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Notes on Romeo and Juliet

From The Study of Shakespeare by Henry Thew Stephenson, New York: Henry Holy and Co.

I. Introduction

In the Tudor Edition of this play the editor discusses the date of its origin, finally assigning it tentatively, or timidly, perhaps, to 1594 or 1595. Many critics, however, believe that the present text of the play is the result of a revision of an earlier version much of which still remains. In connection with this point of view two dates are thought of, one earlier and the other later than that suggested above.

At any rate, parts of the play closely resemble in style the known early efforts of Shakespeare; and the stylistic qualities of other parts more nearly resemble the poet's style of a later date.

There are several other points to be considered. Though a beautiful love story it does not conform to the rules of dramatic tragedy. This may be due to the fact that it is an early play, written before Shakespeare acquired that technical skill which characterizes his later work. In the following notes another possibility is hinted at; namely, that the play was originally written as a tragi-comedy and at a later date hastily reconstructed into a tragedy.

It will also be noticed that in many of the parts of the play which show evidences of early style, Romeo is trivial and not over-manly in his behavior; and in the parts whose style resembles that of a later date Romeo is a far worthier lover of a heroine like Juliet. I venture as a mere suggestion that in the revision of the play the character of Juliet was completely rewritten. This necessitated the rewriting of many of the Romeo parts but permitted others to remain unchanged.

II. Notes on the Text

Act I. Prologue. This is a sonnet a characteristic of Shakespeare's early style in which he resorted to many forms of verse and stanzas. Note, however, that the Elizabethans seldom made use of the familiar rhyme-scheme of the sonnet. The sonnet prologue appears again before the second act. But there are no more prologues to the play.

I. i. The first 70 lines of this scene are merely low comedy. Such continuous word-play is characteristic of Shakespeare's early style. Find other similar passages throughout the play.

I. i. 72. Enter Tybalt. Though Ben Jonson frequently named characters after their personal qualities, Shakespeare soon gave up the practice. Tybalt means tom-cat; Benvolio, good-fellow or peacemaker; Mercutio, one of a mercurial disposition.

I. i. 90, etc. Earlier blank verse was more conventional, more sing-song, fuller of pauses at the end of the line than later blank verse. Compare this passage, written in the earlier style, with the blank verse of the balcony scene. Find other passages that illustrate both the earlier and the later forms of verse.

I. i. 121, 122. Repetition of words and phrases is resorted to more often in this play than in any other. Find illustrations throughout. They occur from first to last, but usually in passages that have other earmarks of early style.

I. i. 177. Note that Romeo is much of a punster in those scenes which are written in the earlier style. This quality disappears in the more serious portrayal of the hero.

I. i. 182, etc. This coupling of opposites, heavy lightness, cold fire, etc., is another early trait.

By the end of this scene we learn that Romeo is already suffering from the effects of unrequited love. We are told by critics that this is the most likely condition as a preliminary to love at first sight, and that Shakespeare here displays his keen knowledge of human nature. However, he overlooked the situation in regard to Juliet, who fell in love with equal celerity. It is just barely possible that Shakespeare introduced this detail of Romeo's past merely because it was in the original version of the story, and also afforded an excellent opportunity for getting started.

I. ii. Compare Capulet's attitude towards Juliet, as displayed in his conversation with Paris early in this scene, with his actual behavior later. How is the contrast to be explained? Is he insincere at either time?

I. iii. Juliet is said by the nurse to be fourteen years of age. Even after making due allowance for the earlier maturity of southern girls in olden times Juliet seems to be more than fourteen years old. This allusion is probably a remnant of the earlier version. In the revision, Shakespeare must have had in mind a woman, not a girl.

I. iv. 2. Apology in this line, Cupid in line 4, without-book prologue in line 7, etc., are references to masking, a popular form of Elizabethan entertainment.

I. iv. 58. This fairy speech by Mercutio may be looked upon as one of the formal declamations so popular in Elizabethan times. Though beautiful poetry it has no dramatic significance.

