Romeo and Juliet


Perhaps no one answer is right for all plays; in As You Like It cross-dressing empowers Rosalind, but in Twelfth Night cross-dressing comically traps Viola.

Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: Costumes, Gestures and Silences; Prose and Poetry

Because Shakespeare was a dramatist, not merely a poet, he worked not only with language but also with costume, sound effects, gestures, and even silences. We have already discussed some kinds of spectacle in the preceding section, and now we will begin with other aspects of visual language; a theater, after all, is literally a “place for seeing.” Consider the opening stage direction in The Tempest, the first play in the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays: “A tempestuous noise of thunder and Lightning heard: Enter a Shipmaster, and a Boteswain.”

Costumes: What did that shipmaster and that boatswain wear? Doubtless they wore something that identified them as men of the sea. Not much is known about the costumes that Elizabethan actors wore, but at least three points are clear: (1) many of the costumes were splendid versions of contemporary Elizabethan dress; (2) some attempts were made to approximate the dress of certain occupations and of antique or exotic characters such as Romans, Turks, and Jews; (3) some costumes indicated that the wearer was supernatural. Evidence for elaborate Elizabethan clothing can be found in the plays themselves and in contemporary comments about the “sumptuous” players who wore the discarded clothing of noblemen, as well as in account books that itemize such things as “a scarlet cloak with two broad gold laces, with gold buttons down the sides.”

The attempts at approximation of the dress of certain occupations and nationalities also can be documented from the plays themselves, and it derives additional confirmation from a drawing of the first scene of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus–the only extant Elizabethan picture of an identifiable episode in a play. (See pp. xxxviii-xxxix.) The drawing, probably done in 1594 or 1595, shows Queen Tamora pleading for mercy. She wears a somewhat medieval-looking robe and a crown; Titus wears a toga and a wreath, but two soldiers behind him wear costumes fairly close to Elizabethan dress. We do not know, however, if the drawing represents an actual stage production in the public theater, or perhaps a private production, or maybe only a reader’s visualization of an episode. Further, there is some conflicting evidence: In Julius Caesar a reference is made to Caesar’s doublet (a close-fitting jacket), which, if taken literally, suggests that even the protagonist did not wear Roman clothing; and certainly the lesser characters, who are said to wear hats, did not wear Roman garb.

It should be mentioned, too, that even ordinary clothing can be symbolic: Hamlet’s “inky cloak,” for example, sets him apart from the brightly dressed members of Claudius’s court and symbolizes his mourning; the fresh clothes that are put on King Lear partly symbolize his return to sanity. Consider, too, the removal of disguises near the end of some plays. For instance, Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice remove their male attire, thus again becoming fully themselves.

Gestures and Silences: Gestures are an important part of a dramatist’s language. King Lear kneels before his daughter Cordelia for a benediction (4.7.57-59), an act of humility that contrasts with his earlier speeches banishing her and that contrasts also with a comparable gesture, his ironic kneeling before Regan (2.4.153-55). Northumberland’s failure to kneel before King Richard II (3.3.71-72) speaks volumes. As for silences, consider a moment in Coriolanus: Before the protagonist yields to his mother’s entreaties (5.3.182), there is this stage direction: “Holds her by the hand, silent.” Another example of “speech in dumbness” occurs in Macbeth, when Macduff learns that his wife and children have been murdered. He is silent at first, as Malcolm’s speech indicates: “What, man! Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows. Give sorrow words” (4.3.208-09). (For a discussion of such moments, see Philip C. McGuire’s Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare’s Open Silences [1985].)

Of course when we think of Shakespeare’s work, we think primarily of his language, both the poetry and the prose.

Prose: Although two of his plays (Richard II and King John) have no prose at all, about half the others have at least one quarter of the dialogue in prose, and some have notably more: 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, about half; As You Like Itand Twelfth Night, a little more than half; Much Ado About Nothing, more than three quarters; and The Merry Wives of Windsor, a little more than five sixths. We should remember that despite Moliere’s joke about M. Jourdain, who was amazed to learn that he spoke prose, most of us do not speak prose. Rather, we normally utter repetitive, shapeless, and often ungrammatical torrents; prose is something very different–a sort of literary imitation of speech at its most coherent.

