ROMEO AND JULIET: AN INTRODUCTION
By: William J. Rolfe
|The following article was originally published in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Co., 1907.
Coleridge, in his Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare, says: "The stage in Shakespeare's time was a naked room with a blanket for a curtain, but he made it a field for monarchs. That law of unity which has its foundations, not in the factitious necessity of custom, but in nature itself, the unity of feeling, is everywhere and at all times observed by Shakespeare in his plays. Read Romeo and Juliet: all is youth and spring--youth with its follies, its virtues, its precipitancies; spring with its odours, its flowers, and its transiency. It is one and the same feeling that commences, goes through, and ends the play. The old men, the Capulets and the Montagues, are not common old men; they have an eagerness, a heartiness, a vehemence, the effect of spring; with Romeo, his change of passion, his sudden marriage, and his rash death, are all the effects of youth; whilst in Juliet love has all that is tender and melancholy in the nightingale, all that is voluptuous in the rose, with whatever is sweet in the freshness of spring; but it ends with a long deep sigh like the last breeze of the Italian evening."
The play, like The Merchant of Venice, is thoroughly Italian in atmosphere and colour. The season, though Coleridge refers to it figuratively as spring, is really midsummer. The time is definitely fixed by the Nurse's talk about the age of Juliet. She asks Lady Capulet how long it is to Lammas-tide--that is, to August 1--and the reply is, "A fortnight and odd days"--sixteen or seventeen days we may suppose, making the time of the conversation not far from the middle of July. This is confirmed by allusions to the weather and other natural phenomena in the play. At the beginning of act iii, for instance, Benvolio says to his friends:
- I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire;
- The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
- And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl,
- For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
When the Nurse goes on the errand to Romeo (ii. 4), Peter carries her fan, and she finds occasion to use it. "The nights are only softer days, not made for sleep, but for lingering in moonlit gardens, where the fruit-tree tops are tipped with silver and the nightingale sings on the pomegranate bough." It is only in the coolness of the dawn that Friar Laurence goes forth to gather herbs; and it is
- An hour before the worshipp'd sun
- Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
that we find Romeo wandering in the grove of sycamore, "with tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew," because Rosaline will not return his love.
In one instance, overlooked by the commentators generally, Shakespeare seems to forget the time of year. In the masquerade scene (i. 5) Old Capulet bids the servants "quench the fire" because "the room is grown too hot." In Brooke's poem, where the action covers four or five months, this scene is in the winter. Shakespeare, in condensing the time to less than a single week in summer, neglected to omit this reference to a colder season.
Aside from this little slip, the time is the Italian summer from first to last. And, as a French critic remarks, "the very form of the language comes from the South." The tale originated in Italy; "it breathes the very spirit of her national records, her old family feuds, the amorous and bloody intrigues which fill her annals. No one can fail to recognize Italy in its lyric rhythm, its blindness of passion, its blossoming and abundant vitality, in its brilliant imagery, its bold composition." All the characters are distinctly Italian. "In total effect," as another has said, "the play is so Italian that one may read it with increasing surprise and delight in Verona itself."
Although, as I have said, it is doubtful whether the story has any historical basis, the Montagues and the Capulets were famous old families in Verona. Dante alludes to them in the Purgatorio, though not as enemies:
- Vieni a veder Montecchi e Cappelletti,
- Monaldi e Filippeschi, uom senza cura,
- Color già trìsti, e costor con sospetti.
The palace of the Capulets is to this day pointed out in Verona. It is degraded to plebeian occupancy, and the only mark of its ancient dignity is the badge of the family, the cap carved in stone on the inner side of the entrance to the court, which is of ample size, surrounded by buildings that probably formed the main part of the mansion, but are now divided into many tenements. The garden has disappeared, having been covered with other buildings centuries ago.
The so-called "tomb of Juliet" is in a less disagreeable locality, but is unquestionably a fraud, though it has been exhibited for several centuries, and has received many tributes from credulous and sentimental tourists. It is in the garden of an ancient convent, and consists of an open, dilapidated stone sarcophagus (perhaps only an old horse-trough), without inscription or any authentic history. It is kept in a kind of shed, the walls of which are hung with faded wreaths and other momentoes from visitors. One pays twenty-five centesimi for the privilege of inspecting it. Byron when to see it in 1816, and wrote (November 6) to his sister Augusta: "I brought away four small pieces of it for you and the babes (at least the female part of them), and for Ada and her mother, if she will accept it from you. I thought the situation more appropriate to the history than if it had been less blighted. This struck me more than all the antiquities, more even than the amphitheatre." Maria Louisa, the French empress, got a piece of it, which she had made into hearts and other forms for bracelets and necklaces; and many other sentimental ladies followed the royal example before mutilation of the relic was prohibited by its guardians.
