Romeo and juliet, p.24
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       Romeo and Juliet, p.24

           William Shakespeare
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  Beyond Comedy: Romeo and Juliet

  Both Romeo and Juliet and Othello use the world of romantic comedy as a point of departure, though in different ways. In the early play a well-developed comic movement is diverted into tragedy by mischance. The change of direction is more or less imposed on the young lovers, who therefore impress us primarily as victims. Othello and Desdemona are victims too, in one sense, but in their tragedy destruction comes from within as well, and comedy is one means by which Shakespeare probes more deeply into his characters and their love. He gives us in the early scenes a brief but complete comic structure and then develops his tragedy of love by exploiting the points of strain and paradox within the system of comic assumptions that informs that structure.

  That these two plays are Shakespeare's only ventures into the Italianate tragedy of love and intrigue is no coincidence. The very features that distinguish this subgenre from the more dominant fall-of-the-mighty strain move it closer to comedy: its sources are typically novelle rather than well-known histories, its heroes are of lesser rank, its situations are private rather than public, its main motive force is love. Madeleine Doran, whose designation and description I follow for this kind of tragedy, has pointed out its affinity with comedy: From Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 56-70.

  "We are in the region where tragedy and comedy are cut out of the same cloth."13 The source tales of Romeo and Othello14 would, I think, suggest quite readily to Shakespeare the possibility of using comic convention as a springboard for tragedy.

  The movement of Romeo and Juliet is unlike that of any other Shakespearean tragedy. It becomes, rather than is, tragic. Other tragedies have reversals, but here the reversal is so complete as to constitute a change of genre. Action and characters begin in the familiar comic mold and are then transformed, or discarded, to compose the shape of tragedy.15 In this discussion I shall have to disre-gard much of the play's richness, especially of language and characterization, in order to isolate that shaping movement. But isolating it can reveal a good deal about Romeo, and may suggest why this early experimental tragedy has seemed to many to fall short of full tragic effect.

  It was H. B. Charlton, concurring in this judgment, who classed the play as "experimental." According to Charlton, Shakespeare in his early history-based tragic plays failed to find a pattern of event and character that would make the dramatic outcome feel inevitable; in Romeo he took a whole new direction, that of the modern fiction-based tragedy advocated by the Italian critic Giraldi Cinthio.16 Certainly dramatic thrust and necessity are unsolved problems in Titus Andronicus and Richard III, and perhaps in Richard II too. But one need not turn to Italian critical theory to explain the new direction of Romeo. Given the novella-source, full of marriageable young people and domestic concerns, it seems natural enough that Shakespeare would think of turning his own successful work in romantic comedy to account in his apprenticeship as a tragedian.

  We have seen that comedy is based on a principle of "evitability." It endorses opportunistic shifts and realistic accommodations as means to new social health. It renders impotent the imperatives of time and law, either stretching them to suit the favored characters' needs or simply brushing them aside. In the tragic world, which is governed by inevitability and which finds its highest value in personal integrity, these imperatives have full force. Unlike the extrinsic, alterable laws of comedy, law in tragedy is inherent--in the protagonist's own nature and in the larger patterns, divine, natural, and social, with which that personal nature brings him into conflict. Tragic law cannot be altered, and tragic time cannot be suspended. The events of tragedy acquire urgency in their uniqueness and irrevocability: they will never happen again, and one by one they move the hero closer to the end of his own personal time.

  Comedy is organized like a game. The ascendancy goes to the clever ones who can take advantage of sudden openings, contrive strategies, and adapt flexibly to an unexpected move from the other side. But luck and instinct win games as well as skill, and I have discussed in the preceding chapter the natural law of comedy that crowns lovers, whether clever or not, with final success. Romeo and Juliet, young and in love and defiant of obstacles, are attuned to the basic movement of the comic game toward marriage and social regeneration. But they do not win: the game turns into a sacrifice, and the favored lovers become victims of time and law. We can better understand this shift by looking at the two distinct worlds of the play and at some secondary characters who help to define them.

  If we divide the play at Mercutio's death, the death that generates all those that follow, it becomes apparent that the play's movement up to this point is essentially comic. With the usual intrigues and go-betweens, the lovers overcome obstacles and unite in marriage. Their personal action is set in a broader social context, so that the marriage promises not only private satisfaction but renewed social unity: For this alliance may so happy prove

  To turn your households' rancour to pure love.


  The household's rancor is set out in the play's first scene. This Verona of the Montague-Capulet feud is exactly the typical starting point of a comedy described by Frye--"a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters."17 The scene's formal balletic structure, a series of matched representatives of the warring families entering neatly on cue, conveys the inflexibility of this society, the arbitrary barriers that limit freedom of action.

