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.


  1. LOLOL at that cartoony picture of Tybalt!! Love it. And, I agree with you completely.

    You are SO well-read, wow. Makes me want to go back and re-visit some of these classics.

    I enjoy reading your blog...

  2. That's the best Sony Playstation-esq pic of Tybalt. Wait. maybe you're onto something. Put a little shakespeare in these video games and suddenly kids are no longer video drones who won't pick a fight when they're invited to dinner. (respect during h'ors d'ouvres is lost on emily post) keep it up gayle!

  3. Thanks, both of you! It's nice to get feedback. I am trying to keep these posts shorter and more to the point--I think I'm still learning the ropes about blogging.