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‘Death-marked love’: Desire and Presence in Romeo and Juliet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Stanley Wells
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

The action of Romeo and Juliet occurs between two speeches proclaiming the lovers' deaths - the prologue's forecast of events and the prince's closing summary. The vicissitudes of desire take place in this unusual period, after life yet before death. It is a kind of liminal phase in which social and personal pressures build to intense pitch before they are settled. Such liminal tension, as Victor Turner suggests, is the very stuff of which social dramas are made. It figures a mounting crisis that envelops those observing and taking part in the unfolding action. At the same time, this temporal setting has a range of interpretative implications.

With the lovers' deaths announced from the start, audience attention is directed to the events' fateful course. The question is less what happens than how it happens. By framing the action in this way, the prologue triggers various generic and narrative effects. First, it establishes the play as 'a tragedy of fate' similar to Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which gives 'the audience a superior knowledge of the story from the outset, reducing the hero's role to bring into prominence the complex patterns of action'. In turn, this generic marker initiates a compelling narrative, poised between prolepsis and analepsis, as opening portents of death are played off against background details and further intimations in the following scenes.

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Chapter
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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 57 - 68
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1996

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