Friday, December 4, 2009

Hurry Sundown

 
I seem to be stuck on those seventies song titles--I'll try for something more Shakespearean next time. I'm going to endeavor to keep this one short, just as an experiment. I've been informed by a more culturally savvy (read: younger) acquaintance that no one wants to read anything that fills more than one screen these days. When you have to quote text, actually say something of substance, and add a few images, writing a less-than-one-screen post is a difficult feat. Probably impossible.

And perhaps we should ask ourselves whether this limited attention span is a good thing. You know, evolutionarily speaking.

Well, I'm burning daylight here. Which is the topic for today, not coincidentally. I wrote a bit last time about the way Juliet and Romeo deal with the crisis of Romeo's banishment. Now I want to write about how Will deals with it, poetically.

Already I can tell this is going to take some time. And space, since I want to read Juliet's "hurry sundown" speech--at the beginning of scene 2--in its entirety. Yep, this is going to be a purely literary post. No preaching about the evils of romance or anything else. That should definitely cut down on the wordage, as my students used to say.

The soliloquy is a kind of reverse aubade. An aubade, also called a "dawn song," is a conventional lovers' lament after a night of erotic bliss, i.e., hot sex. In most romances, the relationship has to be kept secret from the public--usually because it's adulterous or otherwise forbidden. This trope still exists in contemporary romance. Without obstacles, there's no story.

So, the aubade. Usually it goes something like this:

Him: It's dawn, baby, I have to go.
Her: No! It's still dark, see? We have time for one more...
Him: No, I really have to go.
Her: Just a few more minutes...
Him: I can't. If they find me here, I'll be (killed, put in jail, ruined financially, humiliated beyond belief...)

Of course it could be two hims or two hers, which in some contexts would give you a built-in obstacle.

The first aubade was in Ovid's Amores (and famously quoted in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus). Ovid (about whom more momentarily) has to leave his mistress, and calls upon the "horses of the night" to slow down so that the morning won't come. Juliet reverses this, asking the horses of the day to hurry up and bring the night. A nice symmetry, there, since R & J will have a real "aubade moment" a few scenes later.

When she utters this speech, Juliet still doesn't know that Romeo's gotten himself kicked out of town for murdering her cousin, so she's innocent/unknowing on several levels--virginal, unaware of what's happened, and, of course, innocent of what the future has in store.  An audience would hear this speech with tragic trepidation--in that old-fashioned Aristotelian sense of tragedy as "pity and fear."

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging. Such a waggoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.


Wow, that's beautiful. Why? Just look at the rhythm of the words--lots of short, monosyllabic ones, mostly Germanic in origin, pretty musical vowel sounds (fiery-footed steeds), alliteration ("would whip you to the west), and then, the lovely five-syllable, Latinate "immediately" at the end. Now the thematics: Phaeton, for those of you who've forgotten your Ovid (or never read him, damn our lame educational system), was a young man who, upon being told that his dad was the sun god, Helios, decided he wanted proof. Specifically, he wanted to drive Helios's fiery chariot across the sky for a day. Dad wasn't pleased, but he'd promised his son a boon, so he had to do it.

Weak parenting moment.

Anyway. Phaeton gets behind the wheel--or horses--and proceeds to drive like a lunatic. Not his fault--the horses sense he's out of his league, and drag him on a wild ride that creates the Sahara desert and turns the skin of all Africans black. Interesting racial fantasy. Finally, because the world is being wrecked--too hot, too cold, people dying, like one of those 2012 scripts--Zeus has to strike Phaeton's chariot with his thunderbolt, which sends the poor kid tumbling to earth.

So you see, Juliet's invocation is ominous. Phaeton is a reckless driver, as she and Romeo are reckless lovers. Destined for destruction. And "the west" has ever been associated with death, too--it's where the sun goes down and the day ends. In some myths, it's where we go when we die. (See James Joyce's great story, "The Dead" for more on this very Celtic/mythic idea). So in wishing for night, she's also wishing for death.

Of course, she really just wants to unload her virginity, now that she's married. In the Renaissance, sexual climax was called "the little death" (pretty obvious that men are coming up with these ideas), so she's wishing for that, too. But metaphors hurry toward the literal here, so look out.  Let's read some more:

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.


I wrote at some length in the last post about the significance of night--here Juliet entreats the night to occult the lovers from the wider world, envelop them in secrecy. A "sober-suited matron all in black" is a funereal image, an old woman in widow's weeds, and Juliet's card-playing metaphor draws on several meanings of "match"--a game, a marriage, a husband. Here, the player--Juliet--paradoxically wins by surrendering herself. The "pair of maidenhoods" refers to hers and Romeo's, which will both end when the marriage is consummated. Although the phrase seems, shall we say, a bit trusting on her part.

Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grown bold
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.

More light in darkness ("new snow on a raven's back"), and (naturally) death, since ravens are harbingers of death and literally carrion-eaters. The first image--"hood my unmanned blood..." is from falconry. These are complicated lines, but the sense is that she wants the night to disguise the passion she feels.

Come gentle night; come loving, black-browed night,
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

This is lovely, but ominous and violent, too. One thing to remember is that these plays were originally performed in broad daylight--the middle of the afternoon. There weren't any electric lights, and it wasn't practical to have that many torches burning just for entertainment. So "night" is as much a conceit as "woman" on the Elizabethan stage. It's something the language and the actors conjured, and the audience believed. In that sense, the whole concept of "night" in this play is a testament to the theater's power to harness the imagination and, for a short time, suspend the laws of nature.

O, I have bought a mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed.

Okay, weird image. She's both the buyer of the "mansion" and an object to be "sold." It seems to me that the mansion is emotional here, and the "sold" refers to her body.  But the whole thing makes one think of brothels.

So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.

The picture of a child who wants to wear her new clothes is at odds with the situation, which of course involves taking clothes off. It's the last moment when Juliet will really be a child, since the Nurse is going to come in with bad news that forces her to choose between her family and her new husband. Stating her preference for Romeo, she loses her maidenhood before her maidenhead (physical virginity); once again, words take precedence over deeds. Juliet turns her back on her family and, like many of Will's heroines, chooses husband over father. That the choice bodes ill is pretty obvious. When Juliet fears she'll never see her "three hours husband" again, she makes another vow:

I'll to my wedding bed
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead.

This prediction, at least, doesn't come true.

Well, the sun is down, and I'm putting the play to bed. Although my experiment in brevity obviously failed, I think this post was a little shorter. I'm congenitally averse to abbreviation, but I'll keep working on it. I will finish this play by Christmas, come hell or high water, as they used to say.

Next:  Larks, nightingales, and more bad parenting.

1 comment:

  1. Its a lucky morn
    that linked me to this page ...
    Sir, brevity may be the soul of wit
    But life is much more than wits
    It requires understanding and appreciation
    Which you have in abundant measure

    So Sir
    I disagree
    and look forward to your
    Long
    Essays

    Sridhar Chari
    Hyderabad -India

    ReplyDelete