In Defence of Romeo
[Editor's Note: Not Long ago Andrew Lomas, Joseph Pearce and Kevin O'Brien engaged on this website in a fascinating debate on Joseph Pearce's method of biographical criticism. Lomas launched his critique with How to Read Shakespeare? or Anyone Else? O'Brien responded with The Text, the Whole Text and Nothing but the Text; and Pearce with Learning to Read.
Glad that the old bloodlust that marks most academic pursuits finally made things interesting here on The Christian Shakespeare, we welcome another article by Andrew Lomas, which corrects what he asserts is Joseph Pearce's non-traditional and narrow assessment of the character of Romeo, and indeed of the whole play, Romeo and Juliet.
I am taking the time to write this introductory note to welcome any scholars of Shakespeare - amateur or professional - to contribute material that disagrees with the overall thesis of this website - which is that Shakespeare's Catholicism influenced his worldview in a way that most modern critics ignore, and in a way that readers and audiences of his plays must acknowledge in order to appreciate his works more fully.
I am particularly interested in receiving submissions of articles that are as well-written as the one that follows - and that can make a solid case, whether it agrees with the thesis of The Christian Shakespeare or not.]
IN DEFENCE OF ROMEO
In the early chapters of Shakespeare on Love, Joseph Pearce gives a scathing assessment of Romeo Montague. Romeo is, according to Pearce, “totally self-centred, the epitome of the impetuous adolescent”(loc.286), he may be “a hypocrite and a liar”(639), there is suspicion of “a venality in his character and a venereal motive in his actions”(464); “if he weren’t so young we would have no hesitation in dubbing him a contemptible cad”(287). One is left, a little open-mouthed, wondering “Are we talking about the same Romeo here? The youth beneath the balcony? The model for young lovers down the ages?”
It is clear that Pearce intends his book to challenge the picture of Romeo in the popular imagination. However, his overwhelmingly negative portrayal is also a major departure from almost all critical accounts. And therefore the question may be asked whether, in providing a corrective to the popular image of Romeo, Pearce does not go too far in the opposite direction, also misrepresenting Shakespeare’s text: so that something should be said in Romeo’s defence. In the present paper I will critically examine Pearce’s case against Romeo, and investigate the implications for our understanding of Romeo and Juliet as a whole.
What, then, has Romeo done to earn Pearce’s censure? The foremost, and most grievous, charge is that he latches onto, seduces, and corrupts a much younger woman, indeed a child. For Shakespeare’s Juliet, we are repeatedly told in the play, is just thirteen years old. As Juliet’s father declares to another suitor, Paris, she “is yet a stranger in the world”, not ready for marriage, since “too soon marr’d are those early made”( Ignatius ed.,1.2.8,13). Pearce, moreover, cites historical evidence that Elizabethans usually married at a much later age, and concludes that Juliet’s courtship would have shocked Shakespeare’s audience. Whereas Romeo, says Pearce, is “considerably older than she”(371); “Shakespeare clearly suggests he is older”(375).
Well, there is no argument here that thirteen year old girls shouldn’t be involved in marrying, wooing, or anything to do with these things. In real life, that is—while we are talking about a play: more on this point in a moment. First of all, though, I want to consider the idea that Romeo is significantly older than Juliet. Pearce makes no serious attempt to substantiate this notion, which he believes obvious; he merely observes that in Arthur Brooke’s source poem Romeo is described as so young that “his chin sports no beard”(374), while Shakespeare’s Romeo is not described as beardless. But since Shakespeare’s Romeo is not described as bearded, either, whether this version has facial hair must remain forever a mystery, and cannot prove anything. And at the risk of appearing obtuse, I must say that the significant age gap between Romeo and Juliet is not at all “clear” to me, nor has this “clear suggestion” been recognized by any of the critics I’ve read.
