ROMEO AND JULIET
An analysis of the play by William Shakespeare
The following essay on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was originally published in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. William Hazlitt. London: C.H. Reynell, 1817.
ROMEO AND JULIET is the only tragedy which Shakespeare has written entirely on a love-story. It is supposed to have been his first play, and it deserves to stand in that proud rank. There is the buoyant spirit of youth in every line, in the rapturous intoxication of hope, and in the bitterness of despair. It has been said of ROMEO AND JULIET by a great critic, that 'whatever is most intoxicating in the odour of a southern spring, languishing in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous in the first opening of the rose, is to be found in this poem'. The description is true; and yet it does not answer to our idea of the play. For if it has the sweetness of the rose, it has its freshness too; if it has the languor of the nightingale's song, it has also its giddy transport; if it has the softness of a southern spring, it is as glowing and as bright. There is nothing of a sickly and sentimental cast. Romeo and Juliet are in love, but they are not love-sick. Everything speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high and healthy pulse of the passions: the heart beats, the blood circulates and mantles throughout. Their courtship is not an insipid interchange of sentiments lip-deep, learnt at second-hand from poems and plays,--made up of beauties of the most shadowy kind, of 'fancies wan that hang the pensive head', of evanescent smiles and sighs that breathe not, of delicacy that shrinks from the touch and feebleness that scarce supports itself, an elaborate vacuity of thought, and an artificial dearth of sense, spirit, truth, and nature!--It is the reverse of all this. It is Shakespeare all over, and Shakespeare when he was young.
We have heard it objected to ROMEO AND JULIET that it is founded on an idle passion between a boy and a girl, who have scarcely seen and can have but little sympathy or rational esteem for one another, who have had no experience of the good or ills of life, and whose raptures or despair must be therefore equally groundless and fantastical. Whoever objects to the youth of the parties in this play as 'too unripe and crude' to pluck the sweets of love, and wishes to see a first-love carried on into a good old age, and the passions taken at the rebound, when their force is spent, may find all this done in the Stranger and in other German plays, where they do things by contraries, and transpose nature to inspire sentiment and create philosophy. Shakespeare proceeded in a more straightforward and, we think, effectual way. He did not endeavour to extract beauty from wrinkles, or the wild throb of passion from the last expiring sigh of indifference. He did not 'gather grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles'. It was not his way. But he has given a picture of human life, such as it is in the order of nature. He has founded the passion of the two lovers not on the pleasures they had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had NOT experienced. All that was to come of life was theirs. At that untried source of promised happiness they slaked their thirst, and the first eager draught made them drunk with love and joy. They were in full possession of their senses and their affections. Their hopes were of air, their desires of fire. Youth is the season of love, because the heart is then first melted in tenderness from the touch of novelty, and kindled to rapture, for it knows no end of its enjoyments or its wishes. Desire has no limit but itself. Passion, the love and expectation of pleasure, is infinite, extravagant, inexhaustible, till experience comes to check and kill it. Juliet exclaims on her first interview with Romeo:
- My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
- My love as deep.
And why should it not? What was to hinder the thrilling tide of pleasure, which had just gushed from her heart, from flowing on without stint or measure, but experience which she was yet without? What was to abate the transport of the first sweet sense of pleasure, which her heart and her senses had just tasted, but indifference which she was yet a stranger to? What was there to check the ardour of hope, of faith, of constancy, just rising in her breast, but disappointment which she had not yet felt? As are the desires and the hopes of youthful passion, such is the keenness of its disappointments, and their baleful effect. Such is the transition in this play from the highest bliss to the lowest despair, from the nuptial couch to an untimely grave. The only evil that even in apprehension befalls the two lovers is the loss of the greatest possible felicity; yet this loss is fatal to both, for they had rather part with life than bear the thought of surviving all that had made life dear to them. In all this, Shakespeare has but followed nature, which existed in his time, as well as now. The modern philosophy, which reduces the whole theory of the mind to habitual impressions, and leaves the natural impulses of passion and imagination out of the account, had not then been discovered; or if it had, would have been little calculated for the uses of poetry.
