Friday, July 22, 2011

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

I don't really enjoy reading Romeo and Juliet; if I didn't have to, I wouldn't. But this is one of the texts for the upcoming Shakespeare seminar at Columbia I'll be taking, along with The Taming of the Shrew and Henry V. The topic is "Becoming a Man," in what I suppose is a romantic context, otherwise I can't imagine why something like Romeo and Juliet would be preferable to Henry IV or Hamlet. (And for that matter, who exactly "becomes a man" in The Taming of the Shrew?) Not to mention the fact that Romeo never really graduates from a mewling little girl.

This time around I took notice of--even more than the last time I read it--the sharp contrast between Romeo's language when he speaks of Juliet and when he speaks of Rosaline. I am more convinced now than ever that Romeo's lovesickness at the beginning of the play is a Petrarchan fantasy that is more play-acting than true agony. Here, he talks of Rosaline's chastity:

Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit;
And in strong proof of chastity armed,
From love's weak childish bow she lives uncharmed.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th' encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.
O she is rich, in beauty only poor,
That when she dies, with beauty dies her store.

I get the strong sense that Rosaline's chastity is not the cause of Romeo's agony but rather the cause of his idealization of Rosaline. The style Romeo adopts cannot be divided from the tradition of loving from afar; if Rosaline were not chaste, she would not be an appropriate object of Romeo's romanticism. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their words form a sonnet together, something that would have been impossible in the Petrarchan tradition because the lover remains always aloof. Romeo must learn what Juliet knows instinctively, that language cannot grasp true love:

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 half my wealth.

In its way, Romeo and Juliet is an ode to the sexual act, which is the action that surpasses words and brings true communion. The perversity of courtly love is underlined when, at the end, Juliet becomes to Paris what Rosaline was to Romeo. Paris' indignation at Romeo's interruption of his "true love's rite" at Juliet's tomb is almost comical, and we know that he cannot seriously mean his promise that "[t]he obsequies that I for thee will keep / Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep." Though Benvolio remarks that Romeo's laments over Rosaline are out of date, I wonder if Romeo and Juliet doesn't represent the nail in the coffin of the courtly tradition--it certainly speaks more strongly to modern readers, all of whom know Juliet but probably have never heard of Laura.

I think a case could be made that Romeo and Juliet on the whole is deeply critical of traditions, and that the ancient Capulet-Montague feud is another such example. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet would have been more loved in my class if I had been able to show my students the extent to which the old poison the young, and freedom means breaking free from one's elders.

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