Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Analysis: Delusion, Division, FatePosted: August 22, 2011
Video Version, Part 1:
True, I talk of dreams
Which are the children of an idle brain
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant as the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the north
-Romeo and Juliet
Introduction – While Romeo and Juliet is about a poignant love affair, it’s not as romantic as it may seem on the surface. All of the characters find themselves guided by raging love, sadness, hate, and anger, with the latter two especially dividing human society. Mercutio probably comes the closest to reason in that he perceives the corruption and unreason on both sides, but he cannot escape the spirit of the times either; his own fury gets him killed. But this is not a story about a few screwed-up people. Fate steers their courses and our own, and none of us unfortunate souls can control it.
For this reason, I avoid the “romantic’ interpretation of events. Even though the two main characters falling in love is the most obvious event in the story, it goes far beyond that. And at the end of the day, I’m more likely to grow wings and fly to Hawaii than take relationship advice from a thirteen-year-old.
Romeo – Romeo is the product of seclusion. He prefers to be alone and read romantic poems and stories, which has limited his conception of love to celebrating beauty and speaking in poetic verse. Having no practical experience in the world of relationships, he projects his desire to love onto whatever beautiful woman he meets. As Friar Laurence tells him, “young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”
In the beginning of the story we find him spending his days depressed, “adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs” because Rosaline didn’t return his “love.” In other words, his life doesn’t compare to the storybook romances that he tries to emulate. That his relatives and friends mock him for this seems to just drive him deeper into his fantasy land. It is both comic and tragic. Enter Juliet.
Juliet – While Romeo can roam Verona all night, leap fences onto other people’s property and engage in street duels against his family’s rivals, Juliet mostly sits at home at home all day. She also has the added stress of marriage in her near feature. Though her father first says he will give her some say in choosing a husband, she’s aware that in the end she’ll likely spend the rest of her life with a man her parents choose. With the dull, sheltered life she leads, it’s no wonder she expresses herself with the metaphor of a caged bird in the famous balcony scene. “‘Tis almost morning; I would have thee gone: /
And yet no further than a wanton’s bird; / Who lets it hop a little from her hand, / Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves, / And with a silk thread plucks it back again, / So loving-jealous of his liberty.”
That is the existence that she knows and understands, and the only one she can see in her future. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Romeo’s passion completely overwhelms her. One taste of danger and excitement and her reason flies out the window. For example, though we first see her saying that marriage is “an honour that I dream not of,” she sure is quick to ask Romeo to marry her. The Dreamer has come out of the closet.
It should be no surprise that both of our tragic characters lack a reasonable role model. The two main adults in their lives, the nurse and Friar Laurence briefly warn them about their rash actions, but in the end are their accomplices. The Nurse cannot be Juliet’s voice of reason because she gets caught up in the excitement, first with Romeo and then with Paris, even telling her to break her vows with Romeo and commit bigamy to be with the latter. Meanwhile, Friar Laurence is using the couple to fulfill his own fantasies about the world, thinking that their love will reunite their families and Christian love will rule Verona afterward. In other words, neither of these characters have much grounding in reality.
Throughout the story, then, their relationship evolves from being an refuge from what is a precarious world for Romeo and a powerless world for Juliet into something that makes them grow as people. Juliet is especially transformed by their relationship because it gives her something to independently live or die for and she begins making decisions on her own. Romeo, on the other hand, is forced to come out of his bubble and live in reality after Mercutio and Tybalt die. The lesson is driven home with his subsequent exile from Verona.
Delusion – In the context of Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that we have a choice—to live in reality and be denied blissful ignorance, or live in a beautiful and poignant fantasy that will eventually crash around you at much expense. We witness most of our characters taking the tragic second path.
Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is purer than anything else they’ve ever experienced, but this does not make it rational. I think for this reason Shakespeare continually makes the analogy of their love to religion with comments such as the following: Romeo tells Juliet “If I profane with my unworthiest hand / This holy shrine…My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” In turn, Juliet calls him the “god of my idolatry.”
