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Further Reading: Romeo and Juliet

Appelbaum, Robert. “‘Standing to the Wall’: The Pressures of Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 251–72.

Appelbaum discusses the “dilemma of masculinity” dramatized in Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of the sovereign masculine ethos of Prince Escalus and the citizens of Verona on the one hand and the “varied, unresolved, and inadequate masculinities” of the play’s father figures, sons, and sonlike servants on the other. The opening “masculinist patter” of Gregory and Sampson focuses the male subject’s struggle between aggressively stirring toward masculinity and “already standing there in possession of [it].” Against the “recurring spectacle of masculine aggression,” Shakespeare offers a pair of alternatives: the civil peace associated with the unchallenged authority and decrees of Prince Escalus and the civil regime of heterosexual love that Romeo and Juliet pursue. But as the drama develops, neither civil peace nor civil love supplies any genuine alternative to the masculinity “of destructive aggression . . . and . . . homosocial domination.” In an effort to avoid the “pathologizing of masculinity” prevalent in current gender studies, Appelbaum reads the play’s ineffectual fathers and self-destructive sons “as failing subjects, [who] . . . may be seen as taking part inadequately, in the perpetuation of an inadequate world”: “The fathers cannot enforce their own laws; the sons can neither enforce those laws on behalf of their fathers nor discover adequate forms of self-assertion.” Romeo and Juliet’s “regime of masculinity is constituted as a system from which there is no escape, but in keeping with which there is no experience of masculine satisfaction either.” As played out by Romeo, however, the romantic tragedy may “seduce us into thinking that there is both one and the other.”

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA 97 (1982): 325–47.

Observing that twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays and one of his narrative poems (Lucrece) depict the father-daughter relation, Boose focuses on its representation in the wedding ceremony. Following the analysis of this rite of passage provided by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, Boose divides the wedding ceremony into three phases: separation of the daughter from her father and family, transition, and reincorporation through the formation of a new family when the marriage is consummated. According to Boose’s application of her wedding model to the individual Shakespeare works, Romeo and Juliet, with its secret wedding that excludes Juliet’s father, circumvents the ritual that should release her from her father’s control. Rather than proceeding through the sequence of the three phases of the rite of passage, the play presents in 3.4 the separation phase in which Capulet gives his daughter to Paris as coinciding with the reincorporation phase of 3.5 in which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage. The dark threat to Romeo and Juliet is dramatized by Capulet’s subsequent invasion of Juliet’s bridal chamber to dissolve her marriage to Romeo by informing her of her upcoming wedding with Paris. The rest of the play, on Boose’s analysis, progresses through inverted and disordered rituals: the conversion to “black funeral” (4.5.91) of the festivities intended for Juliet’s wedding; the Capulets’ discovery that their “daughter bleeds” (5.3.210) not because of consummation of marriage but because she is newly dead in their family tomb; and Montague’s and Capulet’s promises richly to adorn the tombs of each other’s children as if they were settling dowry and jointure negotiations prior to the solemnization of a marriage.

Brooke, Nicholas. “Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies, pp. 80–106. London: Methuen, 1968.

For Brooke, Romeo and Juliet may be associated with the love sonnet as a “tragedy of romance, or of love,” with “its romance theme, its persistently lyrical tone, and the accentuated formality of its structure and language.” Until Mercutio’s death in 3.1, which Brooke styles prosaic in the sense of accidental, irrelevant, and ridiculous, the tone of the play is predominantly comic (despite some intimations of the tragedy to follow), but it then changes in key to the more serious, the decisively tragic. Brooke proceeds through the play, commenting on individual scenes to capture the tone of each. For example, the opening scene begins with the “lumpish prose” of “dolts” and rises to the “crescendo” of “fully heroic verse” in the Prince’s speech, before descending to “lightness” when Romeo offers to be witty about love. The Nurse’s speeches set the tone for 1.3—“earthy, sentimental, warm-blooded, bawdy, repetitious”—as do Mercutio’s in 1.4: “cynical and reductive of any degree of romantic pretension.” In 1.5 “the opening movement of the play is recapitulated in a rapid development from bustling prose to lusty verse to the full dance and Romeo and Juliet encountering in a full-blown sonnet.” In 2.1 Mercutio offers a parody of what we will witness in 2.2, but in that scene only “Romeo is . . . fair game for Mercutio’s mockery,” for Juliet’s grandly erotic language—“My bounty is as boundless as the sea” (2.2.140)—eludes it. In 2.4 and 2.5 the comic sense is fully restored. After the turn to tragedy in 3.1, Juliet’s speech opening 3.2, spoken in ignorance of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, provides “a magnificently full-bodied evocation of sexual desire,” and a sense of what might have been, were the lovers now not so evidently “death-marked.” In Act 4 when the Capulets bewail the mock-death of Juliet, and Peter calls for a merry dump from the musicians, there is mirth in tragedy, just as there was the hint of tragedy in the play’s early comic action. In the last act, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are not “very real,” but are “far more obviously the beautiful consummation of the unfulfilled love.” Thus the play explores the love-death tradition of the sonnet and the superiority and inferiority of this tradition to the world of common day.

Charlton, H. B. “Experiment and Interregnum: Romeo and Juliet, King John, Julius Caesar.” In Shakespearian Tragedy, pp. 49–82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

With Romeo and Juliet, according to Charlton, Shakespeare moves away from the well-established Renaissance practice of drawing upon history for the plots of tragedies as he did in Titus Andronicus, Richard II, and Richard III. Instead, Shakespeare takes the story of Romeo and Juliet from contemporary fiction, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historie of Romeus and Juliet (1562). To achieve “the inevitability of tragedy,” Shakespeare resuscitates “the half-barbarian, half-Roman deities of Fate and Fortune.” The feud is the means by which Fate acts. The dialogue, for which Shakespeare follows suggestions in Brooke, repeatedly invokes Fortune. However, for Charlton, Romeo and Juliet fails as “all-compelling tragedy” because the feud lacks the required intensity, especially in the first two acts. The elder Capulet and Montague are ridiculous figures in their attempts to fight each other, and are easily subdued to peaceableness by the Prince—so much so that Capulet suppresses Tybalt’s efforts to attack Romeo at the Capulets’ party in 1.5. For Charlton, the success of the play lies not in its tragic structure, but in the particular local beauties of its poetry and in Shakespeare’s invention of Mercutio and development of the figure of the Nurse.

Gurr, Andrew. “Intertextuality at Windsor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 189–200.

Between May 1594 and 1600, according to Gurr, there were only two companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s and the Lord Admiral’s, competing for the attention of London playgoers. This led the two companies to become deeply imitative of one another. Romeo and Juliet was a Lord Chamberlain’s play, and its recorded popularity with students at the Inns of Court, London’s law schools, makes it a likely candidate for competitive imitation by the Lord Admiral’s. In Gurr’s estimation, William Haughton’s Englishmen for my Money, written for the Lord Admiral’s, imitates Romeo and Juliet’s depiction of a daughter disobeying her parents and marrying for love, putting on stage three daughters trying to escape marriages arranged by their father. More specifically, Haughton gestures toward Shakespeare’s play by having each of the three daughters appear above talking to her lover below, as in 2.2 of Romeo and Juliet. A second play that Gurr relates to Romeo and Juliet is Henry Porter’s The Two Angry Women of Abington with its story of a pair of lovers divided from each other by the mutual enmity of their mothers, and with its own version of Romeo and Juliet’s 2.2. As Gurr notes, however, the relation of Porter’s play to the Lord Admiral’s Men and to Romeo and Juliet is far from certain. Although Porter is associated with the Lord Admiral’s in the late 1590s, The Two Angry Women may date from a much earlier time and, whatever company staged it, may have influenced Shakespeare rather than the reverse.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. “‘Draw, if you be men’: Saviolo’s Significance for Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 163–89.

