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Juliet Trumps Laura: Shakespeare and the Petrarchan Sonnet

"How could a guy love a person they had only seen once? In a church?" asked Arturo, a student in my tenth-grade English class. We were finishing the first act of "Romeo and Juliet" and, as a prelude to Romeo and Juliet's first meeting at the ball. I had just explained that Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) was responsible for establishing certain ideas about love-relationships. He wrote more than 300 sonnets addressed to an idealized lady named Laura, with whom he had never even had a conversation. These sonnets were enormously popular, and poets in Shakespeare's day were still using Petrarch's sonnets as models. One key Petrarchan notion is that the lover's love for a beautiful woman is not returned and he suffers as if from a bad flu (freezes and burns). The class, as well as Arturo, looked skeptical. This was something that belonged to a period known as "in those days."

I asked Arturo if he knew of any popular songs about being crazy in love with someone who didn't know you existed, someone you had no hope of even getting to know. Several kids came up with titles, and we discussed how the lady-on-a-pedestal idea was still around. It did not take long for them to identify Romeo as a "Petrarchan lover" when he talks about Rosaline - he is "sick" and "sad," and "from love's weak childish bow she lives uncharmed." Arturo said that Romeo, when he was talking to Benvolio about Rosaline, sounded like a dork, and I said that this was part of Shakespeare's strategy - he sets you up for the way Romeo's language changes after he meets Juliet.

There's a lot more that could be said about Petrarch, but I added only that he and others often expressed love in terms of religion, and that this convention was still around too. The kids came up with numerous examples: "You're my angel, I worship you, you're my soul mate, I'm in heaven when I'm with you" and so on.

Before we staged the first conversation between Romeo and Juliet at the end of 1.5, (see handout) I asked the students to read through the scene thinking about Petrarchan language and ideas. Then, I asked two students to stand up and "be" Romeo and Juliet, conversing privately at the edge of a dance floor; two others to read their lines, beginning "If I profane with my unworthiest hand"; and the rest of the class to come in chorally with the nurse's line "Madam, your mother craves a word with you." I promised those who were "up" that they would not have to actually kiss, just bend towards each other where the lines indicated kissing. (It is, of course, possible to have the two actors read, but it is difficult to look soulfully into another person's eyes or even put "palm to palm" while clutching and reading a script.) Students were encouraged to suggest stage movements and gestures implied by the language.

What the students noticed immediately about this scene when they saw two classmates perform it is this: Juliet is no Petrarchan lady. She does not stay on that pedestal for a heartbeat. Romeo leads off with four lines in conventional Petrarchan language, and there is religious diction throughout their exchange - "devotion," "pilgrim," "prayer" and so on. But Juliet, far from remaining passive, matches him with witty comebacks and even hints that his advances are welcome. She and Romeo are both aware of the conventions, but they are about to break with them - just as Shakespeare both used Petrarchan conventions and broke with the tradition. His Juliet is a full participant in the wooing. When "palm to palm" is physicalized by the actors, it becomes clear that Juliet's wordplay matches Romeo's with increasing rapidity and verbal boldness.

Several students recognized that the first 14 lines Romeo and Juliet speak form a sonnet. The lovers then begin another sonnet. Alternating the lines, they finish the first quatrain, the last of which is a shared line (Romeo: "Give me my sin again." Juliet: "You kiss by th' book."), suggesting a full partnership in the blossoming relationship.

"So Juliet isn't at all like Laura," said Arturo. "She's different."

We are all horribly pressed for time when teaching Shakespeare. But it was worth spending a little time discussing Petrarch's Laura in order for the students to understand just how Juliet is different: she knows she's supposed to be impossible-to-get, but she is eager to enter a relationship in which she expects to participate actively and as an equal. The shared sonnet dramatizes her feelings and shows the audience a new kind of sonnet-heroine: audacious and sexually desirous instead of distant, unattainable, and "cruel." Comparing Juliet to Laura helps students to appreciate the extent to which Shakespeare's heroine was a brilliant innovation. It is arguable that in Juliet, Shakespeare created a new model for the romantic heroine, courageous and resourceful, someone whose personality would be at home in the 21st century.

"What about the nurse's interrupting the second sonnet before they have a chance to finish?" I asked. Someone remembered the opening sonnet which lets you know that the lovers die in the end and said, "It's like the way their love is interrupted too soon."

About the Author

Louisa Newlin is a consultant for the Folger Shakespeare Library who
regularly teaches at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, and at The
College of the Atlantic.


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