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Introduction to Romeo and Juliet by Mario DiGangi
“Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” So familiar is Romeo and Juliet to us that it takes an act of conscious will to imagine a time when Juliet’s question was not a cliché. In its immediate dramatic context, Juliet’s question is the spontaneous, tentative, and private expression of a young woman’s burgeoning erotic desire. It also serves to confirm Juliet’s true feelings for Romeo, who overhears her confession from beneath her window. Yet in our own time, Juliet’s anguished question is repeated again and again in the classroom, on the stage, and in popular culture as part of an enduring myth of romantic love associated with Shakespeare’s play. As a result, we are perhaps far more likely to regard “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” as something that Shakespeare, rather than Juliet, said. Detached from its dramatic context, Juliet’s question can be taken as a prime example of the Bard’s romantic lyricism, or, less reverently, as a piece of romantic sentiment irresistibly ripe for burlesque—perhaps most memorably in Bugs Bunny’s absurdly exaggerated, cross-dressed performance of Juliet’s passion.
The modern understanding of Romeo and Juliet as archetypical tragic lovers has been shaped by centuries of performance history and critical commentary, and, more recently, by popular movies and secondary school curricula. Yet Elizabethan audiences might have been surprised to find that they were being asked to regard this pair of contemporary Italian adolescents as serious tragic protagonists. The most elevated dramatic genre, tragedy traditionally dealt with the fall of great men—“great” because both aristocratic and historically important. Romeo and Juliet are neither. Thus part of the Chorus’s job is to persuade his audience to bring “patient ears” to this unconventional, but nonetheless “piteous” and “fearful,” tragedy featuring “star-crossed lovers” rather than great historical figures (Prologue 13, 7, 9, 6). By defining Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers” instead of as son and daughter, boy and girl, Montague and Capulet, or husband and wife, the Prologue places the protagonists in a lofty tradition of legendary and historical tragic couples such as Dido and Aeneas and Antony and Cleopatra. Romeo and Juliet, however, are non-noble, nonlegendary lovers whose story originated not in ancient epic or historical narratives but in modern romances. As such, an Elizabethan audience might well have felt skeptical about the value of a tragedy centered on their lives and loves. Shakespeare’s unconventional protagonists might have further alienated the sympathies of many London playgoers through their association with Catholicism, the extremely young age at which they enter into a clandestine marriage, and their sacrilegious acts of suicide.
In order to find Romeo and Juliet figures worthy of tragic treatment, then, Shakespeare’s audience would have to find value in their love. The Prologue’s reference to the protagonists as “star-crossed” begins to establish this value by attributing cosmic significance to their story. But the value of Romeo and Juliet’s experience emerges most forcefully from the way that Shakespeare invests their love with depth and dimension as a force of personal and social change. Whereas the mature protagonists of Shakespeare’s later love tragedies Othello and Antony and Cleopatra discover that their personal histories and social identities thwart their ability to sustain romantic intimacy, the young lovers of Romeo and Juliet discover that romantic intimacy provides an opportunity to challenge and transform their inherited social identities as enemies. Romeo and Juliet believe that they can shape a future that will reward their own standards of value. In one of the play’s most poignant moments, Romeo assures Juliet that “these woes shall serve / For sweet discourses in our times to come” (3.5.51–52). (The more experienced Friar regards the future with greater apprehension: “So smile the heavens upon this holy act / That after-hours with sorrow chide us not” [2.6.1–2]). Like the protagonists of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, however, Romeo and Juliet are not simply “star-crossed” victims of fate: they actively participate in bringing about the woes that will prevent a sweeter future from being realized. Evading public recognition of the transformations wrought by their love, Romeo and Juliet disastrously underestimate the power exerted over their lives by the very familial and social forces whose standards of value they have attempted to circumvent.
Despite all the misgivings an Elizabethan or modern audience might feel about the prudence of the young lovers’ actions, Shakespeare enlists our sympathies by depicting their love as a potential force of change in a society paralyzed by self-consuming passions. In the first part of the play, both Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline and the recursive violence of the feud are driven by passions that are paradoxically self-sustaining and self-defeating. The opening scene encapsulates the ethos of the feud through the aimless banter of two idle servants, whose bawdy puns on “stand,” “tool,” and “naked weapon” sexualize the violent encounters between Verona’s young men (1.1.10, 29, 31). Charged by the erotic energy of aggressive masculinity, the feud continues to run on its own juices, detached from any evident origin or goal.
