Notre Dame de Paris
Roméo et Juliette
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Romeo and Juliet: the history of the play.

John E. Hankins,
University of Maine.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a play of young love. No other conveys so well the impetuous, idealistic passion of youth. The hero and heroine are not remarkable except in the overwhelming strength of their love for each other. Readers who love deeply may find here the idealized utterance of their feelings, and those who do not love deeply are led to wish that they could. The universal longing for a perfect romantic love, for the union of physical desire with selfless self-surrender, finds full expression in this play and makes it what Georg Brandes has called the great typical love-tragedy of the world.
That this appeal to a universal longing in human nature is the true secret of the play’s success is witnessed by the great popularity of the balcony scene in ACT II, which is not at all the dramatic climax of the play but is usually the scene most clearly remembered. In former centuries the Library of Oxford University kept its folio copy of Shakespeare’s William Shakespeare works chained to a desk at which students could stand and read. The well-thumbed pages of the balcony scene and of the parting scene in ACT III give mute evidence that for young Oxonians these utterances of love were the most popular passages in all of Shakespeare’s works.
Indeed, Shakespeare’s finest achievement in this play is the successful portrayal of passionate physical love in terms of purity and innocence. The suggestive wink and the salacious leer are present in the jestings of the Nurse and the innuendoes of Mercutio, but these merely serve as contrasts to what to what Romeo and Juliet feel within themselves. When Juliet, soliloquizing, expresses her eager anticipation other wedding night, she does not appear immodest but innocent in the best sense. Her passion for Romeo is ennobling, and the same is true of Romeo’s love for her. The completeness of their devotion to each other leads them to ironic, untimely death; yet we cannot feel that this wholly a defeat, for their love has risen superior to the storms of circumstance. In the words of Professor van Kranendonk, late of Amsterdam: “The poet has placed this springtime love in so intense a poetic light that an afterglow still remains over the somber ending. When we hear the names of Romeo and Juliet, we do not think first of all (as with Othello and Desdemona) about their pain, their misery, and their terrible undoing, but about their happiness together”.
In the style and manner, “Romeo and Juliet” seems nearer to “A Mid-summer Night’s Dream” than to Shakespeare’s other plays. One finds the same intense lyricism; the same dependence upon rhymed couplets, the same enchantment of moonlight scenes, and the same interest in fairly love. Finally, in “A Mid-summer Night’s Dream” there occurs a passage which seems to contain the theme enlarged upon in Romeo and Juliet. Lysander laments that in stories of the past the “course of true love never did run smooth” and that mutual happiness seldom endured, passing like a sound, a shadow, a dream, a flash of lighting swallowed up in darkness. “So quick bright things come to confusion”, Lysander concludes, to which Hermia replies, “If then true lovers have ever been ever crossed, it stands as an edict in destiny”. These lines anticipate the “star-crossed lovers” of the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet” and suggest that the evanescence of “bright things”, particularly of young love, is a key to the mood in which the later play has written.
For some years scholars have debated the relative dates of these two plays. Internal evidence, while indicating 1594-95 as the date of A midsummer night’s Dream, seemed to place “Romeo and Juliet” in 1591. In the Nurse’s first scene, she says, “’Tis since the earthquake now eleven years”, a line which has the earmarks of a topical allusion. If she refers to the much-publicized earthquake which shook England on April 6, 1580, then the play should be dated in 1591, a date which on other grounds seems much too early. Recent scholarship, however, has given us a choice of earthquakes, since one occurred in Dorsetshire in 1583 and one in Kent in 1585. A “terrible earthquake” which occurred on the Continent on March 1, 1584, is described in William Covell’s "Polimanteia" (1595), a book which also praised “Sweet Shakespeare”. It is therefore obvious that the earthquake could date Romeo and Juliet in 1594, 1595 or 1596, just as well as in 1591.
