Saturday, December 12, 2009

This Only Child

Well, I'd hoped to post this a couple of days ago, but I seem to be having time management issues this week. After next week I'm on vacation, though, so I'll be able to post more regularly, at least for awhile. I'm already excited about blogging The Merchant of Venice, one of my favorite plays. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Plenty of tragic twists and turns left before we get to all the dead bodies at the end of R and J. Plus, one more movie post! I'll be blogging Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet sometime this weekend, I hope. And here's a one-word sneak preview: velvet! I've never seen so much velvet in one place as Zeff used in this film. It's like a big-budget Renaissance Faire. Seriously. Yards of the stuff, as far as the eye can see. And you know, it's hot in Italy in the summer. No wonder tempers ran so high--the Capulets and Montagues were sweating like farm animals under all those velvety capes, doublets, and multi-layered gowns.

But that's for later.

If the first three acts felt like a gradual ascent to the summit of bliss, the rest of the drama is a downhill race to the finish. Events seem to tumble one upon the other--the aubade, the forced marriage to Paris, the potion, the "deathly sleep," the funeral. And then it's Act 5, game almost over.

Act 3, scene 5 juxtaposes Romeo and Juliet's lyrical parting with the harsh daylight world of parental tyranny. Before I get to that, however, I want to think about why Will structures the action this way. Because it's odd, really, having Old Cap's cruel ultimatum--Juliet must marry Paris in two days or else be thrown out on the street--immediately after the consummation scene. Why not have Old Cap force Paris on Juliet before the marriage? There'd be more tension that way, for sure. More reason to be furtive, and most important, more reason to marry quickly. It would have made good dramatic sense to play up that threat earlier, it seems to me.

From Will's perspective, of course, Romeo and Juliet have to be married before they can sleep together. Will was fervently pro-marriage (weird that that phrase has a whole different meaning now), and pro-procreation--he disapproved of virginity almost as much as promiscuity. Fornication has disastrous consequences in Will's plays--like having a bastard son who tries to kill you, for example. Marriage, moreover, wasn't just a social contract.  It was a sacred union. The Gospels of both Matthew and Mark assert that, in marriage, "the two will become one they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate." If you're my age, you probably remember the more archaic "what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." There's a subtle difference in meaning, if you look at it. "No one," puts the emphasis on the social community--let none of you men or women try to wreck this (social) union. "Let not man," however, emphasizes the difference between God and man. The first, although biblical, sounds more secular, don't you think?

Translations matter, people.

Anyway, the reason Will places these two scenes side by side is to make the antagonism between public and private more obvious, extreme, violent. He does this kind of thing a lot, especially as his tragedies move toward their fatal denouement--in drama, structure is practically a character itself. The other, deeper reason has to do with his (Protestant) idea of marriage.  One of the chief differences between early Protestantism and the Roman Church was (and still is) in the former's affirmation of private space--whether that space is the home or the human conscience. Rejecting the whole concept of spiritual mediation, Protestants believed that the relationship between God and His creatures was personal. It was a radical idea--that an individual, regardless of social status, could have a personal relationship with the Creator. You didn't need a priest--or even the Virgin Mary, whose chief role was that of Intercessor--to pray. You can see how this idea dovetailed nicely with the bourgeois idealization of the individual, with a free-market economy that rewarded hard work rather than family privilege, and so on.

So what does this have to do with Romeo and Juliet, you may wonder. The principal players are, after all, supposed to be Catholics. Yes and no. All the protagonists in Will's plays are Protestants, even if they call themselves something else. It's sort of like when you see a historical drama on TV, there's a lot more racial diversity than there would have been in real life. We need to see our own values in the past, even at the risk of anachronism.

In creating a private, sacred space for themselves, Romeo and Juliet shut out the daylight world of family and society. This is an extreme version of that bourgeois Protestant idea. When they get married, that private space takes on theological significance. So when Juliet's father insists she marry Paris, there's a moral tension between her duty to her dad--a social/familial obligation--and the marriage vows she took before God. What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Her vow before God supersedes and nullifies her duty to her father.

The way Will sets it up, the conflict isn't just between Juliet and her father. It's between man and God.


That's why Romeo and Juliet have to be married before her father tries to force her into marriage. It was important to Will that Romeo and Juliet be on the side of the angels, so to speak. Theirs isn't just a legal marriage--it's a mystical union, affirming the triumph of God's law over (merely) paternal edict.

Right after Romeo leaves, Lady Cap comes in and castigates Juliet for grieving excessively over her cousin's death:

...Some grief shows much of love,
But much of grief shows still some want of wit.

This reminds one of Hamlet, of course, when both Gertrude and Claudius berate Hamlet for his excessive grief over his father's sudden demise. Considering all the weeping, wailing, and hair-rending that's going to ensue when they find Juliet in her deathly trance, these lines are ironic, too. When her mother assures her that they'll hire an assassin to poison Romeo in Mantua, in vengeance for Tybalt's death, Juliet "moralizes two meanings in one word," a la Richard III:

...I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo till I behold him, dead,
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vexed.

This clever passage works two ways. "I'll never be satisfied till I behold Romeo dead, because I'm so upset about my dead cousin." This is what Lady Cap hears. But with slightly different emphasis, it can mean "I'll never be satisfied till I see Romeo--my poor heart is dead, missing my kinsman (husband)." Similarly,

...O, how my heart abhors
To hear him named and cannot come to him
To wreak the love I bore my cousin
Upon his body that hath slaughtered him.

