, wrote in his diary in 1622 that “it is a play of itself the worst I’ve ever heard in my life.” Yet 100 years later, the great Shakespeare critic Samuel Johnson wrote,
“General Observation. This play is one of the most pleasing of our author’s performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting, and the process of the action carried on with such probability, at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.
Here is one of the few attempts of Shakespeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. Mr. Dryden mentions a tradition, which might easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakespeare, that he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should have been killed by him. Yet he thinks him no such formidable person, but that he might have lived through the play, and died in his bed, without danger to a poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, that, in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio’s wit, gaiety, and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.
The Nurse is one of the characters in which the author delighted: he has, with great subtilty of distinction, drawn her at once loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.
His comic scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetic strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations. His persons, however distressed, have a conceit left them in their misery, a miserable conceit.”
It is probably the best known, (so well known, in fact, that I’m not going to hesitate to give away plot points throughout my discussions), best loved, and certainly one of the most often performed of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It has inspired the Broadway classic musical West Side Story. It has inspired operas, ballets, and symphonic pieces by composers as diverse as Berlioz, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Bellini. It has inspired pop songs from Springsteen, Tom Waits, Taylor Swift and Dire Straits. It has been called the most filmed play of all time, the most famous versions being the 1936 George Cukor production, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, and most recently Baz Luhrman’s MTV-inspired version starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. The name “Romeo” has even entered the language, synonymous for a lover.
It is, of course, William Shakespeare’s lyric tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the source of perhaps the most timeless Shakespearean image of all: the star-crossed lovers in the balcony scene, united by their passion yet doomed to separation. But, in fact, Romeo and Juliet is all about time, and the fact that the lovers are given so little of it lends their love affair a volatile and dramatic intensity. Shakespeare’s R&J fall in love at first sight, they’re married almost immediately, and are allowed just one night together before fate and their feuding families drive them apart. They are not allowed to grow old, in fact it is inconceivable to even think of them as growing old, and it is because of this, in part, that R&J describes better than any other Shakespearean work what it feels like to be young.
The play, I think, draws much of its power from violent conflict: between youth and age, life and death, fate and free will. It is also, a great experiment, one that Shakespeare would never quite repeat: The play begins in a world of bantering comedy and teenage rebellion, but when danger and death intervene, tragedy at its most tragic consumes the action. The lovers may attempt to transcend their fractured world (as Garber points out, “From the opening moments of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the audience is made aware that there is something seriously wrong in the play’s world), but they are in the end utterly unable to escape it – the play at once is a portrayal of the power of romantic ideals and of the lover’s fragility in the face of crushing social forces.
The first known talkie version of the famous balcony scene, from the 1929 film, “Hollywood Revue” with John Gilbert and Norma Shearer.
But there’s so much more to the play (as we’ve learn to expect from Shakespeare) than meets the eye – it’s not just the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. How does one explain the seemingly homoerotic Mercutio? The Nurse? The Friar? And is it even a tragedy? Tony Tanner argues,
“All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral
(IV, v, 84-5)
Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature.
(II, iv, 93-5)
Romeo and Juliet fails of being a ‘comedy’ by something under a minute (Juliet wakes up from her pseudo-death twenty-seven lines after Romeo has committed suicide). As a reason for including the play in [my] volume of Shakespeare’s Comedies, this may seem, at best, a rather perverse piece of special pleading. The first good Quarto announced it clearly enough as ‘THE MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET,’ by the end the five main protagonists are dead. Of course it is a tragedy. But it contains within it all the lineaments of a Classical comedy. Consider. Two young lovers set about circumventing the obstructiveness of intransigent parents, with the help of servants. When the Chorus of Act II:
Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir
It is offering a precise definition of one of the most basic situations of all comedy. In addition, we have a standard Malcontent (or kill-joy, or spoilsport) in Tybalt, who is a Malvolio at the feat, and, despite familiar exhortations, will not be festive. Mercutio, full of bawdy jests, provocative, punning, playful, always buzzing in Romeo’s ear is a superb Clown. And we have a comic, garrulous Nurse, whose main interest is helping to get the young into bed together. And there is a splendid dance and banquet (from which the churlish Tybalt is banished, and where the young lovers meet); and there is, indeed, a marriage whereby Romeo and Juliet are made ‘incorporate two in one’ (II, vi, 37) – which, as I have indicated elsewhere, is the ideal conclusion to a Shakespearian comedy. Only here, it happens at the end of Act II. Thereafter, ‘ordained festival’ does, indeed, turn to ‘black funeral.’ What (let us ask speculatively) was Shakespeare doing?”
I hope you’ll join us as we give a close reading to Romeo and Juliet in the hope of giving some possible answers to the question: What WAS Shakespeare doing?
Our reading: Romeo and Juliet, Act One
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.