Although Romeo has removed himself from the feud’s sterile cycle of violence, he is stuck in a no less sterile identity as a Petrarchan lover. In the literary tradition derived from the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, the lover uses antithetical phrases such as “bright smoke,” “cold fire,” and “sick health” to express the paradoxical mixture of joy and sorrow he feels in devoting himself to a woman who does not return his affection (1.1.174). Caught in a highly stylized representation of love that prevents him from experiencing desire as an immediate, deeply felt emotion, Romeo languishes in melancholy solitude. Montague worries that his sole heir will fail to blossom into a healthy and prosperous young man, that he will wither like “the bud bit with an envious worm / Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air / Or dedicate his beauty to the same” (1.1.145–147). This image of thwarted love as a withering bud will later be replaced by Juliet’s hopeful image of love’s flourishing: “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, / May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet” (2.2.121–122). Rosaline, impervious to love’s “ripening” powers, will remain an unopened bud frozen in time; in dedicating his life to her service, Romeo must therefore “live dead” (1.1.218).
Encouraging Romeo to regard Rosaline as an object of sexual desire, not a subject of poetic adoration, Mercutio attempts to return his lovesick friend to the social world of aggressive masculinity from which he has strayed. In Shakespeare’s primary source for Romeo and Juliet, Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), Mercutio appears in a single passage as a courtier who competes with Romeus for Juliet’s love. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio competes with women for Romeo’s love, trying to cure his friend of the romantic infatuations that keep him from male society. Echoing Sampson and Gregory’s punning associations between sex and violence in the play’s first scene, Mercutio claims that Romeo can only be “move[d]” or “stirre[d]” out of his amorous lethargy by taking sexual possession of his mistress (2.1.16). Whereas Petrarchan poetry bestows a unique value on the chaste mistress, Mercutio believes that Romeo should understand Rosaline as a collection of body parts—“bright eyes,” “scarlet lip,” “fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh”—that are conveniently available “to raise [him] up,” or stimulate him into an erection (2.1.18–20, 30).
Romeo’s idealistic Petrarchanism and Mercutio’s coarse anti-Petrarchanism seem to represent antithetical positions on love. Yet both attitudes devalue the mutuality of love, and hence love’s transformative capacities, by erasing the woman’s role as an actively desiring partner. For Romeo, Rosaline is to be praised from afar; for Mercutio, Rosaline is to be enjoyed in the flesh. That Rosaline apparently desires only to protect herself from the “siege of loving terms” and the lover’s “assailing eyes” seems not to matter much to either man (1.1.206–207).
Living up to the “good will” of his name, Benvolio offers Romeo an escape from the narcissistic sterility of Petrarchan love. He does so, surprisingly, by introducing an analogy between love and commerce. Earlier, Romeo had drawn a different analogy between sexuality and economics in describing Rosaline’s preservation of her virginity as a hoarding of riches. By preserving her virginity, Rosaline paradoxically “makes huge waste” of her beauty, because she will not have any children that might inherit and preserve that beauty (1.1.212). This language of hoarding associates Rosaline with the repellent figure of the miser or usurer, later described by Friar Laurence as one who “abound’st in all” and fails to make “true use” of his riches (3.3.123–124). Significantly, Benvolio evokes a very different model of financial exchange when he promises to help Romeo to forget Rosaline: “I’ll pay that doctrine or else die in debt” (1.1.232). By playfully “indebting” his life to Romeo, Benvolio challenges himself to fulfill his promise to teach Romeo a new “doctrine” of love. Benvolio’s view of economics as a risky venture that can produce profit (“pay”) as well as loss (“debt”) describes the quality of mutual exchange that will characterize the love between Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare would develop this metaphor of love as economic exchange at greater length in The Merchant of Venice, but in Romeo and Juliet it serves to suggest the rewards and risks, and hence the value, of the “true use” of love.
