Wednesday, December 30, 2009

O Happy Dagger! (Part 2)

Today, a few thoughts on ballet. As you probably know, Romeo and Juliet was made into a ballet by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935. Now, I'll be honest here--I'm not a ballet expert. I have seen quite a few of them, however--when I was younger and lived for a short time in Manhattan, I had a friend who worked for the City Ballet and was able to get me free tickets. I've always liked dance, although I think ballet is, like all "high romantic" art forms, somewhat pathological. More on this in a moment.

Although it was developed centuries ago, ballet didn't really come into its own until the early twentieth century--that is, when it intersected with Modernism. Ballet is a quintessentially formalist art, which is why the Soviets had such an ambivalent relationship to it. What's wrong with formalism? Well, it erases history, for one thing. That's okay with me--I'm not one of those rabid materialist types. But from a Marxist point of view, this is a bad thing.

I could hold forth about Marxism vs. formalism here, but I'm not an academic anymore, so I don't have to. Suffice it to say that formalism won, history has ended, and Hegel was right about everything.

Romeo and Juliet is a great vehicle for ballet, because it's about youth, and haste, and most of all, transcendence. Ballet is way into transcendence--transcendence of the body's limits, transcendence of history. Pure, sublime form. Ballet is also about freezing time--ballerina bodies must remain pubescent and girlish. (No breasts, please--they wreck that "hood ornament" look). Ballerinas stand on their toes and get lifted up to the heavens by male dancers who are, with a few exceptions (Baryshnikov) pretty much just place holders. Ballet likes dances of death. Most great ballets have dying ballerinas in them. Balletic dying usually means elegantly folding the legs and waving the arms about gracefully. It's pretty to watch, for sure.

In real life, ballerinas develop eating disorders and really mess up their bodies by forcing them into all those painful, unnatural positions. Ballet is hell on living, breathing women. It exalts a certain ethereal idea of "the feminine" which has nothing to do with maternity and earthiness and all the stuff women were celebrated for in ancient times. Ballet celebrates women for being girls. For not becoming fertile and (therefore) earthbound. It celebrates women who are forever fifteen, who are lighter than air, who die in beautiful ways. Ballet helped create the modern, youth-obsessed, anorexic girl-woman. The eternal Juliet, who never grows up.

Now don't get me wrong--I love ballet. It's beautiful, and yes, sublime. But it's also unnatural in the extreme and a little bit evil, when you think about it.  In that sense it has a lot in common with the ahistorical  "formalist romance" that is Romeo and Juliet. Structurally and thematically, the play is a perfect vehicle for ballet.

Prokofiev's original version, composed for the Kirov, had a happy ending--but it wasn't ever performed. A death scene was added a few years later. Romeo and Juliet demands death--it's nothing without it. Without all the dying, it would never have lived so long. It's vampiric that way.

Prokofiev's ballet first came to America in the 1960's, almost in time for Zeffirelli's operatic film. As I said, the 1960's were a perfect historical setting for this story of generational conflict. The 1930's, not so much. At least not in Stalinist Russia, where the new communist boss was in many ways worse than the old Tsarist boss. In one of Soviet communism's many ironies, revolutionary ideology quickly outlawed revolutionary ideas. It wasn't cool to say bad stuff about the Old Guard anymore, and romance was a pretty bourgeois concept anyway. The personal life was decidedly counter-revolutionary, i.e., good socialists weren't supposed to have one. See Dr. Zhivago if you don't believe me.

Interesting trivia: Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin in 1953.

Well, anyway. Let's finish this thing.

Paris beats Romeo to Juliet's tomb in scene 3; he arrives with flowers, perfumed water, and a page to carry them. His obsequies consist of strewing the tomb with flower petals and sprinkling it with eau de parfum-- very old school. This is the first time the audience sees that Paris really grieves for his reluctant bride-to-be; it's a surprise, really, since the play never hinted that he saw her as anything more than a good match, a pretty cover for a very dull book. But of course Will needs to get Paris into the tomb, so the young County (i.e., Count) is suddenly stricken by grief and the need to express it. His lament takes the form of an Italian sonnet--or part of one:

Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew.
O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones,
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distilled by moans.
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

Romeo, meanwhile, arrives with Balthasar, whom he promptly sends packing. Easy to see why Juliet chose this literary bad boy over prissy Paris and his perfume bottle:

The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

The last line reminds me of Book 21 of The Iliad, where Achilles, mad with grief, slaughters hundreds of men at the river--the stream is choked with death, and literally spits out dead bodies. Grief, like death, is a ravenous thing.

