Romeo and Juliet Characters Analysis features noted
Shakespeare scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical
essay about the characters of Romeo and Juliet.
ROMEO AND JULIET is the only tragedy which Shakespear
has written entirely on a love-story. It is supposed
to have been his first play, and it deserves to stand
in that proud rank. There is the buoyant spirit of youth
in every line, in the rapturous intoxication of hope,
and in the bitterness of despair. It has been said of
ROMEO AND JULIET by a great critic, that "whatever
is most intoxicating in the odour of a southern spring,
languishing in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous
in the first opening of the rose, is to be found in
this poem." The description is true; and yet it
does not answer to our idea of the play. For if it has
the sweetness of the rose, it has its freshness too;
if it has the languor of the nightingale's song, it
has also its giddy transport; if it has the softness
of a southern spring, it is as glowing and as bright.
There is nothing of a sickly and sentimental cast. Romeo
and Juliet are in love, but they are not love-sick.
Everything speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high
and healthy pulse of the passions: the heart beats,
the blood circulates and mantles throughout. Their courtship
is not an insipid interchange of sentiments lip-deep,
learnt at second-hand from poems and plays,made up of
beauties of the most shadowy kind, of "fancies
wan that hang the pensive head," of evanescent
smiles, and sighs that breathe not, of delicacy that
shrinks from the touch, and feebleness that scarce supports
an elaborate vacuity of thought, and an artificial dearth
of sense, spirit, truth, and nature! It is the reverse
of all this. It is Shakespear all over, and Shakespear
when he was young.
We have heard it objected to ROMEO AND JULIET, that
it is founded on an idle passion between a boy and a
girl, who have scarcely seen and can have but little
sympathy or rational esteem for one another, who have
had no experience of the good or ills of life, and whose
raptures or despair must be therefore equally groundless
and fantastical. Whoever objects to the youth of the
parties in this play as "too unripe and crude"
to pluck the sweets of love, and wishes to see a first-love
carried on into a good old age, and the passions taken
at the rebound, when their force is spent, may find
all this done in the Stranger and in other German plays,
where they do things by contraries, and transpose nature
to inspire sentiment and create philosophy. Shakespear
proceeded in a more straight-forward, and, we think,
effectual way. He did not endeavour to extract beauty
from wrinkles, or the wild throb of passion from the
last expiring sigh of indifference. He did not "gather
grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles." It was
not his way. But he has given a picture of human life,
such .as it is in the order of nature. He has founded
the passion of the two lovers not on the pleasures they
had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had not
experienced. All that was to come of life was theirs.
At that untried source of promised happiness they slaked
their thirst, and the first eager draught made them
drunk with love and joy. They were in full possession
of their senses and their affections. Their hopes were
of air, their desires of fire. Youth is the season of
love, because the heart is then first melted in tenderness
from the touch of novelty, and kindled to rapture, for
it knows no end of its enjoyments or its wishes. Desire
has no limit but itself. Passion, the love and expectation
of pleasure, is infinite, extravagant, inexhaustible,
till experience comes to check and kill it. Juliet exclaims
on her first interview with Romeo-
"My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love
And why should it not? What was to hinder the thrilling
tide of pleasure, which had just. gushed from her heart,
from flowing on without stint or measure, but experience
which she was yet without? What was to abate the transport
of the first sweet sense of pleasure, which her heart
and her senses had just tasted, but indifference which
she was yet a stranger to? What was there to check the
ardour of hope, of faith, of constancy, just rising
in her breast, but disappointment which she had not
yet felt! As are the desires and the hopes of youthful
passion, such is "the keenness of its disappointments,
and their baleful effect. Such is the transition in
this play from the highest bliss to the lowest despair,
from the nuptial couch to an untimely grave. The only
evil that even in appre-hension befalls the two lovers
is the loss of the greatest possible felicity; yet this
loss is fatal to both, for they had rather part with
life than bear the thought of surviving all that had
made life dear to them. In all this, Shakespear has
but followed nature, which existed in his time, as well
as now. The modern philosophy, which reduces the whole
theory of the mind to habitual impressions, and leaves
the natural impulses of passion and imagina-tion out
of the account, had not then been discovered; or if
it had, would have been little calculated for the uses
It is the inadequacy of the same false system of philosophy
to account for the strength of our earliest attachments,
which has led Mr. Wordsworth to indulge in the mystical
visions of Platonism in his ode on the Progress of Life.
