Saturday, October 22, 2011

‘Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love’. Shakespeare’s world is foreign to us only in some of its customs and value systems. The variations he plays in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on love, it’s corollaries and antitheses are timeless. What do you think?

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All Shakespeare’s tragedies examine a flaw in human nature. ‘Othello’ deals with jealousy, ‘Macbeth’ with ambition and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ deals with the fatal proximity of love to hate. Shakespeare shows us that love has many different facets and contrasts, but are his theories still valid today? In this essay I hope to find out.


The first example we see of love is to be found in the first scene. This is love as carnal satisfaction. To Sampson and Gregory, love means only the rape of Montague women, they will ‘thrust his[Lord Montague’s] maids to the wall.’ It is hinted that the serving men of both houses share this idea of love- these are men of simple tastes.


Another aspect of love displayed in our first meeting of Romeo. This is courtly, unrequited love. Romeo is deeply in love with Rosaline but she has chosen a life of chastity. Romeo’s first love is stale and sterile; nothing can ever come of it. Romeo is not so much in love as obsessed with Rosaline. His love makes him miserable, we are told that Romeo ‘in his chamber pens himself ¦Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out.’ Love to Romeo is a mass of paradoxes and oxymorons ‘Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health.’ He sees Rosaline’s vow of chastity as a work of evil for she ‘cuts beauty off from all prosperity’. This means that if she has taken this vow, she will have no children to inherit her looks. He cannot believe that any girl can be more beautiful- ‘The all-seeing sun¦Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.’ He begins to think that love is cruel ‘it[Cupid’s arrow] pricks like the thorn.’ Romeo’s love has consumed him and Shakespeare takes the metaphor of a flower to describe it. Lord Montague is anxious that Romeo will not blossom into a young man because an ‘envious worm’ (his love for Rosaline) has bit the ripe bud of his adolescence.


Friar Lawrence carries yet another strand of love. He believes in an idealistic, healing love. As a priest, Friar Lawrence is celibate and therefore without any personal experience of love. We are told that he was amusedly worried by Romeo’s devotion to Rosaline, but he definitely finds Romeo’s sudden change of heart comical. We are told that he often reprimanded Romeo’s doting on Rosaline. He is worried that Romeo may be a ‘waverer’. He has the idealistic idea of healing the feud and making Romeo and Juliet happy by the action of marrying them- For this alliance may so happy prove, ¦ To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.’ He is however conscious of the undue speed of their match-‘wisely and slow’-and warns them that too much honey can spoil the appetite for it-‘Therefore love moderately, long love doth so.’ He does his best to console the lovers after Tybalt’s death, arranging for their one night together and planning Juliet’ pseudo-death. The Friar sees the hypocrisy in the Capulet’s mourning and is quick to tell them that ‘The most you saw was her promotion, ¦ For ‘twas your heaven she should be advanced.’


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Lady Capulet’s idea of love is purely practical. She sees love as the creation of a ‘good marriage. She endorses the idea of Juliet’s marriage to Paris, whom she extols as a ‘fair volume’, like a beautiful book that lacks only a cover (a wife). She is determined to advance Juliet through a rich marriage and is thus delighted when Capulet chooses Paris-‘the gallant, young and noble gentleman’- to be her daughter’s husband. However she is not averse to occasional vindictiveness, calling on Prince Escalus to execute Romeo for the death of Tybalt, and when he refuses, plotting to have him poisoned while in exile in Mantua. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris Lady Capulet’s love for her is exposed as hollow-‘I would the fool were married to her grave’ and ‘Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.’ Her hypocritical display of grief for Juliet- ‘But one, poor one, one poor and loving child, ¦ But one thing to rejoice and solace in’ �by Friar Lawrence.


Lord Capulet’s ideas on love are quite similar to his wives. However they are dominated by his belief that daughters should obey their fathers in all things. This was a common idea in the sixteenth century, the time when Shakespeare was writing. Arranged marriages were commonplace at the time. A daughter had no rights and was considered a possession to be traded. When Shakespeare was writing, most of his audience would also be of this mind. To this end, Capulet chooses the County Paris to wed Juliet. He is impressed by his nobility- ‘A gentleman of noble parentage, ¦ Of fair demesnes, youthful and nobly liened.’ In fact his love for Juliet depends on her acquiescence to his demands. When she does not accede to his demands he launches a massive verbal attack upon his daughter- either she obeys him or she will be thrown out of the house ‘to hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.’ When she ‘dies’ he is devastated, he claims that ‘with my child my joys are buried.’


