Life, Love and Eternity: Romeo & Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
A Case of Bad Timing
Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare’s popular play, is built upon a sequence of mistimings and clashing events, which pave the path to doom for the lovers. At the outset of the story, Romeo is sunk in despondency over Rosaline, a girl who has not returned his affections. The first instance of bad timing happens when he and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio meet an illiterate servant of the house of Capulet, with a list of people whom his master has invited to a ball. Romeo kindly agrees to help him and reads aloud from the list: My fair niece Rosaline… His friends persuade him to attend the ball in the hope that Romeo might meet her. Unknown to the men, the ball is being held in honour of Count Paris, whom Capulet has contracted to marry his daughter, two years hence, and the Capulets have ever been in dispute with his house of Montague. However, once Romeo sets eyes on Juliet, he forgets Rosaline forever. When Romeo attempts to dance with Juliet, his identity is revealed and her cousin, Tybalt, challenges him to a duel. However, Capulet senior halts the fight as he does not want any bloodshed at his party. By now, Juliet has fallen in love with Romeo and without knowing he is watching, vows her love for him at her balcony window. This is the second instance of unfortunate timing. Had Juliet stayed silent, Romeo might have realised the hopelessness of his task and resumed his amour for Rosaline.
Fateful and Fatal
Friar Laurence marries Romeo and Juliet in secret, but Tybalt is still seeking his revenge. He challenges Romeo to a duel but the newly wed youth refuses to fight. To uphold the Montague family honour, cousin Mercutio steps in and fights Tybalt. When Mercutio is slain, Romeo feels honour-bound to step in and kill Tybalt. As punishment, the Prince of Verona sends Romeo into exile, with the threat of certain death if he ever returns. However, the groom manages a night of secret love with the distraught bride, fleeing for Mantua before “the Watch be set”.
Juliet’s subsequent grief leads Capulet senior (for Tybalt, he thinks) believe it is incumbent upon him to bring forward her wedding. She pleads and pleads against the marriage but to no avail. The wedding date is set for Thursday morning. On Tuesday, she visits Friar Laurence and he gives her a potion that will put her into a death-like sleep. Her family will place her in the Capulet family tomb, he tells her, but she will awaken in time to find Romeo at her side. At the same time, the Friar writes a letter to Romeo and dispatches it with a messenger to Mantua. The delighted Juliet hurries home and tells her father she is a willing bride to Paris. This is a fateful – and fatal – piece of timing. Capulet senior misreads her joy completely. Fearful his daughter will change her mind, he brings forward the wedding to Wednesday morning. Alone in her room, Juliet takes the potion. An outbreak of plague prevents the messenger of Friar Laurence getting through to Romeo. Instead, he hears of her death from his servant, Balthasar. In despair, Romeo hies to Verona and slays a mourning Paris outside of her tomb, before killing himself. Juliet awakes from her potion-induced sleep and finding her lover dead, kills herself.
The Language of Time
When Shakespeare describes the lovers as “star-crossed” in the Prologue of the play, he is being quite literal. The language of chronological time and its strictures in contemporary life run right throughout the text. In Act 1, Scene 1, when Romeo asks: Is the day so young? his kinsman Benvolio replies: But new struck nine. In Act 2, Scene 5, Juliet laments her nurse’s tardiness: The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse/ In half an hour, she promised to return.
In his lifetime, Shakespeare had moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to the metropolis. In doing so, he shrugged off the relatively sleepy, almost medieval village life for a gruelling work schedule for the activity of Renaissance London, a place where merchants dashed daily to keep appointments set by the clock. Interestingly, the minute hand was a seventeenth-century innovation. Until the end of the sixteenth-century, one hand moved around the dial of all clocks, the mechanism simply chiming the hour, quarters and half-hour, thus Juliet’s speech about her nurse’s tardiness.
The text also betrays Shakespeare’s awareness of how “natural” astral and biological time has ever clashed with the artificial, clock-regulated time of mercantile man. Woven throughout the speeches are references to the sun, moon, stars, in short, the astral bodies that control our years, days and seasons, giving the events of the play a sense of urgency wrapped in the context of eternity. In her definitive speech in Act 2 about the names of things, Juliet contrasts Romeo with a rose, an ephemeral bloom that is sensitive to the proclivities of time and weather.
In her book, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, author Jay Griffiths describes how the perception and meaning of time has altered throughout the ages. She describes cultures where time is defined by the flowering of particular plants “watermelon month” and of what animals are due to give birth “little pig moon”. It is only in developed areas of the world that the clock regulates our lives and calendar. Stratford-upon-Avon belonged to the “developed” world of the time, but no doubt the memory of a calendar ruled by saints’ days and folk festivals, of days when work began with the sun’s rising and ended at the sun’s setting, lingered with its inhabitants. The poet would have brought this sense of time measured by other than a clock with him to London. Juliet’s nurse insists to Lady Capulet that: Come Lammas Eve at night she shall be fourteen. (Act 1, Scene 3, 17), Lammas being an ancient summer festival. In addition to the clock and the calendar, flowering plants and saints’ days, Romeo knows another kind of time. When he and his companions enter the ball in Act 1, Scene 4, he talks of the bad dreams he has had, which have given him uneasy feelings for the future: I fear too early, for my mind misgives/ some consequences yet hanging in the stars/ Shall bitterly begin his fearful date/ With this night’s revels. However, Mercutio has already dismissed dreams as: the children of an idle brain. In short, the sensitive Romeo is affected by dreamtime. At the end of the famous balcony scene, Romeo says: O blessed, blessed night, I am afeard,/ Being in night, all this is but a dream / Too flattering sweet to be substantial…
Sequel to Romeo and Juliet
Would you read a sequel to Romeo Juliet, charting what happened to all the survivors, Benvolio, etc?
Chronos and Kairos
Juliet, too, is aware of the dreamtime, the inner life of the personality that exists outside of cosmic and chronological time. She says: Love’s heralds should be thoughts which ten times faster glides than the sun’s beams… (Act 2, Scene 4, 4-5) Jay Griffiths describes this disjuncture the various ways that we measure time as the difference between Chronos and Kairos. In Greek mythology, Chronos resides over “linear” time, the progression of time as measured by the clock, thus our word “chronological”. Kairos presided over the time of being, and kairological registers mood and feelings, of being happy or sad, hungry or tired, rather than attending to the ticking clock. To live by kairological time is to order the day according to mental states and physical needs. In the restless world in which he lived, Shakespeare was ever aware of omnipresent chronological time and how the ebb and flow of Kairos was being lost. Romeo & Juliet is not the only play in which Shakespeare expounds on the exigencies of time. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Troilus & Cressida, Ulysses makes his speech on the perils of lack of purpose to the indolent Achilles, beginning Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back… (145), while 42 of the 154 sonnets meditate on the brevity of life and the importance of living life to the full. Of course, there are many more references to time in the works of the Bard, which I look forward to discovering as the years go by.
Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffiths, Flamingo, 1999
Romeo & Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare