PTS read-through: Romeo and Juliet: Act I sc v
And so we reach that eighteen-line sequence …
These famous passages become a little daunting, because hey, what can you say that hasn’t already been said in the past four-hundred years? Yet, as an educator, you have to step up to the plate: after all, this is what I encourage, almost demand, my students to do, isn’t it? We give them something which is one of the foundations upon which our literature and culture is built, and entice them with the promise of better marks for originality.
So here are some personal views on Romeo and Juliet’s meeting, and then I look for something else to say on pieces of this short scene that receive somewhat less attention.
Firstly, let’s talk about authorial intention. You spend your teaching life – or at least I do – trying to emphasise the deliberacy, the craft, involved in writing. It’s a difficult concept to get across, because when students do their own writing, they generally write unconsciously, and the quality of their work maps quite closely to the frequency and quality of their reading outside of school. They’re also surprisingly resistant to revising and editing their own work. At its most severe, I once taught a lad who refused to believe that any piece he dashed off (and he did work fast) could be improved, to the point of tears. Many aren’t that far behind.
This scene, this meeting, is in many ways the best example I can find when trying to persuade students that great writers are conscious, deliberate writers, so I use it quite a bit. I can’t recall when I worked out (or was told) that this meeting created a sonnet – and began a second one, albeit interrupted by the disapproving Nurse – but I DO remember the thrill I got from that realisation: the recognition that I was looking at genius. And there is a hush when I use this section and the penny drops … the reaction is often a kind of grudging awe.
And that’s brilliant. But …
What about in performance? Before writing this, I lay in bed questioning how readily the audience would have recognised the sonnet form of the exchange. Genuinely. It’s what I do. With literacy rates significantly lower than we have now, it feels a given to suggest that this was an oral or aural culture where people listened and spoke more carefully, but the sources I have readily to hand seem contradictory in terms of the playgoing audience:
The characteristic complexity of Elizabethan plays suggests that Elizabethan audiences were more accustomed to comprehending a large cast and an intricate plot than modern drama has trained us to be [a]
The crowd was loud and rowdy at times, smoked plentifully and ate and drank of the refreshments being offered on sale. Their responses to the play were loud and very physical, involving clapping and cheering as well as hissing, mewing and throwing ammunition by way of nuts and apples onto stage. Fights sometime broke out often between different factions of the groundlings such as the serving men (servants) and apprentices. Unseemly behaviour was not confined to the ‘penny patrons’ alone. The gallants arrived late, played cards during performances, affected boredom at everything, laughed loudly at tragic episodes and often stood up and left noisily at the play’s climactic moments. Playwrights often complained about audience behaviour. [b]
Another truism is that Shakespeare wrote for performance, not for publication – in which case we have to assume that the sonnet was meant to be recognised by the ears, not the eyes; on the stage, not the page.
So this leads me to the conclusion that there must have been something artificial about the delivery of these lines in order for the sonnet structure to become apparent to our potentially rowdy audience. The rhyme scheme needs to become recognisable. It might require a significant, almost clumsy stepping-up of the suspension of disbelief that people would speak in an overly-stylised way. Or it could, of course, be utilised to add some spice to the exchange: not only are there kisses at stake, but the lovers are playing an additional level of rhetorical game, inviting each other to continue and complete the form, measuring each other’s wit and intelligence. It could, on the other hand, be an unwitting thing on their part; there are of course a million ways to play the scene – but what must happen is that the audience recognise the form, the skill, the authorial intention …
Character-wise, I think Romeo improves a little here. He’s at his best when not trying to impress his mates, like so many other lads of that age. It’s a nice, intelligent conceit he offers Juliet, at once cheeky and respectful, and a million miles better than any chat-up lines I tried when I was young. Juliet plays it well, too – not too forward, not playing with him, but measuring him and at the same time expressing the decorum expected of a young lady. Having re-read that sentence I sound very old-fashioned, but I’ll let it stand. She’s mature and intelligent; she has a sense of humour, and she’s nice: I like her, as I do so many of Shakespeare’s heroines.
Re-reading this scene made me look with fresh eyes at Lord Capulet’s exchange with Tybalt. Given that I’ve already suggested that he had arranged a ‘debutante’ style event (if we’re being kind – a ‘meat market’ if not), and that maybe, just maybe, Paris wasn’t his first choice, I invested some of his words with additional significance:
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth [c]
Does he, in any way, feel more receptive to Romeo, or is it simply that he wants to avoid a brawl at his party? Another remark addressed to Tybalt that struck me was:
This trick may chance to scathe you [c]
This flash of temper, which René Weis glosses as potentially significant in terms of inheritance as well as day-to-day patronage, is an interesting precursor to Act III, scene v. Capulet is a man who likes to get his own way. It’s when he doesn’t, or feels he’s not getting the respect he’s entitled to, that he flares up.
I wonder how many people spot the very odd, abrupt end to the evening?
We have a trifling foolish banquet towards.
Is it e’en so? why, then, I thank you all
I thank you, honest gentlemen; good night.
More torches here! Come on then, let’s to bed. [c]
Again, Lord Capulet is sudden and peremptory, used to getting, and expecting, his word to be law.
It’s almost as if the departure of the Montague party sucks the life out of the party. Imagine how pissed off the servants who had been slaving to prepare that ‘trifling foolish banquet’ would have been! On the other hand, perhaps they sat and ate it all, once their masters had gone to bed – it’s an ill wind, after all …
[a] Peter Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1977)
[b] Brinda Charry, The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama: An Introduction with Primary Sources (Arden Shakespeare), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2017)
[c] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (ed. René Weis, Arden third edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 2012). Any further references to the play text are to this edition