Today we may think of prose as “natural” for drama; or even if we think that poetry is appropriate for high tragedy we may still think that prose is the right medium for comedy. Greek, Roman, and early English comedies, however, were written in verse. In fact, prose was not generally considered a literary medium in England until the late fifteenth century; Chaucer tells even his bawdy stories in verse. By the end of the 1580s, however, prose had established itself on the English comic stage. In tragedy, Marlowe made some use of prose, not simply in the speeches of clownish servants but even in the speech of a tragic hero, Doctor Faustus. Still, before Shakespeare, prose normally was used in the theater only for special circumstances: (1) letters and proclamations, to set them off from the poetic dialogue; (2) mad characters, to indicate that normal thinking has become disordered; and (3) low comedy, or speeches uttered by clowns even when they are not being comic. Shakespeare made use of these conventions, but he also went far beyond them. Sometimes he begins a scene in prose and then shifts into verse as the emotion is heightened; or conversely, he may shift from verse to prose when a speaker is lowering the emotional level, as when Brutus speaks in the Forum.

Shakespeare’s prose usually is not prosaic. Hamlet’s prose includes not only small talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but also princely reflections on “What a piece of work is a man” (2.2.312). In conversation with Ophelia, he shifts from light talk in verse to a passionate prose denunciation of women (3.1.103), though the shift to prose here is perhaps also intended to suggest the possibility of madness. (Consult Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose [1968].)

Poetry: Drama in rhyme in England goes back to the Middle Ages, but by Shakespeare’s day rhyme no longer dominated poetic drama; a finer medium, blank verse (strictly speaking, unrhymed lines of ten syllables, with the stress on every second syllable) had been adopted. But before looking at unrhymed poetry, a few things should be said about the chief uses of rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays. (1) A couplet (a pair of rhyming lines) is sometimes used to convey emotional heightening at the end of a blank verse speech; (2) characters sometimes speak a couplet as they leave the stage, suggesting closure; (3) except in the latest plays, scenes fairly often conclude with a couplet, and sometimes, as in Richard II, 2.1.145-46, the entrance of a new character within a scene is preceded by a couplet, which wraps up the earlier portion of that scene; (4) speeches of two characters occasionally are linked by rhyme, most notably in Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.95-108, where the lovers speak a sonnet between them; elsewhere a taunting reply occasionally rhymes with the previous speaker’s last line; (5) speeches with sententious or gnomic remarks are sometimes in rhyme, as in the duke’s speech in Othello (1.3.199-206); (6) speeches of sardonic mockery are sometimes in rhyme–for example, Iago’s speech on women in Othello (2.1.146-58)–and they sometimes conclude with an emphatic couplet, as in Bolingbroke’s speech on comforting words in Richard II (1.3.301-2); (7) some characters are associated with rhyme, such as the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; (8) in the early plays, especially The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, comic scenes that in later plays would be in prose are in jingling rhymes; (9) prologues, choruses, plays-within-the-play, inscriptions, vows, epilogues, and so on are often in rhyme, and the songs in the plays are rhymed.

Neither prose nor rhyme immediately comes to mind when we first think of Shakespeare’s medium: It is blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter. (In a mechanically exact line there are five iambic feet. An iambic foot consists of two syllables, the second accented, as in away; five feet make a pentameter line. Thus, a strict line of iambic pentameter contains ten syllables, the even syllables being stressed more heavily than the odd syllables. Fortunately, Shakespeare usually varies the line somewhat.) The first speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken by Duke Theseus to his betrothed, is an example of blank verse: Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in

Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,

Like to a stepdame, or a dowager,

Long withering out a young man’s revenue.


