A young man's endeavour.
Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a love story that ends unhappily.

Romeo meets Juliet at a feast and is struck as by lightning. The two youngsters exchange playful remarks and unite in a kiss, light and unreal as a dream. The garden scene that follows has been spun into the dewy net of a spring night in Italy, tender feelings, and the poet's most beautiful language.

Later, the two lovers are caught up in an old conflict between their parental families. They take their own lives in desperation — Romeo first, in the belief that his beloved is dead, Juliet thereafter, with much better reason. The young girl stands like a pillar of steadfastness until the story is over.

Young love is touching, the story tragic. First of all it is tragic in the simple sense of strong vitality succumbing before its time. It is also tragic because the outer circumstances were so promising of a happy end: Both Romeo and Juliet are free, handsome people with finely formed personalities. Besides, their parents are rich members of Verona's most prominent families. The outcome is especially frightening because the background and resources of the hero and heroine are the very reason why they go under. A great and unreserved love should have been the starting-point for a long and happy life. Instead it causes their death.

The limits of a boy's life

That is the story. The actors enter into the emotions of the young lovers and the audience is deeply moved. Surely one would have to be unappreciative of the theatre to throw away so wonderful a chance of communicating with ever more throbbing hearts?

The text, however, is clearly critical. Measured in lines and minutes the great love scenes are surprisingly brief. Some twenty lines cover Romeo's first great outburst of feeling. The nocturnal dialogue across the balcony's edge takes four pages in all but most of it is concerned with quite mundane reflections on the garden walls, with the obstacles set up by Juliet's family, and with arranging where to meet again.

On the other hand the tender exchange of words is filled to the brim with Shakespeare's exquisite language. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”, is Romeo's opening, and later, to his sweetheart's call, he thrills: “It is my soul that calls upon my name.”

It is Shakespearean mastery all through. The poet never fails to give to each of his characters a verbal form that is fully his own. Indisputably Romeo and Juliet have their feelings interpreted by a first-rate writer who convinces us of their infatuation. As individuals, though, the hero and heroine are open to numerous doubts.

Juliet's first exclamation is simply “Ay me.” Her artless sigh is met by Romeo's rapt “She speaks. O, speak again, bright angel”. The enticed victim's delighted enchantment does not, however, prevent the precocious young cock from shortly afterwards having an aside: “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?” And all of a sudden a breath of calculation can be felt, giving the spectators their first jolt.

There are many such undercurrents. Juliet is young for a lover, going on for fourteen. Perhaps, therefore, we ought to forgive her, since she brings all the unreserved fervour of childhood to her first tender bonds, even as Ibsen's Hedvig, of an age with Juliet, to her father in
The Wild Duck.

The case against Romeo is more serious, given his much wider background. When our hero meets Juliet, he is already hopelessly in love with another. The object of his love is Rosaline, and he has gone to the feast at the Capulets' house in the hope of meeting her. Long before, he has sworn his immortal allegiance to Rosaline's beauty, though she will have nothing to do with him. When Romeo asks Friar Laurence's help, the very next day after the feast, to be wed to Juliet, the unsuspecting monk thinks the prospective bride is Rosaline.

Romeo, then, is overwrought. Rosaline's rejection of him has disturbed his equilibrium and common sense. The boy has an enormous need of having his wishful fantasies fulfilled and is irritable and melancholy; it takes very little to trigger violence in him. When he and his friends go to the fancy-dress ball at the enemy's house, he is all set to pick a quarrel. Right after his and Juliet's playful exchange of kisses Juliet's cousin spots him. Tybalt wants to throw the intruder out, and Romeo's resistance is part of his cocky self-assertion.

At the same time the hero is in a tremendous hurry. His feelings for Rosaline are over the moment that Juliet appears on the scene. The two kiss after the first couple of words. The same night the youngster climbs her parents' orchard wall, and the day after he arranges for them to be married by the helpful Friar Laurence. Then he shows a moment's restraint at Tybalt's provocations, but when the arch-enemy kills his own friend, his blood rises once more. Romeo slays Tybalt knowing him to be the favourite of all the Capulet women.

