To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric:
Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays
Chapter 1: Galloping by Night Through Lovers' Brains: Romantic Love and Hot Desire in Romeo and Juliet
A good starting point for a consideration of allegories of rhetoric and dialectic in Shakespeare's plays may be Romeo and Juliet. One reason to start with Romeo and Juliet is that everyone is familiar with the romantic story of the main characters. It is not, however, the simple love story we all remember. If we look closely, we find complexity. We read (or hear) a dialectic in which the rhetoric of romantic love is countered by a discourse of hot desire.
Romeo and Juliet is an early play, perhaps 1594 to 1596. It seems to belong with Richard II and A Midsummer Night's Dream because of the lyric style of its poetry.1 As important for this study as the persuasive quality of the poetry is the fact that Shakespeare probably wrote Romeo and Juliet after the first tetralogy of history plays and was beginning the second tetralogy with Richard II.2 These "dialectical" history plays, as A.P. Rossiter called them, contain conflicting hypotheses about Providence and raw power concerning the fall and rise of kings.3
Romeo and Juliet seems to exhibit the dialectical arguments in utramque partem (on both sides of the question) to be found in the history plays.4 Further, in my view, the play alerts the audience through an allegorical emblem that the play as a whole may have an allegorical significance for the audience--clues as to what to look for and ways in which the play announces a complex and unstable relationship to the discourse on romantic love current in the world beyond the play.5
While the dominant rhetorical statement of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo and Juliet's poetry of romantic love, a more muted secondary or counter discourse speaks of human desire. Desire is out of control in Romeo and Juliet. Recent criticism points to the fact but never quite identifies it. New Historicist discussions of patriarchy and subversion of authority in the play suggest it. Feminist critiques of Shakespeare's women in the play evoke it. Psychoanalytic criticism shows how characters in the play displace and project it.
I think that a number of these insights ought to be brought together in a new approach to the play. Roughly chronologically, these interpretive insights include the following: deadly rites of male initiation into manhood; politics and power in the disordered state; a source of this disorder in anarchic passion in a pervasive, impersonal "circulation of desire"; and patriarchal authority subverted by those who articulate and act out this anarchic desire, allowing for double or multiple interpretation of signs.6
In connecting these observations, I have concluded that 1) the patriarchal structure in Verona is everywhere subverted; 2) a breakdown of order is caused by the anarchic libidinal energy that has taken over the city (as Mercutio alone sees); 3) the romantic love of Romeo and Juliet is only the most important (the foregrounded and privileged) example of this desire run rampant. 4) When seen from this perspective Romeo and Juliet becomes a completely different play from the one that endorses the romantic love of the fated couple. 5) Finally, this alternative play as counter-hypothesis is remarkably similar to the Renaissance view of sensual love that Shakespeare helped to transform.
In discussions of patriarchal dominance and subversion of authority in Shakespeare's plays, few critics have commented on the fact that authority in Romeo and Juliet is so widely flouted and undermined that it almost does not exist.7 When not immediately under the watchful eye of their superiors, practically all the characters do exactly as they please. In Act One, scene one, Samson and Gregory, servants of the house of Capulet, cavort and talk trash about fighting Lord Montague's men and raping his women (1.1.11-32). Two servants of the rival house show up and try to pick a fight. When Benvolio, a Capulet, tries to intervene, Tybalt of the house of Montague arrives and tries to kill Benvolio, at which point a group of citizens arrive with clubs and sticks to subdue both sides (1.1.64-74).
Patriarchal authority is even insulted to its face. When old Capulet calls for his "long sword," his wife tells him he is too old and impotent to fight: "A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?" (1.1.75-6). At this point, Escalus, Prince of Verona, arrives to restore order. He calls them all "beasts" for their "pernicious rage" and lack of reason (1.1.83-4). This is the first of three times that the prince is forced to step in, and none of the three interventions has any positive effect except, perhaps, the last.
The two principals, Romeo and Juliet, both defy their parents. Romeo stays out all night and woos Juliet, the daughter of his family's ancient foe. Juliet lies about it, while refusing to accede to her father's demand that she wed Paris. Then Romeo woos Juliet in her father's own orchard. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret against their parents' wishes. To make all this possible, the Nurse acts as go-between, subverting parental authority and her own responsibility to protect Juliet's virginity. Likewise, Friar Laurence intervenes between parents and children, violating the trust the parents have placed in him and his own office as priest.
