Romeo and juliet, p.25
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       Romeo and Juliet, p.25

           William Shakespeare
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Comic adaptability again confronts tragic integrity when Juliet is forced to marry Paris--and turns to her Nurse for counsel, as Romeo has turned to Friar Laurence. In the Nurse's response comedy's traditional wisdom of accommodation is carried to an extreme. Romeo has been banished, and Paris is after all very presentable. In short, adjust to the new state of things.

  Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,

  I think it best you married with the County.

  O, he's a lovely gentleman!

  Romeo's a dishclout to him. (3.5.218-21)

  She still speaks for the life force, against barrenness and death. Even if Juliet will not accept the dishclout comparison, an inferior husband is better than no husband at all: "Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were / As living here and you no use of him" (226-27).

  But her advice is irrelevant, even shocking, in this new context. There was no sense of jar when Benvolio, a spokesman for comic accommodation like the Nurse and the Friar, earlier advised Romeo to substitute a possible love for an impossible one. True, the Nurse here is urging Juliet to violate her marriage vows; but Romeo also felt himself sworn to Rosaline, and for Juliet the marriage vow is a seal on the integrity of her love for Romeo, not a separable issue. The parallel points up the move into tragedy, for while Benvolio's advice sounded sensible in Act 1 and was in fact unintentionally carried out by Romeo, the course of action that the Nurse proposes in Act 3 is unthinkable to the audience as well as to Juliet. The memory of the lovers' passionate dawn parting that began this scene is too strong. Juliet and her nurse no longer speak the same language, and estrangement is inevitable. "Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain," Juliet vows when the Nurse has left the stage.22 Like the slaying of Mercutio, Juliet's rejection of her old confidante has symbolic overtones. The possibilities of comedy have again been presented only to be discarded.

  Both Romeo and Juliet have now cast off their comic companions and the alternative modes of being that they represented. But there is one last hope for comedy. If the lovers will not adjust to the situation, perhaps the situation can be adjusted to the lovers. This is the usual comic way with obstinately faithful pairs, and we have at hand the usual manipulator figure to arrange it.

  The Friar's failure to bring off that solution is the final definition of the tragic world of Romeo and Juliet. There is no villain, only chance and bad timing. In comedy chance creates that elastic time that allows last-minute rescues. But here, events at Mantua and at the Capulet tomb will simply happen--by chance--in the wrong sequence. The Friar does his best: he makes more than one plan to avert catastrophe. The first, predictably, is patience and a broader field of action. Romeo must go to Mantua and wait till we can find a time

  To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,

  Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back.


  It is a good enough plan, for life if not for drama, but it depends on "finding a time." As it turns out, events move too quickly for the Friar. The hasty preparations for Juliet's marriage to Paris leave no time for cooling tempers and reconciliations.

  His second plan is an attempt to gain time: he will create the necessary freedom by faking Juliet's death. This is, of course, a familiar comic formula. Shakespeare's later uses of it are all in comedies.23 Indeed, the contrived "deaths" of Hero in Much Ado, Helena in All's Well, Claudio in Measure for Measure, and Hermione in The Winter's Tale are more ambitiously intended than Juliet's, aimed at bringing about a change of heart in other characters.24 Time may be important, as it is in Winter's Tale, but only as it promotes repentance. Friar Laurence, more desperate than his fellow manipulators, does not hope that Juliet's death will dissolve the Montague-Capulet feud, but only that it will give Romeo a chance to come and carry her off. Time and chance, which in the other plays cooperate benevolently with the forces of regeneration and renewal, work against Friar Laurence. Romeo's man is quicker with the bad news of Juliet's death than poor Friar John with the good news that the death is only a pretense. Romeo himself beats Friar Laurence to the tomb of the Capulets. The onrushing tragic action quite literally outstrips the slower steps of accommodation before our eyes. The Friar arrives too late to prevent one half of the tragic conclusion, and his essential estrangement from the play's world is only emphasized when he seeks to avert the other half by sending Juliet to a nunnery. This last alternative means little to the audience or to Juliet, who spares only a line to reject the possibility of adjustment and continuing life: "Go, get thee hence, for I will not away" (5.3.160).