Both the rewards and risks of love are apparent in Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation. When they meet at the Capulet feast, Romeo and Juliet speak to each other in alternating lines of dialogue that combine to form a fourteen-line sonnet. While their dialogue produces a conventional poetic form, their mutual authorship of this poem significantly moves beyond Petrarchan convention in giving the woman an active voice of desire. By putting Petrarchan language to a less narcissistic use, Romeo reaches out across the borders that are everywhere constructed in Verona: significantly, the topic of the sonnet is a pilgrimage, a healing journey to a new land. Moreover, the sonnet’s religious imagery of giving and taking sin echoes Benvolio’s economic imagery of giving and taking payment. Romeo offers Juliet a kiss as amends for any offense done by his hand; when Juliet grants his prayer with a kiss, Romeo claims that his lips have purged or paid for the sin of his hand. Juliet, however, keeps the exchange going. She protests that Romeo’s kiss has transferred his sin to her lips, tacitly inviting him to take back his sin through another kiss. Hence both have sinned, and both have pardoned each other’s sin: as Romeo will later explain to the Friar, “one hath wounded [him] / That’s by [him] wounded” (2.3.50–51). When Romeo and Juliet discover each other’s true identity, they express their shock through a paradoxical language of simultaneous loss and gain. Romeo exclaims, “O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt”; Juliet laments, “My only love sprung from my only hate” (1.5.116, 136). Although the imagery of death and hatred in these lines seems to foreshadow the lovers’ demise, Romeo and Juliet must acknowledge the mutual risk and sacrifice involved in love before they can begin to fashion their new identities as lovers.
If Juliet appears to demonstrate greater emotional maturity about love and more courage in the face of adversity than Romeo, it might well be because she faces greater risks by engaging in a clandestine romance. In the Renaissance, much greater value was placed on female chastity than male chastity, since the orderly legal transmission of a man’s name and property to his heirs was dependent on the secure knowledge that his children were really his own. Even for a woman to speak openly about her sexual desires could earn her a reputation as a whore. The play’s famous balcony scene significantly focuses on the risks Juliet takes in expressing her sexual desires to a young man she has just met. Since Romeo has overheard her confession of love, Juliet cannot take shelter in the conventional postures of female modesty. Thus, she rightly worries that Romeo might perceive her behavior as “light”—that is, whorish (2.2.99). Whereas Romeo rather insouciantly anticipates that Juliet will simply “cast . . . off” her virginity, it is left to Juliet to raise the issue of marriage in response to his complaint about being left “unsatisfied,” a word with strong sexual connotations (2.2.125).
It is not that Romeo pressures Juliet into a sexual relationship. Juliet powerfully articulates her sexual desires in a soliloquy that calls upon night to veil the world in darkness so that she and Romeo might secretly perform their “amorous rites” (3.2.8). Juliet’s gorgeously sensuous language of passion imparts great seriousness and depth to her feelings, a view of female sexuality not always found in Shakespeare. For instance, in the contemporary narrative poem Venus and Adonis, Venus, the goddess of love, demonstrates little of Julit’s solemn grace in her attempt to seduce the beautiful mortal boy Adonis. Like Juliet, Venus believes that acts of love are best performed in the dark, yet Venus’s attitude toward sex is unabashedly “light”: “Art thou ashamed to kiss? Then wink again, / And I will wink. So shall the day seem night. / Love keeps his revels where there are but twain. /Be bold to play—our sport is not in sight” (121–124). For the audience to find value in Juliet’s passion, and in her willingness to die for that passion, she must neither speak nor act like the aggressively frolicsome Venus. Moreover, Juliet must acknowledge the importance of marriage as the social institution that legitimizes sexuality.
Marriage has been Juliet’s destiny from the beginning of the play. The various episodes of consultation (1.2), persuasion (1.3), dispute (3.5), and courtship (4.1) that precede her arranged marriage to Paris reveal the collective effort spent on verbally negotiating the precise conditions under which that destiny will be fulfilled. Juliet accepts her destiny to become a wife. Nonetheless, she bypasses the judgment of the familial and social authorities that give marriage its public validity when she independently determines, from an argument that she conducts with herself, that Romeo is worthy to be her husband. Affirming that a rose “[b]y any other word would smell as sweet,” Juliet concludes that Romeo’s value derives from his inherent “perfection,” not from the familial or social identity signified by his name (2.2.44, 46). As their secret relationship brings the lovers into open conflict with familial and social authorities, Juliet’s belief that he and Romeo can simply refuse their inherited identities is revealed to be an untenable, if appealing, fantasy.
