Romeo and Juliet: Background Reading

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Friar Lawrence
Friar Lawrence

Table of Contents | Study Plan | Self-Test | Background Readings | Commentary | Study Questions

Romantic Criticism


You will probably have noticed that in the continuing history of Shakespeare's reputation there was a distinct difference in attitude between the critics and the actors (and also, one suspects, between the critics and the audience). The actors who had known Shakespeare considered even Ben Jonson's comment about Shakespeare's carelessness to be malicious; and later critics were far more "on this side idolatry" than Jonson. By the time of Garrick, however, a split of a different kind was evident. Scholars--as distinct from critics--had begun to show the increasing gap between what Shakespeare wrote and what was presented on stage. The series of eighteenth-century scholars culminated in the work of such scholars as William Capell and Edward Malone, who produced increasingly accurate texts and commentary; Malone also wrote a massive and painstaking life of Shakespeare. But on the stage the improvers still largely held sway; the demands of a picture-frame stage and massive scenery meant that many changes had to be made to make the plays sufficiently spectacular. A contemporary of Garrick protested of his treatment of several of the plays: "The Midsummer Night's Dream has been minced and fricasseed into an undigested and unconnected thing; The Winter's Tale mammocked into a droll; The Taming of the Shrew made a farce of; and The Tempest castrated into an opera." [Note 1]

But however absurd these adaptations of Shakespeare may seem now, there is, after all, some justification for the modification of the plays to suit modern tastes: Kott's illustration of fashion in Othello is evidence that they have always been rewritten. You will remember that in Shakespeare's own time the plays were revised, by him or by his colleagues in the theatre--hence the puzzles that confront an editor of such plays as Hamlet and King Lear, where the later Folio texts differ markedly from the earlier Quartos. And today any production is likely to modify the text, whether simply to use the word "ensign" to describe Iago's rank instead of the original (and to a modern listener positively misleading) "ancient," or to cut enough of the longer plays to make them tolerable to a modern audience's attention span and short enough that spectators can get home afterwards by the last bus or train.

If there was a split between actor and scholar in the eighteenth century, with the scholar by now upholding the authentic text, the split in the nineteenth century became more complex. On the stage Garrick had shown the effectiveness of an acting style which substituted variety and naturalism for declamation; his style, however, was superseded by that of Edmund Kean, a more romantic actor who was especially successful in the major tragic roles. There is a famous remark on Kean by Coleridge that to see him act was like reading Shakespeare by lightning. Kean was a star; whereas under Garrick and earlier actors the plays were changed to suit the stage and the taste (real or imagined) of the audience for spectacle, under the influence of Kean the play became subordinate to the star billing of the actor.

What was left for the scholar to discover after the massive work of Malone; and how was the critic to respond to plays on stage that were altered for spectacle and for star actors? The critic turned from the stage to the book: Shakespeare was to be appreciated as a poet not as a dramatist. The romantic age found Shakespeare's richness of language much more to its liking than did the more austere taste of the eighteenth century, and the language, they felt, was best to be appreciated free of the distractions of the theatre.

It is to a young Shakespeare scholar, John Payne Collier, that we are indebted for some of the finest of romantic criticism of Shakespeare, for it is his reports of Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare that have preserved some of them. Collier's career was not always so helpful to those interested in Shakespeare, however; later in his life he entered on a career that led to his becoming the most notorious forger of supposedly Shakespearian documents. Coleridge did not publish his lectures himself, they were printed by others from Coleridge's notes and newspaper reports; Collier was able to add to these from shorthand notes he had taken of those he attended.

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Coleridge's lectures

Because the following comments are from these mixed and often incomplete sources, the meaning is not always completely clear; the general insight and sensitivity of Coleridge nonetheless emerges. The first selection begins after he has just finished a discussion of Shakespeare's powers as poet, including a famous distinction he draws between "fancy" and "imagination," taking his examples from Shakespeare's two long narrative poems. Fancy is defined as an exercise of surface wit that surprises, imagination as a deeper association of images which enlightens and moves. [Note 2] Coleridge then goes on to discuss the tradition of Shakespeare as a natural, unlearned poet. To Coleridge, the most important qualification in a reader of Shakespeare is a child-like openness, and reverence--a far cry from Johnson's measured, skeptical commonsense.
Thus then Shakespeare appears, from his poems alone, apart from all his great works, to have possessed all the conditions of a true poet, and by this proof [I wish] to do away, as far as may be in my power, the popular notion that he was a great dramatist by a sort of instinct, immortal in his own despite, and sinking below men of second or third-rate character when he attempted aught beside the drama--even as bees construct their cells and manufacture their honey to admirable perfection, but would in vain attempt to build a nest. Now this mode of reconciling a compelled sense of inferiority with a feeling of pride, began in a few pedants, who having read that Sophocles was the great model of tragedy, and Aristotle the infallible dictator, and finding that the Lear, Hamlet, Othello and the rest were neither in imitation of Sophocles, nor in obedience to Aristotle--and not having (with one or two exceptions) the courage to affirm that the delight which their country received from generation to generation, in defiance of the alterations of circumstances and habits, was wholly groundless--it was a happy medium and refuge, to talk of Shakspeare as a sort of beautiful lusus naturae, [Note 3] a delightful monster,--wild, indeed, without taste or judgment, but like the inspired idiots so much venerated in the East, uttering, amid the strangest follies, the sublimest truths. In nine places out of ten in which I find his awful name mentioned, it is with some epithet of "wild," "irregular," "pure child of nature," etc. etc. etc. . . .

