Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fortune's Fool

One of the interesting and disturbing things about this play is the way words uttered in playful or erotic excess inevitably prophesy doom. Comedy turns tragic, jokes and puns seem to have the magical power to bring about decidedly unfunny events. Be glad you don't live in one of Will's plays. You couldn't even say "I'd rather die than ______," or I'm going to kill you if you don't ________" without actually committing suicide or homicide. But of course it makes perfect sense. In literature, words--even conventional words--have a material force they lack in real life. Something similar happens visually in film. Whenever you see someone who's been shot, and there's a little trickle of blood coming out of the side of their mouth, they are definitely history. Whenever you hear someone cough in a daytime drama, they have an imminently fatal disease. And so on.

Some examples of this ironic/anticipatory use of language: at the end of the balcony scene, Juliet muses that if Romeo were her pet bird, she'd be likely to kill him "with much cherishing." In Friar Laurence's cell, Romeo proclaims that he'll be so happy to be married to Juliet that he doesn't mind dying:

Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what he dare--
It is enough I may but call her mine. you at the tomb in a couple of days.

I've already talked about the whole sex/death (non)opposition, which is so overdetermined in this play that it gets annoying after awhile. This time I'd like to look at the way Will uses structure to mark the shift from comedy to tragedy. Romeo's comic verbal duel with Mercutio in Act 2 prefigures the tragic duel in Act 3.  In the first, Mercutio gives in, conceding that his "wit faints." In the second, he faces his own death with a quip: "ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man." It's funny, in a morbid way, but these lines mark the end of comedy in the play.

The shedding of virginal blood and the "little death" of sexual climax (more on this presently) is forestalled by the literal killings in the streets of Verona. Marriage and sex are the stuff of comedy in the Renaissance--comedies invariably end with weddings--so the substitution of one bloody event for another also supplants comedy with tragedy. Juliet waits for the Nurse in two closely connected scenes. In the first, the Nurse delays telling her charge that Romeo has arranged the marriage--the delay is funny. In the second, the Nurse is so confused that she can't seem to tell Juliet what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo. Here, the Nurse's dilatory ramblings are anything but comic.

Friar Laurence, however inept he may be, is a great believer in comic endings--he wants, in a way, to write the play himself, to subvert tragedy by effecting a reconcilation between the two warring houses. He, like Benvolio, urges moderation:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately.

Moderation just isn't on the menu in this play, however. Right after the Friar's monitory speech, Romeo and Juliet take turns proclaiming the limitless nature of their love. "My true love," Juliet gushes, "is grown to such excess/I cannot sum up some of half my wealth." In the very next scene, the first of Act 3, the excesses are violent, not erotic. Benvolio, ever the well-wisher, wants to avoid a fight:

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire.
The day is hot, the Capels are abroad,
And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl,
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

Mercutio is having none of it, however. He jokes that Benvolio is actually the one with the hot temper:

...thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason than because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling.

He goes on, piling ludicrous example upon example in an effort to prove Benvolio's more quarrelsome than he. Events will very soon prove him wrong. The Mercurial One is in a truculent mood, and it's going to lead to disaster. The fight begins when Tybalt and his posse show up looking for Romeo and trouble. Mercutio decides to take things the wrong way from the word go:

Tybalt: Gentlemen, good e'en. A word with one of you.
Mercutio: And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.
Tybalt: You shall find me apt enough to that, sir, an you will give me occasion.
Mercutio: Could you not take some occasion without giving?
Tybalt: Mercutio, thou consort'st with Romeo.
Mercutio: 'Consort'? What, does thou make us minstrels? An thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords. [touching his rapier] Here's my fiddlestick; here's that shall make you dance. Zounds--'Consort'!

The man of words doesn't like the word Tybalt chose. "Consort with" had the meaning it does today--associate with. But to "consort" also referred to minstrels who played and sang together--it's related to our word "concert." Mercutio is obviously looking for a fight, and decides that Tybalt has insulted him by using a word that refers to lower-class musicians. Hence all the music talk--"discords," fiddlestick," and so on. Tybalt, of course, is made of simpler stuff intellectually. He's missed the point entirely, but he's always ready to man up when the opportunity presents itself. Benvolio tries to break up the fight by reminding them that they are "in the public haunt of men," but Mercutio isn't in the mood for detente: "I will not budge for no man's pleasure, I."

Romeo enters and captures all Tybalt's attention. "Well," he tells Mercutio," "peace be with you, sir. Here comes my man."

This really pisses Mercutio off. Again, it's language that bothers him:

But I'll be hanged,sir, if he wear your livery.
Marry, go before to field, he'll be your follower.
Your worship in that sense may call him 'man.'

Mercutio purposely misunderstands Tybalt again, this time accusing him of treating Romeo like a servant ("my man").  Tybalt turns on Romeo, calling him a "villain," which was another fighting word in those days--originally it meant "serf," so it's a class insult as well as a moral one. Romeo, newly married, tries to make peace with his cousin-in-law:

I do protest that I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love.

Tybalt, still enraged at Romeo's party-crashing, isn't interested in love talk, or in playing guessing games.  But Mercutio, rushing on adrenaline and testosterone, finds Romeo's conciliatory speech intolerable:

O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccado carries it away.
Tybalt, you ratcatcher, come, will you walk?

Alla stoccado is another of those fencing terms that Mercutio likes to bandy about. Again, it's all about words to him. Tybalt's confused at first, since his quarrel is with Romeo. Mercutio throws down the challenge, insisting that all he wants is one of Tybalt's "nine lives" (again insulting Tybalt's manhood by calling him a pussy--I mean cat). Tybalt finally gets it, declaring with chilling brevity,

I am for you.

Then all hell breaks loose. You probably know the rest. Romeo tries to break them up, but inadvertently gives Tybalt an opening. Mercutio, mortally wounded, falls to the ground. The Capulet crowd runs off, and we're left with this tragicomic scene:

Mercutio: I am hurt.
A plague o' both your houses. I am sped.
Is he gone, and hath nothing?
Benvolio: What, art thou hurt?
Mercutio: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough.
Where is my page? Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
Romeo: Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough. 'Twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o' both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
Romeo: I thought all for the best.
Mercutio: Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint. A plague o' both your houses.
They have made worms' meat of me.
I have it, and soundly, too. Your houses!

Benvolio helps Mercutio offstage, and that's the last we see of him. It's probable that Tybalt would have forced Romeo into a duel even without Mercutio's wordy bloodlust. But it's interesting that Mercutio is the one who escalates this whole thing, because of course he isn't a Montague at all--he's Prince Escalus's kinsman, and therefore at least potentially neutral in the civil war between the two families. Not to reiterate my points of last time, but it's pretty clear that he's got kind of a thing for Romeo, and that's why he's suddenly all fired up to fight with Tybalt.  When Romeo backs down, he goes berserk, intent on avenging his friend's honor--even though Romeo himself has acted "dishonorably" by refusing to fight. Only at the end does he assume a kind of impartiality--" a plague o' both your houses."  But it's a little late for that.

Even after he's been wounded, Mercutio's main concern is that Tybalt "has nothing," i.e., got away without a scratch. It's all about honor, in that old macho Hegelian struggle-for-recognition sense. Romeo's back in the game, and he suddenly realizes that love has emasculated him:

This gentleman, the Prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf, my reputation stained
With Tybalt's slander--Tybalt, that an hour
Hath been my cousin! O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,
And in my temper, softened valor's steel.

And so, I must kill someone. Right now, before I do something stupid like think it over. Bring it. Go ahead, make my day. This time it's personal. This town isn't big enough for the both of us. And so on. Anything to prove my steel's not, you know, soft.

