Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare’s Finest Comedy

Leslie Howard (Romeo) and Norma Shearer (Juliet) from the 1936 MGM movie production, as we usually imagine them, in the infamous ‘balcony’ bit where she’s all “Wherefore art thou…” (Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/05ho7r)

“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Exeunt”

So ends this play of the harsh and horrible nature of the true love of a 13 year old girl to a young man of uncertain age but we’d guess somewhere between 16-20. You see where I’m going, here? At 13 I couldn’t pick which packet of crisps I wanted at the fucking tuck shop, never mind the human being I was ‘in love’ with. We’re talking 16th Century, Italian love here. No divorce, kids by the time she’s 14-15, potential death due to complication in childbirth because she’s an actual fucking child, that sort of love.

You can argue all the historicals you like, you can argue how women would be married off earlier then, seemed to mature quicker then – You could, indeed should, also argue that over the years humans have come to recognise that as deceptively old they may be in their appearance girls are girls and are well to be left alone. This is a tale of a 13 year old girl killing herself over ‘true love’ written by a man who had an, apparently, long, tedious marriage and crushes on mysterious dark women and handsome acting boys – if his sonnets are to be taken at face value. You’re telling me someone as experienced in life, and so-called ‘love’, as Shakespeare is writing this without his tongue firmly in his cheek? You trippin’.

The opening lines;

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,”

Betray the very nature of the play. This is sarcasm. The very next scene is of a much undignified scrap between Capulets and Montagues. True, the households are alike in dignity in that they immediately demonstrate none and the only thing ‘fair’ about Verona is the Prince who always seems compelled, though exhausted in his compulsion, to stop these two showers of idiots from murdering each other in the streets.

Then we have scenes where Mopeo…Sorry, Romeo, discusses love at length. Only he’s not talking about his love for Juliet, but another girl, Rosaline. When does this disposition change, how does his love for one morph into the love for another? Is it slowly, over a period of getting to know both young ladies for who they truly are?

No, it happens at a party where Romeo is likely to see Rosaline as a ‘crow’ compared to the other ladies and he ‘falls in love’ at first sight with Juliet.

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

I have to admit it is one of my favourite soliloquies in all of Shakespeare if only for its language out of context rather than the contextual meaning in it. You know it’s good because it got cut from that Baz Luhrman movie. This man who, until only a few moments ago was mopey in love with another has suddenly switched allegiances. Like a football (soccer) fan that jumps from Manchester City to Liverpool because the latter wins the cup, there’s something amiss if we’re discussing true love here. “Did my heart love till now?” Romeo asks, without asking the most obvious of questions “Does my heart love at all or is my dick just twitching?” Another important thing to note, I feel, is that Shakespeare was as careful in his language as any writer. “Did my heart love till now?” asks Romeo. Why? Because he “ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” He is in love from sight of beauty alone. Seems a little superficial if you ask me. One does not call every peeping Tom or voyeur a ‘Romeo’, yet, according to his own words – we should!

If you want the true hero of the play he presents himself as the playful Mercutio.

“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
Romeo, the she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!”

He says of his friend Romeo. This is, in my opinion, Mercutio saying what I think. Romeo’s thinking with his downstairs brain. Medlars were once known as the ‘open-arse’ fruit (or the ‘open et caetera’ as Mercutio politely puts it) and we can only imagine what he means by Romeo’s ‘poperin pear’! He’s basically saying our young man Romeo’s got the horn. He needs to disappear, have a wank and a think about what he’s doing in the cold light of post-nut clarity. Instead true-love’s hero goes and stands under a 13 year old girl’s window and professes love. Mercutio’s a genius, Romeo’s an idiot and this story is no more about love than a documentary about women who fuck anonymous men beside nightclub bins in the small hours is, except I’d be less judgmental of them than I am Romeo.

A medlar. Either people hundreds of years ago had some serious skintags or else one must assume the ones called ‘open-arse’ fruit are a different cultivar. (Credit: Rosser1954)

From this window they speak several words but I’ll paraphrase.

