«by JANE ELIZABETH KINGSLEY-SMITH A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Birmingham for the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY The ...»
The jibe is trivial, insubstantial and borne away by the wind. The violence incited leads to bloodshed and destruction that is palpable and permanent. This juxtaposition of airy words 5 See M. M. Mahood. Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1957), 170-171, and on the subject of cursing, Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 6 See Neil Rhodes, The Power of Eloquence and English Renaissance Literature (Worcester: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 8. Rhodes also identifies a connection between rhetoric and satire in that both imagine the action of words on the body, often figuring words as weapons, 19-22, 45.
and blows implies the triviality of the feud but also the insubstantiality of the language from which it has sprung.
In the next scene, the same concerns with immaterial words are reflected in the world of Petrarchan love. The feud is forgotten as Benvolio and Montague describe Romeo the lover in muted pastoral terms. He is imagined walking alone before dawn, weeping and sighing, a flower prematurely marred by the 'envious worm' (1.1.148). Yet Romeo recognises the
relevance of the fighting to his own experience:
Romeo employs the paradox of love and violence, of wooing as waging war. which is essential to Petrarchan courtship and to its expression in poetry. The love/war conceit has already been expressed in the violent and bawdy puns of Capulet's servants. It remains a constant pressure throughout the play in the love-death imagery which reaches its apotheosis in the fusion of wedding-bed and death-bed. 7 However. Romeo's act of contextualising his love within the recent brawl serves another purpose. It unconsciously suggests that his love too is 'bred of an airy word'. Like the violence that erupts from nothing. Romeo describes 7 See for example Juliet's Til to my wedding bed.' And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!' (3.2.136-7).
This is exactly what Capulet suggests Death has done in 4.4.63-6.
love as created from 'nothing'. The anti-Petrarchan voice incipient in Benvolio may remind us that these conceits were dying metaphors at the time of the play's composition. They are
losing their power to signify as James Calderwood testifies:
the Petrarchan style aspires to pure poetry and in so aspiring becomes an airy, hyperbolic, mechanically artificial expression of unfelt and undiscriminating feelings. In this sense it is too pure ('Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied"-2.3.21), and when the too pure becomes too popular it turns impure, an infectious blight on the literary landscape. 8 Romeo is self-conscious about his performance to the extent that he does not expect to be taken seriously. He asks Benvolio, 'Dost thou not laugh?' (180) and in response to Benvolio's question about the identity of his lover replies, 'What, shall I groan and tell thee?' (197).
At the same time, Romeo recognises it as a failure of language that his love is not more substantial. He employs Petrarchan terms to persuade Rosaline to give up her much-prized chastity and give him some physical return for his words. His despair at her decision to remain chaste is expressed in terms familiar from Shakespeare's sonnets urging the young man to marry: '0. she is rich in beauty, only poor/ That when she dies, with beauty dies her store' (1.1.212-3). Again a few lines later, he declares 'For beauty starved with her severity/ Cuts beauty off from all posterity' (216-7). 9 Whilst the sonnets ostensibly aim to persuade, so Romeo's poetry too is in active service. He says that Rosaline will not 'stay the siege of loving terms' nor receive his 'saint-seducing gold' (209, 211).
8 James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Melodrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971). 98. On the cliche of Petrarchism in the play see also "Romeo and Juliet and the Elizabethan Sonnets' by A. J. Earl, English 27 (1978), 99-119, and Harry Levin, 'Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', Sh. Q. 11 (1960), 3-11.
Other articles referring to the play's Petrarchism will be cited in due course.
9 In the 1609 Quarto these are the first 17 sonnets. See in particular Sonnet 6 'Then let not winter's ragged hand deface...' in which the poet urges 'Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair/ To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir' (13-4). Romeo also stresses that Rosaline is too fair to waste her beauty, 1.1.218.
