Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Romeo and Juliet: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Tragedy

Today, my students and I begin our study of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Before approaching this wonderfully cathartic masterwork, I think it might be useful to review some key questions pertaining to tragedy. What is the origin and purpose of tragedy? Why did the art form and its attendant aesthetic die out? Why did the tragic mode experience a revival during the Renaissance? How is the Christian aesthetic appreciation of tragedy divergent from the pagan aesthetic?

The tragic mode was born and died in ancient Greece. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy provides a fascinating genealogy of the art form and might be useful for this discussion. Nietzsche understands the beating heart of tragedy to be the conflict between what he calls the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in the human condition. The Apollonian drive is man’s focus on dreams, images, and prophecy, all of which points to his hunger for personal meaning and truth. The inscription “Know Thyself” at the Oracle of Delphi, dedicated to Phoebus Apollo, is the quintessential example of Apollonian wisdom. The Dionysian dimension of human existence, on the other hand, represents man’s proclivity for losing himself in community, his uncontrollable irrationality, his insatiable passions, his volatile emotional life, his dark side. Music, rather than dreams or images, is the primary artistic mode for the Dionysian. Nieztsche asserts that the genius of Greek tragedy is its sublime and cathartic equilibrium of the Dionysian (the Chorus) and the Apollonian (the interaction amongst the characters) impulses in a potent narrative.

Nietzsche contends that Socratic philosophy and later the Christian faith, with their mutual emphasis on rationality, ethics, and individuality, sounded the death knell of the tragic aesthetic because they denied and even scorned the Dionysian dimension of humanity. He laments this development and presses for a return to the pagan worldview with their tragic sensibilities. I am not much interested in this view, but I do find his Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy instructive. It provides a fascinating account for why tragedy was first born and later reborn in the Renaissance. Nietzsche’s positing of tragedy’s value in religious language points to a common point of origin: religion.

In both ancient Greece and the late medieval world there was a dynamic culture of religious ritual, or liturgy, which was offered communally by the people to the gods or God. The dramatic action and dialogue of the theater and of the religious cult were closely linked for the ancient Greeks. The tragedies were performed in conjunction with religious festivals. The pagan liturgies even took place on the same stage as the tragedies. Similarly, the drama of the Holy Mass and the medieval biblical cycle plays were also very closely linked. Over time, this rich tradition of liturgical plays gradually evolved into the secular, or non-religious, plays of Tudor England in the same way that the pagan rites transformed into secular plays like Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. The best tragedies, however, always retained a thematic connection with the original metaphysical and ritualistic soil from which they sprang. So, the lesson we can take from history is that the tragic mode of art seems to require a rich liturgical soil to blossom, at least initially.

When tragedy was resurrected in the Renaissance, however, the aesthetic was much different. The ancient Greeks were tragic people because their faith system was a fatalistic one in which they suffered tremendously at the hands of fickle gods, fickle nature, and fickle man. Christian civilization is not fundamentally a tragic one, but a comedic one. The crucifix certainly symbolizes the same sort of suffering so characteristic of the pagan aesthetic, but it is tied to a genuine belief in hope, Jesus’ bodily resurrection on the third day—Easter. As Easter people, life is not intrinsically tragic, but comedic. Comedic here refers to the word’s traditional meaning and usage, i.e. a story that possesses a happy ending culminating in marriage; for the Christian, it is marriage with God in heaven after death. Moreover, as Easter people, suffering has a new meaning in the light of the Jesus’ atonement for our sins. All our suffering can and should be linked to his sacrifice on the cross. Consequently, life is pregnant with meaning, not metaphysically sterile as it was for the Greeks.

For the Greeks, the aesthetic was a way out, a way to conjure cathartic meaning out of the painful materials of human existence. They took an ugly world and made it beautiful. For the Christians, the aesthetic is not an escape route to transform an arbitrary world into a meaningful one. Art serves a contemplative function. It directs our thoughts to the meaning of suffering, which has been given its significance not by us, but by Christ’s redeeming action. Catharsis, the proper end of tragedy, is not a form of psychic therapy to assuage our fury and despair at a fatalistic world, but it is a kind of mournful delight in Christ’s amazing grace and a summoning to embrace the cross knowing that the resurrection will follow.

How does all this relate to Romeo and Juliet? Well, the tragic deaths of the lovers reiterate the pagan theme of fatalistic suffering. The dramatic irony makes us aware of the significance of what transpires at the end of the play before the characters are even aware of it. This lends the dramatic action a providential ambience. Moreover, the bard cleverly foreshadows the tragic outcome in the prologue, the continual references to stars, and other ominous portents or instances of unconsciously clairvoyant wordplay. The Christian doesn’t come away from the play, however, having their fatalistic world view reinforced. Quite to the contrary, the play ends with the Christian contemplating the beauty of erotic love and its limits, the danger of hasty imprudence, and an elegiac healing of the Montague-Capulet feud.

Romeo and Juliet’s love is both a clarion call to passionate romance and an admonition against its extreme characteristics. It is a celebration of love and a meditation on the disastrous consequences of political in-fighting that can stand in the way of blissful fecundity. The pagan sees in Romeo and Juliet’s demise a mirror reflection of life’s despair made beautiful. The Christian sees in Romeo and Juliet’s demise not simply a mirror refection of life’s despair, but also the real hope that through free choice the errors of the lovers can be avoided, AND the errors of all lovers can be forgiven and redeemed. There is always hope for the Christian. Hope is a rather alien concept to the pagan mind.


  1. Hi Adam!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Romeo and Juliet. I teach 9th grade CCE in Huffman, TX at St. Philip the Apostle. One of my students is reading Romeo and Juliet in school and brought up the Catholic refernces throughout the play. She found these references insulting and questions the morality of the play. I wasn't sure how to respond to her concern. Do you have any input for a 9th grader questioning the morality of Shakespear and it's relevance in the modern day classroom?

    Many thanks!

  2. Does anyone have any ideas on how to address the questions of 8th graders about the suicides of Romeo and Juliet and whether this prevents them from going to heaven?

    1. Tell them that it was a time of killing. People would kill other people in the streets for fun, but committing suicide was seen as a crime and as a sin and would send you to hell.

  3. The pagan concept from the Greek worldview and native Druid perspective, I believe, is cyclical one, whereas the notion of an end is linear. The belief in reincarnation is the foundation stone for this. Romeo and Juliet could be interpreted with the two worldviews in contrast. The Rosaline contrived love is compared to the genuine love of Juliet. The fake death is in contrast to the real death. The fake belief (in Shakespeare's writing) is Christianity compared to the pagan worldview. Whereas the suicide for the Christian is an ultimate sinful act and will be punished in Hell (in the Catholic teaching) the idea of both dying together has many references in pagan cultures where there is a hope in a reincarnated life together.There is also the sacrificial act that then provides fruit for the following harvest. The deaths brought peace to the community. The main empiracle objection to the presently pervading pagan cyclical view finding its way into Christian philosophy and culture is the evidence that the universe had a beginning. Bearing that in mind all pagan perspectives do find their route in the deception that is found in the Garden of Eden. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Were it not for the sacrifice for sin once and for all by Jesus we would all be lost. Praise the Lord for the life that is found in faith in Jesus Christ. If Romeo and Juliet were children of God through faith in Christ their suicides would not impair their eternal security. If they were not then there is no hope.