SHAKSPEARE PAPERS.—No. III.
"Of this unlucky sort our Romeus is one,
For all his hap turns to mishap, and all his mirth to mone."
"Never," says Prince Escalus, in the concluding distich of Romeo
"—was there story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
It is a story which, in the inartificial shape of a black-letter ballad,
powerfully affected the imagination, and awakened the sensibilities,
of our ancestors, and in the hands of Shakspeare has become
the love-story of the whole world. Who cares for the loves of Petrarch
and Laura, or of Eloisa and Abelard, compared with those of
Romeo and Juliet? The gallantries of Petrarch are conveyed in
models of polished and ornate verse; but, in spite of their elegance,
we feel that they are frosty as the Alps beneath which they were
written. They are only the exercises of genius, not the ebullitions
of feeling; and we can easily credit the story that Petrarch
refused a dispensation to marry Laura, lest marriage might spoil his
poetry. The muse, and not the lady, was his mistress. In the case
of Abelard there are many associations which are not agreeable; and,
after all, we can hardly help looking upon him as a fitter hero for
Bayle's Dictionary than a romance. In Romeo and Juliet we have
the poetry of Petrarch without its iciness, and the passion of Eloisa
free from its coarse exhibition. We have, too, philosophy far more
profound than ever was scattered over the syllogistic pages of Abelard,
full of knowledge and acuteness as they undoubtedly are.
But I am not about to consider Romeo merely as a lover, or to use
him as an illustration of Lysander's often-quoted line,
"The course of true love never did run smooth."
In that course the current has been as rough to others as to Romeo;
who, in spite of all his misfortunes, has wooed and won the lady of
his affections. That Lysander's line is often true, cannot be questioned;
though it is no more than the exaggeration of an annoyed
suitor to say that love has never run smoothly. The reason why it
should be so generally true, is given in "Peveril of the Peak" by Sir
Walter Scott; a man who closely approached to the genius of Shakspeare
in depicting character, and who, above all writers of imagination,
most nearly resembled him in the possession of keen, shrewd,
every-day common-sense, rendered more remarkable by the contrast
of the romantic, pathetic, and picturesque by which it is in all directions
"This celebrated passage
['Ah me! for aught that ever I could read,' &c.]
which we have prefixed to this chapter, [chap. xii. vol. i. Peveril of
the Peak,] has, like most observations of the same author, its foundation
in real experience. The period at which love is felt most
strongly is seldom that at which there is much prospect of its being
brought to a happy issue. In fine, there are few men who do not
look back in secret to some period of their youth at which a sincere
and early affection was repulsed or betrayed, or became abortive
under opposing circumstances. It is these little passages of secret
history, which leave a tinge of romance in every bosom, scarce permitting
us, even in the most busy or the most advanced period of life,
to listen with total indifference to a tale of true love."
These remarks, the justice of which cannot be questioned, scarcely
apply to the case of Romeo. In no respect, save that the families
were at variance, was the match between him and Juliet such as not
to afford a prospect of happy issue; and everything indicated the
possibility of making their marriage a ground of reconciliation between
their respective houses. Both are tired of the quarrel. Lady
Capulet and Lady Montague are introduced in the very first scene of
the play, endeavouring to pacify their husbands; and, when the brawl
is over, Paris laments to Juliet's father that it is a pity persons of
such honourable reckoning should have lived so long at variance. For
Romeo himself old Capulet expresses the highest respect, as being
one of the ornaments of the city; and, after the death of Juliet, old
Montague, touched by her truth and constancy, proposes to raise to
her a statue of gold. With such sentiments and predispositions, the
early passion of the Veronese lovers does not come within the canon
of Sir Walter Scott; and, as I have said, I do not think that Romeo
is designed merely as an exhibition of a man unfortunate in love.
I consider him to be meant as the character of an unlucky man,—a
man who, with the best views and fairest intentions, is perpetually
so unfortunate as to fail in every aspiration, and, while exerting himself
to the utmost in their behalf, to involve all whom he holds dearest
in misery and ruin. At the commencement of the play an idle quarrel
among some low retainers of the rival families produces a general
riot, with which he has nothing to do. He is not present from beginning
to end; the tumult has been so sudden and unexpected, that
his father is obliged to ask
"What set this ancient quarrel new abroach?"