Mercutio is fully aware of the conventions that define Romeo as a lover ('Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in' (2.3.36-7)) and rarely misses an opportunity to deride the Montague for his posturing. Mercutio finds this poetic style particularly irksome because it is founded on airy hyperbole, on frustrated desire elevated to the status of the transcendent and divine. He notoriously tries to bring Romeo's conceits down to earth by counselling action that will produce physical satisfaction and possession: 'If love be rough with you, be rough with love./ Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down1 (1.4.27-8). 10 He has no respect for the ethereality of Romeo's love and calls it insubstantial. This insubstantiality is dramatised in the scene wherein Mercutio attempts to conjure Romeo to appear before them.
At first, he chooses Petrarchan terms by which Romeo should recognise himself:
Yet Romeo does not respond. This is not merely rationalism on the play's part. Rather, Romeo's absence is an expression of his self-loss through love or through playing at love.
This is one aspect of his experience with which Mercutio concurs. As a lover, Romeo is as ethereal as a sigh. Only when the Montague engages in some robust wordplay after his marriage does Mercutio congratulate him: 'Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature' (2.3.82-3). Rosaline too lacks substance.
She never appears on the stage and remains a woman whom Romeo has conjured with words.
10 Mercutio notably rewrites the emblem of the lover sitting under a tree as satirised by Celia in As You Like It (3 2 ""29-45). He offers a characteristically bawdy version: 'Now will he sit under a medlar tree/ And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit/ As maids call medlars when they laugh alone./ O Romeo, that she were, O that she were, An open-arse, and thou a popp'rin' pear, 2.1.34-8.
Nevertheless, when Mercutio attempts to conjure the Montague in Rosaline's name his spell is again ineffectual. Rosaline's beauties no longer have any power over Romeo for he has just abandoned this love for the exciting materiality of Juliet. Mercutio demonstrates how ineffective Petrarchan terms are to define Romeo or his affections.
Though disparaging of the lover's rhymes, Mercutio is no enemy to poetry per se. Rather, it is Romeo who reveals hostility towards his friend's invention. In his Queen Mab speech, Mercutio rejects the conventions of that 'dull sublunary lover' Romeo for an altogether different poetry. His narrative about the faery world of Queen Mab where an empty hazelnut is a chariot driven by 'a small grey-coated gnat' reveals an imagination that Romeo has never tapped in his poetry. Moreover, Mercutio uses this fantasy to offer a perspective on the human world that reduces all human ambition including love to absurdity. It is a perspective Romeo is incapable of appreciating. Perhaps in repudiation of the bawdiness of Mercutio's dream, the lover interrupts: 'Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!/ Thou talk'st of nothing' (1.4.95This rebuke defines Romeo's attitude to the faery world, that it has no reference to 'real life'. Yet we are not only concerned here with Romeo's refusal to believe in fairies or dreams.
Mercutio responds that since the subject of his speech was dreams he inevitably spoke of 'nothing' but this is also the stuff of poetry:
Mercutio's speech equally applies to the poetry that gave expression to his dream. In A
Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus uses a similar terminology:
It is this freewheeling creativity with its disrespect for convention that Romeo rejects.
For Romeo, Petrarchan poetry is valuable because it has the weight of social and poetic convention behind it. The language of Petrarch is spoken by various different characters in the course of the play. 11 It inspires the bookish terms of Lady Capulet's eulogy on Paris (1.3.83-94); Capulet's description of Juliet grieving (3.5.130-7); and provides the father with conceits by which to lament his daughter's death (4.4.62-6). Petrarchan language is very much part of the daily intercourse of Veronese society.
The literary weight behind the language that Romeo speaks exists moreover, not only hi Petrarchism, but in the sources for the play itself. There is a substantial difference between Romeo's dream (1.4.50) and Mercutio's. Romeo gives credence to the presentiments of disaster which come to him and may also have been foretold in his dream. When Benvolio
warns they will be too late for the feast, Romeo replies in soliloquy:
11 See Jill L. Levenson. 'The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet', Sh. St. 15 (1982), 21-36, 26.
Romeo's sense of doom may be a true premonition of fate or it may imply a death wish he has long cherished.'- Whatever our conclusion, his fate is predestined in the sense that the opening prologue has told us how this story will end. The reference to 'fatal loins' from whence Romeo and Juliet are sprung is a pun that refers to the fatal quarrel between their families but also to the 'loins', a homophonic pun on 'lines', in which their fate is written.
