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Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare
Part II. Roman 17. The Tragedy of Romeo And Juliet
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In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare dramatized a love tale that was well known and much wept over by young people before his time. The nub of the tale, that of two young lovers unnecessarily dying for love through misunderstandings and family feuding, is not a very difficult thing to invent, and examples date back to ancient times.
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, for instance, which Shakespeare burlesques in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-48), has such a plot. Indeed, both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream were written at about the same time (1595 probably) and there are some who suggest that in the version of the Pyramus and Thisbe legend presented by the Athenian laborers, Shakespeare was deliberately satirizing his own just-completed Romeo and Juliet. (For myself, I find this difficult to believe.)
The first version of a plot which is specifically that of Romeo and Juliet appeared in a collection of romances, Il Novellino published in Italian in 1476 by Masuccio Salernitano. It was adapted and, in the process, made into something considerably closer to the Shakespearean version (down to the names of the characters) by Luigi da Porto in or about 1530.
The first important English version of the story was in the form of a long narrative poem, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562 by the English translator Arthur Brooke. It was Brooke's poem that Shakespeare used as his direct source, following it quite closely, but adding (needless to say) master touches of his own.
In fair Verona.. .
The play opens with a "Chorus," who explains the subject matter, beginning:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
- Prologue, lines 1-3
Verona (see page I-451) is mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew and is the place in which The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens. The city first appears as the scene of the Romeo and Juliet story in Da Porto's version. The earlier Salernitano version placed the tale in Siena, 150 miles south of Verona.
The actual scene does not matter, of course. The play is not historical and it is not confined to any particular city. It could just as easily, with very minor modifications, have taken place in England, and in the contemporary musical West Side Story it is transferred, fairly intact, to the New York of today.
Nevertheless, if we consider Verona, we find that in the play it is treated as an independent principality, something which it was in history only between 1260 and 1387.
That period would well fit the vision of an Italian city split by the rivalry of internal factions led by competing noble families, whose enmity resulted in street fighting with private armies of retainers and sympathizers.
Most Italian cities of the time contained those who favored a strong and centralized secular government under the German Emperor (Ghibellines) and others who favored a congeries of independent city-states under the moral leadership of the Pope (Guelphs). Families lined up on this side or that and feuded in consequence, or sometimes they had feuds for other reasons and lined up on opposite sides in consequence.
In Florence, for instance, the most famous city of Renaissance Italy, there arose about 1300 a deadly feud between the two families of the Cerchi and the Donati. It began over some trivial incident but gradually each side drew to itself others, so that the Cerchi headed the "Bianca" (White) faction, which was Ghibelline, while the Donati headed the "Nera" (Black) faction, which was Guelf. The whole city was torn in two by them and for nearly half a century its history was determined by the ups and downs of what had begun as a family feud.
Shakespeare does not give the nature of the feud between the Veronese households, and there is no indication that it is political in nature.
... the house of Montague...
The play opens on a Sunday (from internal evidence), with two retainers of the Capulet faction coming onstage. They are indistinguishable from comic English servingmen (as are all Shakespeare's comic lower-class characters, regardless of the supposed nationality of the upper-class ones) and are given the most un-Italian names of Sampson and Gregory.
They boast to each other of their desperate bravery and Sampson says:
A dog of the house of Montague moves me.
- Act I, scene i, line 8
The Montagues are one of the feuding families, and the Capulets the other. In Da Porto's version, the two quarreling households of Verona are given the names of Montecchi and Capelletti, but for English audiences the very similar Montague and Capulet would be more congenial to the ear.
Put up your swords ...
The two Capulet retainers deliberately provoke two others of the Montague faction who enter later. The Montague retainers are ready to be provoked and there is suddenly swordplay.
One of the leaders of the Montagues, Benvolio, enters now and runs forward, anxious to stop the proceedings. He cries out:
Put up your swords. You know not what you do.
- Act I, scene i, lines 66-67
Throughout, Benvolio endeavors to make peace, to end the feud or at least to keep it blanketed. This is evident in his very name, which is Shakespeare's invention since the equivalent character in Brooke's poem is not named. "Benvolio" means "good will."
Benvolio's attempt at conciliation is only one of several indications in the play that the family feud is dying. It is possible to argue that it could easily be ended altogether by some sensible and decisive act of placation on one side or the other. The fact that this does not happen adds to the eventual tragedy.
Turn thee, Benvolio ...
Indeed, the chief reason that the feud is not ended appears immediately. Hard upon Benvolio's entry comes the evil genius of the play, Tybalt, of the house of Capulet. Furiously, he cries out to the peacemaking Benvolio:
What, art thou drawn among these heartless [cowardly] hinds?
Turn thee, Benvolio; look upon thy death.
