Sunday, August 15, 2010

Discussion: Romeo and Juliet

The play: Romeo and Juliet

The plot tweet: See the prologue. That pretty much covers it.

My favorite line:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (Juliet)


About a year ago, I attended a performance of this play at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Afterward, in the lobby, a man next to me sighed and said, "It always ends the same way." It's so close: If Juliet had awakened a few minutes earlier, or the friar had arrived a few seconds earlier to explain to Romeo, or the friar's original letter hadn't gone astray ... We certainly come to agree with Shakespeare's description of these lovers as "star-crossed." Yet, every time, I can't help hoping that this time things may work out for the best.

(Or maybe not. See this poem by Maxine Kumin about what might happen if they survived.)

The best thing about Shakespeare is that every reading presents a new perspective and new insights. With this reading, I found myself entranced by Juliet's parents, the Capulets, who are partly to blame for the predicament in which the young lovers find themselves. Here's something I just noticed:
Paris: Younger than she are happy mothers made.

Capulet: And too soon marred are those so early made.
Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she;
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.
In the very next scene, Lady Capulet says to Juliet, "By my count, I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid." So, what's going on here? Does Capulet think his wife is "marred" as others are? Over time, what has he damaged in his tendency toward rage?

At least the Capulets have raised a strong, independent child. When the prince speaks of Juliet and "her" Romeo, it references the fact that she's in charge here. While Romeo is swearing by the moon and murdering her kinsmen, Juliet is the one proposing marriage and making plans. We never really see Romeo interact with his parents, but she is more than able to stand up to her parents when necessary. She might not see all the options (such as the obvious one, going to Romeo in Mantua), but she is at least a spunky gal.

One thing that does not change for me on multiple readings is my impression of the nurse. She is bawdy and talkative, of course, but she can also be quite cruel, withholding information from a desperate Juliet, advising her to betray her husband, and even misleading her about who exactly is dead after the play's fateful duel. I always rejoice a bit when Juliet says, "Go, counselor! Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain," even though for Juliet this marks a very difficult, very lonely moment in the play.

Finally, I'm always struck by the beautiful language of this play. It is not my favorite play, and sometimes I get tired of it. (One friend refers to it as "junior varsity" Shakespeare.) But then I read it again, and I get lost in the poetry as if for the first time.


  1. You put forth a good argument for re-reading this one with an open mind. Although I do like much of the poetry, I have never really liked the play and tend to regard it rather disdainfully. I have only ever read it twice, and one of those times was because I had to do so. I figured I would put it off until much later in the year, but perhaps I'll get it over with and see what new insight I can get out of it.

  2. Some quick thoughts:

    - yes, the language is gorgeous. i've heard it described as "lyrical." now i'm not sure what the hell that really means, but if it refers to a sing-song cadence, it's there. the language is one of my favorite aspects of this play. there are TONS of puns (cf. the opening scene especially), many distinct voices, and even sonnets.

    - i really like the "genre" of the play: it starts off light and funny, and remains light through romeo's lovestruck funk. only at the end of act iii does the tone change (very drastically). keeps me on my toes. :)

    - timing, timing, timing, lust, lust, lust. we can't deny that the two lovers have fun together, in words and otherwise (they did fuck, right?) but while romeo may not know this, mercutio certainly does (and probably juilet too): romeo wasn't being inconstant, he's just fine with being led by his instincts, to the most gorgeous woman (girl actually) available. again, the two do enjoy each other's company, but it's lust that started it all. and of course, it's bad timing/luck that ended it all. next time i read it, i'll pay more attention to juliet. i'm not quite sure of her desires, and i'm not quite sure why i think of her as a freakishly intelligent girl.

    god i love this play: content and cadence to all high hell.