Showing posts with label tragedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tragedy. Show all posts

Monday 29 November 2021

Bernie Madoff as Tragic Hero

A Tragic Hero?

Bernie Madoff died Wednesday, April 14, 2021, while serving a 150-year prison sentence.  It might grate to see Madoff described as a "hero."  In literature, a tragedy is a situation, a plot structure.  A "tragic hero" is the character at the center of that situation.  Imagining Madoff as a monster may be more comfortable, but that image prevents us from learning whatever there is to learn from his story.

The Death of Tragedy

The history and concept of tragedy is one subject where I can actually claim some expertise.  For almost three thousand years, every major philosopher and most major and minor literary theorist had something to say about tragedy.  It all came to a stop in the postmodern period.   As Terry Eagleton observes in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, “the term [tragedy] hardly scrapes into the postmodern lexicon” (ix).  The discussion may have finally exhausted itself or, as Alvin Kernan suggests, in The Death of Literature, “The definition of a central genre like tragedy has proceeded in so many directions, many of them quirky in the extreme, as in the end to disintegrate, rather than firm up, the term and any experience that might possibly lie behind it" (42).  Ultimately, my claim of expertise is a bit like saying I'm in the top one hundred of a sport that nobody plays anymore.

The History of Tragedy

That said, here's the two-paragraph description of the 3000-year history of tragedy. The word "tragedy" comes from Greek and would roughly translate as "goat song."  Why a goat?  Tragedies were performed as part of an annual competition and the prize was a goat.  Also, these performances were part of the annual Dionysian harvest festival.  Dionysus was the god of wine and madness and tragedy.  (If you're getting bored:  Dionysus is Baccus in Latin, as in Bacchanalian orgy, so you can substitute sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll here to get the general idea.) The goat--known for its sexual prowess--was the symbol of Dionysus.

The major Greek tragedies were written in the 5th century BCA.  A hundred years later, Aristotle wrote The Poetics, in part to refute Plato's claim that in the perfect society poetry would be banned but more importantly for the following millennia Aristotle claimed that tragedy was the highest form of literary art.  For the next 2,500 years or so, it was generally accepted that tragedy was the highest form of literature because . . . well, because Aristotle said so.  The only debate was about which of Aristotle's features was the most important and did this play or that play have the necessary features.  Eventually, the word "tragedy" began to be used as an honourific; in other words, it wasn't being used just to describe a category of literature or a thing so much as to connote greatness.  In the Modern Era (the 20th century until the mid-60s), the West was going through an adolescent crisis of self-esteem, and it was commonly claimed that we were no longer capable of producing tragedies.  We lacked the culture, the refinement, the sensibilities, the character and characters, the myths, rituals, gods, and whatever, to create or appreciate tragedies.

The Double-bind Theory of Tragedy

Then I came along with my double-bind theory of tragedy which dozens of people have now read--okay, maybe a dozen if I include myself.  Everyone knows that "tragedy" means something bad and sad happens.  When I studied the dramas that most people readily acknowledge as tragedies I saw a consistent pattern. The pattern I saw closely resembled the "double-bind situations" which Gregory Bateson and  R.D. Laing claimed to be, in 100% of the cases studied, the cause of schizophrenia.  Having noticed this resemblance between the claimed etiology (the causes) of schizophrenia and a similar pattern of double-bind, no-win situations in tragedy, I also noted that tragedies led to actions which were not only bad and sad but mad. The hero's fate was inevitably stereotypical insanity, alienation, self harm or suicide.

The Double-bind Etiology of Schizophrenia

The ''double bind" as described by Bateson and Laing is one in which the individual faces contradictory injunctions but cannot escape the situation.  Laing explains that the bombardment of the individual with contradictory demands that s/he must do something and must not do that same thing, most often imposed by the closest of family members, leads to "ontological insecurity" and mental breakdown.

This image is typically presented as a lighthearted version of a double bind:

Imagine that at every important twist and turn, every love-hate, life-or-death dilemma in your life you faced this kind of unsolvable double bind.  R.D. Laing surmises it would drive you crazy. We can all intuit as much.  The authors of tragedies throughout history have intuited as much.

