For Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare took his source, Plautus’s Meneachmi, and ingeniously doubled the number of twins, raising the possible mistaken identity twists exponentially. So, when the first two words of Romeo and Juliet are “two households” we may anticipate that the title lovers will have two fathers and two mothers, and all the changes on the theme of adolescent love would be rung. Romantic comedy—boy sees girl, obstacles arise, boy gets girl—has most frequently used the blocking figure of a parent as the “obstacle.” Might we imagine the (Joan) Crawford-Capulets and the Cleaver-Montagues? But unlike the two Antipholi and two Dromios, Romeo and Juliet is not overloaded with balance for the sake of form, and Juliet’s parents are richly and depressingly complex compared to the lightly shaded Montagues.
They all appear at the street brawl, comically as I earlier noted, the two old men pretending to rage (illustrating the “leading from behind” folly that Gregory has already joked about: Sampson: I will back thee. Gregory: How? Turn thy back and run?) while each is ridiculed by his spouse (“”A crutch, a crutch!” calls Lady Capulet while Montague is being held back by his wife, though nothing suggests she might be mistaken for Hippolyta), so the Prince intervenes by negotiation appointments to impose peace in our time. The time of the ancient grudge is surely past, despite hotheads such as Tybalt, and it seems to me that both these old men would use any face-saving excuse to sign a peace treaty. (They should have gone to see The Fantasticks.)
Exeunt all but the senior Montagues, who indeed display their proper roles as parents. Dear Lady Montague, surrounded by possible blood and broken swords, the judgment of ‘pain of death’ still echoing in the square, says only “O, where is Romeo? Saw you him today?/ Right glad I am he was not at this fray.” World War IV may have broken out, but all’s well as long as her boy Romeo is safely out in the woods carving initials in the bark of trees. What a Mom! But lest you think I’m trivializing such maternal affection, remember that she disappears from the action until it is reported that she has died of grief because her beloved son has been exiled.
Montague is similarly sketched: old soldier (“Hold me not, [wife]), then after the fray he solicits Benvolio to spy on “his heavy son” Romeo to discover “from whence his sorrows grow” anticipating Polonius’s fatherly interference when Renaldo is hired to spy on Laertes. After Tybalt is slain and the Prince evokes wergeld: “Romeo slew him; he slew Mercutio./ Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe? (III.i.184-85), Montague pleads for his son’s life, despite the “irrevocable” judgment: “Not Romeo, Prince; he was Mercutio’s friend;/ His fault concludes but what the law should end,/ The life of Tybalt” (III.I.186-88).
[Note: Signet follows Quartos 2 and 3 and the 1st Folio and gives this speech to Capulet, but the 4th Quarto, New Cambridge, Norton, Riverside and Bevington logically give this to Montague.]
Lastly, after universal darkness has buried all, Montague is left to compete with Capulet to see who will build the biggest gold statue to his child’s beloved. As was Lady Montague, he has been a concerned, devoted, and completely ineffectual parent. As Randall notes, he is rarely seen, but his physical absence seems to reflect an absence of parental influence or authority as well.
Lady Capulet is more vivid. Initially sarcastic about her aging husband: “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?” and then we learn some possible motivation for this scorn. As she begins to negotiate marriage to Paris, the Nurse establishes with truly impressive verbosity that Juliet is a fortnight shy of fourteen, and Lady Capulet notes that “Younger than you, here in Verona…, are made already mothers. By my count/ I was your mother much upon these years/ That you are now a maid.” This gives a chilling take to Capulet’s earlier response to Paris’s argument that “younger than [Juliet] are happy mothers made.” “And too soon marred are those so early made,” may be Capulet’s comment on his own wife.
By my calculation, Lady Capulet is 27, with only a single child—Capulet is now too old to “dance”—and she seems a willing accomplice in having her daughter deflowered as she herself had been. At Capulet’s feast, remember, when Juliet is improvising rhymes with Romeo, they are separated by the interference of Lady Capulet: “Madam, your mother craves a word with you.” Zeffirelli, through body language and mutual exits, implies that this unsatisfied wife and the young Tybalt are more intimately related than just by kinship. After the balcony, the marriage, and Tybalt’s death, we see at last a passionate Lady Capulet:
"Tybalt, my cousin! O my brother’s child!
O Prince! O cousin! Husband! O, the blood is spilled
Of my dear kinsman! Prince, as thou art true,
For blood of ours shed blood of Montague.
