Politics, Religion, and Love'S Transgression:The Political Philosophy of Romeo and Juliet
Is there anything new to be said about Romeo and Juliet? Anything neither trivial nor arbitrary, that is? If, instead of revisiting any of the things that have been made of the play, one attends closely to what Shakespeare made of the biblical and medieval Christian texts he used in composing it, then yes. Then it becomes evident just how radical a philosophy and theology Romeo and Juliet presents. Shakespeare does not hang up philosophy. Instead, he makes a Juliet. And he offers the story of the transcendent love of Juliet and Romeo to his audience as adversity's sweet milk.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare examines the relationship of the political realm to the things that are outside or beyond politics: family, society, religion, friendship, and love. The play is thus a work of political philosophy, and no less so because it is a work of art in which these things are portrayed concretely through the relationships of the play's characters. The difficulties of interpreting the play are due in part to its aesthetic particularity, but more to the familiarity of its plot, the common understanding of which has been shaped by misleading statements made by the Chorus. The Chorus is persuasive, but wrong: the Capulets and Montagues are not "both alike in dignity" (Prologue.1);1 Romeo is not "bewitchèd by the charm of looks" (2.0.6) when he falls in love with Juliet; and their love is not "star-crossed" (Prologue.6)—there is, in other words, nothing providential at work in the tragic ending of the play. Everyone fails Romeo and Juliet in some way; no one more than Friar Laurence. The friar's limitations as their spiritual counselor and his incompetent and cowardly meddling in worldly affairs are the [End Page 11] primary causes of their entirely unnecessary deaths; but his reputation as "a holy man" (5.3.270; 4.3.29) helps to cloud over the tragedy with a sense of inescapability and predestination.
The play is not simply the indictment of a weaker Brother, however. Taken as a whole, the play is Shakespeare's reworking of several familiar biblical and medieval Christian texts into a radically new political theology in which the love Romeo and Juliet have for one another is the measure of all things—not only of family, society, and politics but of religion as well. Anything that does not allow such a love to flourish, and anyone who does not accept all of its consequences for the reordering of life in society, betrays it. Through the poetic symbolism of his play, Shakespeare presents his audience with a new creation, free from original sin, and a worldly order that is fallen only in its ignorance or betrayal of the redemptive love of Romeo and Juliet.
The Chorus disappears after its false omniscience misdirects our attention and affects our judgment. It does not return with an epilogue. Instead, Prince Escalus ends the play by telling the assembled people as well as the audience: "Go hence to have more talk of these sad things" (5.3.307). The opinions of the Veronese can only be based on what they hear in Friar Laurence's disingenuous and self-serving confession, which the Prince accepts and legitimizes, and on their prior opinions of the acrimony between the Capulets and Montagues, likely much the same as the Chorus's. So rumor does its work and a superficial "story of … woe" (5.3.309) is celebrated with golden statues.2 The Veronese have no way of knowing what has been lost.
The audience, however, has no excuse. The moments that Romeo and Juliet have together—at the ball, in the garden, their marriage, in Juliet's bedroom, even in the tomb—these few moments in which their characters are best evident and the nature and quality of their love shine forth are private ones. The play reveals their intimacy to us, allowing us to see and hear how their souls and minds dance together. The only person briefly with them in their privacy is their confessor, the friar, and he shows himself to be decidedly unmoved by the beauty of their love, dismissing it as an immature infatuation. When he is compelled to acquit himself publicly, after being caught attempting to flee, his main concern is to avoid punishment by minimizing, obfuscating, and misrepresenting—as much as possible given the evidence—the role he played in how they died. He says nothing about who Romeo and Juliet are, except in the lies he tells about the events, all of which slander and dishonor Juliet. [End Page 12]
The Chorus does not return. Its absence allows rumor to write the epilogue; but it also allows other, different choral voices to be heard in the play. Three daybreaks take place before the "glooming" morning (5.3.305) on which it ends, and each has its chorus. The first day of the play, a Sunday, opens in escalating hostilities among members of the two wealthiest households of the city, the equal social standing of which prevents either from being able to assert its predominance. The servants spar, the masters' close kinsmen draw swords, and then the masters and their wives themselves appear to taunt one another and enflame the citizens to another "civil braw[l], bred of an airy word" (1.1.89) that seems to bear out the Chorus's prologue: "ancient grudge break[s] to new mutiny" (Prologue.3). The Prince must enforce the peace against them "on pain of death" (1.1.103).
This is Verona without Romeo and Juliet, the city in which they have not yet met, the city whose animosities the Chorus would have us believe must necessarily subsume their love. The morning of the last day of the play is similarly tense. The Prince compels the two households to a peaceful coexistence: Capulet and Montague shake hands; there will be no new mutinies, they say. But this too is Verona without Romeo and Juliet, a city in which the nature of their love is not known—a city, therefore, in which the grim reconciliation, without truth, can only bring a momentary halt to the feuding.
The two other dawns of the play, in contrast, are radiant. On the second morning, the sun rises on the garden of a monastery. As he tends it and muses to himself, Laurence takes over the role of Chorus. There is a natural order of the world, he says, in which birth and death, goods and evils, virtues and vices can be understood to have their place or purpose, and in which the given capacities in all things—plants and human beings alike—flourish while "grace" is superior to "rude will" in them, and while time and circumstance allow, for the flourishing of anything in an abundant, complex order is fragile, easily "strained from … fair use" or turned poisonous (2.3.9–30). The monastery garden is in Verona; but Verona, and its monastery, is in this garden, this order of the world. This is the garden in which—unknown to anyone in the city—Romeo and Juliet have found one another, confirmed their love, and agreed to marry.
On the third morning, Romeo and Juliet are together in her bedroom as the sun rises. A chorus of birds—a nightingale and a lark—sings in the garden; however, it is their talking together that is the third and truest Chorus of the play: Juliet and Romeo themselves become the [End Page 13] nightingale and the lark, and then "chang[e] voices," in talking playfully about night and day, life and death, as lovers and friends (3.5.1–35). Their souls and minds flourish together; and together their voices in the garden are the measure of Verona, of everything and everyone in the city. But circumstances allow them no time to be together. It is not the lark that "divide[s]" them (3.5.30). Initially, it is a political matter: Romeo is exiled for having killed Tybalt. However, even such an unfortunate event need not be an insurmountable barrier. Romeo and Juliet are divided and their voices silenced not by a settled hatred between Capulets and Montagues, or by the will of the Prince, or by an intrinsic opposition between the political realm and the things that are beyond politics, or by bad luck or misfortune, or, least of all, by the fateful workings of the stars, but rather by the machinations of Friar Laurence.
As their counselor, the Friar is surprisingly imperceptive or indifferent to the quality of the spiritual bond between Romeo and Juliet, both of whom are exceptional human beings. His only premarital advice to an enamored Romeo is the tired bourgeois platitude: "love moderately" (2.6.14); wisdom lies in going "slow[ly]" (2.3.94; 2.6.15). His moralizing conceals a suspicious haste, though. Laurence agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet immediately and secretly, flouting both civil and canon law: he does not ask parental consent for Juliet, who is a minor, and he does not inform the families and the Prince of what he has done. He agrees to marry them, he says quite plainly, not because Juliet is a better match for Romeo than Rosaline—Laurence agrees entirely with the Chorus that the two women are comparable distractions for Romeo's youthful, wandering "eyes" (2.3.68; see also 2.0.6)—but rather only because the marriage could "turn [their] households' rancor to pure love" (2.3.90–92).