The Orestia by Aeschylus

The Orestia by Aeschylus, the only extant complete ancient Greek tragic trilogy, establishes the pattern.  Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon, is bound by prevailing notions of justice and his role as a prince to avenge his father's murder.  Orestes is further compelled by his self-identity as a moral agent under the scrutiny of the gods and the world to do what is right:  avenge the assassination of the King, his father.  However, justice requires that he kill his mother, Queen Aegisthus, who is responsible for the murder of her husband, King Agamemnon. We can boil down Orestes's double bind to something like:  in order to maintain his understanding of himself, justice and the world, Orestes's must kill his mother.  But in killing his mother, Orestes will abandon his understanding of himself, the world and justice.  To be Orestes, he must kill his own mother; killing his mother, he will no longer be Orestes.  

The Madness of Hamlet and Orestes

Two thousand years later, Shakespeare adopted a similar plot in his version of Hamlet.  Hamlet slowly descends into madness as he attempts to come to terms with the fact that his mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, are responsible for the murder of his father, King Hamlet. When Orestes kills his mother, he is immediately possessed by the Furies--possession by the gods being the stereotypical understanding of madness at the time.

An Identity requires a view of the world, a sense of reality

The destruction of the tragic hero implies more than the death and/or madness of an individual.  The hero's identity is part of an ecosystem.  Individual identity is fed and sustained by a larger worldview, an understanding of the world which in its imagined, narrative form we call a myth. The collapse of the individual into madness is, by definition, the collapse, overwhelming and negation of a sense of reality--the sense of reality though which an individual identifies and defines her/himself.  Faced with a double bind which is a product of identity and a corresponding sense of reality, which must be resolved and cannot be resolved, the individual descends into "ontological insecurity." Self and reality cease to exist.

Bernie Madoff's world and identity

The fact that, more than an individual identity, a sense of reality or worldview or, in a more succinct shorthand, a myth is brought into question and negated by the double bind is exactly what makes tragedy modern.  It is also what makes this discussion of Bernie Madoff's life story relevant.

Tragedy penetrates myth, questions and negates reality

In The Origin and Early Development of Greek Tragedy, Gerald Else describes tragedy as "a new penetration of myths from within" (38). Tragedy allowed a questioning of the gods by an individual from "personal experience and hard personal meditation, without benefit of revelation or cult" (37). Additionally, as Karl Jaspers observes, in Tragedy Is Not Enough, "breakdown and failure reveal the true nature of things" (43).  Carrying these observations to the case of Bernie Madoff, we recognize that Madoff's fall and the collapse of his 64-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme coincided with the collapse of the financial markets in 2008.  The tragedy of Bernie Madoff, King of Wall Street, was a penetration, from the inside, of the myth of capitalism.

It is commonly claimed that no American was ever charged with a crime because of the collapse of the markets in 2008. In fact, Madoff was the icon, both the villain and the victim, of 2008. His Ponzi scheme was different in degree but not kind from the sub-prime-mortgage chicanery which brought down the markets. Bernie Madoff wasn't caught by the authorities; he confessed and turned himself in when he realized that the Wall Street collapse would also collapse his Ponzi scheme

The Wizard of Lies

Diana Henriques' The Wizard of Lies supplies the details which allow us to see the tragic double-bind pattern of Bernie Madoff's life.  We can see hints of a "Romeo and Juliet" story in the fact that Ruth Madoff was thirteen when she first met her future husband.  She was eighteen when the Madoffs married on November 25, 1959.  Days later Bernie filed the papers to create Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.  He was twenty-one. 

