By HOYT ROGERS.
1. How Shakespeare invented the modern.
ROMEO AND JULIET interprets itself in ever-expanding synecdoche. Act I is already the entire work, a play within the play more replete than the obvious ones in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like Romeo and Juliet as a whole, which spreads these initial scenes into widening views, it blends comedy and tragedy as only the final romances will do again: taken as a group, they will transmute this single act into an entire genre. From the outset, Elizabethan spectators must have delighted in the obscene, sparring puns of the rival servants, and thrilled to the first sword fight among many—crowd-pleasers for the groundlings, predominantly soldiers and students. With something for everyone, the action continues wryly through the marital squabbles of the Capulets and Montagus, the lovelorn nonsense of Romeo, and the bumptiousness of the Nurse. Then it takes a detour with Mercutio, who spins a scintillating cocoon even around parsons and lawyers, in a passage that prefigures Puck and Ariel. The dialogue steers through the pageantry, backbiting, and banal niceties of a Renaissance feast, and pauses—a moment of stillness in the motley, rapid-fire plot—as the protagonists enact a sublime Petrarchist sonnet. It arches back to the Canzioniere through two and a half centuries of translations, imitations, variations, innovations, and satiric repudiations.
But anti-Petrarchist motifs, already strident on the continent in Shakespeare’s time, and often voiced in his own wayward sonnets, are silenced here. Antiphonal as a liturgy, the poem pays tribute to the lyric tradition, but it also gives us notice: the game is up. Inert letters on musty pages begin to breathe in the actors’ flesh; and soon they will be written in their blood. The actual bodies of two young lovers will now incarnate the life in death, and death in life, of Petrarchist tropes. As in the “Prologue”—also a sonnet—Romeo’s troubling dream and Juliet’s premonitions foreshadow their sacrificial end. This rapturous encounter is also a game, but a game where the play becomes the real. Reality is the religion toward which a female saint leads her Romeo, whose very name means “pilgrim.” In the corrupt, strife-torn world, with no reference to the beyond, they celebrate a secular Mass. Hic est corpus meum.
All the same, the teasing lightness of the scene never fails to disarm us. This is a Petrarchist rite, but also its antithesis: a hieratic formula that ends in a sensual kiss—and then another, to mark the threshold the lovers have crossed. Suspending belief, Elizabethans must half-forget that both the actors are boys; though some must have watched such erotic displays, which only intensify as the play goes on, with pursed lips, morbid interest, or secret delight (as Puritan critics of all-male theatre were quick to point out). In a backhanded compliment, Juliet praises Romeo for “kissing by the book.” She may admire his amatory skill, but she also finds it obsolete. As Coleridge observed, like many commentators after him, “Shakespeare meant Romeo and Juliet to approach a poem.” For that very reason, “Romeo is introduced already love-bewildered,” like the hackneyed Petrarchist swain— a part sketched out by his opening exchange with Benvolio, with whom he swaps sestets. The play is a Petrarchist sonnet-cycle writ large, with all its oxymorons paraded before our eyes; but if the rusty machinery doesn’t clank, it’s because these lovers aren’t consistently idealized, any more than the fair young man and dark lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Unlike Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Romeo and Juliet often misbehave, as when he spinelessly sobs in the Friar’s cell, or when she coldly damns the Nurse who raised her. Shakespeare paints his title-personae too honestly to set them up as paragons, as in the pastoral novels so admired in his age. He contrasts their flawed vitality with the unreal perfection of books, in a cascade of interlocking metaphors; Lady Capulet’s encomium of Paris, the conventional Petrarchist, as a “precious book of love” in Act I is only the most florid example. All these links lend a special resonance to Romeo’s lines in the balcony scene: “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.” Under Juliet’s sway, he will drop out of the Petrarchist school, and no longer “kiss by the book.” From then on, Paris replaces him as the paladin of the literary past, a “fair volume” cloyingly “writ with beauty’s pen.” Even before her tomb in Act V, he will pronounce a final sestet.
HENCE THE MEDIOCRE sonnet that prefaces Act II, and which Samuel Johnson was at a loss to understand. A calculated comedown from the encounter poem, it’s designed to deflate amorous verse-forms once and for all—by ejecting them into the public sphere of the plot. From now on, the lovers have to improvise their own private speech. “My heart’s victim, and its executioner”: Yeats’s words might well apply to their mutual derailment, but not to the whimsy of its headlong path. In Act I, spouting singsong rhymes, Romeo pines for the unattainable Rosaline, modeled on Laura and her legions of subsequent clones. In Act II, from her balcony, Juliet tartly rejects the cheap “moon-June” vows he still employs, and declines to play the game of “hard to get.” Already precocious herself, she ripens him for their untimely fall. His diction models itself on hers, as he grapples with her impetuous blank verse. In a matter of days, he goes from boy to man, from mouthing hollow clichés to speaking his own virile idiom. Early on, Juliet plumbs the lyric vein of the late romances, when she naively exalts the “bounty” of her love, “as boundless as the sea.” She maintains that free-flowing stream of metaphors in her nocturnal monologue of Act III. In the succeeding aubade, Romeo has almost caught up with her. But in the final scenes of the play, his lines ring out even more forcefully—“More fierce, and more inexorable far/ Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.” They ripple with the Anglo-Saxon muscle of Shakespeare’s mature style, first fully achieved in this play. Romeo’s stage-by-stage development echoes that of the dramatist himself, unfurled in the history plays, while Juliet bursts on the scene like his breakthrough personified. Romeo matches her sustained intensity only when he addresses her living corpse. His reprisal of her previous verses already turns them into more than a “gilded monument,” within the compressed time-frame of the play. Beside her he lays out Paris, the cadaver of the Petrarchist aesthetic, now truly dead; whereas “Beauty’s ensign yet/ Is crimson” on Juliet’s face. Like the saint of the encounter sonnet, “she does not move” as he prays to her. Their farewell is sealed with a double kiss: in their end is their beginning—and Shakespeare’s as well.
In a succinct study, David Schalkwyk has demonstrated the complex bond between Shakespeare’s sonnets and his plays. His remarks about Romeo and Juliet seem especially germane, since the work can be dated to the same period as the poems. Like them, the drama’s Petrarchist and anti-Petrarchist themes reflect the concerns of a late Renaissance sonneteer, who must breathe new life into the hoary tropes even as he treats them, all-knowingly, to the final coup de grâce (for example, in 94, 130, 137, 141, or 142). From the other side of the fence, the sonnets are often described as dramatic in nature, and hordes of critics have tried to ferret out their autobiographical “plot.” While speculations about the writer’s life are futile, individual poems and certain sequences—the seventeen “increase” sonnets, for example—do seem to spring from a theatrical urge: a will to embody a certain set of problems in human figures, and make them react to promptings both external and internal, circumstances as well as emotions. To borrow a pun from Shakespeare (see 135 and 136), suppose we imagine the “will” who authored the sonnets composing a simple skit for a puppet-stage. We might expect it to feature a fair, somewhat passive youth, who comes under the spell of a headstrong female, given to darkly impulsive moods. The puppeteer would have them interact with other personae, though he would reserve his best lines for his two idols, making them speak to one another with his inmost voice. They would say what he himself had always wanted to hear from them: assurances of unstinting love, returned as freely as it is given. But all the while, he’d feel left out of their secretive affair, just as we infer from the concluding sonnets (133, 134); and so he’d cause their ill-starred passion to fare as badly as his own for each of them. In a final stroke of spite, the “willful” ventriloquist would silence his effigies. He would return them to their box, not unlike a tomb, and proclaim they only existed through his words (18, 54, 55, 81). Of course, if the same “will” created a fully-fledged play, he would further develop this outline, almost beyond recognition.
FIRST OF ALL, he would flesh out the other personae. The Nurse and the Friar, who deliver nearly as many lines as Romeo and Juliet, serve as the anti-heroes of the play, the lovers’ withered counterfoils. Shakespeare greatly expanded the Nurse’s role when compared with Brooke, presumably to please his audience. Judging by their measured remarks, her fellow cross-dressers, Lady Capulet and Lady Montagu, were meant to be believable. But the Nurse’s over-the-top “attitude”—in current slang—prompts us to imagine her as an unconvincing drag, a large-boned buffoon with stubble on her chin, whose gestures balloon as uncontrollably as her words. From the start, this virago comes on strong, more of a caricature than a character. As I conceive her, the Nurse’s mannishness belies the maternal prattle of her opening shtick; as she quotes her vulgar husband, her bawdiness melds with his. Wherever she goes, double-entendres stick to her like burrs. She dominates the stage, goading the groundlings to untrammeled laughter. The British have always been fond of acts like this; Dame Edna Everage— massive, shrewd, and dirty-minded—is but the most recent avatar. On a more primitive plane, in carnivals and variety shows, the same blowsy archetype recurs throughout the world: the fake old lady, a staple of popular satire. Thanks to her former profession as a wet nurse, the Nurse’s contours should look especially overblown; her padded bust and pillowed rear should jostle as she moves. Mercutio brings this out in Act II when he makes her the butt of his giddy jokes. The clown William Kempe, notorious for his epic Morris-dancing and other antics, played her servant Peter in the early performances. Since he’s granted so few lines, his part must have relied on physical hijinks. Given his presence, we can visualize the sequence as vaudeville slapstick, with raucous horsing-around, lifted skirts showing hairy legs, mimed sexual congress, and other ham-fisted gags. For once, the Nurse enables Mercutio to concretize his airy wit, and he serves her up as a stale pubic-hair pie, literally as well as morally.
The Friar is another figure of fun, though he wears his absurdity in subtler shades. At bottom, like the Nurse, he’s little more than a stereotype: we meet the species throughout medieval literature. It reaches full bloom in Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Rabelais, whose Frère Jean des Entommeurs echoes his own life as a semi-secular cleric. This sort of monk hardly seems Christian anymore; he’s more interested in worldly pursuits—like brewing potions or meddling in family feuds, in this case— than praying to the Lord in his cell. Tolerant of peccadilloes, Friar Laurence vicariously lives his protégés’ sins; more than a confessor, he aids and abets their escapades. In his initial monologue he sounds more like a devotee of Ceres, or even chthonic Proserpine, than of the Trinity; his excursus on poisonous plants is darkly prophetic. But most of the time his tone comes off as semi-parodic, a flash-forward to Polonius, and his verses echo the simple lilt of folk-wisdom saws. The advice he doles out smacks of Seneca more than the Bible; and at any rate, it is always undercut by his mendacity. The whole plot of the play hangs on a dense web of lies, and the Friar is the spider at its center, as devious as any éminence grise at a Renaissance court. Pitilessly, he makes the Capulets believe their daughter is dead; he doesn’t seem to care how horribly they and Paris suffer. His sidekick is the Nurse, with whom he constantly schemes in tandem. But like her he’s a bumbler, jinxed by his own shortsightedness—as when he hinges the lovers’ fate on a single letter, entrusted to a monk even more desultory than himself.
THE LAST TWO paragraphs are deliberately overstated; varying directors, actors—and interpreters of every kind—could produce many other versions of these roles. Gathering herbs is a time-honored monastic task—laborare est orare: at the Certosa di Pavia and many other abbeys, one can buy medicinal teas to this day. Far from treating us to a Punch and Judy show, the Friar and Nurse break the well-worn molds into which they are cast. It’s Shakespeare’s hallmark to make his tragic characters partly comic, his comic characters partly tragic. Lear can jest with the Fool because he’s an old fool himself; and for all his melancholy, Hamlet relishes his own clever quibbles. Like all clowns, the Nurse is ultimately sad: she’s already lost her daughter and her husband, and at the end of Act Three she’s spurned by Juliet, the last person who still loved her. By spoiling her foster child, she ushers her into the grave. Her betrayal of the family that sheltered her for so many years comes harshly to light, and all she has before her are “days of woe.” As the Friar gamely admits in his final testimony to the Prince, he bears the guilt for all that has happened, and his only hope is an early death. The roads to hell of both Nurse and Friar are paved with good intentions; their greatest fault is indulging the young lovers to excess. Too far-sighted not to stumble, the Friar pursues his master plan of reconciling the hostile clans. Too myopic not to fall, the Nurse only reacts to the pressures of the moment. In dramatic terms, they both stretch the tripwires that make Romeo and Juliet so suspenseful. Their bungled coaching sends all the personae down a steep slalom course of zigzagging moods.
That hypnotic interplay between comedy and tragedy also animates the Capulets, who would be classified today as “dysfunctional parents.” Lady Capulet seems amusing at first, when she upbraids her husband for being too rickety to fight—from which, as from Juliet’s age, we might conclude that she is younger than he. She appeals to us as well when she good-naturedly cedes to the Nurse as Juliet’s adoptive mother. But when she condemns her daughter to an early grave in Act Three, and tells her she’s “done with her,” her character turns sinister. At this point, she almost seems more attached to Thybalt than to Juliet; some directors have even found an incestuous strain in her fondness for her nephew, whose vigor contrasts with the decrepitude of her spouse. A tippler always ready for a fete, Lord Capulet sets his social-climbing goals above his daughter’s happiness. He violates his own precept, expressed at the beginning of the play, that Juliet’s suitor should woo her properly before he asks for her hand. He rushes her into marriage with County Paris to improve his family’s lineage, and to ensure the Prince’s support against the Montagues, since Paris is the sovereign’s cousin. Capulet’s jovial fraternizing with the servants—he offers to serve as housekeeper himself in Act IV—suggests his origins may be inferior to his wife’s. This may explain his determination to rise in the world by using his fortune, often mentioned in the play as immense: though a noble, he behaves like a nouveau riche. The hefty dowry at stake also casts the sincerity of Paris in a dubious light. In his over-eagerness, by advancing the wedding day, Capulet precipitates the final disaster.
