Romeo and Juliet


allowed and expected to do that much for themselves. The things to consider are whether or not the protagonists have succeeded in meeting this requirement and, if it appears they have failed, whether one had any right to suppose they would do otherwise.

A final source of uneasiness for contemporary readers of Romeo and Juliet is the impression, got mainly from the first two acts, that Verona is really a part of the world of comedy. Many things contribute to this impression. An amusing street fight and a masked ball in the first act, a lovers’ meeting in the orchard in the second, a doting young man carrying courtly conventions to laughable excess, parents who would be custom-bound to interfere if they only knew of the affair going on under their noses, an affected troublemaker bent on vindicating honor to the letter in duels conducted with precious precision, a bawdy nurse and an even bawdier friend–such things as these in an Elizabethan play ordinarily lead to the triumph of young love and a marriage or two, with forgiveness and feasting all around. In this play, however, the familiar dream of courtly comedy shatters when Mercutio is slain, and from that point on the lightness quickly dissolves. Romeo is banished, the “comfortable” Friar falls back on desperate remedies, old Capulet grows testy and intolerant, Lady Capulet calls for blood, the amusing Nurse suggests bigamy as a practical course, and Juliet, who has scarcely known life, prepares to be familiar with death. Even the weather adapts itself to the shift in tone: it suddenly gets hot in Act 3, and in Act 4 it rains; the sky is still overcast as the play comes to an end.

The contrast that Shakespeare gets here between the tone of the first two acts and that of the remaining three is probably intentional and, in any case, more apparent than real. Unless a reader is genuinely sophisticated, his response to literature is always at least partly a matter of habit; he laughs and shudders on signal. Thus there will always be those who find the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet mainly laughable, just as there will always be some who consider Othello the tragedy of a handkerchief, a farce with unfortunate consequences. Shakespeare must not be held responsible for responses of this kind. The first two acts of Romeo and Juliet will appear to be consistently comic only if we read them in the limited light of other, very different things–second-rate farces, dramatic and nondramatic, hack work generally, certain comic strips, even–in which the same conventions have been used. The corrective is to pay attention, for Shakespeare allows us to carry any initial impression of comedy we may have got only so far as the climax of the street brawl in Scene 1. At that point, while the servants are still battling, Tybalt still fighting with Benvolio, Capulet yelling for a long sword, and his wife telling him to call for a crutch instead, he brings us up sharply with the Prince’s words: What, ho! You men, you beasts,

That quench the fire of your pernicious rage

With purple fountains issuing from your veins!


Comedy can thrive indefinitely on beasts that pass for men, but it cannot long tolerate a reminder of original sin such as lurks in “pernicious rage” or a reminder of royal humanity’s self-destructiveness like “purple fountains”; and it is with these in our ears that we pass on to the rest of the Prince’s dignified rebuke and thence to the speeches of Benvolio and the Montagues which express their human concern for a youthful friend and son, the absent Romeo. When Romeo himself appears, later in the same scene, juggling words in a fashionable euphuistic manner and complaining of the contradictions of love, we are more cautious with our laughter. Laugh as we may, Romeo clearly lives in a world where folly can have serious and irrevocable consequences; and we are no longer confident that the conventions of comedy will save him from those consequences or spare us the pain of seeing him destroyed.

The remaining scenes in Acts 1 and 2 contain much that confirms our uneasiness. For example, Capulet, who has been very funny calling for his long sword, says tenderly of his daughter in Scene 2: . . . too soon marred are those so early made.

Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;

She is the hopeful lady of my earth.


These three lines are enough to establish him as a dramatic figure who will probably invite our sympathy as readily as he has provoked our ridicule. They also prepare us for Juliet, who never has much of the comic about her and least of all when she disturbs us with a prophetic “My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (1.5.137). Mercutio’s bawdiness is perhaps the best argument for taking these two acts as comic, but an attentive listener will receive it all with the long Queen Mab speech still in mind, see that Mercutio’s bawdiness and fancy are simply complementary aspects of a single creative and remarkably perceptive imagination, and be prepared to recognize that Verona’s one hope of restoration without tragedy has vanished when he dies.

In any case, a feeling that the play represents relatively mature work has disposed most scholars to seek a late date for it. The latest that can reasonably be given is 1596, since the first edition appeared early in 1597 and described the play as having been performed by “Lord Hunsdon’s servants,” a title that Shakespeare’s company held only from July 1596 until the following March. The preferred date seems to be 1595, which is also the preferred date for Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The reason usually given for putting these plays in the same year is that the same intense lyricism characterizes all three, but it has also been suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in its special concern with the difficulties of young love, reveals itself to be a product of the same mood or preoccupation that caused Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. Some interesting parallels have been noted. For example, in the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Lysander says: Brief as the lightning in the collied night,

That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,

And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”

The jaws of darkness do devour it up:

So quick bright things come to confusion.