Other methods of establishing the date have been attempted. The play opens “a fortnight and odd days” before Lammas Tide (August). Calculating the position of the moon as described in the play yields 1596 as the only year that will fit astronomically. The first edition of the play, the quarto of 1597, is described on the title page as having been acted by “Lord Hunsdon’s servants”. Shakespeare’s company was known by this title only from July 1596 to March 1597. A scholar who has compared the type face of this edition with other books issued by its printer, Jihn Danter, concludes that the quarto was printed in February or March of 1597. Since it was a reported edition and was presumably not authorized by Shakespeare, it probably represented an attempt to exploit the popularity of a new play. We may therefore with some confidence assign the composition of the play to the middle of 1596, in which case the earthquake recalled by the nurse would be the one which occurred in Kent on August 4, 1585. The day followed A Midsummer Night’s Dream by slightly more than year.
Shakespeare’s source for this play was "The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet", written first in Italian by Bandell, and now in English by Ar. Br. (1562). This work by Arthur Broke, or Brooke, is a long narrative poem based on the prose of Bandello (1554) through an intermediate French version by Pierre Boaistuau (1559). Before Bandello, elements of the story were used by Luigi da Porto (1525) and Masuccio Salernitano (1476). Brooke’s poem apparently aerated in England a vogue for “tragical histories” translated from Bandello, Boccaccio and other prose romancers. In the two decades following 1562, extensive collections of these were published in prose by William Painer, Geoffrey Fenton, and George Pettie, and in verse by James Sandlford, Georege Turbervile, Robert Smyth, and Richard Tarleton. Painer’s work included a prose translation of the Romeo-Juliet story, but Shakespeare seems not to have used it. Brooke tells us in his preface that he had recently seen a play on the same subject acted on the stage (probably at the inns of Court), but it seems unlikely that this play came to Shakespeare’s attention thirty years later, since no further performances or printings of it are recorded. His obvious source, and probably his only one, was Brooke’s poem.
Shakespeare’s dramatic genius maybe studied in the changes which he has made from Brooke’s narrative. He has shorted the duration of the action from nine months to less than a week. Thus the hasty march of events becomes a major cause of the tragedy; there is not time to settle problems which greater leisure would have simplified. He has expanded Mercutio’s role from a mere reference in Brooke and has invented the two duels involving Tybalt, thereby enhancing Romeo’s dilemma of love against honor; for in Brooke’s poem Romeo kills Tybalt accidentally while defending himself in a street brawl. He has taken from Brooke almost every incident involving the Nurse, yet he has created in her affectionate, vulgar, easy-going personality one of his most original characters. Finally, he has portrayed in the Capulet household a remarkable study in family psychology.
In Bandello’s story Juliet is eighteen years old, in Brooke’s poem she is sixteen, and in Shakespeare’s play she is nearing her fourteenth birthday. Since Renaissance physiologists generally considered fourteen to mark the beginning of puberty, Shakespeare apparently intended to picture Juliet’s love for Romeo as first love, strengthened by the fact that she is just becoming emotionally aware of the meaning of love itself. (A similar purpose is evident in “The Tempest”, where Miranda is approximately the same age as Juliet.) In her emotions Juliet has suddenly become a woman while in other respect she is still a child. Neither she nor her parents can quite understand the change; they consider her refusal to marry Paris childish willfulness, and she is too much in awe of them to tell them the truth. Capulet is an old man married to a young woman. In spite of Lady Capulet’s reference to her “old age”, she is twenty-eight, only twice the age of other daughter. Capulet, however, had last attended a masquerade more than thirty years before and is now probably in his sixties. Since the earth had “swallowed all my hopes” but Juliet, and since she is the only child born to Lady Capulet, Capulet must have had children by a former marriage. Lady Capulet has retained something of the awe of the child-bride for her older husband and defers to his judgment – and to his temper – in hastening the marriage with Paris. Her habit of deference to his wishes may have caused her to withhold from Juliet sympathy which she normally would have given. Capulet assumes the management of the household: duties and dearly loves to plan big parties. Even among his laments for Juliet’s death is a regret that it should “murder our solemnity”, i.e., spoil the feast which he had planned. His domestic menage is hardly that of a great Italian nobleman and perhaps more nearly resembles that of a wealthy burgher of Stratford, recalled from Shakespeare’s youth.
