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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Romeo and Juliet–No Villains!

I had put off reading Romeo and Juliet.  Critics like Bloom (The Invention of the Human) and especially Nuttall (Shakespeare the Thinker) found little to like in the play.  Both search for the sexual complexity, wit, and gender-bending of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night, and find only Mercutio who, in his role as temperance agent to the swooning Romeo, echoes many of the same sentiments of Benedick or Rosalind or even the Princess of France in Love’s Labor’s Lost but has little of the wit or bite.  He teases Romeo, but has his own hot-headed issues in the Montague-Capulet feud.  His Queen Mab soliloquy is loved by Bloom who says:

Mercutio is the most notorious scene stealer in all of Shakespeare, and there4 is a tradition (reported by Dryden) that Shakespeare declared he was obliged to kill off Mercutio, lest Mercutio kill Shakespeare and hence the play….Mercutio promises a grand comic role, and yet disturbs us also with his extraordinary rhapsody concerning Queen Mab…

Nuttall tries especially hard to find some complexity in Mercutio to make the play worth while, and plays the gay card.  He says:

Mercutio is Romeo’s closest male friend.  He is a good fellow and remorselessly opposed, not just humorously, we guess, to romantic love. The intensity of the antagonism is so great that it is difficult in the present age to play the part without suggesting  homosexual feeling in the background….The incidence of bawdry is higher in the speeches of Mercutio than in those of any other Shakespearean character.  This means that by the logic of the plot Mercutio is the antagonist of Juliet…

and, by Nuttall’s further logic, is her antagonist because of his sexual love for Romeo.  Come on!

Hazlitt (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays), however gets it right, perhaps because he wrote over 200 years ago, long before the persistence and perversions of Post-Modernist literary theory.  He understands that the greatness of the play is the purity and simplicity of the romantic love between Romeo and Juliet.  After reading all the above-cited comedies with their layered complexity, feisty, witty characters, and cynicism (for all of these element I loved the plays), it was a pleasure to find no villains, no fools, no misogynists, no misanthropes, no incessant puns and witticisms (although Bloom cites a critic who counted 175 of them in Romeo they are unobtrusive, relevant, and easy).  It was a delight to read of young love whose only enemy was Fate – no complex plots, no ingenious ruses and sexual trickery, just unsullied, innocent young love.

Hazlitt comments, ‘There is the buoyant spirit of youth in every line, in the rapturous intoxication of hope, and in the bitterness of despair’.  He goes on to say that in the love of Romeo and Juliet ‘there is nothing of a sickly, sentimental cast. Romeo and Juliet are in love but they are not love-sick’. This is a lovely respite from the oversentimental professions of love in the Comedies.   Hazlitt goes on:

Everything speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high and health pulse of the passions: the heart beats, the blood circulates and mantles throughout. Their courtship is not an insipid interchange of sentiments lip-deep, learnt at second-hand from poems and plays, – made up of beauties of the most shadowy kind, of ‘fancies wan that hang the pensive head’, of evanescent smiles and sighs that breathe not, of delicacy that shrinks from the touch and feebleness that scarce supports itself, an elaborate vacuity of thought, and an artificial dearth of sense, spirit, truth, and nature! – It is the reverse of all of this.  It is Shakespeare all over, and Shakespeare when he was young.

Because of this, the exaggeratedly romantic poetry can be forgiven and read for what it is.  Shakespeare asks us to be young again when we thought and felt like this – smitten for the first time, living with the image of our first love, feeling the longing and the desire without really knowing what the feeling was all about.  As Friar Laurence says to Capulet about his daughter’s untimely death: ‘She’s not well married that lives married long, But she’s best married that dies married young’.

Shakespeare in the Comedies is very cynical about love and marriage.  Cuckoldry is always lurking, romantic sentiments pilloried for their silliness and lack of reality.  In this play, however, only these two lines of the Friar and the teasing of Mercutio remind us of the playwright’s darker sentiments.  The innocence and love of Romeo and Juliet are simply too strong.  From the very first lines spoken by Romeo when he sees Juliet:

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hands upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear -

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear….

to his last:

Eyes, look your last!

Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you

The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss

A dateless bargain to engrossing death!

Come, bitter conduct; come unsavory guide!

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

The dashing rocks they seasick weary bark!

Here’s to my love! [Drinks].  O, true apothecary!

Thy drugs are quick.  Thus with a kiss I die.

the poetry is simple and heartfelt.

The famous and oft-quoted passages (But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?; Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds; O serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face); the sonnet in Act I.v (If I profane with my unworthiest hand…), and the aubade in Act III.v (Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.  It was the nightingale, not the lark) are but some of the lyrical yet simple lines of the play.

What keeps this play – and the love expressed – pure and simple, is the fact that Shakespeare has chosen not to introduce villains, like Don John in Much Ado About Nothing or ‘evil villains’ like Iago to disrupt love relationships.  It is Fate which determines the course of the love of Romeo and Juliet.  They are pre-destined, and we know their end:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes [Montague and Capulet]

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents strife.

Thus, freed from ruse, treachery, duplicity, and hatred, the play unfolds with and around the two young lovers.  We can know their fate from the first lines of the play, and this foreknowledge does nothing to diminish the pleasure in reading it.  We can focus on Romeo and Juliet, participate in and enjoy their romance and love, feelings heightened by this foreknowledge and not encumbered with trying to figure out the motivations of others.

The other characters are interesting, although to me vehicles rather than players in the drama.  The Nurse is a turncoat, and we wonder how and why she did her volte face so abruptly.  Capulet in Act I talks to Paris about his only partial control of his daughter, Juliet, but then goes berserk later in the play when she objects to the arranged marriage with Paris.  He comes around with true – and very emotional – lines about the love only a father can know, spoken after Juliet’s feigned death.  We cannot hate him for his patriarchal stance.  How could we?  Women were subservient to male figures because arranged marriages were affairs of family fortune, and incidental sex and the risk of interrupting the political/family line were anathema.  But we can like him for his very clear love for his daughter.  I have written about the intrusive and uninteresting Mercutio above.

The play is about Romeo and Juliet.  It is as simple as that, and I am very happy I finally got around to reading it.  I loved it.

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