Juliet
                That dude was hot. I’d like to see him again.

Romeo
                I’m here, Juliet. I think you’re hot too.

Juliet
                But I’m so young.

Romeo
                Totally don’t care, hotness, I wanna bang you.

Scene

Exeunt followed by pedobear.”

Then we get to the character of Friar Laurence. He’s a tough character, a bit like Juliet’s nurse in that regard. You see they are both very procedural people, almost robotic in their necessity to ensure things are done the right way. It makes it easy to question whether they have any love or care for Romeo and Juliet at all or whether they are just following duties. Of the two the friar is the one who seems most friendly and genuine and least dutiful, however Nurse is the character who shows the greatest understanding of the nature of life, and the world. Especially when later on the Friar begins distributing strong poisons to children, we need to question his judgement somewhat.

We then get some conversation that, frankly, convinces a modern audience that Romeo and Mercutio should get together because they have such fantastic chemistry and Mercutio is often portrayed as gay. It works, so well.  

Next up we have more chit-chat, Shakespeare really was quite the Kevin Smith of his day, few action shots but a shit-ton of meandering dialogue that all eventually leads somewhere – and dick jokes- , between the Nurse and Romeo, and then the Nurse and Juliet and here we get something I find quite telling.

                “Well, you have made a simple choice; you know not
                how to choose a man: Romeo! No, not he; though his
                face be better than any man’s, yet his leg excels
                all men’s; and for a hand, and a foot, and a body,
                though they be not to be talked on, yet they are
                past compare: he is not the flower of courtesy,
                but, I’ll warrant him, as gentle as a lamb…”

It’s quite clear that Nurse think Romeo handsome, but she questions his ‘courtesy’. It is easy to see why.  Rather than do the responsible thing for the time, appeal to Juliet’s father, propose an alliance by marriage and end the gruesome war between Capulet and Montague he instead slinks and skulks behind backs. He sulks when he doesn’t get his way. He is rude, without merit, to others whose have his best interests, and a far greater knowledge of the miseries the world thrusts upon us, at heart. He knows best, of course he does, he’s a young man ‘in love’.

What does Nurse mean here by ‘courtesy’ other than that Romeo does not mean to win fair Juliet’s hand as a man but intends to steal it like a thief? The kind of irresponsible action likely to cause the kind of the trouble we shall see at the end of the play.

Regardless Nurse, dutiful as she is, agrees to her fair lady’s whims and facilitates her sneaking off to get married but before the end of the scene she says some very prescient words;

                “I am the drudge and toil in your delight,
                But you shall bear the burden soon at night…”

It’s a surprisingly multi-faceted couplet. She is obviously the hired help, ‘the drudge’ and therefore must work to make her mistress happy. Being a woman of the world, however, Nurse here is aware that what is to follow will soon cause Juliet pain. There is a reference to the discomfort of a lady’s first sexual experience but there is also a huge amount of dramatic irony, absolutely soaked, saturated in that line. It is as if Nurse knows this situation will not go well, no matter how much she wishes, indeed toils, for it.

There is a touch of Lear’s fool to the Nurse, although a little colder. She seems to speak in riddle sometimes, finding a way to say exactly what Juliet wants to hear (as a dutiful nurse should) and yet at the same time giving a smarter, less dick-drunk woman enough cues, clues and signs to suggest what she is up to is foolish. Indeed Juliet herself calls her “Honest nurse.”

We get similar warnings from Friar Laurence, not much later his little talk to Romeo seems to betray the whole meaning of the play;

                “These violent delights have violent ends
                And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
                Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
                Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
                And in the taste confounds the appetite:
                Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
                Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

These are the lines, If there is a touch of Shakespeare’s voice in this play, these are the lines. Just as we hear in Falstaff in Henry IV, as we hear in Lear’s Fool, as we hear in Hamlet, this is Shakespeare’s voice in Romeo and Juliet. This ‘love’ is fire and powder. It will not burn long, it will not burn bright, it will explode and consume. Just as with Nurse, Laurence is hoping all will work out well for the two young lovers, but somewhere, deep-down, he knows these things seldom do.

