Joseph Pearce passes along a review of his book Shakespeare on Love by Mitchell Kalpakgian.
I'm honoured and humbled in equal measure by an eloquent and lucid review of my recent book,Shakespeare on Love, by Mitchell Kalpakgian, which was published in the September 5 issue of The Wanderer:
A BOOK REVIEW
Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in “Romeo and Juliet”. By Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2013), 179 pp. $14.95. Available through www.ignatius.com or 1-800-651-1531.
By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Readers of Shakespeare’s famous love story have generally interpreted the play in three major ways. One common view portrays the lovers as victims of fate or fickle fortune, as “star-crossed” because of the strange accidents and uncontrollable forces that control the destiny of their love—the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, Romeo’s sudden banishment, and the delay of Friar Lawrence’s letter that explains that Juliet is not dead but under a sleeping potion. This interpretation minimizes the lovers’ responsibility in causing their own tragedy by their hasty marriage, impatience, impetuosity, and despair. A second view of the tragedy idealizes the love of Romeo and Juliet as beautifully romantic and transcendent, above criticism and moral culpability—a true love that the animosity of the families frustrated from following its natural course of culminating in a happy marriage. The third approach to the play, the one which Pearce incorporates with impeccable clarity and logic, interprets Romeo and Juliet as a “cautionary or moral reading in which the freely chosen actions of each of the characters are seen to have far-ranging and far-reaching consequences.”
Although Fortune, the family feud, and Romeo and Juliet’s tragic flaws all contribute to the deaths of the young couple, Pearce’s cogent argument attributes the primary cause of the tragedy to Romeo and Juliet’s immature, secretive, and irrational love and the secondary cause to the poor counsel and irresponsible conduct of the adults who misdirect the lovers. With perceptive insight Pearce notes the comparison between Romeo’s strained language of love to the rhetoric in Petrarch’s sonnets, language that amounts to “mere cliché” and banality when seen in the tradition of the hackneyed Italian sonnet. Mercutio mocks Romeo’s inflated statements of love: “Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flow’d in; Laura, to his lady, was a kitchen-wench.” Pearce quotes Crystal Downing’s discovery of the telling fact that “Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet ‘at the height of the 1590s sonnet fad’.” Romeo’s idea of love, then, suffers from its artificial conventionality.
Another striking analogy is the comparison of Romeo and Juliet’s love to the passion of Paola and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno where the lovers are whirled in a tempest corresponding to the lawlessness of their passions. Reading a provocative romance of courtly love, Dante’s lovers commit themselves to the worship of Venus, the pagan god of Eros that glamorizes romantic love outside of marriage as the ideal. Although great love stories always inspire beautiful love poetry, Pearce regards the poetic diction of Romeo’s praise of Juliet’s beauty as hyperbole: “The all-seeing sun” whose light is diminished by Rosaline’s beauty also pales by the brightness of Juliet’s eyes: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” Despite the rapturous poetry of praise that Romeo lavishes upon Juliet, Pearce regards the whole relationship as under the spell of Venus rather than in conformity to Christian teaching about chaste love. Like Paola and Francesca whose reading of courtly love evokes the “sinful kiss” that in turn leads to adultery, Romeo’s forward courtship of Juliet also leads to a fatal kiss that precipitates the hasty, clandestine marriage that ultimately causes the tragedy. Pearce illuminates the forbidden, erotic dimension of their love in Romeo’s play on the words “sin” and “prayer” when Romeo cleverly calls his kiss a “prayer” that purges sin and names the forbidden kiss an innocent pleasure: “Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again.”
Pearce’s argument also places great blame upon the adults who fail to provide good example or prudent advice to the young lovers. First, he uncovers an especially salient fact that is self-evident but underestimated by many readers. At thirteen Juliet is not only lacking in maturity but also below the normal age for marriage: Statistics during the Elizabethan Age “indicate that only 6 percent of marriages were at age fifteen, and no figures are given for marriages below that age.” The manuals of the time warned about damage to the woman’s health caused by early marriage and premature conjugal relations. Juliet’s father Capulet at first rejected Paris’s love suit because of Juliet’s age and told him to wait two years: “My child is yet a stranger in the world, /She hath not seen the change of fourteen years.” Capriciously, however, Capulet changes his mind and later commands Juliet to marry Paris after she has married Romeo in secret. He even threatens her: “I tell thee what—get thee to a church a, / Or never look me in the face. Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.” Romeo’s willful love precipitously imposed on Juliet and Capulet’s unreasonable demand for a young daughter under age to marry against her wishes portray her as a victim of others’ wishes, of adult manipulation, and of foolish advice.
Of course the inveterate hatred of the feuding families deters any possibility of true love following its normal course, inciting the secretive wooing of Juliet and the clever plotting of Friar Lawrence to marry the lovers without the knowledge or consent of the families. Pearce perceptively correlates the hastiness of the lovers in marrying to the rashness of the families in fighting, the parents giving bad example to the children. As Pearce shows with lucid exposition, these adults also confound the lovers with their poor judgment and imprudent decisions. While Friar Lawrence seeks to channel the erotic urges of the lovers into chaste marriage and to use the union to reconcile the Capulets and Montagues—both good intentions—the means he chooses to do good lack moral integrity. The Friar, he argues, acts with mixed motives. He uses the opportunity of the marriage as an expedient means to stop the feud rather than as a gift of love for the happiness of the lovers. While the Friar gives sound moral advice and corrects Romeo for “doting, not for loving” Rosaline, he acts with complicity in hiding the marriage from the families and overlooking the doing of good by means that are dishonorable. Pearce’s goes to the heart of the matter: “Apart from the Friar’s perilous naiveté in imagining that a clandestine marriage, conducted without the parents’ knowledge or consent, would foster harmony, we are shocked to see the friar acting so rashly, and therefore as irrationally, in his blind pursuit of ‘peace’ as are the young couple in their blind pursuit of ’love’.”
Pearce’s meticulous reading of the play in the light of careful research about the marital customs of the Elizabethan Age and Shakespeare’s Catholic moral sensibility makes Romeo and Juliet come alive come alive again as a classic with a perennial human wisdom about the real causes of tragedy, the complexities of good and evil, and the truth about human love.