Romeo and Juliet
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Friar Laurence’s message explaining his plan never reaches Romeo, and the first he hears is that Juliet is dead. Grief-stricken, he rushes to Verona to Juliet’s tomb. Paris is lying in wait, though, and the two fight – Paris is killed and Romeo enters the tomb. There, he finds the unconscious Juliet, and kisses her one last time before taking poison. As Juliet begins to awaken, Friar Laurence arrives, but is frightened away by the appearance of the Watch. Seeing Romeo’s body, Juliet resolves on suicide and stabs herself. As the Capulets and Montagues arrive, the Prince reflects that the lovers’ deaths are punishment for the feud, and the two families resolve to be reconciled.
No matter how many times I’ve read and seen Romeo and Juliet, I’m still deeply moved by the play’s final scenes. And with this reading, no doubt because of the deep reading I gave it (the deepest I’ve ever done, thanks to all of you), it’s probably even more deeply moving, now that I have a much stronger sense of the play’s structure and the seeming inevitability of R&J’s fate, and how carefully Shakespeare prepared us for it.
The first thing I’d like to discuss, before getting into the various analysis of the last act is the fact that audiences throughout the last half of the eighteenth century and well into the 19th were likely to see a very different conclusion than the one we just read. As he had with Richard III, famed actor David Garrick adapted R&J to suit his own purposes.
First performed in 1748, Garrick made many changes to Shakespeare’s original, most famously picking up on an idea already used by Colley Cibber and Thomas Otway (who, had again, “improved” on Shakespeare’s Richard III), in the final scene. In Shakespeare’s play, of course, Romeo dies before Juliet awakes. Garrick, perceiving that Shakespeare had missed a trick here, one that would allow for one last moving scene between the two lovers, had Juliet wake up just as Romeo is about to kill himself, and gives them a final duologue in which each in turn displays symptoms of mental instability. From our vantage point, this may well seem beyond comic:
And did I wake for this!
My powers are blasted,
‘Twist death and love I’m torn, I am distracted!
But death’s strongest – and must I leave thee, Juliet!
Oh cruel, cursed fate! in sight of heaven!
Thou ravest; lean on my breast.
Father’s have flinty hearts, no tears can melt ‘em.
Nature pleads in vain. Children must be wretched.
O! my breaking heart!
She is my wife; our hearts are twined together.
Capulet forbear! Paris loose your hold!
Pull not our heart-strings thus; they crack, they break.
O! Juliet! Juliet! (Dies.)
Despite its absurdity, the fact remains that Garrick had a great success with it, and that his adaption of the play supplanted Shakespeare’s original for close to a century. And while it is now scorned, his version of the death scene lives on in Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphonic version Roméo et Juliette, as well as in Charles Gounod’s now neglected opera of the same name. Some modern productions of R&J show traces of Garrick’s influence: directors often point out the irony of the climax by having Juliet show signs of life to the audience, if not to Romeo, before he dies.
“When [Romeo] enters the tomb where Juliet is lying, sleeping-thought-dead, Romeo transforms this ‘bed of death’ into a version of a strange celebration. He denies that he is in a ‘triumphant grave’:
A grave? O, no, a lanthorn [lantern[, slaughtred youth,
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light.
Death, lie thou here, by a dead man interred.
He is laying down the corpse of the unfortunate Paris whom he has killed, and makes it into a burying of Death itself, turning the ‘vault’ into a ‘feasting presence full of light.’ This is the ‘lightning’ – lightening – ‘before death.’ In this strange festal mood, he raises the poison and toasts his Juliet – ‘Here’s to my love!’, just as Juliet raised her drugged glass to him – ‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, I drink to thee’. They make their deaths into their own, private banquet. In the outside, public world, all things that were ‘ordained festival’ have been turned to ‘black funeral.’ The would-be ‘comic’ world is truly dead – that, I think, is why Shakespeare kills off the blameless Paris. It means that all the young protagonists are dead by the end. There is no ‘young affection’ gaping to be the heir to ‘old desire’ – a whole generation has been wiped out, and generational renewal is, here, out of the question. At the end, the scene is peopled entirely by old (or not young) people, standing reconciled but hopeless in the gloom of a sunless dawn. But, in his private world of poetry, Romeo has turned everything that was ‘black funeral’ into his own form of ‘ordained festival’ ‘celebrating’ on, and in, his own terms. The ‘comedy’, albeit in a rare form, is consummated in the dazzling Juliet-light inside the tomb.”
