Essay by Amelia Brooker
Art by Haley Cheng
European history is no stranger to periods of cultural shifts, but the Renaissance period brought on a shift of the mediatic kind, where tension between traditional orality and new-world literacy was strong and tangible enough to be dramatized on the stage. The stage play was a very specific place to explore this dynamic; existing in the middle ground of the oral culture of theatre and the literate culture of playwriting. Shakespeare dramatizes the historical mediatic dynamic within Romeo and Juliet by finding cultural representation in character conflict. Each character takes on a cultural association that does not necessarily align with those with which they share their household name. Setting these characters in initial opposition due to their stances on language not only sets up the dramatics of the play, but serves as a catalyst for its tragic ending.
The two titular characters in this play are set at odds with each other from the opening, with each as the namesake of their respective feuding household. To demonstrate the gravity with which they oppose each other, Shakespeare makes Juliet representative of oral culture, and Romeo of literate culture. This is a core aspect of the play, and how Shakespeare adds to the dramatic tension of these characters’ love story by putting them in context with the biggest cultural shift of his time. The radical separation in their understanding of orality and literacy reflects the differences in understanding that they – and their respective families – have of each other. The play’s attention to sonnet structure “[establishes] Verona as a country of the mind” and as “a world of fixed relationships and closed assumptions” (Berry 1993). With this culture as the backdrop, dramatic tension is enabled to emerge.
Romeo represents a strict, linear, literary culture. This is perhaps due to his strong socio-political standing; as the son of a wealthy family, we can infer that he is well-educated. Furthermore, based on his manner of speech, we can infer that he is a fan of the Petrarchan sonnet structure. Mercutio even explicitly tells the audience that he is “for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in” (2.4.38). Romeo is constrained to this form, which in turn shapes his worldview. Not only are Romeo’s linguistic structure and declaration of love inseparable, but the declaration is formed by the structure itself.
Juliet, on the other hand, represents traditional oral culture. Her worldview is not constrained in the same way that Romeo’s is, and thus she is able to see love in a richer, more rounded way. In fact, she does not only see love, but she feels it outside of a singular sense, saying “every tongue that speaks / But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence” (3.2.35-36). Upon their first meeting, Romeo opens their dialogue with a sonnet structure, and Juliet takes his lead. As she engages with him, he follows her lines in rhyme. The fact that the two at “their first encounter compose a sonnet, chimingly, together” (Berry, 1993), sets them up to explore the dramatic tension between their cultural views.
Juliet notes the pair’s stark differences in their initial meeting, telling Romeo he “[kisses] by the book” (1.5.122), but it is the balcony scene that best showcases their cultural dissonance. One of Romeo’s lines is even used to rebut the earlier comparison of Paris to a book, saying “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books; / But love from love, towards school with heavy looks” (2.2.157-158). Romeo begins the scene comfortable in his sonnet structure, expressing his love the only way he knows how. But it is Juliet, and what she represents, that pushes him to break out of this constrained speech pattern. She is the first to question “what’s in a name?” (46), and draws on the imagery and scent of a rose rather than its linguistic significance. For the first time, Romeo follows in questioning the superiority of language, remarking that he “would tear the word” (62). This is Romeo challenging his view, and bringing forth an internal mediatic shift that signifies a cultural one as well. However, throughout the following scenes, Romeo still shows his allegiance to the validity of words and literacy, as he asks Friar Lawrence to “close [their] hands with holy words” so that he “may but call her [his]” (2.6.6). Juliet follows this by remarking that her thoughts are “more rich in matter than in words” (30), continuing to confront Romeo’s idea that love is a constraint to linguistic ability.
Juliet’s positioning as a representative of oral culture can also be explored through the lens of her family and upbringing. Her two largest maternal influences are both seen in the play: Lady Capulet and the Nurse. Both women interact with Juliet in vastly different ways, as demonstrated through their proximity to literate or oral culture. Lady Capulet, as a noble woman, is presumed to be well-educated. Her affiliation with orality is rooted in her prestige, as she views life through a very strict and linear mindset. She believes it is time for Juliet to get married, and goes on to describe Paris as little more than a continuation of this linear path, which Shakespeare dramatizes by putting the speech itself into a sonnet form. At each turn, Paris is compared to books and tools of writing, an “unbound lover” who has been “writ … with beauty’s pen”. (1.3.88) To Lady Capulet, her daughter’s life is on a linear path, and tribal feelings of love and desire only serve to push her away from this path. This creates a space to dramatize mediatic tension, by having Juliet oppose her mother’s strict beliefs.
