Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Man Up

Today's post is about being a man--a subject I know nothing about. I can, however, tell you how it looks from the outside. And I figure it's only fair--male poets and novelists have had quite a lot to say about being a woman, although they know not (or perhaps "naught") whereof they speak. I think my musings will  actually prove pretty tame compared to all the frail mad girls, lust-fueled gypsies, heartless wantons, bloodthirsty Scottish noblewomen, and perfidious wives I've had to read and write about in my many decades of studying literature.

And besides, Will worried a lot about being a man.  All male writers do.  In the swashbuckling Elizabethan era, poets doubtless got sand kicked in their faces with some regularity--in fact, I suspect that's been the case since time immemorial. Some poets, like Walt Whitman, decided not to give a damn. Some, like Byron or Hemingway, decided to throw down their pens and pick up a sword--or a pistol. Others, like Will or Spenser or Tennyson (to name only a few) decided to obsess about masculinity and what it means to "man up."

I really dislike that expression, as well as its short-lived predecessor, "cowboy up." It means, of course, "rise to the occasion," although it's not without other, more salacious implications. I realize that it's often been used to mean "assume your responsibilities as a father and a husband," or something to that effect. Well and good. Because of our millennia-long obsession with the problem of manliness, however, it's not as simple as that. Take one evolutionary step back from that meaning of "man up," and you're obliged the kick the ass of anyone who threatens you or yours. Two steps back, and the ass-kicking is prompted only by an insult, not a threat. Three steps back and you're drawing your weapon of choice on anyone who says something you don't like. As flawed as it is, the law was developed in large part to set limits on "manning up." That's really what Prince Escalus is trying to do in the play, after all.

These expressions aren't new. In fact, the word "virtue" is derived from the Latin vir, or "man." So to be virtuous, originally, meant to be manly. Manning up has always been a moral imperative, an affirmation of heroism, which is pretty inseparable from violence. By contrast, a virtuous woman is defined by what she doesn't do, i.e., sleep around.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a feminist, but not of the mythic (read: fictional) man-hating sort. My mother grew up with only brothers (3), I have only brothers (4), and my parents have only male grandchildren. I have a son I adore. I'm inordinately fond of my somewhat macho husband, too--he's virtuous in that old sense, even if he's heavy-handed about it sometimes. So my interest in the cultural/tribal rituals of masculinity is, in a sense, motivated by love.

That's my prolepsis. Now I'm going to talk about how masculinity works in this play--because we're at that crucial point, or will be shortly. It's High Noon, and people are about to be slaughtered in the streets of Verona over a few ill-chosen words. Romeo is going to man up, and wreck (what's left of) his life, as well as his thirteen-year-old wife's. His new-found pacifism upsets the testosterone-fueled Order of Things in Verona, making Mercutio (more) crazy, Tybalt (more) bellicose and Romeo himself determined to prove he's still got a pair. It's a recipe for major carnage.

But first, a little backtracking. In Act 2, scene 3, Mercutio and Benvolio set the stage for the bloodletting in Act 3 by questioning Romeo's manhood. They don't know anything about Juliet; they think he's still mooning over Rosaline. It hardly matters to them--the main point is that Romeo's lost his manly edge with all this love-longing and sonneteering. Mercutio's joking lament anticipates tragedy:

Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead--stabbed with a white wench's black eye, run through the ear with a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft; and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?

It's the eternal lament of every guy who's lost his best bud to some wench. No more poetry here--Mercutio speaks in manly prose. The imagery of this passage isn't hard to interpret. Romeo's been "stabbed," "run through," "cleft"--he's been penetrated by love and thus feminized. The "blind bow-boy's butt-shaft" refers to Cupid, but if you think it sounds like something else is going on, you're right. The insinuation is that Romeo's "playing the maid's part" sexually. He's been emasculated by love.

Benvolio asks "what is Tybalt?" and Mercutio replies that he's "more than Prince of Cats."  According to the notes in my Norton Shakespeare, this is a play on the word "catso," which is related to the Italian word for penis, and means "rogue." But I think it's pretty clear that the meaning is simply "he's not a pussy."  Of course Mercutio is being ironic, as usual. He goes on to make fun of how effete and effeminate Tybalt is, associating him with the pretty (read: girly) Italian terms for fencing moves, which in turn leads him to make fun of fashionable speech in general, especially "these tuners of new accent" and their "antic, lisping, affecting" turn of phrase. This Mercutio is no drag queen--he's the manly guardian of English idiom, protecting it from foreign contamination.

We're supposed to forget for the moment that the play is set in Italy. This kind of geographical slippage is common in Will's comedies--Verona is a mythic place, like Mantua and Venice and Athens--it's all England, really, with an uncanny twist. A more theatrical England, which is probably how Englishmen of that era saw the rest of Europe.

Romeo shows up, and proceeds to engage in a bawdy verbal duel with Mercutio. It's a male bonding scene, really, in which Mercutio is set up as a foil for Juliet. Academics call this "male homosocial desire," but I like the recent coinage "bromance." (Will loves neologisms, hybrids, and meaningful malapropisms. I'm sure he'd be mad he didn't think up "bromance" himself.)  Whatever you call it, this is a pretty clear-cut example of the competition that often ensues when a member of a male cohort gets hitched. Mercutio's verbal aggression against women--which will become downright mean when the Nurse approaches the group--is an obvious reflection of his annoyance at losing his best pal to a chick. After this rhetorical sparring reaffirms their friendship, Mercutio exults that Romeo is once again one of the guys:

Why, is this not better than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.

Now you're one of us again, instead of a lunatic who can't wait to stick his "bauble" in the nearest hole.