Shakespeare lives at a time when marriages of convenience are still a thing. When marrying your neighbour’s daughter to combine estates, marrying a strong woman who can carry your milking buckets, marrying the prince of a nearby Kingdom for political gain, was a done thing. Marriage for love was a secondary boon. Love, then, was bitter, if not entirely absent then hard earned, through fair treatment, commitment and provision. For many it was unrequited or unrequitable, at least if one was to remain moral. A true love, then, was a mutual regard that lasted a long time. A sharing of something together. It is not the explosive lust of ‘fire and powder’, but rather the steady, sensual drip of a warm candle. “Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.” Is a beautiful contradiction, but what does it mean in this context? That a love you rush into is as doomed as a love you delay trying. Romeo and Juliet are not in love. The nurse knows it, for Romeo is a handsome man, but prone to discourtesy, to improper behaviour, and as we saw when his eye wandered from Rosaline to Juliet, a bit of a womaniser. Laurence knows it for he has married couples for years and has seen convenience passing as love, love passing as convenience, explosive passions and true, mutual adoration all stand at his altar. Something of their natures, in Nurses’ case I believe her subservience and in Laurence’s case I believe his faith, wants them to believe in the best, though they know better. Romeo and Juliet cannot know it, for they are young, dumb and thirsty for it – such is the way.

Benvolio and Mercutio then have a beautiful treatise on the futility of violence before indulging in some futile violence, as if, in mirroring the common themes of this play, they recognise the folly of their actions before – or even whilst – committing them. Romeo thinks he can dispel the situation whereby Tybalt literally wants everyone dead by saying “Don’t do it dude, trust me!” which is a bit like King James I stumbling upon a bunch of men pushing gunpowder under the parliament building and them saying “Don’t worry dude, trust us!” It doesn’t work.

Romeo, being so stupid as to resist saying “Tybalt, I’m Juliet’s husband now, keep it on the hush-hush but don’t fucking kill anyone, okay.” Instead asks people to put their swords away when they want to play stabby-stabby and the upshot of it is Mercutio is stabbed and mortally wounded.

Again, being one of the few sensible characters in the play he curses both the house of Capulet and the house of Montague.

To an extent Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio. I wonder if there aren’t prior revisions of the script that have Mercutio live. His voice dominates and if you have ever seen a performance you know he eats the stage like a ten-ton termite when performed correctly. Mercutio is the biggest, wisest, most charismatic character in the play. I wonder if his death here is not because of that. If Mercutio lives to continue speaking throughout the rest of the play his voice would only serve to remind people quite how untragic the whole tale is and quite how much both Romeo and Juliet sort of deserve to die of their own stupid. His very last words are to that effect, he curses both their houses! Mercutio is almost a messenger of the fates, one who genuinely cared for the best and received only the worst. The Gods have to kill him off or else he will definitely, for the good of everyone, spoil the party. Especially given what happens next.

Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge.

Stupid.

Rather than, at this point, say “Tybalt! You killed my friend and kinsman but stop! I am your kinsman too, recently married to Juliet. Let’s cease this nonsense.” He instead indulges in nonsense with the best of ’em.

Benvolio plays grass and tells Prince what happened, who exiles Romeo and is so angry he drives off in his Little Red Corvette to a second hand store to find a girl with a Raspberry Beret. It’s lucky he has the roof up on his Corvette, as there is a forecast for some heavy showers of Purple Rain.

A lot of the rest of the play is dancing between the characters going “Oh, oh fuck me! Oh the humanity!” about the whole situation. Juliet sheds a few tears, people think she’s crying about Tybalt, she actually couldn’t give a shit because buff-boy Romeo is being exiled, Romeo puffs, pants and plans to run away somehow but not before endangering everything by visiting Juliet. At her house. Full of guards. Guards looking for Romeo. Not criticising. Do your thang, Solid Snake.  