- Act I, scene i, lines 68-69
Benvolio protests that he is merely using his sword to break up the fight and keep the peace, but Tybalt will have none of it:
What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
- Act I, scene i, lines 72-73
This is the clearest expression in the play of the irrational psychology of all that is meant by "feuding." It is almost the only expression. It is Tybalt, the only irrational hater among the leaders of the factions, who prevents the triumph of reason.
In Da Porto's tale, the corresponding character is Thebaldo, but it is a happy stroke to change it to Tybalt. It brings on thoughts of the folk tale of "Reynard the Fox" (see page I-153), in which Tibert was the name of the cat. A common version of this was Tybalt, so that to the Elizabethan audience, the very use of the name at once brings up the picture of this particular Capulet as a quarrelsome and vicious tomcat.
Your lives shall pay...
The fight, forced on Benvolio by Tybalt, continues to expand. Other members of the faction arrive, including even Capulet and Montague themselves, the aged heads of the family (whose wives sternly refuse to let them fight), until finally the Prince of Verona himself appears on the scene.
He is, quite understandably, exasperated at this disorder in the streets. There have been three such incidents and his patience is at an end. He says, angrily:
// ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
- Act I, scene i, lines 99-100
The name of the Prince is given as Escalus. No Veronese prince of that name is known, but, interestingly enough, Verona was ruled from 1227 to 1259 by Ezzelino da Romano. That may be no more than coincidence.
... Dian's wit
When the streets are cleared, Lady Montague expresses her relief that her son, Romeo, was not involved. It turns out that Romeo has taken to mooning sadly about in a fashion which, to Elizabethan audiences, marks the conventional symptoms of unrequited love. Romeo is no sooner spoken of than he appears in the guise of the romantic lover.
The older Montagues are puzzled by Romeo's behavior and Benvolio volunteers to discover the cause. The task is easy, for Romeo admits to unrequited love at once. Romeo says of the girl he loves:
She'll not be hit With Cupid's arrow.
She hath Dian's wit,
- Act I, scene i, lines 211-12
Romeo does not name her at this point and, indeed, she never appears in the play.
Romeo's moan is that the girl he loves insists on chastity. She has "Dian's wit" and Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt (analogous to the Greek Artemis, a virgin goddess sworn to chastity).
Benvolio therefore gives Romeo the very sensible advice to find someone else, but Romeo rejects that advice scornfully. (It is the sad fact that whereas Benvolio is always sensible, Romeo is always romantic, and that too helps bring on the catastrophe.)
... to keep the peace
On the other side, Capulet is talking with Count Paris, a kinsman of Prince Escalus. Their talk at first is of the feud and here it seems quite obvious that there is little real interest in keeping it alive. Capulet says:
... 'tis not hard, I think,
For men so old as we [he and Montague] to keep the peace.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 2-3
Paris agrees and says:
Of honorable reckoning are you both,
And pity 'tis you lived at odds so long.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 4-5
What more do we need to see that only a face-saving formula is needed and the feud will be gladly abandoned.
... fourteen years
But Capulet has more on his mind than the peace, and so has Paris. Capulet has a lovely daughter and Paris would like to marry her. It would be a good match and Capulet is eager for it. He is held back by only one thought. Perhaps the girl is too young. He says:
My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
- Act I, scene ii, lines 8-9
He is speaking of Juliet, the heroine of the play, and as is stated and emphasized on several occasions, she is not quite fourteen! Her very name is a diminutive, for Juliet means "little Julia." (There was a Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona who was also a sweet and plucky girl of that city, though she could scarcely have been as young as Juliet.)
In Elizabethan times, of course, life went more quickly. Girls became marriageable more quickly, were made mothers more quickly, and died more quickly. Nevertheless, fourteen is rather young. Shakespeare does not bother giving the ages of any of the heroines of his other early plays; only in this one does he make an exception, and for no obvious reason, he emphasizes it strenuously. -Perhaps there is a reason.
My fair niece Rosaline ...
Circumstances now begin to complicate matters. Even while Capulet is talking to Paris, he is making preparations for a feast that very night. He gives the list of invited guests to a servant and tells him to go through Verona and invite them all.
But as the fates would have it, the servant who receives this order is illiterate and has no chance to explain that fact to the hasty Capulet.
And, as the fates would further have it, in come Romeo and Benvolio, still discussing the former's romantic love affair, and it is to Romeo that the servant applies for help in reading off the names of the invited guests. Romeo obliges and, included on the list are:
Mercutio and his brother Valentine;
Mine uncle Capulet, his wife and daughters;
My fair niece Rosaline; Livia;
Signior Valentio and his cousin Tybalt;
- Act I, scene ii, lines 69-72
It is Rosaline with whom Romeo is in love, and this means that Rosaline, as the niece of Capulet, is shown to be a member of the opposing faction.