Thus, not only does it take first place in their life but they develop an “us-against-the-world” mentality, shown by Juliet’s decision to exclude her nurse in the future. In fact, the only other person allowed on “the inside” is none other than a friar. In other words, they’ve left the world around them and, like Icarus with his wax wings flying toward the sun, they enter their romance.
Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech illustrates the tragic path. Though our dreams are supposed to be a refuge from life, releasing us from our limitations, Queen Mab instead makes them a confrontation of reality. She brings your life to a hyperbole, taking the root of being a lawyer, a solider, a lover, etc., and brings the dark side to the surface. For example, Mercutio says that it’s Queen Mab that teaches virgins how to have sex, but it’s inevitable that childhood must end—childhood’s innocence is mostly a fantasy in any case.
What this means is that our happy couple can pretend that things such as family loyalty and names aren’t a tangible reality, and perhaps they are not, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have to face repercussions from those who take them as real, just like Icarus saw his wax wings melting as he approached the sun. We even saw Romeo saying that the nature of love was like “still-waking sleep.” Clearly, then, he’s a dreamer that will be visited by Queen Mab.
Division – One special case of human delusion is division. We see this in other of Shakespeare’s plays: King Lear/Hamlet = family divided; Julius Caesar/Coriolanus = Rome divided; Romeo and Juliet = Lovers divided by their feuding families. In all cases, the division is unnatural, and in Romeo and Juliet, even makes “civil hands unclean.” Its unnatural that war should enter into the civil arena.
It’s to this end that the servants are included in the play. They have even less reason to hate the rival family than their masters and never engage in a rational discourse about why they love or hate certain people. They just do in an their human irrationality. It’s also why Shakespeare includes such domestic scenes as old man Capulet gregariously greeting his guests at their party, and the Montagues worrying about their son. They are fundamentally the same and are only falsely divided by a grudge so old that nobody remembers how it started.
To state the obvious, the idea is that Romeo and Juliet should have been allowed to marry for the strength of their love. The marriage would have even been strategic since they were both sole heirs to a massive fortune. Instead, their families’ hatred led to their suicides at such a young age, as well as other of their family members dying. Further, though their feelings for each other transcend such divides, they don’t not change the world until it’s far too late. For example, the scene in which Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because he’s now family is honorable, yet Tybalt has no context for understanding his words. It comes off like Romeo is even mocking him, and, in fact, Mercutio interprets it as cowardice.
And so, their relationship is beautiful in all its humanity. They were stupid, young, and naive, but Shakespeare seems to be saying: look at the two extremes that humans can reach! Something pure as snow, but also something as dreadful as your family members being killed off over an irrational hate. The duality of life. The squirrel can run both up and down the tree.
For this reason we have numerous passages talking about paradox and opposites. Romeo says of love: “O brawling love, O loving hate…/ O heavy lightness, serious vanity…/ Feathers of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, / Still-waking sleep.” In the same vein, upon finding out that Romeo was vanished and Tybalt is dead, she proclaims of Romeo: “O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face! /
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave? / Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! / Dove-feather’d raven! Wolvish-ravening lamb!”
And of course, in our most poignant and salient example of this theme, the families’ hate is turned to love and reconciliation at the end, as was Friar Laurence’s wish. As he had said in the play: “Virtue turns itself vice, being misapplied; / And vice sometimes by action dignified.”
“Why rail’st thou on thy birth, the heaven, and earth?
Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet
In thee at once”
Even if you don’t believe in predestination, everybody has a fate in some sense. If you can read, you are not a feral child, and have been born into a whole world set up before it knew you existed. You’ve been born into your parents’ home, raised in a certain educational system, live in a culture with customs and preconceived notions about the world, etc. To be a human (a social animal) is to have a fate in this way. Nobody gets a blank slate.
