REVIEW
Dickey, Franklin M. Not Wisely But Too Well:
Shakespeare's Love Tragedies. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1957.

Thesis: The general thesis of the book is that a correct understanding of Shakespeare's love tragedies -- Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra -- requires an understanding of Elizabethan thought about love. Regarding Romeo and Juliet, Dickey argues that it would seem natural to an Elizabethan audience to see Romeo's unrequited passion for Rosaline treated in a comic way, because that was the way such passion was usually presented in the drama of Shakespeare's time. Dickey also argues that Shakespeare's audience would have understood that the love of Romeo and Juliet was excessive and therefore dangerous. His final words on Romeo and Juliet are as follows:

     The word of one contemporary playgoer, at least, has survived to assure us that the theme of the play is not amor vincit omnia ["love conquers all"] but that "Death is the common Catastrophe" of those who love unwisely. From love, writes Burton [Robert Burton, 1577-1640, author of Anatomy of Melancholy],
comes Repentance, Dotage, they lose themselves, their wits, and make shipwrack of their fortunes altogether: madness, to make away themselves and others, violent death.
Doting love does not, to use Dowden's phrase, "exalt and quicken the inner life." [Edward Dowden, 1843-1913, was noted for his commentaries on Shakespeare.] On the contrary
if this passion continue . . . it makes the blood hot, thick, and black; and if the inflammation get into the brain, with continual meditation and waking, it so dries it up, that madness follows, or else they make away themselves.
To prove his point Burton quotes, alongside lines of Ovid and Virgil, the concluding couplet:
Who ever heard a story of more woe,
Than that of Juliet and her Romeo?
Does this mean that Burton and the spectators in his day, or that Shakespeare himself, looked upon the play as an edifying lesson in how not to conduct oneself in love? I hardly think so. The pattern of the action, given shape by Friar Laurence's warnings, Mercutio's satiric ebullience, and the Prince's scattered judgments, revolves around two of the most attractive young lovers in all literature. But the patterns of moral responsibility are necessary to give the action its perspective, and it is these patterns of the destructive as well as the creative force of love and the dependence of fate upon the passionate will which most contemporary criticism neglects or denies. We, who have moved so far from Shakespeare's world, need to be reminded of these things. They would have touched his audience far more deeply than they touch us today.     (116-117)

Bottom Line: Pretty persuasive.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 28 March 2002