Even more strongly than his wife—who finds him “too hot”—Capulet curses his daughter for refusing to marry the Count. He calls her a harlot, and threatens to eject her into the street. Like Lady Capulet, he wishes her an early death. Such imprecations offend a modern audience. We’ve been schooled by the Romantics—and their Hollywood heirs—to “give all to love,” in Emerson’s phrase, and so we automatically take Juliet’s side against her elders. But the Renaissance spectators of the play would undoubtedly have found the Capulets’ stance at least as valid as hers— probably more so. Long before the era of children’s rights, sons and daughters were expected to obey their parents unquestioningly. Long before the advent of women’s liberation, a girl was supposed to submit to them even more humbly than a boy, especially in matters of marriage. Given the wide diffusion of the play, both on stage and in print, parents may well have used it as a warning to their children: Look what will happen if you disobey us. Such moral admonitions run uniformly through Shakespeare’s sources, from Masuccio and da Porto to Boaistuau and Brooke. His innovation consists in challenging those old-fashioned views, and winning our sympathy for the defiant lovers. But unless we find our way back to the attitudes still prevalent at the time, and try to share to some degree the Capulets’ dismay, we lose sight of the dynamic forces at work in the play, failing to grasp how revolutionary it must have seemed. Just as Shakespeare undermined gender roles, he also subverted the generational dictates of his day: another transmutation—of sacrosanct family values—from old to new. A similar displacement occurs in the sonnets, when the “increase” poems, urging the filial duty of procreation, suddenly give way to sonnet 18, which makes beauty an end in itself.
TIME, TIME, TIME, like the sonnets again, this play is obsessed with time, the threatened and distorted time of love. At another level, the writing itself hovers on a temporal threshold, looking backward and forward at once. Janus-like, Elizabethan drama retrieves literary modes from the Middle Ages and Antiquity, while anticipating the long-range future of the stage with uncanny prescience. The Nurse ticks off the petty events of Juliet’s childhood, sensually seeing time from up close like a creature of nature, while the Friar represents a divine sense of timeless continuity, sub specie aeternitatis. But for Juliet, human all-too-human, time is already elastic, as in the theory of relativity: it’s always either too slow or too fast. Too slow as she delivers her epithalamium on the couple’s wedding night; too fast as she admits, at the end of their aubade, that the nightingale is really the morning lark. By placing both those scenes in Act III—the fulcrum of the work, where it seesaws from comedy to tragedy— Shakespeare accentuates their contrast. The whole play takes place over a few days: they seem short for so much to happen, but grow long in their intensity, which distends them till they explode. In the imagery of these lines, suns course through the sky in a heartbeat, or pace with a leaden step; ephemeral bodies are cut into deathless stars, and mortal eyes replace heavenly orbs; dawns are prolonged and then accelerated, in the space of a verse or two. As opposed to the fixed temporal spheres of medieval allegory—though admittedly, these too can veer, as Borges shows in his essays on Dante—time has been reshaped by Shakespeare to fit more unstable visions, ghostlier demarcations. Like the architectural backdrops in Renaissance paintings, with their disappearing corridors and chiaroscuro arches, time is both lengthened and foreshortened, its perspectives looming in and out simultaneously. Tragedy moves swiftly and inexorably, Daniel Javitch has observed, while comedy meanders at its leisure: here again, Romeo and Juliet embodies both genres at once.
Comically dithering, the servant in Act I begins the erosion of names that will mark the play throughout: he can’t read the invitation list, so the names of the guests are as muddled as himself. But as Romeo points out to the Friar in Act III—once the tragic mode has set in—his very name is as deadly to Juliet as gunshot, and just as rapid in destroying her. She intones that name over and over again, subjecting it to a magic incantation. She insists on stripping it away from him, till he becomes a hand or foot, an arm or face, or “any other part belonging to a man”: the anonymous body of the lover, seen erotically as only a series of details. At her behest, he ceases to be the heir apparent of a noble dynasty and joins the binary star of their amorous vacuum, isolated from family, place, and time. She plucks him out of ordinary life and places him in an extraordinary death. She makes herself the ultimate object of his pilgrimage, sending his “pilgrim” name on a series of side-trips, until it focuses on herself. She is the altar on which he must be sacrificed. In the sonnets, Shakespeare rings the changes on his own name, elevating it into an abstract, powerful “will.” Here, the opposite takes place. Juliet puns the epithet “Romeo” into oblivion through her word-play on “rosemary,” an impersonal object, as reported by the Nurse in Act II. Consistent with the gender-blurring of the play, the conversion of Romeo into Rose-Mary further undermines his identity. It’s no coincidence that in Act IV, the rosemary intended for Juliet’s wedding will now be recycled at her funeral: a radical inversion that conflates all symbols into ciphers. As the characters reiterate, death has become her bridegroom, the grave her marriage-bed. Names, like all words and signs, have been drained of their sense by the tragedy within which they die embedded, buried in a register beyond our grasp.
What is Juliet’s all-consuming love if not the ardor of poetry itself? Shakespeare recapitulates and perfects inherited forms, like the epithalamium and the aubade, even as he bends them forcefully to the theatrical needs of his plot. While brilliantly reshuffling its rhetoric, he demonstrates that Petrarchism must crumble before his ground-breaking idiom, which renders it obsolete. That idiom moves in three tenses at once: burning with the heat of the moment, it hearkens back to old Anglo-Saxon diction, even as it speeds toward an unforeseeable future. Standing in one of those many later phases, after Melville, Stevens, Berryman, and Shakespeare’s other heirs, we can attest how contemporary his verse still sounds, though we cannot begin to guess where his impetus will propel our letters next. Juliet takes possession of the old poetry in the form of Romeo himself: he’s a corpus in more ways than one, and she proceeds to make his tropes incarnate, to ravish and to ravage them. They perform a final Petrarchist sonnet in the encounter scene, sealed by a physical kiss; but then they defy the heritage that mires them down, that shrouds their love in hate like an oxymoron, that entombs their bodies in a dead tradition. From now on these lovers struggle to transcend the topoi even as they infuse them with new blood. They found a supple order of unrhymed verse, destined to convey any mood or any subject that comes to hand—comic, tragic, or both. They improvise outside the verbal norms, adapting to each situation as they find it. They embrace each instant on its own terms, grieving or elated. They throw off the shackles of their lives and of their language: through them, word by word, Shakespeare invents the modern.
2. The Alchemy of Gender.
ONE OF THE SATIRICAL STRAINS IN ROMEO AND JULIET looks forward to Shaw’s Pygmalion. “For never was a tale of more regret/ Than this of Romeo and his Juliet.” It doesn’t end like that, of course; instead, it closes with “Juliet and her Romeo,” which almost mockingly rhymes with “woe.” Her Romeo: he’s Juliet’s creation, her male Galatea. Discarding his past, his family, his name, she carves him out as a set of body-parts—“a hand, a foot, an arm, a face”—and blithely alters his course. She’s the one who avows her love to him, asks him to marry her, and bids him to arrange the wedding. By the end of the balcony scene, he’s begging her to demote him from a trained falcon to a little bird, tied to her finger by a silken string. Her magnetic will, transmitted by the Nurse, pulls him from the Friar’s cell to the hymeneal bed. Such is Juliet’s empowerment that we could almost vaunt her as the first liberated woman in our literature.
