“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
William Shakespeare’s The Tragedie Of Romeo And Juliet reinvented theatrical Tragedy by taking standard Comedic elements and subverting them, with unhappy outcomes. This makes Romeo & Juliet less a Tragedy than a Comedy-Gone-Wrong.
While it is strange today to think of Shakespeare as being a subversive playwright, from the first he built his playwriting career not just on terrific wordplay, violence, high poetry, and low humor. He also made a point of subverting theatrical tropes and norms dating back centuries.
It is unlikely Shakespeare set out to be deliberately subversive, but instead set his sights on drawing in audiences. It is clear that he looked at what plays were selling well in the early 1590s, and thought to himself “What if we gave them more of that?” By examining both popular and enduring theatrical tropes, he then attempted to outdo those tropes by taking them to their utmost extreme.
After cutting his literary teeth on a collaboration with either Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Nashe (or both) on the three Henry VI plays, Shakespeare tried his hand at a Marlovian villain in Richard III (1592-93). The eponymous Richard is very much in the style of Barabas, Marlowe’s villain of The Jew Of Malta. As Jonathan Bates writes, “The remark which begins innocuously but has a stinging aside in the tail, the tendency to pun and stab in the same breath, the sheer delight in villainy: these are learnt from Marlowe.” However, rather than “othering” the villain by race or religion, Shakespeare makes him a deformed king of England, slain by Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather.
Much of his early work is imitation by excess. Written about the same time as Richard III, Shakespeare’s first Comedy, A Comedy Of Errors, takes Plautus’ Menaechmi and doubles the confusion by adding a second pair of twins. In Titus Andronicus, written the following year, Shakespeare (in a possible collaboration with George Peele) shapes his first Tragedy to imitate Senecan tropes to an extreme, with an overabundance of gore and cruelty. In a knowing wink, Shakespeare fittingly sets Titus in a time of a bloody and cruel emperor, thus mirroring Seneca’s own murderous protégé, Nero. But the end result in Titus is literally laughable, with so many characters dying in the final scene that audiences often burst into uncomfortable guffaws.
Both Errors and Titus take what was popular, and then adds more, pushing boundaries of what audiences can endure.
In his next play, The Taming Of The Shrew, Shakespeare took a familiar story and crafted a less abusive protagonist. Rightly considered problematic today, Shakespeare’s Shrew is a clear rebuttal of the unattributed Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curst Wyfe (1580), in which the husband beats his “curst” wife with a rod then wraps her bleeding back in a salted horse hide. For all his emotional cruelty in his “hawking” of Kate—starvation, sleep deprivation, gaslighting—Petruchio never strikes his wife. In the popular culture of Elizabethan England, this was a subversively progressive stand. Additionally, Shakespeare makes the “good” sister of the poem into a more manipulative figure than her “shrew” of a sister, subverting tropes and expectations.
Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s three “Verona” plays: The Taming Of The Shrew, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, and Romeo & Juliet (though the inclusion of the Veronese family name Escalus in Measure For Measure suggests that play was also meant to be set in Verona, not Vienna). Despite most of the action of Shrew and Two Gents occurring in either Padua or Milan, Verona is the hub about which the main characters turn. It is worth noting that Romeo & Juliet cross-references the two earlier plays. When Peter shows the guest list for the Capulet feast to Romeo and Benvolio, they read “Mercutio, and his brother Valentine.” (I.ii.) At the feast itself (I.v.), Capulet mentions that Lucentio’s wedding was twenty-five years prior, and the Nurse points out “Young Petruchio,” suggesting that Kate and Petruchio had a son (so much happier than in John Fletcher’s spurious sequel, The Tamer Tamed).
Howard Cole argues that, though performed after CoE, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona is likely Shakespeare’s first attempt at writing a Comedy. Considered one of his weakest plays, Two Gents does not have the advantage of rewriting Plautus. Rather, it takes a theme of betrayed friendship from Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit. What is truly subversive is Shakespeare’s inclusion of his first (though definitely not last) crossdressing female-identifying character. As Jean Howard notes, crossdressing was “so transgressive that lower-class women were pilloried and whipped and merchant wives were harangued from the pulpit for doing it.” Shakespeare was being both scandalous and forward-thinking to make a sympathetic female protagonist argue the virtues and necessities of dressing as a man.