Laurence decides to act as he does for a political reason: to bring about peace in Verona, a peace mediated not by the civil authority but rather by the ecclesiastical authority—and more precisely, by Laurence himself acting as its sole representative.3 His motives are all too worldly and he has evidently been brooding on them since first hearing of Romeo's interest in Rosaline, also a Capulet. They either blind him or they show his appallingly bad judgment. How could any friar think that "pure love" is merely a temporary interruption of worldly social hostilities? And how could he, in particular, think so when he is privileged to know Juliet and Romeo? For Laurence, as for the Chorus, there is no difference between Rosaline and Juliet, except that the latter returns Romeo's affections (2.3.85–87). And for Laurence, as for the Chorus, [End Page 14] there is no difference between Capulets and Montagues. Both households are uncivil from a lack of adequate religious guidance, and he takes it upon himself to correct them.
The two families are not alike. Dignity is either social standing or virtue, and equivalence in one does not entail equivalence in the other. The Chorus's misdirection, however, prompts us to make our own mistaken inferences when Shakespeare shows us the two households, either with disproportionate emphases—the Capulets are shown at home, but never the Montagues, and the latter appear far less frequently throughout the play—or in the same circumstances but behaving quite differently. In both the opening brawl and the later swordfight, for instance, the Capulets are instigators and Tybalt draws his weapon with intent to injure or kill. Benvolio, a Montague, attempts to "keep the peace," telling Tybalt, who has threatened to kill him, "Put up thy sword" (1.1.68). Later, Tybalt duels with Mercutio—one of the Prince's kinsmen, not a Montague—and Romeo, a Montague, attempts to part them.
Similarly, at the end of the play, both families are summoned to the tomb and are shocked to discover their children dead. Capulet, who should be all the more affected at finding Juliet's bloody body, immediately rages about killing his enemy: the dagger with which Juliet has killed herself, he says, "hath mista'en, for lo, his house / Is empty on the back of Montague" (5.3.203–4). Montague, in contrast, laments Romeo's premature death by chastising him touchingly: "What manners is in this, / To press before thy father to a grave?" (5.3.214–15); and Lady Montague is not present, having died that night from grief over her son's exile.
The Montagues' love for their son is evident from the first, when they encourage Benvolio, after the play's opening brawl, to discover the cause of Romeo's "sorrows" (1.1.154). We naturally assume the Capulets must hold their daughter in equal regard, especially when we are next shown Capulet expressing his concern for Juliet's welfare in response to Paris's proposal of marriage: "two more summers" should pass, he says, before she is "ripe to be a bride" (1.2.10–11); she would be "too soon marred" (1.2.13) otherwise, as his own bride evidently was (1.3.72–74); and at that time he will give his consent to the marriage only if she freely gives hers (1.2.17–19). His hypocrisy is stunning. His foremost thought is the decisive advantage to be gained over the Montagues by an alliance of the Capulet household with the Prince's, for Paris is the Prince's kinsman. That same day, Lady Capulet informs Juliet of Paris's suit and tells her to "think of marriage now" (1.3.70). And the next day, [End Page 15] when the prospect of having "the law" finally on "[their] side" (1.1.38, 47; 2.4.157) is jeopardized by Tybalt's murder of Mercutio, Capulet becomes "desperate" and assures Paris that Juliet will marry him in three days' time (3.4.12, 30). His haste is obscene, and he and his wife both treat Juliet disgracefully. Not only is her consent not sought; their will is enforced with the vilest coercion. Lady Capulet says she would prefer Juliet dead to disobedient (3.5.140), and Capulet abuses her in the most contemptible way when she shows any hesitation in accepting his decision: "hang, beg, starve, die in the streets," he shouts (3.5.194). The Chorus would have us believe the Montagues are also this base.
What appears to be Capulet's remarkably good fortune in a prospective son-in-law is too politically convenient to be entirely coincidental. Paris presents himself to Capulet shortly after the Prince's incensed declaration of an end to the public conflicts between the two households. The Prince imposes a death penalty, but he also requires first Capulet and then Montague to attend him to hear his "farther pleasure in [the] case" (1.1.101). It seems reasonable to assume the Prince has decided that a marriage resulting in greater social inequality in Verona will bring about civil peace more quickly and effectively than the draconian use of force. Paris is marriageable; it is time for him to find a bride; and Juliet, though still quite young, is of the right class. Their marriage would give the Capulets the preeminence they so covet. It makes good political sense. But in choosing which household to elevate, the Prince cannot use dignity in the sense of quality or virtue as a measure. He is limited by the contingencies: the Capulets have a daughter, the Montagues do not.
The Prince is a sensible man who understands that a peace maintained with executions is undesirable. When passing sentence on Romeo for the killing of Tybalt—the extenuating circumstance of Tybalt's own guilt in killing Mercutio notwithstanding—the Prince prudently exiles him for the capital offense, in part because he expects the marriage that has been set in motion will settle things eventually, after which allowing their son's return could serve to appease the Montagues. The power of the temporal sword is most effective when it only need be shown.4 Friar Laurence, however, has good reason to fear it; not because his plan to bring about the reconciliation of the Capulets and Montagues shows that he is insufficiently experienced in political matters, or because it involves Juliet and thus unwittingly puts him in direct conflict with the Prince's desires, but rather because Laurence sets out in willful disregard of the law and custom and persists in attempting to demonstrate his cleverness in ordering worldly affairs even as resistance to his intentions mounts. [End Page 16]
In marrying Romeo and Juliet, Laurence no doubt imagines his actions are justified by a higher good, and he certainly intends to make the news known at a time when he thinks that higher good can be presented with appropriate dramatic effect. The families cannot be informed immediately, however, without risking an annulment. To forestall that possibility, the marriage must first be consummated. Laurence's involvement in bringing that about is one of the first indications of how far he is willing to go in serving his vision. There is no need to go "wisely and slow" (2.3.94) in arranging it. When Romeo leaves Laurence's cell in the morning to meet the Nurse, a plan has already been worked out for him to acquire a rope ladder in enough time to enable the Nurse to deliver it to Juliet's bedroom when she returns with news of the arrangements for the ceremony. The marriage will be consummated the same day; and the ladder will be Romeo's "convoy in the secret night" (2.4.187): on her return home the Nurse tells Juliet explicitly that Romeo will ascend the ladder "when it is dark" (2.5.74). Then, in the hours following the marriage, the unforeseen circumstance of Romeo's immediate exile for Tybalt's murder seems to present an impossible obstacle; however, Laurence does not hesitate to go against the Prince's will, as long as there is a way to remain undiscovered. He tells Romeo to spend the night with Juliet—"Go, get thee to thy love, as was decreed; / Ascend her chamber; hence and comfort her" (3.3.146–47)—and if it requires staying past the setting of the watch, thus risking the death penalty (3.1.193–94), Laurence offers advice about how to escape: "Either be gone before the watch be set, / Or by the break of day disguised from hence" (3.3.167–68), he says. The higher good makes the risk worth taking. Once the marriage cannot easily be annulled, Laurence tells Romeo that he will eventually be able "to find a time / To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends, / Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back / With twenty hundred thousand times more joy / Than thou went'st forth in lamentation" (3.3.149–54).
Everything goes wrong after Romeo leaves for Mantua. The Capulets enter the bedroom to demand that Juliet marry Paris in three days' time and will tolerate no reply. The Nurse, whose first loyalty is always to Juliet, courageously defends her against her parents, but cannot sway them. More significantly, the situation is beyond her—she no longer knows how to comfort or advise Juliet. So Juliet turns to Friar Laurence. Shortly before Juliet arrives at his cell, Laurence first learns of the proposed marriage from Paris himself, who has come to make arrangements, and he begins to understand the difficulties in which he has become [End Page 17] embroiled. His first words to Juliet when they are alone show him to be anxious, apprehensive, even fearful: "Ah, Juliet, I already know thy grief; / It strains me past the compass of my wits" (4.1.46–47). She trusts in his "wisdom" and "long-experienced time" and asks him—implores him—for "present counsel" drawn from "the commission of [his] years and art" (4.1.52, 60–61, 64). The "remedy" (4.1.67, 76) is obvious. Juliet should go to Mantua to be with Romeo. She has already declared her willingness to leave her family: "be but sworn my love," she told Romeo in the garden, "And I'll no longer be a Capulet" (2.2.35–36); "I'll … / follow thee my lord throughout the world" (2.2.147–48).
Her parents have already said they will disown her if she does not marry Paris. Why should she not leave as soon as possible? Actually making the break with her family would be difficult, of course; but there is also a practical matter holding her back: she is thirteen years old, and although Mantua is only a few hours away, girls of that age do not travel alone. Laurence knows the way, however, as well as where to find Romeo; and he is clever enough to know that a disguise will work—none better or more convenient than a friar's habit. Laurence should offer to take her to Mantua and return to Verona to tell the Prince and the families everything he has done. These are the simple words of good counsel Juliet longs to hear. But what Laurence does say, at some length, is fantastically different, bizarrely past the compass of what is reasonable. It ends with the most important thing for Juliet: "that very night / Shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua" (4.1.116–17). To that end, Laurence advises her, she must travel a tortuous road.
Laurence tells Juliet that she must accept Paris's proposal, lying to her parents and society generally, and then feign death by taking a powerful drug he happens to have at hand that will put her into a coma. Veronese burial customs being what they are, she will be entombed in the Capulet mausoleum; then, at a designated hour, he promises, she will wake and be taken to Mantua by Romeo, who will have returned to break into the crypt with him. The entire deception is necessary, he explains to Juliet, to "free [her] from this present shame" (4.1.118).
Laurence lies to her. Why should Juliet be ashamed, having done no wrong? She is understandably distraught after her parents' abuse and is surely confused and spiritually fragile after being separated from the friend, husband, and lover she has known for only a few hours. Laurence betrays her trust in him by preying on Juliet's innocence and wrongfully shaming her into participating in an absurd and dangerous scheme, the desperate purpose of which is to overcome the hindrance to his [End Page 18] ambitions presented by the Prince's plans for Paris's marriage. Even though he is in fear of being discovered, a coward in his actions and in his obligations to others, a man who neglects his calling as "ghostly confessor" (2.6.21) and manipulates Juliet immorally into risking her life, Laurence nevertheless imagines himself to be perfectly righteous and deserving of worldly recognition.
Intimations of his hubris appeared in the "twenty hundred thousand times more joy" he thought would follow his well-timed announcement of Juliet's marriage to Romeo. Her imminent second marriage is a greater and more pressing challenge than Romeo's exile, though. To meet it, Laurence manufactures a deception that he imagines he will be able to persuade the Veronese is a miracle. Juliet will be resurrected as Jesus was resurrected. There will be a traumatizing death, an unembalmed body sealed in a cavernous tomb, the disappearance of the body after "two-and-forty hours" (4.1.105)—a fair approximation of the length of time between Christ's death and resurrection5—the inexplicability of which will confound everyone, and then mystifying reports of sightings in a nearby town. Eventually the truth will spread, and Laurence will be the one who brings the word that transforms the world.6
Laurence has studied herbalism well enough to know how it could have been possible to stage Christ's resurrection, if not the crucifixion. He would be laughable in his role as a suspicious friar if not for the disastrous consequences of his scheme to use this knowledge in a Machiavellian way. His own words indict him. The "distilling liquor" (4.1.94) he has Juliet drink is a "poison," taken from "the infant rind of [some] weak flower," that he would have her believe the circumstances make into a salvific "medicine" (2.3.23–24). The intrinsic good or virtue of a plant "turns vice, being misapplied," he knows; but he imagines a justification, or perhaps an excuse: "vice sometime's by action dignified" (2.3.21–22). In thinking himself above "the world's law" (5.1.72) to give Juliet a vial of "sleeping potion" (5.3.244), Laurence is similar to the Mantuan apothecary who illegally provides Romeo with "mortal drugs" (5.1.66); but the plain-speaking apothecary, likely an impoverished Jew, is the more honest man.
Laurence's mix of manipulative low cunning and self-delusion is most objectionable neither in the plan itself nor in the needless distress it causes Juliet but rather in his shocking betrayal of Juliet in the tomb. When Juliet wakes from her "unnatural sleep" (5.3.52), Laurence tells her abruptly that Romeo is dead, and so too is Paris. His only explanation—"A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our [End Page 19] intents" (5.3.153–54)—invokes a mood of submission to an omnipotent, providential force that he hopes will confuse her sufficiently to follow his duplicitous advice again: "Come, I'll dispose of thee / Among a sisterhood of holy nuns" (5.3.156–57). The unadorned meaning of these words is clear: he will "dispose" of her in a convent where she will remain undiscovered. Then, the unforgiveable treachery: the sound of "the watch … coming" (5.3.158) puts him in fear of being brought before the law; so Laurence leaves Juliet alone in the tomb—a thirteen-year-old girl alone in that "detestable" place (5.3.45)—knowing full well that she is likely to kill herself (5.3.242).7
After he is caught escaping, the most hateful of all the pious lies Laurence tells to "excuse" himself before the Prince (5.3.227) masks his responsibility for her death: "I entreated her come forth / And bear this work of heaven with patience. / But then a noise did scare me from the tomb" (5.3.260–62). There are no witnesses to contradict him. The Prince thus accepts him "for a holy man" (5.3.270). Alas, so too did Juliet. When preparing herself to take the potion, she considered whether it might be "a poison" that Laurence "ministered to have [her] dead, / Lest … he should be dishonored;" but she overruled her "fear … / For he hath still been tried a holy man" (4.3.24–29).
For Laurence, the resurrection is a useful fiction. There is no life after death. He says nothing about it in the monastery garden: "The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb; / What is her burying grave, that is her womb" (2.3.9–10); and the only "grace" (2.3.15, 28) given to any of her children is the flourishing of "their true qualities" or "special good" while they are alive (2.3.16, 18), should they be fortunate not to "stumbl[e] on abuse" (2.3.20; see also 5.3.122). Laurence neither lives up to the truth of the radical theology of his soliloquy nor to the responsibility of his calling to care for the souls of others: he neither recognizes the "true qualities" of Romeo and Juliet nor sees how their worldly love for one another is their luminous flourishing.
For Romeo and Juliet, too, there is no life after death. Their love is transcendent, but their love only exists in the world, in their lives. The rest is silence, or a fiction others might turn to their advantage. When Romeo returns to Verona, to the graveyard, he has no doubts about the nature of life and death. The Capulet mausoleum, a "womb of death," is a "detestable maw" whose "rotten jaws" he pries open, before his natural time, to be with Juliet (5.3.45–48). In its workings, death is a "lean abhorred monster" (5.3.104); in itself, though, it is "unsubstantial" (5.3.103), nothing, the absence of life. Juliet's death has taken all [End Page 20] spiritual meaning from his life, reducing him to "world-wearied flesh" (5.3.111): "Heaven is … / Where Juliet lives" (3.3.29–30); and if she does not live, the world is "purgatory, torture, hell itself" (3.3.18). His own death will not reunite his soul with Juliet's in any sort of imagined afterlife. Death is "everlasting" (5.3.110); it cannot be "conquered" (5.3.94). His embrace of Juliet is his "last" (5.3.113); and his last kiss seals "A dateless bargain to engrossing death" (5.3.115). Every life, even the fullest, reaches the point after which there is nothing more.
Earlier the same day, Romeo had experienced something resembling an intimation of resurrection: he awoke in a dream of Juliet's love. In musing on the dream's effects—an "unaccustomed spirit" that had "lift[ed him] above the ground with cheerful thoughts" all morning (5.1.4–5)—Romeo recounts it: Juliet "came and found me dead—/Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—/And breathed such life with kisses in my lips / That I revived and was an emperor" (5.1.6–9). Love revives—while there is life and a new day. Even "love's shadows are … rich in joy," Romeo says; they remind one "how sweet is love itself possessed" (5.1.10–11). But are shadows—dreams and memories, as true as they might be—a consolation after the death of the beloved? Why should a grieving lover, contemplating whether to be without his beloved or not to be, learn patience? For Romeo, no consolation "can make a Juliet" (3.3.58). For Juliet, nothing can replace Romeo.