Verona has descended to a state of anarchy, but why? Perhaps Mercutio knows the answer. His Queen Mab speech seems to be an enigma that serves no purpose beyond illustrating Mercutio's merry madness, but in our consideration of the play's rhetoric and the dialectical inquiry created by the plot, Mercutio's enigma yields an allegorical emblem of infected will or rampant desire.8 Perhaps because of his quick wit, or because he is himself possessed by multifaceted desire, Mercutio is able to see the ways in which desire in its many forms consumes the people of Verona.
In his Queen Mab speech, Mercutio catalogs the unbridled desire that inhabits the dreams of the Veronese and makes them behave like sleepwalkers and madfolk during their supposedly waking hours. In Mercutio's febrile fantasy, Queen Mab rides the night in a chariot made of "an empty hazelnut" (1.4.59):
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider web,
Her collars of the moonshine's watery beams,
Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small gray-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid. (1.4.62-9)
This is the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Queen Mab is Oberon, Titania, and Puck rolled into one. Mab is the unconscious force of desire that invades the dreams and waking hours of mortals, shaped by their various predilections:
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on curtsies straight;
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream. . . . (1.4.71-4)
The protean creations of human desire come unbidden, and without the check of human reason, they inflict themselves upon the world, only occasionally and temporarily halted by external authority. Mercutio knows intuitively that this is what is happening in Verona, but his companions think he is talking nonsense. Romeo says, "Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.96); Benvolio adds, "This wind you talk blows us from ourselves" (1.4.104).
But it is not nonsense. It is a truism that Shakespeare gives his audience all they need to know, by way of background information, in the first act, and Mercutio's allegorical speech is a crucial bit of knowledge about Verona's disordered state. It reveals, if fancifully, the mechanism by which a community descends into chaos. Let us look at how and why certain characters "bite their thumb" (1.1.44) at authority.
Tybalt is the most obvious example of this unruliness. When he hears Romeo's voice behind a masque at the Capulets' feast, Tybalt vows to kill him on the spot: "Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, / To strike him dead I hold it not a sin" (1.5.59-60). When forced to restrain himself by his uncle Capulet's insults to his manhood, Tybalt is shaken by barely controlled bloodlust:9
Patience perforce with willed choler meeting
Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.
I will withdraw. But this intrusion shall,
Now seeming sweet, convert to bitterest gall. (1.5.90-3)
Tybalt is like Queen Mab's soldier who "dreams of cutting foreign throats" because Mab has driven over his neck, just as old Capulet has figuratively driven over Tybalt's neck (1.4.83).Although different in desire from Tybalt, the Nurse harbors a fantasy that is clearly an obsession. When we first see the nurse in Act One, scene three, she twice calls Juliet a "pretty fool" (1.3.32 and 49) and twice tells Juliet (quoting her late husband) she will "fall backward" when she has more wit and when she comes of age (1.3.43 and 57). The salacious nurse is eager to see Juliet, a child of thirteen, fall on her back and lose her virginity. When Juliet meets Romeo, the nurse becomes an eager pander. Mercutio immediately recognizes the Nurse for what she is, "a bawd" (2.4.128). Despite the Nurse's warning to Romeo to deal honestly with Juliet and "not deal double with her" (2.4.165-6), the nurse is delivering Juliet into the hands of a young man who will deflower her.
Mercutio sees through the Nurse's protestations: she is a "stale," an old whore, whose ancient lust is projected on to Juliet. The Nurse admits it in the next scene, when she praises Romeo's body (2.5.40-4) and tells Juliet to go to Friar Laurence's cell to make Romeo her husband. The Nurse says, "I am the drudge, and toil in your delight, / But you shall bear the burden soon at night?" (2.5.75-76).
Friar Laurence has his own private fantasies, too. With the help of Mercutio's vision, we can see that Friar Laurence agrees to help Romeo and Juliet get married because he has a secret desire to control events:
In one respect I'll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your household's rancor to pure love. (2.3.90-92)
He will help them for only one reason: to restore peace and harmony between the feuding families. Despite his good intentions, the holy friar is a meddling schemer whose plan is hatched and conducted in secret. His furtive desire to manipulate other people's lives gets the better of his reason and causes him to subvert the authority of parents over their children.
