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.

Okay...meet 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.

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