He has very admirably described the vividness of our
impressions in youth and childhood, and how "they
fade by degrees into the light of common day,"
and he ascribes the change to the supposition of a pre-existent
state, as if our early thoughts were nearer heaven,
reflections of former trails of glory, shadows of our
past being. This is idle. It is not from the knowledge
of the past that the first impressions of things derive
their gloss and splendour, but from our ignorance of
the future, which fills the void to come with the warmth
of our desires, with our gayest hopes, and brightest
fancies. It is the obscurity spread before it that colours
the prospect of life with hope, as it is the cloud which
reflects the rainbow. There is no occasion to resort
to any mystical union and trans-mission of feeling through
different states of being to account for the romantic
enthusiasm of youth; nor to plant the root of hope in
the grave, nor to derive it from the skies. Its root
is in the heart of man: it lifts its head above the
stars. Desire and imagination are inmates of the human
breast. The, heaven "- that lies about us in our
infancy" is only a new world, of which we know
nothing but what we wish it to be, and believe all that
we wish. In youth and boyhood, the world we live in
is the world of desire, and of fancy: it is experience
that brings us down to the world of reality. What is
it that in youth sheds a dewy light round the evening
star? That makes the daisy look so bright? That perfumes
the hyacinth? That embalms the first kiss of love? It
is the delight of novelty, and the seeing no end to
the pleasure that we fondly believe is still in store
for us. The heart revels in the luxury of its own thoughts,
and is unable to sustain the weight of hope and love
that presses upon it.- The effects of the passion of
love alone might have dissipated Mr. Wordsworth's theory,
if he means anything more by it than an ingenious and
poetical allegory. That at least is not a link in the
chain let down from other worlds; "the purple light
of love" is not a dim reflection of the smiles
of celestial bliss. It does not appear till the middle
of life, and then seems like "another morn risen
on mid-day." In this respect the soul comes into
the world "in utter nakedness." Love waits
for the, ripening of the youthful blood. The sense of
pleasure precedes the love of pleasure, but with the
sense of pleasure, as soon as it is felt, come thronging
infinite desires and hopes of pleasure, and love is
mature as soon as born. It withers and it dies almost
This play presents a beautiful coup-d'il of the
progress of human life. In thought it occupies years,
and embraces the circle of the affections from childhood
to old age. Juliet has become a great girl, a young
woman since we first remember her a little thing in
the idle prattle of the nurse. Lady Capulet was about
her age when she became a mother, and old Capulet somewhat
impatiently tells his younger visitors,
—"I've seen the day,
That I have worn a visor, and could tell
A whispering tale in a fair lady's ear,
Such as would please: 'tis gone, 'tis gone, 'tis gone."
Thus one period of life makes way for the follow-ing,
and one generation pushes another off the stage. One
of the most striking passages to show the intense feeling
of youth in this play is Capulet's invitation to Paris
to visit his entertainment
"At my poor house, look to behold this night
Earth-treading stars that make dark heav'n light;
Such comfort as do lusty young men feel
When well-apparel'd April on the heel
Of limping winter treads, even such delight
Among fresh female-buds shall you this night
Inherit at my house."
The feelings of youth and of the spring are here blended
together like the breath of opening flowers. Images
of vernal beauty appear to have floated before the author's
mind, in writing this poem, in profusion. Here is another
of exquisite beauty, brought in more by accident than
by necessity. Montague declares of his son smit with
a hopeless passion, which he will not reveal—
"But he, his own affection's counsellor,
Is to himself so secret and so close,
So far from sounding and discovery,
As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the sun."
This casual description is as full of passionate beauty
as when Romeo dwells in frantic fondness on "the
white wonder of his Juliet's hand." The reader
may, if he pleases, contrast the exquisite pastoral
simplicity of the above lines with the gorgeous description
of Juliet when Romeo first sees her at her father's
house, surrounded by company and artificial splendour.
"What lady's that which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright;
Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,
Like a rich jewel in an Æthiop's ear."
It would be hard to say which of the two garden scenes
is the finest, that where he first converses with his
love, or takes leave of her the morning after their
marriage. Both are like a heaven upon earth; the blissful
bowers of Paradise let down upon this lower world. We
will give only one passage of these well-known scenes
to shew the perfect refinement and delicacy of Shakespear's
conception of the female character. It is wonderful
how Collins, who was a critic and a poet of great sensibility,
should have encouraged the common error on this subject
by saying-"But stronger Shakespear felt for man
The passage we mean is Juliet's apology for her maiden
"Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face;
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night.
Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke—but farewell compliment:
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say, ay,
And I will take thee at thy word—Yet if thou swear'st,
Thou may'st prove false; at lovers' perjuries
They say Jove laughs. Oh gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;
Or if thou think I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo: but else not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond;
And therefore thou may'st think my 'haviour light:
But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess
But that thou over-heard'st, ere I was ware,
My true love's passion; therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered."
In this and all the rest, her heart, fluttering be-tween
pleasure, hope, and fear, seems to have dic-tated to
her tongue, and "calls true love spoken simple
modesty." Of the same sort, but bolder in
virgin innocence, is her soliloquy after her marriage
"Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phœbus' mansion; such a waggoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night;
That run-aways' eyes may wink; and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalked of, and unseen!—
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties: or if love be blind,
It best agrees with night.—Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play'd for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hold my unmann'd blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo!-come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.—
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo: and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world shall be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.—
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess'd it; and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy'd: so tedious is this day,
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child, that hath new robes,
And may not wear them."
We the rather insert this passage here, inasmuch as
we have no doubt it has been expunged from the Family
Shakespear. Such critics do not perceive that the feelings
of the heart sanctify, without disguising, the impulses
of nature. Without refinement themselves, they confound
modesty with hypocrisy. Not so the German critic, Schlegel.
Speaking of ROMEO AND JULIET, he says, "It was
reserved for Shakespear to unite purity of heart and
the glow of imagination, sweetness and dignity of manners
and passionate violence, in one ideal picture."
The character is indeed one of per-fect truth and sweetness.
It has nothing forward, nothing coy, nothing affected
or coquettish about it;-it is a pure effusion of nature.
It is as frank as it is modest, for it has no thought
that it wishes to conceal. It reposes in conscious innocence
on the strength of its affections. Its delicacy does
not consist in coldness and reserve, -but in combining
warmth of imagination and tenderness of heart with the
most voluptuous sensibility. Love is a gentle flame
that rarefies and expands her whole being. What an idea
of trembling haste and airy grace, borne upon the thoughts
of love, does the Friar's exclamation give of her, as
she approaches his cell to be married—
"Here comes the lady. Oh, so light of foot
Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint:
A lover may bestride the gossamer,
That idles in the wanton summer air,
And yet not fall, so light is vanity."
The tragic part of this character is of a piece with
the rest. It is the heroic founded on tender-ness and
delicacy. Of this kind are her resolution to follow
the Friar's advice, and the conflict in her bosom between
apprehension and love when she comes to take the sleeping
poison. Shakespear is blamed for the mixture of low
characters. If this is a deformity, it is the source
of a thousand beauties. One instance is the contrast
between the guileless simplicity of Juliet's attachment
to her first love, and the convenient policy of the
nurse in advising her to marry Paris, which excites
such indignation in her mistress. "Ancient damnation!
oh most wicked fiend," etc.
Romeo is Hamlet in love. There is the same rich exuberance
of passion and sentiment in the one, that there is of
thought and sentiment in the other. Both are absent
and self-involved, both live out of themselves in a
world of imagination. Hamlet is abstracted from everything;
Romeo is abstracted from everything but his love, and
lost in it. His "frail thoughts dally with faint
surmise," and are fashioned out of the suggestions
of hope, "the flatteries of sleep." He is
himself only in his Juliet; she is his only reality,
his heart's true home and idol. The rest of the world
is to him a passing dream. How finely is this character
pourtrayed where he recollects himself on seeing Paris
slain at the tomb of Juliet!—
"What said my man, when my betossed soul
Did not attend him as we rode? I think
He told me Paris should have married Juliet."
And again, just before he hears the sudden tidings
of her death—
"If I may trust the flattery of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand;
My bosom's lord sits lightly on his throne,
And all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead,
(Strange dream! that gives a dead man leave to think)
And breath'd such life with kisses on my lips,
That I reviv'd and was an emperour.
Ah me! how sweet is love itself possess'd,
When but love's shadows are so rich in joy!"