Tybalt comes back, maybe to take Romeo out, too, or maybe because he doesn't want to seem soft-steeled by running away. In any case, Romeo's rage and masculine self-loathing have a salutary effect on his dueling skills, and he dispatches the Prince of Cats in a few quick moves. After which he seems to forget his role in the whole thing, choosing instead to blame fate:

O, I am fortune's fool!

Really? I mean, because this whole thing doesn't look all that fortuna-fied (Will's got me hooked on neologisms) from where I stand. I mean sit. In Act 2, Mercutio got Romeo worked up about their star-crossed bromance, Romeo got married, and thereby betrayed his comitatus, and then Tybalt showed up, providing a convenient excuse for that oldest of male courtship rituals, the duel to the death. There was a pretty clear element of free will here--unless you count a pissing contest gone awry as a culturally predestined event.

Well, anyway. Fortune's fool or not, Romeo's in deep excrement here. Prince Escalus appears and issues another edict--which seems to be all he's good for, since civil order is completely beyond his administrative capabilities. Despite the vengeful insistence of the Capulet contingent, his death sentence (remember the first edict, in Act 1) is commuted to banishment. And we haven't even gotten to the sex scene yet.

If you were waiting for that, you're going to be disappointed. No sex. We do have a lot of eroticized anticipation, some lovely post-coital poetry and hand-wringing, but that's as hot as it gets in the text. Thankfully! I find movie and genre-fictional sex scenes mostly embarrassing to watch/read about. I'm not a prude, but really--some things are better either experienced personally or left to the imagination. In any case, sex and sex-talk are the stuff of comedy, and, as of right now, we're on the tragic train to doomsville.

But there's still a lot of beautiful morbid/erotic poetry between now and then, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Man Up

Today's post is about being a man--a subject I know nothing about. I can, however, tell you how it looks from the outside. And I figure it's only fair--male poets and novelists have had quite a lot to say about being a woman, although they know not (or perhaps "naught") whereof they speak. I think my musings will  actually prove pretty tame compared to all the frail mad girls, lust-fueled gypsies, heartless wantons, bloodthirsty Scottish noblewomen, and perfidious wives I've had to read and write about in my many decades of studying literature.

And besides, Will worried a lot about being a man.  All male writers do.  In the swashbuckling Elizabethan era, poets doubtless got sand kicked in their faces with some regularity--in fact, I suspect that's been the case since time immemorial. Some poets, like Walt Whitman, decided not to give a damn. Some, like Byron or Hemingway, decided to throw down their pens and pick up a sword--or a pistol. Others, like Will or Spenser or Tennyson (to name only a few) decided to obsess about masculinity and what it means to "man up."

I really dislike that expression, as well as its short-lived predecessor, "cowboy up." It means, of course, "rise to the occasion," although it's not without other, more salacious implications. I realize that it's often been used to mean "assume your responsibilities as a father and a husband," or something to that effect. Well and good. Because of our millennia-long obsession with the problem of manliness, however, it's not as simple as that. Take one evolutionary step back from that meaning of "man up," and you're obliged the kick the ass of anyone who threatens you or yours. Two steps back, and the ass-kicking is prompted only by an insult, not a threat. Three steps back and you're drawing your weapon of choice on anyone who says something you don't like. As flawed as it is, the law was developed in large part to set limits on "manning up." That's really what Prince Escalus is trying to do in the play, after all.

These expressions aren't new. In fact, the word "virtue" is derived from the Latin vir, or "man." So to be virtuous, originally, meant to be manly. Manning up has always been a moral imperative, an affirmation of heroism, which is pretty inseparable from violence. By contrast, a virtuous woman is defined by what she doesn't do, i.e., sleep around.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a feminist, but not of the mythic (read: fictional) man-hating sort. My mother grew up with only brothers (3), I have only brothers (4), and my parents have only male grandchildren. I have a son I adore. I'm inordinately fond of my somewhat macho husband, too--he's virtuous in that old sense, even if he's heavy-handed about it sometimes. So my interest in the cultural/tribal rituals of masculinity is, in a sense, motivated by love.

That's my prolepsis. Now I'm going to talk about how masculinity works in this play--because we're at that crucial point, or will be shortly. It's High Noon, and people are about to be slaughtered in the streets of Verona over a few ill-chosen words. Romeo is going to man up, and wreck (what's left of) his life, as well as his thirteen-year-old wife's. His new-found pacifism upsets the testosterone-fueled Order of Things in Verona, making Mercutio (more) crazy, Tybalt (more) bellicose and Romeo himself determined to prove he's still got a pair. It's a recipe for major carnage.

But first, a little backtracking. In Act 2, scene 3, Mercutio and Benvolio set the stage for the bloodletting in Act 3 by questioning Romeo's manhood. They don't know anything about Juliet; they think he's still mooning over Rosaline. It hardly matters to them--the main point is that Romeo's lost his manly edge with all this love-longing and sonneteering. Mercutio's joking lament anticipates tragedy:

Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead--stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft; and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?

It's the eternal lament of every guy who's lost his best bud to some wench. No more poetry here--Mercutio speaks in manly prose. The imagery of this passage isn't hard to interpret. Romeo's been "stabbed," "run through," "cleft"--he's been penetrated by love and thus feminized. The "blind bow-boy's butt-shaft" refers to Cupid, but if you think it sounds like something else is going on, you're right. The insinuation is that Romeo's "playing the maid's part" sexually. He's been emasculated by love.

Benvolio asks "what is Tybalt?" and Mercutio replies that he's "more than Prince of Cats."  According to the notes in my Norton Shakespeare, this is a play on the word "catso," which is related to the Italian word for penis, and means "rogue." But I think it's pretty clear that the meaning is simply "he's not a pussy."  Of course Mercutio is being ironic, as usual. He goes on to make fun of how effete and effeminate Tybalt is, associating him with the pretty (read: girly) Italian terms for fencing moves, which in turn leads him to make fun of fashionable speech in general, especially "these tuners of new accent" and their "antic, lisping, affecting" turn of phrase. This Mercutio is no drag queen--he's the manly guardian of English idiom, protecting it from foreign contamination.

We're supposed to forget for the moment that the play is set in Italy. This kind of geographical slippage is common in Will's comedies--Verona is a mythic place, like Mantua and Venice and Athens--it's all England, really, with an uncanny twist. A more theatrical England, which is probably how Englishmen of that era saw the rest of Europe.

Romeo shows up, and proceeds to engage in a bawdy verbal duel with Mercutio. It's a male bonding scene, really, in which Mercutio is set up as a foil for Juliet. Academics call this "male homosocial desire," but I like the recent coinage "bromance." (Will loves neologisms, hybrids, and meaningful malapropisms. I'm sure he'd be mad he didn't think up "bromance" himself.)  Whatever you call it, this is a pretty clear-cut example of the competition that often ensues when a member of a male cohort gets hitched. Mercutio's verbal aggression against women--which will become downright mean when the Nurse approaches the group--is an obvious reflection of his annoyance at losing his best pal to a chick. After this rhetorical sparring reaffirms their friendship, Mercutio exults that Romeo is once again one of the guys:

Why, is this not better than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.

Now you're one of us again, instead of a lunatic who can't wait to stick his "bauble" in the nearest hole.

For Mercutio, love has alienated Romeo from his nature as a male and his culture as a man. I have to say, I don't see the Mercutio in the earlier scenes--he of the Queen Mab speech, in particular--in this one. Unless, of course, one takes the (academic) feminist stance that all male poets are really more interested in each other than in any woman. According to this reading, women are just an excuse for male poets to engage in verbal duels with other male poets. Substitute Shakespeare/Spenser or Wordsworth/Coleridge for Mercutio/Romeo. Literature, in this sense, is the ultimate bromance. Now, if you're really into this kind of reading, you can go crazy with it. Octavius is suffering from unrequited bromantic love for Antony. Othello and Iago are a bromance gone bad. Antonio's got a serious man-crush on Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. Why stop there? Arthur and Lancelot, like the Beatles, had their bromance wrecked by a woman. In fact the whole Arthurian saga is about how an ideal male fellowship--sort of like a football team, only with more of a community service angle--was destroyed by heterosexual sex.

Well, like any interesting idea, this one can be taken to a reductive extreme. Which I don't want to do here. That said, (she hedged, backpedaling), I think it's the only way to make sense of this strange shift in Mercutio's personality. He needs Romeo as a poetic foil. He's the Bill to his Ted, the Sundance to his Butch, the Patroclus to his Achilles. Or something. I'm not going to quote from their "duel," because I think this scene--like so much of Will's comedy--really has to be seen in performance. The Zeffirelli production does a good job with this part of the play, so go rent it from Netflix! Or, wait until I blog about it (coming up), and then see it. Rapier-quick banter just doesn't work on a page. It has to be seen and heard--because it's physical as well as verbal.  Suffice it to say that there's a lot of talk about flowers that look like genitalia, ladies of the evening, and bending over--things reach such a fever-pitch of excitement that Mercutio threatens to nibble on Romeo's ear.


Meanwhile, back in the indoor world, where Juliet's more or less trapped by virtue of her gender, time passes slowly. Act 2 really gives you a sense of these two different realms--Romeo's freedom to roam the streets and cause trouble with his posse is a pretty glaring contrast to Juliet's incarceration.  Her world is small, circumscribed by walls, rules, routines; the only way she can get out of the house is by saying she needs to go to confession--presumably to ask forgiveness for all the stuff she'd like to do, but can't. She waits for the Nurse with pent-up energy, imagining a freedom she'll never have:

...Love's heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glides than the sun's beams
Driving back shadows over louring hills.
Therefore do nimble-pinioned doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day's journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, and yet she is not come.

She's complaining about the Nurse's tardiness, wishing that she could leave the old woman out of the picture altogether, and simply reach out to Romeo with her thoughts. The imagery of this passage is of the wider world, the far-flying doves and the sun rising over hilly terrain. These are things that Juliet seldom sees and can only imagine, imprisoned as she is by the strictures of class and gender.

The nurse finally arrives, and there's a very funny scene in which she pretends not to understand Juliet's impatience. The Nurse is a terrific role for a character actor, really. Patricia Heywood does a fabulous job of playing this very "stagy" role in the Zeffirelli film--although it's kind of shocking to realize that she was only thirty-nine at the time.

Anyway, she finally tells Juliet to get herself to Friar Laurence's cell to be married. Now let's remember that all this is happening in just a few days--Juliet and Romeo just met the night before! Yet the Nurse, who's clearly enjoying the vicarious thrill of playing an erotic go-between, hasn't said a word about how hasty all this is. In fact, she's obviously got a prurient interest in the whole affair:

Hie you to church. I must another way,
To fetch a ladder by the which your love
Must climb a bird's nest soon, when it is dark.
I am the drudge, and toil in your delight,
But you shall bear the burden soon at night.

As it turns out, there'll be blood in the streets before there's any on the sheets.

Sorry, I've obviously caught the Shakespearean bawdy bug. It's clear, however, that Will intended the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt to interrupt the consummation of Romeo and Juliet's marriage.  Blood for blood, if you get my drift.  "These violent delights," as Friar Laurence puts it, "have violent ends."

We'll talk about that next time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Movies, Part 1

I just finished watching Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for only the second time, so I thought I'd devote one whole post to my latest impressions of the film. The movie, in case you haven't seen it, is Will's play filtered through the Godfather films, music videos (still a big deal in 1996), spaghetti westerns, and West Side Story. I don't want to get right into my criticisms, because they're only a few, but they're huge. Instead, let me tell you what I like about this film. Two words: The Look. It is a fantastic-looking film. Granted, the ubiquitous religious statuary gets old after awhile, but it does convey a sense of oppressive Latin Catholicism (a subject I know something about) really well.  It was filmed in Mexico City and environs, with the requisite picturesque urban slums--you know, lots of bright colors and cool-looking signs intermingled with gang graffitti and corporate billboards. The Capulets' sprawling colonial-era mansion provides a social and aesthetic contrast to all the pretty poverty, reminding us that both families are corporate bloodsuckers. Mexico's a good choice for the setting because it conveys the "foreignness" that Will's Elizabethan audience must have felt about the Italian setting of the play. It's an exotic locale, warmer, sunnier, more volatile, but not so far away that no one has ever been there. At the same time, the main characters are American, as are the cars (lots of cars) and, for the most part, the music. No Latin music here, which would have given the film a completely different feel. Some of the Capulets are overtly Latin--the Nurse has a pretty thick accent (which borders on caricature), and Old Capulet reminds me a little of my Sicilian grandfather: loud, choleric, and always holding a drink.  The Montagues are a little less nouveau riche--more corporate, outwardly dignified, and likely to resort to bribes rather than violence to get the job done.  A quick run-down of the players:

Tybalt seems to be taken right out of West Side Story by way of East L.A. He's really "The Prince of Cats," as Mercutio calls him in the play--feral, feline, dangerous. That's him in the top left corner. In the opening "gas station scene," Luhrmann channels spaghetti westerns with Tybalt's dramatic entrance, squinty survey of the scene, and slow-motion cigarette drop--which ends with a shot of his ornate bootheel grinding out the butt. A lot of movie history there. Mercutio is just as "other" in the movie as he is in the play. He's African-American (as is "Captain Prince," the police chief who's supposed to be his kinsman) and a disco-dancing drag queen at the ball.  Shakespeare meets Paris is Burning. The first scene is really the best, when the "Montague Boys" encounter the more stylish Capulet gangsters at a filling station and end by blowing it up. That's Benvolio in a still from that scene, bottom right.

In a bit of style-overkill, Friar Laurence appears at first in his greenhouse, shirtless, explaining to a couple of little boys about poisons and medicines (the scene I discussed in the last post). He's got a huge tattoo of a cross on his back, like a gangbanger instead of a priest. And I have to say, a shirtless priest alone with two little boys means something different in 2009 than it did in 1996.  The scene can't help but creep you out a little.

Here are a few more stills:

Those are the Montagues, and Romeo with Mercutio before the masque. On the left, Friar Laurence and muse. The music is cool, too--the little boy singing Prince's "When Doves Cry" in the church choir is wonderful.

The main characters: Leo DiCaprio looks the part--he's got that "fallen angel" thing going on, a little bit teen heartthrob, that totally works visually. He spends a lot of time underwater--that's Luhrmann's innovation--in what used to be the balcony scene. This is funny, of course, because Titanic came out at about the same time, and so we saw a lot of Leo underwater that year. The two movies kind of merge in your mind, an accident of cinematic history.  Leo's facial expressions are a bit overdone, but you can't blame him for trying to counteract his utter inability to say the lines. Gotta work with what you have. Claire Danes is completely insipid. There is absolutely nothing special about her Juliet, and it's hard to see what even soggy Leo would find so alluring about her. And I don't mean her looks--she looks okay. But she's got none of Juliet's fire, none of her sudden realization that her life has been a lie. She literally rolls her eyes like a petulant teenager. Juliet would never do that--even a modern Juliet. She doesn't grow up at all, as she does in the play--she utters the "if looking liking move" line as if she has no real idea what she's saying. I suspect Luhrmann was so busy with his wild editing and Hollywood allusions that he didn't think it worthwhile to get these kids an acting coach who really knew Shakespeare.

