1. Until now (1595), Shakespeare's serious plays have been political, mostly English history plays. Together with Titus Andronicus, a revenge tragedy set in ancient Rome, the Henry VI plays and Richard III are models of "tragicall historie" about the rise and fall of nations. Although Romeo and Juliet was also called a tragical history, this personal love story is a striking departure from the political tradition. Shakespeare wrote it during the period of enforced idleness in the theater caused by outbreaks of the black plague, a time when he was writing Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and some early Sonnets. This extended moment was a watershed for the young Shakespeare, a time when he would develop a densely poetic style first manifested in this play and also A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Richard II.

2. For this new kind of play, Shakespeare essentially adapted the patterns of comedy. He sets up the opposing forces along the symbolic Apollonian-Dionysian axis he already used in Love's Labor's Lost, for example. Impediments to the heroes in this case come from outside blocking figures (the family feud) primarily, and less the excesses of emotion in the heroes. The first scene is full of comic touches as well as violent action, and indeed the first half of the play is a perfect comedy.

3. In this unique tragedy, then, we find no traditional "tragic flaw" in the heroes. They are impetuous, but this hardly seems in proportion to their deaths. Instead, we see that they are victims of their parents' feud. Another way to talk about that is to invoke fate, as we hear on several occasions:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove (Prologue, 5-11)

Romeo. O, I am fortune's fool! (3.1.138)


Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. We will be looking primarily at Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, which takes great liberties with the text but captures the spirit of the play for a contemporary audience. Its portraits of edgy street life translate the sense of danger in Shakespeare's first scene:


Romeo's brooding presence separates him from both family and the common violence of street life. He only comes to life when his friends drag him to the Capulet party:


Here the imagery of Dionysian revel sets the tone for the first meeting of the lovers. They speak a sonnet filed with religious imagery to each other as they create their private world:

Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.


5. Romeo retreats from public discovery as a Montague, but returns to Juliet privately. Luhrmann uses water imagery to establish their private Dionysian world, first the fish tank (above, R&J_1.3_1.4) and now the swimming pool. Both night and water are used in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II in the same year (1595) to symbolize interior life, and especially love in AMND. Romeo and Juliet retreat from the day to create their own reality, as Romeo had earlier with his dream of Rosaline:

Away from the light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night. (1.1.140-43)


6. Everybody's free. That's the song Baz Luhrman uses at the end of the next clip to celebrate the secret wedding. Juliet expresses her youthful freedom as she awaits the outcome of the Nurse's errand to Romeo:

Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.
But old folks, many feign as they were dead—
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead. (1.5.12-17)

Romeo ignores both the friar ("Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast [1.3.94]) and his cynical friends:

Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature. For this driveling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole. (2.4.91-96)

Friar Lawrence warns them even as he blesses their union:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (2.6.9-15)


7. The fatal moment presents itself with imminent physical danger in Luhrman's version:


And Romeo's killing of Tybalt seals his fate: "O, I am fortune's fool!"

Juliet creates a Dionysian vision of Romeo before she learns of the catastrophe:

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when he 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
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (3.2.17-25)

The Apollonian world intrudes in the person of the Prince, who declares Romeo's banishment. The Friar and the Nurse arrange a fleeting moment:


8. The lovers sing their aubade, a dawn song, the next morning:

Juliet. Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Romeo. 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 mountaintops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die. (3.5.1-11)

This moment is succeeded, however, by betrayal and despair for Juliet at her parents' hands; even the Nurse deserts her:


9. Friar Lawrence concocts a desperate plan, but the seeds of the final tragedy are sown by his dependence on the timing of the message to Romeo in Mantua. The crux of this early Shakespearian tragedy lies in circumstance, not in the hasty natures of the lovers. It is a tragedy of the victim.


When the message fails, and Romeo hears of the apparent death of Juliet from Balthasar, he hurls himself back to Verona and into deadly peril:


10. We're going to look at three versions of the last scene. The most faithful to Shakespeare's text is this excerpt from the BBC production, which includes both the killing of Paris and (later) the coming of the Friar to the tomb while Juliet is still alive:


The famous Zeffirelli film (1968) keeps the Friar, but cuts Paris. It does highlight the narrow miss when Romeo rides past the friar carrying the message:


Although the Luhrmann ending employs massive cuts, including Paris, Friar Lawrence, and swaths of dialogue, it is a stunning tribute to the power of the story for a contemporary audience. It builds an emotional curve to a transcendent moment:




The film Shakespeare in Love takes considerable liberties with history, but I think gets it right on the spirit of Shakespeare's theater. There is no evidence that a woman acted on the stage (apart from possibly foreign companies). However, a persistent myth has Mary Frith acting the part of Doll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl. The climactic scene of Shakespeare in Love has "Thomas Kent" acting Juliet instead of Romeo, the role s/he had won in the story.


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