  The Nurse and the Friar show that one way comedy can operate in a tragedy is by its irrelevance. Tragedy is tuned to the extraordinary. Romeo and Juliet locates this extraordinariness not so much in the two youthful lovers as in the love itself, its intensity and integrity. As the play moves forward, our sense of this intensity and integrity is strengthened by the cumulative effect of the lovers' lyric encounters and the increasing urgency of events, but also by the growing irrelevance of the comic characters.

  De Quincey saw in the knocking at the gate in Macbeth the resumption of normality after nightmare, "the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, [which] first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them."25 I would say, rather, that the normal atmosphere of Macbeth has been and goes on being nightmarish, and that it is the knocking episode that turns out to be the contrasting parenthesis, but the notion of sharpened sensibility is important. As the presence of other paths makes us more conscious of the road we are in fact traveling, so the Nurse and the Friar make us more "profoundly sensible" of the love of Romeo and Juliet and its tragic direction.

  The play offers another sort of experiment in mingled genres that is less successful, I think. It starts well, in 4.4, with a striking juxtaposition of Capulet preparations for the wedding with Juliet's potion scene. On the one hand is the household group in a bustle over clothes, food, logs for the fire--the everyday necessaries and small change of life. On the other is Juliet's tense monologue of fear, madness, and death. It is fine dramatic counterpoint, and its effect is stronger in stage production, as Granville-Barker observed, when the curtained bed of Juliet is visible upstage during the cheerful domestic goings-on. 26 The counterpoint, of course, depends on the Capulets' ignorance of what is behind those curtains. It comes to an end when in scene 5 Nurse and the others find Juliet's body. But Shakespeare keeps the comic strain alive through the rest of the scene. The high-pitched, repetitive mourning of the Nurse, Paris, and the Capulets sounds more like Pyramus over the body of Thisbe than a serious tragic scene. Finally Peter has his comic turn with the musicians. What Shakespeare is attempting here is not counterpoint but the fusion of tragic and comic. It doesn't quite work. S. L. Bethell suggests that the mourners' rhetorical excesses direct the audience to remain detached and thus to reserve their tears for the real death scene that will shortly follow.27 This makes good theatrical sense. It is also possible that the musicians' dialogue, modulating as it does from shock to professional shop to dinner, was meant to set off the tragic action by projecting a sense of the ongoing, normal life that is denied to Romeo and Juliet. Still, the scene tends to leave spectators uneasy--if, in fact, they get to see it at all: often the mourning passages are cut and the musicians' business dropped altogether.28 Shakespeare's hand is uncertain in this early essay at fusing tragic and comic. Mastery was yet to come, first in the gravediggers' scene in Hamlet and then more fully in King Lear.

  The structural use of comic conventions does work. The result, however, is a particular kind of tragedy. Critics have often remarked, neutrally or with disapproval, that external fate rather than character is the principal determiner of the tragic ends of the young lovers. For the mature Shakespeare, tragedy involves both character and circumstances, a fatal interaction between man and moment. But in Romeo and Juliet, although the central characters have their weaknesses, their destruction does not really stem from those weaknesses. We may
agree with Friar Laurence that Romeo is rash, but it is not rashness that propels him into the tragic chain of events. Just the opposite, it would seem. In the crucial duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, Romeo is trying to keep the combatants apart, to make peace. Ironically, this very intervention leads to Mercutio's death.

  Mercutio. Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt

  under your arm.

  Romeo. I thought all for the best. (3.1.99-101)

  If Shakespeare had wanted to implicate Romeo's rash, overemotional nature in his fate, he handled this scene with an ineptness difficult to credit. Judging from the resultant effect, what he wanted was something quite different: an ironic dissociation of character from the direction of events.