Juliet's parents manage to violate their own authority. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, they lash out at their daughter. They both say they wish Juliet were dead for her willful disobedience. Her father completely loses his composure and dignity by insulting her, calling her "carrion," "baggage," "tallow-face," and "wretch" (3.5.156-57,160). He even threatens to strike her. Meanwhile, Juliet is on her knees begging to speak. Her parents will not listen. As a result, they lose all authority in Juliet's eyes.
What motivates this mad wrath? Although it is not in Mercutio's vision, Queen Mab has visited them too. Their fond desire is that Juliet marry well. Count Paris is a man of high estate. They covet his name and his money in their daughter's behalf. Besides, Juliet is her father's property, or so he wishes. But Juliet will have none of it. She has fond desires of her own.
The love of Romeo and Juliet is the most important example in the play of desire run rampant. The problem is that the ample evidence to support this view is obscured by four hundred years of tradition that privileges a romantic interpretation of the two lovers. Most of us want to believe in the romantic story of Romeo and Juliet, just as we want to remember the witty, jesting Mercutio without taking seriously what he says. As Dympna Callaghan has pointed out, "Romeo and Juliet was written at the historical moment when the ideologies and energies of desire--romantic love and the family--were being negotiated" (59).
Furthermore, Callaghan insists, rightly I think, that "what is extraordinary about the version of familial and personal relations--of desire and identity and their relation to power--endorsed by Romeo and Juliet--is that they are in our own time so fully naturalized as to seem universal" (60-61). I would go further and say that Shakespeare's play can be seen as the single most important document in the history of romantic love as the primary criterion for marriage.
Of course, the reason we interpret Romeo and Juliet as an endorsement of romantic love is that the play encourages us to do so. The very power of the lyrical discourse on love takes on an authority almost divine, as the poetry connects itself to the vocabulary of the religion of courtly love and the Neoplatonic ascent toward heaven on the chain of being. The magic of Shakespeare's romantic poetry places the play's sympathy on the side of the lovers. Geoffrey Bullough's view of the play is typical and can speak for the rest of us who sympathize with the young lovers and their poetry:
We do not disapprove of their love or conduct, though they flout the
authority of their parents and Juliet in particular deceives hers. We pity
their youth, beauty, lyricism; and we fear for them because the world
in which they live is unworthy of them, a place of less generous
passions, so that Capulet may well call them "Poor sacrifices to our
Of Friar Laurence's words, "These violent delights have violent ends," Bullough says that "only a blind critic could regard them as the moral of the play" (277). Nonetheless, Friar Laurence admonishes Romeo because Romeo exhibits symptoms of unbridled desire, as do the rest of the Veronese.
What I see in Romeo and Juliet is a completely different play going on simultaneously with the play that endorses the star-crossed lovers. It is a play that we do not recognize, despite the evidence Shakespeare provides, partly because the tradition of romantic love of the last four hundred years closes our hermeneutic circle to any other possibilities.
If romantic love is the answer, what is the question? For me, the question is why do Romeo and Juliet have to die? To expand the question, one might also ask why do any of the young people die? Or why is Verona dysfunctional? The general answer to all three questions is inordinate desire ungoverned by reason. If in the play romantic love is the privileged sign and Mercutio's notion of mad desire is the inferior sign, then we ought to try turning the prevailing view of Romeo and Juliet upside-down.
Let us consider the tale Shakespeare inherited. According to Bullough, "The story of Romeo and Julietta in Le Novelle del Bandello (1554) is intended 'to warn young people that they should govern their desires and not run into furious passion'" (271). This sounds like our upside-down story, but the "warning" is added on, not built in. Bandello's story was translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in his additions to Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques extraictes des Oeuvres italiens de Bandel (Paris 1559).
Arthur Brooke wrote a long narrative poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) based on Boaistuau. Bullough believes that Brooke's story became Shakespeare's "main and perhaps sole source for Romeo and Juliet" (274). He says of Brooke, "That he was a serious-minded Protestant moralist is suggested by the Address to the Reader before his poem,"(275), and "Brooke is . . . heavily moral in his address to the reader, accusing the lovers of lust and disobedience, 'abusing the honorable name of lawfull marriage to cloke the shame of stolne contractes,' and even ' by all means of unhonest life, hastynge to most unhappy deathe.' In the poem itself, however, [Brooke's] sympathy is with the lovers" (277).