Henriques observes that Ruth's family, the Alperns, were significantly higher on the socio-economic ladder than the Madoffs. We might imagine a "Great Gatsby" scenario with Ruth playing Gatsby's "Daisy" and the object of his Macbeth-like ambitions. By 1962, as Henriques reports, Bernie was already operating illegally as an unlicensed stock broker for clients of his father-in-law's accounting firm and covering up "huge losses he inflicted on his clients when he improperly invested their savings in high-risk newly issued stocks."  Madoff's fraudulent reporting of profits actually enhanced his reputation on Wall Street leading to more people investing in his firm.  After the crash of 1987, Madoff began to pay off his clients with cash from new investors, and his Ponzi/pyramid scheme had begun in earnest.  Madoff claimed to be aware in 1998 that his scheme was destined to collapse and his crimes uncovered.  Why he didn't run? Why didn't he escape somewhere with his ill-gotten millions? Henriques quotes Madoff that “There was never a thought to run away and hide my money.… It never entered my mind to do that.”

Bernie Madoff's world

We may doubt that Madoff never thought to run away, but the evidence supports his claim:  he didn't run away, and we might surmise that the possibility was beyond his imagining.  In his description of tragedy, Arthur Miller writes:
It is necessary, if one is to reflect reality, not only to depict why a man does what he does, or why he  nearly didn't do it, but why he cannot simply walk away and say to hell with it.  To ask this last question of a play is a cruel thing, for evasion is probably the most developed technique most men have, and in truth there is an extraordinary small number of conflicts which we must, at any cost, live out to their conclusions.  [. . . . ]  I take it that if one could know enough about a human being one could discover some conflict, some value, some challenge, however minor or major, which he cannot find it in himself to walk away from or turn his back on. . . . .   I take it, as well, that the less capable a man is of walking away from the central conflict of the play, the closer he approaches a tragic existence. (Arthur Miller's Collected Plays 8).
There are a number of parallels to note between Bernie Madoff and Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Miller's Death of a Salesman:  a New Yorker, father of two sons who eventually repudiate him, husband of a long-suffering wife, a man with "all the wrong dreams," whose demise was an indictment of the myth of "the American Dream."

The Madness of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff lost everything.  He defrauded friends, family, charities and people around the world, many of whom, through the machinations of their financial advisors and investment banks, were unaware that their money was invested with Bernie Madoff.  Madoff's crimes caused the loss of life-savings, pensions, homes, jobs and lives.  For many, the challenge was to find punishment equal to the scale of Madoff's crimes.  But tragedy isn't about justice.  Strict moral justice is reserved for melodrama.

Madoff lost his wealth (though most of it did not exist), his property, and his reputation.  He became a universally acknowledged icon of evil.  Bernie and Ruth made a suicide pact, taking a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills.  Their attempt failed.  Their older son, Mark, also attempted suicide with pills, then later hung himself in his New York condo while his infant son slept in another room.  Ruth became a social pariah and was unable to attend her son's funeral.  The Madoff's younger son, Andrew, died of cancer.

Novalis:  "Character is fate."

Was there a time when Madoff could have stopped and put an end to his fraud?  Perhaps. But, like Oedipus, the king of another time, Madoff was a victim of his own success.  Arguably, given his character and his world (New York, Wall Street, the financial markets), he was fated to see his tragedy through.  We can calculate Madoff's double bind.  He showed the willingness to fully attest to his own guilt to protect his family.  To confess to his crimes at any point would be to destroy his family.  Continuing his crimes would also eventually destroy his family, leaving, in his own words "a legacy of shame for children and grandchildren."   

Bernie Madoff as scapegoat

Terry Eagleton argues that the scapegoat ritual is the essence of the tragic. I disagree. The purpose of the scapegoat ritual is to load the sins of the community onto a symbolic figure which is destroyed, thereby expiating the community from its guilt. To treat Madoff as an egregious anomaly, a singular deviation, a monstrous incongruity, a scapegoat, is to absolve the financial system, which allowed his fraud to thrive for more than two decades, from any culpability or inquiry. Tragedy is relevant today specifically because it brings into the question exactly those mythologies which we might imagine beyond question. As Henriques observes: 
Madoff’s construction of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history was enabled by the Wall Street he had helped to build. He played a prominent role in shaping the modern market, from computerized NASDAQ trading to the mystique of hedge funds to the proliferation of specious derivatives.