It would be intriguing, and justifiable, if some future production cast a man as Juliet, and a woman as Romeo: this would be consonant with the imaginary gender roles of the time. In the tragic vein as well, Juliet’s part is a metaphorical Hosenrolle, when gauged by the sexual conventions of the day. By carrying a knife in Act IV, and stabbing herself at the climax, she refers us back to the lewd word-plays on phallic swords and vaginal sheathes throughout the text: in more ways than one, she penetrates herself. Giving up the ghost like a warrior, she mimes the heroes of previous tragedies, those celebrated men the Prologue excludes from this “household” drama. But if she dominates the play as a whole, in Act V Romeo suddenly leaps beyond her: when she fakes her death, she no longer steers his movements. All the same, it’s her very immobility that sets him in motion, till he surmounts his limited self and arrives at a repose even deeper than her own. Paradoxically, in the confines of the charnel house, an unlimited vista opens out before him, a window on earthly redemption—the vita nova inside a tomb, without any heaven for its prize.
As Christian Billing concludes in his study of corporality in early English theatre, it’s dubious to talk about the role of women in Shakespeare, since no woman ever appeared in his plays. The gender transmutations in Romeo and Juliet would have slipped into place more easily when both actors were teenage boys, virtually interchangeable beneath their clothes. By banning women from the stage, the Elizabethans devised a “through the looking-glass” world, which their plays preserve for us in amber. This characteristic feature of their theatre sharply differentiated it from dramatic practice on the continent. Until recently, all-male performances of Shakespeare were still frequent in the English-speaking world, especially in boarding schools. Nowadays no one would advocate the appearance of underage boys in romantic roles like that of Juliet, though this was the norm in the English Renaissance. Avoiding that particular excess, Mark Rylance revived all-male versions of Shakespeare during his tenure as artistic director of the New Globe (balanced by all-female renditions, in a welcome display of fairness); and Billing’s men-only troupe has performed a number of Early Modern plays. Otherwise, except for avowedly “camp” productions of the comedies here and there, the tradition has all but vanished.
Elizabethan performances, we can imagine, were neither “camp” nor exempt from “camp,” judging by the gender pranks in comedies like Twelfth Night or As You Like It. As for the tragedies, gender ambiguity must have aimed at very different stage effects. In the last fifty years, an authenticity movement has championed the execution of Renaissance music on original instruments. Since antique sackbuts, viols, shawms, or theorboes can’t satisfy the huge demand, many are painstakingly crafted from scratch in contemporary workshops. Employing countertenors rather than women in early opera is now a common practice as well. While we would never want to forego hearing a master like Glenn Gould play Byrd and Gibbons on the piano, we rightly expect to enjoy those same pieces on the harpsichord. All this begs the question why recreations of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater usually limit themselves to costume and stage design, without reinstating the same-sex casts that inevitably colored the look and sound of the plays—and, it might be argued, their very essence.
WE TOO READILY assume that on Shakespeare’s stage, males merely stood in for females, and that spectators disregarded their actual gender. But as Japanese critics often observe about the onnagatas of Kabuki—a genre that arose coevally with Elizabethan theatre, by happenstance—the sustained balancing act between one sex and another forms the whole fascination of the performer’s art. The onnagata moves as on a tightrope, and his tour de force derives its power only from the public’s constant awareness of the gaping void below. Though all acting is translation, here the target language is extreme, and the interpreter’s skill must rise to the task. For about a century, from the 1560s to the 1660s, English audiences admired such prowess as much as Kabuki followers do today: Pepys’s remarks about Edward Kynaston in his diary, and the adulation surrounding this famed impersonator, attest to the fact; and the same would have applied to earlier actors like Alexander Cooke of the King’s Men, often thought to have premiered Shakespeare’s ingenues. In The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, or As You Like It—where for a while Rosalind is a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl—the playwright shuffles gender to comic ends, often with deeper implications. In her essay on the mock wedding in the Forest of Arden, Susanne Wofford elucidates how the slightest semantic shifts can heighten both erotic performance and the authority of theatre itself. In tragedy, similar sleights-of-hand could still lend a special edge to the roles of Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra (as Rylance proved in his 1999 season as the Queen of the Nile, to widespread acclaim). Like linguistic, cultural, or genre translation, gender translation adds a distancing effect to drama, enhancing its strangeness and suspense. Is this he or she, or both? In that sense, having women play men’s roles serves the same purpose in reverse. Before Kabuki became all-male, it was all-female: it’s not the gender so much as the transmutation that counts.
This may explain the immense popularity of Elizabethan troupes such as the Children of the Chapel, in which no adults took part at all—though the plots were anything but childlike: witness the erotic subversions of Lyly’s Gallatea, performed by the Paul’s Boys company. This was translation of a different kind, from one age-group to another. Of course, grownups did predominate in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, famous for the tragedian Richard Burbage and the comedian William Kempe—a fact that brings up another controversy. Scholars disagree about whether the female roles in Shakespeare were played by boys, teenagers, young men, or older men; but the most logical answer is: all of the above. According to some scraps of evidence, the age of female impersonators often hovered between twelve and nineteen, but the research is hopelessly inconclusive. In a troupe with relatively few members, why not make use of all of them? Casting choices within a repertory company may have changed from day to day, as a function of illness or other factors. In some instances, it would have been easier for an older man than for a boy to portray an older woman, since the wrinkles were already there. Experience may also have mattered: the Kabuki onnagatas are thought to reach their peak as they approach middle age, their skills having ripened to perfection. The size and weight of the actor probably counted for something as well. In the Q2 edition of Romeo and Juliet (1599), William Kempe is identified as playing Peter, the Nurse’s servant. Since he often takes the stage with her, we can surmise she was mainly meant as a comic figure. By choosing a larger-than-life actor to perform the part, no matter what his age, the director could make her appear all the more obstreperous. As for tragedy, the same tactic would make the mannish, “unsexed” Lady Macbeth seem doubly imposing, or Regan and Goneril even more overbearing.