Through its focus on the power of language to shape experience, the play suggests that Romeo and Juliet cannot escape from conventional “names” (or social identities) because, as social beings, they cannot escape from conventional “words” (or names). Even the intensely personal and poetic language through which Romeo and Juliet fashion their secret romance depends on a common understanding of words such as “rose” and “sweet” (2.2.43, 72). Words and their meanings are determined by social convention, not by individuals; and though individuals have a certain freedom in how they use and interpret language, that freedom is also circumscribed by the particular contexts in which communication occurs. Thus the sweetness of the rose’s smell to Juliet is not necessarily the same sweetness that she experiences in the “sweet sorrow” of parting from Romeo or that she attributes to the “sweet Nurse” who bears “sweet news” (2.2.187; 2.5.21, 23); or that Romeo mocks in the “sweet goose” Mercutio (2.4.76); or that Paris values in the “sweet water” that he sprinkles on the tomb of his “[s]weet flower” (5.3.14, 12). Just as Juliet cannot control the multiple meanings that the word “sweet” might acquire as it travels through the play, so she cannot control the meanings of Romeo’s “name” or social identity as he travels through Verona in his multiple roles as son, friend, husband, subject, and enemy.
Juliet’s insistence on determining for herself the value of Romeo’s “perfection” suggests both the appeal and the danger of their love. Romeo and Juliet assume that they have the power to negotiate their love privately, to remove it from the realm of public knowledge and authorization. This assumption leads Juliet to conclude her meditation on naming with a fantasy in which Romeo gets everything for giving up nothing: “Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself” (2.2.47–49). Juliet will later claim that her “bounty is as boundless” and her “love as deep” as the sea; consequently, “The more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite” (2.2.134–135). In this formulation, love no longer involves giving and taking, gaining and losing; instead, it has the miraculous power to produce infinite gain from infinite giving. It is this view of a constant, bountiful, and mutually transformative love that readers and playgoers have celebrated in Romeo and Juliet. Yet this view of love also involves a miscalculation about the relationship between the private and the public that sets in motion the lovers’ demise.
The play’s action overtly shifts to tragedy with Mercutio’s death, for which Romeo must bear some responsibility. Having married Juliet, Romeo finds himself in a paradoxical position: he has altered his social status through an alliance with the Capulet family, but he cannot give that alteration in status a social meaning by naming his kinship to Tybalt. In response to Tybalt’s challenge, Romeo’s cryptic assurance that he “love[s]” Tybalt and “tender[s]” the name of Capulet as “dearly as [his] own” thus cannot help but be misunderstood (3.1.66, 68–69). Unaware of Romeo’s new kinship with the Capulets, Mercutio regards Romeo’s tranquil response to Tybalt’s insults as a “dishonorable, vile submission” (3.1.70). Romeo’s submission is “vile” because in failing to refute Tybalt’s charge of “villainy” he dishonors his own name and, by association, Mercutio’s name. The highly rhetorical, equivocal language that serves Romeo and Juliet so well in expressing the bittersweet emotions of love fails dismally in charged social situations. Romeo discovers that painful truth here, as Juliet will discover it when her father flatly rejects the “[c]hopped logic” she uses to reject his offer of Paris (3.5.148). Racked with guilt, grief, and anger over Mercutio’s death, Romeo challenges Tybalt to a duel by returning to him the name of “villain” (3.1.122). With tragic consequences, Romeo finally acts in accordance with the violent code of masculine honor he has heretofore resisted.
Ironically, by dueling Tybalt, Romeo only confirms his dishonorable reputation as a “villain.” Not only do Capulet’s wife, Paris, and even Juliet identify Romeo as a “villain,” but the Prince, whose words have the power to determine social identity, new baptizes and banishes him as a “vile” participant in “rude brawls” (3.1.138,186). Romeo’s and Juliet’s tormented reiterations of the word “banishèd,” which Romeo calls “death mistermed” (3.3.21), point up the tragic irony that their private attempt to redefine their own identities has resulted in the highly public imposition of a stigmatized criminal identity. Less publicly, but with no less disastrous an impact on the choices Juliet will make, Capulet new baptizes his daughter as a “[d]isobedient wretch,” “green sickness carrion,” “young baggage,” “wretched, puling fool,” and so on (3.5.159, 155, 159, 183). Recalling the Prince’s sentence upon Romeo, Capulet threatens forever to banish Juliet from his care should she refuse her new identity as Paris’s bride.
