Death comes in the guise of Romeo

Heading: Thematic Concerns of Romeo and Juliet, Subheading: Love. Such it is to write teachers’ notes to accompany a professional stage production with an education market. How is it even possible to begin to fill in a blank page under those titles, unless it is to say “read the play, and read some of the millions of other words already written on this topic”?

So in doing some browsing around the interwebs to try to shake up my brain I stumbled across James Cappio at Shakesyear and started reading his very sensible textual analysis, which he does play by play over an arc of several posts. I particularly enjoyed his detailed progress through Mercutio’s scenes. Coincidentally, in the post previous to this one I spoke of how important I find the moment in Much Ado About Nothing when Benedick ‘grows up’ by leaving his comfortable brotherhood of boys. I had always felt the niggle of the lack of a similar moment for Romeo, but Cappio convinced me that there is textual support for one, I had simply missed it because I didn’t take the time to unpick the series of archaic jokes.

However, it was a different kind of reconsidering Romeo that actually shocked me. In his post “Comedy of the Capulets” Cappio highlights a speech I have never noticed before (I think it has always been cut in productions I’ve seen), in order to make a point about the unexpected positioning of an absurdly comic scene at one of the play’s darkest moments, when Juliet’s family discovers what they believe to be her dead body. Paris arrives, and Lord Capulet breaks the dreadful news to him thus:

O son, the night before thy wedding day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir.
My daughter he hath wedded. (IV.5.35-39)

Pause to think about the added layers of irony in these statements, coming from these people, if we think of Romeo as Death. When he speaks, Lord Capulet thinks his daughter actually died a virgin, and he is being figurative. In fact Juliet was deflowered by Romeo, and it is he who already is, unknown to Capulet, his son-in-law.

Paris then picks up and extends the conceit:

Beguil’d, divorced, wronged, spited, slain.
Most detestable Death, by thee beguil’d,
By cruel, cruel thee quite overthrown.
O love! O life! Not life, but love in death! (IV.5.55-58)

His attitude is to see himself as cuckolded by Death, or at the very least his bride as seduced away from him. With dramatic irony in play, knowing what we know, this sounds like a very explicit reference to Romeo.

This all caused me to go back through the play one more time with an eye only to those references linking love with death. I have always been preoccupied, overly, I now think, with the clever play on genres in Romeo and Juliet, whereby the stock characters, the plot obstacles, the lowbrow humour are all drawn from comedy. It is brilliant, and peculiarly Shakespearean, to trick us every time into feeling that a happy outcome is a ‘fit’ for the world we are being shown. There is interplay between these things, of course: comedy in tragedy, life in death, warmth attempting to fend off death. But I had always seen it as a straightforward twist: set up as if for comedy, then whoops! No, sorry, it’s a tragedy. I utterly failed to register that we are never allowed a scene in which love stands alone, without death at its shoulder. Failed despite the famous Prologue that tells us what will happen, and the much less famous Prologue to the second act, which begins:

Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;

Death is made a counterpoint to practically every expression of love or desire all throughout the play. Of course the identification of death with orgasm was current at this time, and employed liberally here, but there is more going on than that. Perhaps there is an opposition posed between Juliet as Love and Romeo as Death.

Filigree metal skull mask.

Et in Arcadia ego

Romeo is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for every single death in this play (a point which Cappio also notes in a different post, but which, in fairness, I had stopped to think about before now). His being in love with love, or in love with the sound of his own voice, it is commonplace to note, but what about being in love with death? The text more accurately suggests a perpetual foreshadowing, both by and about him. When he is only on his way to the ball, and yet to meet Juliet, he says,

…my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death. (I.4.106-111)

Then when they have decided to marry, “Do thou but close our hands with holy words, / Then love-devouring death do what he dare” (II.6.6-7). Then there is Juliet’s famous intuition that she is seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (III.5.55), but I am pulling out a mere few references out of potentially dozens. The point is that Death does not enter somewhere around act three or four, there is no scene in which he is not a player.

To be clear, I am not pushing the conclusion that Romeo is a villain, consciously malicious, nor even that he is cursed in any straightforward way. I am suggesting that Romeo as a figure of death walking through the comic structures that scaffold this play, and turning it into what it ultimately has, must, become is a powerful image. Shakespeare often puts in the mouth of a lesser character a key that unlocks more crucial moments in the play, and it appears that Paris and Capulet’s inept stylings of grief may be one of these. When Juliet says “If he be married / My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (I.5.126-127) we take it to mean that she will die if she is denied the opportunity to marry him. Yet more irony that this should rather be a directly prescient statement. When Romeo marries he does indeed make his wife’s wedding bed her grave.

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