Sunday, December 20, 2009

Married to Her Grave

One of the most memorable lines in Act 1 of Hamlet is Hamlet's complaint about the unseemly haste of his mother's remarriage. "The funeral baked meats," he laments, "did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."  It's a wonderfully evocative statement, and not a little creepy. There's a good reason many cultures are superstitious about "contaminating" weddings with funeral rites. In Romeo and Juliet, the opposite happens. The marriage feast is brought, still warm, to the funereal tables--although the corpse in this case is merely comatose. Or as they say in fairytale land, entranced.

Before that, however, we have lots more wailing and suicide threats. Juliet throws herself on Friar Laurence's mercy and begs for some "remedy" whereby she might escape her impending (bigamous) marriage to Paris. At this point there's no use remarking on the histrionic excesses of these characters. It's an adolescent play, way over the top emotionally and theatrically. If it weren't for Will's amazing poetry, it would be a laughably sentimental melodrama of the sort that became famous in the late nineteenth century. All this sobbing, suicide-threatening, and dagger-waving really makes you appreciate the masterful tension and wrenching horrors of the later tragedies. Compare this to Edgar's recognition of his blinded father in Lear, Macbeth's realization of the price of power, or Othello's jealous anguish. The play looks--and is--as immature as the characters themselves. But even Will had to start somewhere. And of course there's the writing. It can be so profound, so wildly original, and so stunning you can't believe it's the same language we use--and misuse--every day.

But the plot seems annoyingly contrived in the last two acts. So much so that one wants to "fix" it, make things turn out differently. In my years as a professor, I often fielded those "why didn't they just do this?" questions from students. You know, why didn't Juliet just run away, since her dad was going to throw her out anyway? She could get Laurence to find her a ride to Mantua, etc. etc., then the whole play would have been a comedy! (Except for those messy deaths in the third act.) Whenever the discussion veered onto these well-trodden paths, I'd make the obvious point that fiction is different from real life. I'd remind them that criminal masterminds rarely explain all their motives as they're about to kill the hero, thus buying him the time necessary to defeat them. And cars can't really drive along the walls of a narrow alley, the way they do in James Bond movies, and really mean rich guys don't wake up from a bad dream and decide to be suddenly charitable. But for some reason, students always seemed to hold early literature to higher standards of credibility than they do more contemporary fictions. Go figure.

In keeping with the play's symmetrical structure, Juliet's tantrum in Laurence's cell echoes Romeo's in Act 3, even down to the brandishing of sharp objects:

If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,
Do thou but call my resolution wise,
[she draws a knife]
And with this knife I'll help it presently.
God joined my heart and Romeo's, thou our hands,
And ere this hand, by thee to Romeo's sealed,
Shall be the label to another deed,
Or my true heart with treacherous revolt
Turn to another, this shall slay them both.

That line seems out of character, doesn't it?--"Or my true heart with treacherous revolt/Turn to another..." She admits that she could be unfaithful--that over time, she could learn to love Paris. It's an odd moment, really, since I can't hear Romeo saying anything like that. But there's a precedent--that's exactly what happens in Troilus and Cressida, a play based on a much older romance. Women are weaker morally and emotionally as well as physically in early literature. Thank you, Western antifeminism. In many narratives, women just can't hold up their end of a romance. Maybe Juliet fears she's in a different kind of story than the one she wants to be in.

I know that feeling, for sure.

At the risk of getting weirdly postmodern here, I wonder if the reason death is so appealing to these characters is because in death, they get to write their own ending.  Better that than joining the world of compromises and surfaces and masks. Better dead than grown up.

I also can't help thinking of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting--two actors who never made much of a career after playing these roles. I imagine they feel frozen in time themselves, caught at that moment of perfect youth and beauty. Celluloid is its own kind of potion...

Laurence tells Juliet that the potion will conjure "a thing like death," but not death. She'll spend forty-two hours in a liminal state that violates all the laws of nature. Here the story takes on its fairytale aspect--the princess sleeps, waiting for her prince. He awakens her--sexually, by implication--and carries her off. The evil witch--or father--is defeated by magic, the lovers live happily ever after. Will never resorts to gimmicks in the later tragedies. When he does use the "deathly sleep" motif, as in Cymbeline, the awakening represents a rebirth that brings new knowledge and awareness to the characters. But here he's obviously making a statement about Friar Laurence's intellectual hubris--he's playing God with his potions, raising the dead girl from her crypt. In a Christian culture, this kind of thing pretty much has to end badly.

