Auden, W. H. "Commentary on the Poetry and Tragedy
of 'Romeo and Juliet'." Romeo and Juliet. By William Shakespeare. The Laurel Shakespeare. Ed. Francis Fergusson. New York: Dell, 1958. 21-39.

Thesis: The main purpose of this rambling essay by the famous poet is to preach his sermons on life. He says that Romeo and Juliet is "a play about sympathetic, well-meaning people . . . who come to disaster because each insists on having his own way irrespective of the common good" (22). Auden admits that chance plays some part in the tragedy, but asserts that bad choices play a much larger part. He even goes so far as to make up a chart of the wrong choices. Here it is:

CharacterWrong ChoiceConsequenceRight Choice
1.  Prince Escalus.Delays in banning
the Montague-Capulet
feud until the fourth
Memories have grown
too long and passions too
high, so that the feudeaks out again
despite his ban.
He should have issued his
ban after the firstawl.
2.  Mercutio.Allows himself to
be baited by Tybalt.
He gets killed and
Romeo is tempted to
take personal vengeance.
He should have listened
to Benvolio and
avoided a quarrel.
3.  Romeo.Takes personal vengeance
on Tybalt for
Mercutio's death.
He is banished.He should have left
the punishment of Tybalt
to the Prince.
4.  Capulet.Insists on a speedy
marriage of Juliet to Paris.
She takes the potion
to avoid it.
He should have stuck
to his original intention
of letting Juliet make
up her own mind.
5.  Friar Laurence.Gives Juliet the potion.Believing her dead,
Romeo is tempted
to suicide.
He should have gone to
Capulet or to the
Prince and told them
that Juliet was
already married.
6.  The Nurse.Advises Juliet to forget
Romeo and commit
Juliet does not confide
in her about the potion
She should have kept
her mouth shut.
7.  The Apothecary.Sells poison to Romeo.Romeo's temptation to
suicide is strengthened
by his possession of
the means.
He should have obeyed
the law and refused
to sell Romeo the
8.  Romeo.Kills himself.He is damned.Even if Juliet had
really been dead, he
should, at whatever
cost of suffering, have
remained alive and
true to her memory.
9.  Friar Laurence.Leaves Juliet alone
when he hears the
watch coming.
Juliet's temptation
to commit suicide is
strengthened by being
given the opportunity.
At whatever cost to
himself, he should have
stayed with Juliet to
prevent her killing
10.  Juliet.Kills herself.She is damned.She should have remained
alive and true to
Romeo's memory.
Evaluation: Auden pushes his point of view no matter what. For instance, despite the lack of any mention of any such thing in the text, Auden says that both Romeo and Juliet are "damned"; later in the essay he adds that "the fact that they kill themselves is, in the profoundest sense, a failure to love, a proof of selfishness" (38). His only support for his moralistic pronouncements is the assertion that everyone in Shakespeare's audience would agree with him because they all believed that "suicide is a mortal sin, and that suicides go to Hell for all eternity" (38).

Warning: This edition of Romeo and Juliet is hard to find, and if you do find a copy, the cheap paper on which it is printed may crumble at a touch.

Bottom Line: Auden doesn't explain the tragedy -- he passes judgment on it.