In Vincentio Saviolo his Practise, a fencing manual published in 1595, Holmer finds both a terminus a quo for Romeo and Juliet and an important new source for understanding the tragic complexity of the play’s fatal duels. Romeo and Juliet is distinguished by the highest frequency of Italian fencing terms in the Shakespeare canon and is especially indebted to Saviolo’s manual, the only one of its kind in the mid-1590s to present “the full corpus of Italian terms of rapier fence.” In addition to fashionable Italian jargon (e.g., passado, punto reverso, hay, and alla stoccata), technical English terminology (e.g., puns on the musical and fencing terms “time,” “distance,” and “proportion” at 2.4.22), and duello language (e.g., “occasion,” “cause,” “injury,” “field,” and “satisfied”), Shakespeare borrowed Saviolo’s code of the “truly honorable duello,” characterized by right reason and the pursuit of truth and justice, to counterpoint the aggressive masculinity dominant in the fictive world of Verona and in Elizabethan culture at large. Holmer pays considerable attention to 3.1 in order to demonstrate how Saviolo illuminates the ethical issues and matrix of choices confronting the dueling Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo precisely at the point where the play turns from comedy to tragedy. In contrast to the prevailing sense of “the duello as a vengeful practice” mandated for personal injury, Saviolo’s “godly definition” of the honorable duello casts Romeo’s initial refusal to duel with Tybalt “not as vile submission [Mercutio’s view] but rather as courageous wisdom.” Initially the least guilty of the three young duelists in the scene, Romeo soon becomes “trapped by the fury that fuels revenge as the vulgar motive for dueling.”

Jackson, Russell. Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare at Stratford Series. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003.

In his examination of post–World War II Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Romeo and Juliet, Jackson provides a comparative analysis of directorial decisions as they relate to three production choices: the creation of Verona as a setting, the depiction of the play’s main characters (Romeo, Juliet, Friar Lawrence, Mercutio, and the Nurse), and the staging of the play’s conclusion. The productions covered are those of Peter Brook (1947), Glen Byam Shaw (1954, 1958), Peter Hall (1961), Karolos Koun (1967), Terry Hands (1973, 1989), Trevor Nunn and Barry Kyle (1976), Ron Daniels (1980), John Caird (1984), Michael Bogdanov (1986), David Leveaux (1991), Adrian Noble (1995), Michael Attenborough (1997), and Michael Boyd (2000). These fifteen productions “constitute an intriguing commentary on the range of the text’s possibilities, and at the same time reflect the changing aims and circumstances of the organizations that produced them.” The introduction provides an overview of the productions to be discussed and documents the ways that audience expectations relating to Romeo and Juliet since the 1940s have changed: “Verona has become more of a living city and less of a Renaissance ideal, the bawdy humour has been given freer expression, and the lovers are now measured by the standards of modern young people rather than a poetic and artistic ideal.”

Kahn, Coppélia. “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.” In Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, pp. 82–118. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

For Kahn, Romeo and Juliet enacts a conflict between differing conceptions of manhood: on the one hand, manhood as “violence on behalf of the fathers,” and, on the other hand, “manhood as separation from the fathers and sexual union with women.” The feud, therefore, is a deadly rite of passage that “promotes masculinity at the price of life.” There is plentiful evidence in Sampson and Gregory’s opening dialogue, with its bawdy punning on sexual arousal and fighting, to illustrate the play’s association of masculine identity with violence. Nonetheless, in the first two acts, Romeo and Juliet re-create their identities in their mutual love and seem thereby to find refuge from the feud. In 3.1, though, the shame of having allowed Mercutio to fight Tybalt and die at the Capulet’s hands turns Romeo against his new identity founded on love and back to the pursuit of a masculinity of violence. Almost immediately Juliet discovers that she too cannot escape patriarchal influence, when Capulet, who has suffered shame in Tybalt’s death because the old man could not restrain his younger kinsman’s pursuit of vengeance against Romeo, decides to enforce his power over his family by reversing his earlier judgment that Juliet is yet too young to marry and to give her immediately to Paris, over her objections. Consequently, Romeo and Juliet “are consumed and destroyed by the feud,” but they also “rise above it, united in death.”

Laslett, Peter. The World We Have Lost—Further Explored. London: Methuen, 1983.

