Romeo and juliet, p.22
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       Romeo and Juliet, p.22

           William Shakespeare
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  Of frayle unconstant Fortune, that delyteth still in chaunge.4

  Romeo cries aloud Against the restles starres, in rolling skyes that raunge,

  Against the fatall sisters three, and Fortune full of


  There are more elaborate set speeches on the same theme: For Fortune chaungeth more, than fickel fantasie;

  In nothing Fortune constant is, save in unconstancie.

  Her hasty ronning wheele, is of a restles coorse,

  That turnes the clymers hedlong downe, from better to the


  and those that are beneth, she heaveth up agayne.6

  So when Shakespeare took up the story, Broke had already sought to drench it in fatality. But since Shakespeare was a dramatist, he could not handle Fate and Feud as could a narrative poet. His feud will enter, not descriptively, but as action; and for fate he must depend on the sentiments of his characters and on an atmosphere generated by the sweep of the action. The feud may be deferred for a moment to watch Shakespeare's handling of Fate.

  His most frequent device is to adapt what Broke's practice had been; instead of letting his persons declaim formally, as Broke's do, against the inconstancy of Fortune, he endows them with dramatic premonitions. Setting out for Capulet's ball, Romeo is suddenly sad: my mind misgives

  Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,

  Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

  With this night's revels; and expire the term

  Of a despised life, clos'd in my breast,

  By some vile forfeit of untimely death:

  But he that hath the steerage of my course

  Direct my sail!


  As the lovers first declare their passion, Juliet begs Romeo not to swear, as if an oath might be an evil omen: I have no joy of this contract tonight:

  It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

  Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

  Ere one can say "It lightens."


  Romeo, involved in the fatal fight, cries "O, I am fortune's fool!" (3.1.138). Looking down from her window at Romeo as he goes into exile, Juliet murmurs

  O God, I have an ill-divining soul!

  Methinks I see thee, now thou art below,

  As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.


  With dramatic irony Juliet implores her parents to defer her marriage with Paris: Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed

  In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.


  Besides these promptings of impending doom there are premonitions of a less direct kind. The friar fears the violence of the lover's passion: These violent delights have violent ends

  And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

  Which as they kiss consume.


  Another source of omen in the play is the presaging of dreams; for from the beginning of time, "the world of sleep, the realm of wild reality" has brought dreams which look like heralds of eternity and speak like Sybils of the future. There is much dreaming in Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio may mock at dreams as children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy. But when Romeo says he "dream'd a dream tonight," Mercutio's famous flight of fancy recalls the universal belief in dreams as foreshadowings of the future. Again Romeo dreams; this time, "I dreamt my lady came and found me dead" (5.1.6). As his man Balthasar waits outside Juliet's tomb, he dreams that his master and another are fighting and the audience knows how accurately the dream mirrors the true facts.

  But Shakespeare not only hangs omens thickly round his play. He gives to the action itself a quality apt to conjure the sense of relentless doom. It springs mainly from his compression of the time over which the story stretches. In all earlier versions there is a much longer lapse. Romeo's wooing is prolonged over weeks before the secret wedding; then, after the wedding, there is an interval of three or four months before the slaying of Tybalt; and Romeo's exile lasts from Easter until a short time before mid-September when the marriage with Paris was at first planned to take place. But in Shakespeare all this is pressed into three or four days. The world seems for a moment to be caught up in the fierce play of furies reveling in some mad supernatural game.

  But before asking whether the sense of an all-controlling Fate is made strong enough to fulfill its tragic purpose let us turn to the feud. Here Shakespeare's difficulties are even greater. Italian novelists of the quattro-or cinquecento, throwing their story back through two or three generations, might expect their readers easily to accept a fierce vendetta. But the Verona which Shakespeare depicts is a highly civilized world, with an intellectual and artistic culture and an implied social attainment altogether alien from the sort of society in which a feud is a more or less natural manifestation of enmity. The border country of civilization is the home of feuds, a region where social organization is still of the clan, where the head of the family-clan is a strong despot, and where law has not progressed beyond the sort of wild justice of which one instrument is the feud.

  For ere I cross the border fells,

  The tane of us shall die

  It was well-nigh impossible for Shakespeare to fit the blood lust of a border feud into the social setting of his Verona. The heads of the rival houses are not at all the fierce chieftains who rule with ruthless despotism. When old Capulet, in fireside gown, bustles to the scene of the fray and calls for his sword, his wife tells him bluntly that it is a crutch which an old man such as he should want, and not a weapon. Montague, too, spits a little verbal fire, but his wife plucks him by the arm and tells him to calm down: "thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe." Indeed, these old men are almost comic figures, and especially Capulet. His querulous fussiness, his casual bonhomie, his almost senile humor, and his childish irascibility hardly make him the pattern of a clan chieftain. Even his domestics put him in his place: Go, you cotquean, go,

  Get you to bed; faith, you'll be sick tomorrow

  For this night's watching,


  the Nurse tells him; and the picture is filled in by his wife's reminder that she has put a stop to his "mouse-hunting." There is of course the prince's word that Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,

  By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,

  Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets.


