On Philosophy in fiction. How does Shakespeare use ideas in fiction? On Friday, a friend referred me to a couplet I’ve never thought about, though I’ve taught Romeo and Juliet for eight straight years:

She’s not well married that lives married long;
But she’s best married that dies married young.

With these and other reflections on life and love, Friar Lawrence in act 4, scene 5 seeks to comfort the Capulets over Juliet’s ostensible death. The view of marriage expressed by this couplet seems to contradict those Lawrence expresses in act 2, scene 6 while counseling Romeo about marriage:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(Is “love moderately” another of Romeo and Juliet’s oxymorons? After all, even the lover Jesus scolds in Revelation, “I would thou wert cold or hot.” But I think Lawrence’s advice here hinges on what he might mean by moderation: develop other interests in one’s marriage besides sex, and develop other interests in life besides marriage. (But what kind of play would such a life afford us?) Lawrence here also touches on another Romeo and Juliet idea: the link between sex and violence.)

I think the contradiction between Lawrence’s endorsement of “long love” in act 2 and his endorsement of what must be called short love in act 4 reinforces act 4’s dramatic irony. No one in the latter scene but Lawrence knows that Juliet is alive. So Shakespeare uses this dramatic irony to work in some thematic irony. Lawrence takes the opportunity while living this lie to aver in the starkest terms the antithesis of his own opinion.

What makes Friar Lawrence’s avowal of short love otherwise so convincing is the play’s focus on young love and the absence from the play of anything like long love (unless you count the long feud as long love by agreeing with Romeo that “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love”). But the play’s treatment of moderation and violence reinforces what the dramatic irony suggests – that Lawrence in act 4 presents the antithesis of his own opinion. This antithesis strengthens both the drama and the theme.

Shakespeare, maybe even more than his devotee Dostoevsky, enriches fiction with ideas.

By Peter

After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems. He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.