Romeo and Juliet—one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays and most renowned works—tells a story about two star-crossed lovers whose relatives are locked in a generational conflict. The themes of power, knowledge, and authority are central issues in Romeo and Juliet which can be explained using the post-structuralist theory of Jacques Derrida.
Additionally, Derrida’s perspective as it relates to the meaning-making of Romeo and Juliet will be analyzed. The different languages of the theatre being used will be discussed. Finally, a synthesis of the discussion will be presented.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) created was a critic of literary texts, as well as philosophical ones. He also critiqued the foundations of politics. Using his method called deconstruction, which was a way of analyzing text, Derrida was able to navigate a vast array of topics as a major philosophical thinker.
There were moments where Derrida thought the word deconstruction was relatively broad, as it was thought that was popular and propagated in most circles of theory.
In Romeo and Juliet, the theme of power is central to the play. In fact, “The fundamental powerlessness of the younger generation fuels the tragedy…The older generation has all the power…[and] Romeo and Juliet are alternately compelled and manipulated by parents and authority figures into a shrinking and increasingly destructive series of choices.”
Shakespeare himself writes in Act Five, Scene Three, “A greater power than we can contradict/Hath thwarted our intents.” In analyzing these verse from Romeo and Juliet, we must take into account Derrida’s strategies to uncover the differentials within the conversations of Western philosophy that take aim at universal themes which have plagued philosophers since the time of Aristotle:
“Derrida’s…work [should] be read as an assault on the place of
power. The place of power refers here to the tendency of
radical political philosophies and movements to reaffirm
the very structures of authority they seek to overthrow…
Derrida allows us to explore the possibility of strategies
of politics that refer to a radical exteriority — an outside
to power and authority. Through this outside one can
interrogate and resist authority without invoking another
form of authority in its place.”
In fact, the question of authority will be discussed later in this analysis.
In Derrida’s The Reason of the Strongest, he discusses the United Nations and how democracy and sovereignty are paradoxes which contradict each other. Although Verona is a relatively democratic city where Romeo and Juliet takes place, the families of both the Montagues and the Capulets are sovereign entities.
In essence, they are diametrically opposed because, “…in order to be sovereign, one must wield power oneself, take responsibility for its use by oneself, which means that the use of power, if…sovereign, [is] silent; the sovereign does not have to give reasons; the sovereign must exercise power in secret. In other words, sovereignty attempts to possess power indivisibly…”
In Derrida’s thinking, “[o]n the other hand, democracy calls for the sovereign to share power, to give reasons, to universalize. In democracy the use of power therefore is always an abuse of power. Derrida can also say that sovereignty and democracy are inseparable from one another.”
In a democracy, according to Derrida, power is usurped, and this is always a pressing matter; however, the paradox is that democracy precludes the necessity for time so that the usage of power can be debated.
Power is necessitated by having to be used with interaction. As Derrida says, “As soon as I speak to the other, I submit to the law of giving reason(s), I share a virtually universalizable medium, I divide my authority.”
There has to be, then, in Derrida’s framework, a place for sovereignty in a society. Therefore the dueling Montagues and Capulets are within their rights. Yet there must be coequal units which share in the power. Unfortunately, the problem with this is that it also could lead to misuse.
Derrida comments, to be more specific, “Since [sovereignty] never succeeds in [not sharing] except in a critical, precarious, and unstable fashion, sovereignty can only tend, for a limited time, to reign without sharing. It can only tend toward imperial hegemony. To make use of the time is already an abuse.”
Forty-two years ago, Derrida focused on the work of Husserl. He found that, when lived-experience was described by this mathematician—even the concept of complete impartiality—he is speaking from an inner place which can detect one’s own speaking called auto-affection.
“According to Derrida, hearing-oneself-speak is, for Husserl, ‘an absolutely unique kind of auto-affection’ (Speech and Phenomena, p. 78)…unique because there seems to be no external detour from the hearing to the speaking; in hearing-oneself-speak there is self-proximity. It seems therefore that I hear myself speak immediately in the very moment that I am speaking.”