Bernie Madoff as human being

If there is anything to learn from the Madoff case, and I believe there is, we must begin with the premise that he was human and consequently susceptible to a double-bind situation which, in turn, brings his ecosystem into question.  As Henriques concludes:

[. . .] to insist, as so many of his victims have, that Bernie Madoff was not fully human, that he was a beast, a psychopath, is a facile cop-out, one last comforting delusion that will leave us forever vulnerable to the seductive spells that all Ponzi schemers cast. Madoff was not inhumanly monstrous. He was monstrously human. He was greedy for money and praise, arrogantly sure of his own capacity to pull it off, smugly dismissive of skeptics—just like anyone who mortgaged the house to invest in tech stocks [ . . . .]

The Wizard of Lies (film)

In the film version of The Wizard of Lies, Diana Henriques plays herself interviewing Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro). Not surprisingly, the film retreats from the  image of Madoff as a tragic human.  (The movie business in general, like postmodernists, is reluctant to embrace tragedy.) In his final scene in the film, Madoff/De Niro complains of being compared to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and  addresses the rhetorical question to Henriques: "Do you think I am a sociopath?" The question does not appear in the book.  If the intended subtext is that Madoff remains protective of his ego and indifferent to the tragedy he has wrought, then whatever is to be learned from the failure of his existence and the world that nurtured it is lost. The less likely interpretation that Madoff's flat affect was a sign of impending schizophrenia is the one that I would uphold.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Test Question: How Did Romeo Respond When He Was Told He Will Be Having Sex with Juliet?

The Plan for Romeo and Juliet to consummate their marriage

When the Nurse explained the plan—a rope ladder, “the cords,” would be placed from Juliet’s bedroom, “the highway to her bed,” so that Romeo and Juliet could have sex and thereby consummate their marriage—Romeo responded by saying “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

What does "to chide" mean?

I’ve never been fully confident that I understood this line.  What does “to chide” mean in this context?  Why should Juliet “prepare to chide”?

I’ve never seen the line analyzed or glossed, but it is the pivotal moment in the drama. Up to this point, alternatives are possible.  The marriage has not been consummated and can be easily annulled.  Juliet still could marry Paris, and Romeo find another Rosalind or Juliet. Or Romeo and Juliet could announce that they have married and accept the ire of their families and banishment.  Their marriage might, as Friar Lawrence planned all along, put an end to the enmity between their families and soften the Prince against banishment.  This is the point of no return—a secret marriage followed by a clandestine consummation and a cloak-and-dagger plan for resurrection and return—and this is the line which marks the point of no return:  “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

The dictionary definition of "to chide"

The dictionary definition of “to chide” is “to scold or rebuke” and the word is used elsewhere in the play with this meaning, but what could Romeo possibly mean by saying “Juliet should prepare to scold or rebuke”?  From the context of the dialogue, we would expect Romeo to say something like “Juliet should prepare to be my lover” or some more poetic Shakespearian equivalent.  Basically, in the simplest of terms, he must be saying “tell her to prepare to have sex.”  But why does he say it this way or, more to the point, why does Shakespeare have him say it this way?  

Shakespeare's pun on chide/chafe

I have long suspected that “to chide” was, in this context, a pun suggesting “to chafe.”  Finding this web page which compares “to chide” and “to chafe” <>, my suspicions were confirmed, my prophecy fulfilled.   The verb “to chafe” means “to excite heat by friction; to rub in order to stimulate and make warm.”  More telling for our purposes, Shakespeare uses “to chafe” and “to chide” in ways that bring their meanings close together.  For example, compare:

“the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores”  from Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar


As doth a rock against the chiding flood” from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

Disambiguating the Shakespeare pun

When we disambiguate Shakespeare’s pun, what we get is Romeo saying “tell Juliet to prepare to chafe and chide”—or, in a modern vernacular, something equivalent to “tell her to get ready to grind and moan.”  It is also worthwhile to consider to whom Romeo is addressing himself, the Nurse who introduces herself in the play with the opening line “by my maidenhead at twelve years old,” the personification of all things earthy.  Since Juliet is a virgin we know that she is about to lose her maidenhead and will consequently experience some pain—giving her reason to “chide” in the sense of complaint. 

