Look with some care at the dialogue between Benvolio and Romeo, 1. 1. lines 163-241.
|What in Romeo's language reminds you of the language of courtly love?|
|Do you feel that Romeo shows a tendency to excess?|
Look especially at the near-comic juxtaposition of ideas in lines 174-8, just before Romeo's first apostrophe to Love. Romeo begins by referring to the convention of blind Cupid, playing punningly on Benvolio's use of the word "view"; the normal, adolescent young man emerges for a moment as his mind turns to food; then as he sees evidence of the brawl between the Montagues and Capulets he is distracted again; and finally he uses the paradox of love and hate to launch into a rhetorically ingenious (but how deeply felt?) examination of the paradoxes of love.
|Is it fair to say that at this point in the play Romeo is little different from Demetrius and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream?|
Look ahead to the next scene with Romeo (still before he has met Juliet), 1. 2, particularly lines 91-6 where he speaks again in response to Benvolio. The lines actually form the rhyme pattern of the sestet of a sonnet.
|Where have you come across the images Romeo uses before?|
Think of Orlando in the first three acts of As You Like It, even perhaps Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. And you might for fun remind yourself of the famous anti-Petrarchan sonnet (130) "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun."
|How would you describe Romeo's love for Rosaline? What is its effect on your later response to his love for Juliet?|
|Why did Shakespeare give Romeo an earlier love at all? Doesn't it make his love for Juliet less romantic?|
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|What effect on the immediately following balcony scene does this interlude have?|
Mercutio's best moment in the play is undoubtedly his set piece on Queen Mab (1. 4. 53-103). It seems an oddly irrelevant moment in the play at first, an aria where the action stops for a moment of lyric beauty, more appropropriate surely in the context of a comedy; compare Oberon's description of the flower, "love-in-idleness," in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yet, just as Oberon's description of the flower from which the magic juice was squeezed makes clearer the oposition in that play between passion and reason, so Mercutio's speech explores some of the images of particular importance in Romeo and Juliet, and its dramatic change of mood echoes the movement of the play as a whole from the high-spirited, rambunctious actions of youth to the darker, adult world of tragedy.
Mercutio begins by creating a fantastic, fragile world, remarkably like that of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Mab seems a charming combination of Titania and Puck, with her tiny coach made of spiders' webs, grasshoppers' wings, and so on--though the odd image of the worm "Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid" (1. 4. 66) perhaps fits less comfortably into the cosy, almost cute picture.
But by line 70 the mood begins to change as Mercutio shifts to a description of the effect Queen Mab has on the sleeper. She triggers an appropriate dream in each person she visits: lovers dream of love, courtiers of bowing, lawyers of fees (a touch of satire, surely), ladies dream of kisses--but again there is an edge added, as the ladies have often, it seems tried to cover bad breath with "sweetmeats," whereupon Mab gives them "blisters" (75--cold sores, no doubt). The tone continues to darken as Mab stirs courtiers into "smelling" (not a complimentary word) out a "suit" (78), a chance to plead for someone, with the appropriate reward (or bribe). Parsons are likewise concerned more with money than godly matters, and the soldier (remember Hotspur's disturbed sleep, described so graphically by Lady Percy in Henry the Fourth Part One, 2. 3. 37-64)--the soldier is frightened into prayer.
The whole speech moves in a gradual crescendo from the lyric to the agitated and the disturbing. Mab is finally pictured as a wholly mischievous, even evil force, tangling hair, which itself is an omen of misfortune, and taking on the role of incubus, the dream-figure which was said to sleep (in the sexual sense) with women. No wonder Romeo, love-sick (love-loving) Romeo interrupts Mercutio.
|Where might his thoughts have led next?|
Then, though the darkness evoked by Mercutio's fantasy is dismissed as "nothing," and as "dreams" (1. 4. 96), the darkness persists somewhat, as Romeo speaks forebodingly of some "bitter . . . consequence yet hanging in the stars" (108, 107).
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|What is the effect of this prior knowledge on your reading of the early comic or romantic scenes?|
Coleridge points out that irony and surprise are incompatible dramatic devices (and he clearly prefers irony); irony requires that the audience know more than at least some of the characters on stage. Think back to the great tragedies you studied in the first course; can you think of occasions where you were surprised by actions or situations? If you were not, how does Shakespeare sustain interest, and even create suspense, when you know what is going to happen? Think (for example) of the famous comic scenes--the gravediggers in Hamlet, the porter in Macbeth.
Nonetheless, it is surely appropriate that the title-page of the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet called the play "An excellent conceited tragedy." The word "conceited" means something like "ingenious" or "witty," words more likely to be associated with comedy. It is not quite the world of "tragical mirth" we find in "Pyramus and Thisbe," the play-within-the-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream (see 5. 1. 57), but critics have often been uncomfortable with the machinery of a comic plot in a tragedy of the intensity of Romeo and Juliet. Certainly you will have found Romeo and Juliet different from the major tragedies you have read. In particular, the story concerns young--very young--lovers, rather than those in a position of power.
|Is there a correspondingly lower level of intensity in the play as a result?|
Compare the deaths of Romeo and Juliet with those of the mature lovers, Antony and Cleopatra.
|What difference is there between the plays apart from the ages of the protagonists?|
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Certainly we are less conscious of the larger fate of the nation or city-state resting on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet than we are in the deaths of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear.
|Are there other ways in which the intensity of the play reaches beyond pity?|
Let me suggest four ways in which the question may be answered positively.
|If there is a consistent sense of fate in the play, does this lend it a wider sense of the tragic than a simple story of two young lovers?|
|Does the urgency of action, its impatience, also heighten the intensity of the play?|
How do you reconcile the seeming contradiction between seeing human misfortune as the result of fate, and seeing it as the result of a flaw in the individual--excessive haste? Read the "Introduction," pp. xxiv-xxvi, and (as Bryant suggests) compare the similar counterpoint between individual choice and external prompting (ghosts, witches, etc.) in the later tragedies.
|Is there a kind of tragedy of waste and sterility in the ending, with the other young bloods Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris also gone?|
|Is it fair to call their rages tantrums?|
Old Capulet does pretty well too when he is angry at Juliet's refusal to wed Paris--3. 5. 142-97.) One modern stage practice which may have emphasized the embarrassing near-childishness of these scenes is the tendency for the parts to be taken by established--and therefore older--actors and actresses. Remember that Juliet would have been acted by a boy of no more than Juliet's age (thirteen). If you have see the Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet -- or the more recent film of Baz Luhrmann -- you will have seen how effective the casting of truly young actors in these roles can be.
I also think that Shakespeare's audience would have found the extreme youth of the hero and heroine unusual enough to be a source of added intensity in response. Contrary to popular belief about the period, it was unusual for people to marry at a young age in Shakespeare's day; even the occasional youthful marriage of members of the nobility was arranged to cement alliances of power or commerce, certainly not as the result of a romantic passion like that of Romeo and Juliet.
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