Laslett, a social historian, addresses Shakespeare’s striking departure from earlier versions of the Romeo and Juliet story in making Juliet only thirteen at the time of her marriage and having Lady Capulet claim to have been a mother at Juliet’s age. Proceeding from the conviction that Shakespeare’s play is powerfully influential on our current understanding of the past, Laslett seeks to correct this understanding by reference to surviving parish records of age of marriage in Shakespeare’s England. Such records establish that the average age for marriage then was in the twenties. Marriages of children as young as Juliet, which were highly exceptional, seem usually to have been effected by their parents as a means of maintaining control over property. Laslett also produces records of variation in the age of sexual maturation according to class, place, and time. He demonstrates that the age of puberty has dropped sharply during the twentieth century in today’s first world countries, and more sharply among the privileged than in the working class, so that we are physically ready for marriage much earlier than were our ancestors. Rather than understanding Juliet as typical of women of her time in marrying at thirteen, we might instead appreciate that Shakespeare has transformed the marriageable young woman of earlier versions of the story into an unmarriageable child in his play.

Lawlor, John. “Romeo and Juliet.” In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 123–44. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.

Lawlor resists Charlton’s account of Romeo and Juliet as a failure as tragedy by approaching the play from the perspective of medieval tragedy. Chaucer’s tragic poem Troilus and Criseyde, Lawlor observes, concludes not merely with the destruction of Troilus on Fortune’s Wheel, but with his attainment of a new understanding. At the end of both Chaucer’s great poem and Shakespeare’s play “out of evil comes not good merely but a greater good. What we see in the close of Romeo and Juliet is not simply a renewal of a pattern disturbed, but its reordering; life is not continued merely; it is regenerated. . . . Death has no final power over the lovers of Romeo and Juliet. . . . It is earth, the realm of Fortune, that is the loser. . . . Love is placed, fittingly, at once beyond reach and beyond change.” The greater good and the regeneration inhere in the love between Romeo and Juliet, “a new thing in the world of the play” that transcends Romeo’s “own conventional passion for Rosaline,” “Mercutio’s light-hearted sensuality,” the matchmaking father Capulet, the inconstant Nurse, the manipulative Friar, and the “simple and likeable suitor, Paris.” “These two children [Romeo and Juliet], as the managing adults of their world see them, are, truly, innocents abroad. But they are quick to learn; in Romeo’s attempted consolation of Juliet at their final leave-taking [3.5] we see the beginning of maturity in the man, while Juliet’s improvised but spirited dissimulation of her true feelings (when reproved for grief by her mother) is evidence of her purpose, growing in its turn.” Romeo and Juliet “offers a meeting-place of the old tragedie of ineluctable doom and a newer thing—the plain truth that man will not willingly relinquish his transitory happiness.”

Liebler, Naomi Conn. “‘There is no world without Verona walls’: The City in Romeo and Juliet.” In A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, 1:303–18. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

Liebler begins her study of Romeo and Juliet by noting how the play’s hybrid nature as “half comedy, half tragedy” leads many critics to view it as a failure in both genres. It fails as tragedy if judged by Aristotle’s criterion calling for “the representation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude”; and as comedy, if compared to its “more satisfying apotheosis” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emphasizing the play’s urban focus, Liebler argues for it as tragedy, albeit a new, non-Aristotelian kind. Central to her reading is Verona’s tragic ethos: a city defined by intramural tensions and devoid of any kind of cohesive community, Verona functions as the collective protagonist of the play. Performing “an indictment of . . . civic institutions and structures of authority . . ., [Romeo and Juliet] shift[s] the focus off the [the young lovers] who serve as the agents for that performance, and on to the collective city for which they stand. . . . Their micro-function dissolves into the macro-structure that contains them.” A dying city by the play’s end—its younger generation gone, its communal culpability foregrounded throughout, and its deadly competitive drive still strong in the rival statues that will lie side by side—Verona, “like a good tragic protagonist, commits suicide, kills itself by the failure of its own immune system, here figured in the weakened hierarchical structures of authority that cannot or will not look after their own collective best interests.” The walls of Verona hold within them no hope for regeneration.