I must add that to this supposed tragedy that already seems farcical there is now a new undercurrent of farce that Juliet is supposed to be being married off to a foppish man named Paris – which, since nobody is aware of her marriage to Romeo, they are still busy trying to make her a bigamist with. They, ironically, think she is sad about Tybalt and getting married will cheer her up, so they hasten proceedings. But, honestly, it’s a romantic tragedy about true love, I swear. It’s not a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It carries so many of the hallmarks of lots of Shakespeare’s other comedies, but – nope – tragedy.

Amongst all of this, though, Nurse has some sensible lines. The kind of words of wisdom that come from someone who has been around the block and knows which side of compromise is good and which side is ill. Juliet asks for comfort and Nurse replies;

                “Faith, here it is.
                Romeo is banish’d; and all the world to nothing,
                That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you;
                Or, if he do, it needs must be by stealth.
                Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
                I think it best you married with the county.
                O, he’s a lovely gentleman!
                Romeo’s a dishclout to him: an eagle, madam,
                Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
                As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
                I think you are happy in this second match,
                For it excels your first: or if it did not,
                Your first is dead; or ‘twere as good he were,
                As living here and you no use of him.”

Juliet asks “Speakest though from thy heart?”

And Nurse replies “And from my soul too; Or else beshrew them both.”

I think many people interpret this as Nurse’s cowardice and subservience, saying what she thinks Juliet needs to hear. They perceive it as her inability to understand true love’s nature between Romeo and Juliet and a working-class girl’s view, a view from the bottom, that sees a marriage to Paris as a social step-up, an advancement, even without love. I think that’s stupid. I think Nurse knows and understands that to be once in love is to be able to love again and it is better to be married to an unloved good-suitor than a lusty outlaw.

Why the name Paris? We know Shakespeare was an avid reader of the classics and Paris is a character in the Homeric epics. Paris is portrayed as a coward, preferring the use of the bow and arrow to hand-to-hand combat, and yet he bests many enemies in this way. He is even the one to take down the seemingly untouchable Achilles by shooting an arrow into his heel. In Romeo and Juliet, Paris is not so forward as Romeo, choosing instead to attempt to woo the fair lady Juliet in the old fashioned way, aping the Paris of Homer. He aims his arrow from a distance, and unfortunately the Aegis, the holy shield, of Romeo stands in its way. Is Paris a good match for a horny 13 year old only just discovering ‘herself’? Possibly not. But people change over time, and love, too, can grow from a seed to a beautiful flower over time. Nurse certainly seems to think well of Paris.

Have we reason to distrust Nurse? Well of course, she seems to have, as mentioned earlier, a habit of veiling what she truly means in words Juliet wants to hear. Is that happening here? I don’t think so. Nurse is more direct in her speech, more obvious in her intent and that question from Juliet and the answer from Nurse tell all. She does not speak from the heart, the organ that would protect Juliet in her intentions no matter how much Nurse disagrees, but from her soul too. What is the soul? Is it not the essence of being? An essence that is amorphous, and able to change over time, to learn with experience and to grow? Nurse does not merely think Juliet should forget Romeo and marry Paris because she hates Romeo, or because she thinks Juliet should give up on her ‘true love’, it is because she has learned, through sorry, bitter experience, that no good can come of chasing a dream destined to turn nightmare. She’s even honest enough to admit that even if her second match does not excel the first she should go with it anyway, because her first is as good as dead. If there is anything remotely like tragedy taking place in this play it is the ignorance of this advice.

Of course Juliet immediately rebels against it, because 13 year old girls always know best.

There’s then a bit where Juliet treats Paris like a complete prick, Paris takes it in as gentlemanly and polite fashion as befits a good man of his nature and that’s when Juliet has a discussion with Friar Laurence who decides, as an experieced man of the cloth, the best thing to do at this time is distribute death-mimicking narcotics to children.

I will refrain from making any allusions to, or criticisms of, any members of the modern day clergy.