Again, this sounds like the upside-down Romeo and Juliet, but like Bandello's story, the moral is tacked on rather than built into the play. Besides, we are not looking for a moral; we are looking for another play, one that shows the mechanism that causes Romeo and Juliet to die; or as Bertolt Brecht says of Shakespeare, "What are the laws that decide how processes of life develop?"11
Perhaps we should examine more closely the story of this other Romeo and Juliet that I see along side of the usual version. It begins when we first see Romeo. He is not well. As Benvolio discovers, Romeo has a bad case of lovesickness. Benvolio says, "Alas, that Love, so gentle in his view, / Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!" (1.1.169-70). Romeo complains of love in a series of oxymorons:
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create,
O heavy lightness, serious vanity
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this! (1.1.176-82)
Later, Mercutio is able to supply Romeo with a diagnosis. Romeo is suffering from Petrarchanism: "Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura to his lady was but a kitchen wench--marry, she had a better love to berhyme her" (2.4.38-41). To Mercutio, Romeo is besotted with love poetry and speaks trite verses about his beloved and himself.
The "lady" to whom Mercutio refers is named Rosaline. We never meet her. She was to be the heroine of our play, but she rejected the role. Romeo says,
She'll not be hitRosaline apparently has too much sense to fall for Romeo's love songs. Romeo laments that
With Cupid's arrow. She hath Dian's wit,
And, in strong proof of chastity well armed,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharmed. (1.1.208-11)
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold. (1.1.214)
She is immune to Romeo's blandishments because she knows what he wants. This "saint" will not "ope her lap" because some young fool is trying to seduce her with love poetry. We can infer that Rosaline knows that behind Romeo's rhetoric of love is lust. A model of reason and chastity, she will have nothing to do with him. Although love is his "devout religion" (1.2.90), Romeo thinks chastity is a "huge waste" of beauty (1.1.218).
Through the allegory of Queen Mab as emblem, we can see that Mercutio is trying to show Romeo something about himself. It is significant that Mercutio directs his allegorical meaning directly at Romeo: "O, then I see that Queen Mab hath been with you" (1.4.53). Mercutio is telling Romeo that his "love" is just desire in search of an object of gratification, but Romeo misses the point. Do we? He cannot or will not acknowledge what Mercutio is saying. Can we? Such a realization would violate the tenets of Romeo's religion of love, and it might violate our sense of what the play is about.
In Act One, scene five, when Romeo meets Juliet, he finally finds someone who will worship with him in his love religion: Romeo and Juliet become "two blushing pilgrims" worshiping at the shrine of the god of Love (1.5.96). This is the end of Act One.
Immediately afterward, at the beginning of Act Two, we are presented with a Chorus. Like the Chorus that precedes Act One, this Chorus is a sonnet, but unlike the earlier one that speaks of “star-crossed lovers” undone by Fate and family strife, this sonnet actually explains the mechanism or natural law governing the lives of the two lovers:12
Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groaned for and would die,
With tender Juliet matched, is now not fair.
Now Romeo is beloved and loves again,
Alike bewitched by the charm of looks. . . . (2.0.1-6)
The Chorus in Act Two offers an alternate hypothesis or counter-assertion to the hypothesis put forth by the Chorus at the beginning of the play. In case we missed the point of Mercutio's Queen Mab allegory as it applies to Romeo, the second Chorus spells it out for us. Whereas the dominant discourse of the play contrasts the innocent lovers with their corrupt, feuding parents, the secondary discourse tells us that Romeo and Juliet are in some ways similar to their parents.
This alternate hypothesis does not necessarily negate the first. Rather, it includes seemingly antithetical elements in a larger category of unbridled desire. The Chorus says that Romeo transfers his "old desire" for Rosaline to a woman who will reciprocate. Thus, Romeo and Juliet are "alike bewitched" by each other and by their own passion.
The sonnet points out further that it is a dangerous game they are playing. According to the rules of courtly love, Romeo will complain to Juliet as he did to Rosaline and ask for mercy, and Juliet will try to "steal love's sweet bait from fearful [threatening] hooks" (2.0.7-8). As we have already heard, Romeo has no respect for chastity, and once more, this time under Juliet's window, he tells us as much. The lines we all remember are
But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?But in our simultaneous version of the play, the next lines are privileged:
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (2.2.2-3)
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she,
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off. (2.2.4-9)
Romeo wants Juliet to "cast off" her maiden chastity. His desire has not changed, even though the object of desire is different.
