Saturday, October 31, 2009

(S)word Play

I should apologize for the overly clever title of this post--I couldn't resist. Sword play and word play often go hand in hand in Romeo and Juliet, especially if you take the term "sword play" in its, um, metaphoric sense. There's a lot of sexual double entendre here, as in all the comedies. That's right, I said comedies. This play is not only a war between Capulet and Montague, its a war between tragedy and comedy. And Will's comedies are full of suggestive, sometimes blatantly salacious humor. I'm still going to try and keep this a PG blog, but the comedies really aren't PG. Maybe PG-13.

Which is Juliet's age, believe it or not. Yes, girls occasionally married at 13 back then. Life was short, and you had to start making babies right away, since a good half of them probably wouldn't make it out of childhood. Before the advent of antibiotics and hand-washing, the flesh was frail(er). Death was ubiquitous--by the time they reached adulthood, most people had seen their share of corpses. And of course real people didn't die like Romeo and Juliet, with a gasp and an elegant swoon. Their hearts didn't "burst smilingly" as Gloucester's does in Lear. Nor were they sequestered in hospitals or hospices, being tended to by paid strangers. No, they died in full view of friends and family--a good thing, in my view--but often in really yucky ways. Some didn't get buried in a timely fashion, if you get my (olfactory) drift. So death was a pretty intense sensory experience all around.

No wonder early literature talks about mortality so much.

Romeo and Juliet is obsessed with death from the get-go. Everything having to do with sex or fertility seems to lead straight to the cemetery. There are lots of rhymes, double entendres, and metaphors that hammer you over the head with this idea. "Womb/tomb," "dead/married" (I can't do diacritical marks in this blog, but "married" has to be pronounced "marri-ed"). Of course, this sex=death thing isn't new. But the way Will deals with it here is absolutely unprecedented.

The play's opening is a good example. This is the only tragedy that Will opens with a sonnet, but this isn't your usual sonnet. Sonnets, remember, were the pop songs of their day. Everyone was writing them; I'm sure there were tons of really cringe-worthy sonnets floating around, but most of these one-hit wonders are (mercifully) lost to time. Like contemporary pop tunes, sonnets were almost always romantic/erotic in theme. Will's audience would have expected a sonnet to be about love. So it's telling that his prologue is in sonnet form, and that it's all about...death. Right from the very beginning, he lets us know that he's not playing by the rules:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents' rage--
Which but their children's end, naught could remove--
Is now the two-hours traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The formal symmetry of this sonnet is at odds--one might even say at war--with its topic. Ancient grudges, recent mutinies, rage, violence, death are promised in this formally elegant but disturbing poem . In spite of its conventional form, this sonnet is a wild, unruly thing--but there's a gloomy, rhythmic beauty to it. Some bits I particularly like:

The alliteration in "from forth the fatal loins of these two foes" is terrific. But if you look at that line by itself, it sounds kind of silly, like a Monty Python spoof of Shakespeare. "Fatal loins?" Come on. But it works.

"Misadventured piteous overthrows." So many syllables! And the incongruity of "overthrows" after the almost cliched "high style" sound of "misadventured piteous." "Overthrows" kind of overthrows the whole sense of propriety here, a rebel Saxon word upending the decorous Latinate lament. (I don't know why Ivanhoe popped into my head there, but it did.)

"Doth with their death bury their parents' strife." Almost all the words in this line are monosyllabic, which gives the line a funereal quality. Only "bury" and "parents" break the incantatory rhythm. The idea of death burying something bad in order to bring about something good is hard to get your head around, unless your head is full of biblical analogues. Christ's death was thought to "bury strife" in that it brought a healing renewal to a fallen world. He, too, was a "child," a son of man and God. Will, like most literate people in the early modern period, really knew Christian theology in a way that even the most overtly religious people today simply don't.

It's important that the Chorus calls the lovers "children" here. But also kind of disconcerting. I mean, they're going to get married and have sex. They have to be adults, right? Yes and no--among other things, this is a play about generational revolt. Will actually made Juliet several years younger than she was in his source. That's why I still think the Zeffirelli film, from the late 1960's, best captures the "mood" of the play. The actors--Olivia Hussey and Leonard somebody (I need to look that up)--were actual teenagers. I remember there was a big scandal because Olivia did a nude scene at only 15. But the 1960's were a perfect time to make the movie, since the country was at war both within and without--the Vietnam conflict had created rifts in many middle-class families, and young people really thought that their parents were hypocrites, rigid guardians of outmoded ways of thinking and living. This play reminds us that, as Chaucer once wrote, "there is nothing so new that it is not old."

After laying that inaugural gloom and doom all over the audience, the play goes bipolar and decides to make us laugh. We're back in comedyland, with its rude, crude serving class and bawdy puns. Samson and Gregory, two servants of the Capulet household, are about to go into town, although one could easily put them in football uniforms and make this a locker room conversation before a big game:

Samson: Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.
Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.
Samson: I mean an we be in choler, we'll draw.
Gregory: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.
Samson: I strike quickly, being moved.
Gregory: But thou art not quickly moved to strike.

Okay, let's unpack this. Here's where things veer into the PG-13 zone--it's impossible to paraphrase these scenes accurately without a little profanity. Samson and Gregory play on an idiom about coal-carrying and "colliers"--i.e, guys who carry coal for a living. But essentially, Samson just says that he's not going to take any shit. Gregory says, no, we shouldn't because then we'd be hiding our true feelings (colliers were thought to be sneaky). Samson replies that if they get pissed off, they should just draw their swords and get down to business, but Gregory points out that if they kill anyone they could end up hanging for it. Samson insists that if he's really pissed off, he'll strike first and ask questions later.

