Romeo and Juliet: "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks...."

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Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy that could easily be mistaken for a comedy throughout the first half of the play. Rife with lewd jokes, bawdy humor, and comic supporting characters, the plot only darkens with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt in Act III. Indeed, had Shakespeare made only a few different strokes of his pen throughout the tale, the play could easily have been a romantic comedy of errors. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare wrote an explanatory prologue to Romeo and Juliet; it is all the more telling that he never felt the need to so in any of his other tragedies.

Frankly, Romeo and Juliet causes some problems in examining it as tragedy. Neither Romeo nor Juliet are classically flawed tragic characters. While the tale of doomed lovers is timeless, this particular telling evokes its pathos because the tragedy seems so thrust upon them. Romeo and Juliet are no Macbeth and his lady, inviting the Heavens to pour down a plague of wrath in response to their deeds. They are, as Shakespeare so famously describes them, "star-crossed" victims of circumstances largely beyond their control. Whatever we may feel about the choices that the two youths make, there is a tragic resonance in the way Fate seems to conspire against them.

Largely, it is that hand of Fate that separates Romeo and Juliet from the grand tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. Shakespeare's late tragedies feature characters at the helms of their fortunes, for good or ill. Of course, Shakespeare also wrote Romeo and Juliet much earlier in his career, which may also help to explain the lyricism and comic overtones that sometimes seem to make the play more akin to Midsummer Night's Dream or Much Ado About Nothing. If the tragedy seems occasionally grafted upon the play, it remains poignant due to the poetic skill with which Shakespeare renders the love between the two title characters.

In the balcony scene, we have one of Shakespeare's most famous expressions of love. The soliloquy that opens Act II, sc. ii illustrates the heady, vigorous passion of youth with which the Bard imbues Romeo. Having stolen into the orchard, Romeo catches sight of Juliet above and soon is spouting words of love—even as Juliet takes the more practical voice of reason between them once the scene turns into a dialogue. Romeo, however, is far too drunk on his own ardor. The fervid comparison of Juliet to the sun, to light itself, is in stark contrast to Romeo's entrance in Act I, mooning over the now quite forgotten Rosaline.

We know from Shakespeare's prologue that this is a love doomed to end in tragedy. Despite that, we can still savor the marvelous thrill of love at first sight, revealed through such uninhibited expression as only the young (or the truly mad) can summon. For the scenes such as this one, at least, we can set aside our collective foreboding and enjoy the moment with them.


But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

—Act II, sc. i

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