And yet it is this very quarrel which lays him prostrate in death by
his own hand, outside Capulet's monument, before the tragedy concludes.
While the fray was going on, he was nursing love-fancies,
and endeavouring to persuade himself that his heart was breaking for
Rosaline. How afflicting his passion must have been, we see by the
conundrums he makes upon it:
"Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vex'd, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears.
What is it else?—a madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet."—
And so forth. The sorrows which we can balance in such trim antitheses
do not lie very deep. The time is rapidly advancing when his
sentences will be less sounding.
"It is my lady; oh, it is my love!
O that she knew she were!"—
speaks more touchingly the state of his engrossed soul than all the
fine metaphors ever vented. The supercilious Spartans in the days
of their success prided themselves upon the laconic brevity of their
despatches to states in hostility or alliance with them. When they
were sinking before the Macedonians, another style was adopted; and
Philip observed that he had taught them to lengthen their monosyllables.
Real love has had a contrary effect upon Romeo. It has
abridged his swelling passages, and brought him to the language of
prose. The reason of the alteration is the same in both cases. The
brevity of the Spartans was the result of studied affectation. They
sought, by the insolence of threats obscurely insinuated in a sort of
demi-oracular language, to impose upon others,—perhaps they imposed
upon themselves,—an extravagant opinion of their mysterious
power. The secret was found out at last, and their anger bubbled
over in big words and lengthened sentences. The love of Rosaline is
as much affected on the part of Romeo, and it explodes in wire-drawn
"When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires;
And those who often drown'd could never die,
Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars.
One fairer than my love!—the all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun."
It is no wonder that a gentleman who is so clever as to be able to say
such extremely fine things, forgets, in the next scene, the devout religion
of his eye, without any apprehension of the transparent heretic
being burnt for a liar by the transmutation of tears into the flames of
an auto da fe. He is doomed to discover that love in his case is not
a madness most discreet when he defies the stars; there are then no
lines of magnificent declamation.
"Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!
Thou knowest my lodging: get me ink and paper,
And hire post-horses; I will hence to-night."
Nothing can be plainer prose than these verses. But how were
they delivered? Balthazar will tell us.
"Pardon me, sir; I dare not leave you thus:
Your looks are pale and wild, and do import
Again, nothing can be more quiet than his final determination:
"Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night."
It is plain Juliet,—unattended by any romantic epithet of love.
There is nothing about "Cupid's arrow," or "Dian's wit;" no honeyed
word escapes his lips,—nor again does any accent of despair. His mind
is so made up,—the whole course of the short remainder of his life so
unalterably fixed, that it is perfectly useless to think more about it
He has full leisure to reflect without disturbance upon the details of
the squalid penury which made him set down the poor apothecary as
a fit instrument for what now had become his "need;" and he offers
his proposition of purchasing that soon-speeding gear which is to
hurry him out of life, with the same business-like tone as if he were
purchasing a pennyworth of sugar-candy. When the apothecary
suggests the danger of selling such drugs, Romeo can reflect on
the folly of scrupling to sacrifice life when the holder of it is so poor
and unfortunate. Gallant and gay of appearance himself, he tells his
new-found acquaintance that bareness, famine, oppression, ragged
misery, the hollow cheek and the hungry eye, are fitting reasons
why death should be desired, not avoided; and with a cool philosophy
assures him that gold is worse poison than the compound which hurries
the life-weary taker out of the world. The language of desperation
cannot be more dismally determined. What did the apothecary think
of his customer as he pocketed the forty ducats? There you go, lad,—there
you go, he might have said,—there you go with that in your
girdle that, if you had the strength of twenty men, would straight
despatch you. Well do I know the use for which you intend it. To-morrow's
sun sees not you alive. And you philosophise to me on the
necessity of buying food and getting into flesh. You taunt my poverty,—you
laugh at my rags,—you bid me defy the law,—you tell
me the world is my enemy. It may be so, lad,—it may be so; but
less tattered is my garment than your heart,—less harassed by law
of one kind or another my pursuit than yours. What ails that
lad? I know not, neither do I care. But that he should moralise to
me on the hard lot which I experience,—that he, with those looks
and those accents, should fancy that I, amid my beggarly account of
empty boxes, am less happy than he,—ha! ha! ha!—it is something
to make one laugh. Ride your way, boy: I have your forty ducats
in my purse, and you my drug in your pocket. And the law!
