[Act I, scene I]Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
|Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard|
In the beginning, we see Romeo in love not with Juliet but Rosaline, the niece of Juliet's father Capulet (from the first scene of the first act we know the Montagues and Capulets are at war; they have hated each other for generations), and she has chosen to be celibate ("She hath forsworn to love"), and so we meet Romeo in a very dark, depressed state. He is, as he was with Juliet, full of violent and passionate declarations of love: "One fairer that my love! The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." His family are concerned - Benvolio tells Lady Montague he has seen Romeo pining "underneath the grove of sycamore" (a sycamore can represent eternity, though in Ancient Egypt it stood on the threshold between life and death: as with Hamlet, the symbolism of flowers and trees are an important part of Shakespeare's poetry and plays). She urges Benvolio to speak with Romeo, and it is in this scene where he reveals his love for Rosaline. Benvolio tells him to forget her and find another ("Examine other beauties"), which, as we know, he does.
|Juliet and her nurse, by John Roddam Spencer|
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!On discovering Juliet is a Capulet, he exclaims, "O dear account! My life is my foe's debt". Rosaline (a Capulet) and her "exquisite" beauty have disappeared from his mind, all within an afternoon. The following events are yet faster: it's easy to forget that within less than a week of meeting, Romeo and Juliet would be dead. Later that evening after their first kiss (and words exchanged, so full of religious significance) they decide to get married, which they do the next day. The following day, having learned of her betrothal to Count Paris, Juliet plans with the Friar to take a drug that will make her appear to be dead:
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear -
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilléd liquor drink thou off,
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest...
|Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, 1996.|
This is a tragedy, there is no doubt of that. They were star-crossed lovers, and the portents of doom were seen early with references to stars ("Then I defy you, stars!", "I fear, too early: for my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars", and " O, here / Will I set up my everlasting rest, / And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars / From this world-wearied flesh"), as well as words such as "fatal", and "fortune's fool". Also, Mercutio's mention of Dido, Cleopatra, Hero, and Thisbe too: in the Aeneid, Dido killed herself after she was deserted by Aeneas; Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake after Anthony, who has stabbed himself, believing her to be dead; Hero drowned herself after her lover drowned, and Thisbe, as I've said, stabbed herself on finding her lover had killed himself.
As for love, this I do question. A five day old love, and a man (we can guess he's in his mid to late teens; Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years") whose all-consuming eternal love for one shifted within the space of a few hours to another. It was too short to be enduring, and too quick to be deep. It was lust, as I said, and obsession. It is the crush of two teenagers that would result in their death, and the death of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and Lady Montague. If it is love, then it is a destructive love. Furthermore, I do not see it as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, only the tragedy of Juliet. Romeo is too mercurial, it is too obvious that had they have lived, he would have been lusting after the next "pretty piece of flesh" soon after. This is perhaps unkind of me: he was young and passionate, and as much a victim of it as Juliet was, but as I pitied Hamlet's Ophelia, so too I pity Romeo's Juliet.
I'm glad to have re-read this play. When I first read it many years ago I was full of preconceptions and ideas of how I thought it played out, and I missed what a whirlwind of events it was. It is exceptionally high-paced, and truly it is so very beautiful. I think in revisiting Shakespeare I may be warming to him a little more!