Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tradegy in Romeo and Juliet


“The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.” – Shirley Hazzard

When Randall analyzed Taming of the Shrew as mock epic we could assume he had put the final stake in the heart of genre criticism, long ailing under the scorn of postmodernists. But then I realized that he had actually created a new form of criticism entirely: “mock-genre” criticism. In this spirit I would like to address Romeo and Juliet as tradegy. Not tragedy, though I have earlier suggested the play is (romantic) comedy until some irreversible point — Mercutio’s death or Tybalt’s and “I am Fortune’s fool” or my choice, Juliet dismissing the Nurse: “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!…If all else fail, myself have power to die” (III.v.236…244), after which she has no more social space in which to exist. (I think I may have found this phrase in Kiernan Ryan’s excellent little monograph, Shakespeare.)

I take my subgenre, “tradegy,” not from Aristotle’s Poetics but from newspaper headlines describing something rilly, rilly sad, as in “Tradegy in Minnetonka: boy, 4, run over by steamroller.” Under this focus the fates of Juliet and Romeo are not tradegy. Remember Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” in which Gray’s speaker looks down on the playing fields of Eton and watches the children disporting on the margent green, swimming (or, more accurately, cleaving with pliant arm the Thames’ glassy wave—forgive Gray his poetic diction), chasing hoops or playing ball. Then, he imagines life after youth: Misfortune, Anger, Fear, pining Love, Jealousy, Envy, Care—you get the point—until he concludes “where ignorance is bliss,/ ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

James Agee wrote another such poem, “Sunday: Outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee,” in which the speaker sees a couple amorously disporting (look how Gray has influenced me) under a shrub in a park, and he, like Gray, imagines what fate awaits them. Agee, in lieu of Capitalized Generalities, foresees a very hard-edged future: in-laws, minimum wage, labor pains, crying babies, truant schoolchildren…car payments, a little fling at the office…old age, disease, tombstones. [If you don’t know this poem, I’ll try to find a copy and send it around.] Agee ends his poem “God show…God blind these children.”

Now look at Romeo and Juliet. They are perfectly in love. Pure romance. First kiss and first love and vows unbroken and waxing moons and pledges of love everlasting and near-immediate consummation and parting in sweet sorrow and that most delicious adolescent state, martyrdom by being opposed by everyone in the world, and then each makes the ultimate sacrifice for the other AND….where are they finally? Up among the stars, young and in love forever. Here we are 415 years later, awed by their innocence, passion and purity. They live forever, in culture, in the play, in our minds, in myth (all of Randall’s and all of my students “know” Romeo and Juliet before they see them), never ”too soon marred” and never “a crutch, a crutch.” Romeo and Juliet achieve apotheosis (the opposite of katabasis?). The play acknowledges the impossibility of romantic love or innocence enduring on this earth.

Yet how about mortality. Time gets us all. Memento mori. Who is more tradgic, Romeo or Capulet? Capulet, after all, must live until death, conscious that his stubborn insistence to stay the course of the feud is responsible for the loss of everything that has meant anything in his life. And that, children, is rilly rilly sad.

Of course, there is no moral to tradegy. Thus, Shakespeare has violated the spirit of his probable source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem, itself a translation of a French version of an Italian romance, which is preceded by a preface (To the Reader) that offers Brooke’s evaluation of the story’s meaning ( and any first-time theatre goer or sophomore student desperately needs to know the "meaning" of a play):

“The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil…. And to this end (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips, and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity) attempting all adventures of peril, for the attaining of their wished lust, using auricular confession (the key of whoredom and treason) for furtherance of their purpose, abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage, to cloak unhappy death.” (partially cited in the Signet introduction)

How can it be tragic if it merely illustrates that teenagers should listen to their parents and not fool around, and they should especially avoid the Catholic church.

Gotta go confess,


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