In any case, we can safely assume that the boys playing Romeo and Juliet were beardless teenagers. Both the Nurse and Capulet assure us that Juliet is not yet fifteen, and if the actor portraying Romeo were equally young, their mirrored androgyny would foster the gender-blurring so often favored by Shakespeare, in Venus and Adonis as well as in the sonnets and plays. This was actually a pan-European trend: over the next two decades, D’Urfé will exploit similar ambiguities in his L’Astrée; and Cervantes, in his Persiles y Sigismunda. But these are both prose works; as already mentioned, in the theater this kind of ambivalence was an English specialty, driven by the exclusion of women from the stage. As Stephen Orgel points out in Impersonations, his comprehensive study of the subject, foreign visitors often expressed surprise at the absence of actresses in British performing troupes. In her essay on Lyly, Shakespeare, and Jonson, Phyllis Rackin maintains that the “boy heroine” of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama signals a shift from idealization to irony in the portrayal of the androgyne. The text of Romeo and Juliet explicitly erases the sexual borders in many passages. For example, in Act Three, when Romeo is sentenced to exile, the Friar chides him for weeping and moaning; he calls him an “Unseemly woman in a seeming man.” Conversely, when the Friar gives Juliet the potion, he warns her not to succumb to “womanish fear.”
THE ELIZABETHAN FONDNESS for bear-baiting and public executions is well-documented, and the heroine’s ghoulish ranting in Act Four was no doubt as spellbinding for her audience as horror films for many movie-goers today. But despite the gory consequences she conjures up for herself, she downs the fearsome draft “like a man”; and later, she stabs herself, whereas Romeo chooses the more genteel method of self-poisoning. With “virile” fortitude, Juliet summons the courage to defy her parents to their faces, something Romeo never does. Her revolt would have scandalized Renaissance onlookers, who expected even more obedience from a daughter than a son. Subliminally, a single factor may have blunted their hidebound reaction: under her lavish gown—usually a hand-me-down from court— Juliet was a boy. This kind of ambiguity, blinking in and out of consciousness, seems inherent to Shakespeare’s plays, and we are shortchanging ourselves by doing without it. We can’t expect to see them performed by all-male casts very often, but directors could compromise by blending cross-dressers into their productions here and there, women as well as men. This would be enough to restore some of the author’s metaphorical intent. In Romeo and Juliet, the smooth-cheeked Mercutio and Benvolio could be portrayed by women, or the middle-aged Ladies Capulet and Montagu by men.
If a modern staging presented only one gender-bender among its dramatis personae, it would have to be the Nurse. (In the present context, I would like to repeat the comments I made above in Essay 1.) Shakespeare greatly expanded her role when compared with Brooke’s account, presumably to please his audience. Judging by their measured remarks, her fellow cross-dressers, Lady Capulet and Lady Montagu, were meant to be believable. But the Nurse’s over-the-top “attitude”—in current slang—prompts us to imagine her as an unconvincing drag, a large-boned buffoon with stubble on her chin, whose gestures balloon as uncontrollably as her words. From the start, this virago comes on strong, more of a caricature than a character. As I conceive her, the Nurse’s mannishness belies the maternal prattle of her opening shtick; as she quotes her vulgar husband, her bawdiness melds with his. Wherever she goes, double-entendres stick to her like burrs. She dominates the stage, goading the groundlings to untrammeled laughter.
The British have always been fond of acts like this; Dame Edna Everage—massive, shrewd, and dirty-minded—is but the most recent avatar. On a more primitive plane, in carnivals and variety shows, the same blowsy archetype recurs throughout the world: the fake old lady, a staple of popular satire. Thanks to her former profession as a wet-nurse, we might conjecture that the Nurse’s contours should look especially overblown; her padded bust and pillowed rear should jostle as she moves. Mercutio brings this out in Act II, when he makes her the butt of his giddy jokes. The clown William Kempe, notorious for his epic Morris-dancing and other antics, played her servant Peter in the early performances. Since he’s granted so few lines, his part must have relied on physical pyrotechnics. Given his presence, we can visualize the sequence as vaudeville slapstick, with raucous horsing-around, lifted skirts showing hairy legs, mimed sexual congress, and other ham-fisted gags. For once, the Nurse enables Mercutio to concretize his airy wit: he serves her up as a stale pubic-hair pie, literally as well as morally.
Etymologically, the Greek equivalent of translation is metaphor: both words mean transference, the displacement of meaning from one context to another. Acting can be understood as an extended metaphor that shifts one human being into another, down to every tic and turn of phrase. In Renaissance and early Baroque Europe, theatre-goers relished metamorphoses, the more flamboyant the better. But compared to the productions at the French or Italian courts, with their spectacular machines, elaborate sets, and extravagant costume-changes, the English drama focused most of all on the personal transformation of the actors, through the medium of the words themselves. Though Shakespeare may not have foreseen that his plays would appear one day in linguistic transpositions, refracted through a hundred different tongues, he consciously mastered the art of gender translation. If audiences could witness that alchemy more often on stage, they would gain a better grasp of the driving force behind his work, the power of metamorphosis. Not surprisingly, that same dynamic was also crucial to his age as a whole: the principle of mutability, invoked by Spenser in his final cantos as “the euer-whirling wheele/ Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway.”
3. The Plays Outside the Play.
DESPITE THEIR UNIVERSALITY, Shakespeare anchors his plays in a specific present; a showman first and foremost, he caters unabashedly to his audience. Romeo and Juliet, even more than his other works, condenses and mocks the principal trends of the time, parading clichés familiar to groundlings and gallery-viewers alike. Besides Petrarch and his followers, the playwright lambastes Machiavelli and Castiglione, the recognized authorities on self-seeking diplomacy throughout Renaissance Europe. Consider Il Principe, a bestseller since 1532: not for nothing does Shakespeare set the action in Catholic Italy, with its insidious priests and poisons, and not for nothing does a Prince preside over the comic outset, fateful turning point, and tragic end of the work. The Nurse and the Friar ply the other personae with a constant fodder of lies, as Elizabethans would expect from petty intriguers in a minor Italian state. But in the scenes with her parents in Acts III and IV, Juliet surpasses her accomplices and becomes the master-Machiavellian. When frankness doesn’t serve her ends, she manipulates the Capulets with a series of half-truths—similar to the feints of the gentlemanly art of fencing, so often parodied in the text.
In Il Cortegiano, another bestseller from 1528 onward, Castiglione recommends two closely-linked policies to the aspiring courtier: purposeful dissimulation and sprezzatura, “feigned nonchalance.” As Daniel Javitch has shown, Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie—a widely-read treatise published in 1589, five or six years before Shakespeare wrote his play—upholds these principles as pillars of aesthetic as well as courtly practice. Accordingly, I would posit that Romeo starts off as a Petrarchist, in line with older literary fashions; but from the secret wedding onward, he behaves like a would-be cortegiano, who alters his covert motives with every breath he takes. Seen from that angle, Juliet’s objection to his outmoded amatory palaver is that it’s too pat, too obvious. His discourse needs to be calibrated with his new-found art of subtle deception, of hiding his true goals. But don’t her own sincere outpourings contradict that philosophy? After all, she speaks with stirring conviction of her “boundless love,” which is not “by the book.”