As this passage shows, Shakespeare’s blank verse is not mechanically unvarying. Though the predominant foot is the iamb (as in apace or desires), there are numerous variations. In the first line the stress can be placed on “fair,” as the regular metrical pattern suggests, but it is likely that “Now” gets almost as much emphasis; probably in the second line “Draws” is more heavily emphasized than “on,” giving us a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one); and in the fourth line each word in the phrase “This old moon wanes” is probably stressed fairly heavily, conveying by two spondees (two feet, each of two stresses) the oppressive tedium that Theseus feels.

In Shakespeare’s early plays much of the blank verse is end-stopped (that is, it has a heavy pause at the end of each line), but he later developed the ability to write iambic pentameter verse paragraphs (rather than lines) that give the illusion of speech. His chief techniques are (1) enjambing, i.e., running the thought beyond the single line, as in the first three lines of the speech just quoted; (2) occasionally replacing an iamb with another foot; (3) varying the position of the chief pause (the caesura) within a line; (4) adding an occasional unstressed syllable at the end of a line, traditionally called a feminine ending; (5) and beginning or ending a speech with a half line.

Shakespeare’s mature blank verse has much of the rhythmic flexibility of his prose; both the language, though richly figurative and sometimes dense, and the syntax seem natural. It is also often highly appropriate to a particular character. Consider, for instance, this speech from Hamlet, in which Claudius, King of Denmark (“the Dane”), speaks to Laertes: And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?

You told us of some suit. What is’t, Laertes?

You cannot speak of reason to the Dane

And lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes,

That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?


Notice the short sentences and the repetition of the name “Laertes,” to whom the speech is addressed. Notice, too, the shift from the royal “us” in the second line to the more intimate “my” in the last line, and from “you” in the first three lines to the more intimate “thou” and “thy” in the last two lines. Claudius knows how to ingratiate himself with Laertes.

For a second example of the flexibility of Shakespeare’s blank verse, consider a passage from Macbeth. Distressed by the doctor’s inability to cure Lady Macbeth and by the imminent battle, Macbeth addresses some of his remarks to the doctor and others to the servant who is arming him. The entire speech, with its pauses, interruptions, and irresolution (in “Pull’t off, I say,” Macbeth orders the servant to remove the armor that the servant has been putting on him), catches Macbeth’s disintegration. (In the first line, physic means “medicine,” and in the fourth and fifth lines, cast the water means “analyze the urine.”)

Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it.

Come, put mine armor on. Give me my staff.

Seyton, send out.–Doctor, the thanes fly from me.–

Come, sir, dispatch. If thou couldst, doctor, cast

The water of my land, find her disease

And purge it to a sound and pristine health,

I would applaud thee to the very echo,

That should applaud again.–Pull’t off, I say.–

What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,

Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?


Blank verse, then, can be much more than unrhymed iambic pentameter, and even within a single play Shakespeare’s blank verse often consists of several styles, depending on the speaker and on the speaker’s emotion at the moment.

The Play Text as a Collaboration

Shakespeare’s fellow dramatist Ben Jonson reported that the actors said of Shakespeare, “In his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line,” i.e., never crossed out material and revised his work while composing. None of Shakespeare’s plays survives in manuscript (with the possible exception of a scene in Sir Thomas More), so we cannot fully evaluate the comment, but in a few instances the published work clearly shows that he revised his manuscript. Consider the following passage (shown here in facsimile) from the best early text of Romeo and Juliet, the Second Quarto (1599): Ro, Would I were fleepe and peace to (weet to reft The grey eyde morne (miles on the frowning night, Checking the Eafterne Clouds with ftreaks ot light, And darkneffc fleckted like a drunkard reeles, From forth daies pathway, made by Tyrans wheeles. Heike will I to my ghoftly Friers clofe cell, His helpe to crauc, and my deare hap to tell.