Love is "not hereafter; / Present mirth hath present laughter; / What's to come is still unsure" (Twelfth Night, 2.3.47–49). When Juliet kisses Romeo in the tomb, he does not revive. His dream earlier that day revealed the only kind of resurrection allowed to mortals, the fullest experience of immortality in time through love. Talk of fulfillment in a hereafter is superstition, accepted by some in order to veil the truth and used by others who do not accept it in order to manipulate those who do: Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet's "immortal part with angels lives" (5.1.19) to blunt the edge of her death's finitude for him; Prince Escalus invokes providence in telling the Capulets and Montagues that "heaven finds means to kill [their] joys with love" (5.3.293), giving the lives of Romeo and Juliet an afterlife of political purpose; and, to cling to his own earthly life, Friar Laurence betrays Romeo and Juliet a final time in sanctifying their deaths as a "work of heaven" (5.3.261).
In his composition of the play, Shakespeare differentiates the biblical narrative of the resurrection into its effective truth—Romeo's dream—and the superstitious remnant that becomes Laurence's proposal to stage Juliet's resurrection. The opposition of life and afterlife is not [End Page 21] benign, however, for Laurence's actions attempt to bring the afterlife into life and thereby cause the destruction of the best that is possible in the world: when Romeo and Juliet are together, the harmony of their souls and minds exemplifies the height of human flourishing; with the simplest practical advice and spiritual counsel, their love could overcome the obstacle of Romeo's exile and eventually be recognized by the Montagues and the Prince, transforming the city; but Laurence's scheming divides Juliet from Romeo and all is lost.
To signify the depth of the betrayal, Shakespeare adapts another familiar biblical story—the apostle Peter's denial of Jesus—in composing a dramatic frame for Laurence's plot. The Gospel accounts differ in their details—John more than the Synoptics—but the narrative form of the episode remains constant. At the Last Supper, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him thrice before the cock crows (Matt. 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34, John 13:38).8 Expecting to be crucified through the treachery of the "chief priests" (Matt. 26:3, Mark 14:1, Luke 22:2), Jesus faces death alone in the garden at Gethsemane. He prays: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39); the disciples attending him, whose "spirit … is willing, but [whose] flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41), fall asleep. Judas then betrays him. Jesus is arrested and taken to trial, where the "chief priests" seek "false witness against him" (Matt. 26:59). Outside the court, Peter denies him thrice, the last time before an assembly of people. According to Matthew, the second time Peter denies him with "an oath" (26:72); the third time, he is emphatic, cursing and swearing (26:74; Mark 14:71). The cock then crows—in Mark it is said to be the second cock (14:68, 72)—and Peter weeps (Matt. 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62). Peter's denial of Jesus, in spirit and in public, parallels Judas's betrayal; however, it does not contribute directly to the events of Jesus's death and resurrection.
In Shakespeare's rewriting of the episode, Laurence's betrayal of Juliet begins in the feigned resurrection scheme that leads eventually to her death; and the structure of threefold denial illustrates the manner in which the betrayal escalates. In having Juliet play the role of Jesus, Laurence causes her actually to suffer the agonies of Gethsemane when she prepares herself to drink his vial, the cup that he will not let her put aside. Juliet sends the Nurse away to be alone, saying: "I have need of many orisons" (4.3.3). Her "counsel" (2.2.53) is better taken alone, best when she is with Romeo; but the circumstances and Romeo's exile leave her helpless, and her premonition of the reasons for the priest's [End Page 22] cunning comes too late. It is ultimately her faith in her "holy Father" (4.1.37) that leads to her death.
Laurence is Peter, but he is also the play's Judas. A trace of the biblical narrative's Judas appears in Shakespeare's depiction of the apothecary who forgivably sells Romeo poison for "forty ducats" (5.1.59); in his retelling of the story, however, the friar and not the apothecary is the poisoner. Laurence betrays Juliet repeatedly, and in the most unforgivable ways—not simply by being too much a coward to take any of several opportunities to announce her marriage to Romeo publicly. First, it is his will that Juliet should drink the vial. Shakespeare marks the significance of the moment she does so by changing the scene to the household's preparation of festivities and having Capulet proclaim: "The second cock hath crowed" (4.4.3). Then, unspeakably, Laurence abandons Juliet in the Capulet mausoleum. And finally, he bears false witness against her before her family, Romeo's family, and all of Verona. No cock is heard on that morning—the "weep[ing]" (5.3.184) Laurence does not repent.9
Shakespeare does not only adapt biblical narratives to bring Laurence's villainy to light. He also reworks the imagery of other familiar biblical and medieval Christian texts in the play to illuminate the transcendent and yet entirely worldly quality of Romeo and Juliet's love. In a way that Laurence does not recognize and would not comprehend, their love re-creates the world. It redeems men and women from the taint of original sin. It stands as the measure of all things: not only of family, society, and politics but of religion and its stories as well. Romeo and Juliet are a new Adam and Eve.
In composing the dramatic frame for the story of their love's unfolding, Shakespeare rewrites the traditional narrative of the Garden of Eden. He differentiates the imagery of the biblical text into two episodes: Romeo's leap over the orchard wall and discovery of Juliet in her garden (2.1, 2.2); and Laurence's choral soliloquy the following morning, in which the heretical theology of the new garden is first formulated (2.3.1–30). But the garden itself, even in its most luscious, prelapsarian state, is incomplete. Romeo and Juliet are not simply characters representing an unfallen human nature. Shakespeare also intends their love for one another to exemplify the fullest possible flourishing of human nature. The story of the garden is thus incomplete until Shakespeare adds a ladder to it. The rope ladder on which he has Romeo climb to Juliet's bedroom is an immanent ladder of divine ascent. In medieval monastic texts, the image of ascending a ladder was often used to describe the various stages in the practice of a contemplative's spiritual ascent toward [End Page 23] God. Scala Claustralium (The Ladder of Monks), a twelfth-century letter of instruction from Guigo the Angelic to Brother Gervase, is one of the earliest surviving such accounts. It was translated into Middle English as A Ladder of Foure Ronges by which Men Mowe Wele Clyme to Heven (A ladder of four rungs by which men may well climb to heaven) and was often mentioned in the writings of Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich, and in the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing. Shakespeare transforms Guigo's ladder into Romeo's "cords made like a tackled stair" (2.4.185) and uses the metaphor of its four rungs as the hermeneutic key for the play's dramatization of the way in which the transcendent is best and most perfectly realized in the world.
The story of the Garden of Eden is much better known than Guigo's Ladder of Monks. In the Genesis narrative it is said that God placed Adam in the garden he had planted "eastward in Eden" (Gen. 2:8) to "dress it and to keep it" (2:15), allowing him to eat of any tree growing there, even "the tree of life," but not of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (2:9). God then brought "every living creature" to Adam "to see what he would call them," and Adam gave them all their names (2:19–20). From one of Adam's ribs, God made a woman, for "it is not good that a man should be alone" (2:18, 21). And so, Adam and Eve, man and wife, "one flesh," were in the garden "not ashamed" (2:24–25). When the "subtil" serpent later questioned her, Eve repeated what God had said about the fruit of the tree "in the midst of the garden": "Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die" (3:3). The serpent assured her: "Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (3:4). Thus was Eve "beguiled" (3:13). She ate the fruit; then Adam did.
The narrative concludes with various punishments: God cursed the serpent and "put enmity between [it] and the woman" (3:14–15). He increased the labors and sorrows of Adam and Eve (3:16–19). And then: "God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden" (3:22–23). He drove them out, and at the east of the garden he barred the way to the tree of life with a "flaming sword which turned every way" (3:24).
