Sunday, January 28, 2007

RE: Tradegy in Romeo and Juliet

Mocking birds,

Well now that we've got our genre – "mock-genre criticism" – our professional futures are set. All we need is some impenetrable jargon, a few inflated egos, an ivory tower, and a penchant for favorably reviewing each others' books, and we'll have the decontructionists, the post-colonial semiotic feminists, and the queer theorists on the run faster than you can say 'batpaxomyomaxia.'

What's that? John gave me a neat little book of Homerica, which I am embarrassed to say I have not yet finished, that he says includes the first recorded mock epic: BATPAXOMYOMAXIA (pardon my Greek font approximation) or "The Battle of the Frogs and Mice." My argument that Shakespeare invented said genre is now shot, but in this age of the Internet I can publish my original thoughts on Taming of the Shrew, then publish a paper on "The Battle" (under another name) repudiating my first paper. I can be a one-man literary feud. Surely, there lies greatness.

I think I love the tradegy. And I can see it, too, has great possibilities. We have, however, an incomplete analogy. Tragedy is to Tradegy as Comedy is to … what? Answer: the Sit-com.

Think about that the next time you're watching reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Poems by James Agee and Thomas Gray


Deep into the morass of switching computers, I found the Gray and Agee poems I referred to, so I post them for you to satisfy popular demand (actually, no one asked but I'll post them anyway, so Mike can set them for a final exam or something).


Sunday: Outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee

There, in the earliest and chary spring, the dogwood flowers.

Unharnessed in the friendly sunday air
By the red brambles, on the river bluffs,
Clerks and their choices pair.

Thrive by, not near, masked all away bay shrub and juniper,
The ford v eight, racing the chevrolet.

They can not trouble her:

Her breasts, helped open from the afforded lace,
Lie like a peaceful lake;
And on his mouth she breaks her gentleness:

Oh, wave them awake!

They are not of the birds. Such innocence
Brings us whole to break us only.
Theirs are not happy words.

We that are human cannot hope.
Our tenderest joys oblige us most.
No chain so cuts the bone; and sweetest silk most shrewdly strangles.

How this must end, that now please love were ended,
In kitchens, bedfights, silences, women's pages,
Sickness of heart before goldlettered doors,
Stale flesh, hard collars, agony in antiseptic corridors,
Spankings, remonstrances, fishing trips, orange juice,
Policies, incapacities, a chevrolet,
Scorn of their children, kind contempt exchanged,
recalls, tears, second honeymoons, pity,
Shouted corrections of missed syllables,
Hot water bags, gallstones, falls down stairs,
Stammerings, soft foods, confusions of personalities,
Old fashioned christmases, suspicions of theft,
arrangements with morticians taken care of by sons in law,
Small rooms beneath the gables of brick bungalows,
The tumbler smashed, the glance between daughter and husband,
The empty body in the lonely bed
and, in the empty concrete porch, blown ash
Grandchildren wandering the betraying sun

Now, on the winsome crumbling shelves of the horror
God show, God blind these children!

James Agee (1909-1955)
American poet and film critic

Ode On a Distant Prospect of Eton College

Ye distant spires, ye antique towers,
That crown the wat'ry glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry's holy shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights th' expanse below
Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowers among
Wanders the hoary Thames along
His silver-winding way:

Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields belov'd in vain!
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales that from ye blow
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring.

Say, father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green,
The paths of pleasure trace;
Who foremost now delight to cleave,
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthrall?
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle's speed,
Or urge the flying ball?

While some on earnest business bent
Their murm'ring labors ply
'Gainst graver hours that bring constraint
To sweeten liberty:
Some bold adventurers disdain
The limits of their little reign,
And unknown regions dare descry:
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in every wind,
And snatch a fearful joy.

Gay hope is theirs by fancy fed,
Less pleasing when possest;
The tear forgot as soon as shed,
The sunshine of the breast:
Theirs buxom health, of rosy hue,
Wild wit, invention ever new,
And lively cheer, of vigour born;
The thoughtless day, the easy night,
The spirits pure, the slumbers light,
That fly th'approach of morn.
Alas! regardless of their doom
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:
Yet see, how all around 'em wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune's baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand,
To seize their prey, the murth'rous band!
Ah, tell them, they are men!

These shall the fury Passions tear,
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful anger, pallid fear,
And Shame that sculks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy, with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart;
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visag'd comfortless Despair,
And Sorrow's piecing dart.

Ambition this shall tempt to rise,
Then whirl the wretch from high,
To bitter Scorn a sacrifice,
And grinning Infamy.
The stings of Falsehood those shall try,
And hard Unkindness' alter'd eye,
That mocks the tear it forc'd to flow;
And keen Remorse with blood defil'd,
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest woe.

Lo! in the vale of years beneath
A grisly troop are seen,
The painful family of death,
More hideous than their queen:
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That every laboring sinew strains,
Those in the deeper vitals rage:
Lo! Poverty, to fill the band,
That numbs the soul with icy hand,
And slow-consuming Age.

