Romeo and Juliet–Never Was a Story of More Woe (2 of 2)

Who should choose this very moment to show up but, you guessed it, Friar Laurence:

Saint Francis be my speed. How oft tonight
Have my old feet stumbled at graves.

Now for once I’m going to go easy on the old fool. Did he really take longer to get to the crypt (which presumably is close to his cell) than Romeo took to get there all the way from Mantua? Well, yes, but this time it isn’t his fault. This is an example of Shakespeare’s manipulation of dramatic time. It wouldn’t have worked dramatically for Friar Laurence to have been waiting for Romeo; so Shakespeare has no compunction about slowing him down, even though it may not be realistic. We’ll see this effect often as we continue through the plays.

While the Friar is dithering over the corpses, his plans in ruins around his ears yet again, Juliet awakes:

O comfortable friar, where is my lord?
I do remember well where I should be,
And there I am. Where is my Romeo?
(V.iii. 148-150)

So much for her fears! She finds something far worse than the terrors she imagined: Romeo dead because the one adult she trusted has failed again. His response?

Come, I’ll dispose of thee
Among a sisterhood of holy nuns.
Stay not to question, for the Watch is coming.
Come, go, good Juliet, I dare no longer stay.

How characteristic this speech is, from the cowardly refusal to face the consequences of what he’s done to the chilling assumption that Juliet is his to “dispose of.” Again in character, the young woman proves how much stronger she is than the old man:

Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.

The lovers are alone at last, for the first time since the Aubade. But the vision Juliet’s “ill-divining soul” had as they parted then, of Romeo “dead in the bottom of a tomb,” has come horrifically true. There is only one thing left to do:

What’s here? A cup clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl. Drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them
To make me die with a restorative.
Thy lips are warm!

The authorities are near:

WATCHMAN [Within.]
Lead, boy. Which way?

Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger.
This is thy sheath.

Juliet’s death is so loaded with metaphor, from the cup to the sheath to the necrophilic kiss, that in any hands but Shakespeare’s it would be over the top. Who but Shakespeare would have the audacity to let Juliet go out with a dirty joke worthy of Mercutio?

In any case, love ends in completely avoidable catastrophe. I don’t have much to say about the ironies of the situation—it’s pretty clear what they are—except to call your attention to how expertly Shakespeare has stage-managed the action. The scene builds with the intensity of a speeding train, yet there are so many places it could have gone off the rails. To see this you have only to read (or read about) other versions of the story, such as those in which the lovers are awake at the same time and conduct a touching farewell dialogue. Think about other ways this action could have been arranged, and you will see how very effective Shakespeare’s version is.

I called the episode in which Juliet drinks the potion her Immolation Scene, but unlike Brünnhilde, she doesn’t die there. So what do we call her death scene? Easy. It is the Liebestod, the Song of Love and Death. The theme of erotic death, or consummation of love through/in death, figures in any number of myths (such as that of Pyramus and Thisbe, which Shakespeare was reworking at more or less this time) and in the original story of Tristan and Isolde, but Romeo and Juliet is its paradigmatic expression in western literature along with Wagner’s Tristan.

(Incidentally, in discussing the Aubade I nearly compared it to the duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde at the end of Act I of Die Walküre, an equally incandescent scene of lovers raised to transcendence who don’t know that they have only one night together. Since Wagner was well-versed in Shakespeare—his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, is an adaptation of Measure for Measure!—the specific comparison still strikes me as a bit of a stretch, but it’s far from impossible.)

And now we come to the end. Everybody left alive shows up more or less at once: the pages, the watchmen, Friar Laurence, the Prince, the Capulets, and Old Montague—whose wife, he will inform us, can’t be there because she has just died of grief. (In truth, one character left alive is not on the scene. Remember Benvolio? Is it significant that the man whose name means “good will” vanished quite some time ago?) They’re all in character. The Capulets:

O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!
This dagger hath mista’en, for lo, his house
Is empty on the back of Montague,
And it mis-sheathed in my daughter’s bosom.

O me! this sight of death is as a bell
That warns my old age to a sepulchre.

Old Capulet is unaware that he is making the same dirty joke Juliet did, and Lady Capulet is unaware that she is actually in a sepulcher as she speaks.

Meanwhile the Prince tries to sound as if he is in control of the situation:

Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while
Till we can clear these ambiguities
And know their spring, their head, their true descent,
And then will I be general of your woes
And lead you, even to death.

At last it is time for Friar Laurence to account for himself, which he does in an exceptionally long speech that—of course—starts “I will be brief” (V.iii.228). and concludes:

. . . if aught in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrific’d some hour before his time
Unto the rigour of severest law.

He richly deserves the death he’s asking for but I rather suspect he knows he won’t get it, as the Prince responds “We still have known thee for a holy man” (V.iii.269). Meanwhile, Balthasar reveals that Romeo wrote a suicide note to his father; it confirms Friar Laurence’s story, and the Prince pronounces:

Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.

Perhaps Old Capulet is thinking “Haven’t we been punished enough?” for he abruptly extends a hand to Montague and says:

O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

“Jointure” is the male version of “dowry,” that is, the property the husband brings to the marriage, so Old Capulet is saying that the hand of friendship is all her can ask as a wedding offering on behalf of Juliet. Even more surprising, Montague picks right up (line 297 is actually split between them, a nice, subtle touch):

. . . But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.

(Thanks to 21st-century tourism, that last couplet has turned out to be truer than Montague or Shakespeare could have imagined.)

And now that we’re all such good friends—

As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.

So Friar Laurence wins after all! Peace comes to Verona as the Montagues and Capulets settle their feud! It took the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to show the older generation its folly, but at least they did not die in vain.

It only remains for the Prince to pronounce the exordium, with its famous final couplet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings:
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

And so the tragedy ends. But what amazes me is that so many people take this ending at face value, believing that at least Romeo and Juliet did not die in vain, that their deaths will indeed bring peace to Verona. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised; I certainly read the ending that way until I started thinking about it.

Are we really supposed to believe that the Prince, who has been ineffectual throughout, at best barely able to control the violence on the streets, is suddenly going to grow a backbone and crack down? Are we really supposed to believe that Capulet and Montague, who have been at each other’s throats forever, will lie like lion and lamb once they get over their grief? Isn’t it much more likely that they will take up their feud with redoubled fury, fueled by their bitterness at the deaths of (as far as we know) their only children? We assume they are reconciled but all they’ve promised to do is to erect a couple of statues. That those statues are supposed to be gold should set off alarm bells. Remember what Romeo said to the Apothecary?

There is thy gold—worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.

You see why I called this out. The association of gold with poison subliminally conveys that this memorial is poisoned.

Everything that has transpired has been for naught. Young love has been snuffed out. The anarchic stew that is the civil life of Verona, presided over by the figurehead Prince, will roll on.

It’s Verona, Jake.

Comments are closed.