Once Romeo finds Juliet, nothing bars his way to the garden and the fruit of the omphalic trees that will make him as much like a god as possible for a human being. Not the high walls and threat of death. [End Page 24] Romeo tells Juliet: "With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls, / For stony limits cannot hold love out, / And what love can do, that dares love attempt" (2.2.66–68). And certainly not a fallen, sinful nature. When he leaps down into the garden, Romeo leaves shameful carnality behind, on the other side of the wall, with Mercutio and Benvolio. Knowing nothing of Romeo's love of Juliet, Mercutio attempts to "to raise him up" (2.1.30) by conjuring Rosaline's name, and her "quivering thigh, / And all the demesnes that there adjacent lie" (2.1.20–21). "Now will he sit under a medlar tree," Mercutio says, "And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit. … Oh, that she were / An open-arse, and [he] a poppering pear!" (2.1.35–39). But "The ape is dead" (2.1.17).
By climbing the wall, Romeo leaves behind "dull earth" and finds his "center" (2.1.2). Everything is turned about. Only a few hours earlier, as the sun was rising, Romeo left the city "westward" (1.1.122) to brood over Rosaline in the woods; he often stole "Away from light, … mak[ing] himself an artificial night" during the day (1.1.137, 140). Now it is night; he is turned to "the east, and Juliet is the sun" (2.2.3). She is for him, as he is for her, "day in night" (3.2.17). There are no other faces to discover in the night sky. For Romeo, "Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven" are Juliet's eyes (2.2.15–18); for Juliet, if Romeo were "cut … out in little stars," he would "make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world [would] be in love with night" (3.2.22–24).
Juliet is neither a temptation nor an angel. She is fully a woman. When expecting Romeo in her bedroom, she says: "Come, civil night, … / Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks, / With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold, / Think true love acted simple modesty" (3.2.10–16). There is no shame in her garden, and no inequality. Everything is turned about, but there is no conversion. The new Eden ofJuliet's garden is not the old Eden whose boundaries are rediscovered through humility and obedience; it is rather always already present, and it becomes evident to Romeo and Juliet when love makes it possible for them to overcome illusory prohibitions. Romeo says: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized" (2.2.50). Explicitly a new baptism, undoing the effects of the previous one. Instead of naming, they strip off names. They did not know each other's names when they fell in love; and as soon as they learn them, they give them up. "What's in a name? … / doff thy name," Juliet says, thinking of Romeo aloud, "And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself" (2.2.43, 47–49)—"I'll no longer be a Capulet" (2.2.34–36). Not only family names and social conventions are given up but the stasis of naming itself.10 What remains is the flowing [End Page 25] music and poetry of their talking with one another. When they are in bed together, one the nightingale, the other the lark, Romeo expresses the height of their erotic longing in saying, "How is't, my soul? Let's talk. It is not day" (3.5.25). What makes their love the highest possible love to attain is not passionate intensity, not youthful innocence or pure intentions, and not the formidable obstacles they must overcome but rather their intrinsic spiritual and intellectual excellences, made more perfect by the reciprocity of their love, and expressed in the way they speak with one another when they are together, their hearts and minds perfectly attuned. Nothing higher can be expressed. And thus, they cannot swear their love by anything. Certainly not by "th'inconstant moon" (2.2.109). "Do not swear at all," Juliet tells Romeo. Not even by "thy gracious self, / Which is the god of my idolatry," she says—"do not swear" (2.2.113–16).
Nothing bars Romeo's way to Juliet's garden. Not "the fiery Tybalt with his sword prepared" (1.1.109), turning it every which way: "Ah, the immortal / passado! The punto reverso! The hay!" (2.4.25–26). Not even "the Prince's doom" (3.3.4) after Tybalt's death, banishing Romeo, for Laurence gives him good counsel and assistance: "Go, get thee to thy love, … / Ascend her chamber; hence and comfort her," he says. The exile will add to life's sorrows; however, the Prince will eventually "call [him] back" (3.3.152). Laurence knows how the world goes. He does the right thing in bringing Romeo and Juliet together that night. But he does the right thing for the wrong reason. If that is not the greatest treason, it is an indication of a growing "canker" (2.3.30) in his soul. It only takes a slight change in the circumstances for Laurence to betray the lovers. Then it becomes evident that Shakespeare has cast Laurence not only as an unrepentant Peter or Judas but also as the new Eden's serpent. When he first appears on stage, Laurence seems instead to be old Adam, placed alone in the cloistered garden to "dress it and to keep it." What is more, in taking over the role of Chorus and describing the beatific, though severe, order of the world, Laurence seems sincere in giving a theology of the new Eden revealed in Juliet's garden.
The theology, however, is flawed. His offhand Machiavellian qualification—"vice sometime's by action dignified"—is enough. It allows poisonous "rude will" to spread and eventually predominate over "grace." And when he acts on it, excusing himself with the belief that the consequence will be the affirmation of the authority of religion in a fallen world, Laurence brings unnatural, immoral "death" into the garden (2.3.28–30). He "beguile[s]" (Gen. 3:13) Juliet, tempting her [End Page 26] with the truth mixed with lies. "Ye shall not surely die" (3:4), he tells her. In the Genesis narrative, the serpent knows the truth of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; he knows that eating their fruit is not to die, but rather to become "as gods," with "eyes … opened" (3:4). So too, Laurence claims to know the objective truth of his faith's account of death and resurrection: it is a subtle technique through which human beings can become like God. Juliet takes up his vial and drinks, persuaded that its potion is "remedy" (4.1.76), the needful means to reunite her with Romeo. And she wakes to discover her bridegroom is death. In the Genesis account, the serpent's cunning divides Eve and Adam from God and causes them to be driven out of Eden. Laurence's cunning divides Juliet and Romeo from one another and, in bringing about their deaths, destroys the new Eden.
The ladder Laurence tells Romeo to use to be together with Juliet is a worldly one, a means to carnal satisfaction; for a man in religious orders, the ladder of spiritual ascent is a categorically different thing. In The Ladder of Monks,11 Guigo writes that there are "three graces of God": the first "is a common grace given of God to all creatures"; the second, God "offers … only to man, take it if he will" (f.118ab); and the third, "more special, … is not given to all men, but only to them that open the gates of their heart" (f.121b)—namely, Christian contemplatives. For Shakespeare, though, there is a single grace, given to all creatures, that reaches its perfection in Romeo and Juliet opening their hearts to one another. The ladder he has Romeo use in the garden is a spiritual one. And the seemingly insignificant event of Romeo taking the plan of a rope ladder away from Laurence's cell is Shakespeare's dramatic symbol of the bankruptcy of the religious tradition: the ladder of the monks is taken away from the monks and most fully realized in the world in the lovers being together, awake, and talking in Juliet's bedroom.
In the early Christian tradition, the image of a ladder of spiritual ascent was first developed, in some detail, by John Climacus (John of the Ladder). Guigo's Scala Claustralium, an introduction to monastic erotics for a novice, has the virtue of being simpler and more readily accessible than John's Climax Paradisi. The imagery they share is derived from several frequently allegorized Hebrew Bible sources:Jacob's dream at Bethel of the ladder ascending from earth to heaven (Gen. 28:10–15), Jacob's wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22–32), and Jacob's delight in the embraces of the lovely Rachel (Gen. 29). Guigo uses the concrete, worldly, and erotic imagery of such stories to describe the spiritual practice of overcoming man's worldly, carnal, fallen nature. The spirit [End Page 27] and the flesh are opposed; but through contemplation the flesh can be sublimated or made subordinate to the spirit. In contemplation, Guigo writes, "the fleshly stirrings of man are so conquered that the flesh in nothing opposes the spirit, but is become all ghostly" (f.129b); "mighty God, that all may, when he sends his grace to his lovers, would through his grace have them truly know that by sinews are understood all fleshly desires and other vices—so he takes them and makes them dry as though they were dead" (f.134b).
