Saturday, December 26, 2009

O Happy Dagger! (Part 1)

After spending so long on one play, I can't help but read that line ironically. O happy dagger, putting an end to this (seemingly) interminable drama! I'm kidding. But really, Act 5 got me thinking about endings in general. It's hard to end a story. Lots of really wonderful writers weren't that good at it. And some, of course, were terrific. Here's one of my favorite last lines:

And so they buried Hector, breaker of horses.

So simple, so evocative, so powerful. Yes, I confess I'm more of an understatement girl than a baroque one.

Some other endings I like--see if you recognize them:

...yes his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.

Endings like these make it seem easy--but for many writers, narrative closure was a struggle. Chaucer was so bad at it that he left a lot of his work unfinished on purpose. Comedies and tragedies come with built-in endings--marriage and death, respectively. The first is pretty easy, as any romance writer will tell you--"reader, I married him." Tragic endings are harder, because we demand synthesis, an explanation, some meaning from it all. Will has an indifferent track record on tragic endings. Some are pretty good, like this one, spoken by Edgar in Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

There's a lot there--change and new ideas ("speak what we feel") a respect for history ("the oldest hath borne most"), and humility in the face of it. The end of Hamlet is ritualistic rather than preachy:

Take up the body. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

That last line is metrically perfect. Of course an ending is more than a few lines--it's the final descending arc of the play, the synthesis of oppositions, the catharsis of closure. Ideally. Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet doesn't end well. I don't mean the double suicide, married-to-their-graves finale--that was a foregone conclusion, and actually kind of a neat, clean way to finish off the story and the characters. No, I mean the whole of Act 5. It's kind of a mess.

Hey, I never said this blog was going to be purely celebratory. Nor do I think we do literature and history a service by keeping it innocent of flaws, freezing it up like poor Juliet in her ignorant trance. Literature was meant to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life....

Sorry, I've got the quotation bug now. It'll wear off in a few minutes. My point is that this isn't Will's best play, although parts of it are glorious. Act 5 isn't one of them. What's wrong? Lots. It's rushed.  It's also unnecessarily manipulative, beginning as it does with Romeo's happy dream. It's clunky at the end. Friar Laurence tells the Prince the whole story in a 40-line speech, which not only breaks his promise to "be brief," but wrecks the rhythm of the play's last moments. Most of all, Paris remains the "unwelcome third" to the fatal pairing, as superfluous in death as he was in life. This is beyond awkward, and ruins the symmetry of the tomb scene.  The Capulet crypt is supposed to mirror the other private space in the play, Juliet's bedroom--and Paris doesn't belong there at all. Most productions cut him out, as so they should. Will obviously put him there for one reason only--to show how much better Romeo's lines are than Paris's stilted ones.

Will learns pretty quickly not to sacrifice plot to poetry--I don't doubt (here I'm fantasizing) that he wished, later in life, that he'd written that scene differently.

Act 5 opens with Romeo's dream--the first time in the play (and in most early literature) that a dream fails to be prophetic:

If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.
My bosom's lord sits lightly in his throne,
And all this day an unaccustomed spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.

He's tragically out of touch with the zeitgeist--and the genre of the play he's in:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead--
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!--
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived and was an emperor.

This dream is another obvious example of "all things changing themselves to the contrary"--happy dreams to sad realities--but still, I've always found it odd. Romeo seems equally baffled.  "Strange dream," he notes, "that gives a dead man leave to think." It is strange--because of course you can't dream that you're dead. It's simply impossible. And then the "I revived and was an emperor" part. An emperor? Since when has this play cared a bit about political power? Weird.

It doesn't really matter, because Romeo learns in short order that Juliet's dead. Balthasar, who isn't privy to Laurence's scheme, takes the staged death for the real thing. It's another "theater can be dangerous" moment. Romeo doesn't waste time on poetry, but heads right for the local poison dealer. In the Luhrmann film, the Apothecary's a sleazy drug dealer working out of a trailer, but in the play he's supposed to be one of those allegorical death-figures that were so popular in the Middle Ages:

I do remember an apothecary,
And hereabouts a dwells, which late I noted,
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples. Meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones,
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes...

As we reach the end of the play, all metaphors come home to roost. All the things that were deathish--love, sex, trances--now become literally deadly.  If Laurence's potions mimic death, the Apothecary's will cause it. If tombs are like wombs, Juliet will be "reborn," only to kill herself. Etcetera.

Romeo spares a moment to philosophize with the Apothecary while he buys the poison:

Apothecary: Such mortal drugs I have, but Mantua's law
Is death to any he that utters them.
Romeo: Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear'st to die? Famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.
The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law.
The world affords no law to make thee rich.
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.

In the final movement, some social criticism. This is a pale harbinger of Will's later humanist epiphanies--we're nowhere near Lear's "looped and windowed raggedness" speech, or even Hamlet's fallen sparrows. This isn't a moment of empathy--Romeo, unlike Juliet, never really evolves in the play--but you can hear Will trying something on for size here. And that's wonderful to see--genius growing up, right before your eyes.

Romeo gives the Apothecary gold as payment, then adds this quasi-medieval comment:

There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayest not sell.
I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.

Preparing for death, the Christian hero rejects materialism. It would, of course, be better if he'd rejected suicide, but never mind.

Next:  A very crowded crypt


  1. ...yes his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

    You started with my favorite; and, oh so sexy! Molly Bloom

  2. This is filled with riches! I promise, I am going to end a brief with lines I caged from this posting, thanks Gayle! Fantastic as ususal.

  3. This is actually partly your doing, BL. You got me thinking about Joyce, which made me think about Molly, and then "The Dead," and thanks to you, too!

  4. Hey, this is my first time posting a comment, but i would just like to say thank you. You really are doing a terrific job! i really enjoy reading all your posts.

    Val, from Quebec city, canada