Saturday, January 2, 2010

Romeo and Julietism

Well, here we are, finally, at the end of the play. By my calculation, Romeo and Juliet has generated eleven more posts than either Taming or Richard III. Some of the excess can be attributed to my digressions on various topics--romance history, blogging and its challenges, sad tidings of old friends--but I also think that the play is much more culturally pervasive than either of the other two. It's more than an artifact--it's a brand, as they say these days. More than any other of Will's plays (even, I would argue, that Shakespearean standard-bearer, Hamlet), Romeo and Juliet speaks to our modern obsessions--our desire to be (seen as) unique, our disdain for history, our idolatry of youth. I would add to these our ambivalence about family and community, and our materialist understanding of religion. In short, the play's as much a symptom as a work of fiction--an oracular signpost, pointing the way to a wholly different world than the one Will inhabited.

And like a symptom of some chronic disease, R and J seems to erupt every few decades. In fact, late twentieth-century manifestations of Romeo-and-Julietism often took the form of the "terminal illness narrative." If you're near my age, you might remember all those deathbed romances of the seventies, of which Love Story was the most famous. Most of these were in made-for-TV movie form, but they all involved a socially mismatched couple, a grand passion, a slow, tearful dying. I would include the lacrimal bromance Brian's Song in this group.

Cancer deaths aren't sublime anymore--in the last decades, we've become more afraid of illness than ever, and less willing to romanticize it. I attribute this to the erosion of our faith in science and its ability to conquer disease--many people my age thought cancer would have gone the way of polio by now--but also, of course, to the fact that we now know quite well that fatal diseases aren't pretty, and no one wants to see a young, beautiful person get all desiccated and sick-looking before they die. Uh-uh. Because in addition to idealizing youth, we also demand eternal beauty. Or some frozen-faced facsimile thereof.

With its cinema-ready emphasis on youth, beauty, and deadly eros, the Twilight series is probably our (early) twenty-first century version of R and J.  I hate to say that, because have you ever read one of those? The writing is appallingly bad. Although not much worse than Love Story, now that I think of it. Nevertheless, the thematics are just so us, these days--high school for all eternity.

Frankly, that sounds nightmarish to me--but I suspect I'm in the minority.

Before Zeffirelli's game-changing film, Romeo and Juliet were nearly always played by actors who were too old for the parts. These days, we no longer tolerate middle-aged adolescents onstage. Although we're willing to admit that gender is a slippery category--all-male and all-female casts continue to perform the play--we aren't willing to allow for the same "suspension of disbelief" around the question of age. I find this really interesting. It seems paradoxical, doesn't it? I mean, how many times have I heard that "40 is the new 30," or "50 is the new 35," or some utter nonsense like that? "You're as young as you feel," women's magazines insist. Or maybe as young as you dress--if middle-aged Hollywood types are any indication. So why can't a great-looking 40-something woman play Juliet? Why can't youth be "acted" as gender is?

I'm leaving that as an open question--but I also submit for your consideration the case of Charlotte Cushman, acknowledged as one of the great tragic actresses of the mid-nineteenth century. She was also, famously, a lesbian, and a woman who played Romeo--with her sister Susan as Juliet--to rave reviews. That's Charlotte as Romeo on the right, and Charlotte and Susan on the left.  This whole idea of a middle-aged woman playing a teenage boy, with her own sister as his grand passion, violates so many of our taboos and assumptions about "acceptable fictions" that it's hard to know where to even start deconstructing it.

Here's my reductive take on this "paradox of theatricality": today, we've moved the theater into the private sphere--we're the actors. While we believe ourselves to be capable of infinite masquerade and reinvention, we've decided that our fictions--our cinematic and theatrical myths/fantasies--must conform to some rigid standard of "realism." Ergo, I can get cosmetic surgery and pretend I'm 30, but I'm not going to pay to see a 40-something lesbian Romeo.  Well, actually, I would pay to see that, if she were really good. But I suspect I'd be part of a very small audience.

Which is too bad, really.

So those are my final thoughts on the play's broader cultural implications. There's a lot more that could, and no doubt will, be written about this, probably by people who are actually paid to do it. But I'm done.

And now, as Chaucer put it, I'm going to knytte up al thys feeste and make an ende.

Let's take one last look at Act 5, and see what Prince Escalus, the ineffectual Fearless Leader of Verona, has to say about the pile of dead bodies, the fugitive friar, and all the rest. In its closing moments, the story moves from the claustrophobic intimacy of the crypt back out into the public realm. Even without CNN or Twitter, the people of Verona already know there's tabloidish news involving the city's young celebs at the Capulet tomb. The Capulets and Montagues come to find out what all the uproar is about:

Capulet: What should it be that is so shrieked abroad?

Capulet's Wife: O, the people in the street cry "Romeo,"
Some "Juliet," and some "Paris," and all run
With open outcry toward our monument.

The watchman informs the Prince that Paris, Romeo, and Juliet all lie inside, "warm, and new killed." Capulet gets a glimpse of his daughter, and expresses horror--although not without some irony:

O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!
This dagger hath mista'en, for lo, his house
Is empty on the back of Montague
And it mis-sheathed in my daughter's bosom.

