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....


  1. Seriously hot stuff! More, not less!

  2. Thank you , O juridical one. I continue to struggle with an academic tendency to be long-winded--which I persist in seeing as "thorough." I am enjoying your posts also.