Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet.
Like Pearce's other books on Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Love views Shakespeare's life and writing from a Catholic perspective. Pearce provides a brief preface that reviews evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism, including references to classic and recent scholarly works that support his perspective. However, the majority of the text focuses on Pearce's interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. The prologue to the text questions how the couple's love fits with the great love affairs of literature, setting up an explicitly Christian frame by noting that love can be right or wrong, "heavenly or hellish" (16). Though subsequent readers have seen Romeo and Juliet's story as the height of romanticism, Pearce doubts that Shakespeare would have shared that view.
The first chapter of Shakespeare on Love focuses on Shakespeare's revision of his sources and on the misreading of Romeo and Juliet that Pearce sees in much of the play's criticism. Pearce believes Shakespeare frequently chose sources that demonstrate marked anti-Catholicism in order to "[correct] their anti-Catholic biases with modes of expression more conducive to his own beliefs" (18). Thus in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare softens the Puritan stance of Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by changing the development of the play's characters and removing anti-Catholic commentary. Moving quickly to discuss the play itself, Pearce claims that scholars interpret the play in one of three ways: as an illustration of fatalism, in which the lovers are helpless before the crushing whims of fate; as a romantic dream, in which the lovers' true passion sets them apart from their hateful families, who ultimately cause the tragedy; or as a cautionary tale, in which the actions of the principal characters produce consequences that together form a moral picture. In Pearce's judgment, only the third option results in a correct reading of the play.
Following the introductory chapters, Pearce walks through the play, act by act and scene by scene, building the moral picture that arises from his "cautionary tale" reading of the text. Pearce begins with two sets of paired chapters; in each set, he discusses first Romeo, then Juliet, examining their attitudes and behaviors before and during the Capulets' party and then in the balcony scene. Pearce claims that Romeo's passionate nature is based wholly on the physical and expresses itself through trite cliches. According to this argument, Romeo loves Juliet because the first object of his passion, Rosaline, is unavailable to his desires. Rather than truly loving Juliet in a meaningful way, Romeo desires her because he finds her more amenable to his will. This fickle approach to love is possible because Romeo is a "sonnet lover" who loves in the tradition of Petrarchan sonnets rather than according to Christian morality. As such, Romeo is morally an idolater who makes women his goddesses.
In discussing Juliet, Pearce first emphasizes her youth. In the sources, Juliet is either fifteen or seventeen, yet those texts refer to her as too young to marry. Shakespeare alters her age to an even younger thirteen, even though, as Pearce demonstrates, less than ten percent of women in Shakespeare's lifetime married before age fifteen, and most women actually married in their early to mid-twenties. Therefore, Juliet's father's willingness to marry her to Paris before her fourteenth birthday would have shocked the Elizabethan audience. Because of Shakespeare's insistence on Juliet's youth and her father's increasing hurry to marry her off, Pearce reads this play in part as a demonstration of bad parenting.
Regarding Juliet's character, Pearce claims that she begins as an innocent who is respectful of religious belief and imagery, but quickly falls into sensualism under Romeo's corrupting influence. The kisses at the ball transfer Romeo's sinful passion to Juliet literally and figuratively. Pearce claims that Juliet's musing over names in the balcony scene portrays her as a proponent of the realist philosophy held by Elizabethan Catholics, and goes on to note that Juliet's surprise at being overheard displays her innocence. However, her confusion at this moment is also alarming, for her naivete leaves her vulnerable to Romeo's temptations. Juliet quickly falls from her innocent state by proclaiming Romeo her idol; the metaphor of Romeo as a bird that she might accidentally kill with cherishing demonstrates the unhealthy nature of their relationship. Pearce concludes this section by comparing Romeo and Juliet to Dante's doomed lovers, Paolo and Francesca, because despite the fact that Shakespeare's lovers marry, they also prefer eros to caritas.
Pearce follows his discussion of the leading characters with a pair of chapters on Friar Lawrence. He notes that, unlike his contemporaries, Shakespeare treats the Friar with respect, giving him a speech on good and bad in the same plant that comments on Romeo's character. However, this respectful treatment does not alter the fact that Lawrence is largely to blame for Romeo and Juliet's deaths because he agrees both to perform and to conceal their clandestine marriage, even though he knows Romeo's feelings for Juliet are as shallow as those he had for Rosaline. Yet the tragedy ultimately produces peace between the two families, leading Pearce to determine that Lawrence is both a meddlesome fool and a holy man. Lawrence plays the fool when he attempts to manipulate events, but demonstrates holiness by making prophetic statements about the danger of the lovers' allowing will to dominate behavior.