Which brings us to Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare did not invent the story. His genius was not in plot, but in substance. Thus he stole plots from wherever he found them. In this case, the familiar tale of doomed lovers dated back to Ovid (which Shakespeare lampoons with relish in Midsummer through Pyramus and Thisbe). The young lovers were eventually transplanted to Verona in the early 16th century by Luigi di Porto, who named the feuding families after the real-life Veronese Montecchi and Capelletti (mentioned by Dante in the fifteenth canto of Purgatorio). It is da Porto who names the lovers Romeo and Giulietta, and takes inspiration for the Prince’s name, Escalus, from Dante’s patrons, the della Scala family.
The tale next falls under the quill of Matteo Bandello and the blind poet Luigi Groto, before being translated to English. That English retelling came from Arthur Brooke in the form of The Tragicall Historye Of Romeus And Juliet.
But it is Shakespeare’s hands that it becomes theatre. More importantly, Shakespeare uses this age-old take to craft his first true masterpiece by subverting both Comedy and Tragedy at the same time, thus creating something wholly new.
In his 1612 work An Apology For Actors, Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Heywood lays out definitions for Comedy and Tragedy based on classical Greek and Roman concepts:
In Comedies, turbulenta prima, tranquilla vltima; In Tragedyes, tranquilla prima, turbulenta vltima. Comedies begin in trouble, and end in peace; Tragedies begin in calmes, and end in tempest.
This generalized sentiment holds up surprisingly well. Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra—these all begin with the world at a general sense of order, with mere undercurrents hinting at the tumult to come. Even Macbeth, which begins on the battlefields of a victorious war, evokes a feeling of order recently restored.
Romeo & Juliet, however, begins in tumult. As unserious the opening brawl is—this is the third such brawl in recent times, all without a fatality—there is no ignoring that order does not exist in Verona because of the feud. Prince Escalus threatens death should another such fight take place, yet the very next day finds fighting in the streets, showing him a figure without the power to impose order. By the end of the play, order is only restored, and the feud forever ended, through the death of all of Verona’s youth.
But those deaths are seen as different than the death of Hamlet and Ophelia, or Othello and Desdemona. In those plays there is no sense that the couple are being reunited in death. Whereas the “star-cross’d lovers” of R&J very much feel conjoined in death. It is this that leads people to, perversely, romanticize their suicides, and causing audiences to remember Romeo & Juliet as a great love story rather than an avoidable disaster.
For if Tragedy is at its core about separation, and Comedy about unity, Romeo & Juliet manages the unique feat of doing both at once. The lovers are united in their separation. The families are united in their loss. Verona is brought to peace through trouble.
This result is all the more shocking as the play follows the outline of a classic Shakespearean Comedy, complete with the requisite elements: a lovesick young man, an intelligent and independent young woman, disguises, drunkenness, mistimings, clowns, musicians, and a secret wedding. Appearing in both Shrew and Two Gents, these elements crop up in more refined ways in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and more.
These tropes were certainly recognizable to Shakespeare’s audiences. The subplot of Shrew was directly inspired by George Gascoigne’s Supposes (first performed in 1566). Not only Lyly’s Euphues, but his prose plays Campaspe and Gallathea contain most of these elements, as do Antony Munday’s Fidele and Fortunio and Thomas Kyd’s Fair Em.
Even the beginning of the play, with two servants walking down Verona’s streets of a morning, jesting of sex and violence (“I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall”—Sampson, I.i) would have been all too familiar as stock Comedic characters. How far distant this opening is from the ghost of Hamlet’s father upon the battlements, of the witches convening after the battle, of Saturninus and Bassanius challenging each other for the imperial throne. Without the Prologue, there would be no indication at all that R&J is headed for a dreadful end.
The Prologue itself is an indicator of what Shakespeare was attempting. Shakespeare employed a Prologue in just five plays. In both Pericles and Troilus & Cressida, he was invoking the style of the Greek chorus for his Greek subjects. In Henry V and Henry VIII, he used the Prologue to apologize for players taking on such lofty material, to stitch together disparate events, and to make patriotic speeches.
In Romeo & Juliet, however, Shakespeare’s Prologue acts as a disclaimer: “Don’t laugh too much, they’re going to die.” That he does so in the form of a sonnet evokes the theme of Petrarchan love. But in no other play does Shakespeare reveal the ending from the very first words. Indeed, Shakespeare feels compelled to have the Prologue return at the start of Act II, invoking images of gaping graves to remind everyone that, however much fun they might be having, these teenagers are still predestined to die. (It is worth noting that the famous Prologue does not appear in the First Folio edition of Romeo & Juliet).
The Prologue and the opening dialogue are at odds, making the start of the play a Tragedy in name and a Comedy in form.