For Mercutio, love has alienated Romeo from his nature as a male and his culture as a man. I have to say, I don't see the Mercutio in the earlier scenes--he of the Queen Mab speech, in particular--in this one. Unless, of course, one takes the (academic) feminist stance that all male poets are really more interested in each other than in any woman. According to this reading, women are just an excuse for male poets to engage in verbal duels with other male poets. Substitute Shakespeare/Spenser or Wordsworth/Coleridge for Mercutio/Romeo. Literature, in this sense, is the ultimate bromance. Now, if you're really into this kind of reading, you can go crazy with it. Octavius is suffering from unrequited bromantic love for Antony. Othello and Iago are a bromance gone bad. Antonio's got a serious man-crush on Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. Why stop there? Arthur and Lancelot, like the Beatles, had their bromance wrecked by a woman. In fact the whole Arthurian saga is about how an ideal male fellowship--sort of like a football team, only with more of a community service angle--was destroyed by heterosexual sex.

Well, like any interesting idea, this one can be taken to a reductive extreme. Which I don't want to do here. That said, (she hedged, backpedaling), I think it's the only way to make sense of this strange shift in Mercutio's personality. He needs Romeo as a poetic foil. He's the Bill to his Ted, the Sundance to his Butch, the Patroclus to his Achilles. Or something. I'm not going to quote from their "duel," because I think this scene--like so much of Will's comedy--really has to be seen in performance. The Zeffirelli production does a good job with this part of the play, so go rent it from Netflix! Or, wait until I blog about it (coming up), and then see it. Rapier-quick banter just doesn't work on a page. It has to be seen and heard--because it's physical as well as verbal.  Suffice it to say that there's a lot of talk about flowers that look like genitalia, ladies of the evening, and bending over--things reach such a fever-pitch of excitement that Mercutio threatens to nibble on Romeo's ear.


Meanwhile, back in the indoor world, where Juliet's more or less trapped by virtue of her gender, time passes slowly. Act 2 really gives you a sense of these two different realms--Romeo's freedom to roam the streets and cause trouble with his posse is a pretty glaring contrast to Juliet's incarceration.  Her world is small, circumscribed by walls, rules, routines; the only way she can get out of the house is by saying she needs to go to confession--presumably to ask forgiveness for all the stuff she'd like to do, but can't. She waits for the Nurse with pent-up energy, imagining a freedom she'll never have:

...Love's heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glides than the sun's beams
Driving back shadows over louring hills.
Therefore do nimble-pinioned doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day's journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, and yet she is not come.

She's complaining about the Nurse's tardiness, wishing that she could leave the old woman out of the picture altogether, and simply reach out to Romeo with her thoughts. The imagery of this passage is of the wider world, the far-flying doves and the sun rising over hilly terrain. These are things that Juliet seldom sees and can only imagine, imprisoned as she is by the strictures of class and gender.

The nurse finally arrives, and there's a very funny scene in which she pretends not to understand Juliet's impatience. The Nurse is a terrific role for a character actor, really. Patricia Heywood does a fabulous job of playing this very "stagy" role in the Zeffirelli film--although it's kind of shocking to realize that she was only thirty-nine at the time.

Anyway, she finally tells Juliet to get herself to Friar Laurence's cell to be married. Now let's remember that all this is happening in just a few days--Juliet and Romeo just met the night before! Yet the Nurse, who's clearly enjoying the vicarious thrill of playing an erotic go-between, hasn't said a word about how hasty all this is. In fact, she's obviously got a prurient interest in the whole affair:

Hie you to church. I must another way,
To fetch a ladder by the which your love
Must climb a bird's nest soon, when it is dark.
I am the drudge, and toil in your delight,
But you shall bear the burden soon at night.

As it turns out, there'll be blood in the streets before there's any on the sheets.

Sorry, I've obviously caught the Shakespearean bawdy bug. It's clear, however, that Will intended the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt to interrupt the consummation of Romeo and Juliet's marriage.  Blood for blood, if you get my drift.  "These violent delights," as Friar Laurence puts it, "have violent ends."

We'll talk about that next time.


  1. There's a joke told in male-circles--the proof of Mark David Chapman's insanity is that he assassinated John Lennon blowing a golden opportunity to shoot Yoko Ono. I offer this not because it's funny, but because the joke and the fact of the telling of the joke runs in male-groupings, fits in your thesis.

    "Man(ing)Up" as a cliche` in modern usage coincides with "getting in touch with one's feminine-side" and "metro-sexuality." While not a linguist it seems to me the former expression arose in reaction to the latter ideas.

    Doubtless many of the patterns, particularly bachelor party rituals are part of the same process, a perception of marriage as emasculating. The rituals of pre-marital parties are hyper-masculine, cartoon-ishly masculine.

  2. Yes, I think that's right about the origins of the cliche--in warrior societies masculinity was thought to be an ontological state, so no one needed to be reminded that it was a cultural choice, or maybe a cultural imperative. Re: Ono joke--yeah, not surprising. Of course now whenever a woman breaks up a gang of happy men, she's tagged as "the Yoko."

    Here's a little life-imitates-art irony. As I was finishing this post my husband announced that he was getting a punching bag so that he could teach our son to box. This precipitated some, shall we say, discussion--but as I said, I grew up tripping over hockey sticks and the like, so there wasn't much I could say. Men will (sometimes) be boys.

    Actually the play that deals most with this issue, it seems to me, is Othello. More on this anon...

  3. Well let's see--I've only been told to "Manage up"--which I think is a derivative of "Man Up" with a bow on the side, or maybe barrettes. :-)

    Gayle--from the length of this entry--I'd say you DO know quite a lot about the topic. The solo gal in a long line of manning ups...

  4. The length of my posts doesn't mean I really know anything--it's an occupational hazard of the (former) academic--why write one paragraph when five will do?

    In other words, size doesn't really matter...