Now it is true that Romeo proves to be very proficient with the sword, defeating the feared “King of Cats”, Tybalt; which may appear the deed of one fully matured. However in a society obsessed with duelling, fight training would begin early; and Romeo has not established a reputation as a swordsman, even among his friends—Mercutio thinks Tybalt will beat him easily. Then, it is also true that Romeo is friends with Benvolio and Mercutio, who do seem older. But these two treat Romeo like a kid brother, mocking his infatuation with Rosaline, and attempting to cajole him out of it. This infatuation is, indeed, in its exorbitance and instability painfully immature, the calf-love of one who is still, in Pearce’s own term, “adolescent”. “Adolescent”: that is, not yet adult: that is, not significantly older than Juliet. Further, Romeo’s bond with Friar Laurence is clearly a teacher/pupil, even a father/son relationship, not that between two adults. The “holy man”(4.3.29, 5.3.269) Friar Laurence, note, does not object to marrying Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that he is too old for her.
Neither does the “holy man” Friar Laurence object to marrying Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that she is too young for marriage. And here we can begin to see how Pearce’s focus on Juliet’s age, though admirable morally, causes him to misapprehend the text as a whole. Pearce has provided historical evidence that an actual marriage at Juliet’s age would have been scandalous in Elizabethan England. But his evidence does not show how a contemporary audience would have reacted to early marriages in the alien, exotic Verona of the play, and in a play. Whatever the attitude of the man in the stalls might have been, moreover, it does not give us the attitude of the drama he’s watching. This can only be determined through openness to all the evidence provided by Shakespeare’s text.
As previously observed, Juliet’s father states at one point to Paris that she is too young to wed. Yet immediately afterwards he encourages Paris to win Juliet’s heart, and says he will bless the union if Paris is successful. Later, of course, Capulet commands Juliet to marry. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, while encouraging her daughter to “think of marriage”, comments that “Younger than you,/ Here in Verona, ladies of esteem/ Are made already mothers”(1.3.70-72). And Lady Capulet declares “I was your mother much upon these years/ That you are now a maid”(1.3.73-74). Since Juliet’s father, mother, priest, also nurse—and Veronese society generally—feel she is ready for marriage, the obloquoy Pearce heaps on Romeo for taking the same view must be judged excessive. But, indeed, any blame attached to Romeo would be excessive, since it is evident that Shakespeare doesn’t intend Juliet’s courtship and marriage to be shocking.
If in real life a father agreed to the marriage of his fifteen year old daughter to the first young man she has ever met, just days after they meet—as Prospero does with Miranda in The Tempest—we would have him up before the courts. But obviously age functions differently, non-realistically, in The Tempest—as it also does in Romeo and Juliet. According to F.R.Leavis’ dictum, “The mode has to be recognized before the relevant criticisms can be made”(67): we cannot assume that characters in Shakespeare’s poetic dramas are just like characters in realist novels, or like people in real life. With Romeo and Juliet, Pearce himself comments that “romantics will no doubt stress that the youth of the lovers is merely a device to highlight the unblemished purity of their true love”(323). It seems to me that these “romantics” have got it pretty right.
There is, however, a second part to Shakespeare on Love’s case against Romeo. And while the charge here is not as grave as that of preying on a child, it still draws most severe strictures from Pearce. For Romeo is said to be “devoted to Venus and the religion of erotic love”(389), and so to show a heinous impiety regarding Christianity. He certainly transgresses against Pearce’s Christianity, and Pearce holds that he transgresses against Shakespeare’s Christianity.
I want to investigate two crucial instances of Romeo’s alleged impiety. Near the beginning of the play, Romeo has been rejected by the object of his youthful infatuation, Rosaline, who has told him she intends to remain chaste. Romeo decries her choice as a “huge waste”:
“For beauty, starved with her severity,
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair”(1.1.216,217-220).
Pearce glosses that Romeo “scorns [Rosaline’s] desire to remain chaste and treats with apparent contempt her apparent claim that her vow of chastity is connected to her Christian convictions”(281).
