Commentary

Romeo and Juliet is justly famed for the quality of its lyric poetry, but it is no less extraordinary for its sophisticated organizational devices, which enhance its vivid evocation of a world of love and death. Shakespeare compressed the elapsed time of the story from more than nine months in his source to less than five days: Romeo and Juliet meet on a Sunday, marry the next day, and die in the predawn hours on the following Friday. The progression of the days is clearly marked by a succession of dramatic daybreaks: before he appears, Romeo is described as wandering at dawn (1.1.116-121); the next sunrise finds him below Juliet's window in the famous 'balcony' scene (2.2), and the following morning he leaves by that window after the couple's surreptitious wedding night. The Nurse finds Juliet's drugged body at sunrise on Thursday, and at the play's end, a gloomy daybreak accompanies the discovery of the tragedy by the Prince and the couple's parents. The playwright uses a virtuoso display of techniques to heighten the explosive speed of the plot development.  

The many symmetries of the play strengthen the spectator's sense of exorable passing time. The Prince appears on three carefully spaced occasions: in 1.1 he describes the Montague-Capulet feud; in 3.1, the pivotal scene in which Tybalt is killed, he banishes Romeo and triggers the tragic conclusion; and in 5.3 he summarizes the play's course. Other matching scenes link the events of the tragedy, as when the Nurse delivers a message to Juliet, delaying its contents each time, in 2.5 and in 3.1. The first message is a happy one: Romeo has summoned Juliet to their marriage; the second instead reveals Romeo's disastrous duel with Tybalt.  

Telling juxtapositions also catch our attention, perhaps most strikingly when the fury and desolation of the duel scene is immediately followed by the lyrical brilliance of Juliet's soliloquy that opens 3.2. Moreover, the duel itself follows Romeo and Juliet's marriage; Romeo falls into the depths of the feud just as he ascends to seeming bliss. His very effort to effect a reconciliation with Juliet's kinsman leads to the death of Mercutio, which in turn requires vengeance. These connections do not occur in his source; Shakespeare added them to heighten the dramatic tension. In another such alteration, the playwright has Romeo first encounter Juliet before his presence at the Capulet feast is discovered, rather than afterwards, as in the source. In this way, Romeo's ecstatic expression of love (1.5.43-52) itself provokes Tybalt's wrath, sparking the violent chain of events that follows. 

An effective contrast in 4.4 emphasizes a basic opposition between the lovers and the world, while also conveying the sense of hastening hours. In this scene the Capulet household hums with pre-nuptial excitement, completely unaware that Juliet lies in fateful slumber under the same roof. In another striking juxtaposition of scenes, Romeo, having learned of his bride's apparent death, exits with his newly purchased poison at the end of 5.1; at the beginning of 5.2 Friar John immediately enters to explain why he could not inform Romeo of the truth.  

The repeated use of certain motifs also unites the events of the play. One such motif is the passage of time. Initially, time passes slowly. Romeo, lost in his infatuation with Rosaline, moans that 'sad hours seem long' (1.1.159). But the tempo quickens: Mercutio complains of wasted time as he and Romeo approach the Capulets' feast, and just before Romeo first sees Juliet, Capulet complains to an aged relative, Cousin Capulet, that the years fly by too rapidly. As Romeo leaves the party, now in love, Capulet remarks with surprise that it has grown late. As Romeo spies Juliet at her window, he compares her with the sun and with 'a winged messenger of heaven' (2.2.28). However the accelerating passage of events begins to take on an ominous tone. Juliet, after she and Romeo have first acknowledged their love. says fearfully: '... Although I joy in thee, / I have no joy of this contract tonight: / It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden, /Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say "It lightens".' (2.2.116-120) Hearing of Romeo's love for Juliet, the Friar warns, 'Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow' (2.6.15). From this point, the pressures of time only intensify: Romeo and Juliet must end their wedding night suddenly; Capulet impulsively moves the wedding date forward a day; Friar John's delay deprives Romeo of the truth about Juliet's apparent death; Friar Laurence arrives only seconds too late to prevent the fatal denouement.   

Several times feverish haste is described as resembling the flash of lightning or gunpowder, combining the image of fleeting seconds with that of light, the second major motif in the play. When Romeo first encounters Juliet, he compares her to the brilliant light of torches, and in the balcony scene he associates her with sunlight (2.2.3), starlight (2.2.15-17), daylight (2.2.20-22) and the brightness of an angel (2.2.26) Juliet proposes that Romeo, if she 'cut him out in little stars' (3.2.22), could fill the sky and cause the night to outshine the day. But light, with time, comes to work against the lovers. As dawn arrives to end their wedding night and signal the beginning of Romeo's exile, he moans, 'More light and light; more dark and dark our woes' (3.5.36). 