  But these brawls bred of an airy word are no manifestations of a really ungovernable feud. When Montague and Capulet are bound by the prince to keep the peace, old Capulet himself says 'tis not hard, I think,

  For men so old as we to keep the peace.


  and there is a general feeling that the old quarrel has run its course. Paris, suitor to Juliet, says it is a pity that the Capulets and the Montagues have lived at odds so long. And Benvolio, a relative of the Montagues, is a consistent peacemaker. He tries to suppress a brawl amongst the rival retainers and invites Tybalt, a Capulet, to assist him in the work. Later he begs his friends to avoid trouble by keeping out of the way of the Capulets, for it is the season of hot blood: I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:

  The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,

  And if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;

  For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.


  When the hot-blooded Mercutio does incite Tybalt to a quarrel it is again Benvolio who tries to preserve the peace: We talk here in the public haunt of men:

  Either withdraw unto some private place,

  And reason coldly of your grievances,

  Or else depart.


  Hence the jest of Mercutio's famous description of Benvolio as an inveterate quarreler, thirsting for the slightest excuse to draw sword.

  Moreover, the rival houses have mutual friends. Mercutio, Montague Romeo's close acquaintance, is an invited guest at the Capulets' ball. Strang
er still, so is Romeo's cruel lady, Rosaline, who in the invitation is addressed as Capulet's cousin. It is odd that Romeo's love for her, since she was a Capulet, had given him no qualms on the score of the feud. When Romeo is persuaded to go gate-crashing to the ball because Rosaline will be there, there is no talk at all of its being a hazardous undertaking. Safety will require, if even so much, no more than a mask.7 On the way to the ball, as talk is running gaily, there is still no mention of danger involved. Indeed, the feud is almost a dead letter so far. The son of the Montague does not know what the Capulet daughter looks like, nor she what he is like. The traditional hatred survives only in one or two high-spirited, hot-blooded scions on either side, and in the kitchen folk. Tybalt alone resents Romeo's presence at the ball, yet it is easy for all to recognize him; and because Tybalt feels Romeo's coming to be an insult, he seeks him out next day to challenge him, so providing the immediate occasion of the new outburst. Naturally, once blood is roused again, and murder done, the ancient rancor springs up with new life. Even Lady Capulet has comically Machiavellian plans for having Romeo poisoned in Mantua. But prior to this the evidences of the feud are so unsubstantial that the forebodings of Romeo and Juliet, discovering each other's name, seem prompted more by fate than feud. There will, of course, be family difficulties; but the friar marries them without a hesitating qualm, feeling that such a union is bound to be accepted eventually by the parents, who will thus be brought to amity.

  The most remarkable episode, however, is still to be named. When Tybalt discovers Romeo at the ball, infuriated he rushes to Capulet with the news. But Capulet, in his festive mood, is pleasantly interested, saying that Romeo is reputed to be good-looking and quite a pleasant boy. He tells Tybalt to calm himself, to remember his manners, and to treat Romeo properly: Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone:

  He bears him like a portly gentleman;

  And, to say truth, Verona brags of him

  To be a virtuous and well govern'd youth:

  I would not for the wealth of all the town

  Here in my house do him disparagement:

  Therefore be patient, take no note of him:

  It is my will, the which if thou respect,

  Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,

  An ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.


  When Tybalt is reluctant, old Capulet is annoyed and testily tells him to stop being a saucy youngster: He shall be endured:

  What, goodman boy! I say, he shall: go to.

  And I the master here or you? Go to.

  You'll not endure him! God shall mend my soul!

  You'll make a mutiny among my guests

  You will set cock-a-hoop. You'll be the man!

  . . . Go to, go to;

  You are a saucy boy: is't so indeed?

  This trick may chance to scathe you, I know what:

  You must contrary me! marry, tis' time.

  Well said, my hearts! You are a princox; go. (78-88)

  This is a scene which sticks in the memory; for here the dramatist, unencumbered by a story, is interpolating a lively scene in his own kind, a vignette of two very amusing people in an amusing situation. But it is unfortunate for the feud that this episode takes so well. For clearly old Capulet is unwilling to let the feud interrupt a dance; and a quarrel which is of less moment than a galliard is being appeased at an extravagant price, if the price is the death of two such delightful creatures as Romeo and Juliet; their parents' rage,

  Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,

  (Prologue, 10-11)

  loses all its plausibility. A feud like this will not serve as the bribe it was meant to be; it is no atonement for the death of lovers. Nor, indeed, is it coherent and impressive enough as part of the plot to propel the sweep of necessity in the sequence of events. If the tragedy is to march relentlessly to its end, leaving no flaw in the sense of inevitability which it seeks to prompt, it clearly must depend for that indispensable tragic impression not on its feud, but on its scattered suggestions of doom and of malignant fate. And, as has been seen, Shakespeare harps frequently on this theme.