“The pestilence prevents the Friar’s messenger from reaching Romeo. Instead, word is brought to him that Juliet is dead, and, armed with a drug of an apothecary who defies the law against selling poison, he ends his banishment to Mantua and starts back to Verona to seek beside Juliet the eternal banishment of death. The fury with which he threatens his companion Balthasar, on dismissing him when they reach the churchyard, if he should return to pry, reveals Romeo’s mood:
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.
And when he encounters and slays Paris, the contrast between his death and that of Mercutio, or even Tybalt, shows that we are dealing here not so much with the act of a free agent choosing his course in the present as with the now fatal consequences of an act in the past, of an agent then free but now longer so. Paris is little more than the branch of a tree that Romeo pushes aside – and his death affects us almost as little. It is all like a dream, or madness. Finding the sleeping – as he supposes the dead – Juliet, Romeo pours out his soul in words which, though incomparable as poetry, err in placing on the innocent heavens the responsibility for his own venial but fatal choice:
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.
And then, by one of those stroke that, it sometimes seems, only Shakespeare could achieve, the poet makes Romeo revert to and round out, in parting from Juliet forever, the same metaphor he had used when she first gazed down on him from her balcony and he had tried to give expression to the scope and range of his love. How magically, placed side by side, the two passages fit together, how tragically they sum up the story:
I am no pilot; yet, wert thou so far
As that vast shore wash’d with the farthest sea,
I would adventure for such merchandise.
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love! (Drinks.) O true apothecary!
Enter Friar Laurence – a moment too late. That fear is with him Shakespeare shows by another echo. ‘Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast,’ the Friar had warned Romeo on dismissing him after his first confession of his love for Juliet, and now he says:
How oft to-night
Have my old feet stumbled at graves!,,,
…Fear comes upon me.
He discovers the dead Romeo. Just then Juliet awakes. But at the same moment he hears a noise. The watch is coming! He cannot be found here.
Come, go, good Juliet, I dare no longer stay,
and when she refuses to follow, he deserts her. With a glance into the empty cup in Romeo’s hand and a kiss on the lips that she hopes keep poison for her own – anticipating touches at the deaths of both Hamlet and Cleopatra – she snatches Romeo’s dagger and kills herself.
Why did Shakespeare, after building up so noble a character as Friar Laurence, permit him to abandon Juliet at so fatal a moment? [MY NOTE: I’ve been wondering the exact same thing.] Why add his name to the so different ones of Capulet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse, no matter how much better the excuse for his desertion of her? For two reasons, I think: first, to show how far the infection of fear that Romeo’s use of force had crated. “Here is a friar, that trembles, sighs, and weeps,’ says the Third Watchman, and Laurence himself confesses, when he tells his story,
But then a noise did scare me from the tomb.
And then, to show that Juliet, abandoned even by religion, must fall back for courage finally on love alone.
The pestilence plays a crucial part toward the end of the action. It is a symbol. Whatever literal epidemic there may have been in the region, it is plain that fear is the real pestilence that pervades the play. It is fear of the code of honor, not fate, that drives Romeo to seek vengeance on Tybalt. It is fear of the plague, not accident, that leads to the miscarriage of Friar Laurence’s message to Romeo. It is fear of poverty, not the chance of his being at hand at the moment, that lets the apothecary sell the poison. It is fear of the part he is playing, not age, that makes Friar Laurence’s old feet stumble and brings him to the tomb just a few seconds too late to prevent Romeo’s death. It is fear of being found at such a spot at such a time, not coincidence, that lets him desert Juliet at last just when he does. Fear, fear, fear, fear, fear. Fear is the evil ‘star’ that crosses the lovers. And fear resides not in the skies but in the human heart.
The tragedy ends in the reconciliation of the two houses, compensation, it is generally held, for the deaths of the two lovers. Doubtless the feud was not renewed in its former form. But much superfluous sentiment has been spent on this ending. It is not folly to suppose that Capulet or Lady Capulet was spiritually transformed by Juliet’s death? And as for Montague, the statue of her in pure gold that he promised to erect in Verona is proof in itself how incapable he was of understanding her spirit and how that spirit alone, and not monuments or gold, can bring an end to feuds. (Lady Montague, who dies of a broken heart, was far and away the finest of the four parents.) Shakespeare’s happy endings are, almost without exception, suspect. Or rather they are to be found, if at all, other than in the last scene and final speeches, and are ‘happy’ in a quite untheatrical sense.