As Romeo pries the tomb open with a crowbar, he continues in the same vein:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.

It's a horrifying image--the tomb as hungry mouth, sated stomach, womb of corpses. But it makes Paris's little sestet (six lines of a sonnet) sound effete and artificial by comparison. This poetry slam is no contest--but I'll say it again, Paris shouldn't be in this scene at all.

He isn't, for long. He assumes that Romeo, Tybalt's murderer, has come "to do some villainous shame/To the dead bodies."  His challenge--"Stop thy unhallowed toil, vile Montague!" sounds so stagy it's almost laughable.  Romeo, for his part, begs Paris to stand down, because he's in no mood to not kill someone:

Put not another sin upon my head
By urging me to fury.

Well, Paris lunges at him, they fight, and P. dies--but not before he begs Romeo to lay him in the tomb with his lady-love.  So Romeo carries Paris to the tomb, all the while speaking his last words to Juliet. Really, what was Will thinking? This is just too silly. But the poetry is lovely, as expected:

Ah, dear Juliet, why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

Gorgeous stuff--and it's "abhorr-ed," for the meter.  Let's read the rest:

For fear of that I still will stay with thee,
And never from this pallet of dim night
Depart again. Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids. O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last.
Arms, take your last embrace, and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death.

I don't think a teenage actor can speak convincingly of "world-wearied flesh." If the early parts of the play demand youth and wonder, this scene, I think, needs an older actor. I'm going to take a look at the Cukor film, to see what Leslie Howard (who will always be Ashley Wilkes to me, alas) does with it. But really, listen to it:  "a dateless bargain to engrossing death." An eternal surrender to death's monopoly. An Anglo-Saxon poet might have said "death is foreclosing on my soul-house," or something to that effect. Very cool.

As he goes gently into that good night, Romeo remarks that the apothecary's "drugs are quick." Instant dirt nap. Unlike a real death by poisoning, of course, which is a more drawn-out, painful, messy business. Poison is traditionally "the woman's weapon," the murder means of choice for black widow spiders and disgruntled trophy wives. Pointy objects, on the other hand, are masculine--yeah, in a Freudian sense, too. Men fall on their swords, commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment, for those of you who haven't watched enough Japanese films). So we have one of those thesis-antithesis moments in death, too. Juliet dies by the sword--or dagger--and Romeo by the cup.  Will wanted to make this point explicit, so he actually has Romeo pour the poison into a cup--which of course seems gratuitous. Why bother? It's all about the symbolism, that's why.

The end comes quickly after Romeo's death. Laurence realizes that his message to Romeo never arrived. His messenger was prevented from delivering it because of a plague quarantine--another metaphor literalized, if you remember Mercutio's curse. He races to the tomb. Too late, naturally. Juliet wakes up, finds out what's happened. Laurence tries to get her to leave because the watch is about to arrive. Rather than take responsibility for the mess he made, the cowardly man of God runs off, leaving her to her fate. She doesn't waste time:

O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die.

This is overtly sexual, since "sheath" is a literal translation of the Latin "vagina." Sorry, sometimes a sheath isn't just a sheath. For all the sexual imagery of this final scene, however, it's important to remember that Romeo and Juliet die alone. It's the first rule of tragedy--comedy commiserates, tragedy isolates. Although songs and stalkers may celebrate the "together in eternity" aspect of the story, that's not really what the play says at all. In a tragic world, Everyman--and woman--stands alone, face to the wind.

There's a brutal, unwelcome truth to that.

All that's left is the clean-up, moralizing, and final thoughts from yours truly. I'll save that for next time.

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Bridegroom He is Come Already




Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come.

That's not Will--do you recognize it? If you're a religious person, or had a religious education, you might. It's from the most famous love song of all time--the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, in the Old Testament.  It's beautiful and very sensual--which is why most theological commentators have always insisted on reading it allegorically. Otherwise it's too naughty.