Laurence has it all planned out, as if he's writing the play himself: this borrowed likeness of shrunk death
Thou shalt continue two-and-forty hours,
And then awake as from a pleasant sleep.
Now, when the bridegroom in the morning comes
To rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.
Then, as the manner of our country is,
In thy best robes, uncovered on the bier
Thou shalt be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.
In the meantime, against thou shalt awake,
Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift,
And hither shall he come, and he and I
Will watch thy waking, and that very night
Shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua.

Great plan. But in the tragically disordered world of this play, not great enough.

The Capulets meanwhile are all abustle, preparing for the hasty nuptials. This, too, seems unmotivated--it's never clear why Old Cap needs Juliet married by Thursday. But never mind--Will needs it, so there you are.  Juliet kneels before her father, begs forgiveness, and convinces him she's given up her "peevish, self-willed harlotry."  The she goes into her bedchamber, and contemplates what she's about to do:

My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Come, vial. What if this mixture do not work at all?
Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?
No, no, this shall forbid it. Lie thou there.
[she lays down a knife]

She knows she's an actress here. As the play moves closer to the tragic finale, it seems increasingly theatrical, and aware of its status as both drama and narrative. She's completely solitary now--without Romeo, Juliet is singular in every sense. Society offers no comfort, no affection, no community. Each of the lovers is radically alone. Even Friar Laurence will run away at the end. This is an old motif, of course. If you ever had to read  any medieval allegories in college, you might remember Everyman. As the soul prepares for death, he's abandoned by everyone and everything--his friends, family, and material goods all have to be left behind. Will's new "religion of love" plays on this idea consciously, I think. Abandoned by the "false goods" of their previous lives, the lovers have only each other to bear them company in death.

I already wrote at length about what  wrong idea that is.

Before downing the potion, Juliet worries about the kind of thing a real girl would worry about--what if she wakes up in the tomb, and gets freaked out by all its horrors? That would be the E.A. Poe version...

How if, when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me? There's a fearful point.
Shall I not then be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?
Or if I live, is it not very like
The horrible conceit of death and night,
Together with the terror of the place--
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle
Where for this many hundred years the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are packed;
Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth
Lies fest'ring in his shroud...

This fantasy seems psychologically very realistic to me; it's this realism that makes the improbable narrative twist work. As any fantasy writer knows, you can sell an audience anything if the characters react like real people would. Again, this is a very modern moment--you really can see Will's genius simmering on the stove here. In a few years he's going to be the most powerful literary potions master in English history.

Forgive the image--I'm a Harry Potter fan too.

Anyway, Juliet works herself into such a frenzy that she thinks she sees her cousin's ghost, and finally drinks the potion to put a stop to her own morbid imagination. Lights out.

Next: A chorus of grief


  1. You say-->At the risk of getting weirdly postmodern here, I wonder if the reason death is so appealing to these characters is because in death, they get to write their own ending. Better that than joining the world of compromises and surfaces and masks. Better dead than grown up.I also can't help thinking of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting--two actors who never made much of a career after playing these roles. I imagine they feel frozen in time themselves, caught at that moment of perfect youth and beauty. Celluloid is its own kind of potion...>>

    I'm reminded of the Kinks, Celluloid Heroes it goes:

    Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star
    And everybody's in movies, it doesn't matter who you are
    There are stars in every city
    In every house and on every street
    And if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
    Their names are written in concrete

    Don't step on Greta Garbo as you walk down the Boulevard
    She looks so weak and fragile that's why she tried to be so hard
    But they turned her into a princess
    And they sat her on a throne
    But she turned her back on stardom
    Because she wanted to be alone

    You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
    Some that you recognize, some that you've hardly even heard of
    People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame
    Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain

    Rudolph Valentino looks very much alive
    And he looks up ladies dresses as they sadly pass him by
    Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi
    'Cause he's liable to turn and bite
    But stand close by Bette Davis
    Because hers was such a lonely life, etcetera...

  2. Hey, I'd forgotten that. Always liked the Kinks. I think there was a line about "celluloid heroes never feel any pain..." that seems to fit here, too.