  Perhaps this same purpose lies behind the elaborate development of comic elements in the early acts before the characters are pushed into the opposed conditions of tragedy. To stress milieu in this way is necessarily to downgrade the importance of individual temperament and motivation. At the crucial moment Romeo displays untypical prudence with the most upright of intentions--and brings disaster on himself and Juliet. In this unusual Shakespearean tragedy, it is not what you are that counts, but the world you live in.


  Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet

  In three of Shakespeare's plays, female and male characters share the title. These plays all deviate from the male-actor-female-audience pattern that dominates in Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello and resemble the comedies in other ways as well. In Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, as in Antony and Cleopatra, the lovers begin as admiring audiences to each other. Juliet learns to pretend to protect her love of Romeo, and while her pretense fails, Romeo never distrusts her as the other heroes distrust women. Cressida pretends from the very beginning, and in the climactic scene Troilus is an audience to her infidelity with Diomedes. One hero lacks distrust of women, the other seems to learn it by painful experience (though we can find imagery suggestive of such distrust in his language earlier); unlike Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, or Desdemona, but more like the women of comedy, the women maintain or increase their ability to act throughout the play.

  In these plays, then, suspicion of women's acting cannot be the cause of the disaster. But issues of gender politics are still important.

  Unlike the romantic comedies, these plays all include war or blood and that calls on men to define their masculinity by violence. In their private world, the lovers may achieve a mutuality in which both are active and genders are not polarized. But in the external world, masculinity is From Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 99-109. Used by permission of the publisher and the author.

  identified with violence and femininity with weakness. Romeo and Juliet establish a role-transcending private world of mutuality in love. But this world is destroyed, partly by Romeo's entanglement in the feud, partly by Juliet's continued life in her parents' house concealing her marriage.

  The minor characters in Romeo and Juliet establish a background of common beliefs current in both plays: "women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall" (1.1.17-18) while men glory in their "naked weapon" (35). In the Nurse's view, there are compensations--"women grow by men" (1.3.95)--but she assents to her husband's equation of female sexuality with falling backward.

  Two different conventional images of this society link sex and violence. First, sexual intercourse is seen as the success of male attacks. For example, Benvolio consoles Romeo in his lovesickness for Rosaline by saying, "A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit" (1.1.210). Romeo describes the futility of his courtship of her thus, "She will not stay the siege of loving terms / Nor bide th'encounter of assailing eyes" (215-16). Romeo has assayed this siege because he has already been hit with a different kind of violence--from "Cupid's arrow" (212). As Mercutio will later put it, he is "stabbed with a white wench's black eye: run through the ear with a love song; the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft" (2.4.14-16). Rosaline does not feel the same way, and thus "from Love's weak childish bow she lives unharmed" (1.1.209). Romeo's imagery conflates his sexual desire for Rosaline and his consequent desire that she fall in love with him--imagery of his attacking her and of love's attacking her.

  When Romeo meets Juliet, he gives up using such violent imagery about sexual intercourse: when he uses it about falling in love, summing up to Friar Laurence in riddles, his emphasis is on the reciprocity of their feelings: I have been feasting with mine enemy,

  Where on a sudden one hath wounded me

  That's by me wounded. (2.3.49-51)

  Alternatively, he follows the image with a conceit that makes Juliet, if accepting, his protection: Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye

  Than twenty of their swords! Look thou but sweet,

  And I am proof against their enmity. (2.2.71-73)

  In general, with Juliet he gives up images of himself as violent aggressor. He speaks more of wanting to touch her than to conquer her, even if this means wishing away his own identity. "O that I were a glove upon that hand, / That I might touch that cheek . . . I would I were thy bird" (24-25, 182). Romeo is the only Shakespearean tragic hero who could offer to give up his name, who could say, "Had I it written, I would tear the word" (57). The strange nineteenth-century stage tradition of casting women as Romeo as well as Juliet may have been in part a response to his lack of violent imagery--except toward his own name--in their love scenes.

