The Birth of Modern Tragedy
By Drew Lichtenberg
For anyone who knows the definition of Greek tragedy, the six o’clock news is a monstrosity. Invariably, the news anchors will list a series of unfortunate or even accidental events, raise an eyebrow and a gravely intone, in blithe indifference to Aristotle, “tragic developments today …” There will be no mention of the oft-misunderstood “fatal flaw” (hamartia) or recognition scene (anagnorisis), none of the Chorus’s impassioned debates (agons) and no plot resolution by the “god out of the machine” (deus ex machina). Most importantly, there is no mighty human figure—often a king—brought low by the Gods and Fate. Somewhere in the history of mankind, “tragedy” went from a specific term for a fifth century BCE genre to a more general descriptor, an adjective that could apply seemingly to anyone or anything.
As with so many other aspects of modern culture, blame Shakespeare. When “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” first appeared—it was no later than 1596, when Shakespeare was 32—there had never been a tragedy like it.
The theme is familiar enough. Narratives about “star-crossed lovers” had been popular for hundreds of years, ever since courtly love became fashionable in the early middle ages, dating back through Decameron and Chaucer to Petrarch and Ovid. But in place of all of the traditional elements of tragedy, Shakespeare came up with radical displacements and jarring juxtapositions. All of modern domestic tragedy descends from his choices.
Adapted from a modern novella—Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562)—the play was set in a recognizably modern world, and its characters were ordinary people, not Roman or classical heroes. In the play’s Act Four, Shakespeare zooms in on the Capulet household to harrowing and virtuosic effect, and the play becomes almost a modern family story. All of modern family story. Ibsen and Chekhov, then later Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller followed the same “tragic” format.
More importantly, the main characters of Romeo & Juliet are teenagers. In an early modern world where people were understood either as children or adults, Shakespeare was inventing and giving vivid character to a whole new social type. All of our modern cultural history—the line from Elvis to the Beatles to Taylor Swift—follows this epochal shift toward the teen.
And what character! Though Shakespeare would go on to scale great heights with figures such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Romeo and Juliet is perhaps his first masterpiece of characterization.
When Romeo first appears, like any modern teenager, he is fond of hyperbole, and he tends to speak in long self-dramatizing lists, most of them variations on the theme of his own suffering. “O brawling love! O loving hate!” he says early in the play, seeming to take in the brawl that’s just happened between the Montagues and Capulets, before embarking on a string of oxymorons that describe nothing pretentiously: “O anything of nothing first create! / O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!” Has a writer ever come up with a better metaphor for adolescence?
This is Shakespeare’s own inside joke on Petrachan rhetoric (the source of the “star-crossed lovers,” already a cliché in Shakespeare’s time) and its tendency to turn serious contradiction and inner disorder into chiming, rhyming phrases. “Love is a smoke,” Romeo continues, turning to the object of his affections, a certain Rosaline, “made with the fume of sighs.” In other words, it’s all a bunch of hot air. As Coleridge put it, Romeo is “in love only with his own idea,” in love with being in love. A bit later, Romeo and Benvolio again discourse at length in Petrarchan terms, employing rhymed couplets and even quatrains (half-sonnets) as they debate love’s finer points. They are scenes striking for their absence of women and their air of abstraction. Teenage boys, then and now, talk a lot to say a little.
When Romeo sees Juliet at the Capulet masque, however, something changes. In Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare had introduced her as any modern writer would a teenage girl (she’s in her bedroom, refusing to come out), and up to that point she has said very little in the play, though her independence and self-possession is evident.
Here, a few scenes later, the two share eighteen lines, in alternating rhyme, completed by a couplet. It is an extremely unusual, extended sonnet. Unlike those of Shakespeare’s day, often written by an adoring lover to a proud, disdainful woman, this one is improvised on the spot, mutually composed by the two lovers. “O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,” Romeo says, daringly (if not blasphemously) yoking Catholic sainthood to erotic action. “Saints do not move,” is Juliet’s characteristic reply, subtle in its daring, “though grant for prayers’ sake.” In other words, come and get it if you want it. Instead of focusing on deprivation, this sonnet features a consummation devoutly to be wished.