It is the inadequacy of the same false system of philosophy to account for the strength of our earliest attachments, which has led Mr. Wordsworth to indulge in the mystical visions of Platonism in his Ode on the Progress of Life. He has very admirably described the vividness of our impressions in youth and childhood, and how 'they fade by degrees into the light of common day', and he ascribes the change to the supposition of a pre-existent state, as if our early thoughts were nearer heaven, reflections of former trails of glory, shadows of our past being. This is idle. It is not from the knowledge of the past that the first impressions of things derive their gloss and splendour, but from our ignorance of the future, which fills the void to come with the warmth of our desires, with our gayest hopes, and brightest fancies. It is the obscurity spread before it that colours the prospect of life with hope, as it is the cloud which reflects the rainbow. There is no occasion to resort to any mystical union and transmission of feeling through different states of being to account for the romantic enthusiasm of youth; nor to plant the root of hope in the grave, nor to derive it from the skies. Its root is in the heart of man: it lifts its head above the stars. Desire and imagination are inmates of the human breast. The heaven 'that lies about us in our infancy' is only a new world, of which we know nothing but what we wish it to be, and believe all that we wish. In youth and boyhood, the world we live in is the world of desire, and of fancy: it is experience that brings us down to the world of reality. What is it that in youth sheds a dewy light round the evening star? That makes the daisy look so bright? That perfumes the hyacinth? That embalms the first kiss of love? It is the delight of novelty, and the seeing no end to the pleasure that we fondly believe is still in store for us. The heart revels in the luxury of its own thoughts, and is unable to sustain the weight of hope and love that presses upon it.--The effects of the passion of love alone might have dissipated Mr. Wordsworth's theory, if he means anything more by it than an ingenious and poetical allegory. THAT at least is not a link in the chain let down from other worlds; 'the purple light of love' is not a dim reflection of the smiles of celestial bliss. It does not appear till the middle of life, and then seems like 'another morn risen on midday'. In this respect the soul comes into the world 'in utter nakedness'. Love waits for the ripening of the youthful blood. The sense of pleasure precedes the love of pleasure, but with the sense of pleasure, as soon as it is felt, come thronging infinite desires and hopes of pleasure, and love is mature as soon as born. It withers and it dies almost as soon!
This play presents a beautiful coup d'oeil of the progress of human life. In thought it occupies years, and embraces the circle of the affections from childhood to old age. Juliet has become a great girl, a young woman since we first remember her a little thing in the idle prattle of the nurse. Lady Capulet was about her age when she became a mother, and old Capulet somewhat impatiently tells his younger visitors:
- --I've seen the day,
- That I have worn a visor, and could tell
- A whispering tale in a fair lady's ear,
- Such as would please: 'tis gone, 'tis gone, 'tis gone.
Thus one period of life makes way for the following, and one generation pushes another off the stage. One of the most striking passages to show the intense feeling of youth in this play is Capulet's invitation to Paris to visit his entertainment.
- At my poor house, look to behold this night
- Earth-treading stars that make dark heav'n light;
- Such comfort as do lusty young men feel
- When well-apparel'd April on the heel
- Of limping winter treads, even such delight
- Among fresh female-buds shall you this night
- Inherit at my house.
The feelings of youth and of the spring are here blended together like the breath of opening flowers. Images of vernal beauty appear to have floated before the author's mind, in writing this poem, in profusion. Here is another of exquisite beauty, brought in more by accident than by necessity. Montague declares of his son smit with a hopeless passion, which he will not reveal:
- But he, his own affection's counsellor,
- Is to himself so secret and so close,
- So far from sounding and discovery,
- As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
- Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
- Or dedicate his beauty to the sun.
This casual description is as full of passionate beauty as when Romeo dwells in frantic fondness on 'the white wonder of his Juliet's hand'. The reader may, if he pleases, contrast the exquisite pastoral simplicity of the above lines with the gorgeous description of Juliet when Romeo first sees her at her father's house, surrounded by company and artificial splendour.
- What lady's that which doth enrich the hand
- Of yonder knight?
- O she doth teach the torches to burn bright;
- Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,
- Like a rich jewel in an Aethiop's ear.
It would be hard to say which of the two garden scenes is the finest, that where he first converses with his love, or takes leave of her the morning after their marriage. Both are like a heaven upon earth: the blissful bowers of Paradise let down upon this lower world. We will give only one passage of these well-known scenes to show the perfect refinement and delicacy of Shakespeare's conception of the female character. It is wonderful how Collins, who was a critic and a poet of great sensibility, should have encouraged the common error on this subject by saying--'But stronger Shakespeare felt for man alone'.
The passage we mean is Juliet's apology for her maiden boldness.
- Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face;
- Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
- For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night.
- Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
- What I have spoke--but farewell compliment:
- Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say, aye,
- And I will take thee at thy word--Yet if thou swear'st,
- Thou may'st prove false; at lovers' perjuries
- They say Jove laughs. Oh gentle Romeo,
- If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;
- Or if thou think I am too quickly won,
- I'll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay,
- So thou wilt woo: but else not for the world.
- In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond;
- And therefore thou may'st think my 'haviour light;
- But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
- Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
- I should have been more strange, I must confess,
- But that thou over-heard'st, ere I was ware,
- My true love's passion; therefore pardon me,
- And not impute this yielding to light love,
- Which the dark night hath so discovered.
In this and all the rest her heart, fluttering between pleasure, hope, and fear, seems to have dictated to her tongue, and 'calls true love spoken simple modesty'. Of the same sort, but bolder in virgin innocence, is her soliloquy after her marriage with Romeo.
- Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
- Towards Phoebus' mansion; such a wagoner
- As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
- And bring in cloudy night immediately.
- Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night;
- That run-aways' eyes may wink; and Romeo
- Leap to these arms, untalked of, and unseen!---
- Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
- By their own beauties: or if love be blind,
- It best agrees with night.--Come, civil night,
- Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
- And learn me how to lose a winning match,
- Play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
- Hood my unmann'd blood bating in my cheeks,
- With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
- Thinks true love acted, simple modesty.
- Come night!--Come, Romeo! come, thou day in night;
- For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
- Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.---
- Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-brow'd night,
- Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die,
- Take him and cut him out in little stars,
- And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
- That all the world shall be in love with night,
- And pay no worship to the garish sun.---
- O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
- But not possess'd it; and though I am sold,
- Not yet enjoy'd: so tedious is this day,
- As is the night before some festival
- To an impatient child, that hath new robes,
- And may not wear them.
We the rather insert this passage here, inasmuch as we have no doubt it has been expunged from the Family Shakespeare. Such critics do not perceive that the feelings of the heart sanctify, without disguising, the impulses of nature. Without refinement themselves, they confound modesty with hypocrisy. Not so the German critic, Schlegel. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, he says, 'It was reserved for Shakespeare to unite purity of heart and the glow of imagination, sweetness and dignity of manners and passionate violence, in one ideal picture.' The character is indeed one of perfect truth and sweetness. It has nothing forward, nothing coy, nothing affected or coquettish about it;--it is a pure effusion of nature. It is as frank as it is modest, for it has no thought that it wishes to conceal. It reposes in conscious innocence on the strength of its affections. Its delicacy does not consist in coldness and reserve, but in combining warmth of imagination and tenderness of heart with the most voluptuous sensibility. Love is a gentle flame that rarefies and expands her whole being. What an idea of trembling haste and airy grace, borne upon the thoughts of love, does the Friar's exclamation give of her, as she approaches his cell to be married:
- Here comes the lady. Oh, so light of foot
- Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint:
- A lover may bestride the gossamer,
- That idles in the wanton summer air,
- And yet not fall, so light is vanity.
The tragic part of this character is of a piece with the rest. It is the heroic founded on tenderness and delicacy. Of this kind are her resolution to follow the Friar's advice, and the conflict in her bosom between apprehension and love when she comes to take the sleeping poison. Shakespeare is blamed for the mixture of low characters. If this is a deformity, it is the source of a thousand beauties. One instance is the contrast between the guileless simplicity of Juliet's attachment to her first love, and the convenient policy of the nurse in advising her to marry Paris, which excites such indignation in her mistress. 'Ancient damnation! oh most wicked fiend...'
Romeo is Hamlet in love. There is the same rich exuberance of passion and sentiment in the one, that there is of thought and sentiment in the other. Both are absent and self-involved, both live out of themselves in a world of imagination. Hamlet is abstracted from everything; Romeo is abstracted from everything but his love, and lost in it. His 'frail thoughts dally with faint surmise', and are fashioned out of the suggestions of hope, 'the flatteries of sleep'. He is himself only in his Juliet; she is his only reality, his heart's true home and idol. The rest of the world is to him a passing dream. How finely is this character portrayed where he recollects himself on seeing Paris slain at the tomb of Juliet!
- What said my man when my betossed soul
- Did not attend him as we rode? I think
- He told me Paris should have married Juliet.
And again, just before he hears the sudden tidings of her death:
- If I may trust the flattery of sleep,
- My dreams presage some joyful news at hand;
- My bosom's lord sits lightly on his throne,
- And all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
- Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
- I dreamt my lady came and found me dead,
- (Strange dream! that gives a dead man leave to think)
- And breath'd such life with kisses on my lips,
- That I reviv'd and was an emperor.
- Ah me! how sweet is love itself possessed,
- When but love's shadows are so rich in joy!
