Part 2: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: A Warning to Elizabeth?

Part 2 of my article on why Shakespeare may have had a much deeper message in this play than the perils of love.


Prologues in Shakespeare

As a writer, I wonder why Shakespeare wrote a prologue to Romeo and Juliet. This is not an historical drama, where the audience would need to understand the history of the play to better understand the current action. If taken as a love story, it is certainly not so subtle that the message would not come through without a prior explanation. So one asks: Is this just a normal device that Shakespeare uses in his plays?

None of Shakespeare’s comedies has a prologue, an actual introduction. Taming of the Shrew has an “Induction”, which is two short scenes that precede the actual play, but are set in a lord’s house to set up the play; I have never seen them actually performed. Of the histories, Henry IV, Part II also has an induction, which is a short speech that sort of bridges the gap from Part I. Henry V has a prologue, which is primarily to set up the historical aspects of the play, which in and of itself acts as an introduction to Henry VI. The prologue to Henry VI essentially says the play is going to be very sad, and if a person bought a ticket expecting to watch some sort of comedy, they are going to be very disappointed. Frankly, I’m not sure why Shakespeare bothered with such a prologue, although I have not tried to analyze it as I did with the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Pericles, Prince of Tyre has a prologue that explains the background of the play so that the audience can understand the current action. The play begins where the prologue leaves us; it does not simply repeat the plot and message of the play, as does Romeo and Juliet. Likewise with Troilus and Cressida.

Frankly, I would have thought that Othello, the Moor of Venice might have done with a prologue, as Shakespeare was also sending a strong political message. This has already been discussed by many scholars, and a posting by AIWASS documents this information (his footnotes are noted, but not included):

In 1596, Queen Elizabeth issued an “open letter” to the Lord Mayor of London, announcing that “there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie,” and ordering that they be deported from the country. (1) One week later, she reiterated her “good pleasure to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande” and commissioned the merchant Casper van Senden to “take up” certain “blackamoores here in this realme and to transport them into Spaine and Portugall.” (2) Finally, in 1601, she complained again about the “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm,” defamed them as “infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel,” and, one last time, authorized their deportation. (3)

Othello, the Moor of Venice is believed to have been written in approximately 1603, based on the Italian short story “A Moorish Captain” by Cinthio, first published in 1565. In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo describe Othello by using racist insults, and Iago invariably refers to Othello as “the Moor”, constantly reducing him to a racial stereotype. Their hatred of him is entirely based on racial prejudice. Yet when Othello actually appears, he is sympathetically portrayed as an articulate, intelligent and introspective human being. His downfall comes from the typical human frailties of trusting his friends too much, being too jealous of his beautiful wife, and acting before learning all of the facts. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Moor. It seems clear that Shakespeare has decided, once again, to thinly disguise his thoughts about Elizabeth’s opinions and policies behind the curtains of a play.

Romeo and Juliet

Of all the comedies or tragedies, only Romeo and Juliet has a prologue and epilogue (the latter often delivered by the Prince), both of which directly repeat the message of the play. Thanks to the prologue, the ending is definitely anti-climactic. Why does Shakespeare detract from this dramatic conclusion by giving it away in a prologue that serves no other purpose than to tell us both the ending and the message of that ending? He is not that bad of a writer. Is that a slip, or was Shakespeare trying to implicitly convey his message to Elizabeth without offending her as his contemporaries had done?

Act I Prologue

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whole misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whole misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

First, it is interesting that nowhere in the play, especially this prologue, does Shakespeare give the cause of this feud. He leaves it to the imagination of the audience to think of some deed that might have been terrible enough to have caused such intense hatred and on-the-spot bloodshed to occur over a prolonged period of time. This is not particularly significant, but most literature tries to provide some sort of background for the action so that the reader/audience can have a better understanding of the action.

The “ancient grudge that breaks to new mutiny” may well refer to the Wars of the Roses being reprised in the new battle, in this case not only for succession, but for the conflict over religions. I think Shakespeare, although ostensibly a Catholic, showed many times in his plays that he was very tolerant of religion, race, and even the equality of the sexes (I am writing a play that discusses feminism in many of Shakespeare’s plays), and may have really wondered why there had to be a dominance of one over the other (“Two households, both alike in dignity”), especially as they both represented Christianity.