Romeo revealed

At this moment we would expect Romeo to say something tender and poetic, but instead he now reminds us of Samson and Gregory, the two young men bragging and joking about their sexual intentions—deflowering virgins—and prowess at the beginning of the play. Shakespeare uses this moment to signal the raw and vulgar intentions underlying Romeo’s endless professions of love. To put it brusquely in a contemporary vernacular, the line signals that Romeo is a horny teenager declaring “tell Juliet to prepare to be humped.”

Comic Romeo and tragic Juliet

The scene is almost comic in that Romeo, who has been literally lying on the floor moaning and groaning in despair, suddenly recovers himself at the announcement that he will be having sex with Juliet.  It is a common observation that the tragedy starts out as if it were a comedy.  The film Shakespeare in Love explains this incongruity by having Shakespeare’s financial backer insisting that he wants a comedy.  In fact, Shakespeare did write the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at about the same time he was writing Romeo and Juliet, and both plays are based on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Renaissance tragedy is usually about masculinity

The play is also anomalous as a tragedy because the central tragic figure is a woman, more extraordinary still, a teenage girl.  Juliet is the individual who faces a profound, no-win, double-bind dilemma which is the mark of all the touchstones of tragedy. Elizabethan and early Jacobean tragedy is almost invariably about masculinity, about men proving that they are men and the dilemmas that process provokes.  Modern interpretations and productions of Romeo and Juliet tend to focus so narrowly on the love story of the balcony scene, notice is barely taken of Romeo’s transition from boyhood to manhood which runs parallel to the tragedy of Juliet’s dilemma and suicide.  By tradition, there are but two distinctly masculine values—bravery and virility—which we might translate into the modern vernacular as fighting and fucking.  The initiation process in which a boy becomes a man by encountering death and his first sexual experience can be found throughout tribal ritual and the history of literature in English.  

Who killed Paris?

Another test question:  Who killed Paris?  Answer:  Romeo.  This scene is sometimes omitted in modern versions of the play, but for Elizabethan audiences this scene was confirmation that Romeo was no longer a boy.  In the few short days of the play’s duration, he had become a man.  When Romeo meets Paris at the opening of the mausoleum where Juliet  lies unconscious, he calls Paris “a boy” and tells him to stand aside.  When Paris refuses, Romeo kills him with a perfunctory stab of his dagger (the same dagger Juliet will later use to kill herself).  Only as an afterthought does Romeo stop to wonder who the boy was that he had just killed.  That Romeo is no longer a boy and now a man cannot be questioned.

The author as father of a 13-year-old changes the interpretation

Interpretations of the play as singularly a celebration of love can only survive by ignoring much of what is in the text, so much of which can be read as Shakespeare's playing to the expectations of his audience, on one hand, and on the other, as a warning from Shakespeare to his own thirteen-year-old daughter about the lure and the danger of passionate young love.

Monday 13 November 2017

Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?

"I might've fallen for that when I was fourteen and a little more greenBut it's amazing what a couple of years can mean "

                                                Avril Lavinge's  "Nobody's Fool"

Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?

Whenever I lectured on Romeo and Juliet, I always started by asking “Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?”  As I fielded answers from students they generally fell into two broad categories.

In Shakespeare's time, people married young.  Not really.

Category 1: “People in Shakespeare’s time married young.”  Actually, they didn’t.  Shakespeare himself was 18 when he married Anne Hathaway who was 26 and pregnant with their first child, Susanna, but Shakespeare needed permission from his father to marry at such a young age.  Shakespeare’s own daughters, Susanna and Judith, were married at 24 and 31 respectively.  

Our ideas of English girls’ marrying at thirteen (or younger) being common practice was likely provoked by infamous cases of royal betrothals.  For example, Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France to marry Francis, the Dauphin, when she was six.  She married him when she was sixteen and he was fourteen—he died three years later.  In 1480, ten-year-old Prince Edward was betrothed to the four-year-old daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany.  (According to another Shakespeare play, young Edward was murdered by his uncle, Richard III.) Such marriages were entirely intended to forge political alliances and tell us little or nothing about common attitudes concerning the appropriate age for marriage. Best estimates are that attitudes, though relative to life expectancy, were not wildly different in Shakespeare’s time from those of today.