Images of contrasting light and darkness color the play's tragic climax. The Friar describes the action of the potion he gives the desperate Juliet as 'Like death when he shuts up the day of life' (4.1.101), but when Romeo opens the tomb he calls it a 'lantern' lit by Juliet's beauty, making 'This vault a feasting presence, full of light' (5.3.86). Finally, the Prince's closing speech in 5.3 begins with the observation that 'A glooming peace this morning with it brings; / The sun for sorrow will not show his head' (5.3.304-305).  

As the prominence of darkness and light suggests, Romeo and Juliet is a play about extremes and oppositions: the union of the lovers versus the feud between their families; age against youth; the weight of the past versus the promise of the future. Most important, the lovers themselves stand in opposition to the rest of the worldóJuliet's irritable father, her match-making mother, the bawdy Nurse, the volatile Mercutio, and the self-righteous Friar, all of whom are content to enact the roles required by their places in society. The lovers, however, experience another, private world, which they feel a finer degree of responsibility to each other and to their love. Their isolation gives their   .dying a sacrificial quality, atoning for the sins of their families and of Verona at large.  

The lovers are especially distinguished from their fellow citizens by their speech. Their expressions of love are filled with the intense language of lyric poetry: striking images, exaggerated comparisons, and the use of rhetorical figures traditionally associated with  love. Among these is the use of the sonnet, whose formal organization and lyrical fervor suggest the nature of the play itself: rigorously paced and emotionally high-pitched. Acts 1 and 2 are each produced by a sonnet, spoken by the Chorus, suggesting to the audience (which in Shakespeare's day, more than now, will have been likely to recognize the form

on hearing it) that they will witness a structured presentation of emotion. Following a number of sonnet fragments (as in Romeo and Benvolio's exchange at the end of 1.2), Romeo and Juliet's first encounter takes the form of a sonnet (1.5.92-105) that they deliver jointly. Their subsequent dialogue is in blank verse, less stylized and more dramatically powerful, but the use of the sonnet form in the opening scenes suggests the poet's private recollection of emotion. This permits an exhibition of the lovers' intimate experience, inexpressible in ordinary speech. Shakespeare was writing his early Sonnets while he was composing Romeo and Juliet; the idea of integrating love lyrics within his romantic love story must have seemed delightful.  

As a tragedy of love, ultimately derived from the prose fiction of Renaissance Italy, Romeo and Juliet was a novelty in its day; Elizabethan audiences expected to find lovers in Comedy, whose complicated plots led to happy endings in marriage. Although the tale of Romeo and Juliet was well known in prose versions, tragic destinies in the theatre were customarily reserved for ancient rulers and quasi-mythical figures, in dramas (such as Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus) that imitated those of the Roman playwright Seneca. However, despite its unusual protagonists, Romeo and Juliet also reflects the traditional values of medieval melodramas of the  wheel of Fortune and, like them, carries catharsis with its load of woe. Fortune, to the medieval mind, brought down the mighty and thus demonstrated that humanity was subject to forces beyond its control, but this was not necessarily a pessimistic notion, for it expressed the certainty of a world of fate beyond human suffering. This ancient tradition was strongly reinforced by the Christian concept of heaven, which was still a vital force in Shakespeare's day. Romeo and Juliet concerned the destiny of two young peopleónot that of, say, an emperoróbut it demonstrated the turnings of the Wheel of Fortune equally well. Thus the play was both conventional and novel. 

Romeo and Juliet seems somewhat out of place in the line of Shakespeare's development as a writer of tragedy. Shakespeare's extraordinary later tragedies, such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, are centered on magnificent but flawed individuals whose personalities lead them to attempt to control their destiny and thereby succumb to an inevitable downfall. Romeo and Juliet bear no resemblance to these mighty protagonists; although they have faults, it is not their weaknesses that bring them to their unhappy end but their 'inauspicious stars' (5.3.111). The young lovers are victims of fate. Thus the play does not belong in the continuum of works, from Titus Andronicus to Macbeth, that concern themselves with the relationship of evil and personal character. Rather, in its emphasis on fulfillment, its final reconciliation, and its celebration of the power of love, Romeo and Juliet anticipates the Romances, Shakespeare's strange and great last plays.

 

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