This is where sprezzatura comes in: there is a second remove to her ingenuousness, and to the play as a whole. By couching her response to Romeo in ever-changing, adaptable terms, Juliet attracts him as no fustian mistress—a distant Laura or mannered Rosaline—could ever have done. As she says herself, by refusing to be “strange” or unapproachable, she runs counter to the conventions; but this only makes her all the more provocative. The same method informs Shakespeare’s poetics. Hinting at his concealed intent, he seduces us with a showy Petrarchist sonnet in the encounter scene, only to toss it aside: it’s immediately lost in the action at hand, the hubbub of the fete. By contrast, his unrhymed verse in the balcony scene poses as casual and spontaneous, though its mimetic strategy is even more cunning. Once more, in Romeo’s soliloquy over Juliet’s corpse, Shakespeare pulls out all the stops, and yet the metaphors sound inevitable, almost unassuming. The loose medium of theatre allows him a naturalism that more formal literary genres could never afford.
IN ÆSTHETIC TERMS, this is the very definition of sprezzatura, the word coined by Castiglione: accomplishing something difficult, while making it seem easy—the highest level of deception. In his Ars Poetica, Horace had already propounded the axiom: the greatest art is hiding art, ars est celare artem. While Shakespeare took pains to publish his narrative poems, as far as we know he made no effort to publish his plays. This would lead us to believe that he considered his dramatic output a lesser category of writing, and yet he minutely crafted each and every syllable. If he adhered to this hierarchy of genres, he was merely following the norms of his era; later on, Jonson would be derided for presuming to print his plays among his “works.” But like Marlowe before him, Shakespeare invested his genius in the stage, while only appearing to hold his creations for the boards in small regard. As opposed to the ostentatious artifice of the lyric canon, Elizabethan theatre is an immense display of “feigned nonchalance.” Sometimes, with their throwaway lines—or even their presumed “disposable” scenes—these playwrights can still manage to fool us.
Nowhere does Shakespeare marshal his effects with more ulterior design than in Act IV, the most underrated section of the play. When film-makers or stage-directors want to edit, they do most of their cutting here. The last scene is usually the first to go, though it has more to say than any other in the work, paradoxically by saying nothing (I will return to this point further on). Throughout the act, Shakespeare artfully inflates or understates each episode; he piles up an accordion-like tension, a kind of foreplay to the final act’s denouement. Act IV is all Juliet’s: Romeo is in exile, from the stage as well as from Verona—swept aside until his last surge of grandeur. He escapes the histrionics of the other personae, which range from Juliet’s horror-show soliloquy to the tear-jerking clichés of County Paris, and from the cynical pieties of the Friar to the inchoate sobs of the Nurse. Once she believes Juliet has died, the lubricious old busy-body stops in mid-sentence: she drops her unsavory wit, and never recovers it. All she can do is repeat the same stark monosyllables: “day, day, day,” of “woe, woe, woe.” She was always the most primitive mechanism driving the play, reacting to each event with no foresight or depth. Now the flimsy watch-spring has broken: tick tock, tick tock, she winds down in despair. The Capulets turn bathetic as they mourn for their daughter; frivolous before, now they are wiser and more eloquent. This is Juliet’s apotheosis, as the parents who unjustly berated her grieve for their “one poor and loving child.” But Romeo will trump their love even in this, by embracing her death with a mysterious gladness. If Act IV is all hers, Act V is all his.
Already in the opening speech of Scene I, Romeo declares that “love’s shadows are rich in joy.” Even when he learns of Juliet’s fate, he never pauses to rant and moan, like the characters in the previous act. In his hard-won maturity, he challenges the stars; he defies the oppressive order of nature and society. Has nature given him life? He will cast it aside. Has society granted him a lofty rank? He will renounce it. Earlier in the play he was as blind as a Petrarchist Cupid; his moping over Rosaline simply behooved a young man of his station. He scarcely knew what to make of Mercutio’s riff on Queen Mab, too unfettered for his circumscribed mind. But in his speech of Act V about the apothecary’s shop, Romeo also unpacks a bag of curios—though now they correspond to the magic of the real, not the fantastical. His words are a pendant to Mercutio’s, yet they are grounded in everyday life: no ideas but in things, down to the last “packthread and musty seed.” Tellingly, each is presented as a memory; with Juliet dead, the world has already sunken into the past. In startling detail, at the climax of the play, Romeo confronts the pain of the dispossessed: the ruin of a pharmacist, impoverished by an economic crisis. The wretch is reduced to breaking the law, the judicial vise of a system that has broken him. He has to barter his soul for money—far worse than any poison he might sell. As Romeo asserts, unalloyed gold, seemingly so pure, “does more murder in this loathsome world/ Than these poor compounds.” He makes his first and only comment on the society in which he was raised, and it could hardly be more damning.
IN HIS FINAL monologue, Romeo arrives at a sublime detachment, a transition from pained confusion to serene awareness. Foreshadowing the moment, Juliet had warned him in the balcony scene that their love was “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden”: “too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/ Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’” Now, over her inert body, he speaks the astonishing verses:
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry, which their keepers call
A lightning before death! Oh, how may I
Call this a lightning?
The key word is often printed as “light’ning” in modern editions. Repeated for emphasis, it carries a double charge: the primary meaning is lightness of spirit, a return to inner health; but the eye and ear also register it as light—a flash of lightning that illuminates the truth, dispelling the gloom of the charnel house. After so much obfuscation on every side, Romeo finds comfort in the plain fact of eternal rest, and seeks nothing further. Neither he nor Juliet, in her brief passage from sleep to suicide, will invoke an afterlife; in keeping with the playwright’s humanism, they accept their mortality without a qualm. In this lightning-stroke of clarity, Romeo will forgive everyone: forgive the poor apothecary, whom he recalls with his dying breath; forgive Tybalt for his senseless violence and hatred; forgive his rival Paris, whom he must now kill despite himself, in a last irony of fate. There could be no greater abnegation than Romeo’s, when he lays out the Count beside Juliet; he shows no hint of jealousy, only selfless and tender respect. At the court of Verona, there’s just one dissembler left: Death, who slyly preserves the living corpse of Juliet to be his paramour. Yet even he is pardoned; Romeo forgives him for ravishing his wife, still uncannily beautiful. Far ahead of his years, he achieves that “metanoia” Santayana assigns to middle-age: “an orchestration of transcended sorrows,” a radical change of heart.
THIS MIGHT PROMPT us to ask: Aren’t we hearing another voice in these lines, an unexpected overtone? If Paris stands for Petrarchist artifice, and Juliet for a freer lyric expression, then the third term is still missing: Romeo himself, who joins them in the mausoleum. With this difference: he has already superseded Paris since the end of Act One, though the latter dies with no awareness of the fact. When Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet, he honors Petrarchism even as he transcends it. In sonnets such as 31 and 55, written at roughly the same time as this play, Shakespeare compares his art to funerary monuments. His verse will enshrine the beloved more lastingly than marble or gilded effigies. The play goes still further: not only will the lovers be wed forever in the grave, their commemorative statues will be cast in solid gold. Part of the power of Romeo’s monologue is that the playwright is enacting his own trope of literary creation, which preserves human life in an eternal house of words. Prospero, in The Tempest, is often taken to represent the playwright himself, as he says farewell to his theatrical career, releases his attendant spirits, and “drowns his book” of literary spells. In the enduring stone of the tomb, Romeo commemorates a previous milestone, on which all the succeeding comedies, tragedies, and romances will depend: the author’s poetic coming of age. It is announced throughout the play—in the taut surety of Act One, a miniature of dramatic development; in the dialogue of the encounter sonnet; in the free-wheeling blank verse of Juliet; in the tragicomic originality of the Nurse; in the ad lib wizardry of Mercutio; and in the translations of literary precedents, genre, and gender that ripple through the text. But Romeo’s final speech sets a capstone to the whole—and the foundation-stone of every future edifice in English literature.