Cynics are fond of saying that if Romeo and Juliet had lived their love would not have ‘lasted.’ Of course it wouldn’t – in the cynic’s sense. You can no more ask such love to last than you can ask April to last, or an apple blossom. Yet April and apple blossoms do last and have results that bear no resemblance to what they come from – results such as apples and October – and so does such love. Romeo, in his last words, referred to the phenomenon known as ‘a lightning before death.’ Here is that lightning, and here, if it have one, is the happy ending of Romeo and Juliet.
If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.
My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne,
And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead –
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think! –
And breath’d such life with kisses in my lips,
That I reviv’d and was an emperor.
Ah me! how sweet is love itself possess’d,
When but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!
Enter Balthasar – with news of Juliet’s death.
Dreams go on by contraries, they say, and this seems to be an example. But is it?
From Garber, who, among other things, has a very different take on the themes of gold and silver than does Goddard:
“The potion, a mysteriously acting drug that simulates death, is not unfamiliar from other early modern plays, or indeed from the cultural history of the period, when pharmaceutical practice was changing, and poisoning one’s rivals was often a way to get ahead in political or erotic life. The presence in this play of the apothecary and his shop full of herbs, minerals, and body fragments balances the more medieval herb garden of Friar Laurence. Within the context of Shakespeare’s plays, though, the Friar’s plan is an aspect of his own vainglory, an opportunity for him to preside over, and perform, a naturalistic resurrection. We will see such sleeping potions, and such apparent resurrections, in later comedies (for example, in Cymbeline), where the rebirth of the sleeping lady signals a change in the status of knowledge and understanding for those about her. But Juliet senses that there will be no such audience or renewed understanding. Symbolically, she sends away her mother and the Nurse, and prepares to swallow the vial of sleeping potion alone:
Farewell, God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins
That almost freezes up the heat of life.
I’ll call them back again to comfort me.
Nurse! – What should we do here?
[She opens curtains; behind which is seen her bed]
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Juliet knows she is an actress. [MY NOTE: Excellent point.] The language of ‘acting’ in both senses – stage performance and activity – pervades her speeches, from the references to ‘love-performing night’ and ‘true love acted’ to this ‘dismal scene.’ Here it is well to remember that the Elizabethan ‘actress’ who played this part was in fact a male actor, since no women were permitted to perform on the public stage; like ‘night,’ evoked in the middle of a London afternoon, womanhood is a powerful and convincing dramatic effect, not merely a naturalistic mimetic reality. Modern culture’s paradigmatic heterosexual love story, Romeo and Juliet, is a play written for an all-male cast.
The language spoken by Romeo and Juliet themselves is increasingly a powerful, original, and allusive blank verse. By contrast, the characters they have left behind seem to relapse, as tragedy closes in on them, into an older language of melodrama, the exclamatory periods of Senecan tragedy, a language not unlike that spoken by the lamenting queens in Richard III:
She’s dead, deceased. She’s dead, alack the day!
Alack the day, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead!
O day, O day, O hateful day…
O love! O life: not life, but love in death.
O child, O child, my soul, and not my child!
These are lines that would not be out of place in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, where the distraught Hieronimo exclaims about the murder of his son: ‘O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;/O life, no life, but lively form of death’. We may be ready to agree with the Friar, when he intervenes: ‘Peace, ho, for shame! Confusion’s cure lifes not/In these confusions.’ Once again the language of the Capulets, the language of the day world, is a language of formality and artifice, the ‘form’ and ‘compliment’ that Juliet dismisses. (Compare Juliet’s famous ‘Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny/What I have spoke; but farewell, compliment/Dost thou love me?’) To it we can juxtapose the language of love, the language of excess as it is spoken by Romeo and Juliet.
Consider again Romeo’s lovely phrases, spoken when he first catches sight of Juliet at the Capulet’s masque: ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night.’ Romeo had complained of Rosaline that she would not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold./O, she is rich in beauty, only poor/That when she dies, with beauty dies her store.’ Juliet’s store of love, by contrast is immeasurable.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Juliet seems in this to prefigure Shakespeare’s ageless and timeless Cleopatra, who will tell her Antony: ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’ For when Juliet arrives at Friar Laurence’s cell to be married at the end of act 2 she declares:
They are but beggars that can count their worth,
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up some of half my wealth.