What we have here is a case of dueling arguments. Like two lawyers in court, each hypothesis seeks to establish the status or ground to explain the action of the plot. This is Shakespeare arguing both sides (in utramque partem) in one speech--romantic love versus hot desire. Whereas the lines supporting romantic love paint a beautiful and persuasive picture, the lines about choosing desire over chastity are obscure and lacking in rhetorical color.
If we follow the plot (or argument), we can see that Romeo and Juliet's desire implicates them in the larger allegory of desire in the play. In the religion of love, Romeo becomes for Juliet "the god of my idolatry" (2.2.114). However, she will not give up her maidenhood without a commitment. Romeo offers "th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine" (2.2.127), but Juliet wants more than that. She proposes marriage to Romeo: "If that thy bent of love be honorable, / Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow" (2.2.143-4). Romeo is happy to comply because he truly wants Juliet, and marriage means that he gets what he most desires—and she knows it.
Romeo goes to Friar Laurence to arrange a hasty marriage. The friar cannot believe Romeo has switched love objects so quickly:
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!Friar Laurence's aphorism or sententia is a Renaissance commonplace derived from Ovid, Petrarch, and myriad other sources. The sentence refers to Cupid's arrow, entering through the eyes and rendering the lover blind. A young man's desire falls on love objects indiscriminately. Mercutio tells Romeo much the same thing in the next scene:
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. (2.3.65-8)
Alas poor Romeo! He is already dead,
stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through
the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft
with the blind bow-boy's butt shaft. (2.4.13-16)
Romeo admits to Friar Laurence what he never tells Mercutio: unlike Rosaline, Juliet loves him in return. Friar Laurence comments that Rosaline knew that Romeo was just handing her a line: "O, she knew well / Thy love did read by rote, that could not spell" (2.3.87-8).
The implication is that Juliet does not share Rosaline's discernment. Yet, Friar Laurence agrees to perform the marriage for social and political reasons, "to turn your households' rancor to pure love" (2.3.92). However, Romeo has something different in mind. He says, "Oh, let us hence! I stand on sudden haste" (2.3. 93).
His words unconsciously echo the bawdy puns of other young men in the play, as when Samson speaks of taking a "stand" against the Montagues, driving their men to the wall, which by syllepsis becomes the sexual pun of "thrust[ing]" the Montague women "to the wall" (1.1.11 and15-18); or when Mercutio suggests a solution for Romeo's long-standing problem of love's thorn pricks: "If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down" (1.4. 26-28). By implication, Romeo is eager to marry quickly to quench his hot desire for Juliet, and, in Act Two, scene six, Romeo and Juliet are married by Friar Laurence.
In the next scene (3.1), it is an hour after their marriage (lines 111-12) and Romeo is in the exalted state of love for all the world that is supposed to attend true love. Ennobled by a sense of charity for all mankind, Romeo attempts to assuage Tybalt's wrath when Tybalt challenges him. Romeo has chosen the wrong man on whom to practice a high form of Christian love. Had not Mercutio taken up the challenge that Romeo rejects, Tybalt would undoubtedly have pursued Romeo until one or the other of them died. But Mercutio would still be alive.
When Mercutio realizes he has received his death wound, he demands of Romeo, "Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm" (3.1.101-2). Romeo's lame reply is "I thought all for the best" (3.1.103). His naive faith in the transformative powers of love over all the world leads to Mercutio's death. Romeo's transcendent love for mankind is shortlived. His Christian charity is turned to wrath, another form of mad desire. In the ensuing swordfight, Romeo kills Tybalt. In neither his love exaltation nor his wrath does Romeo act with reason.
When Juliet discovers that her lover has killed Tybalt, she speaks in the trite Petrarchan oxymorons that Romeo used at the beginning of the play (3.2.73-9), but to her credit, she remains loyal to her headlong husband. Meanwhile Romeo collapses on the stone floor of Friar Laurence's cell, cursing his "fate" and vowing to kill himself (3.3). Friar Laurence tells him to get ahold of himself and act like a man:
Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art;
Thy tears are womanish, thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast. (3.3.109-11)
The misogynistic comment on women aside, the point is clear enough. Romeo's "unreasonable fury" is much the same as his unbridled love. Ungoverned by reason, he is ruled by his appetites, lust and wrath. It was a Renaissance commonplace. Romeo is young, but that turns out to be no excuse. He is to be banished from Verona forever. Things could be worse. As Friar Laurence points out, Romeo could have been sentenced to death.
