Monday, December 7, 2009

Dawn of the (Soon to Be) Dead

Today, brevity has been sacrificed on the altar of love--love of poetry, that is. Some of the lines in this part of the play are too fabulous to leave un-quoted. If it's too long, you can just look at the pictures. There's exotic fruit, and a very inspiring sunrise...but do read Romeo and Juliet's aubade, down there by the sunrise picture. It's sublime.

Now, back to Act 3.

After much hand-wringing, cursing fate and a fifty-line "philosophical consolation" from that old windbag, Friar Laurence, Romeo and Juliet finally get down to business in her bedchamber. Ah, those thrilling adolescent trysts. Hiding in closets, sneaking out at dawn, trying not to make noise lest someone's parents realize that lust has triumphed over good sense down in the basement bedroom. It seems like yesterday....

Actually, it seems like eons ago.

Before Romeo climbs up that rope ladder, however, a few things happen. While Juliet waits with the Nurse, Romeo throws himself on the ground and has a veritable tantrum on the floor of Friar Laurence's cell, wailing about how maggots are better off than he is because they haven't been banished.  For real, he says that.

More validity,
More honourable state, more courtship lives
In carrion flies than Romeo.

Again with the dead things. Now it's not just romanticized death, but actual rotting corpses. I have some sympathy for Friar Laurence, who's disgusted by this pathetic pity party and tries to reason with him--but trying to talk philosophy to a teen drama queen (of either gender) is an exercise in futility at best. The good Friar, of course, has no experience to speak of--being both old and a lifelong celibate (we assume), so he has to drag out the Boethius (I wrote about B. back when I was reading Richard III, in case you missed it) and remind Romeo of all the neoplatonism he (probably) read in school. Romeo's response is predictably sulky:

...Hang up philosophy!
Unless philosophy can make a Juliet,
Displant a town, reverse a prince's doom,
It helps not, it prevails not. Talk no more.

 Romeo further reminds him, as all teenagers are wont to do at such times, that he's a dried-up, passionless old man who can't possibly understand:

Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered,
Doting like me, and like me banished,
Then mightest thou speak, then mightest thou tear thy hair,
And fall upon the ground, as I do now,
[he falls upon the ground]
Taking the measure of an unmade grave.

I seriously want to slap this kid.

The Nurse arrives with a message from Juliet, and both she and Laurence try to get Romeo to man up. He's a blubbering ball of self-pity, "with his own tears made drunk"; it's no wonder the Nurse scolds him:

Stand up, stand up an you be a man...

Romeo responds by trying to stab himself. Okay, here's where a good performance is crucial. Because this is seriously excessive stuff, and could easily tip over into comedy. Will has several scenes like this in his tragedies--scenes in which superior acting is the only thing that stands between affecting and absurd. Even worse than this scene, in that respect, is the one in Antony and Cleopatra where Antony, thinking Cleo is dead, tries to fall on his sword in the noble Roman fashion. Except his aim is off. So he's not dead, just all messed up, wandering around the stage begging someone to finish him off. No takers. Everyone he asks says, essentially, "no thanks."  It's both funny and terrible at the same time.

In Will's world, the line between tragedy and comedy is as thin and sharp as a rapier's edge. I've never seen Antony and Cleopatra performed, but I would love to know how a director handles that awkward moment.

Well, back to the kids.  In an effort to get Romeo to quit acting so "womanish," Friar Laurence intervenes with a very long, very boring speech stuffed with still more neoplatonic platitudes:

Thy noble shape is but a form of wax
Digressing from the valor of a man...

Blah, blah, blah.

The Nurse is suitably impressed with all this learning, and both of them more or less drag Romeo to his feet and remind him that there's still a night of connubial bliss between him and the city gates. So off he goes.

Ever mindful of how romance structure works, Will puts another scene between this one and the long-awaited (in dramatic time) consummation. Old Cap decides, having lost a nephew, it's time to get himself a son-in-law.  "I will make a desperate tender of my child's love," he tells Paris. Of course when he says "love," he means "body," because Juliet's love isn't really a consideration here. It's been clear from the beginning that the Capulets only pay lip service to the radical new idea that young people should choose their own spouses. When push comes to shove--or rather, when it's time to make a closer political/family alliance with the Prince--Juliet's up on the auction block.

The photo on the right is (obviously) from the Luhrmann film. In virtually every production I've seen, Paris is portrayed as a stuffy, if well-intentioned scion of good family. He's exactly the kind of guy your dad would want you to marry, and exactly the kind you want nothing to do with when you're a pretty, narcissistic adolescent in search of a Bad Boyfriend to piss off your parents.

I'm talking about Juliet, of course. Nothing autobiographical about this blog. Uh-uh.

We'll get back to the forced marriage threat in the next post. Now, however, the long-deferred, eagerly anticipated...