You can read the King James version here, and the Vulgate (medieval) version here

Jewish scholars have read it as referring to the mystical union between God and the Children of Israel, while Christians have traditionally seen it as celebrating the love between Christ and His Church. But literally it's just a love song, originally in Hebrew but bearing the linguistic and thematic traces of Greek and especially Persian influences. In a way, it's a cultural matrix, linking the mystical traditions of the three major religions that originated in the lands of the Near East and Mediterranean. But why am I bringing it up here, you may wonder? Because Will alludes to it, in an odd way.

Old Capulet, up all night preparing for the wedding, orders the Nurse to wake Juliet with these words:

...Hie, make haste,
Make haste, the bridegroom he is come already.
Make haste, I say.

Now maybe you're thinking, that doesn't sound like the line she quoted about the dove and all that. But it does, you see. Every school child in the Renaissance had read the Canticles (another name for the Song of Songs), had heard it sermonized about in church, and understood its allegorical implications. Allow me to say again, people had a much better religious education then than they do now. The rigid interpretation of the "separation of Church and State" in this country has effectively cut whole generations off from the cultural heritage of the West. Maybe that's good, and maybe it's bad--I don't care to argue the point. It just is.


Will uses these vaguely biblical words on purpose--the Bride in the Canticles is called to the mystical union with her Bridegroom. By reminding the audience of this conjugal and spiritual ideal, Will accentuates the "wrongness" of this union--Juliet's mystical bond is with Romeo, not this guy.

And of course the "awakening" is horrifying--the Bridegroom is Death, and he has indeed "come already." Or so they think.

The Nurse's bawdy wake-up call seems almost blasphemous now:

Why, lamb, why lady! Fie, you slug-abed!
Why, love, I say, madam, sweetheart, why, bride!
What, not a word? You take your pennyworths now.
Sleep for a week, for the next night, I warrant,
The County Paris hath set up his rest
That you shall rest but little. God forgive me!
Marry, and amen. How sound is she asleep!
I needs must wake her. Madam, madam, madam!
Ay, let the County take you in your bed.
He'll fright you up, i'faith. Will it not be?

The Nurse knows quite well that Juliet just consummated her marriage to Romeo two nights before, which makes this sexual innuendo really creepy. The Nurse is a comic figure--like all comic figures she's incapable of growth or change. She doesn't belong in this dark, tragic world--her raunchy jokes offend our sensibilities. Like Juliet, we have no use for her any longer.

One of the weird things about this scene is that, when the Nurse and the Capulets find Juliet (ostensibly) dead, no one wonders why or how it happened. I realize that dying young was more of a possibility back then, but really, this is strange. Instead, they shift into instant melodrama, as if they can't think of anything to do but overact:

Nurse: Look, look! O heavy day!

Capulet's Wife: O me, O me, my child, my only life!

Paris:  O love, O life: not life, but love in death.

Nurse: O day, O day, O hateful day!

Capulet: O child, O child, my soul and not my child!


You get the general idea. These exclamatory laments remind me of the wailing queens in Richard III. They seem to belong in a classical melodrama, an older, more stylized and formal play than this one. Here, as in Richard III,  there's a tension/contrast between the (relatively) modern speech of the protagonists and the archaic language of the old guard. Like Queen Margaret, the Capulets, Paris, and the Nurse are stuck in a time warp, anachronisms in Will's new drama. Romeo and Juliet would never speak like this. Neither would Richard.  These static figures and their old-fashioned, stilted responses represent a dead literary past, an old-style theater that this play seeks to transcend. In comparison to the authentic and spontaneous passions of Romeo and Juliet, these ritualistic, choric-sounding laments seem...well, fake.

Okay, that was my literary point. Now a cultural observation. Grief, it seems to me, needs ritual. Without it, suffering and loss have no social context. And communal mourning is absolutely essential to healing. Sad to say, the closest thing we have to that now is a shared response to celebrity death--sometimes, as with Princess Diana's demise a decade or so ago, this public sorrow actually mimics an older form of collective grief. And sometimes it's just prurience and voyeurism, inappropriate responses that make it all too clear that we don't know what the hell to say or do when someone dies.

This unanchored anxiety in the face of death is nowhere more evident than in our own everyday encounters with mortality. In my "Don't Fear the Reaper" post, I mentioned the murder of one of the graduate students in my department, back when I was a professor. Our department Chair organized counseling sessions, which is what bureaucracies do these days when someone in the community dies violently. These sessions were incredibly uncomfortable for everyone involved. In fact, I was amazed that the "counselor" ever made a living doing this--that's how bad she was at it. If you've ever seen the 1980's cult film, Heathers, you already have a good idea what I'm talking about.