The line, “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,” is certainly a clever pun, but I believe it is also a direct reference to the civil wars of the past and present. The people of England, and especially the aristocracy, should be civil towards each other, but instead they are soiling their hands with the blood of their countrymen, neighbors, friends, and even relatives. The play opens with the servants of Lord Capulet discussing the feud, and immediately leads to a physical confrontation. Sampson states that “A dog of the house of Montague moves me,” meaning he gets angry at the Montagues even if he only sees one of their dogs, and he and Gregory prove that by deliberately insulting servants of the Montague household in order to provoke a fight, which is quickly joined by everyone in those clans right up to Lords Montague and Capulet. No one in the city-or country-is exempt from the impacts of the feud.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whole misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove

While Shakespeare may be referring to Mary and Elizabeth, I think he is more probably including the churches themselves, with those two Queens representing the parent figures of the warring churches within England. The children of England are definitely “star-cross’d”, because they have no control over which household they are born into, nor over the political infighting going on at the top levels. How many deaths will it take until England sees the folly of this conflict, and Elizabeth stops “winking” at the efforts of many of her lords to eradicate the offending Catholics? Elizabeth enjoyed a great general popularity, especially during the early days of her reign, and Shakespeare may have been urging her to put aside this persecution of those she believed were “mutinous” and end the rage. (After all, most of the actual treason was being fomented from outside of England’s borders.) In many ways, civil war is a form of suicide, in that the country is killing itself, and the most innocent victims are usually the young.

Act II, Scene iii

Shakespeare loves long soliloquies, but those usually deal with character exploration and/or the message of the play. The following soliloquy by Friar Lawrence, which is all about the diverse nature of plants, seems to be a non-sequitur. Yes, it introduces a special potion by which Juliet can be put into a “seeming death”, but it would seem to me that Shakespeare could have approached it much differently if that was his sole aim. For example, the friar could have been sitting at a bench stirring up a potion, and the speech could have been much shorter. The focus really should have been on his skills as an apothecary (which he was not, so why not send Juliet to one, as Romeo needed to visit one later for a simple poison?) in that he was able to concoct such a complicated potion, not on the virtues or vices of these various plants.

On the other hand, if we read this passage as a complicated, very clever metaphor rather than actually being about plants, we do indeed find a soliloquy dealing with the true message of the play. Once we get past the time of day, we find these lines:

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;

What is her burying grave that is her womb,

And from her womb children of divers kind

We sucking on her natural bosom find,

Many for many virtues excellent,

None but for some and yet all different.

The first two lines describe the fact that the earth gives birth to life, and yet all things return to the earth on their death. The Catholic faith also embraces this view, calling itself the “mother church” with all people being her children. The Church of England also retained this view, still calling its religious leaders “father”, “mother”, “brother” and “sister”. In this metaphor the “children” represent plants, yet could easily also mean real children. Those children are extremely diverse, some have excellent virtues, and all are good for something, although all are quite different. Perhaps all churches, all faiths, also have their virtues which they offer their followers.

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies

In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live

But to the earth some special good doth give

This works well to describe many plants, although we have certainly not found uses for even the majority of plants. However, it is probably true that there are no humans — or not many — so vile that they cannot in some way contribute to the good of mankind. No matter what religion a citizen of England may embrace, I believe Shakespeare was saying that they could still be loyal and useful to England.

Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;

And vice sometimes by action dignified

If plants have the capacity for both good and evil uses, then how can they be judged to “revolt from true birth”? Is Shakespeare implying that there is an inherent good or evil to plants? However, if we look at this as the intent of religion, then we can certainly understand that the good intents, being “strain’d from that fair use”, truly does revolt from its original intent, and more than stumbles “on abuse”. The purpose of religion should be to comfort and unite people, not to incite them to violence against others simply because they do not share the same beliefs. Yet many churches have indeed dignified despicable vices in the excuse that they were attempting to bring the “true religion to all people.

Within the infant rind of this small flower

Poison hath residence and medicine power:

For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;

Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.

Two such opposed kings encamp them still

In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;

And where the worser is predominant,

Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

Again, I believe the “flower” is religion, which holds the capacity to be used for great ill or for great good. If one smells it delicately, treating it as a delicious bouquet, it can enrich society. If one ingests it, gorges on it, then it does indeed slay “all senses with the heart”. That is what can lead to such extremes as the Inquisition and conversion by torture, to blanket condemnation of anyone who worships in the least differently, even if they are worshipping the same god and the same savior! In England, religious zealotry had already led to great persecution, and Shakespeare was afraid that, if unchecked, it could become a religious pogrom.

While “Two such opposed kings encamp them still” is typical Shakespearean metaphor, it is interesting to note that the literal allusion is to two opposing monarchs at war. The abstract allusion is to the great opposing forces that war within both these supposed plants and all humans, that of “grace and rude will”, or good and evil. Although all people must choose which will rule them, Elizabeth has the choice of which will eventually take precedence in the country. If she allows hatred and persecution to rule, the country will be shortly devoured by its self-generated cancer.

To come: Part 3, the conclusion


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