The play also represents an advance in Shakespeare’s ability to reproduce the language of young gentlemen. The badinage of Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio is a decided improvement over similar conversations in earlier plays. Mercutio’s unique blend of critical acumen, delicate fancy and obscene levity makes him a remarkable character creation. One critic suggests that Shakespeare was forced to kill Mercutio lest he “steal the how” from the major figures of the plot. Like Jaques and Falstaff in later plays, he exists more as a character portrayed for its own innate interest than an essential participant in the dramatic action.
Unlike Shakespeare’s later tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet” is a play of externals, of characters portrayed in their relationships with each other. Their motives and feelings are readily understandable. There is a minimum of introspective brooding, enigmatic utterance, and puzzlement over moral problems; instead, all is quick decision and rapid action. In later tragedies Shakespeare undertook to explore the secret recesses of the soul, but here he shows people in conflict with external circumstance. Their errors of judgment are not errors involving a consciousness of sin but are attributable to impetuous haste and unkind fate. Nothing is withheld from the reader; characters and their motives are revealed as completely as possible. The same lack of reticence is evident in the literary style, which abounds in conceits, plays on words, and luxuriant poetic descriptions. Perhaps it is the quality of complete representations of emotions and moods that has made the play a favorite with musical composers: Gounod, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev (Presgurvic – the comment of the editor (Eugene), and Milhaud, among others.
In “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare exploits dramatic irony in abrupt reversals of situation. Romeo, despondent, goes unwillingly to Capulet’s ball and is quickly raised to joy by his encounter with Juliet, only to find that she is his hereditary enemy. This obstacle overcome, his joy reaches a height with his wedding, but within a half hour he is plunged into despair after his duel with Tybalt. At the beginning of ACT V, Romeo is cheerful because of a dream which seems to foretell his reunion with Juliet, but his hopes are quickly dashed by Balthasar’s news of her death. The supreme instance of irony comes as he stands beside her in the sepulcher, observing that she looks as though alive, and then drinks the poison to join her in death. The audience knows that she rally is alive and will awake in few minutes. In David Garrick’s acting version of the play (as in Bandello’s story) Juliet awakes before Romeo dies and he thus realizes the bitter irony of his situation. The questionable dramatic propriety of this ending has caused considerable debate among students of the play.
Shakespeare makes one other effective use of irony. When Capulet and his wife are scolding Juliet for her refusal to marry Paris, each petulantly expresses a wish for her death. “I would the fool were married to her grave”, says Lady Capulet. Capulet says that they have only one child, “But now I see this one is one too much”. They do not intend these statements seriously, as Juliet doubtless realizes, but their words are ominous of what is to come.
In recent years numerous attempts have been made to state a central theme for the play. One critic views it as a tragedy of unawareness. Capulet and Montague are unaware of the fateful issues which may hang upon their quarrel. Romeo and Juliet fall in love while unaware that they are hereditary enemies. Mercutio and Tybalt are both unaware of the true state of affairs when they fight their duel. In the chain of events leading to the final tragedy, even the servants a part and are unaware of the results of their actions. The final scene, with Friar Laurence’s long explanation, is dramatically justified because it brings Montague, Capulet, Lady Capulet and the Prince to at least a partial awareness of their responsibility for what has happened. Supplementing this view of the play is one which finds it to be a study of the wholeness and complexity of things in human affairs. The issues of the feud may appear to be simple and clear, but in reality they are slightly complex, giving rise to results which are completely unforeseen. The goodness or badness of human actions is relative, not absolute; an idea symbolically set forth in Friar Laurence’s opening speech on herbs which are medicinal or poisonous according to the manner of their use.
Other clues to the meaning of the play can be found in the repetitive imagery employed by Shakespeare. The images of haste, of events rushing to a conclusion, are found throughout. When Romeo says, “I stand on sudden haste”, Friar Laurence answers, “They stumble that run fast”, and thus expresses one moral to be drawn from the play. Romeo and Mercutio symbolize their wit-combat by the wild-goose chase, a reckless cross-country horse race. "Swits and spurs", cries Romeo, using the imagery of speed. Numerous other instances may be found.
