Romeo and Juliet, despite its renown, is not a play I had known intimately before this reading. Yet, on re-reading it after God knows how long, I seemed to remember more or less every scene. Time after time lines would appear that I found, to my surprise, I knew well. I suppose its most famous line is:
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
But if one were to choose the lines that best summarise the mood of the play, one would have to go for:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’
Or, perhaps, this:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds
For the play does gallop along in a headlong rush. There is a sense of ecstasy about it, a sense of a lightning flash that illumines for the briefest of moments before dying.
If we were to ignore Titus Andronicus (and I would do so), this is Shakespeare’s first tragedy. And yet, it’s very different from his later works in the genre. Its pacing, is that of comedy: the fiery-footed pace of the play does not really allow for too much introspection; we never peer deeply into the souls of Romeo and Juliet as we do of Othello, Macbeth & Lady Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra. Of course, embedded in this fast pace are those love scenes, and some of the most exquisite love poetry ever composed: this play is still regarded by many as the archetypal love story. And there is a sense of languor about these love scenes, a sense of time standing still for moments, brief oases of stillness within the surrounding storm. The variety in the pacing is extraordinary.
The prologue is in the form of a sonnet (as, indeed, is the first exchange between Romeo and Juliet). The sonnet itself is very intricately and cleverly composed: Nuttall, in his book Shakespeare the Thinker, suggests it might have been written by Berowne from Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is all clever wordplay and intricacy of form. But the nagging question in Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to be present here as well: to what extent can language, far from depicting reality, take us away from it?
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the characters had, eventually, to face reality – a reality in which games with language are no longer appropriate. Here, the reality is faced earlier, and the language has to accommodate itself to expressing this reality, rather than merely play games. But before this happens, we see Romeo as a sort of lovelorn Berowne: he speaks of his love for Rosaline (the same Rosaline as in Love’s Labour’s Lost, possibly?) but it’s all just words, words, words, as Hamlet might say –all very clever, and very poetic, but with no real substance. It is Romeo’s encounter with Juliet changes all that: now, it’s no longer just a game – the words have to mean something. And Shakespeare rises to that challenge magnificently. Time after time, there are lines of dramatic verse that are not merely extraordinarily beautiful, but also extraordinarily expressive. Just to take a single example:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him 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
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Yes, one can – and should – analyse this closely: something such as this is worth analysing. But even after one has analysed it all one can, it leaves one breathless.
But before any of this, Shakespeare pulls a fast one on us. We all know now, of course, that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but one wouldn’t guess it from the first scene: that is pure comedy. Only when Tybalt (one of the most menacing of all Shakespeare’s characters) enters the fight expressing his motiveless hatred does the tone abruptly change; and the very abruptness of the change puts the nastiness of Tybalt’s speech into greater relief. Then, we get another abrupt change: after the bawdy humour, and the mock-heroics of the servants’ declarations, and after the sudden explosion of violence, Romeo enters as if from another play – from the world of Love’s Labour’s Lost. These sudden changes of gear prepare us for a play that gallops along like fiery-footed steeds; and they also, somehow, help integrate the most diverse elements into a single miraculous whole.
Juliet is, as is well-known, not yet quite fourteen. Shakespeare had actually made her even younger than she was in the source material. Modern sensibilities inevitably find this problematic, but Shakespeare is insistent that he is depicting a young girl’s first awakening, her very first awareness of her sexuality. We see her emerging from childhood: it wasn’t that long ago that she was being breast-fed. (The Nurse, incidentally, is usually played by an elderly actress, but this is surely wrong: she was employed as a wet-nurse for Juliet who is now nearly fourteen, and had had a child herself – Susan – who, had she lived, would have been roughly Juliet’s age. I think the Nurse ought to be roughly the same age as Juliet’s mother – i.e. in her 30s.) And it isn’t merely to sexuality that she is awakening: she also becomes aware of the presence of death – nowhere more so in that marvellous little soliloquy she has before drinking the Friar’s potion.
The plot itself has enough holes to drive juggernauts through, but when one is caught in the sheer exhilarating pace of it all, it hardly matters. It is true that we do not get the profound examinations of human character that we get in the later tragedies, but Juliet’s maturing from childhood into womanhood is deeply poignant, all the more so as her potential is never realised: the lightning-flash, though magnificent, is all too brief.
And Romeo matures as well. At first, he was with a group of young men who had too much wealth to indulge their pleasures and too little matter to occupy their minds. Indeed, of all the young men we see in the play – Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris, Benvolio – only the last of these, the good-natured Benvolio, stays alive to the end. These are people playing with lives, just as Mercutio, or Romeo in the early scenes, play with language. There is nothing more to their lives than play of some sort of other: even being in love (like Romeo’s “love” for Rosaline) is a sort of game. But what Romeo undergoes transforms him. The lightning-flash may be brief, but it gives his life a meaning that it otherwise would not have had.
No wonder the Romantics loved this play! Shakespeare never returned to this type of play again. Perhaps he realised that this trick could not be repeated: one cannot relive a lightning-flash.