The grace evident in Romeo and Juliet does not make them dry as though they were dead. Shakespeare's appropriation of Guigo's imagery has more in common with Diotima's account of the soul's ascent of a ladder of love in Plato's Symposium (210a–212a) and the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs than it does with The Ladder of Monks. He reclaims the imagery from the Christian mystics to describe the perfection of the spirit in the flesh, in the natural order of an unfallen world.
Guigo's ladder has four rungs: "reading [lesson], meditation, prayer [orison], and contemplation" (f.115a). Reading is "a busy looking upon Holy Scripture;" meditation is "a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before hidden;" prayer is "a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good;" and contemplation is "a rising up of heart into God that tastes somewhat of heavenly sweetness and savour." In short: "Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels. … Reading puts as it were whole meat into the mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it; prayer finds its savour; contemplation is the liking sweetness that so much comforts" (f.116ab).
Shakespeare has the dramatic action of the play's love story follow these steps: in loving Rosaline, Romeo seeks; when he sees Juliet, he finds; in the garden, he asks; and when he climbs the ladder to Juliet's bedroom, he tastes and is comforted. Rosaline's role is minor, but symbolically important. For Guigo, the transition from the first to the second rung of the ladder is a movement from the external to the internal: "Reading is without …; meditation is within" (f.116b). If Romeo is "bewitchèd by the charm of looks" in loving Rosaline, he overcomes it when he sees Juliet dancing. "Did my heart love till now?" he asks. "Forswear it, sight! / For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night" (1.5.51–54). And we must take him at his word. For there is love at first sight. There is something evident about a soul through a body's movement or lack of movement—Romeo sees something in Juliet's bearing as she dances, just as she sees something intriguing in the masked fellow "that would not dance" (1.5.134)—and its truth or falsity can be confirmed in conversation. [End Page 28]
But Rosaline also has a comic purpose. In having the play leave her behind, Shakespeare also intimates that his ladder has superseded Guigo's. Rosaline would be a nun and live the cloistered life. When she refuses Romeo's love, she claims "she hath sworn that she will still live chaste" (1.1.217). Romeo says that taking the "vow" is being "forsworn to love" (1.1.223). He could be harsher. If Rosaline were not lying to be rid of him, she would certainly be a hypocrite to accept the invitation to Capulet's party (1.2.70, 85).
The proper practice of any rung of Guigo's ladder lies in its openness or movement toward the next: "reading without meditation is idle; meditation without prayer is without effect [wythoute effecte]; prayer with devotion wins to contemplation" (f.123a). The true practice of the highest rung leads to a different sort of fulfillment—the contemplative's satisfaction of being with Jesus the spouse—which Guigo describes vividly for Brother Gervase. "Delicious is thy spouse," he writes, "full noble and full fair before all those that were ever were born of a mother" (f.135ab); "it is good and merry to us … to have mirth and joy with our spouse, and make if we may our dwelling here with him" (f.130b); and if he should have to depart, "dread thee not that he hath forsaken thee, though he for a little while withdraws himself from thee, for all this he does … only for thy good" (f.131a).
For Romeo, Juliet is the spouse; and for Juliet, Romeo. There is no higher ascent of the soul than their being together. If there is a rung of prayer in Shakespeare's ladder, it is not in words addressed to God but rather in the words the lovers address to one another. Indeed, once they find each other, Guigo's rungs become senseless; the ladder is thrown away, and Shakespeare transforms the distinctions between the rungs into the stuff of their joyful banter. When Romeo first kisses Juliet, he says, "move not, while my prayer's effect I take" (1.5.107); and after their second kiss, moments later, she playfully says, "You kiss by th' book" (1.5.111). Later that night, when they have asked and answered, and have savored the truth that they are each other's heart's desire, Juliet wishes her love "were to give again." When Romeo asks, "Wouldst thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?" she replies: "to be frank and give it thee again" (2.2.129–31). They dread parting that morning; but Romeo withdraws himself only for a little while, and only for Juliet's good, so that they might make a dwelling together.
The morning following their first night together as spouses, Romeo must leave Juliet again, for a more dreadful reason: his exile. Guigo's advice to Gervase, whom he expects might despair once he has tasted [End Page 29] the pleasures of contemplation and his soul's spouse must depart, is to remember, have faith, and wait patiently for his return. He writes: "But what says our Lord? 'Let me go,' he says, 'for the light of the morning is here' [Gen. 32:26]. The light and the comfort that you desire, you have it" (f.130b). Shakespeare rewrites these passages in Romeo's reluctant reply: "It was the lark, the herald of the morn, / No nightingale. … I must be gone" (3.5.6–11). He comforts Juliet, offering to stay and talk, even if it means his death, but more in assuring her that their forced separation will be overcome; and then, he says, "all these woes shall serve / For sweet discourse in our times to come" (3.5.52–53).
Her spouse would come again, and they would dwell together at the top of love's ladder, if not for Friar Laurence's despicable meddling. In Guigo's letter of instruction, he writes: "four obstacles there be that … draw downward," preventing a lover from ascending the ladder. The two worst are "feebleness of nature [kynde]" and yielding to the "vanity of this world"; the former is "wretched" and the latter "requires penance" (f.136a). Shakespeare has Laurence avoid a fitting penance for the terrible consequences of his plot by having the Prince accept him "for a holy man" and believe his explanation that the lovers' deaths were the result of the only obstacle on Guigo's list that "harms … not": "need that … may not be avoided" (f.136a).
Shakespeare overthrows the religious tradition from Augustine to Guigo, not only through the symbolism of Laurence's betrayal or of the lovers' appropriation of Laurence's ladder but all the more so in the first words Romeo and Juliet speak to one another. The effective truth of the tradition's account of creation and salvation is realized in their meeting, transforming the imagery in which that truth might once have been expressed in metaphor. When they first meet, Romeo and Juliet use it lightly, figuratively, eloquently; it is an aspect of their expression of the quality of their love as they discover it for themselves. Afterwards, Friar Laurence uses it in the only way that remains: as manipulative rhetoric that either denies or is intended to subvert their love.
When they meet, Romeo and Juliet speak to one another in poetry. Shakespeare writes eighteen lines of exquisite verse for them: a sonnet that resolves in their first kiss, and a quatrain for their second. Shakespeare composes it, but the poetry is theirs. The beauty of their words is not Shakespeare's overstated way of highlighting the suddenness or intensity of an infatuation. He gives the words to them; they speak them. They compose verse for one another, with one another, in complete awareness of what they are saying and doing. By their [End Page 30] second kiss, they have revealed as much about their hearts, minds, and characters as it is possible to reveal; and they are as certain of their love as it is ever possible to be. It is sudden; it is love at first sight; and it is perfect. They are surrounded by the music and dancing of the Capulets' festivities, none of which is truly celebratory: the air is full of tension, hypocrisy, anger, and coarse prose. But none of it touches them for the few moments their souls and minds dance with "heavenly eloquence" (3.2.33).
Juliet is dancing when Romeo first sees her. He would speak with her immediately, but he must wait. What should he say? As the time passes he composes a verse of poetry for her, developing the imagery of his initial response to the richness of her "true beauty": his sense that, in "touching hers," he would "make blessèd [his] rude hand" (1.5.51–54). When the measure is finally done, he approaches and recites it to her: "If I profane with my unworthiest hand / This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: / My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss" (1.5.94–97). Romeo's verse uses the religious symbolism of pilgrimage to a shrine as penance or as a show of devotion to atone for one's sinful nature metaphorically to suggest his integrity and his modesty, to show deference, and to compliment both Juliet's character and her intelligence. There is no religious substance to the symbolism, however. The evident meaning of Romeo's words quite intentionally denies the truth of the religious imagery in which it is metaphorically stated. That is a good part of the verse's charm. Romeo is aware of it. And Juliet is aware of it as well. To be addressed so eloquently is flattering, but is it merely eloquent flattery or do the words express something true?