Further on in An Apology For Actors, Heywood lays out a more detailed explanation for why such acts are important to “shew the people the vntimely ends of such as haue moued tumults”:
If we present a Tragedy, we include the fatall and abortiue ends of such as commit notorious murders, which is aggrauated and acted with all the Art that may be, to terrifie men from the like abhorred practises.
The aim, then, is to frighten men from such acts. In this, Romeo & Juliet demonstrates the dire consequences of rashness and self-harm.
Yet Heywood’s very next statement is a definition of Comedy that also fits Romeo & Juliet shockingly well:
If a Comedy, it is pleasantly contriued with merry accidents, and intermixt with apt and witty iests…in the shape of a Clowne, to shew others their slouenly and vnhansome behauiour, that they may reforme that simplicity in themselues, which others make their sport, lest they happen to become the like subiect of generall scorne to an auditory, else it intreates of loue, deriding foolish inamorates, who spend their ages, their spirits, nay themselues, in the seruile and ridiculous imployments of their Mistresses: and these are mingled with sportfull accidents, to recreate such as of themselues are wholly deuoted to Melancholly, which corrupts the bloud.
These three elements, then, Heywood finds vital in the Comedy: the Unreformed Clown, the Foolish Lover, and “Sportful Accidents” to relieve those devoted to melancholy.
The chief “Clowne” of Romeo & Juliet is Mercutio, whose own life and words mirror the play’s course. His Queen Mab speech begins in a light and airy manner, speaking wittily of nothing. Yet at its height it twists, evoking darkly foreboding images of death and destruction. So disturbing is this that Romeo must cut him off mid-speech, entreating him, “Peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing” (I.iv) Mercutio talks of nothing, just as a Comedy should—until suddenly he is in deadly earnest. It is no coincidence, then, that it is Mercutio’s death at the height of the show that twists the play, setting in motion death and destruction. He even jokes as he dies (“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” III,i.), demonstrating through dialogue and action the contrast that is the heart of this play.
The Foolish Lover, of course, is Romeo. Though his name means pilgrim, he has none of a pilgrim’s patience. He languishes, longing to be in love, and enjoying making himself miserable over love unrequited (“She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow/Do I live dead, that live to tell it now.” I.i). Indeed, Romeo might himself be “wholly devoted to melancholy” as Heywood describes. He hardly fits the modern idea of a Tragic hero, whose flaw leads to destruction. He has little in common with Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, or Lear. He is neither soldier, nor leader, nor prince, imbued with all that is admirable in men, with one Achilles Heel to bring him low.
No, Romeo is much more akin to Orlando, racing about the forest of Arden pinning terrible love poetry to trees; to Duke Orsino, begging for more music to feed his love so that he might be rid of it; of Lucentio, struck by the sight of Bianca’s beauty that says “I burn, I pine, I perish Tranio/If I achieve not this young modest girl.” (Shrew I.i)
Only if we ascribe to Aristotle’s idea of harmarita, not as the modern notion of a Tragic Flaw, but rather as he described it, as an “error of judgment or frailty,” then we may classify Romeo among the Tragic heroes.
Yet even in love, Romeo differs from other Tragic heroes. In his comparison of Shakespeare’s titular young lover and Dante’s use of Paulo and Francesca da Rimini in The Inferno, Francis Fergusson quotes Romeo’s speech that invokes Petrarch’s qualities of a lover:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (R&J I.i)
Fergusson then says:
In a sense (Romeo) “knows” his condition very well, but his knowledge of it is of a kind that can do him no good. Aristotle (in Nicomachean Ethics, 7.3) points out that we may often know something in a way that does not avail to guide us, and this commonplace of his psychology is important in both Dante and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s tragic characters often see their erring motives clearly, even as they obey them, and Dante in hell often “knows” with his head without being able to save himself from sharing the experience, and even the motivation, of the damned.
Romeo is set apart from other leads in Shakespeare’s Tragedies. His “tragic flaw” is the rashness of youth. Several times in the show disaster could have been averted if he had just waited a little longer to act. If he had not married that morning. If he had not intervened in the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt. If he had not challenged Tybalt to avenge Mercutio. If he had not bought poison and returned to Verona to die with Juliet. A moment of pause before any of these would have prevented the play’s tragic outcome. But, unlike Macbeth musing on his “vaulting ambition” or Hamlet debating “what a rogue and peasant slave” he is, Romeo lacks the self-awareness to even comprehend his own errors.
Yet what errors does he make that any other Shakespearean lover does not also make? What action sets Romeo apart from Claudio, Orlando, Lucentio and the rest?
