I taught Romeo and Juliet again this fall in ninth-grade English, after a bit of internal argument: should I choose a different play? Was I in danger of “phoning in” my classes because it was my third consecutive year of teaching it? In the end, though, I love the play so much – and it’s so perfectly suited to what I want to teach my ninth-graders about Shakespeare – that I went ahead, and one of my two sections seemed to fall in love with the play, in ways that I didn’t expect. So that was a heartening experience!
It looks like I’ll be teaching ninth-grade English again next year, so I’m asking myself the same questions, and reviewing my notes from this year’s teaching – which led me back to the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Specifically, that first famous description of the title characters: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life” (5-6). I’d forgotten that my students this year had an unexpectedly difficult time making sense of this sentence, because they tried to read the second line separately from the first (“A pair of star-crossed lovers commit suicide”) and then had no idea what to do with the first line. In class, we went through the sentence, reversing the order of the two lines so that it was easier to see how they fit together (“A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life from forth the fatal loins of these two foes”), which made it clear that the line was in fact about the birth of the title characters, and that was that. Until a few days ago, when it occurred to me to wonder: if this sentence is about the births of Romeo and Juliet, not their deaths, is there anything in the Prologue that actually tells us that Romeo and Juliet commit suicide?
It’s clear enough that they die, of course: after this point, the Prologue states that “with their death” Romeo and Juliet “bury their parents’ strife” (8), describes their “death-marked love” (9), and tells us that the only thing powerful enough to end the Montague-Capulet feud is “their children’s end” (11). But the idea that the lovers specifically commit suicide is only found, if it’s found anywhere, in a sentence that is at best a pun on the phrase “take their life,” not a straightforward acknowledgment that they do in fact kill themselves. It’s reasonable enough that my students read the sentence this way; in fact, it’s difficult if not impossible not to hear “take their life” as “commit suicide,” given the common nature of the phrase today, and given the way that the play has made its way into popular culture: before you ever read the play, you know that Romeo and Juliet are two teenagers who kill themselves for love. But to what extent are we reading what’s present in the line itself, and to what extent are we reading our foreknowledge of the play into the line?
My students, naturally, aren’t the only ones who have read the line this way: No Fear Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate in “translating” the line as “Two unlucky children of these enemy families become lovers and commit suicide,” while a more trustworthy authority, René Weis, remarks on “the key paradox of take their life” in the Arden Third Series edition of the play (123). But would this have been a paradox, when the play was first written? That is, did “take their life” actually mean “commit suicide”?
The play itself, it turns out, never uses this phrase anywhere else. Setting aside the host of euphemisms for suicide that it contains (such as “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight” [5.1.34]), the text most frequently describes the act of suicide by using the verb “to slay” in a reflexive sense. When the Nurse gives a garbled account of the duel between Romeo and Tybalt, Juliet cries out in horror, “Hath Romeo slain himself?” (3.2.45). In the next scene, the Friar demands of Romeo, “Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself” (3.3.115); later he says to Juliet, “If rather than to marry County Paris / Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself, / Then it is likely thou wilt undertake / A thing like death to chide away this shame” (4.1.71-4). (It’s peculiar that the Friar sees Juliet’s offer of suicide as “strength of will” while chastising Romeo for lacking the “valour of a man” [3.3.126] when he makes the same offer. Perhaps because Juliet’s suicide – to prevent a second marriage to Paris – would be for the protection of her chastity? At any rate, it’s yet another reason that we should not read the Friar as a neutral authority on Romeo’s behavior.)
Shakespeare uses “to slay oneself” to refer to suicide elsewhere in the Shakespeare corpus, as well as “to kill oneself” and “to fordo oneself” (the latter, it seems, only three times, and two of those are in Lear: “lay the blame upon her own despair, / That she fordid herself”; “Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves, / And desperately are dead”). There’s hang oneself, stab oneself, do violence on oneself, Hamlet’s famous self-slaughter (which makes it into the corpus three times, in fact)…I’m sure there are a host of other terms, too – but the one I haven’t been able to find in reference to suicide is “take one’s life.” The closest I’ve come is the account of Lady Macbeth’s possible suicide – “Who, as ‘tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life” – but even there I’m inclined to argue that the phrase only refers to suicide because of the presence of “self and violent hands”; that is, that the phrase isn’t (yet?) capable of standing in for suicide on its own. This is because all of the other uses of the phrase I could find in Shakespeare involve a person taking another’s life. Without a cue of the sort given in the Lady Macbeth example, would an audience in the 1590s have heard suicide lurking under birth in the R&J prologue, the way we do today?
The OED’s first attestation for “take one’s life” as referring to suicide comes from 1669, apparently in Sir Robert Stapleton’s The Tragedy of Hero and Leander: “Who takes his own life, merits not my pen.” That doesn’t rule out its earlier use, of course. But it doesn’t rule in R&J’s “take their life” as referring to suicide, either. So I’m left with two questions: 1) Did “to take one’s life” refer to suicide when Romeo and Juliet was written? And 2) Even if it did, can we assume that Shakespeare meant suicide when he used the phrase, given that he doesn’t seem to use it anywhere else in this sense? If anyone has any leads for answering either question, I’d be happy to hear them!
Notes: My methodology, such as it is, was to use the search function at Open Source Shakespeare. I first searched directly for variations on the phrase “take his life” using the Advanced Search feature, which allowed me to search for the phrase as a whole. I then used the regular search function to search for “take” (and “took”) near “life” – which let me cast a broader net in case the words were separated in some way. In regular search, Open Source Shakespeare pulls up any word that has “take” in it – so “takes” and “taken” covered, but so is “mistake,” “undertake,” etc.
Texts: Romeo and Juliet, René Weis, ed. Arden Third Series, 2012.
– Other Shakespeare quotations come from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.com (Accessed 13 March 2016).
– No Fear Shakespeare quotation from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/romeojuliet/page_2.html (Accessed 15 March 2016).
– OED citation: “take, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 15 March 2016.