Summer Shakespeare I

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2015: Wednesdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Eastern Time
June 17 - Aug. 19

June 17:
A Midsummer Night's Dream

June 24:
Romeo and Juliet

July 8:
The Taming of the Shrew

July 15:
Richard II

July 22:
As You Like It

July 29:
Julius Caesar

August 5:
The Merchant of Venice

August 12:
King Lear

August 19:
Twelfth Night

Romeo and Juliet

Things to consider while reading Romeo and Juliet

This is the first of our tragedies — and we’ll get more deeply into the question of what makes up a tragedy later. But it’s a question we can — and must — begin to wrestle with here.

One theory of dramatic composition holds that tragedy grows out of a fundamental character flaw — sometimes called a “tragic flaw”; — in the principal character or characters. Not all people subscribe to this theory, which has its origins in the Poetics of Aristotle. I don’t particularly think it addresses the fundamental issues even of Greek tragedy, let alone later types of tragedy. You may agree or not as you like.

But if we reject that position, it does leave an important gap — we need to ask, what makes a tragedy a tragedy? We are used to hearing the word “tragedy” bandied about by newscasters as if it were a synonym for “calamity”, and so we may be immune to the overtones of such a claim. But in a dramatic sense, “tragedy” means something more. It’s more than just an unhappy outcome. Would a play be a tragedy if a random gunman entered and shot everyone in the last scene of a play that was otherwise a comedy? Is it a tragedy if the hero falls down the stairs and is killed? Instinctively we want to say no. We have a sense that the outcome, whatever it is, must be a natural outgrowth of the ingredients of the story — character, perhaps, or at least the plot — but in any case, not something superadded when everything else has run its course.

But if that is a criterion, then we have in turn to ask — does the crisis and climax of Romeo and Juliet actually come out of its basic material? Or is it instead an accidental set of mishaps that respond to the tonal tension of the earlier part of the play, but don’t really grow out of it in any kind of narrative sense? How we think about this question, and what conclusion we come to, will have a lot to do with what we make of the play in the long run.

A narrative retelling of Romeo and Juliet from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.

Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Romeo and Juliet is apparently (the datings are never completely stable) from approximately 1595, the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The connections between the two plays are, in some ways, rather remarkable. At very least, it is a combination, in a different order, of many of the same ingredients. Consider:

Shakespeare’s Language

If you haven’t read the section on Shakespeare’s Language (pp. xvi-xxv of your edition), do so. It’s much like what appears in most of the Folger volumes, but it is specifically tailored to, and filled with examples from, Romeo and Juliet. This section specifically addresses mostly the problem of cracking the nut of Shakespearean English, and it is, of course, important to understand what he is saying before you can do anything else. But the question of Shakespeare’s language does not end there. Consider also:

Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)

Symmetries in the play

Inconsistencies or problems in the play