These lines appear in the Prologue but also in the play's literary predecessors. Shakespeare's main source for his tragedy, The Tragical! Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), recognised various other literary debts. Arthur Brooke refers to a play, now lost, as one source. 13 A more obvious predecessor would be the French version of the story by Pierre Boaistuau, itself based on Matteo Bandello's Romeo e Giulietta (1554). 14 The play must end with the lovers' deaths not only because of its title, the 'lamentable tragedy', or even because of its opening sonnet, but because it carries the weight of half a century at least of mythology. When Romeo identifies Paris as 'One writ with me in sour misfortune's book' (5.3.82), he glances at the audience's sense of predestination through literature. They know how the story must end. This is by far the strongest 'fatal' power in a rather vague and unconvincing providential structure. 15 Moreover, having Romeo almost aware that his story is predetermined, as if he knows the part he will play, emphasises his own commitment to literary convention. These are words and images that matter because they will perform his death.
12 See Marilyn L. Williamson, 'Romeo and Death', Sh. St. 14 (1981), 129-37.
13 In his preface to the reader Brooke refers to having seen 'the same argument lately set foorth on stage Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1, 284-363, 285.
14 See G. Blakemore Evans' discussion of the sources in his introduction to Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984), 6-13.
15 I would agree with Clifford Leech here when he argues that we could imagine the lovers enjoying a happier fate: 'the lovers are doomed only by the words of the Prologue, not by anything inherent in their situation. It is not, as it is in Hardy's novels, that we have a sense of a fully adverse "President of the immortals": there is rather an insufficient consideration of what is implied by the "stars'". See The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet' in English Renaissance Drama: Essays in Honor of Madeleine Doran and Mark Eccles ed. by Standish Henring, Robert Kimbrough and Richard Knowles (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1976), 59-75.
When Romeo finds 'real love1, he does not require a new language to describe the revelation that is Juliet but retains all the hyperbole and imagery of the old. For him the language is newly validated by its discovery of substance. Donne's Songs and Sonnets (pub. 1633) can enrich our appreciation of Romeo and Juliet at many points since he too employed the conventions of Petrarchism. In particular, Donne's 'Air and Angels' describes Romeo's
predicament in having all the structures of love but lacking its substance:
In the last stanza. Donne describes his love for the woman's every physical perfection as overwhelming: Tor. nor in nothing, nor in things/ Extreme, and scart'ring bright can love inhere' (21-2). He needs a more stable foundation for his passion. The answer seems to be a
reciprocal love. A. J. Smith writes:
If the lady returns the poet's love they will thus between them supply love with an embodiment, an aerial spirit, and a celestial nature, to complete the union. They will have created a new joint being of love, far beyond a mere physical coupling, to replace their separate selves. 16 16 John Donne: The Complete English Poems ed. by A. J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 355, n. 27.
When Romeo sees Juliet, he rejects Rosaline and calls Juliet 'beauty' and then 'love'.
Moreover, Juliet reciprocates by naming Romeo 'love' and by filling out the poetic structure of a sonnet with her own substance. In their conversation about Rosaline, Romeo and Benvolio frequently spoke in rhyming couplets and Romeo in quatrains. The sonnet existed here but unformed, in disparate pieces, waiting to be created between Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet feast. It is not only that Juliet is willing to match the Montague line for line. She also offers him a substantial return for his conceits. Like the saints who do not 'move1, Juliet remains still so that Romeo can kiss her. The sonnet actually leads to action. The Petrarchan language becomes performative as the sonnet to Rosaline was meant to be.
Juliet will not remain so generous in her speech. Before the marriage, Romeo seeks to define
love in airy words: