Romeo and Juliet Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
famous critique based on his legendary and influential
Shakespeare notes and lectures.
I HAVE, previously had occasion to speak at large on
the subject of the three unities of time, place, and
action, as applied to the drama in the abstract, arid
to the particular stage for which Shakspeare wrote,
as far as he can be said to have written for any stage
but that of the universal mind. I hope I have in some
measure succeeded in demonstrating that the former two,
instead of being rules, were mere inconveniences attached
to the local peculiarities of the Athenian drama; that
the last alone deserved the name of a principle, and
that in the preservation of this unity Shakspeare stood
pre-eminent. Yet, instead of unity of action, I should
greatly prefer the more appropriate, though scholastic
and uncouth, words homogeneity, proportionateness, and
totality of interest,expressions, which involve
the distinction, or rather the essential difference,
betwixt the shaping skill of mechanical talent, and
the creative, productive, life-power of inspired, genius.
In the former each part is separately conceived, and
then by a succeeding act put together;not as watches
are made for wholesale(for there each part supposes
a preconception of the whole in some mind)but
more like pictures on a motley screen. Whence arises
the harmony that strikes us in the wildest natural landscapes,
in the relative shapes of rocks, the harmony of colours
in the heaths, ferns, and lichens, the leaves of the
beech and the oak, the stems and rich brown branches
of the birch and other mountain trees, varying from
verging autumn to returning spring,compared with
the visual effect from the greater number of artificial
plantations? From this, that the natural landscape
is effected, as it were, by a single energy modified
ab intra in each component part. And as this is the
particular excellence of the Shakspearian drama generally,
so is it especially characteristic of the Romeo and
The groundwork of the tale is altogether in family
life, and the events of the play have their first origin
in family feuds. Filmy as are the eyes of party-spirit,
at once dim and truculent, still there is commonly some
real or supposed object in view, or principle to be
maintained; and though but the twisted wires on the
plate of rosin in the preparation for electrical pictures,
it is still a guide in some degree, an assimilation
to an outline. But in family quarrels, which have proved
scarcely less injurious to states, wilfulness, and precipitancy,
and passion from mere habit and custom, can alone be
expected. With his accustomed judgment, Shakspeare has
begun by placing before us a lively picture of all the
impulses of the play; and, as nature ever presents two
sides, one for Heraclitus, and one for Democritus, he
has, by way of prelude, shown the laughable absurdity
of the evil by the contagion of it reaching the servants,
who have so little to do with it, but who are under
the necessity of letting the superfluity of sensoreal
power fly off through the escape-valve of wit-combats,
and of quarrelling with weapons of sharper edge, all
in humble imitation of their masters. Yet there is a
sort of unhired fidelity, an ourishness about all this
that makes it rest pleasant on one's feelings. All the
first scene, down to the conclusion of the Prince's
speech, is a motley dance of all ranks and ages to one
tune, as if the horn of Huon had been playing behind
Madam, an honr before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east
and, far more strikingly, the following speech of old
Many a morning hath he there been seen
With tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew-
prove that Shakspeare meant the Romeo and Juliet to
approach to a poem, which, and indeed its early date,
may be also inferred from the multitude of rhyming couplets
throughout. And if we are right, from the internal evidence,
in pronouncing this one of Shakspeare's early dramas,
it affords a strong instance of the fineness of his
insight into the nature of the passions, that Romeo
is introduced already love-bewildered. The necessity
of loving creates an object for itself in man and woman;
and yet there is a difference in this respect between
the sexes, though only to be known by a perception of
it. It would have displeased us if Juliet had been represented
as already in love, or as fancying herself so;but
no one, I believe, ever experiences any shock at Romeo's
"forgetting his Rosaline, who had been a mere name
for the yearning of his youthful imagination, and rushing
into his passion for Juliet. Rosaline was a mere creation
of his fancy; and we should remark the boastful positiveness
of Romeo in a love of his own making, which is never
shown where love is really near the heart.
When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires!
One fairer than my love I the all-seeing sun Ne'er
saw her match, since first the world begun.
The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing
in Shakspeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation;
and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood
the individual in nature is a representative of a class,just
as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove
of them, so it is nearly as much so in old age.
The generalization is done to the poet's hand. Here
you have the garrulity of age strengthened by the feelings
of a long-trusted servant, whose sympathy with the mother's
affections gives her privileges and rank in the household;
and observe the mode of connection by accidents of time
and place, and the childlike fondness of repetition
in a second childhood, and also that happy, humble,
ducking under, yet constant resurgence against, the
check of her superiors!
Yes, madam!Yet I cannot choose but laugh,
In the fourth scene we have Mercutio introduced to
us. O! how shall I describe that exquisite ebullience
and overflow of youthful life, wafted on over the laughing
waves of pleasure and prosperity, as a wanton beauty
that dis-torts the face on which she knows her lover
is gazing enraptured, and wrinkles her forehead in the
triumph of its smoothness! Wit ever wakeful, fancy busy
and procreative as an insect, courage, an easy mind
that, without cares of its own, is at once disposed
to laugh away those of others, and yet to be interested
in them,these and all congenial qualities, melting
into the common copula of them all, the man of rank
and the gentleman, with all its excellences and all
its weaknesses, constitute the character of Mercutio!