The Nurse serves as a distinct foil to Lady Capulet by representing the epitome of traditional orality. Her speech that immediately precedes Lady Capulet’s is given with no semblance of structure, and deeply contrasts Lady Capulet’s way of speaking. The Nurse recalls ideas, relates them to each other, and jumps back and forth in time, interrupting her own thought streams. She seeks to fill time and space with her voice, whereas Lady Capulet uses her voice only as a vessel to move forwards in a line. The Nurse’s speech shows that in oral culture, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically”, and Lady Capulet’s focus on literacy “[determines] the kind of thinking that can be done, the way experience is intellectually organized” (Ong, 35). Juliet is a young woman finding her place and voice in society, and the audience is able to see how these two characters influence her throughout the events of the play. To see Juliet align herself with oral culture is a distinct choice that causes dramatic tension between her and Lady Capulet, while strengthening her relationship with the Nurse.
Moreover, the characters on Romeo’s side of the story also round out this mediatic dynamic. Mercutio embodies many proponents of oral culture, albeit in a different way to that of Juliet. We see him and Romeo argue – Mercutio challenges Romeo’s strict Petrarchan view with his own boisterous and mythical view on life. In discussing love, Romeo laments that it is “too rough / … and it pricks like thorn” (1.4.25-26). Mercutio throws these words back at him mockingly; “if love be rough with you, be rough with love / Prick love for pricking” (27-28). Immediately preceding the balcony scene, where Romeo’s Petrarchan views are most prominent, we see Mercutio rebuke Romeo’s linguistic form by shouting words free of any structure: “Romeo! Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover!” (2.1.9). He even follows this by mocking Romeo, asking him to “[s]peak but one rhyme and I am satisfied … pronounce but ‘love’ and ‘dove’” (11-12). However, it is Mercutio’s characteristic boldness in speaking that leads to his demise. The lead up to his battle with Tybalt was “uttered / With gentle breath” (3.1.163-164), proving the literal consequences of orality. Even Mercutio’s final words are painstakingly literal, claiming that “they have made worms meat of me” (112). After this careless back and forth, a real event with dire consequences punctuates the linguistic exchange.
Mercutio and the Nurse exist to challenge and even “undercut the authority … of their superiors” (Andreas, 2000), rather than leaving the conflict solely to Romeo and Juliet. Giving the wider cast of characters cultural associations as well strengthens this play’s dramatic tension. Instead of having the entire Capulet or Montague household represent a unanimous culture, tensions within each family are explored through this dichotomy of orality and literacy. The choice not to have each household as a unified front, shows the audience that their longstanding feud lacks any substantial meaning. Romeo and Juliet are pitted against each other almost arbitrarily, and thus their relationship is fraught with a meaningless tension. In fact, the feud itself is a remnant of oral culture, “bred of an airy word” (1.1.91) long ago, and perpetuated by the words of the play.
The mediatic tension dramatized in Romeo and Juliet’s relationship can be analyzed as its own individual cultural commentary. However, just like in Shakespeare’s time, this cultural shift from orality to literacy was happening all around them as well. The wider cast of characters in Romeo and Juliet represent this all-encompassing shift, and how the ways in which we view the world impact how we exist in it. Lady Capulet and the Nurse’s caricature representations of opposing cultures allow Juliet the space to choose how she wants to enter the world as a young woman, while both Juliet and Mercutio’s youthful affiliation with orality oppose Romeo’s devout belief in literacy. The significance of this representation lies in the idea of language impacting thought, and therefore action. The ways in which we view the world and communicate about it dictate the path that is carved for us. When dramatized in Romeo & Juliet, we see the ability of language to lead to dire consequences.
Andreas, James R. “Teaching Shakespeare’s Bawdry: Orality, Literacy, and Censorship in Romeo and
Juliet.” Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Modern Language Association of America, 2000, pp. 115–124. Approaches to Teaching World Literature.
Berry, Ralph. “Romeo and Juliet: The Sonnet World of Verona.” Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, 1st ed., Routledge, 1993, pp. 133–144, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315724928.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1982.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger
Shakespeare Library ed., Simon and Schuster, 2004.