Anyway, Juliet goes to bed, dismisses Nurse and then has her Garden of Gethsemane moment (that’s the bit in the bible where Jesus kinda gets a little existential and cold-feety but eventually is determined to see his fate through) and she chugs some poison. The passage itself is beautiful poetry, almost Gothic in its presentation, what one might call chthonian – of the underworld, and all the dark nature of man and death. As a passage of poetry it is gorgeous and my damn jam. In the context of the play it is overwrought nonsense spouted by a rebellious teenage princess who’d rather die than do what her parents want. It is the last we shall hear of Juliet until she wakes up dead. Which is actually hilarious.

The other thing that is hilarious is her entire family and her loved ones, her Nurse and her betrothed, Paris, all mourning this poor, pale, dead lamb. For one, she’s not a lamb she’s a fucking shark and for two she’s not dead. There is huge dramatic irony here in that the audience knows it, whilst the characters do not. How is this scene supposed to be in any way touching or emotional? Nurses’ overwrought cries, Lady Capulet’s elegant mourning, Capulet opining on the darkness of the day and Paris talking of the cruelty of life is all absolutely, side splittingly hilarious when you know Juliet is not dead. She is no innocent lamb, she is a spoiled brat. The only cruelty going on is the deception the bitch is pulling on her entire fucking family who she cares significantly less about than a man she met once or twice, decided to marry and fuck and then betray everyone else for. This play does not take place over the course of months or years, it’s days and weeks we’re talking. Imagine if your 13 year old daughter faked her death to be with her 20 year old boyfriend she’d known for literally days. You’d be horrified, outside observers would be horrified and theatre audiences should find it farcical and hilarious!

The farce thickens, though. We know what an emo git Romeo can be and he’s unlucky enough to be met by, not the messenger of Friar Laurence to tell him the plan, but someone else who tells him Juliet’s snuffed it. So he does the only sensible thing a man can do, right? Grieves, moves on with his life and does the best he can to be a good man and make the world a better place? Nah, he buys poison, determined to sneak himself into the Capulet tomb and kill himself there.

Seems sensible, in no way farcical and definitely tragic. Not funny. Nuh-uh.

Again, there are some great exchanges, some excellent dialogue and gorgeous, soulful poetry. The discourse between Romeo and the Apothecary

Romeo
                Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor:
                Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
                A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
                As will disperse itself through all the veins
                That the life-weary taker may fall dead
                And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
                As violently as hasty powder fired
                Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Apothecary
                Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law
                Is death to any he that utters them.

Romeo
                Art though so bare and full of wretchedness,
                And fear’st to die? Famine is in thy cheeks,
                Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
                Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
                The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law;
                The world affords no law to make thee rich;
                Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.

Apothecary
                My poverty, but not my will, consents.

Romeo
                I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.

Apothecary
                Put this in any liquid thing you will,
                And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
                Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

Romeo
                There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
                Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
                Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
                I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none…”

How can you not love it? Romeo begging for a ‘dram’ a small amount of tincture to end his life and finding only that the wretched looking apothecary dares not sell it to him under punishment of death, as is ‘Mantua’s law’. We then get shades of Alistair Crowley’s “La Liber Al Legis” from Romeo, who in his wreckless state mocks the apothecary for fearing death, as Romeo himself doesn’t at this point, tells him he looks half dead already and then tells him how the world and its laws are not his friend and he should ‘do what thou wilt’.

The apothecary then breaks the law, not because he wants to, but because he has to in order to survive. The end four lines of the quote are as relevant now as ever. Romeo’s diatribe about how money is a ‘worse poison’ and does ‘more murders in this loathsome world’ is as true as it has ever been.  “I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.” Oof, the amount of people who work in finance who must shuffle uncomfortably in their seats at The Globe when all this is being said…No wait, you’d have to have a conscience to do that and if you work in finance you already sold that.