And that's the heart of the problem. The language is utterly, completely irrelevant. In fact, I cringed whenever I heard the characters speak (except for Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Friar Laurence--he was okay). I wanted them to stop talking, because for the most part, they didn't even get what they were saying--at some points it was plain that they hadn't the faintest idea what the words meant. They compensated with more facial contortions, eye-rolling, and just plain yelling. The film cuts the text by almost half, which I suppose is a blessing. No "torches" speech, for example. Mercutio's Queen Mab ramblings are now the result of ingesting a hallucinogen, which I confess I didn't like a bit. As if imagination is just another rush, a toxic neurological effect. Bad, sad idea.

But on one level, the play is true to its history. Elizabethan theater was a blending of classes and class-specific genres. For the masses we have explosions, squealing tires, lots of weaponry and plenty to look at. For those of us who've read Shakespeare and want to see our erudition validated, we get--signs and billboards. This, I thought, was kind of brilliant in a debased way. Here are some examples:

Every one of these (and there were many more in the film) is a quotation from or reference to a play--and not the obvious ones, either. Timon of Athens and the Henry VI plays are right there alongside Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth. Something for everyone. A Shakespeare professor can watch this film and feel like the director knows how well-read he is, and appreciates his superior perspective on the action.

But a lot is lost here. I realize that cinema--and pictures in general--are the poetry of our age. We make our metaphors that way, we understand irony that way, and we see ourselves that way. The world is a visual construct. But here's what's lost: nobility. I know it sounds corny, but listen up. We are speaking, writing animals. That's what makes us different from the other creatures with whom we share this planet. We think in words and communicate (mostly) in words. Words elevate us--that's why all our most important rituals are language-centered. The Tempest shouldn't be reduced to a billboard. I'm not saying this film shouldn't have been made--far from it. I think it's fascinating, and says a lot about where we are in history. It's truthful, and I appreciate that. But it's not great. It's not timeless--not even as enduring as the Zeffirelli one, from 1968, which is still the standard-bearer for "popular cinema Shakespeare," as far as I'm concerned. Without the words that make Juliet more than a pretty girl, make Romeo more than a hormonally-overwrought teenage dude, this play is just about a particularly intense hook-up that went really bad. Even that billboard above, from The Tempest, seems like an epitaph for something wonderful that's been lost. When seen in the context of Prospero's actual speech, it's not without irony:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Will says it much better than I can, so I'll leave him the last word.

Next: Back to the play.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Virtue Misapplied

After the balcony scene, Act 2 seems to pick up speed; the remaining four scenes are short, and the audience really feels Juliet's impatience as she counts the minutes until the Nurse returns with news of Romeo and their hastily-arranged teenage nuptials. While we're waiting for our hero and heroine to be reunited, we get to listen to a lot of pompous admonitions and dirty jokes, as Friar Laurence and Mercutio take center stage. These scenes are really the last gasp of comedy in the play:  in Act 3, events will take a turn for the tragic, and Mercutio, the man of words, will be consigned to dust.

For now, however, it's words and more words. Friar Laurence, a sententious male version of Juliet's Nurse, toddles onto the stage with his basket of herbs and a boatload of Polonius-like pithy sayings.  He's an old windbag, really, a man enamored of his own voice whose authority rests on smug self-assurance rather than genuine wisdom. When push comes to shove, he casts his lot with the old guard, and leaves the lovers to their tragic fate--a fate he helped bring about with his intellectual and spiritual arrogance.

Can you tell I don't like him? Never have, the old coot.

His first speech is a full thirty lines long, and serves mostly to remind us that, in addition to being full of hot air,  he's as lacking in self-awareness as everyone else of his generation. I'll say this for him--in a play obsessed with youth and age, he manages to make me feel really young.

We're back in a garden, which means we're in metaphor-land. Will loves gardens--they come ready-made, as I pointed out last time, with all kinds of religious and erotic symbolism, but they're also a site of struggle between "baleful weeds and precious juiced flowers." Friar Laurence proves to be an old weed--or maybe I'm just allergic to his particular brand of aphoristic blather masquerading as insight.

I could totally see him as a self-help guru these days. Another genre that makes my immune system go haywire.

His little sayings do have an interesting ironic twist, however, given what happens later, so they're worth looking at:

The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb
What is her burying grave, that's her womb.

What he means is that you have to "bury" a seed to get it to grow. A nuanced observation, for sure. For those of you who really love literary jargon, this is called a "chiasmus."  You can draw an X across these lines, because "mother" is conceptually related to "womb" (wow, that's a pun) and "tomb" to "grave." Stare at it for a minute and you'll see what I mean. So why point this out, other than to show that I know useless stuff you may not? Because chiasmus was one of those structures that was really popular in Greek and Latin poetry--it was thought to connote balance and harmony. Friar Laurence wants to encourage harmony--that's a good thing--but I think it's also a mark of vanity here. Although he berates Romeo for "doting, not loving" Rosaline and questions the speed with which he dumped her for Juliet, he also wants to be the guy who brings about reconciliation between the powerful Capulets and Montagues. You know, win the Verona Peace Prize:

In one respect I'll thy assistant be:
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households' rancour to pure love.

He makes it clear that he's helping out for political reasons, not erotic ones. He's no pimp. At least not in the usual sense.

The "womb/tomb" rhyme is another of those birth/death dyads that Will just can't get enough of here. Friar Laurence is a master of unwitting irony (wait--is that redundant, like "mysteries of the unknown?" I think so). He's talking about plants, but his words are equally applicable to himself:

O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities,
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
For aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power...

The difference between poison and medicine is one that medical science is still trying to work out. And no one knows better than an addict how something healthy in moderation can, when "strained from fair use/[revolt] from true birth/stumbling on abuse."  I think the word "stumbled" is a bit disingenuous here--one doesn't really "stumble" on abuse. One rather leaps right into it.  But the Friar's point is that things meant for good can easily be turned into their opposite: "virtue itself turns vice misapplied."  This is a perfect description of his own inept, hubristic interventions into the romance, and the dire consequences that ensue as a result.

When Friar Laurence castigates Romeo for his "wavering"--his fickleness, he only echoes what the audience is probably thinking, too. One wonders why Will had Romeo mooning over Rosaline at the beginning of the play--his sudden conversion to true love seems dubious at best. I think, personally, that Will was more concerned with making a point about poetry than he was with character consistency. Romeo had to wax all sonnety about Rosaline so Will could show the audience how much better his "Juliet poetry" is, relative to the old tired stuff that was popular at the time. As a result, Romeo comes off like some adolescent...Romeo.

I'll have more to say about the cultural debasement of the name "Romeo" in a later post.

At the end of the scene, Friar Laurence tries to urge Romeo to slow down, think things through a bit:

Romeo: O, let us hence! I stand on sudden haste.
Friar Laurence: Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.

When we last see the good Friar, he's running away from the scene of Romeo's death, leaving Juliet to hers. The old hypocrite.

Next:  The last funny bits.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Farewell, Compliment

One of the most provoking ironies of blogging this play is that it's well-nigh impossible to convey how completely new, fresh, and different it must have seemed in Will's day. It's so conventional now, so familiar, so--well, cliched (sorry, no diacritics)--that it seems musty and sentimental and ickily precious. We can never, ever hear these words the way they must have sounded the first few times they were performed:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

That speech is almost a joke now, and that's really sad. When I was looking for images for this post, I found lots that used those lines in a comically incongruous way. Darth Vader and the so-called "LOL Cats" being the most obvious examples. Yes, I reproduced them below, because they are irreverent and funny. But let's look at the lines for just a moment, and try to forget how sing-songy the meter is in our minds. Try to hear them for the first time. There's wonder there, and reverence, and hope. Who doesn't identify with that feeling? "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."  The light promises something exotic, a mystery from the Orient. It's a chance to re-make oneself, to bask in the dawn of a new day. What an odd thing for an adolescent to say--even an Elizabethan one.

Romeo's asking for sex here, too--but he makes the age-old plea sound like something mystical. Don't worship the goddess of chastity, she'll make you sick, he says. Sexually frustrated girls were thought to be susceptible to anemia; before empirical science took over the world, men could say pretty much anything to have their way with teenage girls. If you don't get married soon, you'll die!

Of course when people really did get anemia, they thought the most logical thing to do was drain their blood. Ah, for the good old days of phlebotomy.

I know I haven't talked about meter here--it's never been my strong point. As a professor I pointed out how iambic pentameter worked, and could identify a dactyl or two, but basically I hated the whole idea of meter. It turned literature into math, and math was--and still is--my mortal enemy. But it also turns literature into music, so I have to give it its due, particularly when reading Will's poetry. I mean, listen (don't read--listen) to those last three beats: "cast it off." It really brings you up short, after being lulled into poetic euphoria by all those lovely iambs. And, it gets to the point. I want you, baby. For real. Come down here and let's go wild. Cast off your inhibitions and your gown. Just. Let. Go.

This seems like a nice irreverent place for these pictures:

Silly, aren't they? But the pictures make my point about these lines. It's almost impossible to hear them as anything but tired old chestnuts now.

Ay, me.

So Romeo watches--these days, we'd say stalks--his lady love, waiting for her to speak. While he's waiting, he imagines her eyes as stars, and her face shining down from the night sky:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

I mentioned these lines a few posts back, as another example of the light-in-darkness motif. It's lovely, isn't it? The birds singing and thinking it's not night. Love transforms nature, makes the impossible possible. The fourth line is weak, I think. One hates to say this about anything Will writes, but that "they in her head" seems clunky to me.

When Juliet does finally speak, she sighs, her "ay me" repeating Mercutio's earlier mockery of lovers' sighs.  Romeo gets all fluttery when he hears her voice, but still doesn't reveal himself.

O, speak again, bright angel; for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white upturned wond'ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-passing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

You can almost see Will stretching his poetic wings here. This was one of his earliest plays, remember--the Romantic critic William Hazlitt claimed that it was his first play (against considerable evidence to the contrary). That fiction was dramatically elaborated in the successful historical fantasy, Shakespeare in Love, which claims that Romeo and Juliet enabled Will to find the "heart" he needed to become a great playwright. While it wasn't his first, it was certainly his most "experimental" to date; its obsession with youth naturally leads us to see it as a "young" work as well. There is youthful excess in these words, a palpable effort to do what the characters do--throw off the shackles of old styles and forms, and create something wholly new, something "as is a winged messenger of heaven."

Meanwhile, back on the balcony, Juliet throws caution to the winds and offers herself--albeit only in fantasy, since she still doesn't know Romeo's lurking in the garden:

 ...Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name--which is no part of thee--
Take all myself.

Each asks the other to take things off. Not get naked (yet), but get rid of all the old stuff--names, rituals, figures of speech. Take flight! I liked that Baz Luhrmann, the director of the 1997 gangster-motif film, Romeo + Juliet, put wings on Claire Danes. It totally works. Too bad the acting wasn't as good as the concept. Well, anyway, Romeo decides to take Juliet up on her offer, and finally addresses her directly:

I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love and I'll be new baptized.
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

Love allows us to re-invent ourselves, to become the image in another person's eyes. This can be dangerous, of course, if that image is, say, a docile, passive masochist. But if our lover sees us as more alive, stronger, more creative--well, that's what the poets have been on about for centuries. Loving someone else can make us better. And it doesn't have to be romantic love, either--love of a child, or even a friend, can make us more selfless, more imaginative, more---well, just more. Love is an ethical act, long before and long after it's a physical one.

That's the real power of romance as a genre--it makes us think about how we relate to the world.

The world is very much an issue here, since, as Juliet points out, there are plenty of obstacles to their union:

The orchard walls are high, and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

A word about gardens: they were chock-full of literary and religious significance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They figured prominently in courtly love lore--the garden was the place where love happened. It was beautiful, artificial (because crafted by human hands) and, most of all, enclosed. The Latin term for this was hortus conclusus--walled garden. All gardens reminded early modern people of the Garden of Eden, of course--so there are associations of temptation, desire, lust. The medieval Romance of the Rose invoked all these ideas, as well as the other, more metaphoric (and paradoxical) significance of a walled garden as the body of the Virgin Mary--fecund, yet virginal. Walled off, inaccessible to men and to desire.

So when Will sets this wooing scene in a walled garden, he's drawing on a long history of metaphors and paradoxes--the garden is both a setting for lust and the site of enclosed purity.  And here, of course, where there's love, there's death. Just as in the Garden of Eden.

Romeo is all bravado. "Stony limits cannot hold love out," he proclaims. "There lies more peril in thine eye/Than twenty of their swords." An old motif, now--the man who risks all for love. Just like the sparkly vampire guy in that teenage book/movie series. I haven't seen or read these, but this morning they played a scene from one of the movies on the radio. He's in her bedroom--Bella, her name is. I always wanted a romantic name like that--but got a librarian name instead. Wouldn't "Bella Margherita" be fab? Of course it would be hard to live up to, so maybe I was better off with "Gayle." Anyway, Bella wants her sparkly vamp, but he loves her so much he would rather "protect" her than have her. Which means protecting her from his relatives, who want to eat/drink her up, and so on. Vampire/human romances work so well because they've already got all the oppositions coded into the characters. You don't have to even write a single metaphor! It's all there from the get-go.

Perhaps that explains the bad writing.

Juliet's a little abashed that she's been caught mooning out loud, but she knows it's too late to take any of it back. She just goes for broke here:

Thou knowest the mask of night is upon my face.
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke; but farewell, compliment.
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say "Ay,"
And I will take thy word. Yet if thou swear'st
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs.

I've always liked the word "fain."  It lacks that ugly adverbial tag, "ly," as in "gladly." What she means here is that, if it were possible, she'd go back to before she said all that stuff, and observe all the rules of polite conversation ("dwell on form") but the cat's out of the bag, so "farewell compliment." This doesn't mean "farewell flattery," because they both dish out a lot of that. It means farewell bullshit flattery. Farewell polite compliments that come out of some conduct handbook. Farewell empty words. Hello--TRUTH!

She asks for promises, but (like no thirteen-year-old I've ever encountered) knows that most guys would lie in this situation.  After this point, she takes total control of the scene. If you want me to play hard to get, she says, I will

But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.

I'll be more faithful than those who know how to play the game. Because it's not a game to me. Romeo offers her a vow

Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow...

But she orders him not to swear by "th' inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

The moon has long been associated with inconstancy--as well as "lunacy."  Romeo is taken aback, and asks what he should swear by.

Do not swear at all,
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.

Uh-oh. Don't say stuff like that in Will's plays. Especially when you're standing in a high place. A fall is now inevitable.  Once she gets going, though, Juliet's unstoppable:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

This is heady stuff for a girl who, just one act ago, was happy to let her parents run her life. I can hear Cleopatra's voice here, too--she's all about the infinite. Despite being all emotionally and hormonally overwrought, Juliet does have the good sense to make marriage a condition of her infinite bounty.

The Nurse calls her from within, and Romeo tries to say goodnight.  They part twice, but twice Juliet returns, calling him back for one last word. Or two.

Hist, Romeo! Hist! O for a falconer's voice,
To lure this tassel-gentle back again.
Bondage is hoarse, and may not speak aloud,
Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies,
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine
With repetition of Romeo's name. Romeo!

She's already becoming a bit domineering, comparing him to a falcon, and herself to a falconer--this is a comic image. But it's also ominous. Echo wasted away for love of Narcissus, leaving only her voice to lament her unrequited love. Love won't be unrequited here, but in a few days both lovers will be dead.

But then poetry always outlives poets. And lovers.