None of this diminishes the works that had gone before. No one would deny the value of the early comedies and histories (especially Richard III), or the brilliant flashes in the uneven tragedy, Titus Andronicus. But even in the great later histories—with the exception of the Falstaff passages, to which we will return—Shakespeare rarely departs from the outlines of Holinshed and his collaborators, bound as he is by the recorded deeds of heroes, usurpers, and kings. Symptomatically, we find no figure like Prospero among them, no conjurer of illusions. Richard II, in the mirror scene, or Richard III, in the nightmare sequence—the most extensive of its kind in the histories—only hint at what certain key characters in the other plays unveil. While the two Richards project their inner agony, it is limited to that, an evocation of private distress. If Shakespeare had confined himself to the histories, he would remain more of a national bard and less of a universal touchstone. In Romeo and Juliet, for the first time, he presents a visionary: Mercutio. His Queen Mab speech teeters on the verge of madness, abruptly suspending the plot; but it makes the other characters—and ourselves—see exactly what he wants us to see. In a meta-form of gender translation, Mercutio’s hallucinatory language converts him into Queen Mab, as he/she alights on a series of personae, drawn from life and reproduced. This is exactly what a playwright does: he or she possesses the audience like the Alben, the cousins of Queen Mab—though the dream instilled may be comic, not always a fearsome Albtraum. The dramatist sets the personae in motion, but also the imaginations of those who watch. And as Shakespeare demonstrates here, “realism” is simply another sleight of hand.
Earlier I noted the subterranean link between the Queen Mab passage and Romeo’s account of the apothecary, which gives a similar wealth of evocative detail in concrete rather than fanciful terms. If a Petrarchist triangle exists among Romeo, Juliet, and Paris—and a lyric triangle among Romeo, Juliet, and an evolving poetic voice—then there is a dramatic triangle among Romeo, Mercutio, and the playwright’s dissembled “will.” Romeo figures in each of these triangles, and always on the winning side—that of the “author”: not the historical Shakespeare, of course, but the authorial intent behind the plays. On a meta-level, this explains the oddly elated tone of Romeo’s monologue over Juliet’s living corpse, which his vivid words entomb. He celebrates the victory of a new love-verse over Petrarchism, which can now subsume anti-Petrarchism; of a new literary diction over the artifice and bombast of the past; and of a new dramaturgy over the time-worn sagas of famous men. This is the hidden source of the “lightning before death,” the subtext embedded in the play’s “triumphant grave.” In the succeeding works, the mind behind them never boasts openly of its gifts, as the resounding “will” behind the sonnets often did. With the deceptive sprezzatura theater affords, that mastery streams through all the characters.
ALL THE SAME, some still seem to represent the “author” more directly, because they—like him—induce their hearers to see visions bodied forth. After Mercutio’s demise, this capacity wanders unstably from him to Romeo, in a vague form of verbal metempsychosis. But already in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream—thought to follow closely on Romeo and Juliet—it settles more lucidly on the figure of Oberon, with Puck as his nimble agent, mischievous as his monarch’s words themselves. While the Queen Mab speech erupts out of nothing and leads us nowhere, here the playwright channels his fantasy, weaving it seamlessly with the plot. Oberon makes Titania, Bottom, and the Athenian lovers enact an evening-long spectacle, one he’s conjured up for all of us to watch. With self-confidence, the authorial puppeteer even parodies himself as Peter Quince, staging a hapless play-within-the-play; the device recurs to similar effect in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where Holofernes takes the lead. But in Hamlet the motif takes a different turn: this is the only drama in which the title-character mounts a play about a serious theme, and firmly directs the actors just as Shakespeare must have done. It’s no coincidence that Hamlet, of all the author’s inventions, is the character who’s most obsessed with words.
In the late plays such authorial alter-egos come to the fore even more markedly, and they are embodied by women as often as men. Gower, the ghostly narrator of Pericles, reduces the other personae to a “dumb show” which he voices over, an obvious prosopopoeia of the formative mind at work. Though understatedly, Paulina and Time play a comparable role in The Winter’s Tale. In both plays, as in Much Ado About Nothing—the earlier recasting of Romeo and Juliet as a comedy—the lamented loved ones are rediscovered in a shrine, whether church, chapel, or temple. All these structures recall the literary monuments in sonnet 55, or the mausoleum of remembrance in sonnet 31. But within the dramatic canon, they clearly have their origin in the Capulet tomb, which houses the lovers’ life within death. Like the sonnets, the late plays demonstrate that memory, sustained by the vivifying power of human speech, is the only form of resurrection. For Pericles, the reminiscences of his daughter, Marina, culminate in his vision of Diana, who leads him to the temple at Ephesus; there the high priestess reveals herself as his vanished wife Thaisa, long considered dead. Divinely ordained, she completes the recovery of his buried past.
Hermione, in The Winter’s Tale, reenacts the final sequence of Romeo and Juliet in reverse: if they die young, their bodies turned to gold, she is a wrinkled statue who comes to life. The coup de théâtre staged by her and her daughter heals the tragic blindness at the core of the plot. At the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero bids his daughter, Miranda, to retrieve her early history, lost in the “dark backward and abysm of time.” Later he will summon the gods themselves to perform for her and Ferdinand, only to disband them on a whim. And after controlling the waves and the wind through his necromancer’s art, he will release Ariel and discard his spells, bidding the audience farewell. If Prospero is the last in a succession of characters who let the “will” behind the plays peek through, Mercutio and Romeo are the first, and their closeness makes them synonymous. Like his later avatars, this dramaturgic “pilgrim”—the suggestive meaning of Romeo’s name, so often repeated in the play—echoes and fulfills the poetic “will” of the sonnets. The author’s wandering, spectral voice forms a vast adnominatio that threads through his works, no less compelling because oblique.
There are stand-ins for the audience as well, in Romeo and Juliet as elsewhere in Shakespeare. When he delivers his final judgment, the Prince becomes the spokesmen not just of Verona, but of all who’ve watched or read the play. Interviewing the witnesses—Friar Laurence, Balthasar, and the County’s Page—he untangles the plain events behind the lies. The secret marriage of the two young lovers was already deceitful, but Juliet’s bogus demise has taken the courtly art of mendacity to extremes. All along, the Friar has excused his surreptitious intrigues as means to a worthy end: the resolution of the city’s most intractable feud. His scheme has miserably, crushingly failed. Even so, as generously as Romeo, the Prince implies he will pardon this “good man.” He recognizes that by tolerating the vendetta between the Capulets and Montagus, he himself has pursued a botched policy; and because of this, he has “lost a brace of kinsmen.” In fact, all the members of the younger generation have been sacrificed to their elders’ folly: in Q1 (1597), the first published text, even Benvolio expires at the end of the play, following on the heels of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet.