Romeo's passion for Juliet is not a first love: it
succeeds and drives out his passion for another mistress,
Rosaline, as the sun hides the stars. This is perhaps
an artifice (not absolutely neces-sary) to give us a
higher opinion of the lady, while the first absolute
surrender of her heart to him enhances the richness
of the prize. The commencement, progress, and ending
of his second passion are however complete in themselves,
not injured if they are not bettered by the first. The
outline of the play is taken from an Italian novel;
but the dramatic arrangement of the different scenes
between the lovers, the more than dramatic interest
in the progress of the story, the development of the
characters with time and circumstances, just according
to the degree and kind of interest excited, are not
inferior to the expression of passion and nature. It
has been ingeniously remarked among other proofs of
skill in the contrivance of the fable, that the improbability
of the main incident in the piece, the administering
of the sleeping-potion, is softened and obviated from
the beginning by the introduction of the Friar on his
first appearance culling simples and descanting on their
virtues. Of the passionate scenes in this tragedy, that
between the Friar and Romeo when he is told of his sentence
of banishment, that between Juliet and the Nurse when
she hears of it, and of the death of her cousin Tybalt
(which bear no proportion in her mind, when passion
after the first shock of surprise throws its weight
into the scale of her affections) and the last scene
at the tomb, are among the most natural and over-powering.
In all of these it is not merely the force of any one
passion that is given, but the slightest and most unlooked-for
transitions from one to another, the mingling currents
of every different feeling rising up and prevailing
in turn, swayed by the master-mind of the poet, as the
waves undulate beneath the gliding storm. Thus when
Juliet has by her complaints encouraged the Nurse to
say, "Shame come to Romeo," she in-stantly
repels the wish, which she had herself occasioned, by
"Blister'd be thy tongue
For such a wish! He was not born to shame.
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit,
For 'tis a throne where honour may be crown'd
Sole monarch of the universal earth!
O, what a beast was I to chide him so?
Nurse. Will you speak well of him that kill'd your
Juliet. Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah my poor Lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours' wife, have mangled it?"
And then follows on the neck of her remorse and returning
fondness, that wish treading almost on the brink of
impiety, but still held back by the strength of her
devotion to her lord, that "father, mother, nay,
or both were dead," rather than Romeo banished.
If she requires any other excuse, it is in the manner
in which Romeo echoes her frantic grief and disappointment
in the next scene at being banished from her.-Perhaps
one of the finest pieces of acting that ever was witnessed
on the stage, is Mr. Kean's manner of doing this scene
and his repetition of the word, Banished. He treads
close indeed upon the genius of his author.
A passage which this celebrated actor and able commentator
on Shakespear (actors are the best commentators on the
poets) did not give with equal truth or force of feeling
was the one which Romeo makes at the tomb of Juliet,
before he drinks the poison.
—" Let me peruse this face—
Mercutio's kinsman! 'noble county Paris!
What said my man, when my betossed soul
Did not attend him as we rode? I think
He told me Paris should have married Juliet:
Said he not so? or did I dream it so?
Or am I mad, hearing him talk of Juliet,
To think it was so?—O, give me thy hand,
One writ with me in sour misfortune's book!
I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave—
For here lies Juliet.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—O, my love! my wife!
Death that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips, and in thy cheeks,
And Death's pale flag is not advanced there.—
Tybalt, ly'st thou there in thy bloody sheet?
O, what more favour can I do to thee,
Than with that hand that cut thy youth in twain,
To sunder his that was thine enemy?
Forgive me, cousin! Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair! Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous;
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour!
For fear of that, I will stay still with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest;
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.—Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and lips, O you,
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!—
Come, bitter conduct, come unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks my sea-sick weary bark!
Here's to my love!—[Drinks.] O, true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick.—Thus with a kiss I die."
The lines in this speech, describing the loveliness
of Juliet, who is supposed to be dead, have been compared
to those in which it is said of Cleopatra after her
death, that she looked "as she would take another
Antony in her strong toil of grace"; and a question
has been started which is the finest, that we do not
pretend to decide. We can more easily decide between
Shakespear and any other author, than between him and
himself.—Shall we quote any more passages to shew his
genius or the beauty of ROMEO AND JULIET? At that rate,
we might quote the whole. The late Mr. Sheridan, on
being shewn a volume of the Beauties of Shakespear,
very properly asked—"But where are the other eleven?"
The character of Mercutio in this play is one of the
most mercurial and spirited of the productions of Shakespear's