Romeo and juliet, p.20
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       Romeo and Juliet, p.20

           William Shakespeare
 
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  Actually the story was popular, on the Continent at least, well before Elizabeth's time. Leaving out of account such obvious but distant analogues as the stories of Hero and Leander, Aeneas and Dido, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Troilus and Cressida, the first version of the story was one that appeared in Masuccio Salernitano's Il Novellino in 1476. This version had the clandestine lovers, the accommodating friar, the killing that led to the young man's banishment, the rival suitor, sleeping potion, thwarted messenger, and unhappy conclusion, but no suicides. It might have passed into oblivion had it not been for Luigi da Porto's Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (published ca. 1530), which laid the scene in Verona and identified the feuding families as Montecchi and Capelletti and the lovers as Romeo and Giulietta. Da Porto's story also named the friar Lorenzo and the slain man Thebaldo Capelletti and introduced the ball, the balcony scene, and the double suicide at the tomb. It was da Porto, moreover, who first named a minor character Marcuccio and gave him the icy hands that subsequent tellers of the tale regularly mentioned until Shakespeare discarded the detail and replaced it with a distinctive personality. Da Porto is also remembered for having Giulietta commit suicide by holding her breath--a detail which fortunately no one bothered to perpetuate.

  Da Porto's tale was widely imitated both in Italy and in France, but the version of most importance to readers of Shakespeare was that of Matteo Bandello, who put the story into his Novelle (1554). Of all the versions before Shakespeare's, Bandello's is generally considered the best. It is a plain, straightforward narrative, unmarred by the sentimentality and moralizing that characterized the work of some of his adapters. In Bandello's story the masking appears; Peter is there (but as Romeo's servant), the Nurse has a significant part in the plot, and the rope ladder comes into play. Almost as important is the version of Pierre Boaistuau (1559), adapted from Bandello, which was included in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques. Boaistuau made Romeo go to the ball in the hope of seeing his indifferent lady (the Rosaline of Shakespeare's play), worked out the business of the Capulets' restraint at discovering Romeo's presence, and developed the dilemma that Juliet finds herself in when she first hears of Tybalt's death; he also developed the character of the apothecary. All these things went into Painter's version (1567), which was a translation of Boaistuau, and into Brooke's, which was based on Boaistuau. The line of transmission from Masuccio to Shakespeare thus includes da Porto, Bandello, Boaistuau, and Brooke, in that order, with Painter standing unconsulted to one side. Shakespeare, however, used only Brooke directly and thus derived from the tradition only as much as Brooke passed on to him; but he borrowed freely from the great wealth of detail that Brooke himself had added.

  Anyone interested in consulting Brooke's version for himself will find it in the first volume of Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957). In spite of the tedious poulter's measure (iambic couplets in which the first line has twelve syllables and the second, fourteen) the poem is not entirely dull; and no other single source gave Shakespeare so much that was immediately useful. Readers should recognize at once the character and function of Benvolio (though Brooke neglected to give him a name), the Capulet that stormed at what he took to be his daughter's willful disobedience and threatened her with incarceration and endless misery, the garrulous, amoral Nurse and her conversations with the young lovers, and the needy apothecary. They will even find the clue to Mercutio's character (which Brooke did not develop) in the lines: "Even as a Lyon would emong the lambes be bolde, / Such was emong the bashfull maydes, Mercutio to beholde." Numerous such hints, together with bits of business, suggestions for metaphors, and passages of dialogue, catch the eye as one scans Brooke's lines, not so much because they are arresting in themselves but because they call to mind the use Shakespeare has made of them. And if one gets safely past Brooke's "Address to the Reader," with its heavy-handed condemnation of lust, disobedience, and superstitious friars, one finds that Brooke too treated the lovers with sympathy and allowed his friar the best of intentions. In fact, Brooke, having discharged himself of his Protestant moralizing in the "Address," tended to make Fortune responsible for most things in the story; and Shakespeare, as we know, took Brooke's Fortune along with all the rest.

  What Shakespeare did with Brooke's clean but relatively inert story was to add complication and focus, intensify it by drastic compression, and establish the intricate relationship of part to part in a texture of language that functions admirably as dialogue even as it creates the unity of a dramatic poem. In this transformation he made it possible for us to tolerate the Nurse, love Capulet, and pity the apothecary. He relieved the Friar of the tedium that Brooke had encumbered him with, and he changed Escalus into a man who genuinely suffers and commands sympathy. In bringing Tybalt to the ball and making him the discoverer of Romeo's presence there, he gave real point to the disastrous street fight in Act 3; he also enlarged Paris' part in the story and ennobled his character, and he created Mercutio. More important, he made all three of these serve as foils to a Romeo who develops and matures in response to the challenges they present and who, before the end, has ironically become responsible for the deaths of all three. Shakespeare's real miracle, however, was Juliet, transformed from an adolescent arrogantly eager to outdo her elders to an appealing child-woman, barely fourteen, who learns to mix courage with her innocence, yet falls victim to a world that only briefly and unintentionally but fatally treats her as a plaything.