That English department was, I still contend, stuck in some kind of sci-fi Bad Energy Vortex. Because in my seven years there, an awful lot of people died before their time. The year after the murder, another grad student committed suicide. A mid-level professor who lived alone with her cats died at home, and no one found her for days. The spouse of a colleague, and a good friend, was killed in a commercial airline crash in 1994. Two of my colleagues lost their first child hours after her birth.  The reason I'm bringing all this up is to say that, in those few years, I got a rather unpleasant first-hand view of the way groups and individuals (try to) deal with a death in a community. And it wasn't healing, or cathartic, or at all comforting for the people who were suffering the most. A few people who disliked my friend were actually mean after her husband died in the plane crash. I don't think they meant to reveal their true selves this way, but they were so uncomfortable with the situation that they said exactly the wrong thing. Many times over. The couple who lost their child were repeatedly reassured that they were young, and could have another one. As if that's any consolation at all.


Believe it or not, I'm not making a moral point here--just a cultural one. We need ritual. We need wailing, and wakes, and black clothing and veils. We need little cards with black ribbon around the edges, like the one my mom got from Jackie Kennedy in 1964, thanking her for her condolences. We need all that stuff because we have to have a way to mark our passage out of this life. And because in situations like the ones I just mentioned, there is no right thing to say. One shouldn't have to say anything. One should come to the funeral dressed in mourning and take part in a formal ritual that requires no sincerity, no private words at all. One should do the things that have always been done, and always will be. That's how we go on as a people. Even if we didn't know the bereaved very well, we do this for them. Because in death we are all equal.

To the extent that Romeo and Juliet insists on the authentic and personal response to death over the collective and ritualized one, it's wrong. It's wrong to suggest that death should always be marked with honest, raw emotion, and that ritualistic, archaic responses are inadequate in the face of death's finality. Maybe if you're Will Shakespeare, you can eulogize someone with transcendent words that heal and unify and knit up the raveled sleeve of anguish.  But for the rest of us, we need the old ways. Because we can't deal with the emotion, and the people who have lost someone precious don't need our platitudes. They need community, and a connection to history. They need form--the very kind Juliet rejects when she gives herself to Romeo on the balcony.


Yep, on this topic, I'm all for the old ways. In fact, I'd like to see funeral pyres make a comeback. And sea burials, a la Beowulf. Anything that isn't simply a rejection of the whole idea of death, and a refusal to confront mortality. Death should be treated with more respect, more honor, more--just more. No one's life should be reduced to a few tweeted truisms and a sad-faced emoticon.

Of course, Will wasn't really telling us how to mourn, or how not to. He was telling us that his poetry is much better than the old kind--that he's the Next Great Thing. About that, at least, he was right. 

Okay, rant over. Back to the play, and Juliet's fake death.

Although Lady Capulet had wished Juliet "married to her grave" just a couple days before, she's all misery now. We're reminded that Juliet, like Romeo, is/was an only child:

Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day!
Most miserable hour that ever time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage!
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catched it from my sight!

This seems to be yet another echo of the Song of Songs:

One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her.

As the play moves toward its final tragic scene, Will brings out the heavy biblical artillery. His point is clear: the mystical union of Romeo and Juliet will transcend this life, and the bride and the bridegroom--each singular, alone--will become one in death. Together in eternity, like Christ and His Church.

Will's just reading the Canticles the way the Church Fathers did, only backward. If the Song of Songs can eroticize spirituality, why can't it spiritualize erotic passion? Metaphor is a slippery thing.

After Friar Laurence offers some hypocritical Boethian consolations--along the lines of "she's better off now that she's in heaven"--Old Capulet summarizes the whole play, really, with this morbid observation:

All things that we ordained festival
Turn from their office to black funeral.
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sudden dirges change;
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

That should be the end of the scene, but it's not. Will decides that what we need now is a little comedy--as Peter the serving-man tries to brow-beat the wedding musicians into playing some consoling music for the funeral. It's a strange way to end--although I suppose one could see it as a literalization of what Old Cap describes above--all things changing into their opposite, wedding songs into dirges, etc.