Novy, Marianne. “Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida.” In Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, pp. 99–124. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

For Novy, Romeo and Juliet establish a private world in which “both are active and gender is not polarized.” However, beyond their private world masculinity is characterized by violence, femininity by weakness. This external world intrudes upon them when Romeo cannot escape entanglement in the blood feud and Juliet must continue living with her parents and conceal her marriage. Novy observes Romeo’s language in his descriptions of his pursuit of Rosaline as an attack reinforced, he hopes, by Cupid with his arrows. Such masculine aggression is gone from his account to Friar Lawrence of his desire for Juliet, according to which as lovers they are mutually wounded. “Romeo understands the value of reciprocity in love. He wants its ritual—‘Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine’ [2.2.134]—and explains to Friar Lawrence, ‘She whom I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow’ [2.3.91–92].” According to Novy, Romeo’s decision to keep his marriage secret even from his friends Benvolio and Mercutio signals that his love for Juliet is “a challenge to associations of masculinity and sexuality with violence.” However, Romeo is not able finally to transcend such associations himself when he fears, just before he kills Tybalt, that his love has made him effeminate. The Friar is no help to the lovers, because he can think of the feminine only in terms of weakness when he chastises Romeo’s disabling grief for the killing of his wife’s kinsman as “womanish” and when he counsels Juliet to pretend obedience and death rather than actively seeking to join Romeo. “The lovers cannot negotiate recognition by the outer world except by their deaths because of their residual commitment to the outer world and its gender ideals.”

Porter, Henry. The Two Angry Women of Abington: A Critical Edition. Edited by Marianne Brish Evett. New York: Garland, 1980.

Porter presents us with a feud between families, the Barneses and Gourseys, in rural England. In this play it is the mothers, rather than the fathers as in Romeo and Juliet, who are at odds. Mistress Barnes suspects an illicit relationship between her husband and Mistress Goursey, and a visit to the Barneses by the Gourseys becomes the occasion for Mistress Barnes to antagonize Mistress Goursey. Mistress Barnes then quarrels with her son Philip as well and then with her daughter Mall, who is anxious to marry. Barnes seeks to marry Mall to Frank Goursey, partly in order to reconcile the two mothers. While Goursey quickly agrees to the match, both Mistress Barnes and Mistress Goursey seek to keep Mall and Frank apart. The latter part of the play is set at night when most of the characters, moving about without torches, engage in confused conversation as they fail to find those for whom they are searching. Their disorientation is the source of much broad comedy, as is the garrulousness of their servants, one of whom has the nickname “Proverbs.” When the characters finally come together, Mistress Barnes admits that she has no grounds for her suspicions about her husband and Mistress Goursey, and Barnes vows his innocence to Goursey. Once the mothers are reconciled to each other, they endorse the marriage of Mall and Frank. Porter’s play shares occasional language and a “balcony scene” with Romeo and Juliet, but uncertainty concerning the date of composition and performance of Two Angry Women makes it impossible to identify the direction in which influence may have flowed from one play to the other.

Porter, Joseph A., ed. Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. New York: G. K. Hall; London: Prentice Hall International, 1997.

In addition to excerpts from Porter’s Shakespeare’s Mercutio: His History and Drama (1988) (see below), this anthology reprints the following essays: Clifford Leech, “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” (1976); Gayle Whittier, “The Sonnet’s Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet” (1989) (see below); Catherine Belsey, “The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet” (1993); Jonathan Goldberg, “Romeo and Juliet’s Open Rs” (1994); Amy J. Riess and George Walton Williams, “‘Tragical mirth’: From Romeo to Dream” (1992); and E. Pearlman, “Shakespeare at Work: Romeo and Juliet” (1994). The volume includes one new essay, Donald W. Foster’s “The Webbing of Romeo and Juliet,” which uses electronic scholarship to probe the workings and habits of Shakespeare’s mind. In his introduction, Porter notes how the collected essays address two “front-burner topic[s]” in Shakespeare studies: (1) Shakespeare’s practice of composition, specifically his revisions, and his “witting or unwitting recycling of his own and others’ words,” and (2) sexuality and gender. The most striking feature of Romeo and Juliet commentary at the end of the twentieth century is the extensive attention paid to Mercutio.