Paris displays a prime example of how unrequited love can be true and pure, unlike Romeo’s for Rosaline. He is one of Verona’s most eligible bachelors, who seeks Juliet’s hand in marriage. He has excellent manners but is obviously disappointed that Juliet does not return his love (although because of grief for Tybalt he thinks). The fidelity of love is shown in his vow to strew the tomb of his love with flowers and weep for her every night. When mortally wounded in the fight with Romeo his last wish is that Romeo will lay him with Juliet. This is done.


The Nurse reflects the attitude that love must end with a marriage. However she is unable to see past the sexual side of marriage. The Nurse’s frequent, bawdy jokes show her opinion that marriage, to her, means only legalised sex. More than once she tells an anecdote regarding an accident Juliet had when she was younger. Juliet fell and hit her forehead and the Nurse claims her husband said to Juliet ‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit’. What she is saying, is that when Juliet is older, she will fall backwards with a man on top of her. She is inconsistent, telling Romeo of Juliet’s disdain for Paris. She loves her part as a messenger between the couple but makes a big fuss about it-‘I am the drudge…but you shall bear the burden soon at night,’ this is once again a sexual reference. She says that there is no faith in men, all are dishonest. She advises Juliet to marry Paris after Romeo’s banishment- she claims Romeo is a ‘dishcloth’ in comparison to Paris. She has no conception of the depth and strength of her wards love.


Benvolio displays a rare kind of love, platonic love of one man for another. This is true friendship, an unselfish concern for a friend in trouble. He is desperately anxious about Romeo’s feelings for Rosaline- he does not want Romeo to get hurt. He urges Romeo to ‘examine other beauties’.


The main theme of true love is introduced by its partner-love at first sight. As soon as Romeo sees Juliet at the Capulet ball, he falls passionately in love with her. This is an example of chemistry or electricity between two people. He forgets Rosaline instantly as his inner poet is inspired Juliet ‘teaches the torches to burn bright…she hangs upon the cheek of night¦Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’. Irony is displayed here as Romeo renounces all his former vows to Rosaline, who is forgotten, and pledges them all to Juliet. Was his unrequited true, or fantasy? His declarations of Rosaline’s beauty melt away as he exclaims ‘I never saw true beauty till this night.’


The main strand of love in the play is the true, self-sacrificial love between Romeo and Juliet. It is clear from the outset that the chemistry has effected them both. They share a metaphorical sonnet. Romeo, like he did with Rosaline, puts Juliet on a pedestal, he imagines himself to be a pilgrim (palmer) at the holy shrine of a saint. The only difference with Juliet is that this time she returns his previously unrequited love. Juliet therefore is horrified when the Nurse informs her that Romeo is a Montague. She is horrified-‘my only love sprung from my only hate.’ Romeo’s new found love makes him feel light-headed and full of hope. His new courage enables him to climb the Capulet’s steep orchard walls to see Juliet again. There is symbolism a plenty as Juliet comes onto the balcony and he enthuses of her beauty. Her eyes are to him the brightest stars in the sky, her cheek in heaven would make the night so blaze that birds would sing, believing it to be daybreak. She is to him an angel, a winged messenger from heaven. She is depicted as a glorious sun, showing light and life giving. Rosaline is now demoted to being seen as a jealous moon, representing chastity and sterility. The love of Romeo and Juliet is synonymous with light that cannot be stifled, even by night, whereas Romeo’s love for Rosaline revolved around the absence of light, he drew his curtains and lived in blind darkness.


Juliet tells herself of the futility of names, they have no meaning- ‘That which we call a rose¦By any other word would smell as sweet’. When Romeo reveals himself Juliet is embarrassed, as what she has declared is not ‘proper’. However she soon overcomes her reservations and they exchange lovers vows, the last being one of the most beautiful passages in English literature- ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea, ¦ My love as deep; the more I give to thee ¦ The more I have for both are infinite.’ This is true love, unstinting and unfettered.