Yet there is something familiar about Romeo’s argument, repeated just afterwards, that Rosaline should produce beautiful children, otherwise her beauty will die with her. It is typically Renaissance in its concern with the ravages of time, and appeal to a neo-Platonic notion of beauty. I don’t find the reasoning terribly impressive myself—but clearly Shakespeare thought otherwise. The opening lines of the Sonnets are “From fairest creatures we desire increase/ That thereby beauty’s rose might never die”(1.1-2). And for the next seventeen poems some of the most beautiful poetry ever written elaborates and illustrates this line of thought to the Fair Youth.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, more generally, exhibit a scepticism about a young person’s determination to remain single similar to Romeo’s. This attitude of Shakespeare is perfectly compatible with respect for those whose Christian religious vocation he accepts, as is shown by his treatment of Friar Laurence. And Romeo’s scepticism is also compatible with respect for those whose Christian religious vocation he accepts—as shown by his treatment of Friar Laurence. It is not plausible, though, that Shakespeare intends us to be scandalized by Romeo’s protest against Rosaline, when Shakespeare himself makes the same protest, in much the same terms, elsewhere.
The first converse between Romeo and Juliet—the famous sonnet passage—is for Pearce an even more grave example of Romeo’s impiety, and iniquity. On Pearce’s reading, indeed, what we have is the Temptation and Fall of Juliet. Romeo begins to Juliet,
“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.”(1.5.91-94)
Pearce sees these lines as an example of Romeo’s “hyperbolic abuse of religious imagery”(443). If we are to condemn the use of religious realities as metaphors, though, we would have to condemn the entire tradition of courtly love poetry, much of which was written by Catholics. But I want, once again, to consider Romeo’s words in a wider Shakespearean context. In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse produces a stream of dirty jokes—“bawdy”, if you like—yet remains a generally sympathetic comic relief; Mercutio is relentless in his sexual innuendo, yet still manages to emerge as witty, imaginative, dangerously glamorous. The displaced religious imagery of Juliet’s response to Romeo’s killing of Tybalt—“fiend angelical!”, “damned saint”, “the spirit of a fiend/ In...such sweet flesh”(3.2.75,79,81-82)—is truly extravagant. Then look at a work written close to the composition of Romeo and Juliet, the poem “Venus and Adonis”. Shakespeare’s treatment of the character Venus is humorously irreverent rather than worshipful; nevertheless, the tenor of his poem is most decidedly of “the religion of Venus”. Even the pure, unspoilt Perdita of The Winter’s Tale says things about flowers and maidenheads that would make the denizens of a modern night-club blush. These examples would offend many Christians of many types and many times: but clearly they didn’t offend Shakespeare. Consequently it is just not tenable that William Shakespeare should consider Romeo’s tame religious metaphors about kissing sacrilegious.
When Juliet replies to Romeo’s “blushing pilgrims” advance, she is, says Pearce, “torn between chaste decorum and erotic desire. As the mysterious stranger manipulates her words to serve his amorous purposes, bestowing the first kiss, the girl’s struggle with her conscience is strained to the limit”(447-8). Finally, with a second kiss, “Romeo has inflamed desire in the object of his advances”(457). Juliet has fallen into sin.
Fallen very quickly, it must be said, at the risk of being indelicate. The Pearcean Juliet succumbs to temptation in one and a half sonnet’s worth of speech; Romeo’s contribution being eleven lines. That must be some sort of record. However, I would like to draw attention to the concluding words of the exchange. For after Romeo has administered the momentous kisses, what is Juliet’s verdict? “You kiss by th’ book”(1.5.108).
“You kiss by th’ book”: the note to the Ignatius edition, by Pearce, comments “i.e., take my words literally to gain more kisses”(n.240, 5400). But this is not a plausible reading of Shakespeare’s line. The phrase “by the book” meant to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans what it means to us, “strictly according to the rules”, in a very correct manner (cf. As You Like It, 5.4.90-1). But if Juliet is really protesting against Romeo’s literal construction of her words, why does she apply “by the book” to his kiss rather than his interpretation? Moreover why, in this context, would “strictly according to the rules” be a literal interpretation? The standard gloss of the line—in the New Penguin Shakespeare edition, the New Cambridge Shakespeare, HBJ Shakespeare, etc., etc.—is that Romeo kisses as if following the rules in a book of etiquette ( New, n.110, p.200). Unfortunately, though, this generally accepted meaning throws Pearce’s account of the sonnet scene into doubt.