I. iv. 106-118. Evidences or indications of a tragic conclusion are very scarce in the first four acts of the play. Most of these few are like the passage cited above; that is, they could have easily been inserted bodily at the time of revision. The tragic element of this play is accidental, not ingrained.

II. i. In the setting on the Elizabethan stage some provision must have been made by which the audience could see both Benvolio and Mercutio on one side, and Romeo on the other. Yet Romeo, who was near enough to hear what the others said, was invisible to them.

II. ii. 1. The antecedent of "he" is "Mercutio." The line refers to his jesting of a previous scene.

II. i. This so-called "balcony scene" is not only one of the most beautifully poetic passages of the play but of all English literature. The sentiment is deep and rings true, without the least approach to sentimentality. It is sufficient, one might almost say, to wipe out of existence all memory of the crude touches and inconsistent details that appear elsewhere.

But there is more to the balcony scene than just this. Heretofore, love-scenes and love-making on the Elizabethan stage had been conventional and sentimental to a high degree. No such genuine passage as this had appeared before the advent Romeo and Juliet. It is easy to imagine, perhaps it would be more truthful to say it is difficult to imagine, the enthusiasm of the contemporary audience at the first reception of this brilliant scene, which, as after events showed, was but an earnest of what was to come.

II. ii. 63. Recall the deadly feud between the two families. Do not overlook the nerve it required on the part of Romeo to make this dangerous entry into the garden of his family enemies. Later he appears as a nerveless, puling nonentity whom even the nurse compares to a foolish woman. This scene is written in Shakespeare's later style. III. is is written in his earlier style.

II. iii. Friar Laurence is a purely conventional character. It is not necessary to study his personality analytically or to take too seriously his copy-book phrases of philosophy.

II. iii. 90. Note that Friar Laurence agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet because he thinks that it will bring about a reconciliation between the two families. Perhaps this reconciliation was intended to come about in the earlier version of the play. There are other evidences of it that will be later pointed out. The actual conclusion of the present play shows that it could easily have been accomplished.

II. iv. 222. "The dog's name." That is a growl, the R in Romeo. In Elizabethan pronunciation it was common to roll the r.

III. i. 65. Note the peaceful rejoinder of Romeo. The audience understands the ironical significance of his remarks. But none of the others possess this clue. What ought to be the effect upon his companions of Romeo's peaceful demeanor? Ought they not all to be surprised, and his partisans chagrined? Yet Mercutio is the only one who shows snch emotion. Is there any indication in this reception of his attitude that this is the kind of behavior to expect from Romeo?

III. i. 127. Compare Romeo's behavior here with his behavior earlier in the scene, in the balcony scene, and in the friar's cell.

III. ii. The opening speech of Juliet certainly emanates from a woman older than fourteen. And the smooth pliability of the blank verse is similar to the style of Shakespeare's verse of a date later than that usually assigned to the first draft of the play.

III. ii. 45-50. Note the repetition of I, ay, eye, all pronounced alike. Note throughout the play the numerous examples of excessive repetition.

III. ii. 73. Is it natural for Juliet to turn so suddenly against Romeo? What recalls Juliet's loyalty? (See line 90.)

III. iii. Note the repetition of banished and banishment.

Romeo's behavior in this scene gives no evidence of the nerve that first led him into Capulet's orchard, or inspired him in the fight with Tybalt. The friar upbraids him for his weakness, and even the nurse upbraids him for his pusillanimity.

III. iii. 108. Stage direction. Imagine the situation of the play at this point. The nurse is the typical comic character throughout. There is an element of the ludicrous in her attempt to stop Romeo from stabbing himself. One can in this situation hardly be seriously affected by Romeo's anguish. In his ranting behavior he out-nurses the nurse herself. The two of them together would be able to make a capital comic scene.

On the other hand, this vein is quite inconsistent with the tone and tenor of a serious tragedy. Is the true explanation to be found in Shakespeare's inability to portray Romeo here to the same excellent standard reached in some other parts of the play?

There is a third suggestion that is worth a moment's consideration. Mercutio and Tybalt, it is true, have both been killed. Yet they are minor characters who, though attractive, have not been sufficiently prominent to thoroughly grip our sympathy. Their deaths, Romeo's banishment, and the situation of Juliet constitute just the sort of complication characteristic of a tragi-comedy. Were the earlier play of this type, just here is where the resolution would be likely to begin. That it is expected seems to be very plainly hinted at in lines 150-155. And what more likely than the insertion of a scene in a lighter vein just at the turning-point!

The play preserves all the characteristics of a tragi-comedy until the middle of the last act. Later, allusion will be made to the sudden and artless manner by which it is wrested into the path of a tragic conclusion.

III. V. Contrast the general tone of the scene with that of III. iii. Is it similar or different? Is the opening similar to the rest in this respect?

On the whole I find this a very puzzling scene. In the first place, look at it seriously for a moment as a step in the serious development of a tragedy. Juliet is secretly married to the banished Romeo. Her parents wish to force her into a marriage which can be prevented only by the disclosure of her secret. Now, is this situation as essentially tragic as usually represented? In the first place, Romeo is now out of the Capulet reach. No harm can come to him by the disclosure. And Juliet could hardly be subjected to worse treatment than is threatened by her father for crossing his will. Furthermore, in case she will not marry Paris she is to be turned into the streets and left to her own devices. What more could she desire with a husband waiting, and a willing friar, for a go-between, who is confident that it will all turn out well in the end!

In other words, the high-spirited Juliet could have acknowledged her lover without injuring him, with hardly a risk of making her own situation worse than it would be if she persisted in her refusal to marry Paris without making a full acknowledgment, and the possibility of righting the whole situation in the end. And in addition, the reconciliation at the end of the play is due wholly to the fact that the parents discovered that the two were lovers and married. The situation in all of its details is certainly not to the credit of Shakespeare's powers of invention if we consider it seriously! Nor does it show any of the skill displayed by him a few years later as naturally as if it were second nature. However, it must be remembered, on the other hand, that a few years makes a great difference, and this play was written before the culmination of Shakespeare's preparatory period.

On the other hand, suppose this to be a scene left over from, or a part of, an original tragi-comedy. From the former scene the audience has learned through the words of the friar that a reconciliation is not unlikely to take place when the truth is known. With this cue the audience is prepared to take pleasantly details which are but complications on the surface. The earlier part of the scene contains several remarks from Juliet that have a double meaning. Their wrong interpretation by Lady Capulet must have caused a smile, to say the least. Then comes Capulet, who, through his overexertion in the matter of abuse becomes almost comic. And last, the ridiculously impossible solution of the whole matter suggested by the nurse. And the scene ends by Juliet's promise to return to Friar Laurence, the one who formerly gave the pointed intimation that the play would end happily. As a scene of this intent it is much better conceived and carried out than as a tragic scene.

Though I do not wish to insist on the inference here suggested relative to the character of the early draft, I should like to point out that parts, like this scene, indicate on the part of the writer greater skill in the lighter vein than in the tragic vein; and that it was not till years later that Shakespeare excelled in the writing of tragedies. The question remains, if such were the original draft, why did Shakespeare change it. Perhaps the play was a failure. It must have been both written and rewritten during Shakespeare's period of experimentation. Perhaps he was just experimenting with tragedy, which he had not attempted since his passable but not excellent Titus Andronicus. And the carelessness of the revision is quite consistent with his methods displayed in his earlier plays.

IV. iii. The apparent comedy outcome is carried on in this scene. The friar suggests a perfectly feasible plan which will solve the present difficulty, dependent only upon Juliet's will and courage to carry it out. She has both, and departs in good spirits. By all customary standards the preparation and foreshadowing of the scene can suggest to the audience nothing but a happy resolution at the end.

IV. iii. 10. Note that Capulet's stormy scene and Juliet's refusal to marry Paris has caused no interruption in Capulet's plans for the wedding.

IV. iii. 14. There has been nothing said or done to arouse on the part of the audience any distrust of the friar. Nor has anything occurred to justify such a thought in the mind of Juliet. Her present thoughts are due entirely to the exigencies of the present moment. The audience would certainly share her fears and terrors, for it is a courageous and mysterious act she is about to perform. But the sympathy of the audience would be tempered by the certainty that her fears were groundless.

