This edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has much to recommend it, not simply for students. Accompanying each page of text is a study section explaining the language and context, but also engaging the reader in a series of questions about their own feelings of what is happening, or what Shakespeare might have intended?
Differing opinion on these questions is inevitable. The play of course, deserves the reputation of the ultimate expression of romantic love in western literature, and we are forced to look for credible reasons for its tragic conclusion. It addresses timeless issues that matter to all humanity.
To ask how ‘real’ is this story, is to ask the wrong question. Read criticisms of any work and it becomes all too apparent that today, we feel uneasy when the playwright demands we suspend reality, as to time and place, or the likelihood of the events occurring.
Shakespeare’s players, although individuals, also represent stereotypical ‘everyman’ characters. Hence, Juliet, the impeccable pure and genuine heroine, Romeo, the popular, earnest young lover, the Nurse, the old gossip, the Friar, the meddling, misguided schemer, the Capulets, the parents who would not understand their daughter, and maybe Mercutio, best friend until true love overtakes all. Shakespeare also personifies, in the style of Medieval tales, Love and hate, Fate, and above all, Death, that ‘lean, abhorred monster’ (Act 5,Sn.3), taking a form as real in the context as the other players.
It works so well, not least because of the contrasts. The youthful inexperience of the lovers adds to the inevitability of the tragedy, but of course, the sublimity of the language, so important here, should belong to older lovers. We accept that the family feud is the major factor in the tragedy. Is it not though, the innocence, the feeling we want it to be ‘alright in the end’ what we love about this play?
‘Verona is a patriarchal city. Fathers held absolute sway over their daughters. They may give them to whoever they choose, and feel deeply insulted if their daughters choose otherwise. Juliet makes that choice and incurs the unmitigated wrath of Capulet’. . “Out you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage! You tallow-face! . .disobedient wretch!” (Act 3, Sn5)
What is it like to be on the receiving end of such a tongue lashing? What is it like to undergo such verbal abuse? Surely even harder for Juliet, as her father is so admired by others, and we too, can see his naturally protective role perverted. Even so, you might argue he is himself a victim of circumstance, Tybalt being the active protagonist in the feud. By this point in the play, it is clear Juliet will be forced to choose between her former, sheltered life, and an uncertain future with her lover. It becomes even clearer though, she chooses Romeo not just for love, but honesty. To go back, marry Paris, be loyal simply because she was born a Capulet, would betray who she really is. Her parents do not want to understand her, they have a different agenda, even her nurse deserts her, she has no other confidante. We are forced to ask, ‘What would I do in this circumstance? Would I have the courage Juliet displays?’
What of the other characters? Shakespeare allows them almost enough space to compete with Romeo and Juliet, and yet they do not. Perhaps this is why Mercutio denounces love, and has to die, and the Nurse, while yet genuinely affectionate, fails in her role as Juliet’s comforter.
You may blame Romeo and Juliet, in their exuberance, as creating their own tragedy, as if adolescent love automatically becomes a recipe for future disaster. This does not ring true. Shakespeare presents other alternatives, the family feud, also coincidence and the element of chance, ‘time and unforeseen occurrence’. Reading the text or viewing the play, it is impossible to avoid asking ‘What if the nurse had not used the death of Tybalt to defame Romeo? What if Juliet had awoken before Romeo drank the poison? What if the friar had arrived before Romeo?’ It is in this way of course, the play builds to its logical climax, ‘what must be must be.’
We see Juliet as vulnerable, we pity her, we understand her conflicting feelings. We focus on her age ‘not yet fourteen’. Her honesty, self-reliance and resolve, we accept, for it is a consequence of her love for Romeo, we might say he brought out the best in her. We understand the nature of the tragedy , and yet it is not a morbid tragedy, but a truly inspiring testament.
See also review: Taking Flight Theatre Company; Romeo and Juliet 12-8-10