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Romeo
and Juliet

January 1

November 21, 2010

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Gale Edwards

LOVE IN A HARSH WORLD: A Scholar's Perspective

by David Bevington

When Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream complains that "The course of true love never did run smooth," obstructed as it is by inequalities of social rank, family antagonisms, death, and sickness, he might as well be talking about Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet's passionate desire to spend their lives together is hindered by just such difficulties. Juliet's well-to-do but non-patrician parents are dazzled by the prospect of marrying her to the aristocratic Count Paris. Families that we might call "bourgeois" or "noveau riche" often bought their way into high society (and still do; think of Grace Kelly, or Princess Diana) by such marital alliances.

Compounding such social hazards in Romeo and Juliet are elements of uncontrollable misfortune. A bout of plague prevents Friar Laurence from getting a message to Romeo instructing him to return to awaken Juliet from a deep sleep induced by the Friar's potion as a means of escaping the marriage to Paris. Misunderstanding and failures of communication are also crucial factors: Juliet cannot tell her father and mother that she is already married into the family of the Montagues, ancient enemies of the Capulets.

An overwhelming cause of tragedy is indeed the enmity of Capulets and Montagues, two long-established families of Verona whose cause of feuding is so ancient that no one knows how or why it began. The play's Prologue promises that the lovers' "star-crossed" search for romantic happiness will be thwarted by an "ancient grudge" that "breaks to new mutiny." Friar Laurence sees the conflict in terms of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This perception lends depth to a lovely poetic figure that runs through the play, one in which the opposites of good and evil paradoxically meet. "My only love sprung from my only hate!" observes Juliet, when she is told by her Nurse that the young man she has just met and fallen in love with at the Capulets' ball is a Montague.

Are Romeo and Juliet then victims of circumstances beyond their control? In good part they are. Capulet, in the play's closing moments, refers to Romeo and Juliet as "poor sacrifices of our enmity." An aspect of Romeo and Juliet's timeless appeal is a feeling we all share: that the deck is stacked against young love in a world filled with hatred. Romeo's murder of Tybalt is a regrettable caving in to the feuding mentality of his peers at the expense of his commitment to Juliet. The code of the vendetta is a timeless enemy of love, as in the New York gang warfare scene of West Side Story, and to this extent Romeo is to blame for the tragedy. Still, we feel deeply that the lovers' death is a price that they must innocently pay for our corrupted human nature. The play ends with old Capulet and Montague vowing to end their feud by honoring the lovers' memory with a statue of pure gold.

Written about the same time—in the 1590s, fairly early in Shakespeare's career—Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream are an interesting pair. Both have left us with some of Shakespeare's most wonderful comic characters and scenes. Midsummer's play-within-the-play of "Pyramus and Thisbe," about two lovers from feuding families, resembles Romeo and Juliet to such an extent that we cannot be sure which play was written first. Together they offer a splendid and timeless tribute to the exquisite brevity of young love in this harsh world.

 

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. A prolific writer and editor, his latest books include Shakespeare's Ideas, Shakespeare and Biography, and This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now. His new book, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages will be published next year.

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