Juliet's response presents Romeo with a challenge. Without hesitation, she composes a verse in reply that complements his perfectly in its form, its use of imagery, and its intention: "Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, / Which mannerly devotion shows in this; / For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss" (1.5.98–101). What remarkable intelligence and grace! She maintains the courteous distance between them suggested in Romeo's verse while denying it through the parity of her response; she uses the very imagery of forgiveness to say that there has been no sin to forgive, and indeed to suggest that there is nothing sinful or fallen in a natural touch; above all, she invites Romeo to continue, to continue speaking eloquently—not mannerly—and to do so quickly. [End Page 31]
If Romeo had hoped she might reply so fairly, he had not anticipated the difficulties the reply would cause him. Can he muster four more lines on the spot? A single one in good form is all he manages without too long a silence: "Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?" (1.5.102). In phrasing it as a question, Romeo not only cleverly justifies his brevity; he also acknowledges her invitation and asks her in return to participate more intimately in the conversation: she must now reply quickly, and thus assist him in completing the verse. "Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer" (1.5.103), she says, finishing a couplet—any more might cause embarrassment. Romeo then rises to the occasion with two lines: "O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. / They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair" (1.5.104–5). The verse halts a little, but he speaks his mind freely. For his two, Juliet should offer two lines of her own. Instead, she replies, "Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake" (1.5.106). Half a couplet, leaving it to Romeo to complete the sonnet, both in words and in deeds. And he can, he will, he does: "Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take" (1.5.94–107).
Everything has been said by the first kiss. The second does not require as long and decorous a prelude. They exchange the lines of a quatrain in a more playful and suggestive way, and this time Romeo rushes ahead to leave the last unfinished, asking Juliet to complete it:
"Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.""Then have my lips the sin that they have took.""Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!Give me my sin again.""You kiss by th' book." (1.5.108–11)
By the second kiss, they are perfectly attuned to one another, they know that they are, and they are enjoying themselves.
Theirs is a love that need not speak a name. But when it speaks, it speaks most beautifully. If it were heard, it would surmount any obstacle: a family's hostility, society's disapprobation, the law's punishments, religion's admonitions. In its light, the love of one's family, one's city, one's God, and every other love would be shown to be incomplete, imperfect, flawed—given time and circumstance, a "loving hate" (1.1.176). Theirs is the highest love, the measure of all others, whose flourishing requires that all others acknowledge it and transform themselves. If the love of God is evident in all the loves human beings experience, according to their kind and quality, and if there is no love of God independent of [End Page 32] human experience, then it is most present and perfectly realized in Romeo and Juliet's love for one another. They require no intermediary to a higher love. When they are together, talking, passing the time pleasantly or taking counsel if necessary, each is the other's "ghostly confessor" (2.6.21; 3.3.49).
The only obstacle Romeo and Juliet do not overcome is Laurence, their "friend professed" (3.3.50), whose absurd attempt to act as their intermediary in the world, ostensibly justified by a higher good, would eventually have become the stuff of anecdote in their "times to come" (3.5.53) had it not divided them and brought about their untimely and entirely unnecessary deaths. Had they lived, everything about Verona would have been transformed: familial relations, civil society, religion. Had Mercutio lived, even his wonderful friendship with Romeo—the only rival of Romeo's friendship with Juliet—would have been affected. And had Romeo and Juliet lived, no matter whether Verona recognized them, they would have had to confront one final, inescapable obstacle to their love: time—in other words, mortality. They themselves would have been measured by their own love with every new dawn. They would face being "life-weary" (5.1.62) whenever apart, but also whenever they were not fully themselves. Even if "love's shadows" (5.1.10) might be made to suffice at such times, what of the inescapability of death? Could there be any "consolation" (3.3.57–58) for the one who survived the other? Perhaps not. And yet is their love not the most perfect, which is to say the least imperfect, possible for mortals?12
Laurence's scheming divides them from one another unnaturally; and more, it silences them. Their voices, "muffled still" (1.1.171), cannot be heard in Verona because of his lying. The Veronese might very well accept his pious excuses and false revelations, but the audience must not: they have heard Juliet and Romeo talking together. Shakespeare has the Prince and the Friar provide the Veronese citizens with a comforting denouement, but for the play's audience there can be no catharsis. No catharsis of reconciliation is true, though the Prince persuades the Capulets and Montagues to put aside their differences and Laurence seems to persuade everyone that the deaths of Romeo and Juliet were necessary sacrifices for peace. Nothing changes: the civil peace eventually will be broken by feuding; everyone is essentially unaffected. Above all, no catharsis of pity is possible. The grief and anger persist. If Shakespeare leaves the Veronese to commemorate Romeo and Juliet with golden statues, it remains for the audience to understand their love and bring its transformative effects into the world.13 The heart of the mystery of [End Page 33] Shakespeare's political philosophy is not a disingenuous exhortation to love God and do as you please. We must allow Juliet and Romeo to love one another and do as they please. And we must each search for, and always be worthy of, such a beloved.
1. The edition cited throughout is William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. David Bevington (New York: Bantam, 1988); hereafter cited by act, scene, and line. I have also consulted the Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Jill Levenson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); the New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and occasionally also the New Variorum edition of the play, ed. Horace Howard Furness (1871; repr., New York: Dover, 1963). The reference I make to Feste's song uses William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. David Bevington and David Scott Kastan (New York: Bantam, 1988).
2. The Chorus and the Friar have persuaded a great many different people. Derrida, for instance, claims: "What happens to Romeo and Juliet … can only be what it is, accidental, insofar as it has already happened, in essence, before it happens. The desire of Romeo and Juliet did not encounter the poison, the contretemps, or the detour of the letter by chance" (Jacques Derrida, "Aphorism Countertime," Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 2, ed. P. Kampf and E. Rottenberg [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008], p. 130). And Granville-Barker even writes: "For us also—despite our privileged vision—it has been a play of confused, passion-distorted happenings, and the Friar's plain tale makes the simple pity of them clear, and sends us away with this foremost in our minds" (Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 2 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947], p. 323; emphasis added).
3. For a rare critical study of Laurence, see Gerry Brenner, "Shakespeare's Politically Ambitious Friar," Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 47–58.
4. A different assessment of the Prince's role is offered by Pamela Jensen. She argues that "Romeo and Juliet seems to call out for a Machiavellian prince" and that Escalus does not rise to the occasion. His failure to act as a "prudent prince" in fostering a "the natural community between young and old" is ultimately also responsible for the failures of the parents and their surrogates, the Nurse and the Friar. "Thanks to the Chorus," however, "Shakespeare prepares us in advance to witness everything going wrong" (Pamela Jensen, "Love, Honor, and Community in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespeare and the Body Politic, ed. B. J. Dobski and D. Gish [Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013], pp. 96, 112).
5. The Quarant'ore was a devotional practice that flourished in the sixteenth-century Italian church, requiring forty hours of continuous prayer before the sacraments of the bread and wine—the flesh and blood of Jesus after his resurrection—exposed for the occasion on the high altar. Its duration was based on an estimation of the number of hours, over three days, that Jesus's body spent in the tomb; it was initiated with a Mass of Exposition and concluded with a Mass of Deposition, each about an hour; the entire devotion, therefore, lasted "two-and-forty hours." The church observed the Quarant'ore at various times: usually over the three days before Easter, but also during any time thought to be one of crisis or danger to the community.
6. Several scholarly studies have cited the play's use of resurrection imagery, but they do not discuss it in relation to the Friar's character or the significance of his political ambitions for understanding the plot, tending not to question religious sensibilities: Andy Reimer, "A Biography of a Motif: The Empty Tomb in the Gospels, the Greek Novels, and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, ed. Jo-Ann Brandt, Charles Hedrick, Chris Shea (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), pp. 297–316; Beatrice Groves, "Comedic Form and Paschal Motif in the First and Second Quartos of Romeo and Juliet," Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare, 1592–1604 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 60–88; and Sean Benson, Shakespearean Resurrection: The Art of Almost Raising the Dead (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2009).