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"Organic form" in the plays

In another lecture Coleridge addresses the question so often raised by earlier critics, the form of the plays, particularly the apparent irregularity of plot. In the process he argues that the structure of the plays is as much a mark of genius as the language, and that the form of each play is organic. This claim is an important insight, one which has influenced our understanding of Shakespeare since Coleridge's time, and held sway until the recent practice of interrogating the text by post-structuralist critics.
Are the plays of Shakspeare works of rude uncultivated genius, in which the splendour of the parts compensates, if aught can compensate, for the barbarous shapelessness and irregularity of the whole? . . . Or is the form equally admirable with the matter, the judgment of the great poet not less deserving of our wonder than his genius?. . .

No work of true genius dare want its appropriate form, neither indeed is there any danger of this. As it must not, so neither can it, be lawless; for it is even this that constitutes its genius--the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination. How then comes it that not only single Zoili, [Note 4] but whole nations have combined in unhesitating condemnation of our great dramatist, as a sort of African nature, fertile in beautiful monsters, as wild heath where islands of fertility look greener from the surrounding waste, where the loveliest plants now shine out among unsightly weeds, and now are choked by their parasitic growth, so intertwined that we cannot disentangle the weed without snapping the flower. . .

The true ground of the mistake, as has been well remarked by a continental critic, [Note 5] lies in the confounding mechanical regularity with organic form. The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such is the life, such the form. Nature, the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhausitible in forms. Each exterior is the physiognomy of the being within, its true image reflected and thrown out from the concave mirror. [Note 6] And even such is the appropriate excellence of her chosen poet, of our own Shakespeare, himself a nature humanized, a genial understanding directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness.

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The "unity of feeling"

Coleridge also argues for a rather different unity to the plays, the unity of feeling. Once again the revolution in taste between the eighteenth century and the Romantics is reflected in a response to Shakespeare. Read with particular attention the comments Coleridge makes about Romeo and Juliet:

How would you describe the "unity of feeling" in the other plays you have read so far?

Contrast the stage of the ancients with that of the time of Shakespeare, and we shall be struck with his genius: with them, it had the trappings of royal and religious ceremony; with him, it was a naked room, a blanket for a curtain; but with his vivid appeals the imagination figured it out "A field for monarchs". . . He is not to be tried by ancient and classic rules, but by the standard of his age. That law of unity which has its foundation, not in factitious necessity of custom, but in nature herself, is instinctively observed by Shakespeare.

A unity of feeling pervades the whole of his plays. In Romeo and Juliet all is youth and spring--it is youth with its follies, its virtues, its precipitancies; it is spring with its odours, flowers, and transiency:--the same feeling commences, goes through, and ends the play. The old men, the Capulets and Montagues, are not common old men; they have an eagerness, a hastiness, a precipitancy--the effect of spring. With Romeo, his precipitate change of passion, his hasty marriage, and his rash death, are all the effects of youth. With Juliet love has all that is tender and melancholy in the nightingale, all that is voluptuous in the [night] [Note 7] with whatever is sweet in the freshness of spring; but it ends with a long deep sigh like the breeze of the evening. This unity of character pervades the whole of his dramas.

Do you find Coleridge's comments on Romeo and Juliet insightful here?

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How Shakespeare differs from other writers

Coleridge discusses in some detail the ways in which he finds Shakespeare's plays different from others. As you read through the list, see if you can think of specific examples from the plays you have read so far of the general points he makes. Coleridge is particularly concerned to emphasize the moral purpose of Shakespeare's plays.
1. Expectation in preference to surprise. It is like the true reading of the passage:--"God said, Let there be light, and there was light;"--not there was light. As the feeling with which we startle at a shooting star compared with that of watching the sunrise at the pre-established moment, such and so low is surprise compared with expectation.

Do you see how this fits with the contrast between irony and surprise?

How many examples of real surprise--to the audience or reader, not to the characters--can you think of in the plays you have read?