  But how far can a Roman sense of Fate be made real for a modern audience? It is no mere matter of exciting thought to "wander through eternity" in the wake of the mystery which surrounds the human lot. Mystery must take on positive shape, and half-lose itself in dread figures controlling human life in their malice. The forms and the phrases by which these powers had been invoked were a traditional part in the inheritance of the Senecan drama which came to sixteenth-century Europe. Fortuna, Fatum, Fata, Parcae: all were firmly established in its dramatis personae. Moreover their role in Virgilian theocracy was familiar to all with but a little Latin: Qua visa est fortuna pati Parcaeque sinebant

  Cedere res Latio, Turnum et tua moenia texi;

  Nunc iuvenem imparibus video concurrere fatis,

  Parcarumque dies et vis inimica propinquat.8

  For Roman here indeed were the shapers of destiny, the ultimate a'aagke which compels human fate, whether as the moira of individual lot, or the eimarmee of a world order. Horace himself linked Fortuna in closest companionship with Necessitas: "te semper anteit serva Necessitas," he writes in his prayer to Fortuna.9 It was a note which reverberated through Senecan stoicism.

  But with what conviction could a sixteenth-century spectator take over these ancient figures? Even the human beings of an old mythology may lose their compelling power; "what's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?" But the gods are in a much worse case; pagan, they had faded before the God of the Christians: Vicisti, Galilaee! Fate was no longer a deity strong enough to carry the responsibility of a tragic universe; at most, it could intervene casually as pure luck, and bad luck as a motive turns tragedy to mere chance. It lacks entirely the ultimate tragic aagke. It fails to provide the indispensable inevitability.

  Is then Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet an unsuccessful experiment? To say so may seem not only profane but foolish. In its own day, as the dog's-eared Bodley Folio shows, and ever since, it has been one of Shakespeare's most preferred plays. It is indeed rich in spells of its own. But as a pattern of the idea of tragedy, it is a failure. Even Shakespeare appears to have felt that, as an experiment, it had disappointed him. At all events, he abandoned tragedy for the next few years and gave himself to history and to comedy; and even afterwards, he fought shy of the simple theme of love, and of the love of anybody less than a great political figure as the main matter for his tragedies.

  Nevertheless it is obvious that neither sadism nor masochism is remotely conscious in our appreciation of Romeo and Juliet, nor is our "philanthropy" offended by it. But the achievement is due to the magic of Shakespeare's poetic genius and to the intermittent force of his dramatic power rather than to his grasp of the foundations of tragedy.

  There is no need here to follow the meetings of Romeo and Juliet through the play, and to recall the spell of Shakespeare's poetry as it transports us along the rushing stream of the lovers' passion, from its sudden outbreak to its consummation in death. Romeo seals his "dateless bargain to engrossing death," choosing shipwreck on the dashing rocks to secure peace for his "sea-sick weary bark." Juliet has but a word: "I'll be brief. O happy dagger!" There is need for nothing beyond this. Shakespeare, divining their naked passion, lifts them above the world and out of life by the mere force of it. It is the sheer might of poetry. Dramatically, however, he has subsidiary resources. He has Mercutio and the Nurse.

  Shakespeare's Mercutio has the gay poise and the rippling wit of the man of the world. By temperament he is irrepressible and merry; his charm is infectious. His speech runs freely between fancies of exquisite delicacy and the coarser fringe of worldly humor; and he has the sensitiveness of sympathetic fellowship. Such a man, if any at all, might have understood the depth of Romeo's love for Juliet. But the camaraderie and the worldly savoir-faire of Mercutio give him no inkling of the nature of Romeo's passion. The love of Romeo and Juliet is
beyond the ken of their friends; it belongs to a world which is not their world; and so the passing of Romeo and Juliet is not as other deaths are in their impact on our sentiments.

  Similarly, too, the Nurse. She is Shakespeare's greatest debt to Broke, in whose poem she plays a curiously unexpected and yet incongruously entertaining part. She is the one great addition which Broke made to the saga. She is garrulous, worldly, coarse, vulgar, and babblingly given to reminiscence stuffed with native animal humor and self-assurance. Shakespeare gladly borrowed her, and so gave his Juliet for her most intimate domestic companion a gross worldly creature who talks much of love and never means anything beyond sensuality. Like Romeo's, Juliet's love is completely unintelligible to the people in her familiar circle. To her nurse, love is animal lust. To her father, who has been a "mouse-hunter" in his time, and to her mother, it is merely a social institution, a worldly arrangement in a very worldly world. This earth, it would seem, has no place for passion like Romeo's and Juliet's. And so, stirred to sympathy by Shakespeare's poetic power, we tolerate, perhaps even approve, their death. At least for the moment.

  But tragedy lives not only for its own moment, nor by long "suspensions of disbelief." There is the inevitable afterthought and all its "obstinate questionings." Our sentiments were but momentarily gratified. And finally our deeper consciousness protests. Shakespeare has but conquered us by a trick: the experiment carries him no nearer to the heart of tragedy.

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