Slapstick in Romeo And Juliet

Shakespeare is an interesting author, because his works have all been very specifically grouped into genres that are almost unique unto themselves. There are Shakespearean comedies, tragedies, and histories, all of which have their own flavor that separates them more from the works of any other playwright than from each other, and sometimes they overlap in interesting ways: tragedies that contain humor, comedies that have heartbreaking moments, and histories with elements of each. However, children learning about these plays for the very first time, which they often do in middle school, around the age of thirteen or so, often learn about them as pieces of literature completely defined by their classification, that comedies are all humor, that tragedies are all portentous sadness. One of the tragedies most frequently introduced to students in middle school is Romeo and Juliet, that timeless tale of forbidden love between a Capulet and a Montague in fair Verona, and most students who learn about it this year will experience it largely as a tragic and, to many of them, somewhat boring affair. However, I think this play is funnier than most middle-school english teachers give it credit for. Specifically, I want to talk about these lines, which occur during a confrontation between Capulet (Abram and the unnamed other person required to make a "them") and Montague (Sampson and Gregory) men in the play's very first scene:

SAMPSON: Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at
them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it.
[He bites his thumb]
ABRAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
SAMPSON: I do bite my thumb, sir.
ABRAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
SAMPSON [aside to Gregory]: Is the law of our side if I say “Ay”?
GREGORY, [aside to Sampson]: No.
SAMPSON: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir,
but I bite my thumb, sir.
GREGORY: Do you quarrel, sir?
ABRAM: Quarrel, sir? No, sir.
SAMPSON: But if you do, sir, I am for you. I serve as
good a man as you.
ABRAM: No better.
SAMPSON: Well, sir.

[Enter Benvolio.]

GREGORY, [aside to Sampson]: Say “better”; here comes
one of my master’s kinsmen.
SAMPSON: Yes, better, sir.
ABRAM: You lie.
SAMPSON: Draw if you be men.—Gregory, remember thy washing blow.
[They fight.]
— Romeo And Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1, lines 57-78

One of the things about Shakespeare is that, like so many texts that are a few hundred years old, there's some vocabulary to parse through, but putting it into modern terms will help us greatly, and is surprisingly easy. "I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace if they bear it." This line, though I have no idea where the gesture it describes came from, tells me everything I need to know to puzzle out the scene. It's an insult, the Shakespearean equivalent of flicking someone off. Once we've done this minor lifting, the hilarity of this scene becomes clear: it's practically slapstick! Imagine the rest of the dialogue with that substituted in: "I'm not flicking you off... I'm just... flicking off generally!" That's a remarkably goofy kind of humor, as is the rest of the banter in the scene. The fact that one of the footmen has to ask if the law will support him for biting his thumb at the other, and then has to puzzle out an excuse when he realizes it won't, the way Gregory has to course-correct from "no better" to "better" because Benvolio enters the scene, the overuse of the word "sir," especially in the lines that repeat "Quarrel, sir?" This collection of dialogue is expertly crafted to make the footmen, especially Gregory and Sampson, look like bungling, moronic fools, and it's hilarious. 

Here's the other thing that's interesting about this scene: the humor serves a distinct purpose, and it makes the tragedy far more resonant. A lot of the most goofy parts of this scene, the way "no better" needs to become "better," the overpolitneess, and the "is the law on our side" line, explicitly reference the feud between the Capulets and Montagues, and the way that conflict intersects in problematic ways with the laws of Verona. In other words, the humor of the scene, hysterical and juvenile as it is, serves a distinct literary purpose: it underscores just how ridiculous the state of affairs in Verona - the squabbling families, the conflict between these families and the laws of the land - is, how childish it all is at its heart. This ridiculousness then underpins one of the most profoundly resonant things about of the play. Romeo And Juliet is a tragedy precisely because the eponymous main characters never needed to die, and indeed should not have died at all. Furthermore, their deaths are what force the two families to recognize the absurdity of their disagreement and end it, and what reinforce one of the morals of the story: the ones hurt when huge power structures go to war are largely innocents caught in the crossfire, the raw absurdity and triviality of the great powers’ grievances with each other often make these deaths only more tragic and senseless, and all the reconciliation between these powers can’t bring the slain innocents back to life. The humor in this scene is all pointed squarely at the comedy inherent in the Capulet-Montagud feud, the ridiculousness at their state of affairs, and because of that this humor births the tragic absurdity that forms the backbone of the play’s heartbreaking bent. 

In short, almost every middle or high school child is exposed to a play, Romeo And Juliet, that a great many of them revile as a boring, senseless, drag, when they should experience it as a raucously funny, but no less deeply tragic for that humor, tale of love and war. I never learned about the humor in this opening scene when I was in middle school, and I'd be willing to bet serious money that very few people my age did either. I think that's a disservice, that both hindered me when it came to connecting with this story, but also, more importantly, wasted a valuable opportunity to talk about both how tonal shifts can underscore the power of each tone involved in the shift, and what tragic absurdity is. So, to all English middle school teachers, I implore you and I challenge you: show your students how funny this scene is. Make them laugh at this all, and then show them how that only adds to the tragedy rather than detracting from it. Your students, I can promise, will be all the better for it.

With that, I'll leave you with my favorite version of this opening scene, that I think captures the spirit of this first scene perfectly (note, in particular, the sudden tonal shift from the prologue to the opening scene proper, which perfectly jarring). 

With excitement and optimism,

Alex