But here’s the thing. For me the crowning glory of tragedy is having seen, or having knowledge of, the tragic figures having been happy. One could argue we have seen that with Romeo and Juliet who both act like impetuous, mopey, spoiled brats until they’re dancing together, chatting on a balcony or sneak-fucking. The thing is, do we actually see it? and are they actually happy? Is the skag addict happy slumped in the corner with a needle in his arm? Is the alcoholic happy with a bottle in his hand? Is the porn addict happy with their fifth wank of the day? These are two people craving each other as if addicted, rather than truly content and happy with one another and all we have ever seen of them is two people in momentary ecstasy, not long-term contentment. How can we know if they are truly happy together? They haven’t lived together, worked together, traveled together, argued, fretted, fought, experienced stress, trauma or loss together. We do not know either Romeo, or Juliet’s true happiness. So what purpose do melodramatic passages, full of chthonian imagery, full of angst and ire serve?

Well here’s the thing. For comedy to work we need to see behaviour at its most extreme get some form of comeuppance. We need to see the try-hard underdog succeed, we need to see the obnoxious dick fail or…maybe…we need to see the dumb, melodramatic teens die stupidly.

The negativities expressed by both Juliet in her scenes with Nurses and her dialogue before she takes the poison, and Romeo and the apothecary are both much better as a prelude to an hilarious, dark, farcical finish than they are to one of true love’s greatest tragedies.

In my opinion, for what it’s worth, which according to the mountains and mountains of literary criticism already existing on this play, is not much.

Then we find out the messenger Friar Laurence sent to Romeo couldn’t make it because when he got to Mantua they thought he had plague or something, and locked him up – Farcical, not tragic.

Then Paris goes to visit his dead betrothed, only Romeo turns up too, and they fight in the dark, with Romeo not even knowing who the other party is, and Paris gets killed – Farcical, not tragic.

Then Romeo drinks his poison. Like an idiot. Farcical.

Then Friar Laurence and Balthasar enter the scene and fuss and fret as if they are in a farce, not a tragedy.

Then Juliet wakes up and is all like “What the shit’s going on!?” and Laurence is like “Nothing! Don’t look over there, come with me!” in Farcical fashion. Only she does look over there and sees a dead Romeo. She gives him a kiss, hoping there’s enough poison on his lips to kill her but there isn’t so she has to stab herself instead. Seems a bit of a farce to me.

Now I am a huge fan of King Lear and King Lear ends with a similar amount of bullet-paced death. It could itself be considered farcical if it were not for the fact that those deaths are the result of some well thought-out plans. The deaths in Romeo and Juliet are the result of people barely thinking at all. Again for me a major difference between a tragic outcome and a comic outcome is how much the outcome was deserved and frankly Romeo and Juliet both bloody deserve it. Tybalt deserved it. If there are tragic deaths in Romeo and Juliet it is those of Paris who does nothing but be a doting betrothed and Mercutio whose only crime is being smarter, funnier and more charismatic than Romeo.

The ending is supposedly the coming together in tragic grief of the two families of Capulet and Montague, as the Prince declares that ‘Never was a story of more woe.’ But that’s bollocks. The real ending is the Cliff’s Notes provided by Friar Laurence as he explains the whole situation. A situation he, being a man of the cloth, clearly sympathetic, clearly wanting to go into great detail and clearly wanting to highlight the tragedy of this situation says;

                I will be brief, for my short date of breath
                Is not so long as is a tedious tale.

Surely such a tragedy deserves a long, dramatic explanation, not a precis because you’re a little short of breath. A tedious tale!? TEDIOUS TALE!? If you watched this play you watched about 3-4 hours of this fucking ‘TEDIOUS TALE!” why does Friar Larry here get to give a summary, because he’s a bit out of puff and otherwise it would be a ‘tedious tale’ but the audience had to watch the whole ‘tedious tale’ unfold. He continues;