Though the Prince metes out blame to several of his subjects, he starkly admits that “all are punished”; in most stagings, the entire cast assembles for this indictment. The play allows us to extrapolate that in every tragedy, the same principle applies: all are punished, but all are absolved. Like him—and following the example of Romeo’s ultimate forgiveness—we as spectators are also enjoined to pardon the feuding families: the vain and irascible Capulets, the aloof and absent Montagus. And we must also feel compassion for the reckless Nurse, the incompetent Friar, the hot-headed Tybalt, the ambiguous Paris, and the self-obsessed lovers themselves. The proposal of Lords Montagu and Capulet to have their children sculpted in gold underlines the falsity of their values, linking them to Romeo’s scorn for the metal’s “poison”; but by this time, however Midas-like, their intention is all that matters. When we see each situation as it is—and the witnesses, one by one, repeat the plot in rudimentary terms, stripping it bare of lyricism and pomp—then “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
But as I said earlier on, the heart of the play—the “heartless” heart—is the final scene of Act IV. Ill-assorted, often omitted, it takes on its full meaning only in retrospect. The House of Capulet is in mourning: the Nurse babbles her sorrow, Juliet’s parents are repentant, and Paris joins them in their laments, flat as his platitudes may sound. The concluding vignette leaves all that behind, looping back to the comic vein of the play’s first half. Returning from Juliet’s deathbed to her duties, the Nurse dismisses the musicians hired for the wedding. These are her last words, since she doesn’t appear at all in Act V; she ends her remarks with the phrase “a pitiful case,” and they promptly spin it into a pun. After her exit, they go on bantering with Peter, the Nurse’s servant. As Harry Levin has pointed out, it’s quite unusual for incidental musicians to speak so many lines. Like Peter, they are tertiary characters at best; but as the rest of the stage sinks into darkness, they move into the foreground. I think this must explain why such a minor role as that of Peter was assigned to the renowned farcical actor, William Kempe. As in the earlier scene he shared with Mercutio and the Nurse, we’ve probably lost track of the interlude’s full scope, since we can assume it was largely improvised. The musical references imply that it showcased the clown’s legendary singing, jigs, capers, and acrobatics, seconded by those of his fellow performers. With Juliet laid out behind them, in a space that will soon become her tomb, they would literally have danced beside her grave. In the text as it has come down to us, Peter and his companions chat about the popular tunes of the time, and the players wisecrack that they should at least get a meal out of their cancelled gig—for actors, an insider’s joke.
FROM ANOTHER SLANT, the playwright’s, these characters anticipate Romeo’s exultant “light’ning” in the tomb: a sudden removal from the tragedy, the transposition of its somber mood to a different tonality. More than in his lecture on Romeo and Juliet, Auden puts his finger on this aspect in his well-known poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Peter and the musicians resemble the “dogs going on with their doggy life” at a martyrdom, or the distracted ploughman and shepherd in Breughel’s painting. While Icarus falls to his death in the far-off background, barely a dot between the sea and the sky, they carry on just as before—up front and center-stage. Falstaff occupies this position in both the history plays where he appears; and of all the characters in the histories, he’s the one who most strikingly departs from the givens of the Chronicles. Subversive as a personality, he also subverts the genre itself, by drawing attention away from its usual depiction of notable men and their fabled deeds. This “huge hill of flesh,” his very name a self-deprecating pun on Shakespeare’s, seems to incarnate an authorial impulse: the wish to break free from an inherited form’s constraints, whether factual or aesthetic. Falstaff and Hamlet, in that order, are the creations most often identified with the playwright by his contemporaries; if Hamlet is his tragic counterpart, authorially speaking, then Falstaff is his comic alter-ego.
This may help elucidate why Falstaff overwhelms both parts of Henry IV, even invading Henry V from beyond the grave—another instance of resurrection through memory. That Falstaff later becomes the main subject of a comedy, the Merry Wives of Windsor, tells us how much he chafed against the genre into which he was born. In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse is a gender translation of Falstaff: crudely and maternally, she teases and pampers Juliet, just as he, roughly and paternally, ribs and coddles Prince Hal. Like Falstaff, the Nurse looms larger than life, threatening to disrupt the bounds of the play; but in the end, unlike Falstaff, she is not allowed to capsize the other characters. In his first major tragedy, Shakespeare controls the humorous counterpoint, traced not only by the Nurse but by the Friar, who anticipates such dithering figures as Cassio and Polonius. As to Peter and the musicians, they are the prototypes of all the clowns in the later plays who jest from the margins, in the graveyard or on the heath, representing the wisdom of everyman as the nobles’ bodies pile up. They are the “huge hill of flesh” parceled out, diffused, and subsumed into an overriding harmony.
Until Shakespeare, no one had ever told such unvarnished truth about how our pity and awe mingle with the everyday, the trivial. As the Prologue states from the outset, the “overthrows” of Romeo and Juliet are a “civil” mishap, not a grand agony of high estate. After the histories, with their chronicles of kings, or the imperial bloodbath of Titus Andronicus, this drama marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s work; part comedy, part tragedy, part romance, it bears the seeds of all his future plays. Even in Hamlet or Lear, the ordinary will remain onstage—as instanced by the spying of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Lear’s demand of supplies for his knights—no matter how relentless the losses become; and since everyone must die, nothing could be more mundane than death itself. In Romeo and Juliet, with clear-eyed honesty and wry indulgence, Shakespeare gives us Peter and the musicians, who will always be talking shop and cracking jokes at someone’s funeral. Again, all of us—weak, human-all-too-human, and just as we are—all are forgiven for being ourselves.
Stepping outside the drama, Shakespeare underlines this point even more deftly in Act II, when he quietly inserts a passage about forgetfulness, the annulment of our own inner scripts. I mean the moment on the balcony when Juliet calls Romeo back to her, then tells him she can’t remember why. Suddenly we are severed from the fast-paced plot, the restless sinew of the verse. As the two lovers look at each other, they no longer know why they are there; or more precisely, they no longer need to know. No action is required, and no words. Their simple presence, face to face, is world enough. Nothing has ever been written so artlessly, and with so much art, before or since. It is Shakespeare’s signature, emblazoned on our language—and even on our silence.
Hoyt Rogers, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is the author of a collection of poetry, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. His translations include the Selected Poems of Borges and three books by Yves Bonnefoy, The Curved Planks, Second Simplicity, and The Digamma. Openwork, an André du Bouchet reader, was recently published by Yale. He lives in the Dominican Republic and Italy.
Note: This article was updated after publication to correct a minor editing error.