The hero's rashness turns fatal when, shortly afterwards, he believes Juliet to be dead. He takes poison on the double, just before the shocked Laurence turns up to inform him that Juliet is about to wake from the sleeping-draught.

On the whole, the hero is too hasty to look into things at all. He has failed to ask about Rosaline's feelings before falling in love with her. Later he is indifferent to any hurt she might feel at being dropped. Juliet is a well-known beauty from one of the city's prominent families, but in spite of this he has never noticed her before the ball. When he falls in love again, he completely fails to think through all the difficulties that are bound to follow from the enmity between the families. Romeo is equally rash when he receives the news of Juliet's supposed death. He does not ask the monk for information, nor does he seek him out on arrival back from Mantua. On the contrary: He hurries to buy poison before his return home and cannot swallow it quickly enough.

This is strange behaviour on the part of someone who only a couple of days earlier has seen his ‘everlasting’ feelings for the beautiful Rosaline replaced by an equally strong attraction to teenage Juliet. There is indeed evidence to suggest that deep emotional turmoil is the cause of many of his actions.

Romeo's father calls him his “heavy son”. When a young and handsome man turns melancholy over having fallen in love with a woman who rejects him, this is a forewarning of a fascination with disaster, even if coupled with an equally strong sense of self-importance. Before the wedding ceremony Romeo says to Laurence that he defies all dangers: Death is inimical to love but can do as it pleases; for Romeo it is enough that “I may but call her mine.”

Not only is the hero rushed. Another effect of his underlying state of mind is his silence. This plays a fundamental role in the misfortunes that follow. Romeo's friend Mercutio knows nothing of the marriage when challenging Tybalt, Juliet's parents are equally ignorant of it when they press for the engagement with the prince's young relative. The suppression of information in both cases contributes to bringing about the disaster.

Romeo is in fact a romantic loner, living within his own feelings without paying attention to his surroundings. He imparts no information to anyone and places himself outside the wider community of kindred, friends and helpers. His feelings are magnified as a consequence of their undisturbed existence in his own mind alone, until they devour him.

Since most feelings are transient, Romeo is an example of the isolated moment. This is his tragedy, and the child Juliet is carried down with him in his whirlpool.

Society outside

A consequence of the hero's reserve is that the responsibility for the tragedy is spread to others.

The initial contrast is between youth and old age, since the hatred between the families flares up into open fighting first and foremost among the younger generation. The fathers experience the conflict and take part when provoked, but are too old, and also too well-mannered, actively to feed it through sheer senselessness.

The hot, turbulent blood of the young leads to ever new clashes. Juliet's favourite cousin Tybalt is the principal instigator to violence. In order to have Romeo's advances to Juliet checked, he consciously employs insult and offence. A more subdued passion can be found in Romeo's friend Mercutio. When Romeo, just married, tries to avoid a confrontation with Tybalt, Mercutio construes this as cowardice and challenges Tybalt to a life-and-death duel. Violence is reinforced through the families' armed servants. Thus Samson says, in the play's first scene: “I strike quickly, being moved”, and although his companion Gregory replies “But thou art not quickly moved to strike”, it is clear that that is exactly what he is.

The civilizing forces of law and order set in with the prince, on behalf of peace and reconciliation. He is supported by the citizens of Verona. For a while the two mothers are for peace, in contradistinction to their pugnacious offspring. But after the slaying of Tybalt Juliet's mother turns implacable.

The pert and voluble nurse, too, hastens the tragedy. Her excited match-making helps bring about Romeo and Juliet's precipitate marriage. After the murder of Tybalt she switches to an equally strong fancy for a totally different marriage for Juliet — that to the prince's kinsman Paris.

Without knowing Juliet's troubles, nurse and parents push her ever more strongly towards accepting the advantageous marriage planned by the family. Paris is impatient for the connection in spite of Juliet's extreme youth. With Romeo exiled Juliet is exposed to a pressure on her loyalties which she is not equal to, and she accepts Laurence's suggestion of a sleeping-draught in order to escape. From the chapel she will fly with Romeo.