Juliet’s appraisal that Romeo kisses as if following an etiquette manual shows firstly that, as the daughter of an aristocratic Veronese family, she is well acquainted with the etiquette of kissing. It also tells us that Romeo’s kisses weren’t the passionate pashes of a Byronic seducer, as Pearce imagines. But there are even more important implications. If, after the kisses, Juliet is able to deliver her calm, objective assessment of Romeo’s technique, then clearly, contra Pearce, her judgement hasn’t been overwhelmed by erotic desire. That Juliet should make this composed assessment shows, further, a mind free from any concern that Romeo’s behaviour may have involved her in sin. So her response to the first kiss, “Then have my lips the sin”(1.5.106), did not express a genuine fear she had been defiled, or reflect any real “struggle with conscience”. Rather, it was an artful move in a sophisticated game.
Pearce says that Juliet is too young “to play her part in the intertwined sonnet with a suave savoir faire”(455). Here a theory about the text has overwhelmed what is actually there in the text: for Pearce rules impossible what Juliet does. Juliet’s lines in the sonnet scan just as well as Romeo’s, their rhymes complete the complex rhyme-pattern, and her metaphors of conventional piety answer Romeo’s of conventional impiety. The sonnet exchange of Shakespeare’s play is elaborate, formal, verbal fencing. Juliet is neither tempted, nor does she struggle with her conscience, and she doesn’t fall into sin. Though Romeo had her heart, as the saying goes, at “Hello”—or even before “Hello”; as she had his.
I recall reading a long time ago a critic who asserted that, in all his plays, Shakespeare had never portrayed a gentleman. In terms of the nineteenth century/ early twentieth century understanding of “gentleman”, this may be true. Romeo certainly isn’t one. But, of course, Shakespeare wasn’t aware of such a standard, and, if he had been made aware of it, would probably have regarded it as absurd: his own ideal of manhood was quite different. G.K.Chesterton remarks that the Renaissance poets, including Shakespeare as the greatest of them, inhabited “a wider and a wilder world”(230) than poets of medieval times. “A wider and a wilder world”, too, than Victorian/ Edwardian English gentlemen, and some twenty-first century Catholics (including, in some parts of its geography, myself). Whether these Renaissance innovations are really compatible with Christianity is a tremendous question, far beyond the scope of the present essay. However it is clear that Shakespeare’s views on acceptable imagery, acceptable jokes, appropriate manners between the sexes, the place of pagan ideas, cannot simply be read off from his presumed Christianity. For even assuming this Christianity, sincere Christians of different places, cultures, times have had greatly varying positions on these matters. In his condemnation of Romeo for profanity, I believe Pearce imports his particular Christian standards into a play which embodies different standards.
# Pearce’s overarching “cautionary or moral”(148) interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, whereby the play is about morally wrong choices made by the characters and their consequences, undoubtedly contains much truth. The “rashness and hastiness”(1289) of the lovers and parents is convincingly shown to promote the ultimate tragedy; though it is arguable that fate, or bad luck, are just as important, with the Chorus lamenting the “star-crossed”(Prol.6) couple. However that may be, and despite the merit in Pearce’s overall interpretation, we have seen that he misconstrues the initial connection between Romeo and Juliet, by putting Romeo in a far too negative light. Even Capulet, sworn enemy of Romeo’s family, admits that “Verona brags of” Romeo “To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth” (1.5.65-66); and nothing in the play overturns this testimomy of a basic good nature. When Juliet says “if that thy bent of love be honourable”(2.2.143), he should arrange their marriage, Romeo accepts without a qualm: this is not the behaviour of a cad, even a junior cad.