  The feud itself seems more a matter of mechanical reflex than of deeply felt hatred. Charlton noted the comic tone of its presentation in this part of the play.18 The "parents' rage" that sounded so ominous in the prologue becomes in representation an irascible humour: two old men claw at each other, only to be dragged back by their wives and scolded by their prince. Charlton found the play flawed by this failure to plant the seeds of tragedy; but the treatment of the feud makes good sense if Shakespeare is playing on comic expectations. At this point, the feud functions in Romeo very much as the various legal restraints do in Shakespearean comedy. Imposed from outside on the youthful lovers, who feel themselves no part of it, the feud is a barrier placed arbitrarily between them, like the Athenian law giving fathers the disposition of their daughters which stands between Lysander and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream--something set up in order to be broken down.

  Other aspects of this initial world of Romeo suggest comedy as well. Its characters are the gentry and servants familiar in romantic comedies, and they are preoccupied, not with wars and the fate of kingdoms, but with arranging marriages and managing the kitchen. More important, it is a world of possibilities, with Capulet's feast represented to more than one young man as a field of choice. "Hear all, all see," says Capulet to Paris, "And like her most whose merit most shall be" (1.2.30-31). "Go thither," Benvolio tells Romeo, who is disconsolate over Rosaline, "and with unattainted eye / Compare her face with some that I shall show" (88-89) and she will be forgotten for some more approachable lady. Romeo rejects the words, of course, but in action he soon displays a classic comic adaptability, switching from the impossible love to the possible.

  Violence and disaster are not totally absent from this milieu, but they are unrealized threats. The feast again provides a kind of comic emblem, when Tybalt's proposed violence is rendered harmless by Capulet's festive accommodation.

  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. (1.5.73-76)

  This overruling of Tybalt is significant because Tybalt in his inflexibility is a potentially tragic character, indeed the only one in the first part of the play. If we recognize in him an irascible humour type, an alazon, we should also recognize that the tragic hero is an alazon transposed.19 Tybalt alone takes the feud really seriously. It is his inner law, the pro
peller of his fiery nature. His natural frame of reference is the heroic one of honor and death: What, dares the slave

  Come hither, cover'd with an antic face,

  To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?

  Now, by the stock and honour of my kin,

  To strike him dead I hold it not a sin. (57-61)

  Tybalt's single set of absolutes cuts him off from a whole range of speech and action available to the other young men of the play: lyric love, witty fooling, friendly conversation. Ironically, his imperatives come to dominate the play's world only when he himself departs from it. While he is alive, Tybalt is an alien.

  In a similar way, the passing fears of calamity voiced at times by Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Laurence are not allowed to dominate the atmosphere of the early acts. The love of Romeo and Juliet is already imaged as a flash of light swallowed by darkness, an image invoking inexorable natural law; but it is also expressed as a sea venture, which suggests luck and skill set against natural hazards and chance seized joyously as an opportunity for action. "Direct my sail," says Romeo to his captain Fortune. Soon he feels himself in command: I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far

  As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,

  I should adventure for such merchandise.20

  The spirit is Bassanio's as he adventures for Portia, a Jason voyaging in quest of the Golden Fleece (MV 1.1.167-72). Romeo is ready for difficulties with a traditional lovers' stratagem, one which Shakespeare had used before in Two Gentlemen: A rope ladder, "cords made like a tackled stair; / Which to the high top-gallant of my joy / Must be my convoy in the secret night" (2.4.183-85).

  But before Romeo can mount his tackled stair, Mercutio's death intervenes to cut off this world of exhilarating venture. Shakespeare developed this character, who in the source is little more than a name and a cold hand, into the very incarnation of comic atmosphere. Mercutio is the clown of romantic comedy, recast in more elegant mold but equally ready to take off from the plot in verbal play and to challenge idealistic love with his own brand of comic earthiness.

  Nay, I'll conjure too.

  Romeo! humours! madman! passion! lover!

  Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh;

  Speak but one rhyme and I am satisfied;

  Cry but 'Aye me!' pronounce but 'love' and 'dove';

  I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,

  By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,

  By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,

  And the demesnes that there adjacent lie. (2.1.6-20)

  He is the best of game-players, endlessly inventive and full of quick moves and countermoves. Speech for him is a constant exercise in multiple possibilities: puns abound, roles are taken up at whim (that of conjuror, for instance, in the passage just quoted), and his Queen Mab brings dreams not only to lovers like Romeo but to courtiers, lawyers, parsons, soldiers, maids. These have nothing to do with the case at hand, which is Romeo's premonition of trouble, but Mercutio is not bound by events. They serve him merely as convenient launching pads for his flights of wit. When all this vitality, which has till now ignored all urgencies, is cut off abruptly by Tybalt's sword, it must come as a shock to a spectator unfamiliar with the play. In Mercutio's sudden, violent end, Shakespeare makes the birth of tragedy coincide exactly with the symbolic death of comedy. The alternative view, the element of freedom and play, dies with Mercutio. Where many courses were open before, now there seems only one. Romeo sees at once that an irreversible process has begun: This day's black fate on more days doth depend [hang over];

  This but begins the woe others must end. (3.1.121-22)

  It is the first sign in the play's dialogue pointing unambiguously to tragic necessity. Romeo's future is now determined: he must kill Tybalt, he must run away, he is Fortune's fool.