                Romeo, there dead, was husband to that Juliet:
                And she, there dead, was Romeo’s faithful wife:
                I married them; and their stol’n marriage-day
                Was Tybalt’s dooms-day, whose untimely death
                Banish’d the new-made bridgegroom from the city,
                For whom, and not for Tybalt, Juliet pined.
                You, to remove that siege of grief from her,
                Betroth’d and would have married her perforce
                To County Paris: then comes she to me,
                And, with wild looks, bid me devise some means
                To rid her from this second marriage,
                Or in my cell there would she kill herself.
                Then gave I her, so tutor’d by my art, 
                A sleeping potion; which so took effect
                As I intended, for it wrought on her
                The form of death: Meantime I writ to Romeo,
                That he should hither come as this dire night,
                To help to take her from her borrow’d grave,
                Being the time the potion’s force should cease.
                But he which bore my letter, Friar John,               
                Was stay’d by accident, and yesternight
                Return’d my letter back. Then all alone
                At the prefixed hour of her waking,
                Came I to take her from her kindred’s vault;
                Meaning to keep her closely at my cell,
                Till I conveniently could send to Romeo:
                But when I came, some minute ere the time
                Of her awaking, here untimely lay
                The noble Paris and true Romeo dead.
                She wakes; and I entreated her come forth,
                And bear this work of heaven with patience:
                But then a noise did scare me from the tomb;
                And she, too desperate, would not go with me,
                But, as it seems, did violence on herself.
                All this I know; and to the marriage
                Her nurse is privy: and, if aught in this
                Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
                Be sacrificed, some hour before his time,
                Unto the rigour of severest law.

Needless to say the ‘rigour of severest law’ is not the fate of Friar Laurence because the whole world can see, through this summary, what a farcical clusterfuck the whole tale has been.

Having had the audience sit through the entire play why, then, does the Friar need to go on a bullet-point, summarising speech about what happened? One could argue the Prince has not been privy to the details and needs to know, thus the excuse for exposition, but the Friar can be taken off and that explained offstage. Why does this need to be presented to the audience? Why does it need to be presented, quite harshly for a supposed tragedy, a ‘brief’ so as not to be ‘a tedious tale’? In my opinion it’s simple. Shakespeare knows this story is a dumb love farce dressed up in tragedy’s clothing. The summary of this tale of tragedy and true love, in around 300 words, is darkly comical.  This is a Coen Brother’s movie in…what? 1597 was maybe the first known performance? It’s dark comedy, it’s funny.

She takes a poison to make her sleep like the dead, he turns up thinking she’s dead, actually poisons himself, she wakes up, realises he’s dead and stabs herself. Put that to some vaudevillian music and you’ve got a bundle of laughs.

I wasn’t there in 1597 to see how it was received but we know marriage, love, togetherness – it was a different ball game back then. Literacy was low; few were the stories of ‘true love’ to give people an image, an idea, of what ‘true love’ may have been. They didn’t have romance novels back then, they didn’t have RomComs or TV soap operas to give them an idea, a cultural meme of what ‘love’ is supposed to be. Marriage for love certainly happened, but marriage of convenience, marrying upwards, marriage for social mobility were all also things. What’s more, what was the audience? Were they teenagers? Early 20s men and women who may still be single, and with idols in their eyes? Or were they likely married, for years by this point? In which case what would they have made of the tragic tale of Juliet and her Romeo?

Would the wives have sympathised with this bratty, obnoxious child who just likes the company of the pretty boy she’s not supposed to be with?  Would the husbands have sympathised with Romeo, his wandering eye flittering from love to love until he spies Juliet, so fair, so young, presumably eventually so demanding, so tedious and so critical?

I’ve known relationships of two explosively loving sort of people, they don’t last. They destroy themselves in endless cycles or arguments make-ups and break-ups until one or other party considers stability more important than so-called passion.

This ain’t a tale of woe, folks – it’s a tale of ho, ho, ho! It does not demonstrate nearly enough contrast between happiness, true contentment, and Earth-shattering disappointment to be a tragedy. It does demonstrate enough contrast between sense and non-sense to be considered a farcical comedy. A dark one, I’ll give it that, the death of a teenage girl as the punchline is pushing the envelope, but I will maintain Shakespeare’s finest comedy is Romeo and Juliet until my dying day, when I’ll kiss my belov’d’s lips and haply some poison doth hang on them.

Missed my introduction to Shakespeare? Click here to read it.

Or maybe you’d like to start on my five part, epic analysis of King Lear?

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

3 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare’s Finest Comedy

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