This week marks the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s recorded birth and death. Since he is arguably one of the most famous writers of all time I thought it would be fitting to review one of his most famous pieces of work.
The only Shakespeare plays I know are the ones I studied at school or in University. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth (The Scottish Play) Othello, A Mid Summer’s Night Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. I know a handful of lines from his sonnets such as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day and My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun but that is the limit to my knowledge. The Shakespeare play that I feel I am most familiar with is Romeo and Juliet having studied and analysed it several times and that is the play we are going to be reviewing.
Shakespeare was a genius. His work was so outstanding people wonder if he was a single man or a group of people. The texts are incredibly detailed and heavily layered so that English teachers can analyse it them countless different ways. In particular Shakespeare’s use of pace, word choice and poetry is remarkable. For example when Romeo and Juliet first meet their dialogue forms a perfect sonnet.
If I profane with my unworthiest hand A
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: B
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand A
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. B
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, C
Which mannerly devotion shows in this; D
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, C
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. D
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? E
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. F
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; E
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. F
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. G
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take. G
Shakespeare is, of course, famous for his sonnets and use of iambic pentameter (which we’ll return to in a moment). By making the first dialogue between the two characters a sonnet Shakespeare is showing us how perfectly matched Romeo and Juliet are. (A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines where every other line rhymes apart from the last two which rhyme with each other. I’ve marked out the matching rhyming lines above.) Another example of Shakespeare using poetry to show hidden meaning is Juliet’s famous soliloquy:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
The line doesn’t sound quite right when read aloud in the context of the rest of the play. That’s because it is not in iambic pentameter unlike the first extract. An iamb is a foot or beat in a line of poetry consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example the word ComPLETE. A pentameter is a line of verse consisting of five iambs. When put together an iambic pentameter is a line of poetry containing five metrical feet in which each foot has an unstressed and a stressed syllable.
The problem with the O Romeo Romeo line is that the final Romeo stops the line being in iambic pentameter. Romeo’s name is the problem and in the story it is Romeo’s last name, Montague, that causes the issue as his family are feuding with Juliet’s family, the Capulets.
Romeo and Juliet is not without problems. First of all, the story is not romantic as many people would believe. Despite Romeo and Juliet being dubbed “Star Crossed Lovers” its more of a fling or a one night stand. What people forget about the play is that it takes place over a couple of days. At the start of the play we see Romeo complaining of his unrequited love for a girl called Rosaline. That night he goes to the Capulet Ball, spots Juliet and falls in love with her. I don’t believe Romeo loved Rosaline I believe he lusted after her and that he has the same emotions for Juliet. I would say this is a lust, not a love, story.
My next issue is their age. What makes the story of Romeo and Juliet all the more tragic is the fact they are young. In Shakespeare’s original play Juliet is thirteen and Romeo is sixteen. In Shakespearean times this was fine but for the modern audience the characters ages are normally upped a little bit. Juliet is normally around sixteen and Romeo is about eighteen. Both characters can be seen as impulsive and reckless. Romeo marries Juliet, a girl he met only several days ago and kills her cousin Tybalt in a duel. Juliet refuses to marry Paris, a perfectly nice guy, and agrees to her marriage to Romeo despite knowing the danger it will put them in.
Another issue with the modern day incarnation of the play is how female characters are treated. The only female characters with any backbone is Lady Capulet and Lady Montague who stop their husbands from fighting in the first scene (You could make a case for both The Nurse and Juliet being strong characters. Juliet I may agree with but the Nurse is not given a name and spends most of the play being ordered around.) This problem isn’t exclusive to Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s biggest criticism is the characters Benedict and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. The two characters flirt throughout the play but Benedict wins their contest of wits by kissing Beatrice in the final scenes. Most directors change this event so that the pair kiss each other.
Shakespeare didn’t write the story of Romeo and Juliet he borrowed it from another writer who in turn had borrowed it from someone else but Shakespeare did add several new aspect such as the character of Paris. Shakespeare also left his version open to interpretation. Two popular trains of thought are…
- Romeo and Juliet loved each other so much that it is tragic they both died. They were star crossed lovers but fate was against them which makes their relationship even more romantic and tragic.
- Romeo and Juliet were two impulsive and naive teenagers who fell in love. They didn’t understand the feelings they were experiencing and mixed with a collection of bad luck (the messenger not delivering the message, Romeo’s murder of Tybalt) and ill timing, paid the ultimate price.
Personally I believe in the latter.
I find it strange that we regard Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate love story. There is one sex scene that happens off stage and seven on stage deaths. The story only lasts a couple of days and there isn’t a happy ending. Yet we worship the idea of Romeo and Juliet. You can even write a letter to Juliet if you wish. There is a group of volunteers in Vernoa who answer letters sent to the character. The writers offer their condolences to the fictional character and often ask for romantic advice. (I’m not certain Juliet is the best person to ask…)
What do you think of Romeo and Juliet? Is it your favourite Shakespeare play or do you prefer something like Macbeth? Am I being too harsh on the “Star Crossed Lovers” or do you agree with me that they were simply naive? Leaves your answers down below and I’ll see you next time.