By the end of the play, language, too, will have grown to excess, maintaining the force of the mature Shakespearean sound in marked and deliberate contrast to the stilted, formal language of the early acts, and of the Capulets. Paris comes to Juliet’s tomb, thinking she is dead, and speaks in lukewarm rhyme, the sextet of a sonnet, ending in a couplet:
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.
And then we hear the voice of Romeo:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.
Is it any wonder that Juliet should prefer him?
The question of excess, worth, and ‘saint-seducing gold’ is more than merely decorative language or thematic counterpoint. Boundlessness versus limitation is a key dialectic for Shakespeare in every sphere (language, politics, mortality, sexual passion, geography, stagecraft, etc.). In R&J, which we have seen to be an extremely well-crafted play, the material worth of ‘gold’ and its limitations as lucre, ornament, and literal status symbol are measured against another kind of quality, associated with the quicksilver Mercutio and with the element of silver in the play. It is not overstating the case that gold versus silver constitutes another of the play’s defining feuds, and that the critique of gold leads to the stunning climax/anticlimax of the final scene, in which Capulet and Montague, having apparently learned nothing from their losses, vie to build golden statues, each for the other’s dead child.
Silver is mentioned three times in the play. In the orchard during the balcony scene Romeo speaks of the ‘blessed moon’ that ‘tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops’. In the same scene he hears Juliet call his name and thinks, ‘How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night,/Like softest music to attending ears!’ Later in the play, at the news of Juliet’s supposed death, a group of musicians debates the question of why music is said to have a silver sound. [MY NOTE: Ah…that’s why the discussion…] All these associations are pleasant, combining love, sweet music, and the moon, protective goddess of virgins and regnant light of the nighttime world of privacy and passion.
By contrast, the play’s references to gold are frequently negative and debasing. Rosaline, as we have seen, won’t ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold,’ phrases suggesting that Romeo has thought her favors might be purchased by gifts or trinkets. Lady Capulet’s praise of Paris as a book talks about the ‘golden clasps’ that lock in the ‘golden story, ‘proposing to judge this book by its cover. When Romeo is banished, he protests to Friar Laurence that banishment is a euphemism for death: ‘Calling death banished/Thou cutt’st my head off with a golden axe.’ Most signally, when Romeo goes to the apothecary, he pays for his poison with gold. ‘There is my gold – worse poison to men’s souls,’ he says, and ‘I sell thee poison [i.e., the gold]; thou hast sold me none.’ This apothecary, a ‘needy man,’ a ‘caitiff wretch,’ with his striking physical appearance and his shop full of empty boxes and pots and remnants of packthread, is in naturalistic terms a figure of poverty and economic depression – and, according to theater historians, a stock character part for the tall, thin actor John Sincklo. But more powerfully, he is surely an emblematic figure for Death, a walking skeleton, a death’s-head: ‘Meagre were his looks./Sharp mistery had worn him to the bones’ When the apothecary hesitates to sell the poison, Romeo says:
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? Famine in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.
Romeo buys death from Death, and – like the condemned man pardoning his executioner – exonerates him.
When we bear all this in mind, we must, I think, approach with great caution and many reservations the final scheme of reconciliation put forward by the Montagues and the Capulets. In the last scene of the play, missing the point of the tragedy that has robbed them of son and daughter, old Montague and old Capulet propose to build, instead of something living, a pair of golden statues. Montague says:
For I will raise her statue in pure gold
That whiles Verona by that name is known
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
Capulet, competitive to the last, replies:
As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.
‘At such rate,’ ‘rich,’ and ‘poor.’ At the close of the play, at the end of the tragedy, the final tragedy would seem to be that no one left alive onstage has understood the play. [MY NOTE: Nice!] The Friar is repentant but unchanged. Old Montague and old Capulet have translated their losses into material terms, into golden statues. And even the Prince is unenlightened:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Pardon and punishment are mentioned evenhandedly, and the sorrowing sun may remind us of Juliet’s exultant fantasy, that when dead Romeo will be translated into constellations of stars, ‘[t]hat all the world be in love with night/And pay no worship to the garish sun.’
