Next I read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Arden version is great, with serious notes. It actually includes the full scanned text of the original folio.
What I liked at first is that the play starts as a comedy. It’s full of jokes from the fighting Capulets and Montagues. Everyone knows the Queen Mab speech from Mercutio. But his speech about medlar pears is pretty striking:
O Romeo, that she were! Oh, that she were
An open arse, and thou a poperin pear.
In some movies it’s replaced with “et cetra”.
It feels like it should be a comedy and the audience probably expected a happy ending. Until the end it could be a comic farce if the timing is slightly different.
Even the scene when the nurse discovers Juliet apparently dead. Capulet has a few sad, poetic lines. But the wailing of the nurse and Lady Capulet could be played for laughs if the audience knows Juliet is alive.
There is a parallel with Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is in the background. MND is a comedy with tragedy in the background. RJ is a tragedy with a lot of comedy.
This makes sense, the play came at the end of the comedies and just before the great tragedies. It feels like a first step into the tragedy genre. It feels like a more proper tragedy than Titus Andronicus.
The most important thing I remember from the play is that violence is a failure of the imagination. There are a series of events where a character tries to resolve a conflict peacefully, fails and resorts to violence.
The play starts with Capulets insulting the Montagues. The Capulets are cautious of being on the right side of the law, “Is the law of our side if I say ‘ay’?” Even though the Capulets are the aggressors, their insults are creative. The violence starts when Montagues, with their straightforward polite replies, cannot think of a comeback.
The real tragedy is that Romeo attempts to break up the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. At first Romeo responds to Tybalt’s insult with an appeal to love. Then he attempts to defuse the fight by an appeal to law. But Mercutio only dies when Romeo uses force to break up the fight.
Even though Mercutio says “a pox on both your houses”, the fight with Tybalt and Mercutio was never about the feud. I think that this fight, unlike the others, was not a failure of imagination. It is a product of Mercutio’s imagination. He uses imagination to find creative provocations to fight. When he accuses Benvolio, he is actually bragging about his ability to quarrel: “thou hast quarrelled with a
man for coughing in the street, because he hath wakened thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun”.
Mercutio is a creative fighter who delights in “the immortal passado, the punto reverso, the hai!” If not for the feud and the Prince’s prohibition on fighting, he could have had an honest fight with Tybalt.
In staging the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is imaginative and often played of laughs.
However, when Romeo kills Tybalt it is not creative and more brutal.
Similar pattern plays out with Capulet and to some extent with the nurse and friar.
Capulet at first Capulet tells Paris that he wants Juliet’s consent, “My will to her consent is but a part.” By the next act he threatens Juliet with fists if she does not wed Paris.
The failure of imagination makes me think of Breaking Bad. Unimaginative Jesse asks Walt “Why don’t we shoot him” when trying to deal with Tuco. Walt tries to get Jesse to imagine all the problems with just shooting him and comes up with a more creative solution.
Romeo and Juliet – BBC 1978
Shakespeare’s Globe Romeo and Juliet – 2009
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet – 1968
Strange quote by Robert Kennedy quotes Romeo’s speech about Juliet when eulogizing JFK.