On Romeo’s story as a hero’s journey

I’ve been re-reading “Romeo and Juliet” for an online course on Shakespeare I am taking, and it seems as though, for the first time in my life, I actually paid attention to the opening words of the Chorus. It’s strange: I know these words by heart (in two languages, in fact), but somehow I’ve never really noticed how they clash with the play itself. Here are the words:

Chorus: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (Prologue)

It is an accurate summary of the events to unfold, but the thing is, one and the same sequence of events can make a multitude of different stories depending on the perspective, on our way of perceiving them. And here, in Prologue, the play is announced as a story of civil feud, in which the love story is but a chapter; nay, even less: a means to an end. But the play as we know it is a love story, in which the feud is but the context, the hostile environment. By the end, it turns into Juliet’s story:

Prince: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.(Act V, Scene 3)

August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905
August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905

The focus of the play shifts gradually. In the first act, it mostly keeps to the Chorus’s original perspective (with three of its five scenes taking place in locations vaguely described as “a public space”). Before the second act, the Chorus appears again to introduce Romeo and Juliet’s perspective, and four of its five scenes happen in enclosed private spaces. The first, public, story culminates in the first scene of the third act (when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain) and then disappears from our view till the very end of the play (the last scene of Act V, the churchyard scene).

By this time, nobody in the audience (I guess) really cares at all about whether or not civil peace is going to be restored in Verona, and yet this is exactly the promised “happy end” of the larger story introduced by the Chorus from the start (and even now, anyone can go to peaceful Verona and see the promised statues). Shakespeare’s humanistic impulse moves the story away from the social plane and makes the private tragedy of a two lovers larger than everything else in the play, but he doesn’t really forget about the social calamities. It just turns out that their resolution is found not in “a public place”, but within the private, psychological space of love.    

This contrast between two stories — located as they are in two different spaces, public and private — gives rise to the third story, the story of Romeo, which, in the light of this contrast, begins to look rather close to the mythological “hero’s journey”. In the beginning of the play, we find him in the “outer” world, pining for Rosaline, fully immersed in the by then long-established tradition of love for an unattainable lady (which makes one avoid life rather than live it). He is called for adventure — crushing Capulet’s party, and here, just before they go, we get the first inkling that Shakespeare has given him a deeper (albeit not always quite conscious) awareness of what is going on and what is his part in it:

Romeo: I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen. (Act I, Scene 4)

We, in the audience, know that he is right, but to him, the actual events of the night would seem to show the contrary — so blessedly happy he feels once he enters the magic private world of Juliet’s orchard. He now meets the true, life-inspiring, love, and it calls him into action.

As mythological heroes usually do, he goes to his “ghostly helper”, Friar Lawrence, who — among other things — tells him directly about the role his love story must play in the world of politics:

Friar Laurence. But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love. (Act II, Scene 3)

And Romeo replies in a way that always puzzled me enormously before this re-reading:

Romeo. O, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.

What can it mean, “sudden haste”? He has actually been hasty all along (so there can be nothing particularly “sudden” about it), and now that the friar has agreed to his request, he might, on the contrary, calm down a little. Why this feeling of sudden haste instead? But if we assume for a moment that his prophetic dream the night before means that he somehow has more knowledge of his fate than he is conscious of, then it might be that the friar’s mention of the feud serves to remind that “knowing” part of him how little time he has left — hence the sudden urge to hurry even more.

I won’t recount Romeo’s trials here — everyone knows them — except for one, his first meeting with Tybalt after the wedding, the first attempt to conquer hate with his newfound power of love, and thus to fulfil his destiny:

Tybalt. Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this,—thou art a villain.

Romeo. Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.

Tybalt. Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.

Romeo. I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet,—which name I tender
As dearly as my own,— be satisfied. (Act III, Scene 5)

This takes enormous courage in the “culture of honour” (an essential part of Romeo’s public, ordinary world), as witnessed by Mercutio’s reaction (O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!), but, of course, it doesn’t work anyway — he would have to lose more than his reputation of valour.

Just as his entrance into Juliet’s world of love earlier, this ultimate loss is also presaged by a dream, almost a mirror-image of the first one. He recalls it just before he receives the news of Juliet’s “death”:

Romeo. If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
My bosom’s lord sits lightly in 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 breathed such life with kisses in my lips,
That I revived, and was an emperor. (Act V, Scene 1)

Just like the first one, this dream seems to be immediately contradicted by reality, but the audience knows that the dream is actually closer to the truth than these news: Juliet isn’t really dead and had he but kissed her a bit longer the following night, he would have seen her awaken to life. Shakespeare seems to be telling us once again that his dreams are more than the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy.

Death is never too far from his waking thoughts, either; he is always ready to die (I suppose one must be in the world he lives in). What he is not ready for, his worst fear, is Juliet’s death — this seems to him to be against all “rules”:

Romeo. Is it even so? then I defy you, stars! (Act V, Scene 1)

And he springs into determined, single-minded actions which would bring the story to its end, and public peace to Verona’s streets. Defying the stars doesn’t seem to prevent them from having the last word, does it?

So, then, is this a failed hero’s journey? Could it have worked out better for them (could he have transformed into “an emperor”) had he not defied the stars, that is, if he had been able to accept and conquer his worst fear, the fear of life without Juliet? Because, after all, it was all a delusion, a seeming death (and his dream has, in fact, told him so).

Frankly, I have not expected that the logic of this post would lead me to this question — and I have no answer.

[share title=”If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, please consider sharing it with your friends!” facebook=”true” twitter=”true” google_plus=”true” linkedin=”true” pinterest=”true” reddit=”true” email=”true”]