Yet this does not seem to bother anybody at all. To be sure, Romeo has not mentioned her name; to do so would ill fit his mood of romantic melancholy. Yet he doesn't keep it entirely secret, either, for he has apparently imparted the identity of his loved one to Benvolio since the close of the first scene. Thus, Benvolio says to Romeo:
At this same ancient feast of Capulet's
Sups the fair Rosaline whom thou so lov'st;
- Act I, scene ii, lines 85-86
Can it be that Rosaline has turned down Romeo because of the feud between their families? There is no mention of any such thing. Romeo has stated that Rosaline has sworn herself to indiscriminate chastity.
Is there any sign of danger at all in this love affair of Romeo's that crosses the lines of the feud? No one makes any mention of it. Even the cautious Benvolio does not seem to remark danger in it. In fact, Benvolio, still anxious to wean Romeo away from a useless love that makes him unhappy, advises him to attend the ball, saying:
Go thither, and with unattainted eye
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 88-90
So unimportant is the feud, in other words, that even the cautious Benvolio sees no danger in walking right into the center and hotbed of the Capulet faction.
... Lammas Eve...
It is time to introduce Juliet now. Lady Capulet wishes to broach the subject of marriage to her, but with her also is Juliet's garrulous old Nurse, who had a daughter Juliet's age, for she says, referring to Juliet:
Susan and she (God rest all Christian souls!)
Were of an age.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 18-19
If the Nurse were to serve as surrogate breast feeder for Juliet, she would have to have had a child of her own shortly before. More important, this leads to talk of Juliet's age once more. The Nurse says:
I'll lay fourteen of my teeth-
And yet to my teen [sorrow] be it spoken, I have but four-
She's not fourteen.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 12-14
The Nurse then launches into an irrelevant tale of Juliet's childhood that begins
... of all days in the year,
Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 16-17
Lammas Day is August 1. In early English times it was the day of a harvest festival, and the fruits of the field, symbolized by half loaves of bread, were consecrated at mass. The Anglo-Saxon term for half loaf was "hlaf-maesse" and this was distorted to "Lammas."
Earlier the Nurse had asked Lady Capulet how long it was to Lammas-tide and had been answered:
A fortnight and odd days.
- Act I, scene iii, line 15
We can therefore place the beginning of the play at about July 13. It is summer and the hot weather is referred to later in the play.
There must be some reason why Shakespeare harps so on Juliet's age.
... since the earthquake.. .
The Nurse has another way of dating Juliet's age, too, for she remembers the circumstances of the weaning. She says:
'Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was weaned...
- Act I, scene iii, lines 23-24
This verse has sometimes been given special significance, for in 1580 there was a notable earthquake felt in London. The argument is therefore presented that this was referred to at this point and that the play was consequently written in 1591. This seems awfully thin, however, and most critics do not accept the reasoning at all.
The garrulous Nurse is finally persuaded to be silent and Lady Capulet begins to talk Juliet into marriage. She takes the opportunity at once to stymie any objections as to age, by saying:
By my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.
- Act I, scene iii, lines 71-73
Apparently, then, Lady Capulet is herself some twenty-eight years old. Juliet, however, seems unmoved by the thoughts of marriage and Lady Capulet tells her that Paris will be at the banquet that night and she can look him over and decide whether she can love him.
... 'tis no wit ...
In the next scene it is later in the day and the Capulet feast will soon begin. In the street outside come Romeo and Benvolio, who plan to attend in masks.
This seems to give an impression that it is dangerous for the Montagues to invade the Capulet feast, but the presence of masks does not necessarily prove it. Masking at feasts was common and masked dances are featured in Henry VIII (see page II-761) and Love's Labor's Lost (see page I-440), for instance. Masks afforded young men and ladies a chance to flirt in semiconcealment.
To weaken the case for danger, Romeo does no more than wear a mask. He makes no attempt to disguise his voice, for instance, and is, in point of fact, readily recognized at the feast, as will soon be apparent.
To be sure, Romeo does express reservations about going. He says:
...we mean well in going to this masque,
But 'tis no wit to go.
- Act I, scene iv, lines 48-49
But when asked why, he can only say:
/ dreamt a dream tonight [last night].
- Act I, scene iv, line 50
If the feud were really alive and deadly, he could easily have said that it was "no wit to go" because discovery would mean death. To fall back on a dream, a mere presentiment of evil, shows how little importance Romeo attaches to the feud.
... Queen Mab...
With Romeo and Benvolio is a friend, Mercutio, who is of neither faction and is friendly with both, for he has been invited to the feast. He is, it appears, a relative of Prince Escalus.
Mercutio is, in essence, Shakespeare's invention. Da Porto had a minor character named Marcuccio, but Shakespeare took that and touched it with his own special gold even down to the small change in the name. Mercutio suggests Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, who flits through the air with superhuman speed. Mercutio is mercurial, with a flashing wit that never leaves him.