At this point, Juliet rejects her parents' insistence that she marry Paris. She cannot tell her parents that she is already secretly married. Friar Laurence has forbidden her to mention it (bad counsel on his part again). However, there is more to her silence on the subject than this. Romeo and Juliet's marriage is a private affair, but marriage is a public act in our version of Romeo and Juliet, as it usually was in the sixteenth century.
Caught between her love of Romeo and her parents' demands, Juliet apostrophizes to heaven: "Is there no pity sitting in the clouds / That sees into the bottom of my grief?" (3.5.198-9). Because of the dangerous nature of their love, Romeo and Juliet need luck to survive, but there is none to be had. Juliet contemplates suicide, but Friar Laurence dissuades her by conjuring a new scheme. When Friar Laurence's plan fails, the luckless lovers die, Romeo by poison and Juliet by dagger.
The lovers die because of inordinate desire, sanctioned by a dangerous Petrarchanism. As Peter J. Smith has pointed out, ideal Petrarchan love is chaste: "The fatal thing for Romeo and Juliet is the consummation."13 Sexual passion without the constraints of society and reason can be destructive. This fits the secondary or counter discourse of the play as heard in the Chorus to Act Two and as worked out in the plot's dialectic in opposition to the dominant discourse of romantic love. It is remarkable how much it resembles the Renaissance view of sensual love that Shakespeare transformed through the persuasive rhetoric of the play's love poetry.
The Renaissance view of romantic love before Shakespeare goes back to the troubadours and fin amour as interpreted by Petrarch in the fourteenth century and reinterpreted in the fifteenth century by Marsilio Ficino and the Florentine Neoplatonists. It was best known in England through Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, completed in 1516 but not printed until 1528. It entered England through Sir Thomas Hoby's English translation, The Book of the Courtier (1561). Arthur Brooke may have had time to read it before writing Romeus and Juliet. We can assume Shakespeare read it.
Perhaps The Courtier's dialogue rather than a play is Shakespeare's source for the dialectic that questions the play's rhetoric of romantic love. My interpretation does not depend on The Courtier as intertext; the thoughts expressed in The Courtier are common property in sixteenth-century Europe. However, The Courtier is a likely source. It provides an older hermeneutic, bypassing our tradition of romantic love that Shakespeare helped to initiate, to see Romeo and Juliet as an educated Elizabethan might have seen it, as two plays within one. From this perspective, the play's dialectic reads like a representation of Castiglione's philosophical and psychological insights on love. I turn to Book Four of Sir Thomas Hoby's translation in which Peter Bembo discusses what Hoby's marginal comment refers to as "They that love sensuallye":
And therefore into one of the two vyces renn all those lovers that
satisfye theyr unhonest lustes with the women whom they love: for
eyther assone as they be come to the coveted ende, they not only feele
a fulnesse and lothesomeness, but also conceyve a hatred against the
wyght beloved. . . . (345)14
In the play, the first "vice" of "unhonest lust" is shown by Friar Lawrence's fear, expressed to Romeo and Juliet, that
These violent delights have violent endsBembo continues, discussing the second vice:
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. (2.6.11-13).
[Or] they furthwith retourn again to unbridled covetynge, and with the very same trouble which they felt at the first, they fall again into the raginge and most burninge thirst of the thinge, that they hope in vaine to possesse perfectlye. These kind of lovers therfore love most unluckelye, for eyther they never comebye their covetinges, which is a great unluckinesse: or elles if they do comebye them, they find they comebye their hurt. . . . (345)
The two cases of "unbridled covetynge" are illustrated first by Romeo's unquenched "raging and most burning thirst" for Rosaline and second by his love for Juliet. Romeo and Juliet achieve "the coveted end" and "come by their hurt." Both situations cause pain because ungoverned sensual love can only cause "afflictions, tourments, greefes, pining, [and] travaile. . . . [T]his sensual love . . . is a very rebell against reason" (345).
The young, Bembo says, should "bridle their appetites, and love with reason, to be godlye," but those who do not should not to be judged harshly:
So do I houlde excused suche as yelde to sensuall love, wherunto they be so inclined through the weaknesse and frailtie of man: so they showe therin meeknesse, courtesie, and prowesse. (346)
If Romeo and Juliet had survived "those youthfull yeeres," they might, as Bembo says, have left off clean "this sensuall covetinge as from the lowermost steppe of the stayers, by whiche a man [and woman] may ascende to true love" (346). However, our young lovers are luckless. In a Verona unhinged by irrational desire, the immature love of Romeo and Juliet does not stand a chance.
