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The Taste for Death in Shakespeare's Heroes

From Cours de Litterature Dramatique. Vol. 1., by Saint-Marc Girardin.

There is in English literature a very singular taste for death. Whatever is mysterious and unknown in the idea of death, whatever is horrible, nay, repulsive, in its attributes, seems to possess a peculiar charm to the English mind. It is curious to note this taste for death in Shakespeare's heroes. It is not alone Hamlet, melancholy and gloomy, that loves to dwell upon this idea; the young and beautiful Juliet, before taking the sleeping draught, does not think of Romeo and Romeo alone, who is to come and deliver her from the tomb; her love never enters her thoughts, but she dwells with terror on the funeral vault in which she must be laid, on that abode of death and ghosts; she describes the frenzy which may seize her, and how she may profane the bones of her ancestors.

This description of Juliet's, which seems hardly natural, does not, however, displease the English, and it testifies, in their literature, to this taste for the accompaniments of death. Romeo, too, appears, beyond measure, delighted in the tomb of the Capulets. I know that he finds there his Juliet again, but, if I dare say what I think, no hero of Homer's nor Sophocles's, no Greek nor even an Italian lover, would ever dream, as did Romeo, of thinking Juliet, when dead, more lovely than when living; his passion would not be intensified by the abode in which he found his betrothed.

In Sophocles, Haemon killed himself at the tomb of Antigone, as does Romeo in the tomb of Juliet; but Sophocles does not show us this scene of love and death; gloomy vaults do not accord with ideas of love and marriage in Greek art. But in Romeo's case, on the contrary, the horror redoubles his ardour; he feels more impassioned, more enthusiastic, more loving, if I may dare to say so, not merely because this is the last time that he will contemplate Juliet's beauties, but because — am I deceived? — these funeral scenes harmonize with the fancy of this lover, the creation of Shakespeare's genius. Note his words; he speaks with neither horror nor disgust -— of what? — of the very worms which are to devour his adored one. Thus did he picture Juliet, and never did he love her more fondly, no! not even when he left her at the first beams of the morning, at the first song of the lark; not even when the dawn shone upon their loving adieux were Romeo's words so burning as in this frightful charnel-house; nature awaking wreathed in smiles from a night of love spoke less impressively to his heart than the aspect of the grave. Read over V, iii, 91-96, and say if Juliet, when alive, was ever so ardently adored.

Singular imagination that is inspired and warmed by thoughts of death! strange and novel poetry, nothing akin to the Greek, and savouring of inspiration from the climate and from the austere ideas which Christianity implants in the mind of man. Shakespeare felt both these influences; he surrendered himself without resistance to the former, and stamped its effect even more powerfully upon his countrymen, but he has altered and perverted the latter. Let us briefly explain these two effects: — Montesquieu, while remarking that suicide is more common in England than elsewhere, attributes it to the climate; in my opinion Shakespeare is accountable, in a measure, for this contempt of life, more common in England than in other lands, because he has joined the influence of poetry to that of the climate; he has familiarized his compatriots with the idea of death by putting it upon the stage, and he has boldly mingled with it thoughts and sentiments to which it seems most foreign.

As long as the story of Romeo and Juliet was confined to the circle of Italian literature, those vague and gloomy fancies, which, in Shakespeare, form one of the traits of these characters, were unknown, — Luigi da Porto never dreamed of making melancholy visionaries of them. The Italian Romeo, when he is in the tomb of the Capulets, says nothing of the charms of death; he fails to note that Juliet is still beautiful even in death, so much has the idea of death veiled from his eyes the beauties of his beloved. All the thoughts of the English Romeo centre upon the corpse before him, upon Juliet, whom he loves to contemplate even in her grave, still lovely, although without life; the thoughts of the Italian Romeo fly back to Juliet as she was while she lived, beautiful and beloved; and the Italian Romeo and the English Romeo have each the thoughts and sentiments that their climate bestows upon them.

In the South, life and beauty are sacred things, from which men carefully exclude the idea of death as a sort of profanation. In the North, men love to call up this idea, in order, by the contrast, to feel more deeply the charms of life and beauty. When Romeo wishes to purchase poison and die, with what pleasure Shakespeare lingers over the description of the Apothecary, whose poverty compels him to sell death; and the shop, redolent of sorcery and crime; and even the poison itself, which had the strength to despatch twenty men. He broods over all these gloomy and repulsive ideas which are pleasing to his genius and to his countrymen. [This has been effected, according to M. Girardin, by the doubts which Shakespeare has cast over immortality and a future life, chiefly in Hamlet. Ed.]

How to cite this article:
Girardin, Saint-Marc. Cours de Litterature Dramatique. Vol. 1. Paris, 1845. Quoted in Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Horace Howard Furness. London: J.B. Lippincott, 1913. Shakespeare Online. 18 Sept. 2013. < >.


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Points to Ponder

microsoft images "If Shakespeare had proposed to himself to illustrate and make manifest the various movements and qualities appertaining to and constituting the passion of love, would he have made it the first action of his lover to rise from the feet of one mistress, and, without a moment's pause, throw himself before another; forgetting from that time forth that the first had ever existed, much less held him in thrall? Is this the character of love? No: -- but it is the character of youth, and therefore Shakespeare has made his youthful man exhibit it: for Romeo is not a lover, nor any other individual modification of the human character; he has, in fact, no individual and determinate character at all, but is a general specimen of man -- a pure abstraction of our human nature -- at that particular period of its being which occurs exactly between boyhood and maturity, and which we call, by way of distinction, the period of Youth." (Peter George Patmore. Imitations of Celebrated Authors, 4th ed.)


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The Dramatic Purpose of Act 1, Scene 1... "The thread of the feud action is here introduced with the peace-making Benvolio on the side of the Montagues and the fiery Tybalt on the Capulet side. The quarrel is suppressed when the Prince enters and, in the presence of the heads of the two houses which have thrice disturbed Verona's streets with broils, declares that death will be the penalty if civil peace is again threatened by their hatred. This warning is a preparation for the tragic climax. The love action is suggested. The strangeness of Romeo's new mood is discussed by his parents and Benvolio. When Romeo enters, it is soon discovered that the cause is unrequited love. Benvolio's determination to teach Romeo to forget this lady prepares the way for the change in the hero's feelings in the masquerade scene." Read on...


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