Lesson 3: Romeo and Juliet, A Cultural Approach



Romeo and Juliet and Its Cultural Conext

  • Romeo and Juliet tells a story of young star-crossed lovers¡Xtimeless an placeless theme, can happen anywhere, anytime (classical Piramus and Thisbe, medieval Tristan and Isolde, Chinese Butterfly Lovers).
  • However, it is very specifically contextualized in its cultural background.
  • What makes it a non-mistaken product of its time?









Petrarchan Poetics

    S'amor non è, che dunque è quel ch' io sento?
    ma s' egli è amor, per Dio, che cosa et quale?
    se bona, ond' è l'effetto aspro mortale?
    se ria, ond' è sì dolce ogni tormento?

    S' a mia voglia ardo, one' è 'l pianto e lamento?
    s' a mal mio grado, il lamentar che vale?
    O viva morte, o dilettoso male,
    come puoi tanto in me s' io nol consento?

    Et s' io 'l consento, a gran torto mi doglio.
    Fra sì cintrari venti in frale barca
    mi trovo in alto mar senza governo,

    sì lieve di saver, d'error si carca
    ch' i' medesmo non so quel ch' io mi voglio,
    e tremor a messa state, ardendo il verno.

    (Petrarch, Rime sparce 132)

    If it is not love, what then is it that I feel?
    But if it is love, before God, what kind of thing is it?
    If it is good, whence comes this bitter mortal effect?
    If it is evil, why is each torment so sweet?

    If by my own will I burn, whence comes the weeping and lament?
    If against my will, what does lamenting avail?
    O living death, O delightful harm,
    how can you have such power over me if I do not consent to it?

    And if I do consent to it, it is wrong of me to complain.
    Amid such contrary winds, in a frail bark,
    I find myself at sea without a tiller,

    so light of wisdom, so laden with error,
    that I myself do not know what I want;
    and I shiver in midsummer, burn in winter.

  • Petrarchan rhetoric is extremely rhetorical (not literal, but metaphorical), exaggerated.
  • Petrarchan oxymoron¡Xillogical, anti-commonsensical.
  • Petrarchan poetics elevates love to an unearthly/artistic state, detached from mundane daily life, from practical needs.
  • Starting with 14th-century, Petrarch's influence prevailed through the Continent and later caused England's sonnet vogue in the 1590s.



The Petrarchism of Romeo and Juliet

  • Romeo I.i.168-175, 183-187
  • Romeo I.ii.52-54, 57
  • Juliet's comment I.v.107
  • Romeo's figurativeness vs. Juliet's literal-mindedness II.i.102-132
  • Mercutio's ridicule of Romeo II.iii.34 (p. 898)
  • Juliet after Tybolt's death III.ii.73-85
  • Romeo and Juliet are oxymoron materialized and incarnate; they literalize oxymoron (loving hate, living death). Their tragedy is predestined not by star, but by their total commitment to that culture.

The Genre of Romeo and Juliet

Comedy vs.Tragedy

  • Tragedy¡X"fall of prince" is the native tradition (before Aristotle was discovered and widely employed).
  • Examples: Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello¡Xall the protagonists are of high positions, if not royal.
  • Comedy¡Xtypical motifs include young love vs. parental obstacle, bold female character, love potion, mistaken identity, banishment, prince/duke involvement, etc.
  • Romeo and Juliet is strikingly similar to A Midsummer Night's Dream and resembles a comedy. „³

Comic Elements of Romeo and Juliet

  • Plot¡Xyoung lovers vs. parental obstacles
  • Characters¡Xno villain (Juliet's father is very loving indeed, and Paris is also respectable)
  • Funny characters¡XNurse, Peter, musicians „³ numerous funny episodes, (bawdy) jokes, comic relief
  • Why does Shakespeare employ comic elements?
  • Almost all modern editions remove them or minimize them. Why? Why do we find them so offensive while Shakespeare doesn't?

Generic Experiments and Explorations

  • We use ballet, traditional opera, or Broadway musical to do a text from Western canonical drama.
  • Shakespeare uses Romeo and Juliet to experiment, explore, and comment on literary/dramatic conventions and traditions; he mixes and matches.



The Dramatic Conflict in Romeo and Juliet

  • The two Verona families are almost identical, no real difference.
  • The old generation are powerful and rich; they may be foolish but are not truly detestable.
  • The young generation are fiery and idle; they may be foolish but are still well respected by society.
  • There is no real mutual distinction, no real motivation for hatred.
  • What causes the feud? What is the effect of family feud?
  • Shakespeare emphasizes random, chance, fate not controlled by us, not known to us, incomprehensible, unpredictable, and meaningless.
  • It is a universe in which we are really small.
  • What is the moral lesson of Romeo and Juliet?
  • What could Romeo and Juliet have done otherwise? Fortune is larger than them.
  • As a result, there is no moral lesson.






Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet


  • West Side Story is about poor, discriminated new immigrants.
  • Leonardo de Caprio's version is about gangsters (though rich) in Los Angeles area.
  • Modern adaptations always portray the families in subculture, lower social-financial-political status. Why?
  • Violence is now institutionalized (police, war) and hid from our sight in our society. In the past, every family killed their own chicken, etc., and a nobleman could challenge another to single combat, a honorable deed).
  • But are we necessarily more merciful or civilized? Or are we simply more hypocritical?

West Side Story

  • On the surface level, West Side Story differs from Shakespeare's original because of its music and spectacles.
  • It also historicizes, localizes, and specified. (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet do not speak with Italian accent, but the young people in West Side Story speak with accents.)
  • It is not just a legendary love story, but a social documentation-commentary.
  • Immigrant problems in the US is both historical and ongoing (new Asian and Hispanic immigrants). It always implies misunderstanding, fear, suspicion, prejudice, jealousy, antagonism, and hatred.
  • West Side Story presents a bleak picture of modern society. The young people are totally alienated from the adult world, from the power center; they have no real future. There are no true benign figures around them¡Xthe cops are mean and self-righteous, Anita (despite all her understanding and sympathy) betrayed Maria, and Doc is totally useless.
  • West Side Story does not blame Fortune. Instead, people make their own graves. It is a moral story.
  • What's the moral lesson? We should love, not hate. It is very idealistic, sentimental, simple-minded, and misleading; it does not address the real issue (how to solve the immigrant problems).
  • After all, it's a Broadway musical, a Hollywood movie, which may look deep, but is not and never intends to be.



Taiwanese Opera¡m©¼©¤ªá¡n

  • What are the newelements foreign to Shakespeare?
  • Western values vs. Chinese¡values: liberty, equality, and love (a dreamland, a myth¡Xtotally ironic, since the story is based on a Western source) vs. parental oppression, forced marriage, hatred, prejudice (reality).
  • In Shakespeare, there is no other world outside this current one.
  • Sense of history¡Xthe Monk and the Aunt are counterparts of the young lovers. History repeats itself; the pursuit of love as a permanent human desire. In Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet transcends all others, who don't understand what true love is.
  • Quasi-Buddhist philosophy¡Xwhat exactly is the philosophy? Real Buddhism would ask you to give up all carnal desire, not to pursue it in the other world! In Shakespeare, even though Friar Lawrence is a religious figure, there is little religious sentiment, his wisdom is down-to-earth prudence; there is no redemption.
  • Triangular love¡XJinlong is a real character, very sympathetic. In Shakespeare, Paris is a shadow figure, totally unaware of Romeo's existence or Juliet's real desire.
  • Family duties (Chinese, Confucian)¡Xintimacy between both Jinlong and Xiulan and their families (fathers, mother/aunt, Xiulan's "brother" Jinlongs). They care about their families, and Xiulan even gives in at one point, willing to marry Jinlong as her father wishes. In Shakespeare, love is their only duty. Romeo and Juliet never think about what their aging parents.
  • What are the similarities with West Side Story?
  • Both adaptations localize, historicize, and racialize to justify the conflict. In the Taiwanese opera, it is the conflict between Zhangzhou and Chuanzhou immigrants. In Shakespeare, there is no real motivation for the feud.
  • Both adaptations demystify: they emphasize the human element (triangular love) and justify the lovers' suffering. In Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet are fighting against a vague, unknown, imaginary, and self-constructed Fate, not against Paris, not against old Montague or Capulet, who don't even know about this love.
  • In both adaptations, death is purely accidental: Tony, Maria, Jinlong or Xiulan never even think about committing suicide; instead, they actively pursue an escape and a future. In Shakespeare, death is never off the mind of the lovers (dramatizing is part of Petrarchan poetics).
  • The Taiwanese opera employs music, spectacles, physical theatre, elaborate stage (moving boat), double stage (the triangular scene)¡Xnot really authentic to Chinese theatre, but follows the Broadway style.
  • The Taiwanese opera is more like an adaptation of West Side Story than an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.


The "Balcony Scene"


Triangular Love


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© 2005 by Bi-qi Beatrice Lei. All rights reserved.