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:
- The play is built on a two-family balance much like the two courts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- The issue of Juliet’s marriage to Paris emerges in a way that is very evocative of Egeus’ commands to Hermia (III.v).
- The embedded play of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is effectively the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
- Mercutio’s great “Queen Mab” speech refers (even if by an alternate name) to the queen of the fairies — curiously evoking Oberon and Titania.
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:
- How does Shakespeare use the variation between poetry and prose?
- How do the tonalities of the speech vary with the speakers?
- What is the effect of such poetic devices as rhyme?
- How do such things as vowel color enter into the composition of speeches?
- Can other specific poetic forms be discerned in the play? How? Where?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Love and marriage (again)
- Law and lawlessness (compare this to what happens in A Midsummer Nights Dream)
- The city as a kind of universe, and the inability of the imagination to exceed it.
- Moral responsibility: where does it lie?
Symmetries in the play
- Very much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is built around the contrast and balance of the two courts and the two worlds, this is built on the balance of the two families — the Capulets and the Montagues. Most of the characters fall into one of the two families.
- Are there other polar oppositions of realities? Can we say that Romeo and Juliet as lovers somehow inhabit a different reality from the one maintained by the rest of their families? If so, how?
- There are a few characters who do not fall into one of these two families. What is their role? How do they stand with respect to the drama? That is, what impulses do they contribute to the advancement of the plot, and what do they stand to gain or lose witnin the dramatic framework?
Inconsistencies or problems in the play
- Do the two lovers die due to any internal necessity of the plot, or because of a mere freakish run of bad luck, followed up by impulsive over-reaction?
- What is the role of the early forebodings of bad endings — which occur to both of the lovers ( I.iv.108-9; II.2.117-20: bear in mind that no prophecy in Shakespeare is ever wasted.)
- At what point does a tragic outcome become an emotional necessity? Why? What causes this event (these events)? What events do these events in turn set in motion?
- Is someone to blame for the final fate of the two lovers? Are they? Their families’? (What are we told? What are we shown? Do they agree?)
- Is there any consistency of character motivation here? For example, what is going on with Juliet’s father? Near the beginning (I.ii) he puts Paris off for two years; only a little while later (III.v), he is vowing that Juliet must marry him (like Egeus and Hermia). Or again, shortly before he sees and falls in love with Juliet, Romeo is head-over-heels in love with Rosaline, who never appears (though she is mentioned several times through the play.
- Does the Aristotelian idea of the “tragic flaw” hold true here? If so, how?
- In many ways this play is put together like a comedy, rather than a tragedy. It is filled with a number of arch contrivances similar to those of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or (even more particularly) in Measure for Measure. Almost no other tragedy is anything like this. But all the plots misfire and the lovers end up dead. Is this tragedy?
- What is the role of Friar Laurence? Is he a wise advisor, or a foolish old man (a well-known type in Shakespeare’s plays).
- The play is often offered as a great example of the lyrical extremes of romantic love. Are there other notions that undercut that position here?
- Why has the play been so enduringly popular?
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