  This helplessness is the most striking feature of the second, tragic world of Romeo. The temper of this new world is largely a function of onrushing events. Under pressure of events, the feud turns from farce to fate; tit for tat becomes blood for blood. Lawless as it seems to Prince Escalus, the feud is dramatically "the law" in Romeo. Before, it was external and avoidable. Now it moves inside Romeo to be his personal law. This is why he takes over Tybalt's rhetoric of honor and death: Alive in triumph and Mercutio slain!

  Away to heaven respective lenity,

  And fire-ey'd fury be my conduct now!

  Now, Tybalt, take the 'villain' back again

  That late thou gav'st me. (124-28)

  Even outside the main chain of vengeance, the world is suddenly full of imperatives. Others besides Romeo feel helpless. Against his will Friar John is detained at the monastery; against his will the Apothecary sells poison to Romeo. Urgency becomes the norm. Nights run into mornings, and the characters seem never to sleep. The new world finds its emblem not in the aborted attack but in the aborted feast. As Tybalt's violence was out of tune with the Capulet festivities in Act 2, so in the changed world of Acts 3 and 4 the projected wedding of Juliet and Paris is made grotesque when Shakespeare insistently links it with death.21 Preparations for the wedding feast parallel those made for the party in the play's first part, so as to make more wrenching the contrast when Capulet must order, All things that we ordained festival

  Turn from their office to black funeral:

  Our instruments to melancholy bells,

  Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,

  Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change. (4.5.84-88)

  The play's last scene shows how completely the comic movement has been reversed. It is inherent in that movement, as we have seen, that the young get their way at the expense of the old. The final tableau of comedy features young couples joined in love; parents and authority figures are there, if at all, to ratify with more or less good grace what has been accomplished against their wills. But here, the stage is strikingly full of elders--the Friar, the Prince, Capulet, Lady Capulet, Montague. Their power is not passed on. Indeed, there are no young to take over. If Benvolio survives somewhere offstage, we have long since forgotten this adjunct character. Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris are all dead. In effect, the entire younger generation has been wiped out.

  I have been treating these two worlds as separate, consistent wholes in order to bring out their opposition, but I do not wish to deny dramatic unity to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was writing one play, not two; and in spite of the clearly marked turning point we are aware of premonitions of disaster before the death of Mercutio, and hopes for avoiding it continue until near the end of the play. Our full perception of the world-shift that converts Romeo and Juliet from instinctive winners into sacrificial victims thus comes gradually. In this connection the careers of two secondary characters, Friar Laurence and the Nurse, are instructive.

  In being and action, these two belong to the comic vision. Friar Laurence is one of the tribe of manipulators, whose job it is to transform or otherwise get round seemingly intractable realities. If his herbs and potions are less spectacular than the paraphernalia of Friar Bacon or John a Kent, he nevertheless belongs to their brotherhood. Such figures abound in romantic comedy, as we have seen, but not in tragedy, where the future is not so manipulable. The Friar's aims are those implicit in the play's comic movement: an inviolable union for Romeo and Juliet and an end to the families' feud.

  The Nurse's goal is less lofty but equally appropriate to comedy. She wants Juliet married--to anyone. Her preoccupation with bedding and breeding reminds us of comedy's ancient roots in fertility rites, and it is as indiscriminate as the life force itself. But she conveys no sense of urgency in all this. On the contrary, her garrulity assumes the limitless time of comedy. In this sense her circumlocutions and digressions are analogous to Mercutio's witty games and, for that matter, to Friar Laurence's counsels of patience. "Wisely and slow," the Friar cautions Romeo; "they stumble that run fast" (2.3.94). The Nurse is not very wise, but she is slow. The leisurely time assumptions of both Friar and Nur
se contrast with the lovers' impatience, to create first the normal counterpoint of comedy and later a radical split that points us, with the lovers, directly towards tragedy.

  Friar Laurence and the Nurse have no place in the new world brought into being by Mercutio's death, the world of limited time, no effective choice, no escape. They define and sharpen the tragedy by their very failure to find a part in the dramatic progress, by their growing estrangement from the true springs of the action. "Be patient," is the Friar's advice to banished Romeo, "for the world is broad and wide" (3.3.16). But the roominess he perceives in both time and space simply does not exist for Romeo. His time has been constricted into a chain of days working out a "black fate," and he sees no world outside the walls of Verona (17).

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