Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Bridegroom He is Come Already

Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come.

That's not Will--do you recognize it? If you're a religious person, or had a religious education, you might. It's from the most famous love song of all time--the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, in the Old Testament.  It's beautiful and very sensual--which is why most theological commentators have always insisted on reading it allegorically. Otherwise it's too naughty.

You can read the King James version here, and the Vulgate (medieval) version here

Jewish scholars have read it as referring to the mystical union between God and the Children of Israel, while Christians have traditionally seen it as celebrating the love between Christ and His Church. But literally it's just a love song, originally in Hebrew but bearing the linguistic and thematic traces of Greek and especially Persian influences. In a way, it's a cultural matrix, linking the mystical traditions of the three major religions that originated in the lands of the Near East and Mediterranean. But why am I bringing it up here, you may wonder? Because Will alludes to it, in an odd way.

Old Capulet, up all night preparing for the wedding, orders the Nurse to wake Juliet with these words:

...Hie, make haste,
Make haste, the bridegroom he is come already.
Make haste, I say.

Now maybe you're thinking, that doesn't sound like the line she quoted about the dove and all that. But it does, you see. Every school child in the Renaissance had read the Canticles (another name for the Song of Songs), had heard it sermonized about in church, and understood its allegorical implications. Allow me to say again, people had a much better religious education then than they do now. The rigid interpretation of the "separation of Church and State" in this country has effectively cut whole generations off from the cultural heritage of the West. Maybe that's good, and maybe it's bad--I don't care to argue the point. It just is.

Will uses these vaguely biblical words on purpose--the Bride in the Canticles is called to the mystical union with her Bridegroom. By reminding the audience of this conjugal and spiritual ideal, Will accentuates the "wrongness" of this union--Juliet's mystical bond is with Romeo, not this guy.

And of course the "awakening" is horrifying--the Bridegroom is Death, and he has indeed "come already." Or so they think.

The Nurse's bawdy wake-up call seems almost blasphemous now:

Why, lamb, why lady! Fie, you slug-abed!
Why, love, I say, madam, sweetheart, why, bride!
What, not a word? You take your pennyworths now.
Sleep for a week, for the next night, I warrant,
The County Paris hath set up his rest
That you shall rest but little. God forgive me!
Marry, and amen. How sound is she asleep!
I needs must wake her. Madam, madam, madam!
Ay, let the County take you in your bed.
He'll fright you up, i'faith. Will it not be?

The Nurse knows quite well that Juliet just consummated her marriage to Romeo two nights before, which makes this sexual innuendo really creepy. The Nurse is a comic figure--like all comic figures she's incapable of growth or change. She doesn't belong in this dark, tragic world--her raunchy jokes offend our sensibilities. Like Juliet, we have no use for her any longer.

One of the weird things about this scene is that, when the Nurse and the Capulets find Juliet (ostensibly) dead, no one wonders why or how it happened. I realize that dying young was more of a possibility back then, but really, this is strange. Instead, they shift into instant melodrama, as if they can't think of anything to do but overact:

Nurse: Look, look! O heavy day!

Capulet's Wife: O me, O me, my child, my only life!

Paris:  O love, O life: not life, but love in death.

Nurse: O day, O day, O hateful day!

Capulet: O child, O child, my soul and not my child!

You get the general idea. These exclamatory laments remind me of the wailing queens in Richard III. They seem to belong in a classical melodrama, an older, more stylized and formal play than this one. Here, as in Richard III,  there's a tension/contrast between the (relatively) modern speech of the protagonists and the archaic language of the old guard. Like Queen Margaret, the Capulets, Paris, and the Nurse are stuck in a time warp, anachronisms in Will's new drama. Romeo and Juliet would never speak like this. Neither would Richard.  These static figures and their old-fashioned, stilted responses represent a dead literary past, an old-style theater that this play seeks to transcend. In comparison to the authentic and spontaneous passions of Romeo and Juliet, these ritualistic, choric-sounding laments seem...well, fake.

Okay, that was my literary point. Now a cultural observation. Grief, it seems to me, needs ritual. Without it, suffering and loss have no social context. And communal mourning is absolutely essential to healing. Sad to say, the closest thing we have to that now is a shared response to celebrity death--sometimes, as with Princess Diana's demise a decade or so ago, this public sorrow actually mimics an older form of collective grief. And sometimes it's just prurience and voyeurism, inappropriate responses that make it all too clear that we don't know what the hell to say or do when someone dies.