Post-coital chatter!

Yes, that's right. It's all over but the poetry. Which is how it should be, in my view. Sex scenes are almost universally awful, because it's difficult to come up with metaphors that are simultaneously sweaty and transcendent. My fellow blogger, the Bad Lawyer (link to his excellent blog at left), alerted me to this article, about a Bad Sex Writing contest in Britain. Apparently a bunch of staid old men annually decide which Literary Great has written the worst sex scene of the year. They would know, wouldn't they? I'm sure the whole event is drenched in equal parts irony and alcohol.

Even without contemporary standards of "decency," Will would be smart enough to know that the sexiest things are left to the imagination. So that's what he does here. Instead of sweaty metaphors, we get...birds. Juliet begins the traditional dawn-song, a.k.a., aubade, which is often structured as a mock disagreement about whether or not the night is over:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fear-full hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pom'granate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Lovely. I especially like the rare reminder that we're somewhere near the Mediterranean. I don't think pomegranates--themselves a rather erotic fruit--grow in cold, damp England. Romeo insists the sun has risen, and he has to go. You see how this could easily be a vampire romance:

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

I love that--"jocund day/stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops." You can almost see those first pointy rays peeking out from behind the mountains. This line always makes me think of Homer, too, and his "rosy-fingered dawn." Toes and fingers, like a pink newborn.

Juliet isn't ready to give in:

Yon light is not daylight; I know it, I.
It is some meteor that the sun exhaled
To be to thee this night a torchbearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Check out the way Will uses rhythm here--all those lovely monosyllables. When he uses multisyllabic words ("exhaled," "torchbearer") you really notice them.  I also like the way he has Juliet say "I"--not just here, but elsewhere--in sentences where it could easily be "ay."

Meteors were thought to be made of impure vapors that the sun had sucked up from the earth and ignited, then spit back. Sort of like a solar hairball, I guess. (With metaphors like that, I bet you're wondering why I didn't become a poet myself). Meteors were also bad omens. As if we needed reminding that things were about to go south--it's Act 3 of a romantic tragedy, and the lovers have just consummated their forbidden passion. Which means we've reached the tiptop of the mountain and we're about start careening down the other side, full speed ahead to disaster. Romeo sees no reason to wait--he's ready to start dying right away:

Let me be ta'en, let me be put to death.
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I'll say yon grey is not the morning's eye,
'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia's brow.
Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come, death, and welcome; Juliet wills it so.

"Cynthia" is the moon.  Romeo wants to reverse the order of nature, so that the sun is simply a reflection of the moon, instead of the other way around.  But then so much of this play is kind of about how Everything You Know is Wrong. Daylight is bad, darkness is good. Love means death, death is proof of love. Wisdom is empty, authority is weak, experience valueless.

Juliet's freaked out by this suicidal talk, and now wants him to get the hell out of town. Now it's "the lark that sings so out of tune/Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps."  It is, she concedes, morning.  "More light and light," Romeo replies, "more dark and dark our woes."  The sun is dangerous in this play--the light of reason is the enemy of romance.

Mostly irrelevant digression: This reminds me of one of Billy Bragg's B-sides from the 1980's, entitled "Scholarship is the Enemy of Romance." Since I was writing my dissertation on romance at the time, I thought that was funny. Now that I'm re-reading this play, however, it makes a different kind of sense.

Anyway, right on cue, the outside world (in the form of Juliet's Nurse) bursts into the room to tell them that Mom's on her way up.  Romeo hightails it down the ladder, and Juliet leans over the balcony to say goodbye.

Time for...another premonition of doom! 

Oh God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.

Will makes good use of the stage space--whenever someone descends from above, you can usually be sure their fortunes are on the wane, too. Juliet hammers the point home as Romeo runs off into the sunrise:

O fortune, fortune, all men call thee fickle,
If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him
That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, fortune,
For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long,
But send him back.

Modern as this play is for its time, Will was still a Boethian at heart. When fortune's wheel descends, you don't get to buy another ticket on the ride. The next time Juliet sees Romeo, he'll be dead.

Next:  Bad Daddy


  1. Lovely, inspiring, thank you, Gayle, another moving and terrific explication.

  2. Thanks, BL. Every time I start wishing I could finish this one and start the next, there's something I really get into writing about. Usually the amazing language. I guess that's why they call it "great" literature...

  3. It is amazing language, I was talking to my son, the juvenile actor, about Shakespeare and this blog. I started to tell him about performance times, boy actors, the open theater, standing performances, etc. He cut me off, he knows all that, But he didn't know about the language, it's multiple layers, the literal genius of the coinage and word play. We use superlatives all the time, I should say we misuse superlatives routinely, but the word genius actually applies to this playwright, this language, and this poetry.