Ay, me. Fain would I have made this post shorter, but Juliet kept calling me back. Next time, I'll try to be quick and twitterish. Relatively speaking....

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's in a Name?

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Everyone knows those lines. Juliet meditates on the problem of names, wondering whether they're just arbitrary, like a garment that adorns, but doesn't define, a person. She wants Romeo to be more than his family--wants his family name to be something he can doff like a hat, "and still retain that dear perfection which he owes/Without that title."

So what is "in a name?" Let's start simple here. First names are certainly arbitrary, aren't they?  When you read the name "Emily" or "Sam" you don't get any sense of a person's values, appearance, or way of talking. The only thing you might get is nationality, since those are "American-sounding" names. Names have other associations, however. When I was looking for a name for my (as yet unborn) son,  my husband nixed one name because it was the name of a kid who'd committed suicide in his dorm, and I vetoed another because "it sounded like a dumb kid's name." Obviously there's no meaning inherent in sounds--but it's hard to find a word or name that hasn't accumulated some cultural baggage. There was a girl in my seventh-grade class whose last name was "Nipple." Can you imagine? Now obviously this name probably started out as a foreign name, and got anglicized into "Nipple." But how awful. Even at age twelve, I felt really bad for her. Some names seem weird when paired with other names--my paternal grandmother's first name was Margaret, so when she married my grandfather she became "Margaret Margherita," which is sort of like "Humbert Humbert" (for those of you who've read Nabokov). I inherited her first name as my middle name. When I got married, the invitation read "Gayle Margaret Margherita." My friends and colleagues mused among themselves that this must be "some bizarre ethnic thing," i.e., giving your kids redundant names.

Anyway, is Juliet right? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Could a man, for example, send his inamorata "a bunch of long-stemmed turds?" Well, of course. If "turd" didn't mean what it does, it could certainly mean a fragrant, multi-petaled flower. But words are cultural constructs. Ask any German whether she'd buy a bottle of "Canadian Mist" whiskey, for example. Doubtful. I wouldn't buy a French wine that was called "Chateau de Pisse" either. And I've always thought "poubelle" was a wrong name for a trash can. It sounds like an endearment. "Come here, my little poubelle..."

These days there's a whole field--social linguistics--devoted to these questions, but they're not new.  Will certainly thought that language had power--every utterance, at least on the stage, is a kind of conjuring. But what about in real life? What's in a name?  A lot, according to the arbiters of politically correct speech. Certain names/labels are "demeaning," and can't be spoken anymore. Take the word "retarded."  When I was a kid, it meant someone with Down Syndrome. We didn't know the term "Down Syndrome." Actually, the word "retarded" just means "slowed down." You're tardy, you get there later than everyone else. But over time, it lost all other meanings but this one--a person with Down Syndrome. And of course it then became a slur. When you wanted to tease your little brother, you called him a "retard." And so what was once a description became an insult.  "Retarded" is now banished from our speech in all but a few instances. But banishing a word, making it "unspeakable" gives it immense power. It becomes a magical word, then, capable of absolute destruction. Here's another, particularly disturbing example. Despite the fact that the word "niggardly" has absolutely nothing to do semantically or etymologically with the "N" word, it can't be spoken anymore. Simply by virtue of its sound, it's been banished to the realm of "magical speech"--it's become a word with malevolent power. Just hearing this word, it seems, can make people cringe, burst into tears, or write vitriolic letters demanding political purges. In fact, a Washington, D.C. city government staffer lost his job for saying this terrible word. Which, by the way, means "stingy."

When did we become so emotionally frail that we can't hear certain sounds? Or even certain insults? Is it really good for people to grow up protected from all disturbing words? Forbidding people to say them doesn't mean they aren't thinking them, does it? In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, books were burned because they "upset people," specifically people who saw themselves as belonging to a minority. Not just racial minorities, but "dog lovers, cat lovers, lawyers, chiefs, people from Oregon..." and so on. Personally, I don't want to be friends with people who use racial slurs. At all. But I'd rather they reveal themselves. Know thy enemy, say I. When I was a kid, some neighborhood bullies took to taunting our family with this cute little ditty: "Margherita, wash your feet-a, the Board of Health's across the street-a." It must have bugged me, because I remembered it. But it didn't kill me. And it made me aware that there are some really stupid people out there. We live in a society, however, that (increasingly) valorizes--even celebrates-- victims.  This is what Nietzsche called "slave morality." If we never have to stand up for ourselves, use our own words to combat slurs, labels and stupid stereotypes, we become morally feeble. One could argue that this whiny trend, as manifested in absurdities like the censoring of "niggardly," is the mark of a decadent society.

On the other hand, words do have power to hurt people--sometimes terribly. I'm certainly not arguing for the return of horrible words that none of us wants to hear again. Just this morning I was reading in the paper that the Supreme Court refused to consider a case for banning the name "Redskins"--the name of the Washington NFL team. And come on, this is an awful name. Can you imagine any other racial slur--and this is a racial slur--used as the name of a famous sports team? It's absurd. I don't think it should be legislated--I'm of a libertarian bent, myself--but for goodness' sake, they ought to use some common sense and sensitivity and change it. And as for the N-word--that's a word with a terrible history, and of course no one should use it as a name or a label. But should it be given such magical power that no one can even utter it, as, say, an example of a terrible word? Because that's where we are now. It's not a word anymore--it's become an incantation, a curse, a one-word evocation of historical trauma. When in fact it's just a nasty word that's a marker of ignorance and intolerance. Let's not give it any more power than that.

Of course some words can be used as slurs, and still hurt, but no one would argue for removing them from the language. Case in point:  I grew up with four younger brothers. One of the worst things they could think to call one another was "woman."  I can't tell you how many times I heard "you woman, you're such a loser" or "don't be such a woman." Now, of course, we have the ubiquitous "man up," which means something similar. Homosexual slurs were popular also, as they are among all boys of a certain age. But as the only girl, I heard that "woman" as a shameful term, a mark of inferiority. And it pissed me off. I did not, however, make a big deal about it. My mom would have just told me to quit being a whiner. In retrospect, that "woman" bothered me a lot more than the "Margherita" chant. It was personal, and it came from family.

It's certainly true that the place where words have the most power to hurt is in the private sphere. One of the most moving lines in Othello is when Desdemona, after being called a whore by her beloved husband, asks "am I that name?" Is that terrible word who I am? The people we love have the power to imbue every word with magic, for better or worse. A girl who grows up being told she's a slut, or a loser, or a moron will either be those things or spend her whole life trying to prove she's not. A boy who's told he's lazy, or fat, or clumsy will remember those words forever, even when he's the trim, athletic CEO of a major corporation. As children we live in a more theatrical world. Every word conjures a possibility--it becomes a guardian angel, shepherding us through hard times, or a demon we spend our whole lives trying to vanquish. Labels are mighty long-lived things. Time was that some labels could never be lived down--they had to be reclaimed and redefined, as Hester Prynne does in The Scarlet Letter when she makes her badge of shame into a work of art.  In King Lear, Edmund re-appropriates the word "bastard," giving it new, malevolent power. In the days before government agencies legislated language, you had to either own your label or admit it owned you.

So, what's in a name? Nothing and everything.

Next:  Vows! Echoes! More words!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Conjuring Words

People do a lot of things with words in this play. They curse, they vow, they issue edicts, they banish, they marry. Words have an incantatory power to change the world, for better or worse. In some ways this emphasis on the "conjuring" power of words looks back to an earlier era. Long before the age of printing, oaths were binding contracts. To be called an oathbreaker in ancient Germanic societies was to be effectively exiled from the community. There really wasn't anything worse; if you killed someone, you could pay off their relatives, no harm done. Or not much. But if you went back on your word, your reputation was shot, and reputation was everything. In Beowulf, the worst thing you could say about a warrior was that he failed to fulfill his boasts. In pre-literate societies, you were only as good as your word.