Porter, Joseph A. Shakespeare’s Mercutio: His History and Drama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

In an attempt to account for Mercutio’s ability to discomfit readers across four centuries, Porter traces the history of Mercutio before Shakespeare, with Shakespeare, and after Shakespeare. Porter also examines Shakespeare’s representation of the conflict between male friendship and love for a woman as it is played out in the Mercutio-Romeo-Rosaline triangle. From Mercutio’s allegedly classical past as the Greek Hermes and the Roman Mercury, Porter finds Shakespeare carrying forward the god’s role as it appears in both Homer’s Odyssey, where Mercury intervenes to save Odysseus from Circe’s spells, and Virgil’s Aeneid, where Mercury orders Aeneas to abandon Dido and sail for Rome. In these epics Hermes/Mercury calls for the end to infatuation with the female, just as Mercutio does in mocking Romeo’s love of Rosaline. Porter also notes how Renaissance texts feature Mercury as herald and patron of eloquence, functions readily associated with Mercutio’s remarkable verbal facility in his puns, rhymes, and jokes. During the Queen Mab speech, Porter suggests, it is as if Mercutio has been possessed by his namesake god. Finally, Porter traces changes to Mercutio’s role in early adaptations of Shakespeare’s play by Thomas Otway, Theophilus Cibber, and David Garrick; in promptbooks for chiefly nineteenth-century productions; in other records of performance well into the twentieth century; and in film. While the role in the past was often bowdlerized, the stage, across history, has also had some success, in Porter’s estimation, in finding its own ways to realize Shakespeare’s marvelous creation.

Shakespeare, William. The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. Edited by George Walton Williams. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.

Williams edits Romeo and Juliet according to the tenets of the New Bibliography, a school of editing and textual criticism that gained ascendancy in England and North America in the latter half of the twentieth century. Its editorial procedures were laid out by W. W. Greg in his “A Rationale of Copy Text,” Studies in Bibliography 3 (1950–51): 19–36. Following Greg, Williams devotes his introduction to his determination of which of the early printings of the play—the First Quarto of 1597 or the Second of 1599—stands in closer relation to Shakespeare’s own manuscript. Selecting the 1599 text as enjoying the closer relation and judging it, for the most part, to have been printed directly from such a manuscript, Williams prints that text (except for the passage in it evidently printed directly from the First Quarto) in its original or old spelling (hence the spelling Tragedie in the title of his edition). Whenever he emends the Second Quarto so as to change its meaning, he explicitly records the change in a textual note, often including in the note a discussion of the issues involved. His other changes to the Second Quarto—the ones not affecting meaning—he lists as Emendations of Accidentals. By referring to the Textual Notes and the Emendations of Accidentals a reader could reconstruct the text of the Second Quarto entirely from Williams’s edition. He also prints a Historical Collation in which he documents the meaningful or substantive differences between his edited text and both the early printed texts and a great many important editions of the play published in the century before his edition. Williams adds to the New Bibliographical method of editing his own innovation when he includes extensive staging notes addressing issues and problems concerning performance.