Through the dialectic of the play's secondary discourse, Shakespeare fits this Renaissance commonplace of sensual coveting into a larger framework of polymorphous desire.15 It is a play that can be read alongside the play that privileges romantic love. This dialectical aspect of Shakespeare's representation can be seen as a deep and a surface look at the action, the way things work and the way they appear. Thus, Shakespeare's double discourse can be seen as a kind of allegory, announced by the allegorical emblem of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech. This does not mean that Shakespeare is a moralist, although moral sentences can easily be adduced. Rather, within the dialectic of the play, Shakespeare's secondary argument challenges the poetry of romantic love by placing it in the status of persuasive rhetoric, while at the same time it explains the mechanism or natural law that shows how life works--the hot desire beneath the surface of romantic love.
Having said all this, I must acknowledge that I find my analysis of the play to be unsatisfying, not intellectually but emotionally.16 Swayed by the romantic color of the rhetoric of love, my heart is with Shakespeare's love poetry and his young lovers. To realize that they are implicated in their own destruction is, for me, to feel more deeply the poignancy of their death.
When I read or watch the play, my head knows that my heart is being manipulated by the poetry, and that there is another story being told that explains the mechanism of desire, but I don't really care. I am sure Shakespeare meant to manipulate the audience this way, and, for those who hear his secondary discourse on desire and are still moved by the play, I am sure he would like us to know we are being abused. This acknowledgment too must be folded back into our understanding of Romeo and Juliet.
1G. K. Hunter places Romeo and Juliet between 1594 and 1596, English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) 558, as does David Bevington, editor of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), updated 4th ed. Bevington says in the introduction to RJ, "Stylistically belonging to the years 1594-1596, it is in the lyric vein of the sonnets, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Richard II, all of which are from the mid 1590s" (977).
2The first tetralogy includes 1,2,3 Henry VI and Richard III, written between 1590 and 1592, approximately. The second tetralogy includes Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V, written between about 1594 and 1599. Dates are from G. K. Hunter's chronology.
3A. P. Rossiter says, "Shakespeare in the Histories always leaves us with relatives, ambiguities, irony, a process thoroughly dialectical. Had he entirely accepted the Tudor myth, the frame and pattern of order, his way would have led, I suppose, towards writing moral history (which is what Dr. Tillyard and Dr. Dover Wilson and Professor Duthie have made out of him). Instead, his way led him towards writing comic history. The former would never have taken him to tragedy: the latter (paradoxically) did." Angel With Horns (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961) 22.
4Joel Altman's thesis in The Tudor Play of Mind ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) is that "the philosophical quaestio mentioned by Aristotle . . . inspired and gave shape to a large body of Elizabethan drama. This means that I shall be asking the reader to consider a great many Renaissance plays to be questions: questions about love, justice, sovereignty, nature, imagination" (2). In Elizabethan drama these general questions are grounded in hypotheses of particular lives and are considered as dialectic (question and answer), according to their status (topos) or place logic for judgment. In the play's dialectic, the case of the individuals will be argued in utramque partem (on both sides of the question). Our job as an audience is to discern what these two sides might be.
5According to my thesis, instability is the mark of allegory as rhetoric and dialectic. Whereas symbolic allegory reaches beyond its own text for transcendent truth, and the allegoresis of symbolic and thematic interpreters try to stabilize Shakespeare's plays by creating one-for-one allegorical readings, certain plays by Shakespeare import a controversy from the society-at-large as a dialectic of dominant versus subversive discourses, in which a dominant rhetorical voice is questioned in a dialectical way by the more muted discourse that undercuts it. It is an Aristotelian allegory of the probable/possible, in which the audience is asked to see the issues and judge them accordingly. By appropriating a controversy-at-large, Shakespeare's allegory of rhetoric and dialectic is automatically unstable. Efforts to stabilize such an allegorically complex text by symbolic, transcendental (idealist) allegorizing are inevitably and literally "dumb"; that is, they cannot speak to the complexity of the plays but, instead, have to over-simplify them in order to impose a stable meaning on them. As Graham Bradshaw has observed, "Shakespeare . . . is his own deconstructionist," Shakespeare's Scepticism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990) x. I interpret this insight through Paul de Man's statement on allegory as rhetoric: allegory "account[s] for the 'rhetoricity' of its own mode" (136). De Man says that great works have no blind spots. His example is Rousseau: "Rousseau's text has no blind spots: it accounts at all moments for its own rhetorical mode." Therefore, "there is no need to deconstruct Rousseau; he deconstructs himself" (139), Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). I take de Man's remarks to apply to those of Bradshaw on Shakespeare, cited above.
