Romeo and juliet, p.21
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       Romeo and Juliet, p.21

           William Shakespeare

  Thus, in the Nurse you have all the garrulity of old age, and all its fondness; for the affection of old age is one of the greatest consolations of humanity. I have often thought what a melancholy world this would be without children, and what an inhuman world without the aged.

  You have also in the Nurse the arrogance of ignorance, with the pride of meanness at being connected with a great family. You have the grossness, too, which that situation never removes, though it sometimes suspends it; and, arising from that grossness, the little low vices attendant upon it, which, indeed, in such minds are scarcely vices.--Romeo at one time was the most delightful and excellent young man, and the Nurse all willingness to assist him; but her disposition soon turns in favor of Paris, for whom she professes precisely the same admiration. How wonderfully are these low peculiarities contrasted with a young and pure mind, educated under different circumstances!

  Another point ought to be mentioned as characteristic of the ignorance of the Nurse: it is, that in all her recollections, she assists herself by the remembrance of visual circumstances. The great difference, in this respect, between the cultivated and the uncultivated mind is this--that the cultivated mind will be found to recall the past by certain regular trains of cause and effect; whereas, with the uncultivated mind, the past is recalled wholly by coincident images or facts which happened at the same time. This position is fully exemplified in the following passages put into the mouth of the Nurse: Even or odd, of all days in the year,

  Come Lammas eve at night shall she be fourteen.

  Susan and she--God rest all Christian souls!--

  Were of an age.--Well, Susan is with God;

  She was too good for me. But, as I said,

  On Lammas eve at night shall she be fourteen;

  That shall she, marry: I remember it well.

  'Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;

  And she was wean'd,--I never shall forget it,--

  Of all the days of the year, upon that day;

  For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,

  Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall:

  My lord and you were then at Mantua.--

  Nay, I do bear a brain:--but, as I said,

  When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple

  Of my dug, and felt it bitter, pretty fool,

  To see it tetchy, and fall out with the dug!

  Shake, quoth the dove-house: 'twas no need, I trow,

  To bid me trudge.

  And since that time it is eleven years;

  For then she could stand alone.


  She afterwards goes on with similar visual impressions, so true to the character. More is here brought into one portrait than could have been ascertained by one man's mere observation, and without the introduction of a single incongruous point. . . .

  Another remark I may make upon Romeo and Juliet is, that in this tragedy the poet is not, as I have hinted, entirely blended with the dramatist--at least, not in the degree to be afterwards noticed in Lear, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. Capulet and Montague not unfrequently talk a language only belonging to the poet, and not so characteristic of, and peculiar to, the passions of persons in the situations in which they are placed--a mistake, or rather an indistinctness, which many of our later dramatists have carried through the whole of their productions.

  When I read the song of Deborah, I never think that she is a poet, although I think the song itself a sublime poem: it is as simple a dithyrambic production as exists in any language; but it is the proper and characteristic effusion of a woman highly elevated by triumph, by the natural hatred of oppressors, and resulting from a bitter sense of wrong: it is a song of exultation on deliverance from these evils, a deliverance accomplished by herself. When she exclaims, "The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I, Deborah, arose, that I arose a mother in Israel," it is poetry in the highest sense: we have no reason, however, to suppose that if she had not been agitated by passion, and animated by victory, she would have been able so to express herself; or that if she had been placed in different circumstances, she would have used such language of truth and passion. We are to remember that Shakespeare, not placed under circumstances of excitement, and only wrought upon by his own vivid and vigorous imagination, writes a language that invariably, and intuitively becomes the condition and position of each character.

  On the other hand, there is a language not descriptive of passion, not uttered under the influence of it, which is at the same time poetic, and shows a high and active fancy, as when Capulet says to Paris, Such comfort as do lusty young men feel,

  When well-apparell'd April on the heel

  Of limping winter treads, even such delight

  Among fresh female buds, shall you this night

  Inherit at my house.


  Here the poet may be said to speak, rather than the dramatist; and it would be easy to adduce other passages from this play, where Shakespeare, for a moment forgetting the character, utters his own words in his own person.

  In my mind, what have often been censured as Shakespeare's conceits are completely justifiable, as belonging to the state, age, or feeling of the individual. Sometimes, when they cannot be vindicated on these grounds, they may well be excused by the taste of his own and of the preceding age; as for instance, in Romeo's speech, Here's much to do with hate, but more with love:--

  Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

  O anything, of nothing first created!

  O heavy lightness! serious vanity!

  Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

  Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

  Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!


  I dare not pronounce such passages as these to be absolutely unnatural, not merely because I consider the author a much better judge than I can be, but because I can understand and allow for an effort of the mind, when it would describe what it cannot satisfy itself with the description of, to reconcile opposites and qualify contradictions, leaving a middle state of mind more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other, when it is, as it were, hovering between images. As soon as it is fixed on one image, it becomes understanding; but while it is unfixed and wavering between them, attaching itself permanently to none, it is imagination. . . .