It's the last gasp of comedy in the play. From here on out, it's gloom and doom all the way to the finish line.

Next:  The real, authentic, transcendent end.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sparrow's Fall


Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. For millennia, people have celebrated this liminal time with festivals of light, anticipating the year's rebirth and the renewal of community. It's a gloomy time, especially in northern climes. We need light, and hope. Most of all, we need compassion. Because this season can be a real downer.

Heads up: this post isn't about Romeo and Juliet. It's about King Lear, sort of. Actually it's about the kinds of things that can happen to people in this life. I'm not a preachy person, usually. In fact, never. I'm not going to preach now. I'm just going to tell a story, because I have to. 

Yesterday I was trolling the web, looking for a lost soul. I look for him every few months, ever since he went dark about five years ago. We were once friends, a lifetime ago. More than friends, really. But it's been twenty-five years since then. I want--need--to tell you about this guy. He could fix anything. I mean anything--a toaster, a car, an air conditioner. He never saw any sense in throwing things away, because he could always solder a wire, or replace a spring, and the damned thing was as good as new. That was long before it became cool to recycle, mind you. He built his own sound systems, and they sounded like nothing you've ever heard. Frank Zappa, Bach, Sonny Rollins--they all sounded like music from some celestial sphere. I am not kidding--I've never heard a stereo sound like that. It was the tubes, he'd say. Much better sound than transistors. He had the greenest thumb of anyone I've ever seen. He made our garden into an organic paradise. He was funny as hell--I remember we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. He was ethical and compassionate--they aren't always the same, but he was both. He liked cats. He argued politics with the Socialist Workers who knocked on our door, and the Young Republicans, too. He was a great debater--never personal, never mean. Just smart, incisive, and witty. He worked as a janitor and a short-order cook to help put me through college. In fact, he was one of the hardest-working people I've ever known. He could flip an omelet high in the air, and it landed perfectly every time. He could make a soup out of whatever was in your fridge and cabinet. He loved baseball, because he was from a baseball town.

After we split up, way back in the early 80's, we stayed friends. He had some rough times, went back to grad school, became a social worker. He was a caseworker in some of the scariest neighborhoods you could imagine. He was brave, and cared way too much about things.

So yesterday I finally found him. Did you know that a homeless person can go to a public library, use its computers, and actually maintain a blog? For real. O brave new world, right? But a homeless person where he lives, in one of the richest states in the country, has to sleep in the rain. No shelters in his part of the Golden State.

I read his blog, and I'll say only this. People who care too much, but have no family or people to care about them, often break. Then they become the kind of people you cross the street to avoid. They talk to themselves, and they have weird, irrational ideas about things. They don't bathe as much as they should, because they can't. And we look away, because they're scary. When we see someone reduced to that, we hurry to reassure ourselves that we're different. We're clean, and we have houses, and people who love us. We're not that guy. He must have done something wrong to end up like that.

He didn't. I won't violate his privacy by saying any more--you'll just have to take my word for it. He didn't. He just fell.

Hamlet says that "there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." He's alluding to Matthew 10:29--"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will."  Both passages are about divine providence, but that's not an idea I'm comfortable with, so I'm going to stick with the basic human point. Sparrows fall. Maybe there's a divinity that shapes our ends--and the ends of sparrows--or maybe there's a divinity that lets us rough-hew them as we will. Maybe there's something else that we haven't yet conceived of. But when a sparrow falls, something is lost.

I've mentioned several times in passing that Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite of Will's plays. But if I had to pick one, just one, that the world needs to read, and see, and think about, it would be King Lear. Lear was once a king--spoiled, selfish, arrogant. Then the world turns upside down, and he's a homeless nobody, railing at fate, his daughters, and the gods. And finally, he's human being:

This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things that would hurt me more.  But I'll go in.
[to the Fool] In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty--
Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

I love this speech. It's so simple, and so humane. I'm going to be thinking about it a lot this season.

I said I wouldn't preach, and I won't. But I would ask a favor. Next time you see one of those people, looped and windowed in raggedness, entertain for a moment the idea that once they may have been brilliant, and gifted, and never ever lazy. Once they might have been able to take apart an engine or make a stereo sing like the angels.They might have made someone laugh so hard her stomach hurt.

Okay, that was a little preachy. Forgive me, but I had to.

Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas. Keep warm.

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:


...in 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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Movies, Part 2


Franco Zeffirelli's iconic Romeo and Juliet has been in the back of my mind ever since I started writing about the play, so today I'd like to share some thoughts about the film. I watched a few scenes back when I blogged the Luhrmann film--that was the first time I'd seen any of it since the 1970's. Yesterday I took advantage of a few unscheduled hours to watch it start to finish.

First, some historical perspective. I was in junior high when the film came out--only a couple years younger than Juliet--and let me tell you, it was huge. It's hard to imagine middle schoolers today giving a damn about some film version of Shakespeare, but we sure did. Even though most of us hadn't seen it (nude scene!), it was so culturally ubiquitous that it nonetheless trickled down to the seventh-grade universe. Why? Well, first, there was the hair! Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore her hair in the only acceptably cool way for that era. And I mean only. Every girl wanted long, straight hair parted in the middle. Girls with curly hair (of which I mercifully wasn't one) ironed their curls into submission to get those long, flowing Juliet/hippie tresses. And Romeo (Leonard Whiting) was too cute! I mean, his hair looked like Davy Jones's from the Monkees! Plus, he had the accent, which conferred instant sex appeal in those days when London was the swinging place to hang, and Yardley lipstick was in every teenage girl's purse. These two unknown actors were instant bedroom poster material, way before prefab teen stars.


Second, there were the clothes. Velvet! Satin! Jeweled little caps! A look that dovetailed nicely with the pre-Raphaelite/hippie look that was all the rage. I remember begging my mom to buy me a burgundy velvet dress with cut-out puffed sleeves right after the movie came out. I looked stupid in it, but I thought it was the height of Julietness.

Fortunately, designers ignored the men's fashions, except for the drapey poet shirts. No tights, strange wedge-shaped hats, or codpieces. Which I have to say, in this post-Python, post Men in Tights world, made me giggle. The men all looked like court jesters! And the codpieces--I felt twelve again, smirking at those.

I don't remember noticing them at the time. But then I wasn't allowed to see the movie until a few years later, because there was nakedness in it, and I was a nice Catholic girl. Yep, we get an extended look at Leonard Whiting's derriere in the aubade scene. I'd forgotten that, too.  He's lying there on his stomach for a very long time, and then gets up and looks out the window for a few moments. Nice view. I guess they knew which half of the demographic would be interested in the movie.



So, on to the actual film. The casting of the two principals elicited a storm of criticism, especially--but not only--in the British press. In preparing this post I actually did some research into old reviews of the film, and found that there were quite a few negative ones. These critics felt that Zeffirelli cut unconscionable amounts of dialogue, tampered with plot, and cast actors who hadn't the faintest idea how to speak Will's lines. Here's a quote from a review in The New Yorker (an even more elitist rag then than it is now) in 1968, by Pauline Hartzell:

[These days], movie makers drill into the "generation gap' as if it were an oil well. Zeffirelli's version is lusty and rambunctious, and busty, of course, and he provides a fashion show in codpieces...[but] the one element he removes...is Shakespeare's language....The movie is being sold, of course, on its "youth appeal"--on teenagers playing teenagers--but you can always make a movie with kids playing kids; the feat would be if the kids could read Shakespeare. The lines are unintelligible because the actors' faces and bodies aren't in tune with the words...the voices and readings are so tonelessly mediocre that one hardly hears the words at all. There's not one memorable reading; the music of the great lines is missing.

In her review and in many of the other negative ones you can almost hear the subtext: young people today are spoiled, narcissistic brats. They've taken over everything--sex, fashion, music. We're not going to let them take Shakespeare, too! Note her emphasis on "reading." I'm sure Will would find that funny. He never imagined that his plays would be "read," I bet.  And considering how anti-bookish the play itself is, you have to see this as ironic. Pauline probably thinks Paris would have made Juliet a better husband--they could read poetry together, instead of doing self-indulgent "adolescent" things in the bedroom. She further faults the film for being both "too theatrical...the insides have no outsides," and "too cinematic," focusing on visual rather than verbal drama.


Well, a few things occur to me here. First, this woman was probably close to the age I am now...and her critique sounds a bit like mine of the Luhrmann film. Cranky middle-aged women whining about how young people today can't possibly do justice to Will's poetry. So that's a little disconcerting, because I certainly don't want to be in the same camp with this old battleaxe.

