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.


  1. Uh...more worldly, maybe. Certainly not more Wordy. :-) Bring on the balcony. Perhaps one or both should have jumped. Ah love.

  2. Yeah, I'm kind of getting an overdose of romance on this one. Next time I may have to go for more murder and mayhem. Thanks again for getting me going on this, O worldly one. I am waiting for your blog...which I'm sure you'll be starting any day now...