The real Juliet was thirteen

Category 2.  “The ‘real Juliet’ was thirteen.”  Tourists visiting Verona today will be invited to see the balcony purported to be the one where Romeo proposed to Juliet.  That a “real Juliet” ever existed is doubtful.  The age of the woman who might have inspired the “Romeo and Juliet” story, if such a woman ever existed, is shrouded in a deeper level of the unknown.  

Sources for the Romeo and Juliet story

Juliet is twenty-one in the Italian version of the story.  In the narrative poem in English by Arthur Brooke, THE TRAGICALL HISTORY OF ROMEUS AND JULIET, which is generally accepted to be Shakespeare’s source for the story, Juliet is sixteen.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

The question remains: Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  I would invariably tell students that the answer was quite obvious, and once they saw the answer they would better understand the play.  Imagine my surprise, shock and even dismay, reading Bill Bryson (who happens to be one of my favourite writers these days) who claims in At Home:  A Short History of Private Life that the reason Shakespeare made Juliet thirteen years old “is, like most of what Shakespeare did, unknowable” (397).

Shakespeare had a 13-year-old daughter

Unknowable?  Granted some inference is required, but in this case it is more a matter of arithmetic than literary theory.  Romeo and Juliet, the first quarto, was published in 1597—we can reasonably surmise that it was written and first performed around this time.  Shakespeare’s daughter was born on May 26, 1583.  1597-1583 = 14!  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because from May, 1596 to May, 1597, when he was writing the play, he had a thirteen-year-old daughter.

Shakespeare was obsessed with father-daughter relationships

As Peter Ackroyd points out in Shakespeare: A Biography, the relationship of “father and daughter” was one of Shakespeare’s “most enduring preoccupations” (449): Polonius and Ophelia, Shylock and Jessica, Lear and Cordelia, Brabantio and Desdemona, Baptista and Katherine, Duke Senior and Rosalind, Duke Frederick and Celia, to mention but a few.  (For more see

Typically, Shakespeare portrays these relationships as troubled and casts the fathers in an unflattering light.  The one extraordinary exception to this rule is Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest, in which Miranda’s father, Prospero, has magical powers with which to grant his daughter her every wish and happiness.

In Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet, we see Capulet firmly defending his daughter against an early marriage on the grounds that “too soon marred are those so early made.”  However, by Act III the political climate has obviously changed.  Although never explained in the play we are left to infer that a marriage to a relative of the Prince has become politically exigent, as Capulet now threatens to disown Juliet and abandon her in the street if she doesn’t “get to church o’ Thursday” to marry Paris.

Shakespeare drops lots of hints that he is thinking about Susanna

Shakespeare makes the age thirteen a repeated discussion in the play, and if we need an additional hint that he was thinking of his own thirteen-year-old daughter,  Susanna, he introduces the name Susan—somewhat tangentially—into the dialogue about Juliet’s age.

She is not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?

Lady Capulet:
A fortnight and odd days.

Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Susan and she--God rest all Christian souls!--
Were of an age: well, Susan is with God;
She was too good for me: but, as I said,
On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.*

Shakespeare's spelling of names was always approximate (including his own)

If “Susan” and “Susanna” strike you as completely different names consider, as Bryson points out in Shakespeare:  The World as Stage, in extant documents, Shakespeare never spelt his name the same way twice.  Ackroyd among others is categorical that “Hamlet” is a variation of the spelling of “Hamnet”—the name of Shakespeare’s son who died at age eleven.  And, of course, if  Shakespeare was following the Brooke poem he should have called his eponymous hero “Romeus” not “Romeo.”  In short, precision in the spelling of names was not part of Shakespearian culture.  The dialogue above explicitly tells us that “Susan”—a name we can reasonably surmise that Shakespeare called his own daughter—if she were in the play, would be thirteen.  How much of a wink and a nod do we need?