I can't agree with her in any case. Yes, Hussey and Whiting were novices--but so were Romeo and Juliet. And yes, the movie plays up the "generation gap"--a loaded term in 1968--but so does Will! Why else lower Juliet's age by five years? Why else have so many of the older generation sound more like grandparents? Sometimes I think the people who are the most incensed about these poetic infidelities haven't really read Will's plays at all.

So do Hussey and Whiting miss the mark with the language? Compared to Danes and DiCaprio, I have to say they're brilliant. Olivier, Stewart, McKellen-level brilliant. (Actually, shoot me now, but I've always found Olivier overrated). But yeah, that's relative. They are gushy, and adolescent-sounding. But the lines certainly aren't unintelligible--I understood them, and the feelings behind them, just fine. But did they give, for example, the aubade all the transcendence I hear in it? No way. Do I mind? Nope. I'll tell you why. Because in this era, you can't have it both ways. You can have grown-ups playing Romeo and Juliet--people with fabulous voices and long Shakespearean resumes--or you can have people who look and act the part. Who have the innocence and the energy to convey the two most important things about these characters: their passion, and their wonder at it. They are surprised by these feelings, as only young people can be. Love wakes them up, makes them realize how unhappy they were before, living in the middle of a violent masquerade. This is a play about youth. Maybe a great actor could make us believe that he or she is 13 instead of 35, but I doubt it. That wonder can't be acted--not really. 


Now in Will's era, I am sure you could find actors who could do both things. As I mentioned in an earlier post, adolescence as extended childhood didn't really exist back then. Twelve-year-old boys played convincing Lady Macbeths. But these days, you have to choose. You can have brilliant actors who are obviously post-wonder, or you can have youth, and beauty, and energy. And, I have to say, pretty good line delivery most of the time. They aren't reading, as Pauline would have it. They are speaking these lines, and most of the time, up until the end (about which more presently), they are believable. And we shouldn't forget that this film isn't about the language. It can't be. It's, you know, a film. Visual medium. The point is to take something off a page and make a picture. This is a very beautiful picture, and the actors do a fair job of bringing it to life. I can't help thinking that these critics just don't think "Shakespeare" and "film" belong in the same sentence. And that casting teenagers in one of his plays is like giving 16-year-olds a bottle of whiskey and the keys to the Bentley.

One thing old Pauline does like is the music--that famous Nino Rota piece that was sung as "What is a Youth" in the film, but became more famous with different lyrics.  The more popular version was called "A Time for Us"; if you had piano lessons in the late 1960's, you learned to play it in about two hours. It was stunningly easy, even for a lousy piano student like yours truly. Both sets of lyrics were horrid--here's a little snippit:

What is a youth? Impetuous fire,
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
A rose will bloom...
It then will fade
So does a youth.

Yeah, tell me about it. Here's the other one:

A time for us, someday there'll be
When chains are torn 
By courage born 
Of a love that's free
A time when dreams so long denied can flourish
As we unveil the love we now must hide...

Eeeww. Both godawful. But notice how the first one is kind of a medieval memento mori, i.e, a downer, while the second, more popular one, is (implicitly) about having all the sex you want as soon as you can liberate yourself from your parents and get your own apartment. Vive la revolution.


My goodness, this is getting long. Okay, let's cut to the chase. Things I liked:
The contrast between the lush costumes, all in jewel tones, and the grays and beiges of the Tuscan villages where the movie was filmed. Gorgeous. Of course these villages were a lot older relative to the action than they would have been in the real fifteenth century, or even the sixteenth. So the effect was of an ancient, almost crumbling civilization, an old order made manifest architecturally. Against this faded but lovely backdrop the erotic, violent passions of youth--and all those velvet costumes--stand out in sharp relief. Great move.

The Nurse. I talked about Patricia Heywood in this role in an earlier post.


The way Zeff dresses Juliet to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood. Growing up is all about clothes! Every girl knows there's truth in that. Juliet wears a velvet babydoll dress to the masque, but shows off some impressive cleavage as she leans over the balcony. Girl to woman, with one change of costume. This offended a few people, who found it exploitative. That's funny now, isn't it? It was an innocent time, 1968. No one would blink at a little cleavage these days. Yes, in the play this metamorphosis is a poetic transformation, not a sudden desire on Juliet's part to show off her assets--assets that boy players didn't have in any case. But I liked that Zeff did it this way. Because, you know, this is--say it with me--a film.  It was clever.

