We have here one of those inexhaustible subjects, which, losing themselves in the night of time, wandering from nation to nation, preserve their charm under every variety of art and of language; sacred, enduring symbols of the simplest, and, on this account, of the mightiest combinations of human will, feeling, and power. But in passing from the joyous summer-domain of Southern Italy into the rude, sober, and grander Teutonic world this stream of intoxicating poesy broadens into a mighty and roaring torrent, with dangerous quicksands and mysterious depths, but also with a greater richness of the refreshing element. The Romanticists, and a majority of the non-critical public, praise Romeo and Juliet especially for the southern air that breathes through the poem. It is the glow of feeling and the lovely splendor of the poetic diction that chiefly determine for them the worth of the piece. Schlegel gives us this judgement in a celebrated passage in his Dramatic Lectures. And Chasles expresses the same opinion in his picturesque, truly French, manner....
Whose heart does not adopt as its own this warm, eloquent, tender praise? It expresses faithfully and vividly the first overpowering impression which the wondrous wealth of this drama makes upon the soul. But it is far from doing justice to the dignity of Shakespeare's tragedy. It does not penetrate through the glittering costume to the heart of this work of art. Shakespeare does not content himself with painting Love in its raptures and its agonies--he draws aside the veil from its mysterious connection with the moral forces of life, he lays bare the most hidden fibres by which it pierces to the very marrow of character; he is not only the painter of the great passion, he is at the same time its physiologist, and he would be its physician were there any antidote to death. Let me try to justify this judgement.
One is struck at once with the care with which Shakespeare in this piece treats all the subordinate characters, as well as with the unusually large space given to the humourous scenes. He evidently takes pain to keep always before us the place where the fate of the lovers is unfolded and consummated. We are not allowed in the moonlight of the magic night of feeling to forget the clear light of day and of fact. Romeo and Juliet are presented to us, not as the abstract lovers of the troubadours' songs or of love stories, but as distinct persons involved in concrete relations of all kinds. We shall do well, therefore, to consider these relations before we yield our judgements to the stormy sea of poetic raptures and tragical passions. Thus much is clear at first sight--viz., that these relations are far from corresponding to the conditions of a well-ordered state of society. We have before us a piece of true medieval, Italian life, as Shakespeare and the learned of his time knew it through the Italian novelists, as Goethe has made it known by his translation of Benvenuto Cellini. Much life and no order, high intellectual cultivation, together with moral degeneracy and uncontrollable passion, all the blossoms of a refined culture side by side with a high degree of moral rudeness. Bloody street-fights alternate, in the love of the cavaliers, with brilliant festivals; in the boudoirs of ladies coarse jests of nurses are made to play a part with Petrarch's sonnets, and the phial of poison has its place among the mysteries of the toilette. In the brilliant array of the highest taste and art, passion almost loses the consciousness of its antagonism to the necessary and natural order of life. The drama transports us to Verona, where all the lights and shadows of such a state of things meet in the greatest abundance.
We make the acquaintance of Romeo at the critical period of that not dangerous sickness to which youth is liable. It is that 'love lying in the eyes' of early and just blossoming manhood, that humoursome, whimsical 'love in idleness,' that first, bewildered, stammering interview of the heart with the scarcely-awakened nature. Strangely enough, objections have been made to this 'superfluous complication,' as if, down to this day, every Romeo had not to sigh for some full-blown Junonian Rosaline, nay, for half a dozen Rosalines, more or less, before his eyes open upon his Juliet.
'Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee.'
The question arises: Whence is derived this victorious, heroic strength in the tender, weak woman, while the man is born hither and thither in the delirium of fear and hope, like a reed in the storm? Whence these Goethe-like creations: the womanish man, and the woman as bold and determined as she is sensitive, in the world of Shakespeare?
The answer is simple: In this tragedy Shakespeare makes his one only, but brilliant and decisive, excursion into the domain wherein the poet of Werther and Charlotte, of Tasso and Leonora, Edward and Ottilia, reigns as born lord and master. I mean the narrow, but all the more blooming and fragrant, domain of purely human and individual feelings, and especially the mysteries of the most powerful of all purely subjective passions, the passion in itself, Love. To woman this domain is her native home, while the healthily developed man enters it, so to speak, only as a guest, to wipe away the sweat of the battle-field, to renew his strength in that home of his heart also, for the stern but salutary conflicts of manhood. Woe to him if the place of rest unfits him for the battle! The woman who gives up her whole being to Love rises above the weakness of her sex to the dignity and heroism of a purely human ideality; the man to whom Love becomes the one aim of life, swallowing up all else, resigns himself with riven sails and without helm to the storm. Fallen away from the fundamental law of his being, he presents the unhandsome appearance of all that is discordant and contradictory, and the more richly he is endowed, the greater his original strength, only the more surely does he succumb, not to fate, but to the Nemesis of the natural law which he has violated. Shakespeare, soaring upon his eagle wing over all the heights and depths of human nature, has by no means overlooked those romantic abysses of the great passion. He has fathomed them, he has unveiled their loveliest and their most fearful mysteries, as few have done since. And it is a weighty testimony to the massive healthiness of his character that among the heroes of his plays Romeo alone falls victim to love, while all the other knights of Love grace the festal array of Shakespeare's comedies....
The vision which the closing scene reveals to us, beyond the horrors of death, through the glooming peace of the morning as it breaks over the graves of the lovers, of the wholesome yet dearly-purchased fruit of so much suffering (I refer to the reconciliation of the two families)--that vision dissipates with a solemn and masculine harmony all the discord of passionate lament. Not with the inconsolable grief of a happiness irrecoverably lost, but with a sight of the serious, saving, and harmonizing event, ends this celebrated love-tragedy of the most glowing and most tender, but also of the soundest and most manly, of poets.