Well! What can the executioner do worse to me in my penury and
my age than you have doomed for yourself in your youth and splendour.
I carry not my hangman in my saddle as I ride along. And
the curses which the rabble may pour upon my dying moments,—what
are they to the howling gurgle which, now rising from your heart, is
deafening your ears? Adieu, boy,—adieu!—and keep your philosophy
for yourself. Ho! ho! ho!
But had any other passion or pursuit occupied Romeo, he would
have been equally unlucky as in his love. Ill fortune has marked him
for her own. From beginning to end he intends the best; but his
interfering is ever for the worst. It is evident that he has not taken
any part in the family feud which divides Verona, and his first attachment
is to a lady of the antagonist house. To see that lady,—perhaps
to mark that he has had no share in the tumult of the morning,—he
goes to a ball given by Capulet, at which the suitor accepted by
the family is to be introduced to Juliet as her intended husband.
Paris is in every way an eligible match.
"Verona's summer hath not such a flower."
He who has slain him addresses his corse as that of the "noble
County Paris," with a kindly remembrance that he was kinsman of a
friend slain in Romeo's own cause. Nothing can be more fervent, more
honourable, or more delicate than his devoted and considerate wooing.
His grief at the loss of Juliet is expressed in few words; but its
sincerity is told by his midnight and secret visit to the tomb of her
whom living he had honoured, and on whom, when dead, he could not
restrain himself from lavishing funereal homage. Secure of the favour
of her father, no serious objection could be anticipated from herself.
When questioned by her mother, she readily promises obedience to
parental wishes, and goes to the ball determined to "look to like, if
looking liking move." Everything glides on in smooth current till the
appearance of him whose presence is deadly. Romeo himself is a
most reluctant visitor. He apprehends that the consequences of the
night's revels will be the vile forfeit of a despised life by an untimely
death, but submits to his destiny. He foresees that it is no wit to go,
but consoles himself with the reflection that he "means well in going
to this mask." His intentions, as usual, are good; and, as usual, their
consequences are ruinous.
He yields to his passion, and marries Juliet. For this hasty act he
has the excuse that the match may put an end to the discord between
the families. Friar Lawrence hopes that
"this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households' rancour into love."
It certainly has that effect in the end of the play, but it is by the suicidal
deaths of the flower and hope of both families. Capulet and
Montague tender, in a gloomy peace the hands of friendship, over the
untimely grave of the poor sacrifices to their enmity. Had he met
her elsewhere than in her father's house, he might have succeeded in
a more prosperous love. But there his visit is looked upon by the
professed duellist Tybalt, hot from the encounter of the morning, and
enraged that he was baulked of a victim, as an intrusion and an insult.
The fiery partisan is curbed with much difficulty by his uncle; and
withdraws, his flesh trembling with wilful choler, determined to wreak
vengeance at the first opportunity on the intruder. It is not long
before the opportunity offers. Vainly does Romeo endeavour to pacify
the bullying swordsman,—vainly does he protest that he loves the
name of Capulet,—vainly does he decline the proffered duel. His
good intentions are again doomed to be frustrated. There stands by his
side as mad-blooded a spirit as Tybalt himself, and Mercutio, all unconscious
of the reasons why Romeo refuses to fight, takes up the abandoned
quarrel. The star of the unlucky man is ever in the ascendant.
His ill-omened interference slays his friend. Had he kept quiet, the
issue might have been different; but the power that had the steerage
of his course had destined that the uplifting of his sword was to be
the signal of death to his very friend. And when the dying Mercutio
says, "Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your
arm;" he can only offer the excuse, which is always true, and always
unavailing, "I thought all for the best." All his visions of reconciliation
between the houses are dissipated. How can he now avoid fighting
with Tybalt? His best friend lies dead, slain in his own quarrel,
through his own accursed intermeddling; and the swaggering victor,
still hot from the slaughter, comes back to triumph over the dead.
