Sunday, December 31, 2006

Romeo and Juliet - Up the Language Ladder

We'll raise a cup of kindness yet,

In order to break our silence, let me start with Randall's second subject, language, though, alas, without panache of my own. Specifically, let's look at the language pattern with which Romeo and Juliet begins. Randall notes "that three distinct language patterns distinguish commoners, aristocrats, and lovers." (Cindy: this will be old stuff for you.)

When I taught "baby Shakespeare" (my colleagues' sneering description of my sophomore-level course for non-English majors) I always polled my students on prior experience of Shakespeare, what they had read, studied, seen on screen, seen on stage, or acted in. I never had fewer than 43 of the 45 with some experience of Romeo and Juliet (usually two actors, if only in readers' theatre). Therefore, I would start with it, taking advantage of familiarity, then intensifying the experience with close reading. Richard III begins gloriously: "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York."

Not so, Romeo and Juliet. It opens with a couple of mere servants of the house of Capulet, Sampson and Gregory, armed with swords (not aristocratic rapiers), in a public place. Even if you miss the prologue's exposition of an ancient grudge, you can see something is rotten in the state of Verona if armed servants swank around (I love it; this is the only occasion I get to say "swank" in this context), and away we go. Swords or no, they are comic commoners.

Right from the get-go, we start with a string of feeble puns (carry coals; colliers; choler; collar – if one pun is clever, four must be rilly rilly witty; Four? Let's follow with six plays on "moved"), then frat-guy bawdy: "I will take the wall" (instead of the gutter) followed by "I will thrust [Montague's] maids to the wall" (a little rape joke just between the guys). If definitions of comedy often include the phrase "warts and all," Sampson and Gregory are male chauvinist warthogs. But when the Montague servants enter, all this bravado collapses. There is a pointed pun: "Quarrel! I will back thee"/ "How? Turn thy back and run?," followed by really funny discussion of where the law stands on the act of thumb biting (would WWI have started if a would-be assassin had bitten his thumb at the archduke Ferdinand?), but those swords are finally drawn willy-nilly over a school-boy dispute, my master can lick your master. OK. All this is in prose, the language of the ordinary folk, the bottom level of the social hierarchy.

Enter Benvolio (the name is Latin for good will as in "benevolent") who draws his rapier to separate the brawling clodhoppers: "Part fools!", then "Put up your swords. You know not what you do." Scan that. Iambic pentameter. Then Tybalt: "What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word/ As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee" (I.i.72-3). Iambic pentameter, with a perfectly balanced parallel structure. Short though the passage is, the language pattern is perfect contrast to the heavy-tongued servants. We've moved up the social hierarchy to the Young Turks. Death! Hate! Hell! Coward! We're suddenly (irrietrivably?) beyond "No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir."

But if Tybalt kills Benvolio now, we would have a very short play. Enter the aging Capulet: "What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!" Yes, an iambic pentameter line, but made less heroic than line 73, by the addition of the little syllable-filler ho. And Lady Capulet enforces the change with her parody, "A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?" My ear still hears "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Old Montague echoes this business, "Thou villain Capulet!--Hold me not; let me go," this last to his wife, code for "honey, please don't let me be hurt in a fight." The verse pattern still ascends the social hierarchy, but the comic content deflates the bloody-mindedness of the young Turks. These are the heads of households, the power in Verona, but they are ineffective, because of age. Still, because they enter the battle, Montague and Capulet also sanction it, as heads of the two houses. Thus, says Northrop Frye, they are directly responsible for everything that follows.

"Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel--
Will they not hear? What, ho! You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins!" (I.i.84-8)

Enter Prince Escalus, with his train. Iambic pentameter. Mid-line caesura in the first line underscoring five-syllable expletive synonyms. The first three lines are end-stopped. The images (neighbor-stained steel, fire of pernicious rage, purple fountains) are more elevated than any language preceding. This is the top of the hierarchy, stentorian, rare words, words with transferred meanings, lengthened words, and everything which is opposite to the ordinary – oh, my, I've just been reading Aristotle's Poetics!! As far from Sampson and Gregory as earth allows. But look at line 86. What is that "what ho!" doing there? Why, nobody is listening. Here is absolute political authority, and it doesn't work. Escalus will forbid, on pain of death (yet another of those unenforceable laws Shakespeare begins his plays with), for the warring tribes to continue the feud. The result? When Mercutio and Tybalt, foaming at the mouth, encounter each other, they go up an alley to fight. Despite the feud, the swords, the fight, the sentence "on pain of death," this is still a comedy.

And then Romeo finally appears, in love with love, his language a ludicrous parody of Petrarchan imagery, oxymorons "Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate," "Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,/ Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,/ Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!," and sighs/eyes, fair/despair, vow/now. Not just blank verse but rhyming couplets. Hugely ornate language, more excessive in its way as the carry-coals puns at the beginning. By the end of the passage one longs for Mercutio's deflating cynical realism about Rosaline's quivering thighs. But even in the middle of this fantastic romantic flight--this glop, if you will--"Alas that love, whose view is muffled still,/Should without eyes see pathways to his will!/ [sd: pause, Samuel Beckett would add] Where shall we dine?" (I.i.174-76), Romeo interrupts himself to say "I dunno, Marty, where should we eat?"

One scene. Five language patterns. The hierarchical social structure of Verona illustrated. The contrast between the myth of civil order and the myth of romantic delusion. A comedy (more on this later). In our ninth play, this seems to me to be the most wonderful texture of language we have yet encountered. Panache, indeed!


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