The theme of knowledge is also central to Romeo and Juliet. Although post-structuralism is discussed in relation to the text, first a bit of background. Immanuel Kant, without knowing it, became the father of post-modernism, which basically portends that each person approaches a text or situation and automatically views it from a certain lens.
This is where the meeting of the minds come into play with the idea of knowledge. Here we have the idea that everyone comes from a certain background, i.e., social location, and evaluates a text with the lens that he or she brings to the table. Post-structuralism, in essence,
“means to critique orthodox interpretations
of anything, including Scripture, [i.e.] how
the text itself undermines an orthodox
interpretation that would be the reigning
interpretation. Post-structuralism [also]
critiques whatever historically critical
lenses [that are] talked about” (Taussig, 2005).
Additionally, “[post-structuralists are] suspicious of modern historical critics because [the Post-structuralists feel the historical critics] want to control the meaning of the text, and limit orthodox interpretation, so they have a vested interest in undermining someone else’s interpretation. [Post-structuralists are] radically critical of [the] historical-critical [method]” (Taussig, 2005).
It is this “dismantling” of every single interpretation which allows for the reimagination of the text. Post-structuralist interpretation allows the interpreter to approach the text with knowledge and say one can indeed approach this piece of literature regardless of social location (where one is from, who one is, what one’s educational and socioeconomic background is, etc.).
Romeo and Juliet is timeless. Post-structuralist thought allows for the theory of phenomenology to come into play as well, along with post-structuralist theory. Edmund Husserl himself was the founder of phenomenology, which “…[is] the kind of philosophy that considers anything appearing to consciousness as a legitimate field of inquiry [or philosophical investigation].”
Husserl was originally trained as a mathematician, and his dissertation was on the calculus of variations. The calculus of variations basically deals in optimization theory, which allows for finding the greatest possible area for a given set of assumptions—and Husserl was in favor of the revival of Cartesian thinking without all the assumptions related to it.
This meant that the study of phenomena (from the Greek word phainomenon… “appearance”) would be the study of anything found anywhere in the conscious state. Theoretically, this could even include the unconscious. Therefore, this type of thinking would refer back to “broadening the field of investigation” so much so that “an educated man [could] look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits”—as stated from the philosopher himself, a very high Aristotelian ideal.
What is important about this semiotics is that optimization theory allows for various authorities to come into play when reading a text—or multiple readings—without any of them necessarily being “wrong.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are all equal.
Within the time span of Derrida’s life, he extrapolated on his arguments using several methods. However, Derrida was always in contra of one concept which Derrida named “the worst.” He delineated what this meant in his work Faith and Knowledge.
There is a phrase in his native language which means more than one. However, even while this means that in self-affection, there is still more than one. Of course, in Romeo and Juliet it is obvious that with regards to self-affection, more than one person was involved.
Derrida describes the worst as extreme. In essence, this is the presence of violence. However, Derrida is quick to make a difference between this and the Kantian notion of radical evil. This is composed of the gaping differential between oneself and the Other; in this case, the radical evil would be between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Their differences between the two families are so great that there is in fact a presence of violence, and this comes to a head in Romeo and Juliet’s respective deaths. However, the evil between these two families would not be considered absolute evil, which is something different altogether.
These are the outlines for the ideas of what constitutes the worst according to Derrida. However, in a world that is post-9/11, there is not a solitary enemy on whose grounds one is fighting—as compared to previous years when the Cold War was being waged. The globalization of war has impacted knowledge as one knows it.
In fact, as Derrida says in Rogues, “one would wage what could still be called a ‘war,’ even if we think of this as a war on international terrorism…[unlike] the Cold War…[which] insured it wouldn’t lead to suicidal operation…[Now], ‘all that is over,’ and instead provokes the idea of a ‘new violence…with…some right to wage war.’”
There is a paradigm shift in the way Derrida would view a work of art such as Romeo and Juliet. The importance of a work now moves from Derrida’s focus on empirical evidence to that of moral truths, which would explore the “question of orientation for deconstruction through…comparison of Derrida’s reading of the Kantian university and Benjamin’s rearticulating of knowledge through the work of art.
