REVIEW

Hill, R. F. "Shakespeare's Early Tragic Mode."
Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (1958): 455-469.

Thesis: Hill's general thesis is that Shakespeare has two tragic modes, "rhetorical" and "naturalistic." According to Hill, early in his career Shakespeare wrote "rhetorical tragedy in which verisimilitude of expression was sacrificed to lofty sentiment and polished phrase" (457), but "the imagery of the mature tragedies is both the inevitable expression of individual ideas and the embodiment of the plays' central themes" (458).

About Romeo and Juliet, Hill's thesis is that

Romeo and Juliet is pivotal in the development of Shakespeare's tragic style. On the one hand, it contains vestiges of the early manner with its ornate diction and rhetorical modes of expressing emotion; on the other hand, the seeds of the mature tragic style are present in the mixture of serious and comic elements, in the strong characterization, in verisimilitude of speech, and in the deep-searching imagery. Characterization and naturalism are breaking through conventions. Rhetorical language, no longer a continuous medium, is used intermittently for special effects.     (467)

Interesting . . .

This all too brief criticism of Romeo and Juliet cannot be concluded without reference to the style of the lamentations poured forth by the Capulets over the supposed dead body of Juliet (IV.v.17-64). It is entirely a rhetorical expression of grief and as such strikes a false note in the naturalism of this tragedy. It is full of silly iterations, and is precisely the kind of ridiculous outcry which Shakespeare burlesqued in the "very tragical mirth" of Pyramus and Thisbe. "O love! O life! not life, but love in death!" cries Paris, and Capulet echoes him mechanically, "O child! O child! my soul, and not my child!" This figure of rhetoric (epanorthosis or metanoia) is more expressive of grief even in the notorious lines from The Spanish Tragedy, and the dolorous clamor of Othello shows the device fully articulate:
If she come in, she'll sure speak to my wife:
My wife! my wife! what wife? I have no wife.
O, insupportable!
What then are we to think of this episode from Romeo and Juliet? Is it just another indication of Shakespeare's unconscious vacillation between the rhetorical and the naturalistic? Or is it that in the mid-'nineties he knew no method other than the rhetorical of expressing this full-throated lamentation? Alternatively is it intentional? Did Shakespeare intend us to look beyond these suits of woe to the emotional void within? This last, I feel, is the true explanation. The Capulets had treated their daughter as little more than a chattel to be disposed of in the interests of profit and prestige. Paris was the conventional lover acting always like the man of wax he was so aptly termed. The Nurse evinced no personal affection for Juliet, and her gross mind could have no communion with the singleness and totality of Juliet's love. What had this quartet to do with deep sorrow? Shakespeare accordingly showed the hollowness of their feelings in their stylized, over-emphatic speech. For pathos he substituted bathos, achieved most simply by setting exaggerated rhetoric in the midst of a basically naturalistic treatment. Just so did Rosaline know that Romeo's love "did read by rote that could not spell."     (467-468)

Bottom Line: Shows a sharp sensitivity to Shakespeare's language.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 2 April 2002