Monday, July 23, 2012

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

I made my first dip into Shakespeare when Mum was reading Huck Finn to us, and the Romeo-and-Juliet references piqued my curiosity. I had heard the names before, I had no idea to what they referred, and I just wanted to know.

All these years later, I'm tolerably familiar with the play. But the reason to include it here is less that I like it and more that I have come to believe it's one of the most misunderstood of Shakespeare's plays.

Here's the scenario:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona (where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life...
Yes, it's the Montague family over here on the left, and the Capulet family over there on the right. As traditional in Renaissance Italy, the two great families are embroiled in a deadly feud. Young Romeo Montague hangs aloof from the ancestral grudge--preferring to mope around after the lady he loves with unrequited passion, Rosaline. That is, until his cousin Benvolio and their very strange friend Mercutio talk him into a hare-brained scheme in an attempt to cheer him up. There's a feast at the Capulet mansion--and of course the three Montagues should attend, heavily disguised.

Here Romeo catches sight of Juliet Capulet, the thirteen-year-old daughter of his family's enemy, whose marriage to a nobleman named Paris is already being arranged. All thoughts of Rosaline driven out of his head, Romeo engages in a whirlwind courtship. By the next day, he's won Juliet's heart and persuaded her to marry him secretly. But as the feud leads to duels in the streets of Verona between the young Montagues and Capulets, and as Juliet finds herself hurried towards a marriage with Paris, the play takes a sharp turn into tragedy. Soon, in typical tragic Shakespeare fashion, the stage is littered with the bodies of the dead and the fatally misunderstood.

Over the centuries, Romeo and Juliet--an old story even when Shakespeare wrote this famous version of it--has attained a sort of aura of reverent romanticism: these are the world's most famous lovers and as a result it's easy to see the play as a celebration of secret and suicidal teen romance.

To dispel this effect one only has to look at the play a little more closely. Juliet is not yet fourteen years old; Romeo can't be much older. Only a few days elapse between the first meeting and the oh-so-avoidable tragic ending. Is this really something Shakespeare intended to depict with approval? Are Romeo and Juliet the most romantic tragic star-crossed lovers ever...or are they immature teenagers in the grip of a shallow infatuation, desperate to have their own way at the cost of everything, even their own lives?

I argue for the latter.

Shakespeare's source for the story was Arthur Brooke, who wrote a long poem telling the story. Like Shakespeare, Brooke milked the sensational, romantic plot for all its worth; unlike Shakespeare, Brooke left a note, containing his opinion of Romeo and Juliet:
[A] couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips ... attempting all adventures of peril for the attaining of their wished lust ... abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage ...
This is good evidence for Brooke's view of the story, if not for Shakespeare's (yet in a more responsible and uninfatuated age, it is likely that Shakespeare might have shared this view). Yet though Shakespeare is sympathetic to his young hero and heroine's plight, I believe there is strong evidence that he did not consider Romeo and Juliet to be good role models at all.

The key to his view lies in Much Ado About Nothing, another of Shakespeare's romantic stories. This play contains a couple of young lovers, Claudio and Hero, who see each other once or twice and immediately fall in love (sound familiar?). Immediately they arrange to marry, but the night before the wedding the villains trick Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Because his love for her was so shallow and selfish, he immediately turns upon her, choosing their wedding as the ideal venue to publicly 'expose' and humiliate her. Claudio's behaviour is compared, in this play, to another couple who start out with a prickly relationship full of barbed wit. While Claudio and Hero were blind to each other's faults, Benedick and Beatrice are wise enough to see each other quite clearly, warts and all. "We are too wise to woo peaceably," says Beatrice at one point, underscoring the fact that although they are in love, they still have their wits about them and have made a balanced, rational decision. By contrast, in Shakespeare, those who love rashly and insanely, idolising each other, head straight into tragedy. Othello, for example, is very similar to Claudio: he loves Desdemona "not wisely but too well", as she says, and he too is quick to believe her false, and savage in his revenge.

While Romeo and Juliet do not have to cope with disillusionment and revenge, their idolising of each other is still what leads them so quickly to destruction. When Claudio believes that his idol is fallen, he destroys her with his words; when Romeo believes that his idol is put beyond his reach, he destroys himself. Shakespeare's Foolish Lovers always come to a bad end, even if they get what they want, like Lucentio from The Taming of the Shrew--who finds out at the end that Bianca is a bit of a shrew herself. By contrast, the Wise Lovers, who are fully conscious of each other's faults, who do not idolise each other, are the ones that end happily: Benedick and Beatrice, and Petruchio and Kate, to begin with.

But Shakespeare is not completely disapproving of Romeo and Juliet, although they are clearly foolish lovers. They have a great deal of his sympathy, and they live in a world that has been turned upside down. Each of the spheres of sovereignty has broken down. The state is ineffective in preventing the feud between the Montagues and Capulets: although the Prince of Verona tries hard to keep the peace, the Prologue (quoted above) clearly states that he has had to shed blood to try to do so ("civil blood makes civil hands unclean"). Within the families of the main characters, the patriarchs are either ineffective at curbing the bloodlust of the younger ones, or actively egging them on. And the church, represented by Friar Lawrence, in trying to patch up the feud by assisting the lovers' marriage, only ends up muddling things far worse. At the end of the play, it is perfectly clear why the whole tragedy has come about. As the Prince says:
Where be these enemies? 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 your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.

Romeo and Juliet is a great story told with great vigour by one of the greatest of poets at the zenith of his abilities. Although it rather revels in all the sensational twists of its plot, it retains some excellent themes of wisdom and foolishness, providence and judgement. I always enjoy it.

Librivox recording
Gutenberg etext

If you like footnotes, we use and recommend the "Oxford School Shakespeare" or the "New Penguin Shakespeare" editions.

I have seen two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet. Franco Zeffirelli's version from the 1960s was the youth event of a generation. Baz Luhrmann's version from the 1990s tried hard to be the same kind of thing for the MTV generation. However the two versions are radically different. I found Zeffirelli's movie somewhat too reverent in tone and extremely slow-paced. I felt there were also significant cuts to the source material. Also Certain Body Parts are briefly shown. Baz Luhrmann's movie is, by contrast, completely insane: Updated to the incredibly-trendy "Verona Beach" where everyone's handgun is called a "Sword 9000" or a "Dagger .51" or something to avoid having to change the dialogue. There are some pretty tasteless things in this one as well (at least Zeffirelli's, with a little editing, would be fine for a younger audience. Not this one). However I have to say I like it better--as a Romeo and Juliet adaptation. While quite a lot is cut from the very end, generally there's a lot more of the script in there than in the Zeffirelli version; plus a real attempt has been made to capture the sensational, fast-paced, ultra-witty nature of the original.

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