Rowdy, riotous Verona. A city at war. Zeff made this an anti-war film--for obvious historical reasons, and I like that. The rowdy riotousness of the town also pissed off some critics, because they felt that the love story took a back seat to the brawling. I can only imagine how they would have received Luhrmann's film, which was much more about violence than love. I thought this film moved well--as the play does--between violent delights and violent ends.Until the end, that is.

Things I didn't like:


Mercutio as an addled Vietnam vet type.  Obviously suffering from PTSD. He's doing great with the Queen Mab speech until he gets to the part about soldiers cutting throats. Then he seems to be back in Khe Sanh, or wherever, and has to be "talked down" by Romeo. This interpretation makes the fatal duel with Tybalt into a kind of "suicide by Capulet." Like Luhrmann's druggie drag queen, this Mercutio is more madman than poet. In the play he's a little crazy--but he has a glorious imagination, too. When he dies, the world loses something wonderful. That's missing from both films.

But poets are hard to play--and direct--in film. It could be done, I think, but no one's done it yet.

The kinder, gentler Friar. A big teddy bear, he was--so his betrayal at the end seems unmotivated. Will's Friar is full of hubris, imagines himself playing God by raising the dead. This guy was just trying to help, then got scared and ran off. No moral big lessons there.


Michael York as Tybalt. Too effete, not dangerous enough. He's been "swarthified" too, to look Italian, which is funny. I do think the hat is cute, with its little cat-ears. Prince of Cats, indeed. But he doesn't have any edge. Luhrmann's "king of the barrio" take on Tybalt was better.

All the other hats. Distracting. Silly. Lady Cap looked like one of those Star Trek aliens with her big jeweled dome. And the men's hats seem to denote social power. Size does matter, in hats. The servants have little pillboxes, the aristos have slightly bigger wedgy bowls, and the Prince is wearing a veritable sofa pillow. Better the hats than the codpieces, I guess...

Main gripe: the end. Too fast, too little motivation for any of it. Zeff cuts out a lot here, including the apothecary--we don't know how or why Romeo happens to be carrying poison when he gets to the tomb. One's tempted to assume they just handed poison vials out to Renaissance Italians, like pocket handkerchiefs. Zeff takes Paris out of the tomb scene, which I commend. That was an error on Will's part, I think, although I realize why he did it (more later on this). But it all happens too fast, and Zeff doesn't compensate with any fancy filmic metaphors or anything of that sort. I liked the creepy Capulet tomb, with all the dead bodies lying there uncovered and in various states of decay--very medieval. But that was about the only part that worked. Romeo hears about Juliet's "death" from Balthasar, gallops right past Friar John and his message, forces the door to the tomb, says a few lines, and sucks down the toxic draught as if he knows the editor's tapping his foot in the cutting room.  I actually liked Luhrmann's version better--Juliet starts waking up, Romeo's crying, about to swallow the poison, and the audience, knowing how it's all going to end, still imagines a different outcome:

Romeo, dude! Look down! She's waking up! Don't do it!

That's milking the scene for all it's worth, and Will would have loved it.


Juliet does a little better in her death scene, but not much. It's hard to stab yourself convincingly, even as theater (much harder in real life, I'm sure). It totally doesn't work for me here. Again, Luhrmann has the technological advantage. Guns are just more efficient, and require much less acting. Bang, you're dead.

The funeral was pretty stagy, but it worked fine. I thought it interesting that there was no reconciliation between the houses in Zeff's version. Old Cap and Old Monty look at each other, then exit separately. It's the younger people who shake hands and seem ready to make peace. As if only the young get it. Again, very 60's.

It was interesting watching the film after so many years.  I remembered it as more moving than it was this time--but then I know a lot more Shakespeare and (dare I say) more life now, so that stands to reason. In this, at least, it was faithful to the play--it's a story of and for youth. A far better play, and better story, is Will's Antony and Cleopatra. But I don't see much of a seventh-grade audience there.

Next:  Sleeping Beauty

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 flesh...so 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.

Brilliant.

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 become...an 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..."

Awful.

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.

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.

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