Romeo and Juliet: Wanting to Take Sides
I finished Romeo and Juliet and found in it, especially during the couple’s early romance, some of the softest, warmest, most lyrical poetry I’ve seen in Shakespeare. His words are more beautiful than either of the young, beautiful, tragic Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the words make the couple:
“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch”
“Soft! What light through yonder window breaks”
“It is not hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man”
“With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls”
We, as a culture, reference them so oft—because of their beauty—that some are clichéd and mocked, including the play’s title, Romeo and Juliet.
As I’ve read Shakespeare, I have wondered why his plays have endured for more than 400 years and have concluded: it’s the words, and words matter (in poetry, drama, writing, speaking, and everyday life). His plots weren’t original; his moral messages good, but not unique; it was the words and phrases in which he encased plot and message. Romeo and Juliet is a fine example with its eloquent, memorable description and words that are fun to ear and invite repetition.
There is no real suspense in Romeo and Juliet, since the Prologue gives a quick synopsis even before we meet the “star-crossed lovers.” He tells us the play will last two hours (although I suspect it took longer), during which the couple will “take their life”–perhaps the fact that “their life” is in the singular suggests the eventual knitting of their hearts. We also know the families hold “ancient grudge,” and that the grudge is going to burst into “new mutiny.” And finally, we know the end of their young lives will end the “parents’ rage.” So we’re left free to watch the strife, love and tragedy without hope. Yet, don’t we still hope that somehow, this time, the story will be different; that the couple will steal away to Mantua and happiness away from poisoning anger.
I find myself identifying much more strongly with the Montagues than with their enemies. The Montague boys are kind, gentle—Romeo, Benvolio, Balthasar. Whereas the Capulets’ Gregory and Sampson open the play looking for a fight, and Tybalt (this is the kind of guy for which sword-control laws need to be passed in fair Verona) is quick to back them and to raise the threats and bickering to general riot. From the first moments of the play, I like the Montagues and wish the Capulet gang would disappear. And isn’t that the point. The ancient grudge has grown so fierce that it no longer matters who starts an episode, or who is gentle and kind, or who is wrong or right, as long as both sides are willing to jump in the brawl. Gentle Romeo kills in revenge, the Capulets want him killed for murder; and the pattern continues forever in what could easily have become a last man standing feud. (“The 10 Most famous Feuds in History” includes the Grahams vs. Tewksbury feud, which literally ended when only one adult male from either family survived.)
In the midst of fevered anger, it takes courage to be the one who refuses to continue the violence. Romeo, gentle as he was (and he did try), wasn’t big enough to stop it. Mercutio wasn’t even a Montague, but a relative of the Prince. Romeo could have had the power of the law behind him in making sure Tybalt paid for killing Mercutio. It would have been easy. Instead, the Prince loses a couple of relatives, the Capulets and Montagues lose their prime heirs, and Romeo and Juliet waste their lives. Capulets and Montagues and everyone they touch are destroyed–there’s enough poison for them all, no one escapes: “All are punish’d” in Romeo and Juliet.
On another topic, Shakespeare raises only coincidentally the issue of young love: physical attraction, love at first sight, infatuation. Since the romance ends so abruptly in quick, tragic death, Romeo and Juliet’s love is never tested. Their love barely makes it beyond first steps—a less-than-a-week-long romance is easy: easy in the passion of new romance to throw all other concerns aside, almost easy to be willing to sacrifice all. But the bigger questions about love and about Romeo and Juliet are left unanswered: Did they really love each other? Can love endure? What is required to make it last? Would they choose over time to be happy together, or would they choose to drift apart? Would they choose to cherish the other over self, or would daily life lead them to choose self over unity? (Behind all these questions is Romeo’s lovesickness early in the play; but it’s not for Juliet that he pines. Is Romeo fickle, attracted to the next attractive young woman he sees? Or is Juliet really different? We’ll never know.)
If I remember correctly, Romeo and Juliet was the first Shakespeare I saw, and I was thoroughly impressed. Romeo and Juliet’s main source was probably The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet, a poem written in 1562 by Arthur Brooke.
The head of the Capulet family captures the message of the play, “Poor sacrifices of our enmity.” I suppose anything sacrificed for enmity leaves us a bit poorer.
Romeo and Juliet earns a “blubbering” five bards:
Quotes I liked:
Romeo: Sad hours seem long.
Romeo: She is rich in beauty; only poor, that, when she dies, with beauty dies her store.
Romeo: Teach me how to forget to think.
Chorus: Bewitched by the charm of looks
Romeo: With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls; for stony limits cannot hold love out, and what love can do that dares love attempt
Juliet: I’ll prove more true than those that have more cunning to be strange.
Juliet: O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable. …Do not swear at all; or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self, which is the god of my idolatry, and I’ll believe thee.
Juliet: Although I joy in thee, I have no joy of this contract to-night: It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens.’
Juliet: I wish but for the thing I have: My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.
Juliet: Good-night, good-night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.
Friar Lawrence: Where care lodges sleep will never lie
Friar Lawrence: Young men’s love, then, lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.
Friar Lawrence: Come, young waverer, come, go with me, in one respect I’ll thy assistant be; for this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households’ rancour to pure love.
Friar Lawrence: Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
Juliet: How art thou out of breath, when thou hast breath to say to me that thou art out of breath?
Prince: Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.
Juliet: What must be shall be.
Apothecary: My poverty, but not my will consents.
Romeo: There is thy gold; worse poison to men’s souls, doing more murders in this loathsome world than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell: I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.
Prince: Where be these enemies?—Capulet,—Montague,—see what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
Prince: For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Here are a couple long quotes from Romeo and Juliet, left in verse format. They just can’t be left out:
Romeo and Juliet’s First Meeting:
Romeo (to Juliet): If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo: Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
Romeo and Juliet Balcony Scene:
(Juliet appears above at a window)
Romeo: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Juliet: Ay me!
Romeo: She speaks:
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.
Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Romeo: [Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
Juliet: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Next Up: MacBeth