Mercutio does not seem to think of the feud as a deadly thing either. He makes no attempt to dissuade the Montagues from going, as he might well have done if there were real danger. Rather, he is intent on rallying Romeo out of his melancholy and is so anxious to have him come to the feast that he eagerly turns dream presentiments into nonsense by advancing his own theory on the origin of dreams as the product of a tricky elf. He says:
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she conies
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
- Act I, scene iv, lines 53-55
Queen Mab is out of Celtic mythology. The pagan Irish had a goddess named Meadhbh, who was the ruler of a group of the "little people." This may have contributed to the notion of Queen Mab.
Queen Mab need not be considered a fairy queen in the sense that Titania was in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-26). She is the fairies' "midwife"; that is, she helps men and women give birth to dreams, and this is no task for a queen.
Here, in all likelihood, "Queen" is used in its original sense of "woman" and to speak of "Queen Mab" would be something like speaking of "Dame Mab" or "Mistress Mab." The word "queen" early split into two forms: one of them, "quean," degenerated to mean a degraded woman, a harlot; the other, "queen," rose to mean an elevated woman, the wife of a king. "Queen," in its ordinary original sense, neither depressed nor elevated, vanished altogether.
Mercutio's speech about Queen Mab presents the view that dreams are not messages of fate but the product of the routine thoughts of the day. Lovers dream of love, courtiers of curtsies, lawyers of fees; soldiers of war and drink, and so on. This is one of many examples of Shakespeare's modern-sounding rationalism.
Thus, when Romeo tries to stem the flow of Mercutio's brilliance and says:
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk'st of nothing.
- Act I, scene iv, lines 95-96
Mercutio answers at once, with stabbing relevance:
True, I talk of dreams.
- Act I, scene iv, line 96
... a Montague, our foe
Within the mansion the feast is in full progress. The masked dancers are enjoying themselves and Romeo sees Juliet for the first time. He falls immediately and hopelessly in love and completely vindicates Benvolio's promise that Romeo had but to look at other women to forget Rosaline. Romeo says:
Did my heart love till now:
Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
- Act I, scene v, lines 54-55
But his voice is overheard and instantly recognized-and by Tybalt, the only person of consequence in either faction who takes the feud seriously. He flares into mad rage at once and is prepared to kill. He says:
This, by his voice, should be a Montague.
Fetch me my rapier, boy.
- Act I, scene v, lines 56-57
Capulet is at once aware that Tybalt is in a passion and demands the reason. Tybalt says:
Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe,
A villain.. .
- Act I, scene v, lines 63-64
Capulet is not moved in the slightest. He recognizes Romeo at once and says to Tybalt:
... let him alone.
'A bears him like a portly [respectable] gentleman,
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.
- Act I, scene v, lines 67-70
Surely the feud is as good as dead when the leader of one side can speak so of the son and heir of the leader of the other side. Capulet speaks so highly of Romeo, in fact, that one could almost imagine that a prospective match between Montague's son and Capulet's daughter would be a capital way of ending the feud.
Then, when Tybalt objects to Capulet's tame endurance of the presence of a Montague, the old man isn't in the least shamed into taking a stronger stand. On the contrary, he turns savagely on Tybalt, crying:
You are a saucy boy. Is't so, indeed?
This trick may chance to scathe [harm] you.
-Act I, scene v, lines 85-86
Tybalt, trembling with frustrated rage, is forced to withdraw.
... my only hate
Meanwhile, Romeo has made his way to Juliet, who is as instantly struck with him as he by her. In fifteen lines he reaches the stage of kissing her. He must leave soon after and Juliet inquires his name of the Nurse. She finds out he is Romeo, the son of Montague, and says at once, dramatically:
My only love, sprung from my only hate!
- Act I, scene v, line 140
It turns out later in the play that she was particularly close to her cousin Tybalt. We can imagine, without too much trouble, young Juliet listening with awe and admiration to the tales told her by her paranoid cousin; of fights with the Montagues, of their disgraceful defeats and treacherous victories. Tybalt would surely have poured into her ears all the sick preoccupation with the feud that filled his own wrathful heart.
And she would have absorbed it all. That may well be the point of Shakespeare's stressing Juliet's extreme youth. She was young enough to absorb the feud in its full romanticism without any admixture of disillusionment that would have come with experience.
... King Cophetua. ..
Although Romeo has left the feast, he cannot really leave. He must have another sight of Juliet if he can. Slipping away from his companions, he climbs the wall bounding the Capulet estate and finds himself in the orchard.
Benvolio and Mercutio come seeking him, and Mercutio in mockery calls after him with all the cliches of lovers' tales. He asks of the hiding Romeo just one word about Venus or Cupid as a sign of his whereabouts, defining Cupid, ironically, as:
... he that shot so true
When King Cophetua loved the beggar maid!
- Act II, scene i, lines 13-14
This is another reference (see page I-431) to the famous tale of the happy love of a socially ill-assorted couple.
But Romeo remains in hiding, and Benvolio and Mercutio shrug and leave. Surely if the feud were alive and dangerous, they would never have left Romeo alone in the very center of enemy territory. Instead, they seem not a bit concerned.
