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.

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