As they make the decisions that rush them toward their violent deaths, Romeo and Juliet provide little indication that they have acquired any deeper insight into the causes of their tragic demise. In Shakespeare’s later love tragedies, protagonists such as Othello and Cleopatra reveal an acute concern for how they will be remembered after their deaths. Through moving final speeches and highly theatrical suicides, they attempt to demonstrate to those who will report their deaths that they have achieved a complex understanding of their tragic circumstances and of the social and moral impact of their actions. Late in the play, Romeo comes to refer to himself as a “man,” as if to acknowledge the maturity that accompanies suffering (5.3.59). Yet neither Romeo nor Juliet overtly ponders the social or moral implications of the circumstances and choices that have brought about their shared tragedy.
Denying Romeo and Juliet the privacy that might encourage such self-reflection, the social world of Verona relentlessly impinges upon the isolation of the tomb in which they spend their last moments. Although Paris and Romeo each approach the Capulet tomb alone and in secret, their unfortunate encounter results in the second mortal duel that Romeo has unsuccessfully tried to avoid. Once in the tomb, Romeo addresses not only Juliet but also Paris, Tybalt, and Death, the male rivals and enemies who silently witness the act of fidelity he undertakes with the aid of the “true apothecary[’s]” poison (5.3.119). Prior to ingesting the Friar’s sleeping potion, Juliet, too, had imagined the tomb as a crowded place, packed with the bones of her ancestors and stalked by Tybalt’s ghost. Juliet awakens to find herself in the cold company not of the silent dead, as she had initially feared, but of Friar Laurence, who hurriedly indicates Romeo’s lifeless body slumped at her side and recommends that she spend the rest of her days in a convent. In the few moments of solitude between the Friar’s furtive departure and the watch’s clamorous arrival, Juliet has time only to reject the new identity that social authority would determine for her, choosing instead to share Romeo’s fate.
Shakespearean tragedies typically close with a reconstitution of social order around the slain bodies of the protagonists. In the face of so much suffering and death, the survivors’ attempts to draw a moral, to assert that justice (whether human or divine) has been served, or to affirm a brighter future are always vulnerable to the undercutting forces of irony and skepticism. The conclusion of each Shakespearean tragedy achieves a different tension between hope and despair, a different accounting of the price paid for the recognition of error and the resolution of conflict. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet end the feud, thus implying that a social value or “true use” might be made of even the most intensely antisocial romantic love. Yet we are left to ponder exactly what kind of value has been attributed to these “[p]oor sacrifices” (5.3.304). By promising to erect gold statues of each other’s children, do Montague and Capulet prove that former enemies can “tender” each other’s names as “dearly as [their] own,” as Romeo had failed to assure Tybalt (3.1.68, 69)? Or are they still competing for social preeminence, crudely associating the value of their children’s lives with the value of gold?
The Prince locates the lasting value of the couple’s “true and faithful” love not in their golden statues, but in the legacy of their tragic narrative: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (5.3.302, 309–310). Although sympathetic to the couple’s suffering, the Prince’s closing statement attempts to mold the play’s messily concatenated series of errors, accidents, deceptions, and rash actions into an artfully shaped, purposeful, and thereby consoling “story of . . . woe.” The Prince, that is, directs us to find the meaning of the tragedy in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, not in the deaths of his own kinsmen, Mercutio and Paris, or of Tybalt, or of Montague’s wife. Yet it should not escape our notice that, in a significant departure from his source, Shakespeare has loaded this final scene of carnage with not two but three dead bodies: “the County Paris slain, / And Romeo dead, and Juliet, dead before, / Warm and new killed” (5.3.195–197). Capulet’s wife has begun to tell the much less artful story of social chaos and pointless loss that this bloody spectacle seems to demand: “Oh, the people in the street cry ‘Romeo,’ / Some ‘Juliet,’ and some ‘Paris,’ and all run / With open outcry toward our monument” (5.3.191–193). The authoritative Prince, however, has the last word. And it is his more palatable romantic version of the woeful story that most of us have preferred to regard as Shakespeare’s own.