"Wreak the love...upon his body" can either mean "avenge the loss of a loved one by killing him" or "violently love his body." Clever girl. She's a real grown-up now; she's learned to dissimulate. She's actress.

Lady Cap then informs her that her dad has decided to marry her off in two days. Now I have to say, this makes very little psychological sense. Just the other day Old Cap had told Paris that Juliet was too young for marriage, and nothing special in any case. One girl is the same as another. I'm going to return to that moment a bit later. But for now, suffice it to say that this violent reaction, this draconian insistence on forced marriage, seems out of character--at least from the little we saw of Old Cap earlier. This is one of those "early play" moments, I think. By the time Will gets to the Great Tragedies--Hamlet, Lear, Othello--he'll have transcended little glitches like this. But in this play, the exigencies of plot occasionally override character consistency. Of course it's gripping and dramatic to see Old Cap knock his daughter around, calling her a "green-sickness carrion," and a "tallow-face" when she refuses to marry the man he's chosen for her:

Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what: get thee to church o' Thursday,
Or never look me in the face.
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.
My fingers itch. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child,
But now I see this one is too much,
And that we have a curse in having her.
Out on her, hilding!

Much is made of Juliet's singularity, here and at the first funeral (when she's not really dead). She's an only child, and to Romeo (if not to her parents), irreplaceable. To wish yourself rid of a child, even in anger, seems to me tempting fate in the worst way. Isn't it weird how, in some situations, language seems as powerful in real life as it does in Will's dramas? Anything having to do with one's children always seems charged with magic--good and bad. 

To be honest, I really hate this scene. As a mother, and because I've always had trouble with "forced marriage" stories. The two I remember the most are in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. In both these novels the woman is incarcerated, cut off from all friends and family until she gives in. I suppose part of the horror comes from the sheer contradiction of a "good" family acknowledging that a daughter is property, her body a commodity. Of course I realize that for much of history, and in parts of the world even today, this kind of thing is commonplace. Daughters are only as good as their exchange value. Which is exactly what Old Cap says here--"An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend./An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets..."


Juliet's mom naturally takes her husband's side, and both of them let her know unequivocally that their love is conditional.  She then turns to the Nurse, asking for "some comfort." The Nurse does her best, but she's fundamentally a comic figure, and can't really deal with (potentially) tragic stuff. Instead, in her Wife of Bathish, medieval way, she recommends making a virtue of necessity:

Faith, here it is: Romeo
In banished, and all the world to nothing
That he dares ne'er come back to challenge you,
Or if he do, it must needs be by stealth.
Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the County.
O, he's a lovely gentleman!
Romeo's a dishclout to him. An eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were
As living hence and you no use of him.

In this second, tragic half of the play, the Nurse isn't funny anymore. In fact, she seems as out of place as Juliet's parents, with their outmoded ideas and lack of parental affection. Her words are of course creepily prophetic--"your first is dead"--as is her offhand remark to Juliet, early in the play, that she'd like to live to see her "married once."  Now, it seems, she'd like to see her married twice. Juliet sarcastically remarks that the Nurse's comments have comforted her "marvellous much," then curses her after she leaves the room:

Ancient damnation!  O most wicked fiend!
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath praised him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counsellor!
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I'll to the friar, to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.

There's a clunky line in there: "that she hath praised him with above compare" doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. But I like "ancient damnation":  it's a snide remark about the Nurse's age, as well as an allusion to original sin. The Nurse is both a hypocrite and a devil for tempting Juliet to break her marriage vows. And yet...and yet. It's one thing to stand behind the sanctity of marriage, and another to threaten suicide.

So who's the hypocrite, really? In religious terms, suicide and adultery are both mortal sins. This, it seems to me, is the play's moral blind spot.

Juliet, like Romeo, will now act her dismal scene alone. Thrust back into the world, she's nonetheless completely isolated from society and from love. Only in death, the play argues, can two become one again.

And I've already told you what I think of that idea.


  1. Shakespeare is writing at a remarkable time--Protestantism and the Book of Common Prayer have taken hold. The Pope has failed to have Elizabeth, Regina, assasinated; there follows at least a hundred years of Catholic persecution waxing and waning. I'm pretty sure I mentioned previously following the Samuel Pepys Diary-Blog. Great stuff. One of the most compelling aspects of Pepys biography (author: Claire Tomlin)dealing with Pepys post-diary career was Pepys' meteoric ascent during the Restoration of Charles II--but, brought low by conspirators who slandered Pepys as a Papist. Pepys who is credited by naval historians with being the architect and fiscal mastermind behind the modern British Navy, survived the slander. Pepys' diary frequently deals with the danger or scandal of being caught out, as a Catholic. And as I said in an earlier comment, Sam was quite the theater-goer, and I think he fancied himself quite the theatrical critic.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of this site. I have to confess that the seventeenth century is probably the period in literature and English history I know least about. Milton was about it, for me. Actually Milton was quite enough--I was bored to tears reading Paradise Lost. But anyway, what a terrific site! So much information, so amazingly put together. A triumph of history meets technology. I've added it to my little list, and will try to educate myself there when I can. As for persecuting Catholics, well, I have to say I'm ambivalent on that topic. (So speaks the victim of a decade of Catholic education...)