To this Hermia replies, “If then true lovers have been ever crossed, It stands as an edict in destiny.” This exchange has been related plausibly both to Juliet’s “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say it lightens” (2.2.118-20) and to the “star-crossed lovers” of the Prologue. But beyond the realm of the plausible in this matter we cannot go. Those who regard the play as immature usually prefer an earlier date, insisting that the Nurse’s ” ‘Tis since the earthquake now eleven years” (1.3.23), by which she remembers the time of Juliet’s weaning, refers to a famous earthquake which struck England in 1580 and that Shakespeare meant to date his play 1591 by having the Nurse mention something that everyone in the audience could date precisely. Against this view one might argue that there were two other earthquakes in England during the 1580s and at least one on the Continent; Shakespeare could easily have referred to one of these or just as easily to no earthquake at all. Moreover, while it is certainly reasonable to suppose that in mentioning an earthquake he would have thought of some earthquake he knew, it is hardly reasonable to think he would have bothered to fix as contemporary the date of a play that apparently had nothing to gain by being considered topical. Everything taken into account, the play seems to come after plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labor’s Lost and before The Merchant of Venice and the Henry IV plays. The most likely date, therefore, is still 1595.

Whatever the date, the style of Romeo and Juliet places it at a point which marks the poet’s achievement of self-awareness and confidence in his mastery over the medium. The play is rich in set pieces and memorable scenes, so much so in fact that insensitive producers have sometimes turned it into a collection of dramatic recitals. Yet Shakespeare’s virtuosity, intrinsically interesting as it is whenever we choose to isolate some specimen of it, never fails to function as a part of the general action of the play; and that is as true in this work, where he seems to be rejoicing openly in his creative power, as it is in the later tragedies, where the power is felt rather than seen. Nothing in Romeo and Juliet really stands alone, not even a startling passage like the Queen Mab speech, which almost immediately proves to be an indispensable part of Mercutio’s complex personality, just as Mercutio with all his complexity ultimately proves indispensable to the meaning of the play. The creativity displayed in this passage is Shakespeare’s, to be sure, but his greatest achievement is in making it credibly Mercutio’s. Equally remarkable is the much-admired lyrical quality of the next scene, in which Romeo meets Juliet for the first time; but this scene is remarkable for another reason. Here we have two young people who presumably have had no opportunity to develop any special gift for language. Juliet’s talk up to this point has commanded no particular attention; and Romeo’s, best displayed perhaps in his first exchange with Benvolio (1.1), has been characterized by extravagant paradoxes and an occasional fortuitous couplet. Suddenly, with Juliet in sight, he begins to make something like poetry: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear–

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!


Capulet and Tybalt briefly obscure the young man from view, but as these move aside, we see that he has not only taken Juliet by the hand but has begun spinning sonnets with her; and even before the Nurse interrupts, we have sensed the rightness of this unexpected attachment and its potential for permanence. We are thus prepared for the orchard, or balcony, scene of Act 2 and for the lovely aubade that the two perform at the parting in Act 3–both among the memorable scenes in Shakespeare because without any formal patterning they achieve a unity all their own and still serve the larger function of suggesting the integrity that love can confer briefly upon two young people who, apart from each other, will remain children to the end.

In characterization Shakespeare had always been able to make language work for him, but with Romeo and Juliet he mastered it so completely that the play almost became a gallery of individuals. The language of the extremes in the social scale must have been easiest to catch, with the banter of servingmen at one end and the formal periods of Prince Escalus at the other; but in between the extremes we get the Nurse’s peasant speech, most noticeably of peasant origin when she tries to imitate her betters, beautifully contrasted with the self-assured and warmly healthy country-gentry talk of old Capulet; Mercutio’s mature command of language at all levels and Tybalt’s narrow range of sharp insolence; Friar Lawrence’s moralizing, formal and sententious but never tedious, and the tiny voice of the complaisant Apothecary. Some of these characters change attitude as external circumstances require, but in general their personalities simply unfold in the language that establishes them. This is also true of Benvolio, Paris, and Lady Capulet. Romeo and Juliet, however, undergo development, and he undergoes more than she. From her first appearance the younger Juliet is more mature than her lover. Romeo is fertile in figures and can occasionally invent fresh things like “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops” (3.5.9-10); but it is always Juliet who leads the talk in their two great scenes together, and it is also she who knows what language cannot do: Conceit, more rich in matter than in words,

Brags of his substance, not of ornament.

They are but beggars that can count their worth;

But my true love is grown to such excess

I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.


Her best lines are those in which she draws upon language to invent for her the images of death which she must confront before Romeo can be permanently hers (4.3.14-58); yet when she wakes to find Romeo lifeless, she can muster no language capable of helping her in such an extremity and quickly joins her lover in death. By contrast, Romeo’s best speech is perhaps the one he delivers in the tomb; with it he gives dignity, meaning, and finality to the one act he plans and executes, however unwisely, without the help of friends, Friar, or Juliet. His language here, like the deed, is his own, as the courtly conventions and fashionable euphuism of many of his earlier scenes were not. His paradoxes, his puns, even his lamentations in the Friar’s cell, are borrowed things, as his mature friends know; yet Romeo’s “misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms” is catalyzed into inchoate poetry whenever Juliet comes upon the scene, and in the end he achieves in her presence a man’s power to act if not a man’s gift of discretion.

