Romeo and Juliet
Season 08-09 Season
The Past Imperfect of
Romeo and Juliet
PETER BYRNE, PH.D.
Romeo and Juliet is, for many of us, our first experience with Shakespeare. One of his earliest plays, it is also, with the possible exception of Hamlet, his most familiar. Even those who have never read a single line of Shakespeare know the names of his doomed hero and heroine, a pair of characters who have entered into the popular lexicon as Western civilization’s most recognized symbol of young love. But whether we are coming to this play for the first time or the 20th, Romeo and Juliet rewards us with fresh discoveries, and even experienced audiences seeing this production will be surprised at how much more there is to this play than the well-told story of two star-crossed lovers. For while the play is certainly a tragedy of love, it is also a tragedy of time—of how the past robs the present of the future.
On the one hand, fate or chance diverts this play from a happy ending—one messenger arrives before another, and thereby ensures the worst of outcomes—but even as we feel the pang of this mischance, we must notice that even if all the right events were to happen in the right order, it is doubtful that the lovers or their peers would emerge successfully from their troubled adolescence. For Shakespeare reminds us that it is the nature of youth to live for the moment, and it is therefore the responsibility of the mature to guide the younger into an awareness of decision and consequence. But the deck is irretrievably stacked against the young in this play by an older generation preoccupied, even obsessed, by a mutual past. Thanks to its two noble houses and their feud, Verona is a city trapped in a former era, engaged in a civil cold war of such long-standing that no one bothers to mention what caused it in the first place. Everyone seems to accept that Capulets and Montagues are natural enemies, forgetting that there is always a choice to be made, a choice between what is and what may be. And it is the youth of the play, unmarred by their parents’ ossified biases, who represent the hope of that better choice.
We are accustomed to look for character flaws in tracing the causes of a tragic downfall, and Shakespeare does not shy away from laying much of the blame on the young: Mercutio’s uncontrolled enthusiasm, Tybalt’s rage, Romeo’s excessive sentimentality, and even Juliet’s rebellious insistence on her own preferred path in life (less offensive to us than it was to the conservative family values of Shakespeare’s time). But asinadequate as these young people are, we see in them signs of future greatness: one can see without much strain that Mercutio’s wit marks him out as a someday poet, that Tybalt is clearly a born soldier, that Benvolio will make a fine judge. Verona needs these young people but instead distorts them into the worst versions of themselves. If their tragedy seems to spring from poor choices, we might do well to ask whether they ever had any choices to begin with—whether their fates have not already been preordained by a city that holds them prisoners to history. This is a lost generation not because they lack the qualities of greatness, but because those qualities are distorted by a hostile world not of their making. Shakespeare is canny enough to show us what might become of these children in their maturity; Verona’s youth is mirrored in its elders, showing what time will do to the former: Mercutio’s knowing wit is reflected by the Nurse’s worldly shrewdness, Benvolio’s instinctive diplomacy mirrored by the Prince’s attempts at peacemaking, Tybalt’s fury by his uncle Capulet’s temper. Young mirrors old, but the latter reminds us that the virtues of youth seldom survive it. Even Juliet’s idealism is shown in unflattering colors in the manipulative actions of Friar Lawrence, a man of infinitely good intentions who more than any other leads the play to its catastrophic conclusion by his presumption.
But the mere existence of her idealism in the first place is, perhaps, enough to give us some hope. For while Verona’s old men scheme to revenge themselves in an endless cycle of violence that robs words like “honor” and “justice” of their meanings, it is the play’s youngest character—and a young woman, no less—who proves its wisest. If in Romeo Shakespeare gives us the poignancy of a very conventional young man in love—his agonized desires a source of sad amusement as much to us as to his companions—in Juliet he gives us quite the opposite: a young woman who sees more clearly than anyone around her how the world values so little what really matters, and prizes so much what does not. It is Juliet who recognizes that language and truth are not the same—that “Montague” does not define her love, nor “Capulet” her self, that Romeo’s oaths ought not to follow conventions, that mortals who swear by the gods invite their laughter, and that the cynical worldliness of her Nurse is, far from the path to salvation, her surest way to hell.
Juliet’s most touching moment is her delighted soliloquy to her absent husband on their wedding night, bidding the steeds that draw the sun to rush in their courses and bring the night that will bring Romeo to consummate their marriage. But of course she urges this without knowing that Romeo has just slain her cousin and plunged the play into its final movement toward death. It is a moment of passion that surpasses in its sincerity and originality anything her lover might have offered. This moment, equal parts comic, cruel and erotic, captures the spirit of the play: the young look forward to the night only in anticipation of the dawn and a fruitful consummation of their idealistic and headlong desires. But Shakespeare gives us a world they are too good for, one that brings darkness without renewal, in which lovers make the grave their marriage home, and where the sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Peter Byrne, Ph.D.
Kent State University
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