This unanchored anxiety in the face of death is nowhere more evident than in our own everyday encounters with mortality. In my "Don't Fear the Reaper" post, I mentioned the murder of one of the graduate students in my department, back when I was a professor. Our department Chair organized counseling sessions, which is what bureaucracies do these days when someone in the community dies violently. These sessions were incredibly uncomfortable for everyone involved. In fact, I was amazed that the "counselor" ever made a living doing this--that's how bad she was at it. If you've ever seen the 1980's cult film, Heathers, you already have a good idea what I'm talking about.

That English department was, I still contend, stuck in some kind of sci-fi Bad Energy Vortex. Because in my seven years there, an awful lot of people died before their time. The year after the murder, another grad student committed suicide. A mid-level professor who lived alone with her cats died at home, and no one found her for days. The spouse of a colleague, and a good friend, was killed in a commercial airline crash in 1994. Two of my colleagues lost their first child hours after her birth.  The reason I'm bringing all this up is to say that, in those few years, I got a rather unpleasant first-hand view of the way groups and individuals (try to) deal with a death in a community. And it wasn't healing, or cathartic, or at all comforting for the people who were suffering the most. A few people who disliked my friend were actually mean after her husband died in the plane crash. I don't think they meant to reveal their true selves this way, but they were so uncomfortable with the situation that they said exactly the wrong thing. Many times over. The couple who lost their child were repeatedly reassured that they were young, and could have another one. As if that's any consolation at all.

Believe it or not, I'm not making a moral point here--just a cultural one. We need ritual. We need wailing, and wakes, and black clothing and veils. We need little cards with black ribbon around the edges, like the one my mom got from Jackie Kennedy in 1964, thanking her for her condolences. We need all that stuff because we have to have a way to mark our passage out of this life. And because in situations like the ones I just mentioned, there is no right thing to say. One shouldn't have to say anything. One should come to the funeral dressed in mourning and take part in a formal ritual that requires no sincerity, no private words at all. One should do the things that have always been done, and always will be. That's how we go on as a people. Even if we didn't know the bereaved very well, we do this for them. Because in death we are all equal.

To the extent that Romeo and Juliet insists on the authentic and personal response to death over the collective and ritualized one, it's wrong. It's wrong to suggest that death should always be marked with honest, raw emotion, and that ritualistic, archaic responses are inadequate in the face of death's finality. Maybe if you're Will Shakespeare, you can eulogize someone with transcendent words that heal and unify and knit up the raveled sleeve of anguish.  But for the rest of us, we need the old ways. Because we can't deal with the emotion, and the people who have lost someone precious don't need our platitudes. They need community, and a connection to history. They need form--the very kind Juliet rejects when she gives herself to Romeo on the balcony.

Yep, on this topic, I'm all for the old ways. In fact, I'd like to see funeral pyres make a comeback. And sea burials, a la Beowulf. Anything that isn't simply a rejection of the whole idea of death, and a refusal to confront mortality. Death should be treated with more respect, more honor, more--just more. No one's life should be reduced to a few tweeted truisms and a sad-faced emoticon.

Of course, Will wasn't really telling us how to mourn, or how not to. He was telling us that his poetry is much better than the old kind--that he's the Next Great Thing. About that, at least, he was right. 

Okay, rant over. Back to the play, and Juliet's fake death.

Although Lady Capulet had wished Juliet "married to her grave" just a couple days before, she's all misery now. We're reminded that Juliet, like Romeo, is/was an only child:

Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day!
Most miserable hour that ever time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage!
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catched it from my sight!

This seems to be yet another echo of the Song of Songs:

One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her.

As the play moves toward its final tragic scene, Will brings out the heavy biblical artillery. His point is clear: the mystical union of Romeo and Juliet will transcend this life, and the bride and the bridegroom--each singular, alone--will become one in death. Together in eternity, like Christ and His Church.

Will's just reading the Canticles the way the Church Fathers did, only backward. If the Song of Songs can eroticize spirituality, why can't it spiritualize erotic passion? Metaphor is a slippery thing.

After Friar Laurence offers some hypocritical Boethian consolations--along the lines of "she's better off now that she's in heaven"--Old Capulet summarizes the whole play, really, with this morbid observation:

All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral.
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sudden dirges change;
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

That should be the end of the scene, but it's not. Will decides that what we need now is a little comedy--as Peter the serving-man tries to brow-beat the wedding musicians into playing some consoling music for the funeral. It's a strange way to end--although I suppose one could see it as a literalization of what Old Cap describes above--all things changing into their opposite, wedding songs into dirges, etc.

It's the last gasp of comedy in the play. From here on out, it's gloom and doom all the way to the finish line.