In discussing the events surrounding Tybalts death, Romeos banishment, and the lovers' ultimate deaths, Pearce continues to consider the text from a moral perspective. He argues that Romeo's love for Juliet is so shallow that he allows his hatred for Tybalt to overwhelm it, and thus Romeo kills him. Romeo is then so caught up in his own desires that he cannot see his banishment as an instance of the Prince's mercy, instead viewing it merely as separation from his current idol. Juliet also loves Romeo idolatrously, leading Pearce to claim that "the awful lesson that Romeo and Juliet teaches is that the thing possessed possesses the possessor" (98). Their love, overriding both the love of God and the love of family, causes the lovers to take up relativist positions in which only their own current feelings matter, an attitude that Pearce argues would have been disturbing to the Elizabethan audience. Such selfish attitudes cannot be blamed entirely on the lovers themselves, for they learned them from their parents. Juliet's parents provide the primary evidence for this claim, as they rush Juliet into a marriage with Paris despite their own previous protests that he must wait patiently until Juliet is ready to marry. Morally, this play demonstrates the folly of rash action, which must ultimately lead to disaster. Pearce portrays the Prince's final speech, after the lovers have killed themselves because they cannot imagine any other course of action, as a call to restore "moral vision" among his subjects, urging them to be patient and forbearing (128).
Pearce concludes the main body of his text with an epilogue that poses the question, "does Romeo and Juliet have a happy ending?" (133). He recapitulates that Romeo and Juliet's lack of temperance and prudence in the face of hardship leads to their own deaths, but notes that through these deaths, the feuding Montague and Capulet families arrive at both political and spiritual peace. Politically, the city of Verona will now be literally at peace, but the spiritual aspect is even more important. According to Pearce, by the play's end, God's will has prevailed in Verona, for all have suffered due punishment for their sins.
The argument of Shakespeare on Love displays certain important weaknesses. One issue is the limited support for the text's prevailing bias. The strict focus on Catholicism suits well with Pearce's two previous publications, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (2008) and Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays (2010). However, Pearce's argument in the preface, though it briefly surveys critical texts supporting Shakespeare's possible Catholicism ranging across much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, does not acknowledge that other viewpoints exist. The preface is only three pages long, so it does not really have room for a sustained argument, and that sustained argument is the topic of Pearce's The Quest for Shakespeare. However, as John D. Cox's review essay in this journal "Was Shakespeare a Christian, and If So, What Kind of Christian Was He?" (2006) ably demonstrates, at least some scholars disagree with the thesis of Shakespeare's Catholicism, claiming that he may have been Protestant, indifferently Christian, or even lacking any religious faith. Since much of Pearce's argument depends on Shakespeare's presumed Catholic bias, a fuller discussion of the issue would be helpful, especially to those readers who do not have Pearce's other books in hand.
However, Shakespeare on Love's greatest weakness is in organization. Though a scene-by-scene walkthrough of the play allows Pearce to demonstrate how his moral reading works throughout the text, it leads to both repetition and fragmentation in the argument. In almost every chapter, Pearce portrays Romeo as a shallow, self-interested cad who is overly influenced by sensuality. This argument, though well-supported, begins to pall when it is repeated again and again. In contrast, Juliet's portrayal varies widely; Pearce represents her as a young, naive girl in chapter three, but then in chapter five claims that she is an advocate of realist philosophy. The early Juliet is respectful of religious ideas; later, she has become Romeo's idolater. Though Pearce provides support for the varying moods of Juliet, treating her character as a whole would more clearly demonstrate how she develops from one scene to the next. The discussion of Friar Lawrence's character is similar; there seems no reason to discuss him over two short chapters when one sustained argument might better serve to illustrate his multifaceted nature.
Though scholarly argument might call for a different organization of the text, the short, scene-by-scene chapters play into one of the great strengths of Pearce's work; its potential for use in the undergraduate classroom. Because the chapters are short, readings from Shakespeare on Love could easily be assigned to accompany readings of Romeo and Juliet itself. Such assignment could also give students another perspective to consider along with, or in place of, the dreamy romanticism with which students often approach this play.
Laura K. Bedwell
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
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|Author:||Bedwell, Laura K.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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