Perhaps this is part of the root of the characters’ irrationality. We’re driven by forces we don’t understand, and are powerless to control the world around us; there are many things we simply must accept. Capulet, Montague, and Tybalt, then, simply hate because they’re supposed to hate and have never questioned the reality of the divide. It’s not so different to how you have your own preferences. Why do you prefer one style of clothing over another? Why do you like one soda over another, one tourist destination, one university? The reality is that your tastes have been formed by an advertising industry and popular culture in the way that Verona’s culture formed our characters’ prejudices. We can’t escape this process to ay large degree. In this sense we’re like Prometheus bound to his rock, and here we stay while society eats our liver.
In any case, Romeo and Juliet had their own fates, having been born into feudal families and falling deeply in love (however irrationally) with a member of their rival family. They are both just children, enjoying the innocent purity of their love for each other, but kept apart by falsities. Though fated to kill themselves to bring peace to Verona (and intuitively felling the portents) they still undertake the relationship. They were living in the moment, and did what they felt was, if not right, at least lofty. It’s was not a mature decision in the way that Cordelia refuses to flatter her father in Lear, or how Coriolanus refuses to flatter the plebs, or like Brutus undertakes to kill his father in Julius Caesar, but they acted courageously in their own way. Because in the end all we can do is our best and fate will determine the effects on the rest of the world.
“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.”
—– STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVE A WEAK STOMACH —–
Twilight – “I am fortune’s fool.”
Unfortunately, in this day and age, unreason seems to be a virtue. At least, that’s apparently the principle behind comparing the two “classics,” the more modern of which shall henceforth be referred to only as T-Pain. Please immediately close your browser if you will be further offended by the comparison.
Interestingly, what T-Pain succeeds at is illustrating how unlikeable Romeo must have been to everybody but Juliet and his family. Let’s face it, like Edward, he’s a moody, immature, and focuses entirely on inappropriately young girls. Juliet is thirteen-years-old and falls in love with Romeo after a few minutes (big surprise), but at least Romeo is only a few years older. Edward, smug pedophile that is is, is around 100 years older than Bella. Apparently, underage girls are his “own personal brand of heroin” and he repeats high school year after year in order to be around them (yes I know he has a “reasonable explanation,” but don’t they all). I’ll leave it for the reader to decide which one is creepier.
Further, both of our main characters are insomniacs. Edward doesn’t sleep at night because he’s composing melancholy piano songs about not only wanting to be with teenage girls, but also having the urges to kill them. Alternatively, he’s drinking squirrel blood. Romeo’s up all night because he’s writing poetry about unrequited love. Somehow I think had Edward been the central character of Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy would have been that Romeo didn’t kill himself soon enough.
Another interesting parallel is that when Romeo and Juliet first meet, Romeo is so enraptured by her beauty that he goes into a rhyming monologue. When Edward meets (smells) Bella for the first time, he runs away and spends the weekend killing small animals to drown his sorrow, and then acts like nothing happened. Oh wait…not so similar after all. Bella, in all her emotional health, declares that she doesn’t care if Edward has killed dozens of people and constantly thinks of doing the same to her. She simply explains to him that she grew up without a father figure and a childish mother who is not capable of nurturing her, I mean, she explains that she just trusts him. But hey, at least vampire are sterile so there’s no need to worry about teenage pregnancy. Oh wait, my memory returns to me. Sperm can live for hundreds of years even in your dead body (or something) so make sure you use protection. It’s also been theorized by fine minds that vampire sperm have tiny fangs that tear through the latex into your uterus. Either way, good luck.
Meanwhile, it’s also dangerous for Juliet to be with Romeo because she may be disowned by her parents, yet she’s a highly articulate girl who can spout of poetry for the ages, while Bella can basically say “h-h-hi.” Bella also hates everybody around her, because presumably she will accept nothing less in a relationship than 1) codependency 2) a sadomasochistic dynamic 3) fear of death.
In conclusion, I think that the real message of Twilight is that more teenagers should seek out a good therapist, not romance, but to avoid further insulting my favorite author, I’ll stop the comparison here and urge you to do the same.