Who with the heart and spirit of a man could under such circumstances
refrain from exclaiming,
"Away to heaven, respective lenity!
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now."
Vanish gentle breath, calm words, knees humbly bowed!—his weapon
in an instant glitters in the blazing sun; and as with a lightning flash,—as
rapidly and resistlessly,—before Benvolio can pull his sword from the
scabbard, Tybalt, whom his kindred deemed a match for twenty men,
is laid by the side of him who but a moment before had been the victim
of his blade. What avails the practised science of the duellist,
the gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause!—how
weak is the immortal passado, or the punto reverso, the hay, or all
the other learned devices of Vincent Saviola, against the whirlwind
rage of a man driven to desperation by all that can rouse fury or stimulate
hatred! He sees the blood of his friend red upon the ground;
the accents of gross and unprovoked outrage ring in his ears; the
perverse and obstinate insolence of a bravo confident in his skill, and
depending upon it to insure him impunity, has marred his hopes; and
the butcher of the silk button has no chance against the demon which
he has evoked. "A la stoccata" carries it not away in this encounter;
but Romeo exults not in his death. He stands amazed, and is with
difficulty hurried off, exclaiming against the constant fate which perpetually
throws him in the way of misfortune. Well, indeed, may
Friar Lawrence address him by the title of "thou fearful man!"—as a
man whose career through life is calculated to inspire terror. Well
may he say to him that
"Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts,
And thou art wedded to calamity."
And slight is the attention which Romeo pays to the eloquent arguments
by which it is proved that he had every reason to consider himself
happy. When the friar assures him that
"A pack of blessings lights upon thy back,
Happiness courts thee in her best array,"
the nurse may think it a discourse of learning and good counsel, fit to
detain an enraptured auditor all the night. Romeo feels it in his case
to be an idle declamation, unworthy of an answer.
The events which occur during his enforced absence, the haste of
Paris to be wedded, the zeal of old Capulet in promoting the
wishes of his expected son-in-law, the desperate expedient of the
sleeping-draught, the accident which prevented the delivery of the
friar's letter, the officious haste of Balthazar to communicate the
tidings of Juliet's burial, are all matters out of his control. But the
mode of his death is chosen by himself; and in that he is as unlucky
as in everything else. Utterly loathing life, the manner of his leaving
it must be instantaneous. He stipulates that the poison by which he
is to die shall not be slow of effect. He calls for
"such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins,
That the life-weary taker may fall dead."
He leaves himself no chance of escape. Instant death is in his
hand; and, thanking the true apothecary for the quickness of his
drugs, he scarcely leaves himself a moment with a kiss to die. If
he had been less in a hurry,—if he had not felt it impossible to delay
posting off to Verona for a single night,—if his riding had been less
rapid, or his medicine less sudden in its effect, he might have lived.
The friar was at hand to release Juliet from her tomb the very instant
after the fatal phial had been emptied. That instant was enough:
the unlucky man had effected his purpose just when there was still a
chance that things might be amended. Those who wrote the scene
between Romeo and Juliet which is intended to be pathetic, after her
awakening and before his death, quite mistake the character of the
hero of the play. I do not blame them for their poetry, which is as
good as that of second-rate writers of tragedy in general; and think
them, on the whole, deserving of our commendation for giving us
an additional proof how unable clever men upon town are to follow
the conceptions of genius. Shakspeare, if he thought it consistent
with the character which he had with so much deliberation framed,
could have written a parting scene at least as good as that with which
his tragedy has been supplied; but he saw the inconsistency, though
his unasked assistants did not. They tell us they did it to consult
popular taste. I do not believe them. I am sure that popular taste
would approve of a recurrence to the old play in all its parts; but a
harlotry play-actor might think it hard upon him to be deprived of a
"point," pointless as that point may be.
Haste is made a remarkable characteristic of Romeo,—because it
is at once the parent and the child of uniform misfortune. As from
the acorn springs the oak, and from the oak the acorn, so does the
temperament that inclines to haste predispose to misadventure, and
a continuance of misadventure confirms the habit of haste. A man
whom his rashness has made continually unlucky, is strengthened in
the determination to persevere in his rapid movements by the very
feeling that the "run" is against him, and that it is of no use to think.
