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ABOUT THE PLAY: The Birth of Modern Tragedy


By Drew Lichtenberg, Production Dramaturg

For anyone who knows their Greek tragedy, the six o’clock news is a monstrosity. Invariably, the news anchors will list a series of unfortunate or merely accidental events, cocking a raised eyebrow and uttering, in blithe indifference to Aristotle, “tragic developments today …” Most often, there is no “fatal flaw” (or hamartia), no king or Roman hero brought low by fate and the gods. Somewhere in the history of mankind, “tragedy” went from a specific genre term for fifth-century drama to a more general descriptor, an adjective that could apply seemingly to anyone or anything.

As with so many other aspects of modern culture, blame Shakespeare. When The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet first appeared—it was no later than 1596, when Shakespeare was 32—there had never been a tragedy like it before.

Certainly, narratives of “star-crossed lovers” have existed since courtly love became fashionable in the early middle ages, dating back through Decameron and Chaucer to Petrarch and Ovid. But in place of all of the traditional elements of tragedy, Shakespeare came up with radical displacements and jarring juxtapositions. Adapted from a modern novella—Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562)—the play was set in a recognizably modern world, and its characters were ordinary people, not classical heroes.

More importantly, the main characters were teenagers. In a society where people were understood either as children or adults, Shakespeare was inventing a whole new social type. All of our modern cultural history—the line from Elvis to the Beatles to Taylor Swift—follows this epochal shift toward the teen.

Take Romeo. When he first appears, like any modern teenager, he is fond of hyperbole, and speaks in self-dramatizing lists, most of them variations on the theme of his angst. “O brawling love! O loving hate!” he says early in the play, “O anything of nothing first create! / O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!” Has a writer ever come up with a better metaphor for adolescence?

Shakespeare also introduces Juliet as any modern writer would a teenage girl. She’s in her bedroom, refusing to come out, and is taciturn with her mother and nurse, though her independence and self-possession are evident.

When Romeo and Juliet meet at the Capulet masque, however, something changes. The two share eighteen lines in alternating rhyme, completed by a couplet. It is an extremely unusual, extended sonnet. Unlike those of Shakespeare’s day, often written by an adoring lover to a proud, disdainful woman, this one is improvised on the spot, mutually composed by the two lovers. “O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,” Romeo says, daringly (if not blasphemously) yoking Catholic sainthood to erotic action. “Saints do not move” is Juliet’s reply, “though grant for prayers’ sake.” In other words, come and get it if you want it. Instead of focusing on deprivation, this sonnet features a consummation devoutly to be wished.

In perhaps his most brilliant piece of writing at this early stage in his career, Shakespeare had achieved a dramaturgical corollary to Petrarchan sonnet-writing, taking the delicate, intimate and erotic states of lovers’ consciousness, a subject previously reserved for aristocratic readers of poetry, and putting it on the stage for all to see and feel. Amid the chaotic surround of the Capulet feast, the dramaturgical effect is one of extreme intimacy, the lovers separated from the company in a special and utterly new tone. Like a cinematic close-up, the union unfolds in suspended time.

And just like that, Romeo drops his rhyme and Juliet her courtly restraint. In their next scene together, while everyone else still talks like a Renaissance figurine, Romeo and Juliet gradually start sounding like us. Not coincidentally, it’s the balcony scene, the finest love scene Shakespeare would ever write, in the finest love story that anyone has ever written. By the play’s second half, they are different people. “Get me ink and paper,” Romeo tells Balthasar in Mantua, “And hire post horses. I will hence tonight.” Not a word is wasted; no adolescent flights of fancy. Romeo has grown into a man, and one of action.

Which brings me to another of Shakespeare’s revisions of classical tragedy: he also removes what Aristotle would call the antagonist, or villain, of the piece. This hasn’t stopped critics, of course, from pointing the finger at nearly everyone: fallible confidantes Friar Laurence and the Nurse, partners in pugnacity Mercutio and Tybalt, even Montague and Capulet, who are ultimately victims of the play’s feud as much as its progenitors.

One could more accurately say that Romeo and Juliet are the instruments of their own downfall. They are destroyed not by Fate or the Gods, as in classical tragedy, but by their own passion. Throughout the play, with adolescent fervor, they confuse light for darkness, sex for religion, violence for love, life for death. “When I shall die,” Juliet says in Act 3, Scene 2, in a classical epithalamion (bridal speech) worthy of Ovid: “Take [Romeo] and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night.” She gets her wish. “A glooming peace this morning with it brings,” the Prince says at play’s end, “The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.”

But none of these are even Shakespeare’s most radical innovation. This tragedy, well, isn’t very tragic. In fact, its plot is that of a comedy: boy meets girl, girl’s father prefers someone wealthier, complications ensue. For most of the play’s first half, Shakespeare luxuriates in languid and pleasurable scenes, scenes nevertheless shot through—subtly but unmistakably—with tragic premonitions. It’s there in the ludicrous spectacle of the aged Capulet and Montague demanding their weapons in their nightclothes as their wives hold them back; it’s there in Sampson and Gregory’s bawdy jokes, which confuse sex organs for deadly weapons; it’s there in the Nurse’s inability to recognize romance as anything other than a physical thing. Most of all, it’s there in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, which points and laughs at the power of dreams until it curdles into a kind of terrified hysteria.

Shakespeare understood, more than any other writer, that the stuff of modern tragedy—anarchy, inner disorder—is also deeply the stuff of modern comedy, that the two are linked, inextricable. It is a lesson he would apply in another radical, unusual play, written at the same time, on the same theme. If you turned Romeo & Juliet inside out—if the swords missed their marks, if Friar Laurence’s purple-streaked potion worked as intended, if the queen of the fairies was an actual character—you would get something very much like Shakespeare’s other early masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet’s mirror-twin: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He may have scaled future heights, but in these two plays Shakespeare invented much of modern drama.

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