Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Getting Off the Ground

Fellow Shakespeareans:

First Responses: As I listened to Romeo and Juliet (which I feel I have not read for years) on the highways between Kingston and Boston, I noted that it is supposed to take two hours’ worth of listening time. I know the Elizabethans are supposed to have spoken (and probably apprehended) faster than we, but I appreciated to need for speed to enhance the pressures of passion that drive the play. Indeed, by the time I got to the closing acts, I found a good bit of the talk bothersome, almost as if added by someone else to “flesh out” the playwright’s original. The beautiful poetry of the lovers as they approached their necessary deaths was what I wanted to hear. The hell with the other stuff!

I wanted to formulate some sort of glib assessment, such as, “This is a tragedy – not of character, but of the poetry of youth.” It is, in a sense, a different sort of tragedy. Both Romeo and Juliet are what we would call “children,” and quite brilliantly portrayed as such. But what attracts us to them in the first couple of acts is less what we learn about them than it is the beauty of the way they talk to one another, a beauty none of us present in this conversation will ever quite know again. That is the great loss in this play. There is very little talk (by either the characters themselves or others) of how their peculiar flaws have brought them to their terrible ends. There is no real moment of self-understanding, no moment when either reflects and says, “My God! What have I done!”

Rather, there is a kind of bowing to the necessities imposed by fate and passion, which is foreshadowed by all the references to death and tombs that fill the play’s final acts. In a sense, what we have here may be the first great non-Aristotelian tragedy of the modern world. The only other possibility is a Senecan tragedy (like The Spanish Tragedy), with bodies piled up and lots of speechifying, but that doesn’t work for me either.

Some other things I noticed or found interesting:

1. Tybalt and Mercutio: Mercutio is rather crude (especially in 2.4), if wonderfully likeable. Tybalt represents the kind of courtier Shakespeare seems to hate, a person so fussy about living “by the book” in certain areas that he dehumanizes himself (Sir Andrew’s letting himself be “taught” about courtly ways by Sir Toby is a lighter example). Tybalt is a creature of fencing books and simplistic venomous quips and is sure to fail in the face of a true Renaissance Man (even in the making) – much as Laertes will be bested by Hamlet’s sword-play. Thus both have courtly flaws, although I sure as hell know which one I would prefer to hang with. One could, I suppose, compare Mercutio, Romeo, Paris, and Tybalt as four different sorts of (courtly) men. Which kind are you?

2. The use of a “Chorus” (That is a Senecan device) to introduce the scenes. I wonder how the play would be different without this narrative-enhancing device.

3. The characters of the fathers – as much as they are developed. I find Capulet (“old desire”?) most interesting in his generosity at the party, although his enthusiasm for looking at (down the fronts of?) the good-looking young women he (like Don Giovanni) invites to his banquet shows him to be a bit of a letch.

4. My sister wants to blame the Nurse and Friar Laurence for their parts in doing the young lovers in. I am not at that point yet. I don’t find either character particularly interesting, although I am ready to be enlightened.

These are, I will admit, somewhat shallow musings, but I want to get them down and sent out before I read Gilbert’s initial discussion.


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