Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Romeo and Juliet: A tale of heaven to hell

 Verticality is written into Romeo and Juliet, just as it was built into the playhouses at which the play was first performed

7 minute read

When Juliet realises in Act III of Romeo and Juliet that her lover is banished and that she must marry Paris, she asks: ‘Is there no pity sitting in the clouds / That sees into the bottom of my grief?’.

This simple line, expressing the extent of her anguish, also embodies the play’s preoccupation with verticality. In an instant we are dropped from the clouds into the depths of Juliet’s grief. Prior to this moment, in the morning after they have consummated their clandestine marriage, Romeo takes his leave of Juliet and the upper stage gallery with the words ‘one kiss and I’ll descend’, just before he goes down to the lower stage, presumably by means of the rope ladder that the nurse acquired for them.A few lines later Juliet prophetically declares, ‘Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb’. She then calls upon Fortune, the classical goddess whose wheel determined the good or bad luck of mankind. Juliet can feel her luck shifting at this moment, and as her mother enters, the stage action requires Juliet to descend to the lower stage, suggesting physically her metaphorical movement from the top to the bottom of Fortune’s wheel.

Sketch of an Elizabeth playhouse with thatched roof.

The Swan Theatre in a drawing after Johannes de Witt via Wikimedia Commons.

Romeo and Juliet may have been performed at either the Theatre or the Curtain some time between 1594 and 1597. Both these early amphitheatres had a similar stage structure to that of the first Globe: like the Globe, the stage and tiring house façade was a triple-layered playing space with an upper stage gallery, a main stage level and a trap door leading to a hidden performance space beneath the stage. These architectural conditions, pictured in a famous drawing of the Swan playhouse and characteristic of most Elizabethan and Jacobean amphitheatres, imposed a verticality that shaped the plays written for them in very distinctive ways.The audience was also arranged vertically around the stage.As the Shakespeare scholar Derek Peat writes:‘rather than an audience shelving away from the stage in the way adapted by almost all theatres before and since, the Elizabethan amphitheatre positioned its audience so that it rose like a sheer cliff wall’. Given these playing conditions, it is hardly surprising that many of Shakespeare’s plays exploit a variety of metaphors and poetic devices that reflect both the spatial dynamic of the playhouse and the vertical psychology that characterized the Renaissance and its architecture.

The Globe Theatre stage, depicting the heavens, the earth and hell. Photographer: Pete Le May.

Within this architectural scheme, one might look further into the cosmological metaphor that a playhouse like the Globe invoked. At the new Globe we refer to the stage roof as the ‘heavens’, the main stage as the ‘earth’ and the trap door on the stage (serving as a grave, tomb or hell mouth) as leading into ‘hell’ or a fictional underworld. This vocabulary is hinted at throughout Shakespeare’s work.When Hamlet refers to the ‘heavens’ as ‘fretted with golden fire’ (‘fretted’ was a word that denoted the ornamentation on the roof or ceiling of a chamber), he may have gestured toward the stage roof which is likely to have been painted to resemble the night sky. The metaphor of the cosmos helped playwrights suggest the vast settings the texts ambitiously portrayed. Ideas about the universe and the role of humankind within it may have been in a state of constant flux throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, but in very general terms the sense of a universal hierarchy with God at the top, beasts at the bottom and man in between remained fixed.

The metaphor of the cosmos helped playwrights suggest the vast settings the texts ambitiously portrayed

Sixteenth-century English culture was, to use an anthropological term, a vertical culture: it accepted hierarchies and saw fundamental differences between one person, social class or universal plane and the next. The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Browne describes the place of humanity within this vertical hierarchy: ‘we are onely that amphibious piece between corporeal and spiritual essence, that middle form that links the two together, that makes good the Method of God and Nature, that jumps not from extreams, but unites the incompatible distances by some middle and participating natures’. Shakespeare’s plays, upon close examination, are preoccupied with the celestial, terrestrial and subterranean domains of the cosmos. His characterization, language and imagery provide a range of examples of the ways in which these vertical structures, architectural and cosmological, figured in his dramaturgy.

There is a great deal of movement between the three levels of the Globe Theatre stage. Photographer: John Haynes.

In Romeo and Juliet, verticality is more than a spatial quality; it is a theme.Throughout the play there are many words that signal verticality, including: ‘down’,‘underneath’,‘earth’,‘fall’, ‘above’,‘sink’, ‘raise’,‘under’,‘arise’, ‘high’,‘up’, ‘stand’,‘ground’, ‘ascend’,‘bottom’, ‘heaven’, ‘descend’,‘look up’,‘prostrate’, ‘leap’ and ‘rise’. These vertical signifiers are as pervasive as the indications in stage directions and dialogue for characters to ascend, descend, fall to their knees, fall on a bed, rise up, fall down again, climb up and down, go down into graves and so on. The language of the play provides many examples of the kinds of movements the actors are asked to perform. There is a great deal of movement, for example, between the three levels of the stage; scenes are performed on the upper stage gallery, sometimes with more than one character; at other times, with one character above and one below.

The word ‘balcony’ was not in use in English until 1618 and the famous ‘balcony scene’ is incorrectly named

The word ‘balcony’ was not in use in English until 1618 and the famous ‘balcony scene’ is incorrectly named given that the only stage direction we have is for Juliet to appear at her window, but  because Romeo refers to it as ‘yonder’ window and refers to Juliet as the ‘sun’, it suggests he is looking up; thus we know it takes place on the upper stage.

The ‘balcony’ scene in Romeo and Juliet (2009). Photographer: John Haynes.

Shakespeare’s representation of love and desire brings to light the way in which verticality is exploited as a theme in this play. Petrarch, the 15th-century Italian poet, had invented a type of love sonnet (adapted by English poets in the 16th century) that was a vehicle of fictional courtship and mistress  worship. The sonnet mistress herself was a perfect beauty, silent, high-born, chaste and unattainable. Romeo is a Petrarchan lover, who conventionally places a vertical distance between himself and his beloved mistress. When we first meet him he is the archetypal melancholic lover. Although the poetry he uses to express his love first for Rosaline and then for Juliet charts his increasing maturity and development, he nevertheless maintains the posture of the lover situated below the mistress, as is spatially conveyed in the balcony scene when he is placed beneath Juliet. The figurative language he uses to express his love for her focuses our eyes upwards towards the heavens: stars, heavenly bodies, the night sky and birds.

Juliet, by contrast, focuses our gaze downwards towards the earth and the underworld; in the first instance, this happens when she enquires after his name and somehow senses ‘My grave is like to be my wedding-bed’. In the balcony scene, Romeo ruminates on the celestial quality of Juliet’s beauty; Juliet, on the other hand, thinks about his name, his hand, his foot and promises to lay her fortunes at his feet. Although a great deal of Juliet’s expressive language also uses celestial imagery, there hovers over her speeches a poignant recognition of her inevitable descent into the grave. The lovers express their profoundest feelings in a language of verticality, while the stage directions, the playhouse architecture and the ‘cliff wall’ of audience rising above the actors concentrate our attention on the visual or spatial verticality of the drama, which portrays love as a progress from heaven to hell.


Our 2009 version of Romeo and Juliet will be streamed for free in 2020 as part of our YouTube Premieres season.