  Nevertheless, lack of violence in the imagery does not mean a lack of sexual energy and attraction, and Shakespeare's dialogue sensitively suggests the power of their developing relationship. The openness and directness of Romeo and Juliet stand out against the background of the romantic comedies, which celebrate the gradual triumph of love over the inhibitions and defenses of the lovers. Only in The Merchant of Venice do two lovers (Portia and Bassanio) talk readily and without disguise at their first meeting. While the lovers in the comedies echo each other's language and imagery as their affinity grows behind their disguises, Romeo and Juliet at once match their shared imagery with more emotional openness.

  Throughout this first meeting, Romeo takes the initiative; but at the same time, his language puts aggression at a distance. He speaks humbly about his "unworthiest hand" (1.5.95); if his touch is sin, it is "gentle" (96); if it is too rough, he would prefer "a tender kiss" (98). Thus his initiative is that of a pilgrim to a saint and claims to imply the dominance of the woman, not the man. But his saint does not simply stand motionless on her pedestal; she talks back, picking up his imagery and quatrain form, and accepts his hand as showing "mannerly devotion" (100). Even when she claims that "Saints do not move" (107), she is still showing her willingness for the kiss that climaxes the sonnet their interchange has become: Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

  Romeo. Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.


  After the kiss, Juliet gives up the imagery of sainthood: "Then have my lips the sin that they have took" (110). She insists on her sharing of his humanity.

  The next time they meet, they share the initiative as well. In the balcony scene, Shakespeare uses the soliloquy convention to show each of them in fantasy speaking to the other first, but breaks that convention by showing Romeo as the audience who responds to become actor along with Juliet. Each speech sets the beloved outside the social framework: Romeo compares Juliet to the sun, her eyes to the stars; Juliet more consciously imagines removing him from society: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name" (2.2.34). It is when she makes a direct offer to her fantasy Romeo that the real one breaks in, and proposes a love that will create a private world between the two of them: Juliet. . . . Romeo, doff thy name;

  And for thy name, which is no part of thee,

  Take all myself.

  Romeo. I take thee at thy word.

  Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
r />   Henceforth I never will be Romeo. (47-51)

  Like a dreamer startled to find a dream materialize, Juliet is taken aback at Romeo's response. She breaks the fantasy of renaming--"What man art thou . . . ? . . . Art thou not Romeo?" (52, 60)--and momentarily appears to withdraw in fear. Thus the emphasis shifts from shared feeling to male persuasion, as Romeo speaks of the power and value of love, until Juliet responds and acknowledges to the real Romeo what she has said to the fantasy one--"Farewell compliment!" (89). When the interplay of caution and persuasion begins again, Juliet's anxiety oddly focuses on Romeo's oaths, as if his faith could be guaranteed by his not swearing. The unreality of her expressions of distrust adds to the charm of this exchange: there are no hints that she finds men untrustworthy, or that Romeo finds women untrustworthy, or even that the family feud leads either of them to doubts about the other (as distinguished from awareness of the practical difficulties). It is as if the only force working against their trust at this point is the feeling that their love is too good to be true. Romeo suggests this as he momentarily, in Juliet's absence, takes over the verbal caution: I am afeard,

  Being in night, all this is but a dream,

  Too flattering-sweet to be substantial. (139-41)

  By this time Juliet has given up her hesitation; her avowal evokes the self-renewing power of their mutuality but at the same time grounds it in her own autonomy: My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

  My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

  The more I have, for both are infinite. (133-35)

  And as she has been more concerned with the external world in pointing out dangers, she takes the initiative in turning their love from shared fantasy and passion to social institution: "If that thy bent of love be honorable, / Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow" (143-44).

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