After proclaiming their superiority over Montague's men, their boasting turns to sexual matters:

Samson: ...I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids. I will cut off their heads.
Gregory: The heads of the maids?
Samson: Ay, the heads of the maids, or else their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.
Gregory: They must take it in sense that feel it.
Samson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.
Gregory: 'Tis well thou art not fish. If thou hadst, thou hadst been poor-John.

One of the greatest love stories in Western literature begins with two clowns joking about rape. And once again, sexuality and death go hand-in-hand as Samson mixes up "maidenheads" (the physical mark of virginity) and decapitation. He brags about the size of his...assets, and Gregory retorts that the appendage in question might be a shriveled-up thing , like a dried fish. It's all just talk, of course, despite the crude subject matter. Immediately following this banter, two of the Montague servants enter. The next lines would certainly have gotten a laugh from the audience, in light of the previous discussion:

Gregory: Draw thy tool. Here comes of the house of Montagues.
Samson: My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will back thee.

The scene continues to be funny, as Samson and Gregory seem to lose their nerve. Samson, deciding to be brave, "bites his thumb at them," but tries to seem nonchalant about it. It's sort of like flipping someone off, but pretending you're scratching your chin. The two pairs of servants then get into some back-and-forth about whether or not the thumb-biting was intentional, and finally draw swords. Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, tries to break up the sparring servants, telling them that they "know not what they do." This biblical phrase affirms that Benvolio is a good guy (his name says it all) who really does want to keep the peace. It's significant that it also announces Tybalt, the hotheaded nihilist of the play.

Although the stage directions say "Enter Tybalt," they might just as well say, "enter tragedy," since Tybalt represents the failure of language to make peace, the persistence of past trauma into the present. Tybalt is incapable of compromise--he's an old-style warrior, a barbarian who would have been more at home in an epic than a romance. Tybalt sustains the inexorable cycle of violence that will only be broken when the children are dead and their parents are left, as Queen Elizabeth said in Richard III, "old barren plants, to wail it with their age." One thinks of Achilles in Homer's Iliad, with his implacable rage, or Hotspur, in I Henry IV. A man of weapons, not words. A throwback, maybe--a killer, for sure.

What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Have at thee, coward.

He doesn't just hate the word "peace": he hates words altogether, as we'll see in Act 3. Where the servants were playing at violence, Tybalt is not. He means to kill Benvolio and any other Montague partisan who gets in his way. At this point, the old men race into the fray to prove that they indeed "be men." Their wives try to hold them back, but killing and vendetta-maintenance are men's work, and even the old coots want a piece of the action. Capulet calls for his long sword, but his wife questions his ability to wield one. Presumably in both senses:

Capulet: What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!
Capulet's Wife: A crutch, a crutch--why call you for a sword?

Again things veer into comic territory, but are yanked back to High Seriousness when Prince Escalus steps into the middle of it all. "Escalus" is a strange name--it reminds one of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, the trilogy about the Fall of the House of Atreus (that's the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their kids). The audience might remember that this is another story about intergenerational violence, about bitter enmity that passes from parents to children, with tragic consequences.

Like several other princes in Will's comedies, Escalus's default solution to social disorder is to issue draconian edicts:

Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved Prince.
Three civil brawls bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets
And made Verona's ancient citizens
Cast by their grave-beseeming ornaments
To wield old partisans in hands as old,
Cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate.
If you ever disturb our streets again
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.

Two things occur to me here. One is that the Prince's emphasis on how old the citizens are seems odd. It's as if Verona is full of grandparents and adolescents. In fact, both Capulet and Montague seem more like their children's grandparents. Juliet's just thirteen, and we learn that she's an only child. Logically, her parents should be in their late twenties or early thirties. But Capulet uses a "crutch," like an old man. The fighting skills of the townspeople are "cankered with peace," which means, essentially, that their hands are stiff or arthritic from disuse. There's a missing generation, really--no one in the prime of life. Will went to great pains to emphasize that this is a struggle between the bitter and cankered world of the old guard, and the new, as yet unimagined realm of youth and possibility.

The other thing is a more philosophical point, about edicts and prohibitions. In Will's comedies, this kind of draconian attempt to restore order always leads to more disorder. And isn't it often that way in real life? During Prohibition here in the United States, crime and alcoholism flourished. Our current anti-drug laws have made criminals rich, and actually fostered addictive behavior. Sexual education that emphasizes only abstinence has been statistically proven to be ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst. Blanket prohibitions, it seems to me, make the forbidden act or thing more desirable. The prohibited thing takes on a power it didn't have before, and begins to assert its own logic, whereby violating the injunction is a kind of freedom, and obeying it is a kind of slavery.

Moderation in all things, say I.

There's no moderation in this play. Benvolio--he who "wishes well"--is powerless to set limits on the violent behavior of either side. In this sense he prefigures Enobarbus, a much more developed character in Antony and Cleopatra. There are, in fact, many ways in which this play is a forerunner of that later (and to my mind, greater) drama. I'll have more to say about that later.

All that, and I'm only halfway through the first scene! But I thought it needed a thorough explication, since it sets up so many of the play's later concerns and conflicts. It's worth mentioning that Romeo and Juliet's obsession with opposition and duality isn't just a literary/rhetorical device. It's a part of the play's visual landscape as well. In this scene, two Capulet servants confront two Montague servants, each pair entering from opposite sides of the stage. Then a Montague enters from the "Montague side", followed by a Capulet from the other, then the two old couples. It's an almost ritual structure, but it's also a street brawl. As in the opening sonnet, the scene reflects both structural order and social disorder. Paradox upon paradox. It's dizzying.

Next, we put away our swords and hang out with the women.

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