Since Capulet was himself responsible for some metaphoric "mis-sheathing"--i.e. the forced marriage between Juliet and Paris--we have to see this choice of words as a bit of black comedy. Even here, the play still maintains some generic ambivalence. Lady Montague, we learn, has died of grief--because of her son's exile, not his death. This makes sense when we remember how important social standing is to the two families--an exiled son might as well be a dead one.

The Prince vows to get to the bottom of it all, and calls upon Friar Laurence, who's been found "with to open these dead men's tombs."  Laurence is forced to tell the tale

both to impeach and purge
Myself condemned, and myself excused.

In other words, to take responsibility for those things he did, and clear himself of those for which he bears no guilt. We then get a 40-line narrative of the events from Act 3 on, which, as I said, somewhat ruins the drama of the play's final moments. Will's audience was used to this kind of choric summary, however, so probably it wasn't that jarring to them. I also imagine Laurence's speech isn't as awkward onstage as it is on the page, or would be in a film. Someday, when I finally get to see some big-city theater, I'll find out.

After all the facts are revealed, The Prince gets his final say--although if he'd kept better order in Verona to begin with, most of the dying could probably have been avoided. Law and order, that's what this play needs! A recall election! More police on the streets! Yep, that's what the papers would say the next day, if this improbable scenario ever occurred in real time.

The Prince realizes he's dropped the ball, too. Here's his famous condemnation of the warring families:

Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joy with love.
And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.

If you'll remember, both the Zeffirelli and the Luhrmann films make a lot of that final line--"all are punish-ed." It is important, because it moves the tragedy into the social sphere--the play may have mythologized the private space of romance, but its moralizing is to be shared by everyone. That's essential to tragedy, really--that the audience feel both included and implicated in what's transpired. Pity and fear, as Aristotle said.

The thing is, neither Capulet nor Montague seems to get it. Competitive to the end, they try to one-up each other on who can construct the biggest, fanciest monument to the other's kid:

Capulet: O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter's jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

Montague: But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.

Capulet: As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie,
Poor sacrifices for our enmity.

At first, Capulet seems to understand what's required. Your hand is all I'll ask from you as my daughter's marriage portion, he says--but then Montague starts the whole thing going again, with his talk of gold monuments. We're meant to remember Romeo's anti-gold speech to the apothecary here--gold is a symbol of all the misplaced values that led Romeo and Juliet to reject their parents' world in the first place. So basically, no one has learned anything here--except, presumably, the audience.

In the end, the real monument is the play itself:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

In a world without vampires or elixirs of youth, stories--plays, poems, novels, personal memoirs--are the only form of immortality allowed us. At least on this ephemeral plane of existence. As a cultural monument, Romeo and Juliet has proved to be more enduring than even Will could have predicted.

So that's about it. I've pretty much exhausted all I have to say about this play. Finally. It's a new year, and time for new things. I've enjoyed writing this blog the last few months--I've learned a lot, and I think it's kept my mind from getting all cobwebby, which can happen after a certain age, for sure.  I want to thank all my readers and commenters--everyone who's put up with my long-windedness and idle musings. It's been fun for me--I hope at least some of you found it interesting as well. Have a great 2010.


  1. All are punsish-ed.

    Poor Sacrifices for our enmity. <--karma?

    Words to live-by, Gayle. Words, I'm living-by.

    Your observation about the actors, touches again on one of my obsessions about the theatrical magic and gender-play. I did not think about Shakespeare's intent in gender roles when I first became aware of the plays; but aftter I began to see productions as an adult and, (hoo-boy talk about having to suspend disbelief) operatic derivations and it hit me like a ton of bricks--that Shakespeare knowingly played wild (pre-freudian) games with roles and casting.

    Likewise in classical music, Handel's oratorios are cast with castrati, female altos in male roles; currently there are many male roles performed in opera by females--that are downright sexy, Der Rosencavalier by Richard Strauss a twentieth century composer, features a countess who has a sexual relationship with "boys" that are sung by females.

    Mind-bending stuff.

    So, Gayle, what's next?

  2. All are punish-ed. I probably could have written a whole post on that line. In the Luhrmann film, he has the police captain scream it over and over, in rage. That's not how I hear it at all. It means "all are guilty, and therefore (justly) punished." It's a philosophical observation, tinged with emotion. An ethical point, not a juridical one. When children die needlessly, when they suffer irremediably, all are punished. You, BL, with your tireless work on behalf of abuse victims, have no doubt thought a lot about this. We are all implicated.
    I guess this is what interests me about literature--it's an ethical medium, really. And romance is the most ethically-oriented of all genres, when it's done right. Literature should provide entertainment, certainly, but also teach us something. Chaucer called this "sentence" (wisdom) and "solas," (entertainment). The best stuff, like Will's plays, does both in equal measure.
    What's next--not sure. I'm a little burnt out on the blog, I think--I wrote back in my "Love in Vain" post that I was going to reassess after R and J. So, reassessment time. Thanks, as ever, for reading and conversing. The conversation was what I was after, really--I don't like lecturing, although I certainly know how. But I always hope for dialogue, rather than monologue. Maybe that's why I was a Bad Professor. Ah well. Have a good weekend.