The theme of Romeo and Juliet is haste

Once the idea that the author was the father of a thirteen-year-old daughter takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the play as anything other than a cautionary tale about the risks of succumbing to enflamed passions, of rushing to hasty judgments, solutions and actions.  Haste, in a word, is the theme of the play—and haste, in the play, invariably leads to disaster.

Haste equals disaster

Mention of the play invariably brings to mind the “balcony scene” but, in context, Romeo and Juliet knew no more than these few minutes of happiness in the entirety of the play.  From beginning to end in the play, their lives were replete with unrelieved anxiety, conflict, and sadness.  Even the consummation of their marriage is unable to alleviate the newfound misery of their existence as they immediately imagine each other “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.”

Every major character in the play is guilty of haste

Romeo and Juliet provide the most poignant example but, in this play, every agent acts in haste and shares in the guilt of the disasters it provokes.  The passionate hatred between the Capulets and Montagues provides the ambiance for the drama, but the underlying folly of haste is repeated by each of the characters in turn.  Tybalt is an icon of choler—boundless, unruled, passionate anger.  Mercutio, as his name suggests, is mercurial.  Even the Prince is hasty in his declaration that any Capulet or Montague caught fighting in the streets will be put to death, and must retract his declaration when Romeo kills Tybalt.  Paris pushes to marry thirteen-year-old Juliet and is supported in his haste by Lady Capulet and the Nurse.  Capulet at first resists this haste, then becomes its most egregious provocateur when he threatens Juliet with abandonment if she refuses to marry in two days' time.  The tragedy could not have occurred without the active, ill-conceived, precipitous participation of the Nurse and Friar Lawrence.

Friar Lawrence is ultimately responsible for the tragedy

Friar Lawrence is the play’s raisonneur, providing the underlying ratiocination of the entire drama that “they stumble who run fast.” In other words, he is the author’s mouthpiece telling us that this play is about haste, but he is also the worst example of the haste which he platitudinously opposes. He marries Romeo and Juliet, then proposes that Romeo consummate the marriage, then devises the half-baked plan for Juliet to feign her own death, then fails to ensure that Romeo is informed of the plan, then, worst of all, abandons Juliet in the mausoleum where she eventually commits suicide.  In short, more than anyone else, Friar Lawrence is responsible for the tragedy, while paying lip service to the reasoning which could have prevented it.

Some readers might find it odd that Shakespeare made his spokesman the unwitting cause of the tragedy, but self-mockery seems a common feature of his plays.  The terrible or feeble fathers which populate his plays are clear examples of his self-effacement.  One particularly visual example is the Shakespeare crest which William Shakespeare commissioned, the motif of which—black diagonal against a yellow background—he mocked mercilessly in his comedy Twelfth Night.   The butt of endless jokes, Malvolio is lampooned for believing that his Mistress will admire his being “in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered.”

Maybe my students were right all along

Upon reflection it occurs to me as it often does, maybe my students had it right in the first place.  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because the "real Juliet" was thirteen.  The "real Juliet" was Susannah Shakespeare.

Some editors reduce Susanna Shakespeare's "presence" in the play

In The Norton Shakespeare Greenblatt glosses this speech as meaning "The Nurse evidently suckled Juliet after her own daughter died." However, another possible interpretation is that Susan was Juliet's sister--a sister of similar age or even a twin--the child that Capulet is referring to when he tells Paris that Juliet is an only child because "Earth has swallowed all my hopes but she."  Greenblatt removes this quote from the play and, in a footnote, claims "probably rejected by Shakespeare in the writing process."  Removing Capulet's explanation of how Juliet came to be an only child reinforces Greenblatt's interpretation of the Nurse's speech.  Most versions of Romeo and Juliet that I have read or seen retain Capulet's claim, including the online version at

Eliminating Shakespeare from the study of his plays is a mistake

If we continue with this process so unfashionable in postmodern literary criticism (see After the Death of the Author)  of connecting the text to the author, we would note that Shakespeare's son Hamnet, died in 1596, the year before the quarto publication of Romeo and Juliet, and that he was a twin.  Nothing precise or definitive, but additional reason for us to imagine that Shakespeare was thinking about his own children when he wrote the play.

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...