[This] analysis…[moves] from revelation to appearance, [making] scientific knowledge [opposed] to theological conceptions of truth. This framework allows Kant’s conception of knowledge to…[relate to] authority…”
The theme of authority in Romeo and Juliet plays a special role as well. Romeo and Juliet’s parents are unquestioningly, without a doubt, harbingers of the lovers’ deaths. Their hatred for each other concerns each others’ authority in Verona, where both parties are dueling for the spotlight. Authority has been a key question in Jacques Derrida’s work.
One of Derrida’s deconstructive strategies, “which Derrida identifies with French philosophy in the 1960s, affirms an absolute break with tradition, seeking to change ground in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion. However, such a strategy fails to recognize that one cannot break with the tradition while retaining its language.”
It is precisely this strategy that is employed by Romeo to break with tradition by marrying Juliet, who is a Capulet—his a member of his rival’s family.
One of the other deconstructive strategies would be the one “associate[d] with Heidegger, [which] proceeds by means of a return to the origins of the…tradition and uses the resources of this tradition against itself.” One way in which Juliet used the tradition against itself in order for her own benefit was to have the traditional marriage to Paris, but appear dead in her bed before it took place so that she would have to be taken to the family crypt—where she could then rendezvous with Romeo after he read the letter and knew that she would be waiting for him.
With regard to meaning-making in Romeo an d Juliet, we must realize that we read Shakespeare’s text is in an English-speaking world. Western society is foundationally grounded in reason.
In post-structuralist Jacque Derrida’s Dissemination, he characterized our society as being logocentristic, that is, being focused like a laser beam on the importance of the spoken word versus the written word.
This is because it is assumed that, the person who says what is being said, understands it, and that those who hear that person hear and understand the message. Of course, that is not always necessarily the case.
Applying this linguistically mathematical concept to interpretation, then becomes related to post-structural theory. Martin Heidegger would ask, “Is there a multiplicity?”, and in fact, he did. Heidegger also found four key problems with phenomenology: “the problem of the ontological difference, the problem of the basic articulation of being, the problem of the possible modifications of being in its ways of being, [and] the problem of the truth-character of being.”
In essence, Heidegger was challenging the authority of phenomenology, which would ultimately challenge the idea of phenomenological theory when compared with Jacque Derrida’s post-structuralist theory. After all—if one does not know where the text is coming from etiologically speaking—how can one describe it? How is one being true to the meaning of the text of Romeo and Juliet? Questions regarding issues in interpretation, will, hopefully resolve many, if not all, of these problematic themes for Heidegger, as well as the reader interested in post-structuralist theory.
The way language is used in Romeo and Juliet reminds one that idioms are an important part of speaking. Who can forget the statement “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”?
Well, Jacques Derrida said that “I do not believe in pure idioms. I think there is naturally a desire, for whoever speaks or writes, to sign in an idiomatic, irreplaceable manner.”
Shakespeare was methodical in his arrangement of causes and effects, of actions and their consequences. As Derrida said, “Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
At times, Shakespeare’s language may seem obscure to speakers of modern English. Who would know, except people familiar with the vernacular of the English of Shakespeare’s time, that to “bite one’s thumb” at someone was a great insult?
Derrida would say that, “No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.”
In fact, it is possible to interpret Shakespeare’s words in different ways, as many times he uses plays on words as a literary device. Derrida comments, “We are all mediators, translators.”
Here one has analyzed Romeo and Juliet through the perspective of Jacques Derrida and his theory, especially his post-structuralist theory and deconstruction. The issues of power, knowledge, and authority have been examined thoroughly. Finally, one has seen how Derrida’s perspective helps one understand the creation of meaning-making in the text and how the use of different language in the theatre have been used. We have seen how the overarching influence of post-structuralism and deconstruction apply to Romeo and Juliet, as this truly is a work whose underlying theory is post-modern in nature. The way the power structure of Verona is set up, the way one realizes how knowledge is dealt with in the play, and the way authority is held by the Montagues and the Capulets are resounding examples of Derrida’s thought processes regarding institutions that are still in place on a daily basis in our societies. Romeo and Juliet serves, not as a monolithic work, but as a shining example of the paradigm shift that is evident in post-structuralist thought as challenges to the bulwarks of old tradition.
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