Monday, 17 November 2014

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

"O, Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Of, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet."

Of course, we all know the story.   In Medieval Verona, the Capulets and Montagues are feuding, their hatred spilling over into battles in the streets; revenge and killings abound.  Yet Romeo, the Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, and all thoughts of his former love, Rosaline, fly from his head as his heart is captured by her beauty.  Will Romeo and Juliet's love survive the heated rivalry and secret machinations of the houses of Montague and Capulet?

Well, no, of course not!

John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart
While Romeo and Juliet is certainly a story of young love, it is also a cautionary tale against letting one's heart (and other body parts) rule one's head with unhealthy intensity.  Friar Lawrence cautiions Romeo during his effusive praise of Juliet after only one glance of her:

"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."

Romeo and Juliet the tomb scene (1790)
Joseph Wright
source Wikiart
Later, when Romeo's friend, Mercutio is slain by the Capulet, Tybalt, cousin to Juliet, love is forgotten in the passions of revenge and Tybalt's life is forfeit under the steel of Romeo's sword.  A sentence of exile is pronounced as the lovers' hopes spiral into a well of despair.  A message gone astray, culminates in the deaths of these two lovers, echoing a tragic pathos that the reader can sense building throughout the play.  Right from the beginning, when you view their impulsive, forbidden love, blossoming amongst the fields of vendettas, discord and enmity, you know that it cannot last.  It's like an explosion of fireworks that streak across the sky in a pattern of colours and textures and beauty.  But eventually these grand passions burn themselves out and in place of the awe-inspiring spectacle, darkness remains.

Yet while there is tragedy in the fateful story, Shakespeare also shines rays of hope.  With the deaths of the two heirs of both the Montagues and Capulets, all animosity melts away as the families share the pain of a double grief.  So instead of Romeo and Juliet's deaths being merely tragic, the lovers' demise turn out to be a kind of sacrifice, two deaths that culminate in the saving fate of the two families.  Is Shakespeare alluding to the belief that peace in society is more important than a passionate love of two individuals?  Who knows, but it's a thought that resonated with me long after I turned the last page .......

Juliet and her Nurse (c. 1860)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
source Wikiart

I read this play for my edX Shakespeare: On Page and Performance course, play 1 of 6.

Productions Watched:
         Romeo & Juliet - Shakespeare Stratford Collection    (★★★☆)
         Archangel Audiobook - Romeo & Juliet (★★★★★)                           


  1. I always though Shakespeare just wanted to show how pathetic the rules of society were - that two people just couldn't love one another in peace, such as the way "West Side Story" was based.

    And then I always questioned the absurdity of their relationship - it was more like lust, not love, as you so eloquently described it (w/o even using the word).

    Well, I just wanted to comment on the gorgeous Waterhouse.

    And did you ever see the 1968 film adaptation of R&J? It was my favorite as a young girl. I cannot believe my mother let me watch it. Anyway, you can watch it in parts on Youtube.

    1. After reading a number of plays lately, I've decided that it's not easy to peg what Shakespeare was trying to convey ........ and I think he meant to keep his points ambiguous ...... part of his brilliance is the way in which he does it. You're always thinking, "it could be this ...... yet it could be that" and you are never quite able to figure out which.

      Since we studied the play in depth, you could see how Juliet was originally more measured with her responses to him, but quite quickly her language became as flowery as his. I'm not certain that it was only lust ....... again, I don't think Shakespeare gives us enough evidence to definitively decide, but it was certainly "ungrounded" love.

      I do find that the Bard adds usually at least one questionable response from someone to make the plot work; how convenient the letter went astray and how convenient the Friar didn't get to the tomb on time. But with their hormones raging and the swords flying and the poison imbibing, you knew it was going to have horribly tragic consequences. I'm just glad I could pull something positive out of it.

      A 1968 film? Wow! I'll have to try to find it on Youtube. I have some others to watch but I've been reading through the plays so quickly, I've only had time to watch one movie per play, before moving on.

      While your mother let you watch films that you shouldn't have, my mother let me read books that I shouldn't have. I still can't believe I read some of the books I did. Parents were certainly less aware during our adolescent-time. How things change.

    2. OK, if you haven't the time to watch the entire movie, here's the 3 1/2 minute trailer: They did a great job.

      There was a lot of passion and even nudity, but my mom was liberal about that stuff and believed it was just life and art and natural and Shakespeare, so it was ok for me to watch it. (I was under 10, for sure). But today, I would skip over the bedroom scene, if I let my kids watch it.

    3. Well, zounds! This was the movie that I had to take back to the library but I re-ordered it. Now I'm really looking forward to it. It looks fantastic. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Passion, fireworks, vendetta's darkness, revenge and fate....there is no end to the words one can find to describe this story. We both have read it in depth and are agreed that Shakespeare is a master storyteller! Rosaline must be one of the most 'talked' about young woman in literature....yet she doesn't say a word in the play! Keep up the good work reading the classics.

    1. Wasn't it fun? I think Rosaline was wise to stay away from Romeo.

      I see that you're reading The Merchant of Venice next. I haven't read that one yet. I can't wait for your review!

  3. To be was hard work! :)

  4. This is on my list to read. I did a course on Shakespeare and how his life and the period in which he was living is reflected in his plays and it brought a lot more understanding of them but this is one we didn't read. I remember reading it at school and wonder how I will feel now I know a little bit more about to interpret the play. Good review / post.

    1. It's interesting to study a number of Shakespeare's plays at once, isn't it? You start to see common threads tying them all together. I think I'm going to take a FutureLearn (UK) course on Hamlet in January. In my present course, we will have studied 6 plays in 12 weeks, but in the FL course, we'll study one play in 6 weeks. It should be an interesting comparison!

      I hope you get a chance to read Romeo and Juliet, Emma. I liked it much more than I thought I would.

  5. I loved this - I took it as a cautionary tale as well, but I can really see Ruth's point as well.

    Great review :)

    1. Yes, I read your excellent review last night! I liked your take on the play. I would hesitate to leave out the possible theme of true love, because that is part of what makes the play so tragic, but there must have been a reason why Shakespeare presents Romeo as just coming off a one-sided love affair with Rosaline, and that there are cautions from Friar Lawrence. Again, Shakespeare never completely wraps his stories in a tidy parcel, so you are always left wondering. Which is quite wonderful!