As the act closes, everything seems to be carrying out the friar's plot to a satisfactory conclusion. There is as yet no sign of the coming tragedy.

At the opening of act V we find that Romeo hears the news of Juliet's death before he gets the friar's letter explaining that it is a sham. Trouble may come of this, but the audience does not expect it: -- for two reasons: 1. The passage is preceded by a bit of happy foreshadowing. 2. Romeo postpones killing himself out of misery till he gets to Juliet's grave. There is every chance for him to be disillusioned at this point. This looks very like a device to make his happiness the more complete as it is the more unexpected.

There are two conditions universally acknowledged as necessary to a tragic development of the plot: -- 1. The story and its development should be incapable from the beginning of straying from the path that leads to a tragic conclusion. 2. That the tragic ending should depend upon events related to each other by the law of cause and effect. If the story is plotted in defiance of either of these rules it lacks excellence to just that extent.

V. ii. 4. Here we find the first step or detail of the tragic conclusion. The fact that so much of this play could be discussed as above, as if it were a tragi-comedy, is a gross violation of rule 1.

The failure of the friar's letter to reach its destination is an equally gross violation of rule 2. In the first place, the miscarriage of the letter is due to the merest accident. Why did not Brother John deliver the letter at once instead of getting himself quarantined on the way? If one explains this on the ground that friars had to travel in pairs, and that Brother John perforce had to find a companion, and was as likely as not to pick up one with a contagious disease, matters are not much bettered. Why did Laurence send John at all? The letter by all indications should have gone by Balthasar. At III. iii. 170 the friar, when sending Romeo to Mantua, says that he will use Balthasar to carry letters to Romeo. And when Balthasar enters (V. i. 11) Romeo is surprised that his man does not bring a letter from Friar Laurence.

In other words, in order to bring about a tragic conclusion, Shakespeare made the friar drop his customary channel of communication, which would inevitably have prevented the final catastrophe, and select another messenger, which device by the merest accident turns a good comedy ending into a poor tragic end.

As I said above, it is a mere inference, a mere guess, that the first draft of this play was in reality a tragi-comedy, converted by a hasty revision into a tragedy. Whether this is true or not is a matter of no considerable importance. I have used this idea merely to illustrate the fact that four acts of Romeo and Juliet constitute part of a splendid tragi-comedy, light-hearted, joyous in spite of the early deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio. The effect of the play with its beautiful poetry would have been, had the end prepared for been written, as delightfully pleasant as Cymbeline or The Tempest, But if, from the nature of its end, we are compelled to examine it as a tragedy, we find its structure bad, the invention poor, and in no way deserving to rank with the great series of tragedies that began with Julius Caesar.

Scene iii. contains the tragic conclusion. In this scene the audience experiences three painful and unexpected shocks:

1. The audience, it seems to me, is fully prepared by numerous hints for a happy conclusion, the resolution which does not come. With the example of a fake drug administered to Juliet, and a knowledge that Friar John is on his way to the tomb, or soon will be, and that Juliet is about to awake -- all this taken together renders the actual death of Romeo like a bolt out of a clear sky.

2. The second shock is due to the death of Juliet, emphasized by the fact that she overslept herself by just a moment, and that the friar was also late by just a moment. Had Romeo been subjected to any little delay, accidental in nature, such as seems to have overtaken all the others, the day would still have been saved.

3. The third shock is the fact that Friar Laurence's prophecy of a peaceable reconciliation (III. iii. 151) was true, but delayed till after the death of Romeo and Juliet. What after all reconciled the two houses of Capulet and Montague? It was not the murder of Paris, nor the death of the lovers, nor even the command of the prince which had been ineffective before, but a knowledge of the fact that Romeo and Juliet loved each other, and were man and wife.

Does it not seem as if the final result would have come about had Juliet courageously disclosed her marriage when Paris was first urged upon her?

How to cite this article:

Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Study of Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1915. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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