... refuse thy name
Romeo's patience is rewarded, for Juliet (as lovesick as he) comes out on her balcony to sigh romantically.
Romeo, spying her, indulges in a long soliloquy in which he praises her beauty in the most extravagant terms, but never once mentions the fact that she is a Capulet. It does not seem to concern him that she is of the opposing faction any more than it concerned him that Rosaline was. But then, Romeo is not fourteen and he is old enough to know the feud is really on its last legs.
Not so Juliet. She speaks at last and all her talk is of the feud. She says:
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.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 33-36
It is irritating in the extreme that the first line of this passage, taken by itself, is so often treated in popular quotation as though Juliet were saying "Where are you, Romeo?" and were looking for him. Not only does it show a pitiful ignorance of the meaning of the archaic word "wherefore," but it rums a key point in the plot development. "Wherefore" means "why," and Juliet is asking the absent Romeo why he is a Montague. Oh, if only he weren't.
All she can talk about is his name. She says:
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though [you were] not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 38-44
What can Romeo be thinking as he hears this? We might speculate that left to himself he might have approached his father and urged him to talk to Capulet, under a flag of truce if necessary, and try to arrange a reconciliating marriage. It is so easy to feel that this would work. Who but Tybalt shows any signs of anything but weariness with the feud, and he could be beaten into submission. To be sure, marriage had been spoken of with Paris, but nothing had yet been committed.
However, Romeo may well have recognized the romanticism of the young girl who feels the thrill of loving the family enemy; who loves the risk and danger and sadness of it; and perhaps he would not dream of throwing cold water on that feeling. So he makes himself known and dramatically denounces his name, saying:
I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 49-51
Thus he commits himself to the full gamut of romantic folderol as seen through the eyes of a dramatic fourteen-year-old, and the catastrophe is under way.
... the place death...
Juliet is astonished at Romeo's sudden presence and makes the most of it in terms of the romantic version of the feud. She berates Romeo for having taken chances, saying:
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art, //
any of my kinsmen find thee here.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 63-65
Exaggeration, we might easily guess. To be sure, if Tybalt had made his appearance at this moment there would have been trouble. We can suspect, however, that if anyone but Tybalt had appeared, Romeo would have gotten away with nothing but some hard words. In fact, the subject of marriage might have been broached.
Is it possible that even Juliet considered the feud and its consequences only as an afterthought? Her first fear was that he might have hurt himself falling off the wall.
Romeo accepts Juliet's insistence on the danger of death, perhaps recognizing that it is part of his appeal to her and glad to take advantage of that. Still, he doesn't really seem to take it seriously, for he says:
Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords!
- Act II, scene ii, lines 71-72
With all that done, the two get down to the serious business of expressing their love.
Thy purpose marriage ...
From words of love, they pass quickly to the thought of marriage. Juliet says:
// that thy bent of love be honorable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
- Act II, scene ii, lines 143-45
If Romeo had had the rational plan of trying to work a marriage settlement in an aboveboard fashion to the advantage of everyone, he abandons it. If romantic little Juliet wants secret messages, and clandestine word, and even an exciting forbidden marriage-then she shall have them.
The meeting comes to an end with Monday's dawn nearly upon the two. Romeo, thoroughly happy, says:
Hence will I to my ghostly [spiritual] friar's close cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap [good luck] to tell.
- Act II, scene ii, lines 188-89
With luck, the friar can arrange the secret marriage that Juliet longs for.
... the powerful grace ...
The scene shifts at once to the cell of Friar Laurence ("Fra Lorenzo" in Da Porto's version) early Monday morning. He is an alchemist as well as a friar and is gathering herbs in order to extract their juices for his experiments, saying:
O, mickle [much] is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
- Act II, scene iii, lines 15-18
Here is expressed the medieval view that all creation is made for the express good of man; that everything on earth has some property that makes it valuable to man.
... your households' rancor. ..
Romeo comes to the friar with his tale of love and Friar Laurence is more than a little confused at this sudden change from Rosaline to Juliet and clucks disapprovingly over the whole matter. He decides, however, to go along with the secret marriage for a clearly expressed reason; saying:
In one respect I'll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households' rancor to pure love.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 90-92
Friar Laurence obviously considers the feud to be dying and a marital alliance, he judges, will end it altogether. He seems, however, to prefer the indirect and hidden approach to the direct one; he is as romantic as Juliet.
... Prince of Cats. ..
It is broad day now and Benvolio and Mercutio have still not found Romeo. Meanwhile Tybalt, angered over the incident at the feast, has sent a formal challenge to Romeo. The two friends aren't worried, sure that Romeo can take care of himself. Mercutio thinks very little of Tybalt as a swordsman, characterizing him as
More than Prince of Cats.
O, he's the courageous captain of compliments.
He fights as you sing pricksong-keeps time, distance, and proportion...
