Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dangerous Digressions, Part 2

First, some True Confessions. No, not that kind--although since this is my first romance, you'll have to allow me a few pulp magazine moments. I love those old covers! My confession is somewhat less sensational: I haven't read Romeo and Juliet since college. Which is to say, (almost) several decades have gone by since I last even looked at this play. I certainly had ample opportunity to teach it during my professorial years--I taught lots of classes on The Early Plays--but it just never appealed to me. Why not, you may wonder? Well, there's the culturally overdetermined aspect of the whole thing. Romeo and Juliet has become synonymous with "romance" to such an extent that people can't seem to leave the story alone. We've got Prokofiev's ballet, Tchaikovsky's "Overture-Fantasy," countless movies, and West Side Story in myriad forms; Western culture is so saturated with Romeo and Juliet that every performance risks being seen as a parody. Another reason I resisted teaching it is because I found many of the characters annoying, especially in the first (comic) half of the play. Romeo has always seemed to me to be a rather shallow guy, with his outdated Petrarchan laments over "fair Rosaline," followed by the absurdly sudden coup de foudre at the Capulets' ball. Tybalt is a thug who more or less causes all the play's disasters, the Nurse is a crude Wife of Bath knock-off, and Juliet is a pathetic little girl who just wants to have fun before she's sold off to the highest bidder. Only Mercutio is even remotely interesting, I thought, and he gets killed off in Act 3.

I find the play strangely more compelling this time around, however. This surprises me, since I'm older, less naive, and probably way more judgmental than I was in college. It's an incredibly innovative work; I think we're so used to its cliched aspects ("star-crossed lovers," "wherefore art thou...," "a plague on both your houses"), that we forget what a game-changer it really was in its day.

Medieval and early modern romances were either comedies, like many of Will's early works, or tragedies anchored in history--like Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, set during the Trojan War, or Antony and Cleopatra, which, as I discussed last time, is a kind of homage to Virgil. The whole idea of a "tragic romance" just didn't make sense to people. Romances, unless they had some kind of oppressive historical backdrop, were happy stories, and ended with weddings. They were an opportunity for the playwright to show off his rhetorical pyrotechnics (think Love's Labours Lost, which is mostly about poetic language), and to engage in a little bawdy humor. Make that a lot of bawdy humor. The plots were usually pretty formulaic, involving mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and clownish class conflict. They often nearly missed being tragedies (think A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its paternal death threat, or Much Ado About Nothing, with its Othello-like plot). Like our contemporary romances--which are really comedies in this old sense--Elizabethan comedy held out the possibility of doom and disaster, while simultaneously reassuring audiences that all would be well at the end.

Romeo and Juliet starts out as a comedy in the same vein as A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was written at about the same time. Both plays begin with the specter of forced marriage, both feature autocratic authority figures with Greek names who issue edicts. Even the symmetrical structure of the play and its characters is a comic one--"two households, both alike in dignity," two lovers with two "mentors"--the Nurse and Friar Laurence--two "false loves,"--Rosaline and Paris, and so on. In a comedy, these doublets and oppositions would work themselves into a neat thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure by the end, culminating in a happy marriage that knits up all oppositions and purges all threats to the social order.

What Will does here, however, is turn the whole comic structure on its head. In a play obsessed with oxymorons and Petrarchan paradoxes (more on this in a moment), the founding paradox is the play's genre itself. It's a romantic tragedy. To Will's audience, this was an alien idea--a comedy that takes a wrong turn, and becomes tragic instead. It's hard to conceptualize how weird this must have seemed, since we mix up genres all the time now--we have arty action films and chick-flick horror movies and scripted reality shows. Genre doesn't mean that much to us, because we're not really interested in aesthetics anymore. We're all into "authenticity" (however staged). And whose fault is this?

It's at least partly the fault of...THIS PLAY!

Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it got your attention, didn't it? And, as with all my attention-grabbing exaggerations, I think there's something to it. Romeo and Juliet is a grandly humanist project. It's about the human need for emotional authenticity, and Will's need to sweep away all the old, anachronistic courtly love debris that still exerted its oppressive edicts over romance-writing. All the characters who speak in elaborate sonnet-y speeches using convoluted conceits--like Lady Capulet's stilted comparison of Paris to a book who "only lacks a cover"--are either deluded or hypocritical. Romeo's a total poser at the beginning, mooning over Rosaline in terms that are both artificial and outdated:

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create;
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love I feel, that feel no love in this.

This is classic Petrarchan sonneteering, done to an ironic extreme. Petrarch was Francesco Petrarca, a fourteenth-century poet and scholar who became known as the Father of Humanism. He was a big influence on the Father of English Poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. By the time we get to the Father of English Drama, however, Petrarch's courtly love poetry had pretty much run out of gas.

