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4 We were born to die’: Romeo and Juliet William C. Carroll While Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage offstage, their one night in the sheets of love is shaded by the ghostly presence of winding sheets. Tybalt’s death hangs over Verona, as old Capulet says to Paris: Look you, she lov’d her kinsman Tybalt dearly, And so did I. Well, we were born to die. Tis very late, she’ll not come down to-night.1 (III.iv.3-5) Indeed she won’t, for she is dying sexually above even as her father pronounces his platitudes and arranges her hasty marriage to Paris. Juliet governs her own comings and dyings to the end. Capulet’s sententious wisdom, bracketed between a bow to a dead loved one and transactions with a new suitor, reminds us of Romeo and Juliet’s constant association of birth, love, and death, from the Nurse’s proleptic obituary of Juliet’s parallel, Susan (I.iii.l 8), through the image clusters of wombs, tombs, sex, and death, to the brittle beauty of Liebestod in the final scene. The ending of the play represents the consummation, in all senses, of Romeo and Juliet’s love, and its inescapable loca­ tion in the tomb powerfully focuses our attention on their claustrophobic isolation and triumph. The only “problem” the ending seems to have caused modem readers is whether or not it is “ironic” and, if so, to what extent. Perhaps the most extreme prosecutorial revision of the ending was quoted in Richard Levin’s New Readings vs. Old Plays, in which the unnamed critic reported that his background reading left him “with one overriding impression: that the average audience of Romeo and Juliet would have regarded the behavior of the young lovers as deserving everything they got,”2 including, presumably, a double suicide. Other ironic readings focus on the alleged inadequacy or “materialism” of the golden statues raised by the dead lovers’ parents. In general, though, the ending of Romeo and Juliet has 54 William C. Carroll 55 not provoked the kind of controversy that marks the ending of King Lear, for example. It seems, from one point of view, to be perfectly conventional and appropriate, and so it is, but I do not think we have yet fully understood why it is so. I return for a moment to Capulet’s commonplace that “we were bom to die.” Similar sentiments are to be heard in other of the tragedies, but in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare goes to great lengths to stress the inevitability of Capulet’s vision. Spe­ cifically, as many readers have pointed out, Romeo and Juliet contains allusions to, even as it embodies, a joumey.3 Feste’s song assures us that “journeys end in lovers meeting” (TN, II.iii.4), as they certainly do for Romeo and Juliet (with the suggestive pun meeting - mating), yet we are never allowed to forget that all journeys must end, and that the ending, both goal and foreclosure, determines the shape of the journey itself. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare investigates this teleological puzzle in which the lovers’ foreknown end colors the nature of their journey, continually darkening our belief in their potential and actual happiness. The very existence of the Prologue begins the shadowing, especially with its look toward a “fearful passage” (1. 9) and the eerie double grammar in which the “pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (1. 6), the journey and the suicide col­ lapsed into the simultaneously transitive/intransitive verb. Nowhere but in Shakespeare could we find the journey and its end so economically and chillingly packaged. Romeo, as has often been pointed out, senses this fatality and frequently ex­ presses it in similar terms: . . . my mind misgives Some consequence yet hanging in the stars Shall bitterly begin his fearful date With this night’s revels, and expire the term Of a despised life clos’d in my breast, By some vile forfeit of untimely death. But He that hath the steerage of my course Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen! (I.iv. 106-13) Thus the end or “consequence” ironically begins with the be­ ginning (which is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 54-71
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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