Writing changed all that. The signature triumphed over the vow, and bureaucracies were born. Writing meant that one need not actually be present to make a promise--so monarchic laws, written down and sent out to the hinterlands, could hold sway over larger areas. Edicts could be issued, contracts negotiated. Once the written word took over, you couldn't look into someone's eyes and see if they were lying--of course people still forswore themselves, but somehow the act of swearing in person seemed more honest. Written words were easy to forge, too, no matter how many wax seals you used to make sure everyone knew it was you. Wax seals were the passwords of their day, and they were similarly easy to steal. Documents were much more contestable than boasts or promises. In writing's wake, inevitably, came lawyers. Legions of them--all claiming to give a true voice to the silence of writing.

Then came printing, and with it, still more anxiety about words. Texts became cheaper, and more easily proliferated. Commoners now had access to the same information/literature/propaganda as noblemen. This democraticization of language scared lots of aristocrats. It especially scared the Catholic Church, which resisted translating the Bible into the vernacular languages out of fear that mere commoners might take things the wrong way. They might, (for example), take everything in the Bible literally, which might make them wonder (for example) why the apostles embraced poverty but the Church was so very very rich. Printing threatened the power structure, big time. What's more, the sheer volume of printed pages seemed to cheapen the words/ideas/promises spelled out therein. Words weren't connected to bodies anymore--if they lost their voice with the advent of writing, printing snatched the pen right out of the writer's hand, giving it over to inhuman machines.

Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet is shadowed by this history, this anxiety about words and their meanings. After Romeo jumps over Juliet's garden wall, Benvolio tells Mercutio to call him back, but Mercutio says he'll "conjure" him, too--he'll summon him as if he were a spirit, or a magical being:

Romeo! Humours! Madman! Passion! Lover!
Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh,
Speak but one rhyme and I am satisfied.
Cry but "Ay me!" Pronounce but "love" and "dove."

In other words, entertain me with your sighs and laments and doggerel verse. Mercutio makes fun of conventional lovers' laments, insinuating that these sighs and poetic effusions are both artificial and (implicitly) emasculating. Assuming that Romeo is still fixated on Rosaline, he continues his "conjuring" in her name:

I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us.

He calls upon Romeo by Rosaline's various attributes, including the "demesnes"--the estates, or lands--that lie "adjacent" to her thighs.

Benvolio:  An if he hear thee, thou wilt anger him.
Mercutio: This cannot anger him. 'Twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress' circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down.
That were some spite. My invocation
Is fair and honest. In his mistress' name,
I conjure only but to raise him up.

This whole speech is rather obscene. Let's see if I can translate it euphemistically. My "conjuring" can't anger him--it would anger him if I were to conjure up a lover for his mistress who would stand erect before her until she allowed it to have its way with her. "Spirit" also meant "semen," as a kind of "inspiriting" force. Back in those days medical science--like society as a whole--pretty much saw women as passive receptacles for the explicitly male life-force. Mercutio claims he only talked so dirty about Rosaline to get Romeo sexually aroused.

The point Mercutio is making is that all this poetic love-talk is really just foreplay. It's purely sexual, with no emotional content. Romantic talk is empty unless it leads to sexual congress and--presumably--procreation. A similar argument is made today against gay marriage. The oaths that one takes in marriage (one of the few places that oaths are still operational in our culture) have to bring forth something material--like a child--or they're just empty words. In some ways the polemics against gay marriage mask an anxiety about language itself, about the meaning of vows and promises. Of course many people would argue that those promises are really about making a connection to the community--marriage is a rite of inclusion, not a promise to fulfill those words in specific deeds that have predictable material outcomes.

Just a thought.

So, what's going on here? We've got an extended obscene joke immediately preceding what will be, in some ways, the defining scene of the play. The balcony scene is anything but obscene. Romeo and Juliet argue for the sanctity of love, the power of words to elevate one emotionally and (even) metaphysically. Love can conjure light in darkness, remake the world, touch the infinite. By setting these two versions of love in opposition--one debased, comic and the other (literally) elevated (and thus) potentially tragic--Will is doing some powerful conjuring of his own.

Next:  Yes, the balcony. Meet you there.

Post-script:  At the urging of my more worldly cousin, I have finally written something on my profile page.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Like A Prayer

While Tybalt seethes, Romeo hurries off to declare himself. He doesn't beat around the bush, either. None of that "hey, do you come here often?" or "didn't I see you at Prince's Escalus's ball a few weeks ago?" No, he goes straight for the religious allegory:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Wow. You had me at "shrine." Seriously, I'm pretty sure that if any guy had called my hand a pilgrimage site, I would definitely have considered...discussing poetry with him for a couple of hours.

But this is the Renaissance, and theological allusions are sexy. Or at least they are here. Now remember, Will's England was an officially Protestant and culturally anti-Catholic place--they'd done a big saint-purge a generation ago, when Henry VIII decided that the Pope wasn't the boss of him anymore. Saints and shrines were off-limits, and worshiping them was considered blasphemy. Of course Romeo and Juliet are supposed to be Italian--like the Irish, an "unfortunate priest-ridden race"--but I think that's beside the point. Will wants Romeo's passion to be a kind of idolatrous worship, an extreme version of the courtly love ideal.

Probably you know something about courtly love--it's one of those ideas that exists in vestigial form these days, often conflated with "chivalry."  As in, "chivalry is dead," which is why men don't hold doors open for women anymore. Chivalry had more to do with horses than women, but never mind. Courtly love was developed as a literary fashion back in twelfth century France, at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and later her daughter, Marie of Champagne. It was more of a poetic conceit than an actual thing people did--troubadours sang love songs to aristocratic women who were married to aristocratic men, and thus (presumably) unavailable. It's a pretty whiny genre, with the poets going on and on about the lady's ethereal beauty and frosty attitude. These "cold, cruel" love objects are totally generic--usually blond, gray-eyed, with big foreheads. The medievals were enamored of big foreheads on women. So much so that many noblewomen shaved their hairlines back to get the maximum shiny-forehead effect.

Sometimes when I see a young person with pierced everything, inked all over, I think of those shaved foreheads and remember that fashion has never had much to do with beauty in the classic sense: there's something else entirely going on. I'm still trying to figure out what it is.

The most famous Renaissance example of this "belle dame sans merci" trope was Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. It's a sequence of 108 sonnets in which the poet/narrator, Astrophil (star-lover) thinks up 108 ways to lament that he's probably never going to get any action from his lady, Stella (star), because she's way up there in the heavens and completely uninterested in the whole sex thing. At least with him. In Sidney's sonnets, as in the earlier medieval poems, the woman is merely an excuse for poetry. As long as she keeps saying "no," the poet will keep writing. If she were to give in, poetry would stop--presumably because the poet would be busy doing other, less metaphorical things.

The reason I'm dwelling on this is because this sonnet, which Romeo and Juliet compose together, turns the  whole courtly tradition on its head. Juliet is far from Stella-ish. She's neither silent, aloof, nor obsessed with chastity. She doesn't want to be a mute object; in fact, she wants in on this sonneteering business. After Romeo's first four lines, she comes back with four of her own:

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this.
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

She's read her share of courtly sonnets, too, and knows how to elaborate a conceit with the best of them. But she's the one who ups the ante here, laying her palm against his. Then as now, that's pretty unambiguous. My husband claims that he knew he was "in" when I put my hand on his arm during our first (very casual) date. I don't remember doing that, but I'm sure he's right. Just like my younger self, Juliet explicitly refuses to be a static object of worship. It's okay to touch my hand, she says, holding it up and letting him "kiss" her palm with his own. The play on words--palms and "palmers" or pilgrims--exploits the paradox (another one!) between a spiritual pilgrimage and the physical intimacy of palm-on-palm.