Closely allied to the imagery of haste is the violence expressed in the gunpowder image. The Friar warns that too impetuous love is like fire and powder, which, “as they kiss, consume”. Romeo desires a poison that will expel life from his body, like powder fired from a cannon. This may identify the Apothecary’s poison as aconite, since elsewhere Shakespeare compares the action of aconite with that of “rash gunpowder”. Violence is also expressed in the image of shipwreck which may end the voyage of life. capulet compares Juliet weeping to a bark in danger from tempests. Romeo describes his death as the shipwreck of his “seasick weary bark”. Earlier, after expressing a premonition that attendance at Caplet’s party will cause his death, he resigns himself to him “that hath the steerage of my course”, anticipating his later images of the ship and the voyage of life.
Also repeated in the play is the image of Death as the lover of Juliet. She herself uses it, her father uses it beside her bier, and Romeo uses it almost effectively in the final scene. The effect of this repeated image is to suggest that Juliet is foredoomed to die, that Death, personified, has claimed her for his own. It thus strengthens the ominous note of fate which is felt throughout the play.
That “Romeo and Juliet” is a tragedy of fate can hardly be doubted. Shakespeare says as much in the Prologue. The lovers are marked for death: their fortunes are “crossed” by the stars. The reason for their doom is likewise given: only the shock of their deaths can force their parents to end senseless feud. At the end of the play Capulet calls the lovers “Poor sacrifices of our enmity”, and the Prince describes their deaths as Heaven’s punishment of their parent’s hate. Romeo’s premonition of death before going to the party attributes it to some “consequence yet hanging in the stars”. The note of the fate is struck repeatedly during the play. “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents”, says Friar Laurence to Juliet in the tomb. The numerous mischances experienced by the lovers are not fortuitous bad luck nut represent the working out of some hidden design. Critics who attack the play for lacking inevitability have misunderstood Shakespeare’s dramatic technique. Like Hamlet’s adventure with the pirates, the sequence of mishaps here is deliberately made so improbable that chance alone cannot explain it. Fate, or the will of Heaven, must be invoked.
One finds it difficult to interpret this tragedy in Aristotelian terms, since the parents are really the ones who have the “tragic flaw” and suffer the results of their folly, as Lear does, in the deaths of their children. Yet the children, not the parents, are the major figures of the play. Some critics have named impetuosity as Romeo’s “tragic flaw”, but Romeo is less impetuous than Tybalt or Mercutio, and one can hardly name as a “flaw” a quality which is pictured as common to youth. It is true that greater placidity of temperament and more deliberate speed might have averted the tragedy under the given circumstances, yet the pattern of circumstances might easily have been different and he will of fate accomplished just the sane.
Shakespeare makes it clear that society is partly responsible for the tragedy. The feud between noble families was a matter of social convention. So was the necessity to take personal revenge for an insult to one’s honor. Here there seems to be a topical allusion. Prince Escalus represents the view of Queen Elizabeth, whose government decreed that homicide in a duel should be punishable as murder. She was determined to stamp out dueling. Furthermore, the evil arising from any form of civil strife is a constantly reiterated theme in Elizabeth literature. Current social attitudes may be notes both in the Prince’s edict against street fighting and in the cavalier disregard of it.
As might be expected, “Romeo and Juliet” has been a popular stage play, never more so than now, when each year sees from ten to twenty new productions by professional and amateur groups. What Hamlet is for the actor, Juliet is for the actress, a role which offers the fullest scope for the display of female histrionics. In past centuries Mrs. Betterton and Fanny Kemble made great successes in the part. In the present century Julia Marlowe, Eva Le Gallienne, Jane Cowl, and Katherine Cornell are among those who have played Juliet. The producer of this play always has a problem, for very few great actresses achieve eminence by the age of fourteen, and most of them are recognizably mature women trying to look young. To a lesser extent the same problem exists in casting masculine roles. The producer must choose between the verisimilitude of a youthful cast and the more sophisticated acting of experienced players. Nevertheless, despite all difficulties, “Romeo and Juliet” is still constantly staged with success, and most of us can recall productions in which it proved as vivid and moving in the theatre as it always proves on the printed page.


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