Two-minute Petrarch: He wrote (among many other things) a collection of sonnets called Il Canzoniere, or "The Song Book." The poems had as their ostensible object a beautiful lady named Laura, who, sadly, just wasn't that into poor Petrarch. Isn't this often the case with poets? I mean, has any girl really ever been won with a poem? I once had an admirer (these days I guess he'd be called a stalker) who wrote me poems and filled my mailbox with rose petals and cinnamon sticks. I later found out this was kind of biblical--my stalker may have read the Song of Solomon. But at eighteen, I thought he was creepy and strange; my taste, sad to say, ran more to guitar players in garage bands. Laura may have felt similarly about Petrarch.

Actually, no one is sure if Laura was real, or just a pun--"l'aura," means "the wind" in Italian. So maybe Laura was just a lot of poetic hot air. Whatever the case, Petrarch's love poems were chock-full of paradoxes--love's fiery ice, knowing innocence, whatever. These paradoxes revealed love's ability to invert nature--for example, by making old people young, or a strong man weak. Petrarch's sonnets had more to do with poetry than love--they effectively "created" Laura. Like all courtly love objects, she was unattainable (because supposedly married), so the poet's erotic yearnings were never satisfied. The solution to this interminable sexual frustration was, of course, writing poems. Highly stylized, rigidly structured poems.

Don't get me wrong. They were beautiful in their day. They used love as a jumping-off point to muse about religion, time, politics, all kinds of stuff. They were brilliant, and they started a whole poetic movement. But they were, by the time Will's Romeo first uttered his "brawling love" speech, over two hundred years old. Even in an era that venerated the past, that's pretty out of touch. Like having a Disney teen star play Jimi Hendrix songs.

Can you picture the Jonas Brothers belting out "Purple Haze?" Maybe in a David Lynch movie...

So, Romeo's sonnet. It's so conventional it tips over into irony. It drags out the usual paradoxes, but here they have to be taken literally. Romeo's vaunted passion actually is "nothing" that wants to be something. His "heaviness" is pretty lightweight. He does have a serious case of vanity, since he's obviously in love with love rather than with a real woman. No wonder Benvolio laughs at him after his little performance.

Rosaline, like Laura, isn't ever going to say yes. She exists to say no. No, no, no. Windy Laura was married; Romeo's Rosaline has taken a vow of chastity. Now we saw in Richard III that Will puts a high value on fecundity and procreation; a woman who has vowed to die a virgin is not an appropriate love-object in Will's world.

Romeo is mired in fakeness and cut off from generativity at the beginning of the play. What about Juliet? She's mired in social strictures and cut off from her own desires, like all young women of a certain class. Her parents are getting ready to marry her off to a man she's never met (which seems amazing, given the claustrophobic circles most historical aristocrats moved in). The Capulets pay lip service to their daughter's wishes--her father tells Paris that he must "get her heart" first, because his "will to her consent is but a part." By Act 3 this hypocrisy will be revealed for what it is, when Capulet calls his recalcitrant daughter a "green-sickness carrion," and a "tallow-face," threatening to drag her to the church in an execution cart if she doesn't agree to marry Paris willingly.

But in this early part of the play, we're still in comedy-land. All may yet be well. Juliet's mom tries to sell her daughter on the idea of marrying Paris by comparing him to...a book. How's that for an enticement? This guy's like a dusty old manuscript, and you can be his pretty cover. Even rose petals-and-cinnamon Romeo looks good compared to this:

Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face,
And find delight writ there with beauty's pen.
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies,
Find written in the margin of his eyes.
The precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride
For fair without the fair within to hide.
That book in many's eyes doth share the glory
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
So shall you share all that he doth possess
By having him, making yourself no less.

He's like a smooth-running computer program, a perfectly balanced accounting ledger, a lovely bank statement. Do you get the impression here that he's not much to look at? "To beautify him only lacks a cover"--isn't this the rationale behind trophy wives? The image of the fish in the sea seems jarring--a natural moment in a highly unnatural poem. At the end of this sing-songy rhyming book report, Lady Capulet gets to the point: "so shall you share in all that he doth possess." She means Juliet will partake of Paris's virtues, presumably, but the other meaning is also pretty clear. He's loaded, and if you marry him you will be too. This is probably the most comically artificial speech in the entire play, perfectly glossed by the Nurse, who calls Paris "a man of wax." Again, there are two meanings--Paris is perfectly sculpted, the quintessence of elegant urban manhood, or--Paris is malleable, weak, utterly artificial.

So this is the world Romeo and Juliet live in. A place of artifice, and poses, and elaborately justified cynicism. When they meet, this hard waxy realm cracks open, revealing another, truer world of genuine emotion. And much better poetry.

But the old regime won't go down without a fight.

Next: Gangs of Verona


  1. Hi Gayle,
    I've given you a "Kreativ Blogger Award." Here's my blog for the details, if you'd like to participate -

  2. Thanks, Traci! I'll do all the stuff on the list when I get a minute tomorrow--except the list of blogs I follow, because I just started this and don't follow any yet--but I will follow yours, now that I know you have one.It's a crazy week here, and I'm behind on posting. But thanks again!

  3. Thanks! I'm new at this, too. Been at it about 6 weeks. It's fun!