Enter Frier alone with a basket. (night, Fri. The grey-eyed morne fmiles on the frowning Checking the Eafterne clowdes with streaks of light: And fleckeld darknesse like a drunkard reeles, From forth daies path,and Titus burning wheeles: Now erethe fun advance his burning eie,

Romeo rather elaborately tells us that the sun at dawn is dispelling the night (morning is smiling, the eastern clouds are checked with light, and the sun’s chariot–Titan’s wheels–advances), and he will seek out his spiritual father, the Friar. He exits and, oddly, the Friar enters and says pretty much the same thing about the sun. Both speakers say that “the gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,” but there are small differences, perhaps having more to do with the business of printing the book than with the author’s composition: For Romeo’s “checkring,” “fleckted,” and “pathway,” we get the Friar’s “checking,” “fleckeld,” and “path.” (Notice, by the way, the inconsistency in Elizabethan spelling: Romeo’s “clouds” become the Friar’s “clowdes.”)

Both versions must have been in the printer’s copy, and it seems safe to assume that both were in Shakespeare’s manuscript. He must have written one version–let’s say he first wrote Romeo’s closing lines for this scene–and then he decided, no, it’s better to give this lyrical passage to the Friar, as the opening of a new scene, but neglected to delete the first version. Editors must make a choice, and they may feel that the reasonable thing to do is to print the text as Shakespeare intended it. But how can we know what he intended? Almost all modern editors delete the lines from Romeo’s speech, and retain the Friar’s lines. They don’t do this because they know Shakespeare’s intention, however. They give the lines to the Friar because the first published version (1597) of Romeo and Juliet gives only the Friar’s version, and this text (though in many ways inferior to the 1599 text) is thought to derive from the memory of some actors, that is, it is thought to represent a performance, not just a script. Maybe during the course of rehearsals Shakespeare–an actor as well as an author–unilaterally decided that the Friar should speak the lines; if so (remember that we don’t know this to be a fact) his final intention was to give the speech to the Friar. Maybe, however, the actors talked it over and settled on the Friar, with or without Shakespeare’s approval. On the other hand, despite the 1597 version, one might argue (if only weakly) on behalf of giving the lines to Romeo rather than to the Friar, thus: (1) Romeo’s comment on the coming of the daylight emphasizes his separation from Juliet, and (2) the figurative language seems more appropriate to Romeo than to the Friar. Having said this, in the Signet edition we have decided in this instance to draw on the evidence provided by earlier text and to give the lines to the Friar, on the grounds that since Q1 reflects a production, in the theater (at least on one occasion) the lines were spoken by the Friar.

A playwright sold a script to a theatrical company. The script thus belonged to the company, not the author, and author and company alike must have regarded this script not as a literary work but as the basis for a play that the actors would create on the stage. We speak of Shakespeare as the author of the plays, but readers should bear in mind that the texts they read, even when derived from a single text, such as the First Folio (1623), are inevitably the collaborative work not simply of Shakespeare with his company–doubtless during rehearsals the actors would suggest alterations–but also with other forces of the age. One force was governmental censorship. In 1606 parliament passed “an Act to restrain abuses of players,” prohibiting the utterance of oaths and the name of God. So where the earliest text of Othello gives us “By heaven” (3.3.106), the first Folio gives “Alas,” presumably reflecting the compliance of stage practice with the law. Similarly, the 1623 version of King Lear omits the oath “Fut” (probably from “By God’s foot”) at 1.2.142, again presumably reflecting the line as it was spoken on the stage. Editors who seek to give the reader the play that Shakespeare initially conceived–the “authentic” play conceived by the solitary Shakespeare–probably will restore the missing oaths and references to God. Other editors, who see the play as a collaborative work, a construction made not only by Shakespeare but also by actors and compositors and even government censors, may claim that what counts is the play as it was actually performed. Such editors regard the censored text as legitimate, since it is the play that was (presumably) finally put on. A performed text, they argue, has more historical reality than a text produced by an editor who has sought to get at what Shakespeare initially wrote. In this view, the text of a play is rather like th

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