  Commentaries

  SAMUEL JOHNSON

  From The Plays of William Shakespeare

  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 the 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 humor, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime. From The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. 9 vols. Oxford, 1825. This selection first appeared in The Plays of William Shakespeare (London, 1765).

  The nurse is one of the characters in which the author delighted; he has, with great subtlety 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.

  [1765]

  SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE

  From The Lectures of 1811-1812, Lecture VII

  In a former lecture I endeavored to point out the union of the poet and the philosopher, or rather the warm embrace between them, in the Venus and Adonis and Lucrece of Shakespeare. From thence I passed on to Love's Labor's Lost, as the link between his character as a poet, and his art as a dramatist; and I showed that, although in that work the former was still predominant, yet that the germs of his subsequent dramatic power
were easily discernible.

  I will now, as I promised in my last, proceed to Romeo and Juliet, not because it is the earliest, or among the earliest of Shakespeare's works of that kind, but because in it are to be found specimens, in degree, of all the excellences which he afterwards displayed in his more perfect dramas, but differing from them in being less forcibly evidenced, and less happily combined: all the parts are more or less present, but they are not united with the same harmony.

  There are, however, in Romeo and Juliet passages where the poet's whole excellence is evinced, so that nothing superior to them can be met with in the productions of his after years. The main distinction between this play and others is, as I said, that the parts are less happily combined, or to borrow a phrase from the painter, the whole work is less in keeping. From Shakespearean Criticism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2nd ed., ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor. 2 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1960; London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1961. The exact text of Coleridge's lecture does not exist; what is given here is the transcript of a shorthand report taken by an auditor, J. P. Collier.

  Grand portions are produced: we have limbs of giant growth; but the production, as a whole, in which each part gives delight for itself, and the whole, consisting of these delightful parts, communicates the highest intellectual pleasure and satisfaction, is the result of the application of judgment and taste. These are not to be attained but by painful study, and to the sacrifice of the stronger pleasures derived from the dazzling light which a man of genius throws over every circumstance, and where we are chiefly struck by vivid and distinct images. Taste is an attainment after a poet has been disciplined by experience and has added to genius that talent by which he knows what part of his genius he can make acceptable, and intelligible to the portion of mankind for which he writes.

  In my mind it would be a hopeless symptom, as regards genius, if I found a young man with anything like perfect taste. In the earlier works of Shakespeare we have a profusion of double epithets, and sometimes even the coarsest terms are employed, if they convey a more vivid image; but by degrees the associations are connected with the image they are designed to impress, and the poet descends from the ideal into the real world so far as to conjoin both--to give a sphere of active operations to the ideal, and to elevate and refine the real.

  In Romeo and Juliet the principal characters may be divided into two classes: in one class passion--the passion of love--is drawn and drawn truly, as well as beautifully; but the persons are not individualized farther than as the actor appears on the stage. It is a very just description and development of love, without giving, if I may so express myself, the philosophical history of it--without showing how the man became acted upon by that particular passion, but leading it through all the incidents of the drama and rendering it predominant.

  Tybalt is, in himself, a commonplace personage. And here allow me to remark upon a great distinction between Shakespeare and all who have written in imitation of him. I know no character in his plays, (unless indeed Pistol be an exception) which can be called the mere portrait of an individual: while the reader feels all the satisfaction arising from individuality, yet that very individual is a sort of class character, and this circumstance renders Shakespeare the poet of all ages.

  Tybalt is a man abandoned to his passions--with all the pride of family, only because he thought it belonged to him as a member of that family, and valuing himself highly, simply because he does not care for death. This indifference to death is perhaps more common than any other feeling: men are apt to flatter themselves extravagantly, merely because they possess a quality which it is a disgrace not to have, but which a wise man never puts forward, but when it is necessary.

  Jeremy Taylor in one part of his voluminous works, speaking of a great man, says that he was naturally a coward, as indeed most men are, knowing the value of life, but the power of his reason enabled him, when required, to conduct himself with uniform courage and hardihood. The good bishop, perhaps, had in his mind a story, told by one of the ancients, of a Philosopher and a Coxcomb, on board the same ship during a storm: the Coxcomb reviled the Philosopher for betraying marks of fear: "Why are you so frightened? I am not afraid of being drowned: I do not care a farthing for my life."--"You are perfectly right," said the Philosopher, "for your life is not worth a farthing."

  Shakespeare never takes pains to make his characters win your esteem, but leaves it to the general command of the passions and to poetic justice. It is most beautiful to observe, in Romeo and Juliet, that the characters principally engaged in the incidents are preserved innocent from all that could lower them in our opinion, while the rest of the personages, deserving little interest in themselves, derive it from being instrumental in those situations in which the more important personages develop their thoughts and passions.