And because Pearce misconstrues the initial connection between Romeo and Juliet, he goes astray on the fundamental relationship of the play. After giving his version of the sonnet scene, Pearce admonishes that “the love between Romeo and Juliet can be nothing but skin-deep and purely physical at this stage”(484). “How can such love be anything but superficial, a bewitching of the eye in response to great physical beauty?” (486) “Whereas true love is desiring the good of the other”, moreover, he has noted earlier, “Romeo desires that the other should feel good to him”(284). The relation of Romeo and Juliet is thus seen as a shallow, selfish eros, as opposed to self-less “true love”, the agape or caritas of Christianity.
In constructing this opposition, though, Pearce ignores a possibility found in his own philosophical and theological guide, St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas grounds natural law morality on certain natural “inclinations” or orientations. Among these, as one of the inclinations humans share with other animals, is attraction towards the opposite sex—“nature has taught all animals to mate”( S.T.1-2.94.2, in Kerr, 108; Political, 46). The purely carnal, pre-rational desire to mate must, of course, be regulated by morality, should be transformed with maturity, and may be transcended entirely through grace. But for Aquinas such “natural love is always good, since it is nothing other than a natural urge implanted by the author of nature”(Human, 44).
I am not suggesting Shakespeare had studied Aquinas on natural law. However St. Thomas’ reasoning here, typically, clarifies a common sense view, and I am suggesting this same common sense view has emerged from my readings of Romeo and Juliet. That Romeo is attracted at first by “charm of looks”(2 Prol.6), without stopping to quiz the young ladies on their philosophical and theological opinions, does not reveal a shameful superficiality, but merely shows that he is a young human animal, not some kind of disembodied moral calculus. That Romeo switches his interest so quickly from one pretty girl, who doesn’t return his feelings, to another who does, may be suprising, and amusing, but is after all perfectly normal behaviour in a young man seeking a mate; and salutary, insofar as he now stops pestering Rosaline. That Romeo’s, and Juliet’s, love involves—in part—“feeling good”, and is directed towards satisfaction, does not mean that it is immorally selfish. It is self-interested, certainly, yet the self-interest is a legitimate element of good natural love.
Personally I would prefer to leave Romeo and Juliet at this level. However it is evident from my readings that the play insists on another tier to their relationship. From the exquisite sonnet exchange of the first meeting, to the dramatic tableau of the balcony scene, to the matching gold statues in death—Romeo and Juliet are presented as souls destined for one another: theirs is also a grand romantic passion. But does then the play as a whole fall subject to the criticisms Pearce makes of Romeo for his romantic “love at first sight”? Does Shakespeare’s play glorify what is really just imprudent “rashness and hastiness”, an attraction which can only be “skin-deep and purely physical”?
Well, considering Joseph Pearce is an admiring biographer of J.R.R.Tolkien, we might consider the following questions. Are Beren and Luthien of The Silmarillion culpably imprudent when they fall in love at first sight? Is Aragorn misled by “charm of looks” when he loses his heart from the first hour he sees Arwen? Not only before knowing her name, but before knowing what species she belongs to. Does Aragorn yield to a “purely physical” desire for Arwen, when a little moral reflection would have shown that he was actually more suited to Eowyn—with whom, after all, he has so much more in common?
It may be objected that comparisons with Tolkien are invalid, because his works belong to the genre of fairy-tale. However, the heightened romance of Romeo and Juliet shows, once again, that the play is to an extent non-realistic in mode; it is closer to a fairy-tale than to a George Eliot novel. Besides portraying grand romantic passion, Tolkien provides a theoretical justification for such portrayal, in a letter to his son Michael. “The idea of lovers destined for one another”, he says, “still dazzles us, catches us by the throat”(52). “In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world”(52). The idealized love of Romeo and Juliet is set midst our fallen world, and the story tells how this love is destroyed by the sinful world, including by the lovers’ own faults. But we don’t fully understand the play unless we see that what is destroyed is something free from taint, a “great inevitable love”(52).
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