6Coppelia Kahn tells of these deadly rites in RJ of male initiation, in "Coming of Age in Verona" in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Lenz, et al (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 171. O.B. Hardison, Jr. speaks of Verona as a disordered state in "Shakespeare's Political World" in Politics, Power, and Shakespeare, ed. Frances McNeely Leonard (Arlington, Texas: Texas Humanities Resource Center, The University of Texas at Arlington Library, 1981) 5. Germaine Greer refers to anarchic passion in "Love and the Law: A Midsummer Night's Dream," Politics, Power, and Shakespeare 42. Valerie Traub calls it a "circulation of desire" in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 1992) 2-3. Peter J. Smith notices that the play encourages double or multiple interpretations of signs, Social Shakespeare (London: MacMillan, 1995) 126.
7Hardison is one of the few who makes the observation that Verona has descended into chaos (5).
8Dympna Callahan refers to the "plasticity of desire" shown in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, in "The ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet" in Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford UK and Cambridge, Mass., USA, 1994) 73. Angus Fletcher suggests that a riddle (enigma) hints that allegorical interpretation is necessary: ". . . It challenges us to interpretation by means of an elliptical form and fragmented imagery" in Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964) 101.
9Dympna Callaghan compares Tybalt's quivering, barely repressed wrath to a sexual agitation similar to coitus interruptus (73).
10Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1(New York: Columbia UP, 1964) 277.
11Brecht as quoted by Margot Heinemann, "How Brecht Read Shakespeare" in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985) 206.
12The controversy over whether the stars or our own will governs our lives appears, of course, in Shakespeareare's next tragedy, Julius Caesar, in 1599, when Cassius tells Brutus that "men at some time are masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings" (1.2.139-41).13 Peter J.Smith, Social Shakespeare (London: MacMillan, 1995) 140.
14Sir Thomas Hoby, The Book of the Courtier (New York: AMS Press, 1967) 345.
15Joel Altman says of the Renaissance commonplace (locus communis), "The commonplace is common because it focuses a general philosophal issue that may be drawn upon in treating a particular case" (47). "A practical thesis, when conceived as hypothesis, becomes a suasoria. Instead of asking 'Should a successful world conqueror risk unknown dangers?'--or even whether a particular conqueror should do so--the suasoria presents Alexander's counselors advising him whether to cross the ocean" (65). As T. W. Baldwin has demonstrated, this is the kind of rhetorical training Shakespeare would have received in grammar school, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana, 1944). In his argument in utramque partem in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare creates conflicting hypotheses, allowing the audience to judge between them, providing of course that the audience perceives that there is a choice. Thus, there is an allegorical element to the audience's perception and judgment, which implicates the audience in the play, as the play judges us according to the quality of our decision.
16Stanley Cavell speaks of acknowledging and failing to acknowledge Shakespeare's plays' claims on us as an audience, in Disowning Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) 84-5. Norman Rabkin comments on interpretations of The Merchant of Venice that comprehend the play intellectually but fail to apprehend what the play makes us feel: such a thesis tells us what we are meant to feel but "denies to Shakespeare's intention or the play's virtue what the comedy actually does to us," Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) 13. The distinction between apprehension and comprehension is from Graham Bradshaw, who speaks of Theseus' distinction between apprehension and comprehension in A Midsummer Night's Dream (specifically 5.1.5-6 but broadly 1-27), in which apprehension is direct experience, whereas comprehension is more theoretical, like the distinction in romance languages and Latin between two types of knowing: for instance, in Spanish it is the difference between conocer and saber. Bradshaw stresses that Shakespeare's plays are about apprehending and that Macbeth makes us apprehensive, unless we are too busy comprehending it to feel "the radically sceptical, interrogative nature of the play's summoning energies, as it explores the gap between . . . apprehension and comprehension" (250-51).