Snyder, Susan. “Beyond Comedy: Romeo and Juliet and Othello.” In The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies, pp. 56–90. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Snyder’s reading of genre in Romeo and Juliet has become the accepted understanding of how the play is structured generically. Up until Mercutio’s death in Act 3, Snyder contends, Romeo and Juliet is essentially a comedy. Through the use of go-betweens and intrigue, the young couple find a way around the obstacles that separate them and manage to marry. Only Tybalt takes the feud really seriously and is therefore cut out of the range of expression of the other young men in the play with their “lyric love, witty fooling, friendly conversation.” The characters are the gentry and servants of comedy, and among them violence and disaster are “unrealized threats.” Mercutio functions as the clown of this romantic comedy as “the best of game-players, endlessly inventive and full of quick moves and countermoves.” With his death, the play reverses its comic movement and heads toward tragedy. Suddenly, Romeo takes the feud as seriously as does Tybalt, and it becomes Romeo’s “personal law” that determines the tragic necessity of his future: “he must kill Tybalt, he must run away, he is Fortune’s fool.” However, Shakespeare is writing one play, not two, a comedy followed by a tragedy. Just as there are intimations of tragedy in the otherwise comic first two acts, in the tragic concluding acts “there is one last hope for comedy. If the lovers will not adjust to the situation, perhaps the situation can be adjusted to the lovers.” Friar Lawrence attempts the adjustment by counseling Romeo to accept his exile and wait till his return can be arranged, and then, as circumstances quickly change, persuades Juliet to pretend obedience and death until Romeo can take her from the tomb. Yet “the onrushing tragic action quite literally outstrips the slower steps of accommodation before our eyes.” This process of becoming rather than simply being tragic makes Romeo and Juliet unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Stone’s massive study sheds interesting light on Romeo and Juliet’s depiction of the feud and of the marriage of the title characters in a patriarchal society. According to Stone, in Shakespeare’s period there was both great suspicion towards others and a proneness to violence such as is found in the play’s feud. At the same time, the state, represented by the Prince in the play, was on the rise, and it competed for allegiance with the kinship ties of the extended or open lineage family. Even within families, interpersonal relations were remote, partly because of the probability of imminent death from epidemic disease. Children were fostered out, as Juliet is to her nurse, and parental discipline was harsh, motivated by the alleged need to break the child’s sinful will—as Juliet experiences at the hands of Capulet. However, according to Stone, the ideal of a “companionate” marriage increasingly surmounted the patriarchal model of marriage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this period the early marriage of Romeo and Juliet, though, would have been highly unusual. Marriage then was generally postponed for ten or more years after puberty to provide time for the accumulation of capital and furniture for a separate residence, as custom dictated for a married couple.

Utterback, Raymond V. “The Death of Mercutio.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 105–16.

Reading Mercutio’s death as a primary motivating force for the major subsequent events, Utterback contends that the circumstances attending the death establish a pattern that runs throughout the play. “This pattern comprises, first a prevailing situation containing threats, anxieties, dangers, and risks . . . the opposition of the rival houses [of Montague and Capulet] and the threat of violent and fatal conflict. . . . Second, a provocation occurs [in Tybalt’s insults to Romeo in 3.1]. The third element . . . is a passionate response to the provocation: [Mercutio’s challenge to and attack on Tybalt]. Fourth, a tragic consequence follows [Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s deaths]. Finally, the pattern concludes in a blurring of the sense of personal responsibility for the events by a shift of . . . attention to the impersonal elements of the situation,” as in Romeo’s reference to himself as “Fortune’s fool” (3.1.142) after he has killed Tybalt. According to Utterback, this pattern recurs in the events surrounding the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and in the actions of Friar Lawrence.

Whittier, Gayle. “The Sonnet’s Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 27–41.

Whittier describes the Petrarchan convention as it appears in Romeo and Juliet as one “emptied of its traditional lyric treasures,” despite the fact that Petrarch’s influential sonnet form operates in the play even before it appears in the dialogue that Romeo and Juliet share in their first encounter (1.5). In the sonnet that functions as the Prologue, the lyrical emotion is supplanted by public narrative. The “Petrarchan word” has some power over Romeo at the beginning of the play when he is in love with Rosaline, whom he loves apparently only because he has heard love discussed. She appears in the play simply as a name, one that invokes the rose, “the ubiquitous symbol of feminine beauty.” Romeo piles up Petrarchan oxymora in his praise of her and his descriptions of his love for her. Advertising Paris to Juliet as a mate, Lady Capulet also “speaks . . . a written poem”; hers is about “the book of love.” However, when Romeo sees Juliet as hanging “upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” (1.5.52–53), Shakespeare departs from Petrarchan conventions in giving him an original figure of speech. Romeo continues to celebrate Juliet in 2.2 in language that exceeds that of his literary father Petrarch. “If tradition calls the lady’s eyes celestial bodies, then Romeo removes the very sun from the sky: ‘It is the East, and Juliet is the sun’ [2.2.3].” For him, “she is the body of the cosmos.” Thereafter the sonnet form operates more as a structuring feature than a verbal one. For example, when Juliet takes the potion, she incorporates the Petrarchan scheme of antithesis—“living death.” According to Whittier, Shakespeare has transformed the conventions of Petrarchan poetry so that “lyric freedom” has declined to “tragic fact.”