Next:  The real, authentic, transcendent end.


  1. It has been my challenge over many years to read Joyces, Ulysses and to read it with comprehension. It is a great and profound masterpiece and an erudite puzzle. One of themes of Ulysses is Joyce's grappling with the supremacy of Shakespeare as both inventor of literary English, but also as Joyce's literary master. There are so many scenes directly alluding to Shakespeare, apart form the library dialectic which is a debate about the plays, authorship, language and motive. Your post strongly reminds me of the funeral of Patrick Dignam--and the essential inappropriate reactions of the funeral-paticipants, this chapter is denominated Hades and parallels, Odysseus in the underworld.

    It's interesting to me that the great commentator on Ulysses, Stuart Gilbert concludes one of his esssays (on Proteus) with a discussion of Joyce's use of the couplet from R & J that you used a little while ago: The earth that's nature's mother in her tomb/What is her burying grave, that is her womb.

    Followed by: Blake's (from the Gates of Paradise): The Door of Death I open found/And the Worm Weaving in the Ground;/Thou'rt my Mother from the Womb,/Wife, Sister, Daughter, to the Tomb,/Weaving to dreams the sexual strife/And weeping over the Web of Life.

    Personally, I've never known what to say to grieving family and friends at funerals. In fact there is a dark joke that goes 'round my friends when someone close to us dies, that perhaps I should not go, and if I do go, perhaps it's best if I don't speak to the widow--which stems from bungled remarks I made to a friend's mother who had recently lost her husband in a small plane crash. My remarks, were something along the lines of "How's it going, Champ--can't wait for beach weather, you?" Might have been a little too casual? Maybe the bouquet of mylar balloons were a little much? I admit.

    It's interesting to me that you mention, JFK's assasination--that, too was a moment in my life when I first recognized death and dying. The announcement was made during my 4th grade class (I was 9), by the principal over the intercom. We all told to put our heads down on our desks, I can distinctly remember not being able to suppress a smile, even a laugh--clearly, I didn't get was going on, but it was all so strange that we were doing this and expected to have a grief response.

    I've spoken at funerals, particularly at the funeral of my friend Carter who was like a brother to me and who died unexpectedly of a heroin overdose. I blogged about Carter's death, although I changed the name. This was such a shock to me, but I was with him daily in the two years that he, essentially killed himself. In and out of psych wards, cardiac surgery, moments when he'd shit himself, once he cut his thumb off--hindsight tells me he was so jazzed on God-knows-what. It was like living with someone who had one foot in Dante's Inferno.

    And yet, life is beautiful--magic abounds. Poetry and art and music, and surprising connections that we make in our lives, sometimes by happenstance--like through our blogs.

    May God bless you and yours, 'can't wait till beach season.


  2. Thanks for that wonderful comment, B. I am also a lover of Ulysses, although I haven't read it recently--one of my favorite things anywhere is Molly's soliloquy at the end. Yes and yes and yes. If people said yes to life more, maybe they (we) would know what to say to death. The novel is full of religious imagery too--the opening scene, as I recall, is a parody of the Mass. Shaving ritual as liturgy. I've always identified with Joyce's relationship to religion, since I had a religious education as well, and then, as you know, went completely nuts with it and became a medievalist. But I confess I didn't pay as much attention to the Shakespearean imagery as you have, so it's time to go back and read it again.
    Before Chaucer grabbed me by the throat, I was going to be a modernist. Yeats, despite his fascist leanings, is still one of my top five favorite poets, and Joyce is magnificent. Every winter I re-read "The Dead." Gotta read it on a snowy day.
    About your friend--and mine--it's so hard to help people when they've crossed over into that other dimension. Sometimes I think demonic possession was a better description of it than all the psychobabble we use now. We aren't much better at dealing with broken spirits now than we were back then, are we?
    I did leave a comment in his particular circle of Hell, but I think he can't hear me. My friend gave up substance abuse years ago--just up and quit, without any interventions or groups. I always admired that so much about him. Unfortunately, some demons get you anyway.
    I guess my riff on funerals was partly about how we deal with human misery in general. I mean, as ethical beings. I didn't mean to suggest that I'm better at it than anyone else--just that ritual has its place, and we shouldn't be so quick to abandon things that worked fine for centuries. When I was at my old job, I often thought we all could have benefited from a script--something that told us where to stand, and when to kneel, and when to wail to the heavens. Old-school religion, for all its faults, was good for that.
    Yes, you are right. Magic abounds, too. Thanks for sharing some of yours with me.