REVIEW
Bowling, Lawrence E. "The Thematic Framework of
Romeo and Juliet." PMLA 64 (1949): 208-220.

Thesis: Setting out to rescue the reputation of Romeo and Juliet, Bowling writes,

Although Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular and best-loved of all Shakespeare's plays . . . those best qualified to evaluate Shakespeare's works usually speak of it condescendingly as a nice but immature play on the theme of young love. The apologetic attitude of these critics is based upon two incorrect assumptions. Perceiving within the tragedy no intellectual framework, they have concluded that it has no central unifying theme . . . . (208)
Bowling then proceeds to give the play both an intellectual framework and a central unifying theme:
While any attempt to fix a play's theme in a formulated phrase is likely to err on the side of oversimplification, a workable thematic statement can be arrived at which helps to reveal this play's central meaning and to bring together in their proper relationship its various elements, many of which have been seen as unrelated and contradictory. In its broadest terms, Romeo and Juliet deals with the wholeness and complexity of things, in contrast with a partial and simple view. This theme is functional on various levels in almost every speech and action in the play; almost every character is at some time shown discovering that some particular thing has not merely one quality which is pure and single but many qualities which are diverse and multifarious. This theme often comes out in the form of paradox, since the characters are constantly being shocked and surprised to discover that one quality of a thing is often in sharp disagreement with some other quality.

The most important embodiment of the general theme deals with the discovery on the part of Romeo and Juliet and members of their families that individual human beings are not composed of abstract good or evil -- that humanity is composed not of villains and saints but of human beings more or less alike.   (208)

Evaluation: The Devil is in the details. Bowling writes persuasively, but the support for his arguments is often open to question. For example, look at this paragraph on Romeo:

The starting point of Romeo's education is his love affair with Rosaline. Like other members of the two households, he seems previously to have viewed the conflict and the enemy in single-minded terms. Recently, however, he has discovered admirable qualities in a Capulet and fallen in love with her. Although it is sufficiently puzzling to him to find goodness in a "villain," Romeo is further disturbed by a second discovery; in the love affair with Rosaline, he finds that love is not always lovely but may have much discord and misery mixed up in it. Whereas he had previously expected to find in life only such phenomena as "brawling hate" and "loving love," he now finds himself loving where he should be hating and quarreling where he should be loving, and consequently discovers that one often needs to think in terms of "loving hate" and "brawling love." In order to express his bewilderment at such paradoxes, as he stands at the scene of the recent outbreak between his family and Rosaline's, Romeo resorts (quite appropriately) to the violent antithesis of the following passage:
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
But the next time we hear Romeo making observations upon the contradictions of life, he is a wiser man, no longer surprised at such paradoxes. Here is his second expression, in his famous relativity speech to the apothecary on the subject of gold and poison:
There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none . . .
Come, cordial and not poison, go with me
To Juliet's grave; for there must I use thee.
As a child, one thinks of poison as always poisonous and gold as always golden; but as one grows up and experiences life, he is likely to discover, as Romeo does, and as the Friar had pointed out, that gold is often more poisonous than poison and poison may be more golden than gold.   (209-210)
First, Bowling creates a previous state of mind for Romeo. He writes, "Like other members of the two households, he seems previously to have viewed the conflict and the enemy in single-minded terms." This sounds plausible, but has no foundation in the text. Romeo does not comment on either the conflict or the enemy, and other members of the two households are not obviously single-minded. Benvolio appeals to Tybalt for help in stopping the first street brawl, and Capulet tells Tybalt to leave Romeo alone when he crashes Capulet's party. Second, Bowling finds in Romeo's speech about "brawling love" a discovery of complexity, yet the speech could have been spouted off by any young man who had read the very popular Petrarchan love poetry of the time. Third, Bowling sees in Romeo's speech to the apothecary a wise acceptance of the contradictions of life, despite the fact that Romeo is preparing to rush into suicide.

Bottom Line: Sounds good, but you can only hope that it's true.


PAGE INFO:
   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 27 March 2002