7. Almost all thorough commentaries on the play note Laurence's desertion of Juliet, but they often do so awkwardly, with surprise, as if it were inexplicable or a puzzling inconsistency. Granville-Barker, for whom the entirely "sympathetic" Friar exists "in [Romeo and Juliet's] interests alone," can only exclaim: "and to see Friar Laurence—even he!—turn and desert her" (Granville-Barker, Prefaces, pp. 330, 349). Allan Bloom considers Laurence's actions an "inexcusable crime. … It was his simple duty to prevent Juliet from committing suicide." He finds Laurence full of worldly "political ambition" to the point of "conspiracy." However, he also describes Laurence as "the nicest character in the play." "In Romeo and Juliet," he writes, "practically everyone, with the possible exception of Tybalt, is nice, and there are no villains. Good intentions are to be found everywhere… [and] among all of these good intentions, Friar Laurence's are the best." Bloom resolves the apparent contradiction by claiming that Laurence is a "timid," weak character (Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993], pp. 291–92, 295).
8. The King James Version (KJV) is cited throughout, for convenience's sake. It was published in 1611, well after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet: Q1 was published in 1597 and Q2 in 1599. In composing the play, Shakespeare consulted the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops' Bible (1568); however, nothing in my interpretation of his use of biblical passages turns on the wording of a specific English translation. For a discussion of the various English Bibles available to Shakespeare and a collation of biblical and liturgical references in the play, see Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987).
9. An analysis of Shakespeare's rewriting of his primary source for the play's plot, Arthur Brooke's poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), would require an extensive study of its own. Suffice it to say that although they have a misleading preface in common, their other similarities are more superficial than substantive. Indeed, Shakespeare's many significant changes to the earlier version of the story seem to work together to call Brooke's moral vision into question. Shakespeare's acceleration of the passage of time and overlapping of plots create dramatic complexities and political and ethical ambiguities not found in Brooke; and the providential tone that Brooke's tale maintains throughout is identified with the Chorus and various characters instead of with the narrative necessity of the play. For instance: in Romeo and Juliet, although Shakespeare has a brawl begin the play, his two households are not alike, as they are for Brooke; Mercutio, Escalus, and even Rosaline are more developed characters with much greater significance for the story; Paris, whom Capulet does not seek out as a suitor, proposes immediately; Shakespeare makes Juliet much younger, and although she does not have the idea to go to Mantua in disguise—as Brooke's older Juliet does—she is wiser in that she suspects the intentions of Laurence's resurrection plot; and Romeo, most tellingly, does not pray to Jesus after taking poison in the Capulet mausoleum. Brooke's poem has a garden and a ladder; however, they are treated in a merely functional way. In contrast, Shakespeare returns to the biblical and confessional texts underlying the story and develops the imagery, both in articulating the initial significance of the symbolism and in formulating a critique, nowhere more evident than in his portrayal of Friar Laurence.
10. Julia Kristeva goes so far as to claim that "Juliet is mistaken and the name of her lover is not irrelevant to the triggering of their passion; quite the contrary, it determines it"; for if Romeo were not a Montague, an enemy to her family, Juliet would not "burn" with a transgressive "desire to possess a 'part belonging to a man'" (Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. L. S. Roudiez [New York: Columbia University Press, 1987], p. 212; emphasis added).The limit of interpretive nonsense might have been reached in an application of Derrida's work to Romeo and Juliet that seems to conclude Shakespeare wrote the entire play only to demonstrate that everything is a "product of textuality": "The only thing that is accessible is the name of a being or thing" (H. Aliakbari and A. Abjadian, "'What is it else?': Love's (Con-)Text in Romeo and Juliet," kata 14, no. 1 : 15, 21). One source of Derrida's hermeneutic is Hegel's philosophy. In his recent study of Romeo and Juliet as "the drama of a struggle for individual freedom and self-realization," Paul Kottman writes that, in one of his youthful texts, Hegel cited these passages from the garden scene "as the paradigmatic expression of mutual self-recognition and earthly happiness" (Paul Kottman, "Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom in Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Quarterly 63, no. 1 : 5, 23). From Hegel's reading, Derrida's and Kristeva's follow naturally enough.
11. The Middle English translation of Guigo's text has been published as appendix B of Phyllis Hodgson's edition of Deonise Hid Divinite and other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer related to The Cloud of Unknowing (London: Early English Text Society, 1955). In the following, all textual citations are to Hodgson's edition of the Middle English F manuscript and its pagination; transliterations and translations to modern English are my own; and I have consulted The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations by Guigo II, ed. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981).
12. One of the most laughable accounts of the life Romeo and Juliet would lead if they somehow escaped death has been given by Kristeva. She writes: the "criminal, secret passion of the outlaw lovers" would either be transformed "into the banal, humdrum, lackluster lassitude of a tired and cynical collusion: that is the normal marriage"; or else they would continue "to be a passionate couple, but covering the entire gamut of sadomasochism"—traces of which Kristeva's clever psychoanalytic speculation finds already present in the play (Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 217). The lovers are typical adolescents and thus exhibit "latent polymorphous perversity remaining from childhood," evident, for instance, in "sadomasochistic desire" perceivable beneath their "exalted discourse. … Juliet literally cuts up Romeo's body at nightfall: 'Come, gentle night / … Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars' (3.2.9–25)" (Julia Kristeva, "Adolescence: A Syndrome of Ideality," trans. M. Marder and P. Vieira, Psychoanalytic Review 94, no. 5 : 723; emphasis added). Their discourse is exalted because they are engaging in "mutual idealization," attempting to be the impossible, ideal couple. But Kristeva will not be fooled: "The ideal because impossible couple such as Adam and Eve, Dante and Beatrice … and Romeo and Juliet—is a prime example of this ideality, which has punctuated our civilization" (Kristeva, "Adolescence," 722). She prefers the lovers of the Song of Songs: for "the Bible posited an erotic and metaphysical distance that actually guaranteed the durability of the Jewish couple" (Kristeva, Tales of Love, p. 210).
In explicit opposition to Kristeva, Harold Bloom writes that "the love shared by Romeo and Juliet is as healthy and normative a passion as Western literature affords us"; Juliet is "an epiphany in the religion of love. Chaucer has nothing like this, nor does Dante, since his Beatrice's love for him transcends sexuality. Unprecedented in literature … Juliet precisely does not transcend the human heroine" (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [New York: Riverhead Books, 1998], pp. 91, 93). However, despite his critique of Kristeva, Bloom agrees with her in opposing the human or the sexual to the transcendent or the ideal, and consequently his high praise of Juliet is groundless, little more than exalted discourse. Similarly, David Lowenthal argues that "the most important general object and effect of the play … is to restore sexual love, the love of men and women for each other, to a very high place in life." Like Bloom, he also divides the lovers, claiming that only Juliet is free of the effects of Christianity's condemnation of sexuality; Romeo is the Friar's "pupil," too weak and confused, unworthy of Juliet—indeed, "had she known him better, … she would even have found it unnecessary to die for him" (David Lowenthal, "Love, Sex, and Shakespeare's Intention in Romeo and Juliet," in Souls with Longing: Representations of Honor and Love in Shakespeare, ed. B. J. Dobski and D. Gish [Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011], pp. 180–81).
13. Shakespeare's dramatization of the failure of Laurence's scheme for a new Veronese Quarant'ore is certainly not intended to move his audience to a renewed acceptance or appreciation of the traditional devotions. If anything, the opposite. If the sacraments exposed on the altar during the Quarant'ore, the flesh and blood of the Lord, represent or make possible the highest love in the Christian faith, the union with Christ, then the flesh and blood of Juliet and Romeo in the tomb can be read as Shakespeare's new Eucharist.