  Look at Capulet--a worthy, noble-minded old man of high rank, with all the impatience that is likely to accompany it. It is delightful to see all the sensibilities of our nature so exquisitely called forth; as if the poet had the hundred arms of the polypus, and had thrown them out in all directions to catch the predominant feeling. We may see in Capulet the manner in which anger seizes hold of everything that comes in its way, in order to express itself, as in the lines where he reproves Tybalt for his fierceness of behavior, which led him to wish to insult a Montague, and disturb the merriment.

  Go to, go to;

  You are a saucy boy. Is't so, indeed?

  This trick may chance to scath you;--I know what.

  You must contrary me! marry, 'tis time.--

  Well said, my hearts!--You are a princox: go:

  Be quiet or--More light, more light!--For shame!

  I'll make you quiet.--What! cheerly, my hearts!

  (1.5.84-90)

  The line This trick may chance to scath you;--I know what,

  was an allusion to the legacy Tybalt might expect; and then, seeing the lights burn dimly, Capulet turns his anger against the servants. Thus we see that no one passion is so predominant, but that it includes all the parts of the character, and the reader never has a mere abstract of a passion, as of wrath or ambition, but the whole man is presented to him--the one predominant passion acting, if I may so say, as the leader of the band to the rest.

  It could not be expected that the poet should introduce such a character as Hamlet into every play; but even in those personages, which are subordinate to a hero so eminently philosophical, the passion is at least rendered instructive, and induces the reader to look with a keener eye and a finer judgment into human nature.

  Shakespeare has this advantage over all other dramatists--that he has availed himself of his psychological genius to develop all the minutiae of the human heart: showing us the thing that, to common observers, he seems solely intent upon, he makes visible what we should not otherwise have seen: just as, after looking at distant objects through a telescope, when we behold them subsequently with the naked eye, we see them with greater distinctness, and in more detail, than we should otherwise have done.

  Mercutio is one of our poet's truly Shakespearean characters; for throughout his plays, but especially in those of the highest order, it is plain that the personages were drawn rather from meditation than from observation, or to speak correctly, more from observation, the child of meditation. It is comparatively easy for a man to go about the world, as if with a pocketbook in his hand, carefully noting down what he sees and hears: by practice he acquires considerable facility in representing what he has observed, himself frequently unconscious of its worth or its bearings. This is entirely different from the observation of a mind, which, having formed a theory and a system upon its own nature, remarks all things that are examples of its truth, confirming it in that truth and, above all, enabling it to convey the truths of philosophy, as mere effects derived from, what we may call, the outward watchings of life.

  Hence it is that Shakespeare's favorite characters are full of such lively intellect. Mercutio is a man posse
ssing all the elements of a poet: the whole world was, as it were, subject to his law of association. Whenever he wishes to impress anything, all things become his servants for the purpose: all things tell the same tale, and sound in unison. This faculty, moreover, is combined with the manners and feelings of a perfect gentleman, himself utterly unconscious of his powers. By his loss it was contrived that the whole catastrophe of the tragedy should be brought about: it endears him to Romeo and gives to the death of Mercutio an importance which it could not otherwise have acquired.

  I say this in answer to an observation, I think by Dryden (to which indeed Dr. Johnson has fully replied), that Shakespeare having carried the part of Mercutio as far as he could, till his genius was exhausted, had killed him in the third act, to get him out of the way. What shallow nonsense! As I have remarked, upon the death of Mercutio the whole catastrophe depends; it is produced by it. The scene in which it occurs serves to show how indifference to any subject but one, and aversion to activity on the part of Romeo, may be overcome and roused to the most resolute and determined conduct. Had not Mercutio been rendered so amiable and so interesting, we could not have felt so strongly the necessity for Romeo's interference, connecting it immediately, and passionately, with the future fortunes of the lover and his mistress.

  But what am I to say of the Nurse? We have been told that her character is the mere fruit of observation--that it is like Swift's "Polite Conversation," certainly the most stupendous work of human memory, and of unceasingly active attention to what passes around us, upon record. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet has sometimes been compared to a portrait by Gerard Dow, in which every hair was so exquisitely painted, that it would bear the test of the microscope. Now, I appeal confidently to my hearers whether the closest observation of the manners of one or two old nurses would have enabled Shakespeare to draw this character of admirable generalization? Surely not. Let any man conjure up in his mind all the qualities and peculiarities that can possibly belong to a nurse, and he will find them in Shakespeare's picture of the old woman: nothing is omitted. This effect is not produced by mere observation. The great prerogative of genius (and Shakespeare felt and availed himself of it) is now to swell itself to the dignity of a god, and now to subdue and keep dormant some part of that lofty nature, and to descend even to the lowest character--to become everything, in fact, but the vicious.

 
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