In the case of Romeo, he leaves it all to the steerage of Heaven, i. e.
to the heady current of his own passions; and he succeeds accordingly.
All through the play care is taken to show his impatience.
The very first word he speaks indicates that he is anxious for the
quick passage of time.
"Ben. Good morrow, cousin.
Rom.Is the day so young?
Ben. But new struck nine.
Rom. Ay me, sad hours seem long."
The same impatience marks his speech in the moment of death:
"O true apothecary,
Thy drugs are quick!"
From his first words to his last the feeling is the same. The lady of
his love, even in the full swell of her awakened affections, cannot
avoid remarking that his contract is
"Too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which does cease to be
Ere one can say, It lightens."
When he urges his marriage on the friar,
"Rom. O let us home: I stand on sudden haste.
Friar. Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast."
The metaphors put into his mouth are remarkable for their allusions
to abrupt and violent haste. He wishes that he may die
"As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb."
When he thinks that Juliet mentions his name in anger, it is
"as if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her."
When Lawrence remonstrates with him on his violence, he compares
the use to which he puts his wit to
"Powder in a skilless soldier's flask;"
and tells him that
"Violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die; like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume."
Lightning, flame, shot, explosion, are the favourite parallels to the
conduct and career of Romeo. Swift are his loves; as swift to enter
his thought, the mischief which ends them for ever. Rapid have been
all the pulsations of his life; as rapid, the determination which decides
that they shall beat no more.
A gentleman he was in heart and soul. All his habitual companions
love him: Benvolio and Mercutio, who represent the young
gentlemen of his house, are ready to peril their lives, and to strain all
their energies, serious or gay, in his service. His father is filled with
an anxiety on his account so delicate, that he will not venture to interfere
with his son's private sorrows, while he desires to discover
their source, and if possible to relieve them. The heart of his mother
bursts in his calamity; the head of the rival house bestows upon
him the warmest panegyrics; the tutor of his youth sacrifices everything
to gratify his wishes; his servant, though no man is a hero to
his valet de chambre, dares not remonstrate with him on his intentions,
even when they are avowed to be savage-wild,
"More fierce, and more inexorable far,
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea,"—
but with an eager solicitude he breaks his commands by remaining as
close as he can venture, to watch over his safety. Kind is he to all.
He wins the heart of the romantic Juliet by his tender gallantry:
the worldly-minded nurse praises him for being as gentle as a lamb.
When it is necessary or natural that the Prince or Lady Montague
should speak harshly of him, it is done in his absence. No words of
anger or reproach are addressed to his ears save by Tybalt; and from
him they are in some sort a compliment, as signifying that the self-chosen
prize-fighter of the opposing party deems Romeo the worthiest
antagonist of his blade. We find that he fights two blood-stained
duels, but both are forced upon him; the first under circumstances
impossible of avoidance, the last after the humblest supplications to
By Heaven, I love thee better than myself,
For I came hither armed against myself.
Stay not; begone!—live, and hereafter say
A madman's mercy bade thee run away."
With all the qualities and emotions which can inspire affection and
esteem,—with all the advantages that birth, heaven, and earth could
at once confer,—with the most honourable feelings and the kindliest
intentions,—he is eminently an unlucky man. The record of his
actions in the play before us does not extend to the period of a week;
but we feel that there is no dramatic straining to shorten their course.
Everything occurs naturally and probably. It was his concluding
week; but it tells us all his life. Fortune was against him; and
would have been against him, no matter what might have been his
pursuit. He was born to win battles, but to lose campaigns. If we
desired to moralize with the harsh-minded satirist, who never can be
suspected of romance, we should join with him in extracting as
a moral from the play
"Nullum habes numen, si sit prudentia; sed te
Nos facimus, Fortuna, deam, cœloquê locamus;"
and attribute the mishaps of Romeo, not to want of fortune, but of
prudence. Philosophy and poetry differ not in essentials, and the
stern censure of Juvenal is just. But still, when looking on the timeless
tomb of Romeo, and contemplating the short and sad career
through which he ran, we cannot help recollecting his mourning
words over his dying friend, and suggest as an inscription over the
monument of the luckless gentleman,
"I thought all for the best."