Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

What is left to say about Romeo and Juliet? Re-reading this one wasn't quite the experience that King Lear was, for many reasons. For one, Lear is just better. Secondly, would anyone deny that Romeo and Juliet is near-ubiquitous in our culture? I mean, how many bad sitcoms have a scene where a high schooler moons vicariously over their crush under the pretense of being cast in Romeo and Juliet together? It is nearly impossible to read this play with fresh eyes.

(Of course, Lear gets a point taken away for not having as many dick jokes. Seriously, if you go by this editor's gloss, just about every word in Shakespearean English is a euphemism for either a penis or a vagina.)

So, I find myself without having much to say. The most interesting question that came to my mind is this--do Romeo and Juliet really love each other? That sounds ridiculous on its face, but my reading of the play in college--at the height of my cynicism--was that Romeo's love for Juliet was of the same stripe as his love for Rosaline, for whom he pines in the first act. This would be appropriate in the sense that in most classical tragedies the final catastrophe is the result of one's own actions, and as such we might be encouraged to see Romeo's infatuation with Juliet as childish, or foolish, and ultimately destructive.

But several things make me change my mind, including the realization that valuing Romeo's feelings over Juliet's is probably a form of mild sexism. Though Romeo appears moody, fickle, and kind of a douchebag, Juliet never seems to be anything but calm, and never lets her passion for Romeo bring out the same kind of lamentation and breast-beating that he indulges in (leading the Friar to call him womanly, and certainly suggesting swapped gender roles).

But also, the tone of Romeo's love is different. His love for Rosaline is expressed in oxymoron, typical of Petrarchan love sonnets:

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

For Petrarch, the ideal was courtly love, which by its nature is external to marriage and can never be realized. The agony that arises is to be expected, and makes love a largely joyless thing, which Romeo expresses when he says, "This love feel I, that feel no love in this." And yet, his love for Juliet is neither unrequited nor agonizing:

O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard,
Being in night, all this is but a dream,
Too flattering sweet to be substantial.

Is it Juliet? Or is it merely the fact that, unlike Rosaline, Juliet returns his feelings?

Finally, I am convinced by something the editor, Mario DiGangi, says in his introduction:

The most elevated dramatic genre, tragedy traditionally dealt with the fall of great men--"great" because both aristocratic and historically important. Romeo and Juliet are neither... As such an Elizabethan audience might have felt skeptical about the value of a tragedy centered on their lives and loves... In order to find Romeo and Juliet figures worthy of tragic treatment, then, Shakespeare's audience would have to find value in their love.

The implication being, of course, that love is a kind of substitute for greatness, that true love can make a man or woman great. Furthermore, for Romeo and Juliet this occurs not only without the sort of social admiration that aristocracy and history might import, but despite its opposite, the social revilement that their union causes when Juliet reveals her intention to her parents. Contrary to my younger, cynical self, I think there's something sweet and wonderful about that.

The question remains, then--is Romeo correct when he says on his wedding day, "But come what sorrow can, / It cannot counteract the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight"? If their love is what we hope that it is--true, pure, and deeply felt--is the short time which they have it worth their demise? And would it be true for you or me?


Nihil Novum said...

Christopher, Christopher, let down your hair!

Lula O said...

Wow. Great analysis. And no probably not. But it still gets me every time.

Christopher said...

That's Rapunzel, B.