In perhaps his most brilliant piece of writing at this early stage in his career, Shakespeare had achieved a dramaturgical corollary to sonnet-writing, taking the delicate, intimate, and erotic states of lovers’ consciousness, a subject previously reserved for aristocratic readers of poetry, and putting it on the stage, for all to see and feel. Amid the chaotic surround of the Capulet feast, the dramaturgical effect is one of extreme intimacy, the lovers separated from the company in a special and utterly new tone. Like a cinematic close-up, the union unfolds in suspended time. Part of the tragedy of the play is that Romeo and Juliet are not allowed to remain within this world of love but are instead dragged back into the all-too-real world, with its consequences and effects.
And just like that, the two characters drop the rhyme (Romeo) and the courtly restraint (Juliet). Indeed, the rhyme is picked up by Friar Laurence and the Capulets, the sonnets by Paris, a rhetorical distancing which increases our emotional distance in return. In their very next scene together, in a play where everyone else still talks like a Renaissance character, Romeo and Juliet gradually start talking and sounding like us. Not coincidentally, it’s the balcony scene, the finest love scene that Shakespeare would ever write in the finest love story that anyone has ever written. By the play’s second half, they are different people. “Thou know’st my lodging,” Romeo tells Balthasar in his Mantua hide-out, “Get me ink and paper, / And hire post horses. I will hence tonight.” Not a word is wasted. There are no elaborate adolescent flights of fancy. Romeo has grown into a man, and one of action. This virtuosic command of language and character appears in nearly every character and scene, from the plainest possible style to the most convoluted.
Which brings me to another of Shakespeare’s revisions of classical tragedy: he also removes what Aristotle would call the antagonist, or villain, of the piece. This hasn’t stopped critics, of course, from pointing the finger at nearly everyone in the play: fallible confidantes Friar Laurence and the Nurse, partners in pugnacity Mercutio and Tybalt, even Montague and Capulet, who are ultimately victims of the play’s feud as much as its progenitors. And then there is poor, feckless Prince Escalus, who loses two family members for his pains.
One could more accurately say that Romeo and Juliet are the instruments of their own downfall. They are destroyed not by the Gods or Fate (though many spooky accidents do happen) but by their own passion. Throughout the play, with adolescent fervor, Romeo and Juliet confuse light for darkness, sex for religion, violence for love, life for death. This tragically confused passion—so modern in its harrowing internal movements—can be seen played out in Juliet, who changes just as much as Romeo. In Act 3, Scene 2, Shakespeare gives the newly married Juliet a classical epithalamion (bridal speech) worthy of Ovid himself; the stark, Marlovian tones could not be further from the polite girl’s etiquette of the play’s first movement. “When I shall die,” she says, “Take [Romeo] and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night.” She gets her wish. “A glooming peace this morning with it brings,” the Prince says in his closing speech, “The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.”
In place of the simple polarities of classical tragedy, then, Shakespeare has injected a heady dose of internal disorder. By the end of the action, Shakespeare has immersed us inside a world of brawling love and loving hate, taking the cliched oxymorons of Petrarch, unshackling them from sing-song couplets, and making them the stuff of profound drama. The effect is devastating and profound, as if Shakespeare has reached out from the stage and begun rummaging through our own innards.
But none of these are even his most radical innovation. This tragedy, well, isn’t very tragic. In fact, its plot is that of a comedy: boy meets girl; girl’s father prefers someone wealthier, complications ensue. For most of the play’s first half, Shakespeare luxuriates in languid and pleasurable scenes, scenes which are nevertheless shot through—subtly but unmistakably—with tragic premonitions. It’s there in the ludicrous spectacle of Capulet and Montague, old men, demanding their weapons in their nightclothes as their wives hold them back; it’s there in Sampson and Gregory’s bawdy jokes, which confuse the sexual organs for deadly weapons, and vice versa; it’s there in the Nurse’s inability to recognize romance as anything other than a physical thing. Most of all, it’s there in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, which points and laughs at the sexual power of dreams until it curdles into a kind of terrified hysteria.
Shakespeare understood, more than any other writer, that the stuff of modern tragedy—anarchy, inner disorder—is also deeply the stuff of modern comedy, that the two are linked, inextricable. It is a lesson he would apply in another radical, unusual play, written at the same time, on the same theme. If you turned Romeo and Juliet inside out—if the swords missed their marks in the dead of the night, if Friar Laurence’s purple-streaked potion worked as intended, if the queen of the fairies was an actual character—you would get something very much like Shakespeare’s other early masterpiece, its mirror-twin: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He may have scaled future heights, but in these two plays Shakespeare invented much of modern drama.