  It remains for me to speak of the hero and heroine, of Romeo and Juliet themselves; and I shall do so with unaffected diffidence, not merely on account of the delicacy, but of the great importance of the subject. I feel that it is impossible to defend Shakespeare from the most cruel of all charges--that he is an immoral writer--without entering fully into his mode of portraying female characters, and of displaying the passion of love. It seems to me that he has done both with greater perfection than any other writer of the known world, perhaps with the single exception of Milton in his delineation of Eve. . . .

  Shakespeare has described this passion in various states and stages, beginning, as was most natural, with love in the young. Does he open his play by making Romeo and Juliet in love at first sight--at the first glimpse, as any ordinary thinker would do? Certainly not: he knew what he was about, and how he was to accomplish what he was about: he was to develop the whole passion, and he commences with the first elements--that sense of imperfection, that yearning to combine itself with something lovely. Romeo became enamored of the idea he had formed in his own mind, and then, as it were, christened the first real being of the contrary sex as endowed with the perfections he desired. He appears to be in love with Rosaline; but, in truth, he is in love only with his own idea. He felt that necessity of being beloved which no noble mind can be without. Then our poet, or poet who so well knew human nature, introduces Romeo to Juliet, and makes it not only a violent, but a permanent love--a point for which Shakespeare has been ridiculed by the ignorant and unthinking. Romeo is first represented in a state most susceptible of love, and th
en, seeing Juliet, he took and retained the infection.

  This brings me to observe upon a characteristic of Shakespeare, which belongs to a man of profound thought and high genius. It has been too much the custom, when anything that happened in his dramas could not easily be explained by the few words the poet has employed, to pass it idly over, and to say that it is beyond our reach, and beyond the power of philosophy--a sort of terra incognita for discoverers--a great ocean to be hereafter explored. Others have treated such passages as hints and glimpses of something now nonexistent, as the sacred fragments of an ancient and ruined temple, all the portions of which are beautiful, although their particular relation to each other is unknown. Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place: if we do not understand him, it is our own fault or the fault of copyists and typographers; but study, and the possession of some small stock of the knowledge by which he worked, will enable us often to detect and explain his meaning. He never wrote at random, or hit upon points of character and conduct by chance; and the smallest fragment of his mind not unfrequently gives a clue to a most perfect, regular, and consistent whole.

  As I may not have another opportunity, the introduction of Friar Lawrence into this tragedy enables me to remark upon the different manner in which Shakespeare has treated the priestly character, as compared with other writers. In Beaumont and Fletcher priests are represented as a vulgar mockery; and, as in others of their dramatic personages, the errors of a few are mistaken for the demeanor of the many: but in Shakespeare they always carry with them our love and respect. He made no injurious abstracts: he took no copies from the worst parts of our nature; and, like the rest, his characters of priests are truly drawn from the general body.


  From Shakespearian Tragedy

  In their general structure and idea, the three tragedies so far reviewed were in the current dramatic tradition of their day. But Romeo and Juliet is a departure, a comprehensive experiment. It links the English stage to the Renaissance tragedy which by precept and by practice Cinthio2 in the middle of the sixteenth century had established in Italy.

  Cinthio's principles were in the main an adaptation of Seneca's, or rather of what he took to be Seneca's purposes, to the immediate needs of Cinthio's contemporary theatre. His own object he declared to be "servire l'eta, a gli spettatori." Tragedy must grip its audience. It must therefore reflect a range of experience and base itself on a system of values which are felt by its audience to be real. Many of his proposals are the direct outcome of this general principle, and one or two of them are especially pertinent to our argument. For instance, tragedy must no longer rely mainly for its material on ancient mythology nor on accredited history; for these depict a world which may have lost urgent contact with a modern audience's sense of life. The best plots for modern tragedy will be found in modern fiction. For modern fiction is the mythology of today. It is the corpus of story through which the world appears as it seems to be to living men; From Shakespearian Tragedy by H. B. Charlton. London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1948. Reprinted by permission of Cambridge University Press.

  it mirrors accepted codes of conduct, displays the particular manner of contemporary consciousness, and adopts the current assumptions of human values. Let the dramatist, therefore, draw his plots from the novelists. An inevitable consequence followed from this. There is nothing in which the outlook on life adopted by the modern world is more different from that of the ancient classical world than in its apprehension of the human and spiritual significance of the love of man for woman. Love has become for the modern world its most engrossing interest and often its supreme experience. Modern fiction turns almost exclusively on love. So when dramatists took their tales from the novelists, they took love over as the main theme of their plays. Seven of Cinthio's nine plays borrow their plots from novels (most of them from his own series, the Hecatommithi); the other two are "classical," but are two of the great classical love stories, Dido and Cleopatra. Jason de Nores, a much more conservatively Aristotelian expositor than his contemporary Cinthio, to exemplify the form which the most perfect tragedy could take, constructs the plot for it from one of Boccaccio's tales.