- Act II, scene iv, lines 19-22
The "Prince of Cats" is a jeer at Tybalt's name, of course. The mockery is aimed at that favorite butt of Shakespeare's-the French or Italian way of doing things (in this case, scientific fencing) as opposed to the wholesome English fashion of simply dealing out good thwacks.
Laura, to his lady ...
And now at last Romeo appears, and Mercutio fully expects him to begin again with his whining lovesickness. He mimics him in advance:
Now is he for the numbers that
Petrarch flowed in. Laura, to his lady,
was a kitchen wench...
- Act II, scene iv, lines 40-42
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca in Italian) was an Italian poet whose work may be thought of as sparking the Renaissance. He was born in 1304 and in 1327 met a lady known to us as "Laura." Who she was in actuality is not certain.
Though he did much work in Latin, he is best known for his collection of Italian sonnets, odes, and other poems written between 1330 and 1360. These poems deal with his love for Laura, and through that love, deal with many other matters. Because of this, Petrarch and Laura are one of the great pairs of lovers of history, though the love may have been an ideal one only.
... you ratcatcher ...
But how things have changed! Romeo is no longer a mewling wretch, but is lively and sparkling, quite ready to engage Mercutio in a game of wits and to give as good as he gets, so that the latter is delighted that Romeo is himself again.
The Nurse then comes on the scene. Mercutio is, with some difficulty, shoved offstage and Romeo tells her that all has been arranged for Friar Laurence to marry them that very afternoon. The Nurse goes off with the news and plans also to get Juliet a rope ladder that she can lower to Romeo that night, so that he might climb to her room and enjoy the fruits of love.
We might imagine that on the next day, once Juliet has had her romantic marriage and all it involves, Romeo will confront his father with the fact, and old Montague will in turn confront the Capulets. All, we hope, will be well-if only Romeo can stay out of trouble till then.
But it is still Monday afternoon, midsummer, and very hot. Tempers may be short and Benvolio (still promenading with Mercutio) feels it will be well to go in. With characteristic caution he wishes to avoid meeting an irritated Tybalt, brooding over the crashing of the party the night before.
Mercutio refuses to take this seriously.
At this point, however, in comes Tybalt, inquiring after Romeo. Mercutio baits hull while Benvolio anxiously tries to keep the whole matter under control.
But now Romeo enters, already married to Juliet, although no one knows it but bride, groom, and friar. Tybalt challenges him with an insult and Romeo, aware of their present relationship, of which Tybalt is not, patiently endures the insult and refuses to fight.
So far all is well. Romeo has done the sensible thing, even if it was not a particularly heroic one.
And now the secrecy, Juliet's romantic secrecy, does its fell work. If Mercutio had known of Romeo's marriage he would have understood and stood aside. He did not know and finds he cannot endure Romeo's tame acceptance of insult. If Romeo will accept the grace, Mercutio will wipe it out on his behalf. He cries out to Tybalt:
Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk?
- Act III, scene i, line 76
"Ratcatcher" is one more reference to Tybalt the cat, and Mercutio is inviting the other to walk to some quiet place where they may fight without interruption.
Tybalt hesitates. His quarrel is not with Mercutio. He asks Mercutio what he wants and the latter says, lightly:
Good King of Cats,
nothing but one of your nine lives,
- Act III, scene i, lines 78-79
It is an old fable that a cat has nine lives, and there is something to it. A cat is careful, sly, equipped with needlelike claws for a fight and soft pads for stealth. It can climb a tree and land on its feet when it falls. It will escape sure death for other animals eight times out of nine.
... both your houses
All might still be well. Mercutio, we may well expect, is the better swordsman and will kill Tybalt. Mercutio is not a member of either faction and so is not included in the ban against street fighting. With Tybalt dead, the chief upholder of the feud will be gone. It will be all the easier to reconcile the factions.
All Romeo need do now is stand aside.
But Romeo cannot. Mercutio is his loved friend, Tybalt his new relative. He wants neither hurt so he tries to get between and stop them. At which point, in one Sash, all goes wrong. Tybalt's sword passes under Romeo's arm and Mercutio is blocked from parrying. Badly wounded, Mercutio recognizes the fact that the quarrel was not really his, after all, and says so in a phrase that has entered the language:
I am hurt.
A plague o' both your houses.
- Act III, scene i, lines 91-92
... fortune's fool
Mercutio makes his last bitter jests and hobbles off to die.
Yet still things are not utterly lost Romeo has lost a dear Mend but it was by no willing action of his own. He had tried for the best, endeavored to make peace. It was Tybalt who was the murderer and it is he who may be executed for it and again the feud will be made up the easier, perhaps, for Tybalt's end.
Yet Romeo cannot leave it at that, not even for Juliet. Mercutio died in his quarrel and he has no choice. Wildly, he challenges Tybalt and kills him-and by then all the noise has roused the citizens.
Romeo is half amazed at all that has happened in a matter of a few minutes, for now he must get out of the city at once or, by the Prince's decree, he will be executed.
