Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Astral Fate of Teenage Lovers

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet 
by William Shakespeare

"Juliet: It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for she divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathèd toad change eyes.
Oh, now I would they had changed voices too,
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.
O, now be gone. More light and light it grows."
(Act 3, Scene 5, 27-35)

This was the first Shakespeare play that I read as a Freshman in a small town Wisconsin high school about fifty years ago (doesn't seem that long). Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written relatively early in his career by playwright William Shakespeare about two young lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. But upon rereading the play it seems that there is much more to it than this. Here are some lines from the chorus that opens the play:
"Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."
(The Prologue, 1-4)

So it seems that we also have a play about civil disorder and strife in the community of Verona. This disorder arose from "ancient grudge" but, as we find in the first scene of Act I, when a street fight breaks out between youths supporting the Capulets versus the Montagues (Verona's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) we quickly face the strife that is contemporary to the story of the young lovers, though it is doubtful any of the youthful combatants are aware of the source of the "ancient grudge". It will take much more bloodshed before order is restored. The overall arc of this story is reminiscent of The Oresteia of Aeschylus where disorder from the blood feud within the House of Atreus was not ended until the founding of the rule of law by Athena.  But the chorus also tells of the lovers' plight:
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife."
(The Prologue, 5-8)

These lines remind us that it is best known as a tragedy of a young "pair of star-crossed lovers" and was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers. While they must hide their love and later their marriage (although the later part happens relatively quickly) due to the civil strife their fates seem to be more astral in nature (remember the stars) and would have succumbed to an early death at any rate.

The play belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. Believed written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. While you might quibble, as I do, with the easy-going Friar's willingness to marry the young lovers, the play moves quickly and deftly due to Shakespeare's use of dramatic structure, especially effects such as switching between comedy and tragedy to heighten tension.  His expansion of minor characters (Mercutio has some particularly beautiful lines) and his use of sub-plots to embellish the story, has been praised as an early sign of his dramatic skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet over the course of the play. I believe because of both these aspects and the great use of language that is already present in early Shakespeare that it is a great place to start reading Shakespeare, especially for those who may have not had the opportunity to the early start that some of us, like myself, had in their own teenage years.

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Brian Joseph said...

I think this was my first Shakespeare also. I remember that when I did read it in high school I really tried to appreciate but too many of my own limitations got in the way.

I reread it about a year ago and saw a live performance. At least during this reading I was particularly struck by the depth of Juliet's character. She seems to be not so naive about love or about young men.

James said...

I too was fortunate to see a performance of this play recently. About four years ago at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Sadly, it was a mediocre production that favored noise and swordplay over Shakespeare's words (at least in part) and featured actors for the central roles of Romeo and Juliet who were not quite up to the demands of the play.
The best thing I remember from this production was that it was the last mediocre play I have attended at Chicago Shakespeare. They have been excelling ever since at everything from Alan Bennett and Stephen Sondheim to Shakespeare (of course).