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19 February 2010 @ 11:33 pm
A few thoughts on Romeo and Juliet...  
Romeo and Juliet: The Vow, the Vowel and the Disavowal

Romeo and Juliet opens with the introductory warning, delivered by the Chorus, that “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/ Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Thus, the narrative resolution is spoken before the narrative; narrative emplotment has achieved constellation before the actual performance of that narrative begins. Indeed, the performance, the speech act itself is announced at the outset, providing the audience with a narrative framework for contextualizing each piece. As a consequence, each and any succeeding articulation absorbs meaning not only from the sequence of events that proceed it but also from the meaning projected onto past events with an awareness of how they lead toward or initiate that which must issue forth as a consequence of them. Introducing the play by calling to attention both the predetermined nature of the character’s fate and the performative nature of the medium itself, Shakespeare requires the audience to engage with the narrative as a performance. Language itself, the utterance, precedes action. The articulation determines fate; the speech act emitted by the characters configures outer fate awaiting them as they negotiate their narrative.

To consider the narrative of the play as immutably predeterrmined set of criteria is to call into question the very nature and even the existence of free will, a continually surfacing tension within the play. The title characters are bound to a social code that precedes them and subject to a set of social circumstances beyond their control. As the introduction by the chorus suggests, the narrative configuration in which they find themselves has an immutable quality. Their misfortune, also the result of inherited rather than self-induced signification, is assigned to them from outside rather than from within. Their struggle is thus perhaps to find a way to resignify themselves. Ultimately, they are unable to do so. This failure speaks back to a major anxiety of the Elizabethans: the question of the mutability of the self, the possibilities for mobilizing the self outside of the occupation or position of one’s birth, the possibility to step outside the confines of destiny.

The question of the vow becomes significant in this context. Vows play a central role in the play, emerging as utterances that require those who utter them to assume new identity by rupturing integral features of that identity. “Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” demands Juliet to Romeo, “Or if thou wilt not, be sworn my love/ And I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (2.1.76). To take the vow of love, to bind himself to Juliet, Romeo must renounce himself. Yet the retraction is, antinomically, itself a part of the vow. To vow is to promise to behave in a certain way in an estranged future, in which one cannot know the self. To pledge an eternal behavior of the self in the future is to necessarily break that vow, for the process of recognizing the “becoming” must necessarily acknowledge that the self that makes the vow is momentary, transient. To take the vow of marriage at a discrete moment in space and time is to refuse the possibility of the inevitable: the non-retractable process of becoming, in which the individual who makes the vow is no longer the individual who must keep the vow. Each acknowledgement of the vow must dis-acknowledge the inescapability of the past, which precedes the vow, and the inevitability of the future, in which one must keep the vow and thus betray the self. Within the play, Romeo agrees to disavow or retract his past as a Montague in order to pledge himself to Juliet. He asserts that he will “take [her] at her word…[and] be newly baptized” (2.1.90). His vow to Juliet and to their impending union requires him to disavow his past, the constellation of events and circumstances that gave birth to him. Equally, to vow is to evade the certainty that the self that takes the vow will not be the self that must keep the vow. This fidelity, this pledge of fidelity to Juliet, requires betrayal, for he must betray not only his own identity but also the person that Juliet has fallen in love with, to whom Juliet seeks to be bound.

Thus, I regarded the question of vow and the tension between the vow and the confession—and the juxtaposition of them in Romeo and Juliet—with some interest. To confess in the religious sense is to acknowledge the past in order to release the self from it. The confession avows or acknowledges the past so as to disavow or disengage the confessor from that past. To vow is to disavow the possibility of the becoming, to bind the self impossibly to coordinates in space and time in the past. Both the vow and the confession are performative speech acts that demand the presence of the witness in order to certify or validate the utterance. Thus, the act of speaking in Romeo and Juliet implies the participation of the audience, a contractual complicity of the audience in order to sign and countersign the utterance. In this sense, the performance of the vow and the confession, their audibility and the necessary receipt of that performance, the acknowledgment demanded of both of them, and not just the vow (avowal) or confession (disavowal) itself, completes the transaction. It is thus finally the articulation that binds Romeo to Juliet, and both to their fate within the narrative framework.

The question then becomes: do the opening remarks delivered by the Chorus take the form of the vow or the confession? That is to say, is the utterance offered by the Chorus a prophetic commitment to the predetermined future or a review of a narrative that has already passed? If it is a vow, then the aim of the play may be to orient the audience toward this implicit infidelity in every pledge of fidelity, a necessary renouncement with every affirmation. If it is a confession, then perhaps we can qualify the events that ensue as consistent with and bound to the redemptive impulse, an impulse to create from the tragedy that ensues a pedagogical value from the narrative that would redeem the uttered affirmation of tragedy.