It is still less than twenty-four hours since he met Juliet and already he has not only gained her, but lost her as well. No wonder he cries out in agony:
O, I am fortune's fool!
- Act III, scene i, line 138
Yet a little chink of hope remains. When the Prince arrives, Benvolio tells the tale of what has happened with objective accuracy. Despite the clamors of the Capulet faction, the Prince believes Benvolio (and perhaps remembers that the dead Tybalt had killed his own kinsman) and does not place the death penalty on Romeo after all. He merely banishes him.
While banishment seems bad enough under the circumstances, a sentence of banishment can be unsaid, while an execution is final.
... Phoebus' lodging...
Meanwhile, toward sunset, Juliet is waiting with unbearable impatience for the coming of night, of Romeo, of love. She says:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Toward Phoebus' lodging! Such a wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
- Act III, scene ii, lines 1-4
The sun is pictured here in the fashion of the Greek myth, as a blazing chariot conducted by golden horses, traveling toward the west where they can move behind the horizon and rest till it is time for the next day's journey across the sky. The horizon is therefore Phoebus' (the god of the sun) place of lodging. Phaeton is the son of the sun god, whose ill-fated attempt to drive the horses of the sun chariot nearly led to disaster (see page II-297).
But then in comes the Nurse with the rope ladder-and with news, as well, of Tybalt's death.
Juliet is heartbroken, for she loved Tybalt. Her greater love for Romeo wins out, however, and she weeps over the rope ladder that was to have carried her husband to her, then goes to her room where she hopes to die.
But that is more than the Nurse can bear. She can still help. She assures Juliet she knows where Romeo is hiding and will get him to come to his wife and comfort her.
... pass to Mantua
Romeo, in Friar Laurence's cell, is completely broken. Overwhelmed with horror at the thought of banishment, he will not listen to the friar's consolation. Even when the Nurse comes, asking him to go to Juliet, he can think only of suicide.
It is only with the greatest difficulty that the friar finally manages to make him understand that banishment is not necessarily the end, saying:
Go get thee to thy love, as was decreed,
Ascend her chamber, hence and comfort her.
But look thou stay not till the watch be set,
For then thou canst not pass to Mantua,
Where thou shalt live till we can find a time
To blaze [announce] your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back
- Act III, scene iii, lines 146-52
Mantua (see page I-454) is only twenty miles south of Verona, not really very far, though to Romeo it might well have seemed an infinite distance under the circumstances.
The chink of hope remains, but oh, how different from what it would have been if Mercutio had not been ignorant of Romeo's marriage.
For even that chink of hope to remain, however, time is needed as Friar Laurence says, and, alas, time disappears.
Thursday let it be...
Old Capulet is perturbed at Juliet's misery and attributes it entirely to the death of Tybalt. He says to Paris:
Look you, she loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly,
- Act III, scene iv, line 3
Yes indeed, and this is the best evidence we have that she may well have picked up her fatal notions of the feud from him.
Thinking to console his daughter, Capulet decides to let her marry Paris at once after all. He asks the day and Paris says:
Monday, my lord.
- Act III, scene iv, line 18
This fixes the time sequence for all the play. Capulet considers that and says:
Monday! Ha, ha! Well, Wednesday is too soon.
A [on] Thursday let it be ...
- Act III, scene iv, lines 19-20
He doesn't know that Juliet is already married, of course.
No warmth, no breath ...
Unsuspecting this new gruesome development, Juliet receives Romeo late Monday night. The night after their meeting and their great balcony scene, they spend in connubial love. At dawn on Tuesday they must separate and Romeo gets out of town safely.
But then Juliet learns of her prospective marriage to Paris and of course refuses firmly. Old Capulet promptly flies into a passion and makes it plain that she will marry Paris whether she wishes to or not.
Juliet can find no one to help her. Capulet threatens to disown her. Lady Capulet turns away. Even the Nurse, in desperation, can only advise Juliet to marry Paris and commit bigamy.
Juliet can think of no alternative but to fly to Friar Laurence.
At this point the friar might have shown courage. He might have gone to the Capulets with the truth and endeavored to protect himself and Juliet with his priestly robes. Under the circumstances, there would have been great risk, but there were no reasonable alternatives.
Friar Laurence turns to an unreasonable one. As romantic as Juliet, he tries a complicated plan of indirection. He gives Juliet a mysterious drug he has prepared himself. He tells her to take it the night of the next day (Wednesday) and it will put her into a cataleptic trance. He says:
... no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest;
- Act IV, scene i, lines 96-98
This trance will last forty-two hours, that is, through Thursday and Friday. The Capulets, thinking she is dead, will place her in the family tomb. Romeo will be there by Friday night, and when she wakes he will carry her off to Mantua.
This drug is, of course, an element of fantasy, for no drug is known (even today) that can safely counterfeit death so accurately over so long a time.
