Romeo and Juliet Against the World
Program notes by Philippa Sheppard
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the first great English play written about “the teenager.” The story itself would have been familiar to the educated members of Shakespeare’s audience. It had been told and retold in European novelle and then in Shakespeare’s chief source, Arthur Brooke’s poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Shakespeare, as always, though, does it differently. Brooke is censorious in his preface, viewing the teens’ deaths as just deserts for their disobedience to their parents. Boaistuau, Brooke’s French source, also takes a moralistic tone. Contrastingly, in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet are the moral centre. It is their parents’ generation who have lost their way. It is this “youthquake” aspect of the play that appealed to director Franco Zeffirelli in the flower-power 1960s, and part of the reason it is such a popular teaching text in high schools across North America.
From the opening, Romeo Montague is separated from the other young men in his clique by his absence from the brawl. While the other boys posture and skirmish with swords, Romeo moons over a girl, Rosaline, and composes his thoughts about the feud in oxymorons: “O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! / Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms.” He is a gentle boy, reluctant to fight until Tybalt Capulet slays his best friend, Mercutio. It is clear too that his intentions towards Juliet are always honourable. Near the end of the balcony scene, he asks her, “Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” But all he wants is a chaste exchange of faithful vows. When earlier he crashes the Capulet party, the host himself is willing to overlook this infraction, since “Verona brags of him / To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.” When we first meet Juliet, she too is exemplary, promising that she will regard the suitor, Paris, selected by her parents, favourably: “But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.” It is the fact that they are normally so “well-governed” that reveals the intensity of their new passion. This passion inspires them to defy everything that matters: their parents, their friends, their whole clan. They even choose death itself over life without the other.
Their decision to commit suicide is arrived at partly through their sense of isolation in Verona. No one else is like them. They are surrounded by people willing to slaughter each other over an ancient grudge, the cause of which no one remembers. They, on the other hand, conduct their first exchange in an orderly sonnet. Romeo and Juliet feel completely transformed; something transcendent has happened to them. Their friends, the Nurse and Mercutio, fail to understand the depth of such an encounter. Mercutio throughout the play equates love with lust; he seems unable to recognize any spiritual dimension. The Nurse, when Romeo is banished and Juliet expected to marry Paris, recommends bigamy at once as the practical solution. Juliet feels betrayed. She is shocked by the Nurse’s hypocrisy in praising Paris with the same tongue that lauded Romeo. Juliet also recognizes that, at almost fourteen, she is now alone in the world. She apostrophizes the absent nurse, “Go counsellor. / Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.” She expresses here the teenage sense that the adults around them are out of touch with their experiences, particularly their idealism.
Shakespeare often dramatizes youthful innocence as vulnerable and misunderstood. In Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes assume the prince’s interest in Ophelia is exploitative rather than honourable, but Polonius later admits he was wrong. Cynicism is typically demonstrated to be a destructive force in Shakespeare. In Othello, Iago is proof of this – anything beautiful he taints with his perverted understanding. The Nurse and Mercutio, of course, are free from Iago’s evil, but their viewpoint is nevertheless limited to the physical. Shakespeare alternates scenes that relish their saltiness with ones that savour the sweetness of Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse and Mercutio are chief sources of the pervasive comic bawdiness in the play, but it dies when Mercutio does. This is not to suggest that Romeo and Juliet do not share a healthy eagerness to consummate their marriage, but that they, unlike their confidants, see it as only part of their complete union.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film vividly conveyed a sense of the young couple’s isolation. Luhrmann depicts the world of Verona as corrupt and bereft of beauty, and the supporting characters as frenzied parodies. Romeo and Juliet stand out as composed and innocent, their love associated with serene blue water, while the other characters yell and fight around them in a swirling chaos. The idealized couple are identified with a distinct imagery in Shakespeare’s play also. As their love is forbidden, Romeo and Juliet meet secretly at night, and so their metaphors are drawn from the celestial bodies lighting up the sky: the moon and stars. The light/darkness thread is part of the play’s vibrant image tapestry, which includes a flower motif and the more original merchant-ship leitmotif. The sepulchre scene presents Shakespeare’s liebestod (love-in-death) imagery scaling new heights. Romeo imagines death as a romantic rival: “Shall I believe / That unsubstantial Death is amorous, / And that the lean abhorred monster keeps / Thee here to be his paramour?”
Romeo and Juliet’s isolation returns us to the definition of the teenager. It is a cliché of modern psychology to speak of this phase of life as particularly challenging because of its liminality, but Shakespeare said it first. As young aristocrats, Romeo and Juliet have the leisure, like many contemporary North American teens, to devote themselves entirely to their emotions – an incendiary way to live. It is the last time in their lives they will have this leisure. Romeo is about to flee the familiarity of his male enclave for the unknown: marriage. He and Juliet are on the cusp of adulthood, facing myriad future responsibilities. Lady Capulet points out that she was a mother by Juliet’s age. At the same time, the Nurse’s anecdotes ensure that Juliet’s childhood is as fresh in our minds as in hers. Teenagers are also at the height of their intellectual flexibility, as we see in the extraordinary poetry Shakespeare gives the lovers. They are not distracted by the psychological baggage that comes with life experience. Juliet’s parents, in contrast, are burdened: they’re maintaining a feud with the rival aristocratic family, securing a socially advantageous match for their daughter and consoling themselves for their own soured marriage. Capulet reveals that the earth has swallowed all his hopes but Juliet. The older generation are hardly an advertisement for adulthood.
Capulet is part of the play’s essentially comic structure for the first two acts as he fusses over household details before the masked ball and, at the event, jokes about corns preventing his guests from dancing. Like Hermia’s father, Egeus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is a descendent of the senex from ancient Roman comedies, the old man whose plans for his offspring’s marriage are foiled by the younger generation. Yet the playwright carefully punctuates the comic structure with foreshadowing that hints at the fatal consequences. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an inverted version of Romeo and Juliet – a tragic opening is leavened by clues that suggest all will be well. He wrote the two plays close together, probably in 1595-6 when he was thirty-two years old, but scholars cannot agree which came first. Shakespeare, who so far had written only one tragedy, Titus Andronicus, explores the idea that the same situation has the potential to be comic or tragic, and the outcome depends on proportion. Tragedy is driven by excess; comedy by moderation. The isolation forced on the young couple by the violence and cynicism of those around them has made them excessively dependent on one another. Their joy at finding a soul mate in a hostile city has rendered two well-governed young people desperate with passion. Had Romeo delayed one moment before draining the poison, he and Juliet could have escaped to Mantua and lived. In a couple of versions of the story, this is allowed to happen. Those versions, however, have not been adapted into ballets, symphonies, operas, films, and novels. Oscar Wilde wrote,“Nothing succeeds like excess”; we can only hope he was thinking of the arts and not life. It is the splendid excess of the teenager that Shakespeare’s play both celebrates and, finally, laments.
Philippa Sheppard teaches in the Department of English at the University of Toronto.