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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

# 95 "ROMEO & JULIET"
Description of Painting - Oil on canvas 20" x 36"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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The familiar story of the "star-crossed" lovers is a tragic one because they were the victims of inherited hate and circumstances not of their making.

Resolute in their action, Romeo's arm is flung across Juliet in a protective gesture. Despite their youth, their hair is white, symbol of age: not their chronological years but their problem, which is age-old.

The parents have clothed them in rich finery ("Spare not for cost." as Capulet says), yet drained them of spiritual blood, hence the ashen skin tones. Suspended on Romeo's cheek is one solitary tear. In despair he cries out:
".,.then turn tears to fires."
The Prince, in denouncing the street brawls rebukes them with:
"You beasts, that quench the fires of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins."
The destructive fires of "pernicious rage" have been ignited by inherited hate. Behind Romeo this fire is consuming a structure of dubious durability, the house of ancient tradition. Windows and doors are barred, restraining escape from repressive custom. Flight from the balcony means a plunge into a bottomless inferno of seething flames that blanket the sky in a purple shroud.

Jointed to this burning alter is a gallows: emblem of constriction. 'Hanging' is a favorite reference in the play:
Romeo:   "Hang up philosophy, unless philosophy can make a Juliet."
Capulet to Juliet:   "Hang thee, young baggage."
This fatal symbol casts an ominous shadow on a twisted stairway, enveloped in a murky, sunless gloom, the fearful darkness of banishment. Romeo says:
"There is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself."
The torture of doubt and confusion attendant on "choices" are indicated on the lower left by another crooked stairway. Midway it fractures into two divergents that terminate at two leaden coffins.

The transition into adulthood is a treacherous one especially when aggravated by traumatic factors. Society has imposed an obligation that has become a leaden casket in which youth is expected to carry inherited tradition, but when this legacy is weighted with rancor and contradictions, the burden is too heavy to carry across the chasm from adolescence to maturity. It is dead. weight: lead weight.
Juliet remarks:   "But old folks, many feign as they were dead, Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead."
And Romeo says:   "I have a soul of lead so stakes me to the ground, I cannot move."
But jump they must! When they stand on the brink of this gulf, they look to the 'mothers' and 'fathers' for advice and guidance. In the extremity of her crisis Juliet implores of the Friar:
"Out of your long-experienced time
Give me some present counsel.
O, bid me leap
And I will do it without fear or doubt."
But the Friar's counsel was flawed. Earlier she had appealed to her parents and this was their response:
Father: "Hang, beg, die in the streets, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee.
Juliet: "O, sweet my mother, cast me not away".
Mother: "Talk not to me, for I have done with thee"
Juliet: " O God, O Nurse, comfort me, counsel me."
But even Nurse betrays her. It is at this point Juliet surrenders her childhood and becomes a woman, assuming responsibility for her own choices. She pleads:
" Come weep with me, past hope, past cure, past help."
Thus the lovers are shown in their last desperate stand, in the shadow of a noose, and trapped between the gallows and stairways leading nowhere.

And so:
"A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death, bury their parents strife."
FIN


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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