Act i. sc. 5.
Tyb. It fits when such a villain is a guest;
I'll not endure him.
Cap. He shall be endur'd.
What, goodman boy!I say, he shall:Go to;
Am I the master here, or you?Go to.
You'll not endure him!God shall mend my soul
You'll make a mutiny among my guests!
You will set cock-a-hoop! you'll be the man!
Tyb. Why, uncle, 'tis a shame.
Cap. Go to, go to, You are a saucy boy! &c.
How admirable is the old man's impetuosity at once
contrasting, yet harmonized, with young Tybalt's quarrel-some
violence! But it would be endless to repeat observa-tions
of this sort. Every leaf is different on an oak tree;
but still we can only sayour tongues defrauding
our eyes 'This is another oak-leaf!'
Act ii. sc. 2. The garden scene:
Take notice in this enchanting scene of the contrast
of Romeo's love with his former fancy; and weigh the
skill shown in justifying him from his inconstancy by
making us feel the difference of his passion. Yet this,
too, is a love in, although not merely of, the imagination.
Jul. Well, do not swear; although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden, &c.
With love, pure love, there is always an anxiety for
the safety of the object, a disinterestedness, by which
it is distinguished from the counterfeits of its name.
Compare this scene with Act iii. sc. 1. of the Tempest.
I do not know a more wonderful instance of Shakspeare's
mastery in playing a distinctly rememberable variety
on the same remembered air, than in the transporting
love confessions of Romeo and Juliet and Ferdinand and
Miranda. There seems more passion in the one, and more
dignity in the other; yet you feel that the sweet girlish
lingering and busy movement of Juliet, and the calmer
and more maidenly fondness of Miranda, might easily
pass into each other.
Ib. sc. 3. The Friar's speech:
The reverend character of the Friar, like all Shakspeare's
representations of the great professions, is very delightful
and tranquillizing, yet it is no digression, but immediately
necessary to the carrying on of the plot.
Ib. sc. 4.
Rom. Good morrow to yon both.
What counterfeit did I give you? &c.
Compare again, Romeo's half-exerted, and half-real,
ease of mind with his first manner when in love with
Rosaline! His will had come to the clenching point.
Ib. sc. 6.
Rom. Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what be dare,
It is enough I may but call her mine.
The precipitancy, which is the character of the play,
is well marked in this short scene of waiting for Juliet's
Act iii. sc. i.
Mer. No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide
as a church door; but 'tis enough: 'twill serve: ask
for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,
How fine an effect the wit and raillery habitual to
Mer-cutio, even struggling with his pain, give to Romeo's
following speech, and at the same time so completely
justifying his passionate revenge on Tybalt!
Ib. Benvolio's speech:
But that he tilts
With piercing steel at bold Mercutio's breast.
This small portion of untruth in Benvolio's narrative
is finely conceived.
Ib. sc. 2. Juliet's speech:
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Indeed the whole of this speech is imagination strained
to the highest; and observe the blessed effect on the
purity of the mind. What would Dryden have made of it?
Nurse. Shame come to Romeo.
Jul. Blister'd be thy tongue For such a wish!
Note the Nurse's mistake of the mind's audible struggles
with itself for its decision in toto.
Ib. sc. 3. Romeo's speech:
'Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here, Where
Juliet lives, &c.
All deep passions are a sort of atheists, that believe
Ib. sc. 5.
Cap. Soft, take me with you, take me with you, wife
How I will she none? &c.
A noble scene! Don't I see it with my own eyes?
Yes! but not with Juliet's. And observe in Capulet's
last speech in this scene his mistake, as if love's
causes were capable of being generalized.
Act iv. sc. 3. Juliet's speech:
O, look I methinks I see my cousin's ghost
Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body
Upon a rapier's point:Stay, Tybalt, stay!
Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee.
Shakspeare provides for the finest decencies. It would
have been too bold a thing for a girl of fifteen;but
she swallows the draught in a fit of fright.
Ib. sc. 5.
As the audience know that Juliet is not dead, this
scene is, perhaps, excusable. But it is a strong warning
to minor dramatists not to introduce at one time many
separate characters agitated by one and the same circum-stance.
It is difficult to understand what effect, whether that
of pity or of laughter, Shakspeare meant to produce;
the occasion and the characteristic speeches are
so little in harmony! For example, what the Nurse says
is excellently suited to the Nurse's character, but
grotesquely unsuited to the occasion.
Act v. sc. i. Romeo's speech:
O mischief I thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, &c.
This famous passage is so beautiful as to be self-justified;
yet, in addition, what a fine preparation it is for
the tomb scene!
Ib. sc. 3. Romeo's speech:
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man,
Fly hence and leave me.
The gentleness of Romeo was shown before, as softened
by love; and now it is doubled by love and sorrow and
awe of the place where he is.
Ib. Romeo's speech:
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! which their keepers call
A lightning before death. O, how may I
Call this a lightning?O, my love, my wife! &c.
Here, here, is the master example how beauty can at
once increase and modify passion!
Ib. Last scene.
How beautiful is the close! The spring and the winter
meet;winter assumes the character of spring, and
spring the sadness of winter