O cousin, cousin!" ( III.i.148-152)
which makes Zeffirelli’s choice look very interesting, or at least aligns Lady Capulet with the young Turks rather than the aristocratic authorities. Tybalt’s death has left the Capulets in social jeopardy, so Capulet grasps at the marriage to the Prince’s nephew Count Paris. Lady Capulet intrudes on Juliet’s tears at parting from the now banished Romeo, certainly violating the bliss of consummation, mistakes Juliet’s tears for mourning her cousin (“Some grief shows much of love;/ But much of grief shows still some want of wit,” anticipating Gertrude rationing Hamlet’s mourning for his father to 30 days), sooths Juliet by reporting she will hire a hit man to assassinate Romeo in Mantua, and then reveals the joyful tidings that Juliet will marry the County Paris two days hence. When Juliet demurs, again we see the naked passion of her mother: “I would the fool were married to her grave!” and after Capulet’s volcanic fury, disowns her “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word./ Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” This is more than a conventional parent, though she is ignorant of the facts, opposing young love. This is raw, destructive jealousy.
I think I’ll leave Lady Capulet’s last words, part of the (hypocritical) antiphonal mourning over the apparently dead Juliet, so much at odds with her previous scorn for her daughter’s independence. Can I get away with the critical cowardice that suspects that Act 4, scene 5, was written by another hand? That Arab trader we know was in London in 1595, Sheik Zubar? Could Oxford have written so moving a line as “But one, poor one, one poor and loving child”? Or maybe we have here the hand of William Henry Ireland, that greatest of all English tragedians?
Oh, Dad, poor Dad. Capulet. “A crutch!,” of course, which sets him at an age of declining power, though possibly it would be useful to have a balance of experience against youthful passion, and the rumble in the rialto occasions not only the Prince’s (unenforceable) law, but also a foundation for temperance in Verona: “But Montague is bound as well as I,/ In penalty alike; and ‘tis not hard, I think,/ For men so old as we to keep the peace.” (I.ii.1-3). This is the sentiment I base my impression that this feud would be over if the old men followed the opportunity for wisdom. And it is this venerable father who is negotiating his daughter’s hand to the County Paris, the Prince’s nephew, a very favorable alignment for the Capulets. But he has a father’s delicacy, and notes “my child is yet a stranger in the world.” I’m not going to go Freudian on you, but he does have qualms, and the evidence suggests Juliet has spent her scant fourteen years exclusively in the company of the Nurse, occasionally officially with the Friar, but only as a rare object of possession with her parents. He imposes a very fatherly proviso: “But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart;/My will to her consent is but a part./ And she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair according voice.” (I.ii.16-19). This gives him a (hoped for) out, and relieves him of a bit of responsibility.
Another father who sets such a condition is Baptista, who after setting a dowry of half his estate plus 20,000 crowns to anyone who will marry Kate, adds “Ay, when the special thing is well obtained,/ That is, her love, for that is all in all.” (Shrew II.i.128-29). Yeah, yeah, Baptista would marry Kate to Christopher Sly if he could get away with it, but I’m inclined to believe Capulet believes himself when he sets this condition.
Ernst has characterized the next facet of Capulet wonderfully, including “his enthusiasm for looking at (down the fronts of?) the good-looking young women he invites to his banquet shows him to be a bit of a letch.” He is an expansive host, full of good humor (may I be the 125,879th to call his joke about the ladies’ feet “corny”), and, as Ernst notes he is expansively generous, showing off his wealth, but also forcefully shutting down Tybalt’s rage in order to preserve conviviality (I would have said gemutlicheit, but I couldn’t spell it), after he and Tybalt have recognized the masked Romeo [Cindy and I can argue they recognize Romeo by his stutter]. So far, so good: a benevolent, paternal protector, feeling good about himself. But Mecutio is killed, Tybalt is killed, the villain Montague is banished, and “things have fall’n out, sir, so unluckily/ That we have had no time to move our daughter.” (III.iv.1-2), circumstances strip down all the delicacy: “ Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender/ Of my child’s love. I think she will be ruled / In all respects by me; nay more, I doubt it not” (III.iv.12-14). Dramatic irony. His paternal confidence, which he seems to think is still velvet gloved, is based on ignorance, and the following scene, Juliet’s refusal, brings on one of the most savage scenes in Shakespeare:
“Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you greensickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow face!” (III.v.152-58)
No compassion. No understanding. No mercy.
“And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.” (III.v.193-96)
I can think of no more vicious curse in all of Shakespeare. This father, who wore paternal possessiveness as part of his own self-satisfaction, dooms his only daughter. I have a long argument about comedy and tragedy here, but this is the moment for me when death is inevitable, when Juliet has no more social space in which to exist (this phrase may have been articulated for me, but it is exactly what I see in the play). Exit father. Lady Capulet: “Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” Exit Mother. Nurse: “I think it best if you married with the County. O, he’s a lovely gentleman!” A little bigamy is fine, as long as no one knows. Exit Nurse (“O most wicked fiend”).
I have been thinking of this for a couple of weeks, the canopy of parents so variously failing to cover the children, and perhaps it shaped toward a “paper” rather than a conversation. But then Randall offered up Friar Lawrence as Romeo’s actual father, and I need to start again. OK, anyone for the Nurse as Juliet’s actual mother?
I hope to come back at least once more.
Book Note: The Postman
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