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About this book

As one of the world's greatest love stories Romeo and Juliet continues to excite new theatre-goers, readers and film-goers. Its depiction of tragic lovers strikes a chord in each generation of young people, and seems to speak in their own idiom. As such, it reflects, and allows us to analyse, changing attitudes to sex in a violent world. This collection of contemporary essays raises topical debates about the nature of love conventions, as well as offering new insights into Shakespeare's text.

Table of Contents

Introduction: What is this thing called love?

With its volatile mixture of adolescent passion, lyrical poetry and poignancy, Romeo and Juliet has always been a favourite amongst Shakespeare plays for performance and on school syllabuses. Memorable film adaptations, particularly by Zeffirelli (1968) and Luhrmann (1996), and its ‘inset’ appearance in Shakespeare in Love (1998), have given it wider currency as part of international popular culture. Oddly enough, the only people who have neglected it, at least relative to their attentiveness to other plays, are Shakespeare critics, who have never quite accepted it as a ‘mature tragedy’. This may be because the plot appears to be parodied in the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ presentation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as though even the dramatist could not take it fully seriously. But it is also because Romeo and Juliet does not conform satisfactorily to the paradigm of Shakespearean tragedy which, until recently, has prevailed: the idea of character as destiny — the ‘great man’ undone from within either by an innate weakness or a fallible moral decision.
R. S. White

1. ‘Death-marked love’: Desire and Presence in Romeo and Juliet

The action of Romeo and Juliet occurs between two speeches proclaiming the lovers’ deaths — the prologue’s forecast of events and the prince’s closing summary. The vicissitudes of desire take place in this unusual period, after life yet before death. It is a kind of liminal phase in which social and personal pressures build to intense pitch before they are settled. Such liminal tension, as Victor Turner suggests, is the very stuff of which social dramas are made.1 It figures a mounting crisis that envelops those observing and taking part in the unfolding action. At the same time, this temporal setting has a range of interpretative implications.
Lloyd Davis

2. The Name of the Rose in Romeo and Juliet

Is the human body inside or outside culture? Is it an organism, subject only to nature and independent of history? Or alternatively is it an effect of the signifier, no more than an ensemble of the meanings ascribed to it in different cultures, and thus historically discontinuous? Or, a third possibility, is this question itself reductive, a product of our wish to assign unambiguous causes and straightforward explanations?
Catherine Belsey

3. Romeo and Juliet: Love-Hatred in the Couple [Le couple amour-haine selon Roméo et Juliette]

Transgression love, outlaw love, these are the notions that prevail in ordinary consciousness and literary texts as well; Denis de Rougemont in his Love in the Western World largely contributed toward imposing the concept in its strongest form: love is adulterous (cf. Tristram and Isolde).
Julia Kristeva

4. The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet

‘To this end … is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to un-honest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends …’1 Thus Arthur Brooke defines the ideological project of his poem, The Tragical History of Romeous and Juliet (1562), which was to become Shakespeare’s primary source for Romeo and Juliet. The lovers’ ‘unhonest desire’ was always a compelling feature of the story, but in Shakespeare’s version the fate of that desire is presented as profound injustice as much as proper punishment.2 For Brooke’s rendition of the story bears a moral aversion to what Shakespeare’s tragedy accomplishes in producing for posterity the lovers’ desire as at once transgressive (‘unhonest’) and as a new orthodoxy (tragically legitimated). It is precisely this ambivalence that is at the heart of the play’s appeal as one of the pre-eminent cultural documents of love in the West.
Dympna C. Callaghan

5. ‘The Murdering Word’

The present value of Shakespeare’s tragedies stems from their refusal to resolve the contradiction between justified desires and their unjustifiable suppression: the heartbreaking contradiction between what men and women could be, and what time and place condemn them to become, in spite of the superior selves and fuller lives struggling within them for realisation. Shakespearean tragedy is organised by its awareness of alternative potential; it demonstrates that what happens in these plays results from a specific constellation of conditions and pressures, and thus that human lives could take quite different paths under other conceivable circumstances. It is the conditional, contestable nature of the plight that grinds down the protagonists, regardless of merit or their capacity to live otherwise, that defines the tragic quality of the drama.
Kiernan Ryan

6. Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

I want to begin with an anecdote. When I proposed writing about Leonardo DiCaprio — and titling my essay, ‘Was This the Face that Launched a Thousand Clips’ — one colleague, taking me somewhat seriously, mentioned the best-selling Leo books, and another sent me a Hong Kong action comic in which ‘Leon’ single-handedly foils an evil gang and gets the girl. A third, addressing my penchant for reading Shakespearian and popular bodies, glanced at how the Shakespeare myth insists on the physical spectre of the Bard with the Forehead and at the delicious possibility that someone like DiCaprio might have played Cleopatra. A fourth was decidedly visceral: ‘The most watery Romeo in film history? His acting is appalling, his affect minimal, and his intelligence — well, why go on? I can understand why teenage girls fall all over themselves for him. But you? Tell me it isn’t so!’1 Such concerns about my ‘low’ taste and possible adolescent regression point to the lack of critical distance and loss of rational control associated with an intense engagement with the popular; but then, such over-involvement and over-identification, traits traditionally ascribed to women, do mark the popular (and especially its emphasis on the body) as a feminine realm.2
Barbara Hodgdon

7. The Servants

Without Abstract
Bertolt Brecht

8. Romeo and Juliet: The Nurse’s Story

The heroine of Romeo and Juliet enters the play late. Not until the third scene of the first Act is she called on-stage by her mother and her Nurse, who are also appearing here for the first time. The latter part of this scene is given to Lady Capulet’s brisk and formal announcement of an offer for her daughter, with Juliet’s timid and obedient response. All the earlier part of it is dominated by the Nurse, and her reminiscences of the past set the tone for the first appearance of the only three really important women in this romantic and domestic tragedy. Lady Capulet’s conventional niceties make their point too, but it is the Nurse who holds the stage. Indeed, her ‘moment’ seems to have an importance in the play as a whole which has not been recognised. It demands to be looked at in a little detail. At Juliet’s entry, mother and Nurse are discussing her age:
Barbara Everett

9. Eloquence and Liminality: Glossing Mercutio’s Speech Acts

As Mercutio crosses the threshold from Brooke into Shakespeare he acquires not only a brother, a friendship, and a death but also a distinctively eloquent and vividly characteristic voice. To the extent that he stands outside the main plot, neither affecting it nor being affected by it until his death, mere language has a particular prominence with him. As is well known, Mercutio is a landmark in Shakespeare’s early development of characterisation in distinctive speech, and much of the impressionistic admiration (as well as some of the disapproval) he has elicited has been for his speech. Harbage1 speaks of his ‘matchless exercise in verbal cameo-cutting and imaginative fooling’, Holland2 of his ‘puns, rhymes, jokes, set-speeches, and other masks’, and Snyder3 of the fact that ‘speech for him is a constant play on multiple possibilities: puns abound because two or three meanings are more fun than one’. With pragmatic, or speech-act, analysis we may uncover some more of the nature of what Mercutio does with words.4
Joseph A. Porter

10. Romeo and Juliet’s Open Rs

Over the past twenty years, Romeo and Juliet has become the Shakespeare play assigned to more US high school students than any other. Julius Caesar has been usurped; the sexual revolution has replaced the civics lesson. Yet, given the conservative nature of most high school curricula, one can only assume that the play is taught in formalist terms (the young vs the old, night vs day, love vs society, etc.) and toward a valuation of a kind not limited to high school lesson plans. Typical in this regard might be these sentences from Brian Gibbons’s ‘Introduction’ to his Arden edition of the play (1980): ‘The lovers are from the outset withdrawn in an experience of sublime purity and intense suffering which renders them spiritually remote from other characters and the concerns of the ordinary world. The single clear line of ideal aspiration in love is set against the diversified complex intrigues which proliferate in the ordinary world, and contact between the two has tragic consequences.’1 In such an estimation (it recurs as the thesis in the thirty-five pages of his ‘Introduction’ given over to — ominously — ‘The Play’), Gibbons would seem to be doing little more than echoing the closing lines of the play, in which the prince intones, ‘never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ (V.iii.308–9) as his response to the offer of Montague and Capulet to raise a monument to the dead pair of lovers:
Jonathan Goldberg
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