Friar Laurence must carry his part of the blame. He expresses astonishment at the transformation of Romeo's feelings towards Rosaline; “So soon forsaken?” is his comment. But he marries Romeo to Juliet despite the fact that he expected the bride to be another. Later he accepts the concealments that lay part of the foundation for the suicides. When the watchman approaches, he runs away, leaving Juliet at the tomb beside her lifeless husband, thus causing her to follow Romeo into death.

Each character in the play contributes to the tragic end. All are too indulgent of their own momentary feelings, exhibit a strong penchant for letting transitory moods result in action, and are in a wild hurry to carry through their rash enterprises.

Down the drain goes the collected perspective that stems from reason. Only the prince and his attendants disregard all incidental detail around each individual and emphasise the need for openness and consideration if the city is to survive. The text of the play preaches this message for love as well as for other aspects of life.

Juliet compares her unfulfilled wishes with the eagerness of impatient children for new clothes to wear, while Romeo speaks of his feelings for Rosaline as “madness”. Symbolic of unbridled worship of the instant are the moon and the many times the action takes place in twilight. Romeo meets Juliet for the first time in the half-light of the masque. His feelings are given depth under the balcony in the moonlight. Juliet herself longs for dusk's “love-performing night” once again, though she stops Romeo from swearing his love by the moon, the most inconstant of all.

Whatever takes place in darkness is unseen and not subject to critical examination. Mercutio's view is that love indeed makes blind. Benvolio agrees with his friend and encourages Romeo, in his unhappiness over Rosaline, to try well-tested remedies, which entail having his feelings pulled out into daylight and held up against common experience: “Examine other beauties”; “Compare her face with some that I shall show, And I will make thee think thy swan a crow”. He later repeats his warnings by giving us brief, sober comments on each of half a dozen celebrated mistresses of history and literature.

In the end love shows its own limitations in the behaviour of the two young lovers. At their last meeting it is important for the hero to avoid imprisonment and death after killing Tybalt. Even so Juliet holds him back until he has shown his willingness to die for her sake! Romeo reaffirms this demand of his beloved, since his deepest need is hardly a life with Juliet, but rather for her to want him so desperately that she would rather have him die than be without him for a few days.

In this manner the text scatters its signs of Shakespeare's reservations about the actions and values of his characters. Fragments are conveyed by the prince, by Mercutio and Benvolio, and by the monk, characterising Romeo as “wedded to calamity”. Even Romeo is made to present the message: Our hero talks of himself as “fortune's fool”. The prologue describes the play as concerned with the “death-marked love” of a pair of “star-crossed lovers”. Romeo has had a dream to warn him on the night before the masquerade, and he sees the killing of Mercutio as the beginning of a new series of disasters. The chorus after the first act places the love affair of Romeo and Juliet in a sequence of desires, a new greed gaping to take over from an old on its death-bed. Heedless of their friends' warnings Romeo and Juliet are enticed in the direction of their own destruction through temptations as great as the dangers from outside. The warnings are repeated by the monk when he marries them. He urges Romeo to “love moderately”, for “These violent delights have violent ends”.

And so the exposition gives ever greater depth to the basic themes. The watchmen finding the dead lovers talk of the obscure background of the tragedy. Later the prince arrives and orders an investigation of all the circumstances, the purpose being to throw light on “their spring, their head, their true descent”. The obvious beginning lies in the hatred that has been allowed to grow between the two families, but this initial cause has been compounded by mistakes, flaws of character, and ill-considered action on the part of practically every individual involved. Even the prince of Verona must share in the responsibility, having been far too lenient towards the destructive forces.

The bulk of Shakespeare's tragedies date from the time after 1600, when the dramatist had turned forty; but the young pair of Italian lovers belongs to the first part of his work. The message of
Romeo and Juliet stems from a thirty year old dramatist of a rather unexpected kind: We are presented with a Shakespeare who thinks far beyond unmanageable Romeo with his touching child love in a moon-darkened Verona.

So much for the text. Nowhere does it tell us of the special background to Romeo's disturbed personality. The author relates action and consequences, but with no explanation of why the protagonists act as they do. This limitation is even clearer in the next play we examine.