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Privacy and the creation of Identity in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet“In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which,” the novelist George R. R. Martin stated in 2001 (Gevers, 2001). What he hints at, is that the division of good and evil is not always clear cut, because it matters from which perspective one looks at it.
This is a problem which is also encountered in William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” where it remains unclear whether the speaker is a good or a bad person.
As Blake is mostly affiliated with biblical poems, I will compare the poem to the first three chapters of “The Book of Genesis,” which deals with this distinction between good and evil. Ultimately, I will provide evidence to support my thesis which is the following:
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers seek to inhabit private spaces outside the world they know in order to create a new personal identity.
(privacy plays a pivotal role because not only does it enable the young lovers to dismantle their socially imposed norms but also create a new sense of identity)
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet uses spatial separation and especially the dichotomy of interior-exterior so that the young protagonists can forge their hidden identities.
In addition to spatial segregation, the notion of Romeo and Juliet’s new, personal identitie is further emphasized by their private language, which is characterized by evasiveness, dissimulation, and word play.
The poem shows multiple parallels to the religious scene of Adam and Eve being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit hanging from the tree in the Garden of Eden, which is encountered in the Book of Genesis. In both works a tree is standing in a garden which bears one or more fruits. It bears a fruit that causes severe consequences for the one consuming it.
In the poem, the foe presumably dies upon eating the fruit, which is implied with “My foe outstretched beneath the tree” (Blake, l. 16), whereas in Genesis, Adam and Eve are punished in several ways. To Eve, God says: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16), whereas to Adam, God promises to curse the ground and commands him to eat from it for the rest of his life until he returns to dust (Genesis 3: 17-19).
Furthermore, in both of the stories a sin, nourished by temptation, had to be committed in order to reach the act of consuming. Adam and Eve disobey the commandment of God not to eat the fruit from the tree and this is regarded as a sin. Similarly, in the poem, infuriating the speaker, trespassing on his property and stealing the fruit is regarded as a sin in the speaker’s eyes.
The temptation which finally leads the individuals to the urge to eat the fruit is in both cases induced by another character. On the one hand, a “crafty serpent” in the Garden of Eden convinces Adam and Eve not to listen to the voice of God, and eat of the tree (Genesis 3: 1-5). In the poem, on the other hand, this temptation is created by the speaker himself.
He “sunned his wrath [the tree] with smiles and with soft, deceitful wiles” (Blake, l. 7-8) to trick his foe into the temptation to eat the apple. Thus, several parallels can be found in between the two stories, making it a possibility that these two stories are connected.
In addition to spatial segregation, the notion of Romeo and Juliet’s unique, personal identities is further emphasized by their private language, characterized by evasiveness, dissimulation, and word play.
Observation shows that from the beginning, the speaker in ‘A Poison Tree’ has different intentions than God in the Book of Genesis. By killing his opponent, the speaker in the poem apparently thinks that he owns the knowledge to distinguish good from evil, and the power to decide over life and death. Nevertheless, he is by no means qualified to act in the righteous way God does.
The speaker holds astonishing godlike powers indeed, as he is able to convert a mere feeling into a growing plant which can be cultivated with several other immaterial concepts, as shown in these lines: “And I watered it in fears” (Blake, l. 5), or “And I sunnèd it with smiles, and with soft deceitful wiles” (Blake, l. 7-8).
However, the speaker’s reasons to kill his enemy, which only emerge from wrath and anger, do not only not justify the decision to take one’s life, but also involve the commitment of a sin on its own, as wrath is considered one of the seven deadly sins (Slavitt 374). Instead of punishing a sinner in order to show him the right way, the speaker commits sin himself and punishes his opponent for apparently provoking such emotions.
At the end of the poem, it is clear that the speaker experiences a relieving feeling upon seeing the effectiveness of his own creation and the presumably dead body of his opponent, which is seen in the lines 15 to 16: “In the morning glad I see my foe outstretch’d beneath the tree” (Blake, l. 15-16). God, on the other hand, sets up clear rules from the beginning and states the consequences in case the rule is to be broken.
In the form of a warning God says to Adam: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2: 15-17). In the poem, the speaker does not formulate such a warning. In addition, God, even though he is sad because of the failing of his creation, does not sentence Adam and Eve to die as they ignore his warning, but gives them a punishment in the form of a lesson, which shows his good will. Thus, the speaker in the poem and God have different intentions from the beginning.
Following the analysis given in the preceding paragraphs, the speaker seems not to be as righteous as he may think he is, which is also seen by analyzing the structure of the poem, suggesting the possibility that the speaker curses his opponent. The rhyme scheme is consistent and is divided into couplets, whereas the rhythm and meter show a fairly odd pattern.
The first line consists of seven stressed syllables and is a trochaic tetrameter, whereas the second line is a iambic tetrameter and has eight stressed syllables. This pattern alternates only in the first stanza. The rest of the poem continues only with the trochaic tetrameter until the second to last line. This consistent use of the same rhythm and rhyme implies that the speaker is obsessively driving forward to killing his enemy using a very urgent tone, and reminds of the casting of a spell.
In the last line, the poem concludes with an iambic tetrameter, which marks the relief of the speaker upon seeing the lifeless body of his counterpart, like he would want to sigh and say: “Finally my opponent is dead.” As Gallagher notices, in the last couplet there is also a change in time. Past tense suddenly becomes present tense, which, in his opinion, means that “a single past act (the murder of the narrator’s foe) brings about an effect which has decisive reverberations in the eternal present: […] I see my foe now dead beneath the tree” (Gallagher 248). Thus, by analyzing the structure of the poem, it becomes clear that the opponent is literally being cursed by the speaker.
As has been discussed before, the speaker possesses godlike powers, but uses them for the wrong reasons, which hints on a combination of God and the Devil inside of him. As already stated in the first paragraph, the snake in the Garden of Eden and the speaker in ‘A Poison Tree’ behave in the same way, as they both tempt another human being into making a bad decision.
In the New Testament, Satan is called the “ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9), which implies that he is indeed the snake speaking in the Garden of Eden. In addition to this comparison with the Devil, the speaker also seems to use a devilish incantation against his opponent, in order to conjure up an evil tree bearing the poisonous apple, that ultimately leads to the death of the ‘foe’.
However, the first two lines of the poem, “I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath, my wrath did end” (Blake, l. 1-2), suggest that the narrator also has good intentions upon the ones who treat him the way he deems right, in a similar way God does. Therefore, as the speaker can be considered as both good and evil, hence he is also a combination of God and the Devil.
In conclusion, what I have done, is analyzing the original artwork of the poem and the power of anger if it is nourished with hate and other bad feelings. However, what I have done, is looking at the parallels of ‘A Poison Tree’ and ‘The Book of Genesis’, later on comparing the intentions of the speaker and God, analyzing the structure of the poem and ultimately revealing the speaker to be a combination of God and the Devil.
The final statement, that the speaker is both good and evil, could be a metaphor regarding humanity itself. In every person there seems to be a good and a bad side. Only the situation and the relationship of the individual beings decide on which one to put emphasis on, either good or evil. However, the right to distinguish between those two, only pertains to the one who eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
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