If Romeo and Juliet fails to achieve the highest rank of tragedy, the reason for that failure must be sought in the protagonists themselves and not in some extraterrestrial power or agency. The reason Romeo and Juliet do not stand out clearly as protagonists in a great tragedy is simply that Shakespeare created them to be protagonists in a different kind of play, one which has many of the circumstances that we find in the other tragedies but which lacks at the center a figure capable of achieving the terrible but satisfying perception of man’s involvement in the mystery of creation. “Failure” is an inappropriate word for such an achievement. The notable thing about Romeo and Juliet is not that they fail to reach a Hamlet’s degree of awareness but that as very young people they behave better and mature more rapidly in that direction than we have any right to expect them to. They learn that Verona is flawed, but they do not dream that the whole world is flawed in the same way. They discover that some actions are good and some bad, but never achieve the Friar’s catholic view that only will can make an action bad and only grace can redeem it. They confront imperfection courageously; they fail to see in it an image of themselves. Death overtakes them in their innocence and their unknowing; and we remember them not as we remember tragic heroes, in pity and fear, but in admiration for their loveliness, as we remember dead children.

All things considered, the Verona which serves as their testing ground is not a bad place. The Prologue refers darkly to “the continuance of their parents’ rage, / Which but their children’s end, naught could remove”; but as H. B. Charlton has observed, the old people in the play seem to have little interest in continuing a quarrel. Apart from the ancient rift, one might describe the city as a reservoir of high spirits and good will, full of attractive people like the witty Mercutio, Benvolio and Paris, the wise and tolerant Friar, and the young ladies who brighten the evenings in Capulet’s great hall. Yet the Prologue is right. The rift created by the old people’s almost forgotten rage is still there, wide enough for irresponsible young servingmen to see and make a game of and wide enough, too, for irresponsible young noblemen, like Tybalt, to aggravate into a civic crisis. One might say of it, as Mercutio says of his death wound, ” ‘Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.” In the end it has served as a conduit for some of the best blood in the city, including Mercutio’s own, and for the tears of all the rest.

Apart from the two protagonists, the people of Verona, or rather those that Shakespeare has presented to us, may be arranged in two groups. The first of these, by far the larger, includes all the supernumeraries, such minor characters as Peter and the Apothecary, and a few relatively important figures like Tybalt, the Capulets, the Nurse, Paris, and Benvolio. These are the static or “flat” characters, who are “by nature” what they are; and their functions are to present the limited range of values they embody and to make the plot go. Tybalt, for example, is by nature choleric and determined to pick quarrels; Benvolio, by nature the opposite, is equally determined to avoid them. There are no surprises in either, even when Tybalt precipitates the climactic crisis of the play, just as there are no surprises in Paris and should be none in the Nurse. The latter is interesting to us precisely because Shakespeare’s detailed unfolding of her reveals a consistent personality, yet she too is static. From the beginning, she is garrulous, corruptible, and insensitive; and as long as nothing requires her to be otherwise, she can also be amusing. At her crisis, when Juliet asks her to be wise, the Nurse can only suggest bigamy, a course quite in keeping with the values she herself is made of. Here the Nurse is no longer funny, but she has not changed. It is Juliet who has done that. The other characters in this group do not change either. They may be said to represent the abiding conditions of human intercourse in any representative community; and a lesser playwright, assembling a similar collection, would probably have included the same kind of servants and dignitaries, a Nurse or someone like her, Tybalts and Benvolios, all performing essentially the same functions as Shakespeare’s and exhibiting many of the same qualities. The unique excellence of the static characters in Romeo and Juliet comes from Shakespeare’s having particularized them so deftly that, like the protagonists in the play, we hopefully take them at first for people of larger dimensions. Their vitality tempts us to expect them to be more than they are and to give more than they have any capacity for giving. Thus when Tybalt fails to respond to Romeo’s generous appeal and Lady Capulet proves blind to her daughter’s need for sympathy, we feel the disappointment as sharply as if we were discovering for ourselves the limitations of common humanity.

The second group consists of three characters who give a doubly strong impression of life because they include among their qualities some degree of perception or understanding. Prince Escalus, slight as he is, is one of these, and Friar Lawrence another. Normally we should expect a magistrate to belong to the group of static or flat characters, but Shakespeare has given his magistrate a conscience and a growing presentiment of what must happen to everyone in Verona if the wound in the civil body cannot be healed. Others want to keep the peace, too, but mainly because they have a perfunctory sense of duty or perhaps because they dislike fighting. Escalus knows from the beginning that keeping the peace here is a matter of life or death, and in the end he readily takes his share of responsibility for the bloody sacrifice he has failed to avert: Capulet, Montague,

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

And I, for winking at

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