The couple can hardly bear to leave each other. Juliet wishes he were a trained bird who would return to her when she called, or a little bird tied to a string that could not fly away. Romeo leaves the meeting a trifle shell-shocked. He cannot believe that such perfection can be true- ‘How silver-sweet are lovers’ tongues by night, ¦ Like softest music to attending ears.’ Mercutio notices the change in Romeo but attributes it to him finally getting over Rosaline. This is partially true but he does not know of Romeo’s new found love. Romeo’s new wittiness he feels is better than ‘this drivelling love’, Romeo is however profoundly in love-more so than before. As he awaits confirmation of his impending marriage, Romeo challenges ‘love-devouring death’ to do its worst. This it promptly does. Tybalt slays Mercutio and Romeo in revenge betrays his wife and murders her cousin. He is indeed fortune’s fool.


Juliet waits impatiently for her wedding night, not knowing of the tragedy that has befallen her new husband. Once more the light metaphor is played out with Juliet wishing to cut her spouse into stars that would make heaven so fine that all would worship night. Her illusion of Romeo is shattered when she learns of Tybalt’s demise. Confusion racks her, she sees Romeo as a lethal serpent hidden beneath a beautiful flower. Her doubts about him soon pass, when the Nurse also speaks ill of Romeo. Neither of them can bear the harsh sterility of banishment; they would prefer death. Juliet vows that death and no other man will take her maidenhead. Romeo attempts suicide, rejecting philosophy and the advice of his mentor Friar Lawrence.


One night alone of happiness is allowed to these ‘star cross’d lovers’; their love that was as fast of lightening has faded as quickly. As Romeo leaves his wife, Juliet has a vision of her husband dead at the bottom of a tomb. Juliet vows that she will remain an unstained wife to Romeo despite Capulet’s plan to marry her to Paris. She agrees to Friar Lawrence’s plan and is prepared to face the horrors of the Capulet tomb to be reunited with her true love. Tragically her premonition is fulfilled, the next time she sees Romeo he is indeed dead. Her overwhelming love leads her to follow Romeo into death. Their pure, generous love cured the ancient feud, but at such a cost! Escalus sums up the whole situation with these lines ‘See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, ¦ That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.’


The primary antithesis to love is hate. This sentiment is personified by Tybalt Capulet. He mistakes love for rancour. He sees Romeo as a troublemaker who has come to the ball to ‘fleer and scorn at our solemnity.’ He stands as a stark opposite to the pure love of Romeo and Juliet; his only love is for fighting and perpetuating the feud with the Montagues. He vows at the ball that he will convert Romeo’s intrusion ‘now seeming sweet’ to ‘bitterest gall.’ This he duly does.


Mercutio, who has never experienced true love, carries another antithesis-cynicism. He mocks love as a foolish thing that makes all lovers subservient to it. He constantly refers to loves blindness in a mocking fashion- ‘If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark’. He thinks of love as an illusion and feels pity for those, like Romeo, who ‘suffer’ it. Mercutio is almost a little cross about what Rosaline is doing to Romeo. He thinks Romeo has taken leave of his senses and is ‘dead, stabbed with a white wench’s black eye…the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow boy’s [Cupid’s] butt-shaft [arrow].’ He jests at Romeo’s comparisons between Rosaline and great mythic beauties like Helen, Thisbe and Cleopatra. His only belief in love is smutty and sexual. His frequent jokes are of a sexual nature. An example of this is his comments that Romeo is ‘raising a spirit in his mistress’ circle’ when he cannot be found after the Capulet ball. This antithesis, though milder than hate is still valid.


A lot has changed in the four hundred years since Shakespeare wrote his plays. Globalisation has shrunk the world substantially and exploration has even added bits to it. In his time arranged marriage was commonplace, now it would be unacceptable. However Shakespeare’s genius has enabled him to capture the most profound of all human emotions, love. His observations are definitely still valid today, and some of his characters are recognisable with others. Will Shakespeare’s thoughts on love still be valid in another four hundred years? Only time will tell.





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