Here Heywood’s third element comes into play. The “sportful accident” upon which is the accidental killing of Mercutio by Tybalt. That it is Romeo’s fault is not in doubt. Mercutio says to Romeo, “Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.” To which Romeo replies, “I thought all for the best.” (III.i) In trying to break up the duel, he caused his friend’s death. And, in typically rash Romeo fashion, sets out to get revenge.
Earlier, Friar Laurence warns Romeo, “These violent delights have violent ends.” Shakespeare makes this true in all his plays, where violence outside of war rebounds upon the violent. No matter the justification, no character is allowed to usurp the place of God, or in His stead the Prince, by taking a life. Even though he is avenging the Prince’s kinsman, by killing Tybalt Romeo removes himself from the common Comedic tropes and plunges into unknown territory, taking the whole cast with him.
This is the subversion at the core of this perfectly constructed play. For two acts, Romeo is the perfect Young Lover, both earnest and fickle, spouting sonnets and pining for an ideal. That he truly loves Juliet is implied because he does more than pine, he takes action, and succeeds in winning her affections.
And then, in Act III scene i, the turning point of every Tragedy (Caesar is stabbed in III.i, Macbeth orders the death of Banquo in III.i, the storm in Lear begins in III.i, etc.), Romeo rashly abandons his foppishly romantic role by taking the life of his wife’s cousin.
How jarring must it have been for audiences to see these familiar stock characters inspired from Plautus—Young Lover, Maiden, Braggart Soldier, Nurse, Old Father, Mother, Wily Servant—suddenly faced with the gravest of consequences. For they are still seeking that happy ending, that promised unity. They attempt all the absurd acts that would succeed in any other Comedy: marry in secret (Shrew, As You, Twelfth Night, et al), pretend to be dead (Friar Francis in Much Ado succeeds where Friar Laurence fails), meet at an appointed time to escape to freedom (Hermia and Lysander in Midsummer succeed in escaping, only to be waylaid by fairies). The Nurse even advises Juliet to forget Romeo and wed Paris, which in any other play would end in great hilarity, but here results in Juliet feeling utterly betrayed. The stakes, suddenly, are life and death. While death is often threatened in other Comedies, here they occur, throwing the very stars out of alignment. In this star-crossed play, each Comedic twist makes things worse for the lovers, until they can see no escape from Fate save suicide.
It is difficult to imagine the experience of seeing something entirely new in the world. The film Shakespeare In Love does a fair job of capturing what the audience must have felt watching the first performance. It is akin to Walt Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Audiences went in expecting “Disney’s Folly” to be ninety minutes of dancing trees. They exited weeping or singing songs from the film, all of which joined the popular music of 1938. Seat cushions in at least one theatre had to be changed from children repeatedly wetting themselves from both excitement and terror.
Creation of something new is, by its very act, subversive. It upends order and invites change. Just as Disney subverted expectations by crafting something wholly new, so Shakespeare did in writing Romeo & Juliet. After this play, Tragedy was not limited to heroic figures of warriors, monarchs, and leaders. The brutal truth of Romeo & Juliet is that tragedy can strike anyone. The play hurts so much more than a typical Tragedy, because it lifts you up before pulling the rug away.
In his Poetics, Aristotle says catharsis is the telos of Tragedy, the end towards which the play is aimed. If that catharsis is indeed to be achieved by an imitation of action “with incidents arousing pity and fear,” Romeo & Juliet is the height of Tragedy. But it achieves this through a construction given to us by Thomas Heywood’s Apologie: “Comedies make men see and shame at their faults.”
David Blixt is the author of five Shakespeare-related novels, including The Master Of Verona and Her Majesty’s Will. He also penned a collection of essays entitled Shakespeare’s Secrets: Romeo & Juliet, which includes his origin to the famous feud. His latest work, The Song Of War, an anthology novel of the Trojan War, releases in October 2023.
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 Howard, J. E. (1988). Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England. Shakespeare Quarterly, 39(4), 418–440. https://doi.org/10.2307/2870706
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 Bullough, G. (1957). Narrative And Dramatic Sources Of Shakespeare (Vols. 1 – Early Comedies, Poems, Romeo & Juliet) [Hardcover]. Columbia University Press. Page 65.
 Fergusson, F. (1975). Romantic Love in Dante and Shakespeare. The Sewanee Review, 83(2), 253–266. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27542963
 Wakeman, G. (2015, April 28). The Disgusting Reason A Movie Theater Had To Renovate After Showing Snow White. CINEMABLEND. https://www.cinemablend.com/new/Disgusting-Reason-Movie-Theater-Had-Renovate-Showing-Snow-White-71124.html
This essay copyright 2022 by David Blixt.