  Whether by direct influence or by mere force of circumstance, Cinthio's practice prevailed. Sixteenth-century tragedy found rich material in the novels. But the traditionalists were perpetually reminding the innovators that tragedy always had had and always must have an historical hero. "In tragoedia reges, principes, ex urbibus, arcibus, castris," Scaliger, the Parnassian legislator, announced. No one would accept a hero as great unless his memory were preserved in the historian's pages. "C'est l'histoire qui persuade avec empire," as Corneille put it. Shakespeare, an eager and humble apprentice, naturally followed traditional custom. Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and Richard II belong in the main to the conventional pattern. They deal with historical material. Their heroes are of high rank and potent in determining the destiny of nations. The plot is never mainly a lovers' story, though a love intrigue intrudes sporadically here and there within the major theme. But somehow the prescriptions had not produced the expected result. There was something unsatisfying in these plays as divinations of man's tragic lot. And so the conventions were jettisoned in Romeo and Juliet.

  Shakespeare was casting in fresh directions to find the universality, the momentousness, and above all the inevitability of all-compelling tragedy. In particular, he was experimenting with a new propelling force, a new final sanction as the determinant energy, the ultima ratio of tragedy's inner world; and though Romeo and Juliet is set in a modern Christian country, with church and priest and full ecclesiastical institution, the whole universe of God's justice, vengeance, and providence is discarded and rejected from the directing forces of the play's dramatic movement. In its place, there is a theatrical resuscitation of the half-barbarian, half-Roman deities of Fate and Fortune.

  The plot of Romeo and Juliet is pure fiction. Shakespeare took it from Arthur Broke's poem, The Tragicall Historie of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare knew from Broke's title page that the tale was taken from an Italian novelist, "written first in Italian by Bandell." He knew, too, what sort of novels Bandello wrote, for Painter had retold them in his Palace of Pleasure (1567). They were clear fictions. Moreover the hero and the heroine, Romeo and Juliet, had none of the pomp of historic circumstance about them; they were socially of the minor aristocracy who were to stock Shakespeare's comedies, and their only political significance was an adventitious role in the civic disturbance of a small city-state. Romeo and Juliet were in effect just a boy and a girl in a novel; and as such they had no claim to the world's attention except through their passion and their fate.

  To choose such folk as these for tragic heroes was aesthetically well-nigh an anarchist's gesture; and the dramatist provided a sort of program-prologue to prompt the audience to see the play from the right point of view. In this playbill the dramatist draws special attention to two features of his story. First, Verona was being torn by a terrible, bloodthirsty feud which no human endeavor had been able to settle; this was the direct cause of the death of the lovers, and but for those deaths it never would have been healed. Second, the course of the young lovers' lives is from the outset governed by a malignant destiny; fatal, star-crossed, death-marked, they are doomed to piteous destruction.

  The intent of this emphasis is clear. The tale will end with the death of two ravishingly attractive young folk; and the dramatist must exonerate himself from all complicity in their murder, lest he be found guilty of pandering to a liking for a human shambles. He disowns responsibility and throws it on Destiny, Fate. The device is well warranted in the tragic tradition, and especially in its Senecan models. But whether, in fact, it succeeds is a matter for further consideration. The invocation of Fate is strengthened by the second feature scored heavily in the prologue, the feud. The feud is, so to speak, the means by
which Fate acts. The feud is to provide the sense of immediate, and Fate that of ultimate, inevitability. For it may happen that, however the dramatist deploys his imaginative suggestions, he may fail to summon up a Fate sufficiently compelling to force itself upon the audience as unquestioned shaper of the tragic end. In such circumstance Romeo's and Juliet's death would be by mere chance, a gratuitous intervention by a dramatist exercising his homicidal proclivities for the joy of his audience. Hence the feud has a further function. It will be the dramatist's last plea for exculpation or for mercy; and it will allow his audience to absolve him or to forgive him without loss of its own "philanthropy"; for through death came the healing of the feud, and with it, the removal of the threat to so many other lives.

  It becomes, therefore, of critical importance to watch Shakespeare's handling of these two motives, Fate and Feud, to see how he fits them to fulfill their function, and to ask how far in fact they are adequate to the role they must perforce play. Both Fate and Feud, although absent as motives from the earliest European form of the Romeo and Juliet story, had grown variously in the successive tellings of the tale before it came to Broke.3 The general trend had been to magnify the virulence of the feud, and, even more notably, to swell the sententious apostrophizing of Fate's malignity. Broke, for instance, misses no opportunity for such sententiousness. Longer or shorter, there are at least fifteen passages in his poem where the malignity of Fate is his conventionally poetic theme. "Froward fortune," "fortune's cruel will," "wavering fortune," "tickel fortune," "when fortune list to strike," "false fortune cast for her, poore wretch, a myschiefe newe to brewe," "dame fortune did assent," "with piteous plaint, fierce fortune doth he blame," "till Attropos shall cut my fatall thread of lyfe," "though cruel fortune be so much my dedly foe," "the blyndfyld goddesse that with frowning face doth fraye, and from theyr seate the mighty kinges throwes downe with hedlong sway," "He cryed out, with open mouth, against the starres above, The fatall sisters three, he said, had done him wrong"--so, again and again, does Broke bring in The diversenes, and eke the accidents so straunge,

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