Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 2 of 2)

(Picking up where we left off in the previous post . . .)

So much for the Nurse and my point 4. What of the heart of the story, the passion of Romeo and Juliet? In Brooke, it is a damp squib. So far from the all-consuming fire we know from Shakespeare, so far from a balcony scene that happens immediately after the Capulet banquet, in Brooke Romeus spends six months mooning under the balcony. That’s not a lover: that’s a stalker. As for the actual words the lovers speak, as Peter King put it in his e-mail to me: “frankly, the lines Romeus and Juliet exchange at the party are really bad. It’s like the
love dialogue in Attack of the Clones. Maybe not as good.” Remember, this is the scene in which Shakespeare has the lovers speak a sonnet in alternating lines. Could there be a better example of how Shakespeare has deepened, improved, and transcended his source material?

Well, maybe. This is Brooke’s version of the Aubade:

Thus these two lovers pass away the weary night,
In pain and plaint, not, as they wont, in pleasure and delight.
But now,somewhat too soon, in farthest east arose
Fair Lucifer, the golden star that lady Venus chose;
Whose course appointed is with speedy race to run,
A messenger of dawning day and of the rising sun.
Then fresh Aurora with her pale and silver glade
Did clear the skies, and from the earth had chaséd ugly shade.
When thou ne lookest wide, ne closely dost thou wink
When Phoebus from our hemisphere in western wave doth sink,
What colour then the heavens do show unto thine eyes,
The same, or like, saw Romeus in farthest eastern skies.
As yet he saw no day, ne could he call it night
With equal force decreasing dark fought with increasing light.
Then Romeus in arms his lady ‘gan to fold,
With friendly kiss, and ruthfully she ‘gan her knight behold.
With solemn oath they both their sorrowful leave do take;
They swear no stormy troubles shall their steady friendship shake.
(1701-1718)

Shakespeare gives us the back and forth, the mercurial shifts of emotion of real human beings in love, brilliantly externalized in the what-bird-is-it byplay. Brooke gives us conventional images (Lucifer, Venus, Aurora, and Phoebus!), his usual labored verse, and some downright weird behavior from his characters. Where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually make love, Romeus waits until it’s almost dawn and time for him to fly before he even embraces Juliet—after which they exchange a “friendly” kiss. It’s true that the OED does give “lover” as one sense of “friend” and cites instances in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Measure for Measure, but it cautions that this is not a usual sense (it certainly isn’t now, when the line “I just want to be friends” signals a crushing disappointment rather than a consummation). It actually does seem to be Brooke’s sense, though, since Romeus and Juliet don’t betray any interest in intimacy.

In short, everything that makes the Aubade at once so beautiful and so heartrending is Shakespeare’s contribution.

But why don’t we conclude with the observation that launched this whole (mis)adventure? I had suggested that Romeo and Juliet has a huge plot hole, namely that any sensible person would have seen that the way to handle Romeo’s banishment was obviously to spirit Juliet out of Verona so that she could join him. I noted that of course that would ruin the play; it simply cannot have a happy ending. But there still has to be some explanation for why the characters don’t do the obvious thing. I suggested that Shakespeare, with typical subtlety, solved the problem by making Friar Laurence a figure of such feckless, overweening pride that, blinded by his ambition to resolve the Montague-Capulet feud, he simply overlooks the one course of action that saves everything. Peter King’s question to me was: What happens in the sources? How do they deal with the issue, if they do?

I was surprised and delighted to notice two points. First, in Brooke Friar Laurence is not the only one who wants the feud ended. Both Romeus and Juliet do as well. In fact, the first one to express this thought is Juliet!

What other certain signs seek I of his good will?
These do suffice; and steadfast I will love and serve him still.
Till Atropos shall cut my fatal thread of life,
So that he mind to make of me his lawful wedded wife.
For so perchance this new alliance may procure
Unto our houses such a peace as ever shall endure.”
(423-428)

Giving him his due once again, I note that Brooke immediately points out that this is a dumb idea:

Oh, how we can persuade ourself to what we like,
And how we can dissuade our mind, if aught our mind mislike!
Weak arguments are strong, our fancies straight to frame
To pleasing things, and eke to shun if we mislike the same.
(429-432)

It’s almost 200 more lines before Friar Laurence expresses the thought:

Part won by earnest suit, the friar doth grant at last;
And part, because he thinks the storms, so lately overpast,
Of both the households’ wrath, this marriage might appease;
So that they should not rage again, but quite for ever cease
(608-611)

And rather later, Romeus chimes in:

To which as to the sovereign good by hope I would aspire.
That by our marriage mean we might within a while,
To work our perfect happiness, our parents reconcile:
That safely so we might, not stopped by sturdy strife,
Unto the bounds that God hath set, guide forth our pleasant life.
(1560-1564)

By presenting Friar Laurence as the only one who thinks Romeo and Juliet’s union can have any effect at all on the feud, Shakespeare sharpens our perception of him as a delusional old man. (He makes Romeo and Juliet psychologically more plausible at the same time; it’s ludicrous to believe a couple wholly consumed by love would have a thought to spare for the collateral effect of their union on the feud).

And directly to the point, shortly before the Aubade Romeus discusses the future with Juliet in no uncertain terms:

I will return to you, mine own, befall what may befall.
And then by strength of friends, and with a mighty hand,
From Verone will I carry thee into a foreign land,
Not in man’s weed disguised, or as one scarcely known,
But as my wife and only fere, in garment of thine own.
(1678-1682)

This passage makes clear that Romeus, at least, did consider spiriting Juliet away with himself, “in man’s weed disguised,” and rejected this sensible idea because it didn’t accord with his male ego. He had to have his toy on his arm. So Brooke does have an explanation of the plot hole, one that was not available to Shakespeare because his Romeo, far from perfect though he is, would never adopt such an attitude.

Therefore, Shakespeare needed a different explanation for this glaring oversight. My suggestion was that he found it in the characterization he’d already developed of Friar Laurence as a hermit priest so divorced from reality that he actually believes anybody in Verona, other than these two doomed lovesick children, even listens to him.

For Shakespeare, the hole I speak of is not a hole in the plot so much as a hole in Friar Laurence’s plot. And that, I suggest, is the crowning touch of a brilliance that transfigures his source material again and again and again. I can put it slightly differently by plucking a crow with Professor Weis. He notes that “The Friar’s role is, remarkably, the third-longest in the play after the lovers’, with 346 lines compared to Juliet’s 571 and Romeo’s 615” (31). (Incidentally, Weis did not get these numbers from Wolfram Alpha.) That is indeed a startling chunk of a play whose Second Quarto version runs to 3,052 lines. But it’s less, proportionately, than in Brooke. (I haven’t counted Friar Laurence’s lines in Romeus, but there are at least as many, and in large chunks similar to Shakespeare’s. Particularly deadly is the advice to Romeo that corresponds to III.iii.107-160, admittedly an exceptionally long speech, but in Brooke it’s lines 1353-1480, well over twice as long. His similar speech to Juliet, a sprightly 40 lines in IV.i, corresponds to lines 2070-2171 in Brooke. These two speeches alone, then, amount to 227 lines of Brooke’s 3,020-line poem, an even bigger proportion when you recall that it is a narrative poem and therefore, unlike a play, has a great deal of indirect discourse.)

Unfortunately, instead of trying to discern the dramatic reasons Shakespeare might have had for devoting so much stage time to this rather tiresome character, Weis seems to think there are no such reasons at all—that Shakespeare was merely copying: “Shakespeare’s main source influenced his portrayal of the Friar to the point where Laurence’s longer speeches correspond to extended stretches in the source. It is as if Shakespeare were passively soaking up the source rather than harnessing its raw material in the service of his art” (id.). as I’ve suggested throughout my discussion of Romeo and Juliet, nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely in his portrait of Friar Laurence that we see Shakespeare hard at work “harnessing the raw material” of his source. In Brooke, those hundreds of lines of half-baked advice are taken wholly seriously (in spite of the racy past Brooke provides for the Friar; Weis alludes to this but it has nothing to do with Laurence’s role in the poem). In Shakespeare, they are taken seriously by Romeo and Juliet, but are undercut at every turn for the audience, who see Friar Laurence for what he is. If there is any later character in Shakespeare Laurence resembles, it is Polonius; the Friar is, if anything, even more of a “foolish prating knave.”

Now that you’ve come to the end of this post (and not a moment too soon), do you even need to ask why everybody knows Romeo and Juliet but nobody even knows what Romeus and Juliet is, let alone reads it, unless they are doing research on Shakespeare? If so, go ahead and read Romeus. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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