These witnesses, all remnants of an older world of law, have had the experience and missed the meaning. The task of understanding what has transpired is left to the audience, which is part of the group enjoined by the Prince to ‘Go hence,’ out of the theater, ‘to have more talk of these sad things.’ In effect there are two audiences, one on and one off the stage. Notice the Prince’s word ‘story.’ The story to be retold here – as at the end of Hamlet, when Horatio is urged to stay alive in order to tell the Prince’s story – is the play, with all its twists and turns, its near misses, its soliloquies and sonnets, all elements beyond the experience and the understanding of the sobered Veronese families left onstage. The movement beyond tragedy is left to the spectators. The play, not the golden statues, is the real monument to the love and death and tragedy and triumph of two young ‘star-crossed’ lovers who have become for the modern world the very archetypes and words of love.
And from Harold Bloom:
“Juliet, and not Romeo, or even Brutus in Julius Caesar, dies her second death as a prefiguration of Hamlet’s charismatic splendor. Romeo, though he changes enormously under her influence, remains subject to anger and to despair, and is as responsible as Mercutio and Tybalt are for the catastrophe. Having slain Tybalt, Romeo cries out that he has become ‘Fortune’s fool.’ We would wince if Juliet called herself ‘Fortune’s fool,’ since she is as nearly flawless as her situation allows, and we recall instead her wry prayer: ‘Be fickle, Fortune.’ Perhaps any playgoer or any reader remembers best Romeo and Juliet’s aubade after their single night of fulfillment:
Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale and not the lark
That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on young pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
Yond light is not daylight, I know it, I.
It is some meteor that the sun exhales
To be to thee this night a torchbearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet: Thou need’st not to be gone.
Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death.
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.
Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come death, and welcome. Juliet wills it so.
How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.
It is, it is. Hie hence, begone, away.
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for he divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes.
O, now I would they had chang’d voices too,
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s up to the day.
O now be gone, more light and light it grows.
More light and light: more dark and dark our woes.
Exquisite in itself, this is also a subtle epitome of the tragedy of this tragedy, for the entire play could be regarded as a dawn song that, alas, is out of phase. A bemused audience, unless the director is shrewd, is likely to become skeptical that event after event arrives in the untimeliest way possible. Romeo and Juliet’s aubade is so disturbing precisely because they are not courtly love sophisticates working through a stylized ritual. The courtly lover confronts the possibility of a real-enough death if he lingers too long, because his partner is an adulterous wife. But Juliet and Romeo know that death after dawn would be Romeo’s punishment, not for adultery, but merely for marriage. The subtle outrageousness of Shakespeare’s drama is that everything is against the lovers: their families and the state, the indifference of nature, the vagaries of time, and the regressive movement of the cosmological contraries of love and strife. Even had Romeo transcended his anger; even if Mercutio and the Nurse were not quarrelsome busybodies, the odds are too great against the triumph of love. That is the aubade’s undersong, made explicit in Romeo’s outcry against the contraries: ‘More light and light: more dark and dark our woes.’
What was Shakespeare trying to do for himself as a playwright in composing R&J? Tragedy did not come easily to Shakespeare, yet all this play’s lyricism and comic genius cannot hold off the dawn that will become a destructive darkness. With just a few alternations, Shakespeare could have transformed Romeo and Juliet into a play as cheerful as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The lovers, escaped to Mantua or Padua, would not have been victims of Verona, or bad timing, or of cosmological contraries asserting their sway. Yet this travesty would have been intolerable for us, and for Shakespeare: a passion as absolute as Romeo and Juliet’s cannot consort with comedy. Mere sexuality will do for comedy, but the shadow of death makes eroticism the companion for tragedy. Shakespeare, in R&J, eschews Chaucerian irony, but he takes from The Knight’s Tale Chaucer’s intimation that we are always keeping appointments we haven’t made. Here it is the sublime appointment kept by Paris and Romeo at Juliet’s supposed tomb, which soon enough becomes both her authentic tomb and their own. What is left on the stage at the close of this tragedy is an absurd pathos: the wretched Friar Laurence, who fearfully abandoned Juliet; a widowed Montague, who vows to have a statue of Juliet raised in pure gold; the Capulets vowing to end a feud already spent in five deaths – those of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet. The closing curtain of any proper production of the play should transcend these final ironies, presented as ironies, and not as images of reconciliation. As in Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet is a training ground in which Shakespeare teaches himself remorselessness and prepares the way for his five great tragedies, starting with the Hamlet of 1600-1601.”
So…final thoughts? If you’ve read the play before, has your opinion or reading of the play changed? If you haven’t read the play before, how did it compare to what you thought you’d be reading? PLEASE…share with the group, your thoughts.
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning: Sonnet #86
Enjoy your weekend.