REVIEW
Peterson, Douglas. "Romeo and Juliet and the Art of
Moral Navigation." Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare. Ed. Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield. Eugene: U of Oregon Books, 1966. 33-46. Rptd. in Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays. Ed. John F. Andrews. New York: Garland, 1993. 307-320.

Thesis: Peterson opens his essay by asserting that "the major interpretive problem presented by Romeo and Juliet is that of determining who or what is finally responsible for the calmity that overtakes the young lovers" (307), and he closes with his solution to the problem:

But the lovers themselves must bear the final blame. Destined to end the "ancient grudge," they are nevertheless free to choose the means by which they fulfill what Providence has ordained. Repeatedly, they reject divine and rational guidance, following passion as their blind pilot instead, until, finally, they take their own lives, fulfilling what Providence has ordained -- but only in a final act of irrational and unpardonable defiance.   (318)
To support his point, Peterson analyzes the play as a series of wrong choices made by Romeo and Juliet: Romeo decides to crash Capulet's party with his friends, despite his premonition of "some consequence"; Romeo and Juliet insist on a hasty and secret marriage, despite Friar Laurence's warnings and Juliet's misgivings; Romeo fights Tybalt, despite Prince Escalus's prohibition of fighting; and Romeo and Juliet do not meet adversity with patience.

Evaluation: Peterson's argument is persuasive only as long as you set aside the experience of seeing the play. Consider what Peterson says about Romeo's decision to marry Juliet:

The next occasion for choice occurs in II.iii, when Romeo must decide between satisfying the urgency of his passion through a secret marriage or proceeding "wisely and slow," as his spiritual adviser counsels. Laurence's remarks about the "opposed kings," "grace and rude will," which reside "in man as well as herbs" remind the audience of the ethical principle in terms of which Romeo's ardor is to be judged. His passion, tempered, is a good; but left uncontrolled it is poisonous and self-destructive. Laurence is reluctant to believe that Romeo's love for Juliet is any more authentic than his infatuation for Rosaline has been, but he sees, and correctly, that it can be a means of ending the feud:
But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I'll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households' rancor to pure love.   (lines 89-92)
Romeo's passion is neither good nor evil; rationally ordered it will be a good and, furthermore, may have the virtue of turning family rancor to love. But it is evident from Romeo's insistence upon an immediate secret marriage, despite the Friar's warning, that Cupid is still steering Romeo's course.   (312)
First, Friar Laurence issues no warning to Romeo. He says "Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast" only after he has agreed to perform the marriage between Romeo and Juliet. As far as Romeo knows, Frair Laurence is only talking about his speed afoot.

Second, Romeo's passion for Juliet is not "poisonous." The event which brings all Romeo and Juliet's troubles is the death of Tybalt, but at first, because he is married to Juliet, Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt. Then, after Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo fights Tybalt only after he has discarded Juliet's influence upon him, saying, "O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate."

Third, Romeo's passion for Juliet is not "self-destructive." He commits suicide not to destroy himself but to join Juliet. Peterson says, "even as late as Romeo's return from exile it is possible for the play to end happily" (310). What was Romeo supposed to do after Balthasar told him that Juliet was dead and buried? See if Rosaline was still available?

Bottom Line: Peterson turns the "tale of woe" into a Sunday-school lesson.


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   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 2 April 2002