Romeo and Juliet

October 31

December 22, 2019

CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar’s Perspective

By Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

“Boundless as the sea”: that’s the way Juliet, at the height of happiness, describes her love. The play has stayed Shakespeare’s most popular for the ways in which it makes us feel that boundlessness, in word and action. But beneath its ravishing waves of ardor, the playwright works strong undertows, drawn from darker narrative materials. There's a horror story in here too, with visions of death at its most macabre. And a tale of social terror also: a fever-dream of perpetual conflict from which we’ve not yet found a viable way to wake.

Halfway through the play, Shakespeare compresses both these elements into a single oft-quoted line: “A plague o’ both your houses.” Romeo’s friend Mercutio, mortally wounded in a street skirmish, intones the curse three times quickly, as though it were his dying mantra.

For Shakespeare’s audiences, Mercutio’s o’ would have sounded doubly, signaling not just on, but also, more strangely, of—as if the plague were already intrinsic to the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague, as though the conflict between them were the plague, inbred and maybe ineradicable. Here it claims Mercutio as the play’s first victim.

In Mercutio’s mouth, the “plague” is metaphorical, a commonplace curse-word of the time (with the particular curser’s chosen target slotted in after that o’). But for Romeo and Juliet’s first audiences, plague was real too. Everyone in the theater on opening day (ca. 1596) had survived a visitation of the Black Death in London just three years earlier. They could recall the screams of the afflicted locked up in their own houses (to contain contagion); they would have witnessed the decanting of the dead from those same houses into carts bound for mass burial: hundreds of human corpses dumped into one common pit. The presence of plague in houses was something Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience could feel on their own shaking pulses.

The horror story in Romeo and Juliet derives from death’s insistent omnipresence even in a play scintillating with life at its liveliest and most quicksilver: parties, dancing, weddings, wordplay, swordplay; puppy love frustrated (Romeo’s for Rosaline); passionate love requited, savored, sanctified, and consummated. Shakespeare’s alchemy, just a few years into his career, is already so subtle as to produce a new blend of comedy with tragedy, of giddy pleasure and deep pain. Mercutio, the very embodiment of that alchemy, and mercurial to the very end, tucks in a last joke among his triple curses: “Ask for me tomorrow,” he tells his anxious friends, “and you shall find me a grave man.” The pun establishes him, in a single syllable, as witty, serious, and doomed.

That mixture hovers over the whole play. Romeo and Juliet, even at the apex of their passion, voice intimations of their own mortality. Later in the play, the premonitions grow more Gothic. In a harrowing riff, Juliet prophetically envisions herself walled up—alive, alone, awake—among the dead within her family’s ancestral sepulcher. And that in fact is where the play will end, with all of its core characters, living and dead, encompassed in the confines of the Capulet tomb. Mercutio’s curse and pun come true at once: the “houses” themselves are fatal; their conflict has delivered even the survivors into the house of death—grave men and women talking their way through unfathomable loss.

And therein lies too the play’s tale of social terror—of the plague as a deadly disorder in the body politic. Elizabethans had experienced the actual plague as a force of nature, inexorable, inexplicable, and beyond human control. (The discovery of its cause, in the bites of rat-borne fleas, lay centuries into the future.) What’s terrifying about Verona’s plague is that it arises out of human choice. From the very beginning, we watch the Montagues and the Capulets, opting to live, and to die, within a code of their own arbitrary making.

By the power of the love story, Shakespeare calls such choosing into question. In language precariously balanced, he plays the pleasures of fusion against the pressures of conflict. “My only love sprung from my only hate!” exclaims Juliet when she first learns Romeo’s identity. Those mirrored phrases, like so many in this highly patterned play, tease out the possibility of a tipping point: the hope that young love may undo ancient hate.

Can it? The play’s equivocal. The hopeful symmetries of its verse are often twisted by the dark torque of its plot. Characters sometimes speak of peace, but cannot quite attain it. When Romeo, in the bliss of his secret marriage to Juliet, greets her cousin in the street as kin instead of foe, the result is not fusion but a swordfight, and two men killed. Even at play’s end, when the survivors of the two houses, overwhelmed by the cost of conflict, seek resolution, their moves feel muted: self-soothing and symbolling, not audacious enough to make a difference. As elders, they are the “wrong” survivors, and ominously, they are already in the tomb.

It’s now only seven decades since modern medicine found, in antibiotics, the cure for bubonic plague. We’ve not yet found the cure for Mercutio’s. In a world fresh-torn by faction, Shakespeare, as always, can help us trace the causes and the consequences. The cure is up to us.

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