It's a really romantic/erotic moment, but you have to see it performed to get it. I like the 1968 film best for this, partly because the actors look so much like I'd expect Romeo and Juliet to look--very young, sort of Mediterranean--and they have sufficient chemistry to convey the latent audacity of the lines. The rest of the sonnet continues the flirtation, but ends as no courtly poem would--with an actual kiss. In other words, it's a sonnet that actually works!

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo: Then do not move while my prayer's effect I take.

Juliet's a little coy at first, with the line about the proper use of saintly lips, but then allows him to kiss her. She doesn't kiss back, but stands like a statue--a saint who doesn't move, but nonetheless grants prayers.

And that's the last sonnet spoken by any character in this play. It's as if this dual composition, a kind of erotic congress in meter, has effectively "undone" the sonnet for all time--at least all time as it exists on the stage. Romeo and Juliet are together, and there's nothing left to sonnet on about.  After Romeo claims his kiss and ends the poem, Juliet declares the game still on:

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Kiss me again, you fool! Romeo can hardly believe his luck here:

Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

Another smooch. And then, as if she were an expert on the subject, Juliet declares that he kisses "by th' book." I think the sense here is "you kiss like a pro." One can't help remembering Lady Capulet's rhapsodizing about Paris's "precious book of love." I'm sure he would kiss "by the book" as well--it's just not the same book.

Just as Tybalt interrupted Romeo's reverie a few lines earlier, so the Nurse intervenes here, calling Juliet back to her mother. Romeo then asks who the mystery woman is, and finds out the bad news.

Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe's debt!

I've been captured by the enemy, my life is in her hands. An ominous metaphor, considering where this is all going. Juliet similarly begs the Nurse to find out the name of her kissing partner, and waits anxiously while she inquires. In one of many prescient moments, she declares that

If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Typical teenage drama queen stuff--but in Will's tragic plays, words are more like magic spells than (mere) figures of speech. They have real (and often deadly) material consequences. In Richard III, Margaret's curses were brought to bear on her enemies; here, words uttered out of anxiety (I'll die if he's married!") are similarly "performative."  Every turn of phrase is potentially a conjuring; every time death is mentioned, even in passing, the Reaper seems to stir and sharpen his scythe.

That may be true of real life, too--fortunately, we don't find out which genre we're living in until the final act. In the play, however, we know from the beginning that comedy will lead to tragedy. By the end of Act 1, all the elements are in place. The tragic arc of the drama has been set in motion, and now must be played out to the end.

Next:  The balcony, and (maybe) some thoughts on the strange idea of Love at First Sight.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Man

A few thoughts on Tybalt, who is, in the words of my teenage self, "a major buzzkill" in this play. You really can't take this guy anywhere. Right after Romeo's metaphor-fest in praise of Juliet's luminous pulchritude, crazy cousin Tybalt decides that a formal ball is the perfect setting for a bloodbath:

This, by his voice, should be a Montague.
Fetch me my rapier, boy.
What, dares the slave
Come hither, covered with an antic face?
To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?
Now, by the stock and honour of my kin,
To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.

He's obviously not the Hamlet type. No ruminations here--kill first, ask questions later. And what's with "fleer" instead of "sneer?" I wonder if this is one of those early printing things--you know, the "s" looks like an "f"--but then it's still "sleer," so I guess not. Anyway, he's paranoid that Romeo has come to fleer at the festivities--although it's telling that he calls the masque a "solemnity," which makes it sound like a funeral instead of a fun costume party.

Tybalt's uncle, Old Capulet, tries to rein him in--however vendetta-ish he feels towards the Montagues, Old Cap's more concerned about his social standing, which would take a pretty hard hit if his nephew started hacking up the guests. Even Montague guests. Hospitality, remember, was a big deal in the old days. In King Lear, Gloucester reminds his tormentors that he is their host--in addition to gouging his eyes out, they've violated one of the most sacred rules of civilized society.  Even today, hospitality is sacrosanct in some of the world's most violent places. It's one thing to kill someone in the street, but never when he is your host or your guest. So you don't, for example, kill your king when he's visiting, as Macbeth does, or run off with your host's wife--unless you want to start the Trojan War.

Capulet holds Tybalt back, mindful that there's a time and place for blood vengeance, and this isn't it:

I would not for the wealth of all this town
Here in my house do him disparagement.
Therefore be patient, take no note of him.
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
An ill-beseeming presence for a feast.

What would people think if I treated a social equal with anything less than courtesy?  "Disparagement" literally means to treat someone as an inferior--to "dis-peer" them. Old Cap isn't saying be nice to Romeo, or even stop trying to kill him. He just tells Tybalt to put on his game face and "be patient"--he can kill him later, somewhere else. In other words, wear a mask.

The masque is a pretty obvious symbol of the duplicitous society Romeo and Juliet inhabit. And whatever else you can say about Tybalt, he doesn't like masks either. He's authentic. Not for him all this bowing and scraping, dancing and sonneteering. Nope, he's a man's man. An old-fashioned guy. He would, as I pointed out in an earlier post, be much more at home in the epic world--where words are considered weakness and bloody deeds are all that count.

Case in point: one of my favorite lines in the Old English poem Beowulf is when the poet is talking about Beowulf's greatness. In addition to killing Grendel, Grendel's mom, and the dragon, as well as giving lots of gold to his Thanes (posse), the Wulf had good manners for the time. It's high praise when the poet tells us that "drunk, he slew no hearth-companions."  Now you have to imagine a bunch of huge dudes in furs, armed to the teeth, drinking several gallons of ale and boasting about all the guys they've killed. Of course they're going to get into disagreements. And of course, sometimes they're going to impale their best bud on the end of an ash-spear. I mean, it's kind of unavoidable. You see this kind of thing all the time in contemporary warrior subcultures. I'm sure the Hells Angels used to maim each other regularly after a few hundred beers. So when the poet says that Beowulf never killed any of his friends when he was drunk, he's telling us that he was, at least relatively speaking, a civilized guy.

I highly recommend Beowulf, by the way. The original Old English is best, but I realize that most people don't have time to teach themselves some dead language (although if you know German, it's pretty easy). Failing that, I recommend the old Donaldson translation. The Seamus Heaney one is lovely, but it's not what the poem says. At all. The Donaldson one is really close to the original, and keeps all the wonderful understatement (e.g., "he was not the least in strength, when they endured battle-death that day").  Not for everyone, I'll admit. But fabulous stuff if you like your narratives stark and spare.

So, Tybalt. A guy who belongs in a more heroic setting than the Machiavellian world of Will's plays. He's incapable of compromise--not a political animal. And you know, you have to admire that. There's nothing weasely about this guy. He's Achilles, or Siegfried (the one in the Nibelungenlied, not the opera). He's the type who starts the revolution, but then has to be killed when the revolutionaries decide to set up a government. Like Trotsky, or Robespierre. Not a nice person by any means--but capable of greatness, in a different genre. If this were an epic instead of a romance, it could be called "The Rage of Tybalt." Of course, it would have to be written in Latin or Greek, and pretty much everyone would end up dead in the last book.

Oh, wait. That happens here, too.

And you can see it coming, as Tybalt chokes down his rage:

Patience perforce with wilful choler meeting
Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.
I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall,
Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt'rest gall.

I'll suck down my thunderous wrath for now, even though I'm going to need to take a couple of heavy-duty tranks (okay, that's not in there--but it would be, in the modern-dress version). But this insult will fester inside until I completely explode on some later, more fatal occasion.

That's a little over-reading, but not much.

Next:  Okay, I've got to stop doing these "stay tuned" things, because I always think of something else I want to write about first. I will say only this: next time, I will finish Act 1. For real.