To return to the play--one would suppose that the keynote struck with sufficient clearness in the prologue to indicate Shakespeare's purpose and the moral lesson that he meant to impress; but many of the critics have nevertheless failed to understand it. They have assumed that the misfortunes of the hero and heroine were mainly due to their own rashness or imprudence in yielding to the impulses of passion instead of obeying the dictates of reason. They think that the dramatist speaks through Friar Laurence when he warns them against haste in the marriage (ii. 6):
- These violent delights have violent ends,
- And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
- Which as they kiss consume; the sweetest honey
- Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
- And in the taste confounds the appetite.
- Therefore love moderately, long love doth so;
- Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
But the venerable celibate speaks for himself and in keeping with the character, not for Shakespeare.
Neither does the poet, as some believe, intend to read a lesson against clandestine marriage and disregard for authority or approval of parents in the match. The Friar, even at the first suggestion of the hurried and secret marriage, does not oppose or discourage it on any such grounds; nor, in the closing scene, does he blame either the lovers or himself on that account. Nowhere in the play is there the slightest suggestion of so-called "poetic justice" or retribution in the fate that overtakes the unhappy pair.
It is the parents, not the children, that have sinned, and the sin of the parents is visited upon their innocent offspring. This is the burden of the prologue; and it is most emphatically repeated at the close of the play.
The feud of the two households and the civil strife that it has caused are the first things to which the attention of those who are to witness the play is called. Next they are told that the children of these two foes become lovers--not foolish, rash, imprudent lovers, not victims of disobedience to their parents, not in any way responsible for what they afterwards suffer--but "star-cross'd lovers." The fault is not in themselves, but in their stars--in their fate as the offspring of these hostile parents. But their unfortunate and piteous overthrow is the means by which the fatal feud of the two families is brought to an end. The "death-mark'd love" of the children--love as pure as it was passionate, love true from first to last to the divine law of love--while by an evil destiny it brings death to themselves, involves also the death of the hate which was the primal cause of all the tragic consequences.
This is no less distinctly expressed in the last speeches of the play. After hearing the Friar's story, the Prince says:
- 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!
- And I, for winking at your discords too,
- Have lost a brace of kinsmen; all are punish'd.
- CAPULET: O brother Montague, give my thy hand;
- This is my daughter's jointure, for no more
- Can I demand.
- MONTAGUE: But I can give thee more;
- For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
- That while Verona by that name is known
- There shall no figure at such rate be set
- As that of true and faithful Juliet.
- CAPULET: As rich shall Romeo by his lady lie;
- Poor sacrifices of our enmity!
It is the parents who are punished. The scourge is laid upon their hate, and it was the love of their children by which Heaven found the means to wield that scourge. The prince himself has a share in the penalty for tolerating the discords of the families. "We all," he says, "all are punished." But the good Friar's hope, expressed when he consented to perform the marriage:
- For this alliance may so happy prove
- To turn your household's rancour to pure love,--
is now fulfilled. Both Capulet and Montague, as they join hands in amity over the dead bodies of their children, acknowledge the debt they owe to the "star-cross'd" love of those "poor sacrifices of their enmity." They vie with each other in doing honour to the guiltless victims of their "pernicious rage." Montague will raise the golden statue to Juliet, and Capulet promises as rich a monument to Romeo.
Da Porto and Paynter and Brooke, in like manner, refer to the reconciliation of the rival families as the fortunate result of the tragic history. Da Porto says: "Their fathers, weeping over the bodies of their children and overcome by mutual pity, embraced each other; so that the long enmity between them and their houses, which neither the prayers of their friends, nor the menaces of the Prince, nor even time itself had been able to extinguish, was ended by the piteous death of the two lovers." As Paynter puts it, "The Montesches and Capellets poured forth such abundance of tears, as with the same they did evacuate their ancient grudge and choler, whereby they were then reconciled: and they which could not be brought to atonement by any wisdom or human counsel were in the end vanquished and made friends by pity." So Brooke, in his lumbering verse:
- The straungenes of the chaunce, when tryed was the truth,
- The Montagewes and Capelets hath moved so to ruth,
- That with their emptyed teares, theyr choler and theyr rage
- Was emptied quite; and they whose wrath no wisdom could asswage,
- Nor threatning of the prince, ne mynd of murthers donne
- At length (so mighty Jove it would) by pitye they are wonne.
And then the poem, like the play, ends with a reference to the monumental honour done to the lovers:
- And lest that length of time might from our myndes remove
- The memory of so perfect, sound, and so approved love,
- The bodies dead, removed from vaulte where they did dye,
- In stately tombe, on pillers great of marble, rayse they hye.
- On every syde above were set; and eke beneath,
- Great store of cunning Epitaphes, in honor of theyr death.
- And even at this day the tombe is to be seene;
- So that among the monumentes that in Verona been,
- There is no monument more worthy of the sight,
- Then is the tombe of Juliet and Romeus her knight.