Romeo's passion for Juliet is not a first love: it succeeds and drives out his passion for another mistress, Rosaline, as the sun hides the stars. This is perhaps an artifice (not absolutely necessary) to give us a higher opinion of the lady, while the first absolute surrender of her heart to him enhances the richness of the prize. The commencement, progress, and ending of his second passion are however complete in themselves, not injured, if they are not bettered by the first. The outline of the play is taken from an Italian novel; but the dramatic arrangement of the different scenes between the lovers, the more than dramatic interest in the progress of the story, the development of the characters with time and circumstances, just according to the degree and kind of interest excited, are not inferior to the expression of passion and nature. It has been ingeniously remarked among other proofs of skill in the contrivance of the fable, that the improbability of the main incident in the piece, the administering of the sleeping-potion, is softened and obviated from the beginning by the introduction of the Friar on his first appearance culling simples and descanting on their virtues. Of the passionate scenes in this tragedy, that between the Friar and Romeo when he is told of his sentence of banishment, that between Juliet and the Nurse when she hears of it, and of the death of her cousin Tybalt (which bear no proportion in her mind, when passion after the first shock of surprise throws its weight into the scale of her affections), and the last scene at the tomb, are among the most natural and overpowering. In all of these it is not merely the force of any one passion that is given, but the slightest and most unlooked-for transitions from one to another, the mingling currents of every different feeling rising up and prevailing in turn, swayed by the master-mind of the poet, as the waves undulate beneath the gliding storm. Thus when Juliet has by her complaints encouraged the Nurse to say, 'Shame come to Romeo', she instantly repels the wish, which she had herself occasioned, by answering:
- Blister'd be thy tongue
- For such a wish, he was not born to shame.
- Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit,
- For 'tis a throne where honour may be crown'd
- Sole monarch of the universal earth!
- O, what a beast was I to chide him so!
- Nurse. Will you speak well of him that kill'd your cousin?
- Juliet. Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
- Ah my poor lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
- When I, thy three-hours' wife, have mangled it?
And then follows on the neck of her remorse and returning fondness, that wish treading almost on the brink of impiety, but still held back by the strength of her devotion to her lord, that 'father, mother, nay, or both were dead', rather than Romeo banished. If she requires any other excuse, it is in the manner in which Romeo echoes her frantic grief and disappointment in the next scene at being banished from her.--Perhaps one of the finest pieces of acting that ever was witnessed on the stage, is Mr. Kean's manner of doing this scene and his repetition of the word, BANISHED. He treads close indeed upon the genius of his author.
A passage which this celebrated actor and able commentator on Shakespeare (actors are the best commentators on the poets) did not give with equal truth or force of feeling was the one which Romeo makes at the tomb of Juliet, before he drinks the poison.
- --Let me peruse this face--
- Mercutio's kinsman! noble county Paris!
- What said my man, when my betossed soul
- Did not attend him as we rode! I think,
- He told me, Paris should have married Juliet!
- Said he not so? or did I dream it so?
- Or am I mad, hearing him talk of Juliet,
- To think it was so?--O, give me thy hand,
- One writ with me in sour misfortune's book!
- I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave--
- For here lies Juliet.
- * * * * *
- --O, my love! my wife!
- Death that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
- Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
- Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet
- Is crimson in thy lips, and in thy cheeks,
- And Death's pale flag is not advanced there.--
- Tybalt, ly'st thou there in thy bloody sheet?
- O, what more favour can I do to thee,
- Than with that hand that cut thy youth in twain,
- To sunder his that was thine enemy?
- Forgive me, cousin! Ah, dear Juliet,
- Why art thou yet so fair! I will believe
- That unsubstantial death is amorous;
- And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
- Thee here in dark to be his paramour.
- For fear of that, I will stay still with thee;
- And never from this palace of dim night
- Depart again: here, here will I remain
- With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
- Will I set up my everlasting rest;
- And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
- From this world-wearied flesh.--Eyes, look your last!
- Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you
- The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
- A dateless bargain to engrossing death!--
- Come, bitter conduct, come unsavoury guide!
- Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
- The dashing rocks my sea-sick weary bark!
- Here's to my love!--[Drinks.] O, true apothecary!
- Thy drugs are quick.--Thus with a kiss I die.
The lines in this speech describing the loveliness of Juliet, who is supposed to be dead, have been compared to those in which it is said of Cleopatra after her death, that she looked 'as she would take another Antony in her strong toil of grace;' and a question has been started which is the finest, that we do not pretend to decide. We can more easily decide between Shakespeare and any other author, than between him and himself.--Shall we quote any more passages to show his genius or the beauty of ROMEO AND JULIET? At that rate, we might quote the whole. The late Mr. Sheridan, on being shown a volume of the Beauties of Shakespeare, very properly asked--'But where are the other eleven?' The character of Mercutio in this play is one of the most mercurial and spirited of the productions of Shakespeare's comic muse.