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Romeo's dark side

“Why, Romeo, art thou mad?”

This is the first essay about Romeo and Juliet, which discusses the dark side of Romeo. The next part will discuss Juliet and the lightning motif. You can find all the Shakespeare essays here, and the schedule for future meetings here. The video is a summary of the argument below, with some details of the play’s history.

A love-death story

Romeo is Hamlet in love, said William Hazlitt. He didn’t know how right he was. Like so many critics, Hazlitt saw the lyrical romance of Shakespeare’s poetry in this play, but didn’t see clearly enough the dark, almost nihilistic, part of Romeo.

It’s true, Romeo and Juliet is one of the great romantic stories in English. Few can resist its powerful charms. It has, as Hazlitt said, “the buoyant spirit of youth in every line.”

But it is more than this. A.D. Nuttall calls it the finest Liebestod in English, Liebestod being a love-death story.

In the introduction to the RSC edition of the Complete Works, Jonathan Bate said that Shakespeare is fascinated by paired ideas, by opposites. Whenever Shakespeare introduces a concept in his plays, he soon brings in the counterpoint.

Counterpoint in Romeo and Juliet begins in the opening line, “Two households, both alike in dignity…”. The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is one of many pairings in the play. Mercutio is counterpoint to the nurse, Paris to Tybalt, and so on.

The core pair of opposites, though, is Romeo and Juliet. She represents light and Eros, the love drive, constantly compared to the sun, the stars, the torchlight. He represents darkness and Thanatos, the death drive, constantly in the shadows.

In Romeo and Juliet, death is the counterpoint to love, as light is the counterpoint to dark. Death doesn’t arrive due to the operations of fate, by chance. It is there, from the beginning, in the character of Romeo.

It comes from the darkness within. Someone should do a production where this darkness is made explicit in Romeo, where we are cringing, crying out to Juliet to warn her against this dark and moody soul.

Wild madness and revenge

Some critics used to think Romeo and Juliet is a lesser play, because it is not about flawed character, but the mechanical workings of fate. Not so. The character’s choices, and their flaws, create the tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet begins in the mode of Courtly Love: love of a woman from the distance, and the replacement of one love by another are two of the “rules of love”. It hinges to tragedy in Act III, with the death of Mercutio and Tybalt, abandoning courtly love for a corrupted chivalry. Romeo turns from romance to revenge.

Aristotle uses the word hamartia to describe mistakes made by tragic heroes, which switch their luck from good to bad. Romeo’s mistake is to get between Tybalt and Mercutio during the fight and then to chose revenge over love. On his honeymoon, he killed Tybalt.

Romeo has what Nic Panagopoulos called an “unresolved inner conflict between a weak will-to-live, on the one hand, and a strong death wish, on the other.” The killing of Tybalt unleashes a latent madness in Romeo. Revenge, as Francis Bacon said, is a kind of wild justice.

Romeo becomes increasingly wild in the second half of the play. The Friar warns him, “thy wild acts denote/ The unreasonable fury of a beast.” Outside the tomb, Balthazar says, “Your looks are pale and wild, and do import/ Some misadventure.” (Remember the prologue—misadventured piteous overthrows. This is not fate, it is a choice, a mistake.)

Speaking like the hero of revenge tragedies (who typically feign madness to seek revenge), Romeo says at the end,

The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

Juliet, too, had “wild looks” when she asks for the Friar’s help—but she was wild with love, he with death.

Mercutio tells Romeo, with the insightful banter of a clown, “thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” The seed of his wild madness is there from the start.

Romeo is almost reconciled to the world by Juliet. He is not a villain, not as dark and irredeemable as Tybalt; he has a tragic flaw.

Seeing this strain of his character makes him more tragic, not less.

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The Common Reader
essays about Shakespeare
Henry Oliver