2. Signal adherence to the great law of nature, that all opposites tend to attract and temper each other. Passion in Shakspeare generally displays, libertinism involves, morality. The exception [is] characteristic [of the individual], independent of the intrinsic value, as the farewell precepts of the parent, having some end beyond even the parental relation. [The general sense seems to be that even what seems illicit passion in Shakespeare has a moral meaning in the context of the whole. At this point, the earliest of Coleridge's editors (H. N. Coleridge) inserted a newspaper account of the lecture in which Coleridge was reported as emphasizing further Shakespeare's morality: "Shakespeare has no innocent adulteries, no interesting incests, no virtuous vice;--he never renders that amiable which religion and reason alike teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the garb of virtue. . ."]

Do you agree that Shakespeare has no attractive but vicious characters?

3. Independence of the interest on the plot. The plot interests us on account of the characters, not vice versa, it is the canvas only. Justification of the same stratagem in Benedict and Beatrice--same vanity etc. [The apparent repetitiveness of the plot of Much Ado About Nothing is justified because of the exploration of the similar characters of the two.] Take away from Much Ado About Nothing all that which is [not] indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or, at best, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service, when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered; take away Benedict, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former on the character of Hero, and what will remain? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character; in Shakespeare it is so or not so, as the character is in itself calculated or not calculated to form the plot. So Don John, the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown and then withdrawn.

[Think of the relationship between plot and character in other plays.]

4. Independence of the interest on the story as the ground-work of the plot. Hence Shakspeare did not take the trouble of inventing stories. It was enough for him to select from those that had been invented or recorded, such as had one or other, or both, of two recommendations, namely, suitableness to his purposes, and second, their being already parts of popular tradition--names we had often heard of, and of their fortunes, and we should like to see the man himself. It is the man himself that Shakspeare for the first time makes us acquainted with. Lear, (omit the first scene yet all remains). So Shylock.

5. Interfusion of the lyrical, of that which in its very essence is poetical. . . Now songs in Shakspeare are introduced as songs, just as songs are in real life, beautifully as some of them are characteristic of the person who called for them, [as] Desdemona and the Count [Duke] in As You Like It. . .

6. Closely connected with this is that Shakespeare's characters are like those in real life, to be inferred by the reader, not told to him. Of this excellence I know no other instance; and it has one mark of real life--Shakespeare's characters have been as generally misunderstood and from precisely the same causes [as real people]. If you take what his friends say, you may be deceived--still more so, if his enemies; and the character himself sees himself thro' the medium of his character, not exactly as it is. But the clown or the fool will suggest a shrewd hint; and take all together, and the impression is right, and all [readers, spectators] have it. [Note 8]

Coleridge's emphasis on organic unity and the importance of character became the dominant form of criticism for the next century. Try applying this brilliant summary of the working of Shakespeare's characterization to Juliet, Benedick or Beatrice, Iago, Othello, Cleopatra or Antony.

To what extent are we justified in making a comparison with "those in real life"?

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Other Romantic Critics

Coleridge was not the only critic from the period to be worth reading today. Three other romantic writers contributed significant criticism: William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, and Charles Lamb. Hazlitt, more organized than Coleridge and much influenced by him, left a fine book Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1818). De Quincey wrote what I personally consider one of the finest pieces of Shakespeare criticism, "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." Lamb's criticism is collected in Charles Lamb on Shakespeare, edited by Joan Coldwell (Gerrard's Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978).

This exploration of early comments on Shakespeare has, I hope, given you some idea of the way in which attitudes in the various periods shaped the criticism. It would be a mistake to think that today we are any less bound by the shared assumptions of our time, as we find in Shakespeare feelings and ideas which would have seemed very strange to Coleridge or Johnson. The challenge to the modern reader is to use the accumulated insights of earlier writers, in conjunction with a thorough and fresh reading of the plays themselves, to form an approach to Shakespeare's work which allows the fullest range of response.

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[1] Theophilus Cibber, quoted in F. E. Halliday, The Cult of Shakespeare (London: Duckworth, 1957), p. 66. [Back]

[2] The discussion can be found in its fullest form in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, chapters 4-8. [Back]

[3] "Freak of nature." [Back]

[4] Zoilus was a Greek critic noted for his attacks on Homer. [Back]

[5] Schlegel, the German pilosopher and critic, who reached many conclusions similar to Coleridge, and who influenced him in his discussion of Shakespeare. [Back]

[6] Coleridge is echoing an image that goes back to Plato and Castiglione. [Back]

[7] The word is omitted in the original; "night" is a guess at what Coleridge might have meant. [Back]

[8] Passages 1, 2, and 4 are taken from Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London: Dent, 1960), vol. 1, pp. 194, 197-201. Passage 2 is found in what is the most accessible of the collections of Coleridge’s criticism, Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes from Raysor's edition (New York: Capricorn, 1959), pp. 96-7. [Back]

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This page last updated April 16, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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