Part 3: “Romeo and Juliet” as a Warning to Elizabeth.

The last part to my essay explaining why Shakespeare may have had a much deeper message for Queen Elizabeth concerning her rule over her Catholic and Protestant subjects than writing a simple play about love and death.

A Couple of Other References from the Play


Although this is somewhat of a non-sequitur for this essay, it is not surprising to me that in his poem “Queen Mab”, Percy Bysshe Shelley channels the wild, chaotic sense of independence of Mercutio in his famous speech to Romeo. I think Shelley picked up on many of the religious questions in Mercutio’s speech and used them as a springboard for his atheistic arguments. Needless to say, I do not think Shakespeare was being any worse than a trifle irreligious, as he was criticizing the (to him) senseless battle between the two Christian sects, and not Christianity itself.

Then, the play essentially ends with these lines from the prince:

“And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.”

As a writer, I wonder why the prince also lost a couple of kinsmen. As a moral tale for the reason stated in his prologue, it would seem that Mercutio might better have been related to Romeo, say his brother or first cousin, than the prince, because it would have been more of a family tragedy if all of the deaths had been to members of the family. For that matter, if Paris had to die to heighten the dramatic irony, he could have been a cousin to Juliet, as those marriages were quite common in that society. Such relationships would have heightened the grievous loss to the families as a result of their ridiculous feud. For me, it adds no dramatic tension that the prince lost relatives as a result of a limited feud between two families, no matter how rich and powerful they were in his city.

However, as a political statement, it makes perfect sense to me. Rather than being limited to the proverbial “others”, the ruler of this little fiefdom suffers personal loss from the violent bickering going on under his jurisdiction and control. As I understand this play, this message is a direct appeal to Elizabeth to stop the persecution and bloodshed amongst her subjects and her own “relatives”, whether or not those were actual blood relatives. As the prince says, all are being punished.

Juliet’s Famous Line

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Act II, scene 2)

A wonderful pun, I believe. There are many metaphors he could have used, but I think Shakespeare is referring back to the War of the Roses, the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster. When the followers of Mary of Scots rebelled against Elizabeth, they wore a red cross, while the Protestant followers of Elizabeth wore a white cross. Later, the Tudor rose was combined with a red outer rose and a white inner one.


Juliet is, of course, asking why Romeo had to have been born a Montague, as they were at odds with the Capulets. She may as well have been asking why he had been born, say, a Catholic instead of a Protestant, as both were good Christian faiths, and as sweet as any other religion.

A Note on Sonnet 29

There have been many interpretations of this poem. I will also speculate on its meaning, more as a writer than as a scholar.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee-and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Sonnet 29 is a member of the “Fair Youth” sequence, in which the poet supposedly expresses his love towards a young man. This is one of the poems that led some scholars to believe Shakespeare was homosexual, or that someone else wrote the poems. However, I don’t even necessarily believe the poem alludes to anyone other than the author himself. Yes, the ending definitely sounds like a love poem, but why those specific analogies? The use of the pronoun “one” in the line “wishing me like to one more rich in hope” could simply be a use of the generic, especially given the line “desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope”, which would imply that the author is simply regretting his own circumstances and wishing he could have the best traits of certain other people.

There exists an interpretation that Shakespeare was despondent after having recently been severely criticized for his work by fellow playwright Robert Greene, and that would seem to make a lot more sense to me than homosexuality. However, I get a different reading given all of the other evidence I have presented in this essay.

A poet always writes from his/her own background and experiences, and often uses thoughts and observances from their past as metaphors for other things. I do not know enough about William Shakespeare’s early life to clearly evaluate why he is “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” nor has fallen into an “outcast state”. Perhaps it is because he had been forced to leave school and seek his fortune without the aid of a father who was fairly wealthy and influential. Or is he actually alluding to John, whom he may have perceived as despairing about having fallen totally out of favor in Elizabethan society because he would not renounce his papist beliefs?

In my mind, the fact that someone’s love is a tonic to the writer is quite secondary in this poem to the despair that is much more completely described. The phrase “then I scorn to change my state with kings” was certainly common enough, especially in a society under a monarchy, to simply be a descriptive metaphor for personal values. However, it may actually have been a direct allusion to the Queen, claiming that the Crown could not heap such disgrace and poverty on Shakespeare as to make him lose all pride and sense of inner worth. In either case, there is a definite sense of “rising above” the adversity caused by having somehow become a societal outcast that would be consistent with resentment at how Elizabeth treated devout Catholics.

Conclusion

In the first place, Romeo and Juliet is not a simple love story, even if read as a piece of literature rather than a political statement. The main topic is actually uncontrolled passions, as the hatred expressed in the play is equally as violent as the love portrayed. The choices that are made by all of the characters — certainly not least by the nurse and the friar — lead to the inevitable deaths of the two young lovers. As in life, not everyone can control the fate of a nation, but each person has control over their own choices to act or not to act, to do good or to do evil. Religious persecution cannot exist without the masses condoning and even participating in the emotional and physical actions of persecution, or, as on the part of many of the Catholics, the attempts to overthrow or assassinate Elizabeth. When seen in the context of the historical and political realities of Elizabethan England, Romeo and Juliet is a true masterpiece of subtle messages.

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