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.
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.
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.
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.
...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.
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.