... mandrakes torn out of the earth
For the first time in the play, there is a sizable gap in time. Some thirty-six hours are skipped over and it is Wednesday night. Juliet suddenly submits to her father's plans (to his relief and pleasure) and has now prepared herself, supposedly, for a wedding the next morning. She sends out the Nurse so that she may sleep alone, and as she prepares to take the friar's drug, she is beset with quite understandable fears.
What if it kills her? Or, worse still, what if it wears off too soon and she comes to in the tomb before Romeo is there to claim her? What if she is surrounded by the effluvium of death, the gibbering of ghosts, and, in general, by
... loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad-
- Act IV, scene iii, lines 46-48
The mandrake is a herb with a large, fleshy root that is usually forked in such proportions as to give it a resemblance to a partly formed man. About this fancied resemblance a number of superstitions arose.
Since the root looked like a man it would, supposedly, help in the formation of one, and mandrakes were therefore thought to have the ability to make women fecund. This superstition (a worthless one, of course) is sanctioned by the Bible, where Jacob's second wife, Rachel, who is barren, begs for the mandrakes gathered by the son of his first wife, her sister Leah (Genesis 30:14).
It was also thought that because mandrakes looked like little men they ought to share some of the qualities of men-feel pain, for instance, and cry out if wounded. From this arose the tale that if a mandrake were uprooted, it would emit a bloodcurdling shriek-so horrible a shriek as to madden or even kill those who heard it.
Since mandrakes were desired for the ability to increase fecundity, and for other valuable properties assigned to them, it was necessary to pull them up anyway. What was sometimes done was to tie the top of the herb to a dog. From a distance, stones could be thrown at the dog, and in running away, he would pull out the mandrake, which could then be reclaimed.
... the infectious pestilence. ..
The first part of Friar Laurence's plan works well. Juliet does take the potion and falls into a cataleptic trance. In the midst of the preparations for the wedding on Thursday morning, the Nurse finds her apparently dead. Juliet is carried to the tomb with heartbreaking lamentation.
But there is another part of the plan. Romeo must be informed of all this and be ready to return to carry off Juliet on Friday. To carry this message to Romeo, Friar Laurence has sent off a friend, Friar John.
Romeo gets a message indeed, but it is from a servant of his who comes spurring hard from Verona with the tale that Juliet is dead and entombed. Romeo, stricken, has no thought but to reach Juliet's corpse and kill himself there. For the purpose he buys poison.
As for Friar John, however, he fails to reach Romeo. Before leaving he had sought the company of another friar, who had been visiting the sick, and both fell in with "searchers," that is, health officers, seeking to prevent spread of infection.
Friar John tells Friar Laurence that:
... the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth,
- Act V, scene ii, lines 8-11
He could neither leave town nor send the message. Friar Laurence, thunderstruck, now realizes he must hasten to the tomb so that Juliet will not waken alone and so that he can explain matters. Meanwhile, he sends another message.
The care of the "searchers" and their assiduity in applying quarantine is easily understood. In 1347 an "infectious pestilence" reached Europe. This was the infamous Black Death, the most frightening epidemic in world history. It is supposed to have killed some twenty-five million people in Europe in the space of three years, and quarantine was the only counter-measure the frightened continent knew.
On Friday all converge on the tomb. Paris arrives first to grieve over his lost bride. Then comes Romeo, intent on suicide. They fight and Paris is killed. Romeo then lays himself down next to Juliet, takes the poison, and dies. It is less than five days since he first laid eyes on his tragic love.
Only then does Friar Laurence finally come-a few minutes too late to prevent this further development of the catastrophe. He comes in muttering:
Saint Francis be my speed [help]!
- Act V, scene iii, line 121
St. Francis (Giovanni Francesco Bernardone) was born in Assisi in 1182, and after the usual life of a gay, but not particularly immoral, young man of the upper classes, he experienced a conversion to a saintly life. About 1202 he began to embrace a life of poverty and gathered disciples about him who were dedicated to preaching humbly and making their way through life by reliance on free-will offerings of the pious. This was the beginning of the Franciscan order. Presumably Friar Laurence belonged to it.
... kill your joys with love
Friar Laurence finds Paris and Romeo both dead, and even as he tries to absorb this, Juliet wakes. The friar tries to persuade her to come with him so that he might bestow her in a nunnery, but with Romeo dead, she does not want to live and will not budge. The friar thinks he hears a noise and has one last chance at a boldness that might save the last pitiful remnant-Juliet's life. He misses that, too, and flees in fear of being discovered.
Left alone, Juliet kills herself with Romeo's dagger.
The watch, drawn by all the disturbance, now gathers, and so does the town: Montague, Capulet, the Prince. Little by little, the whole story comes out and the Prince sorrowfully states the moral:
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.
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.
- Act V, scene iii, lines 291-95
The mutual grief ends the feud; as it might, so easily, have ended days earlier in mutual joy.
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