A Marxist Reading Of Romeo And Juliet
A) Write a critical commentary on key aspects of either Act 2 Scene 2 or Act 3 Scene 5.
B) Indicate briefly how you would read this extract using one of the approaches studied so far in Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory other than the liberal humanist approach.
ACT 2 SCENE 2
Act Two, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a romantic and poetically lavish scene. This emotionally abundant section of the play contains the love passages and fanciful imaginings of the young lovers. But while it is eloquent and delightful, it is also essential in detailing certain character developments, drawing attention to recurring themes and setting the tone of the remaining play.
Throughout Act One the characters of Romeo and Juliet reflect their ignorance about love and the union of marriage. Their immaturity is clearly depicted by Shakespeare, perhaps so Act Two would prove a greater contrast. In juxtaposing Act One with Act Two we are made aware of the changes that have occurred between the main characters.
While Romeo retains his flowery and romantic eloquence during Act Two he sheds his moody adolescent behaviour. Romeo comes to express his complete devotion to Juliet in Act Two Scene Two thus presenting the audience with a more mature, emotionally honest main character. Romeo demands Th’exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine’ (2.2.127), declaring his intention to be wed to Juliet and henceforth eternally committed.
Juliet also undergoes a change in character, far removing herself from the naive fourteen year old of Act One, she becomes increasingly strong and practical (Spencer 67). At the beginning of the play Juliet talks of marriage as an honour that I dream not of’ (1.3.67) but by Act Two Scene Two it is Juliet who brings about the subject of marriage, encouraging Romeo to arrange their wedding. Romeo may have insisted on declaring their love for each other but Juliet takes it a step further thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow’ (2.2.144).
The haste in which Romeo and Juliet declare their love for one another and begin to arrange their marriage sets the tone for the remaining play. The sudden urgency that they must marry and be together brings about their downfall. Constantly ignoring warnings by the Friar that they should not rush but go wisely and slow/They stumble that run fast’ (2.3.90), Romeo and Juliet become victims of their own doing.
During this Act Juliet herself expresses a warning that their love and impending marriage is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’ (2.2.118). Hence, Shakespeare intends to advise his audience that something is amiss. The balcony scene, although one of the most romantic within the play may well be the reason the two lovers are unable to marry without disaster. If Romeo had not heard Juliet’s declaration of love they may not have been propelled to wed so quickly.
It is during Act Two Scene Two that the drama truly begins, from this part of the play onwards Romeo and Juliet spiral towards tragedy.
Act Two Scene Two also draws attention to the recurring themes of light and darkness used throughout the play. Romeo draws attention to various symbols such as the moon, the sun, the stars and the night sky to reflect his mood. When introduced to Romeo at the beginning of the play he is in a melancholy mood as the result of Rosaline. His references in Act One to being a candle-holder’ (1.4.38) suggest he feels surrounded by darkness while others enjoy the light. Act Two Scene Two takes this theme further.
Romeo describes Juliet as the sun’ (2.2.3) at the beginning of the balcony scene suggesting she has become the centre of his world or life. He compares her to the moon who is sick and pale with grief’ (2.2.5) and implores Juliet not to be the moon’s maid. This may be a comparison between Juliet and Rosaline, Rosaline having chosen to be the moon’s maid and shun romantic love. It becomes clear during this part of the play that Romeo associates love with light and objects that create it. He likens Juliet’s eyes to two of the fairest stars in all the heaven’ (2.2.15) and goes on to suggest that had they been placed in the sky they would stream so bright/that birds would sing and think it were not night’ (2.2.22). This use of light to reflect Romeo’s love is set against the night, or time of darkness. The darkness in this scene causes Romeo to hear Juliet’s private thoughts and in turn catapults the lovers into a hasty union. Throughout the play Romeo is constantly fighting darkness, he searches for people to create love and warmth in his life, and eventually finds Juliet. However her warmth does not keep him alive for long and the brooding, angry Verona and its families result in the darkness of death.
Marxist literary criticism finds its roots in Marxist theory. It pays particular attention to notions of ideology and hegemony, the idea that the ruling classes or those in a position of power use literature as a means of reinforcing social ideology. The result of that is a form of social control, which makes certain views appear as though it is the way things are’ (Barry 164-165). A Marxist critic will search for hidden and obvious forms of ideology and hegemony, often relating then back to issues such as conflicts between social classes, the oppression of working classes, and the support for those in positions of power.
A Marxist approach to Act Two Scene Two of Romeo and Juliet’ may involve taking the overt’ action of Juliet rebelling against her father to marry Romeo and investigating the covert’ content. Thus, a Marxist critic may find Juliet represents the working classes of Verona, while her father represents the ruling class. In that case, Juliet’s rebellion would be seen as a threat to the ruling class, or may be depicting some hostility between the masses and bureaucracy that was prevalent at the time the play was written.
The outcome of Juliet’s rebellion is the death of both Romeo and Juliet. A Marxist critic may argue that the fatal ending of the play was Shakespeare’s covert way of reinforcing the dominant social structures adhered to at the time. It could be interpreted as a subtle message suggesting the uprising of the working classes will result in tragedy, loss or death.
Barry, P., Beginning Theory’, Manchester U Press: New York, 1995
Shakespeare, W., Romeo and Juliet’, Penguin Books: London, 1967