RTWC: Shakespeare, the "Apprentice Tragedies"

March 31, 2022

This is part of my ongoing series on Reading the Western Canon. See here for an introduction to the series.


Juliet: What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?
Romeo: Th’exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.
Juliet: I gave thee mine before thou didst request it,
And yet I would it were to give again.
Romeo: Wouldst thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?
Juliet: But to be frank and give it thee again,
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

We’ve moved passed some of the very earliest Shakespeare, and just about crossed into when the peasant from Stratford-upon-Avon became The Bard. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at around the same time in 1595, and both showed huge improvements from his preceding works. Today I’ll be discussing Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, the first tragedies that started to show glimmers of the Shakespeare’s genius.

Romeo and Juliet

This was one of the few works I had read before, as an assignment in high school. I think the biggest change that I found from high school to now is the vulgarity and vivacity of Mercutio. Maybe it’s because high school curricula don’t really want to emphasize vulgarity, and so we probably sped right through these sections in class. Really, I don’t know why high schools don’t amp it up more: what better way to get kids engaged with literature than to show them how outright hilarious and puerile it can be?

Here’s Mercutio at his best and raunchiest, making fun of Romeo for falling in love at a party:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under the medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were - oh that she were -
An open-arse, though a popp’rin' pear!

Basically, if you’re not sure what a given word means in this passage, it’s referring to a vagina or a penis. Mercutio is like this throughout the whole play; he dominates the scenes he’s in and turns them all about sex, until of course he’s killed. The famous line is that Shakespeare was forced to kill Mercutio, lest Mercutio kill Shakespeare and thus ruin the play.

Besides Mercutio’s outrageousness, the obvious part of the play that sticks out is the II.1 “bedroom window” scene, where Shakespeare really begins to flex his muscles:

Romeo: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops-
Juliet: Oh, swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Loest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Romeo: What shall I swear by?
Juliet: Do not swear at all,
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

Juliet is such a dominant force in this play, constantly cutting Romeo off and making her own plans. She’s wonderful to read: clever, insightful, daring, playful. She’s become the archetype for a thousand other desirable women in all manner of media in the past 400 years.

My favorite part of the entire play, however, is the consistent focus on words and their meaning. It has almost a Wittgensteinian quality to it: everyone is obsessed with what it means to be called a certain name. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is a powerful meditation on being and naming, as is the famous “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,” both spoken by Juliet. These themes of names and words repeat throughout the play, and I see it as Shakespeare grappling with the concept of words, just as he did while crafting each line of his plays.

Julius Caesar

This was another one I read in high school. I don’t have particularly strong feelings towards it; I feel like it sits awkwardly among the tragedies. It doesn’t stand out in any remarkable way, especially compared to “The High Tragedies.” The setting and the historical focus are interesting, but I found it hard to really get into.

I think the most interesting part is, of course, Brutus. Brutus is someone who never saw himself stabbing his ally in the back, but he gets drawn in to the plot anyways. This is a sympathetic result for sure: we have all done things that at some point we swore we never would. He even displays the inevitable self-talk that we all face when making a decision we have to justify to ourselves:

And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremeties.
And therefore think hium as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

As Bloom insightfully notes in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, when Brutus says “Fashion it thus”, he’s referring to the other half of his mind. He has to convince himself of his own plan, and he does it right in front of the audience. This is a marvellous piece of character study, something rich and complex that we can only find in such great works.

Of course, Julius Caesar is also great for some absolutely killer one-liners, again Shakespeare flexing his muscles:

Caesar: Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Antony: Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Cassius: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

I mean, as far as badass quotes about war, it really doesn’t get much better.

Posted on:
March 31, 2022
5 minute read, 1010 words
books western-canon
See Also:
Booking Cheap Flights
RTWC: Shakespeare, Early Works
The Theocratic Age: Beowulf