To each his suff'rings: all are men,
Condemn'd alike to groan:
The tender for another's pain,
Th'unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; – where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
English poet

Tradegy in Romeo and Juliet


“The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.” – Shirley Hazzard

When Randall analyzed Taming of the Shrew as mock epic we could assume he had put the final stake in the heart of genre criticism, long ailing under the scorn of postmodernists. But then I realized that he had actually created a new form of criticism entirely: “mock-genre” criticism. In this spirit I would like to address Romeo and Juliet as tradegy. Not tragedy, though I have earlier suggested the play is (romantic) comedy until some irreversible point — Mercutio’s death or Tybalt’s and “I am Fortune’s fool” or my choice, Juliet dismissing the Nurse: “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!…If all else fail, myself have power to die” (III.v.236…244), after which she has no more social space in which to exist. (I think I may have found this phrase in Kiernan Ryan’s excellent little monograph, Shakespeare.)

I take my subgenre, “tradegy,” not from Aristotle’s Poetics but from newspaper headlines describing something rilly, rilly sad, as in “Tradegy in Minnetonka: boy, 4, run over by steamroller.” Under this focus the fates of Juliet and Romeo are not tradegy. Remember Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” in which Gray’s speaker looks down on the playing fields of Eton and watches the children disporting on the margent green, swimming (or, more accurately, cleaving with pliant arm the Thames’ glassy wave—forgive Gray his poetic diction), chasing hoops or playing ball. Then, he imagines life after youth: Misfortune, Anger, Fear, pining Love, Jealousy, Envy, Care—you get the point—until he concludes “where ignorance is bliss,/ ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

James Agee wrote another such poem, “Sunday: Outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee,” in which the speaker sees a couple amorously disporting (look how Gray has influenced me) under a shrub in a park, and he, like Gray, imagines what fate awaits them. Agee, in lieu of Capitalized Generalities, foresees a very hard-edged future: in-laws, minimum wage, labor pains, crying babies, truant schoolchildren…car payments, a little fling at the office…old age, disease, tombstones. [If you don’t know this poem, I’ll try to find a copy and send it around.] Agee ends his poem “God show…God blind these children.”

Now look at Romeo and Juliet. They are perfectly in love. Pure romance. First kiss and first love and vows unbroken and waxing moons and pledges of love everlasting and near-immediate consummation and parting in sweet sorrow and that most delicious adolescent state, martyrdom by being opposed by everyone in the world, and then each makes the ultimate sacrifice for the other AND….where are they finally? Up among the stars, young and in love forever. Here we are 415 years later, awed by their innocence, passion and purity. They live forever, in culture, in the play, in our minds, in myth (all of Randall’s and all of my students “know” Romeo and Juliet before they see them), never ”too soon marred” and never “a crutch, a crutch.” Romeo and Juliet achieve apotheosis (the opposite of katabasis?). The play acknowledges the impossibility of romantic love or innocence enduring on this earth.

Yet how about mortality. Time gets us all. Memento mori. Who is more tradgic, Romeo or Capulet? Capulet, after all, must live until death, conscious that his stubborn insistence to stay the course of the feud is responsible for the loss of everything that has meant anything in his life. And that, children, is rilly rilly sad.

Of course, there is no moral to tradegy. Thus, Shakespeare has violated the spirit of his probable source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem, itself a translation of a French version of an Italian romance, which is preceded by a preface (To the Reader) that offers Brooke’s evaluation of the story’s meaning ( and any first-time theatre goer or sophomore student desperately needs to know the "meaning" of a play):

“The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil…. And to this end (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips, and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity) attempting all adventures of peril, for the attaining of their wished lust, using auricular confession (the key of whoredom and treason) for furtherance of their purpose, abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage, to cloak unhappy death.” (partially cited in the Signet introduction)

How can it be tragic if it merely illustrates that teenagers should listen to their parents and not fool around, and they should especially avoid the Catholic church.

Gotta go confess,


RE: Romeo and Juliet - Thou Talk'st of Nothing


In response to Gil's point that the company of Benvolio and Mercutio return Romeo to himself, I will quibble. Gil writes in his "Surrogate Dads" response that "It is not the spell of Juliet that has changed Romeo: It is the company of Benvolio and Mercutio" and in his "Thou talk'st of nothing" post that "Romeo was realigned with the Montague boys, out from under Juliet's spell." I would point out first that Romeo has not been himself since before he even met Juliet. He's mooning around at the beginning of the play. So there is also Rosaline's spell to consider.

That said, if it is Benvolio and Mercutio who return him to himself, I would ask why they are unable to do so before (when he's under Rosaline's spell) and immediately after (when he's under Juliet's spell) the Capulets' party? Given the opportunity to trade rude puns and fantasies about dreams, Mercutio bests Romeo so completely that an entire page and a half of monologue goes by in my text before Romeo can get a word in edge-wise. And when he does, all he can manage is the lame, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace. Thou talk'st of nothing." Now there's a put-down. Even Benvolio does better than that.

Romeo is still muttering petulantly after the party. Overhearing Mercutio making bawdy fun at his expense, he stays hidden and grumbles, "He jests at scars that never felt a wound," a defensive comment if I ever heard one -- "up yours, Mercutio; you don't know what it's like." Gil's argument that he is notRomeo at this point is extremely compelling; I had never read the "doff thy name" lines in that way. But that implies that he is still notRomeo when he runs into Mercutio and Benvolio in the street in Act 2, scene 4, that they then transform ("change," "realign") Romeo from his notSelf to his Self. Let's look:

Good morrow to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?
The slip, sir, the slip. Can you not conceive?
Pardon, good Mercutio, my business was great, and in such a case as mine a man may strain courtesy.
That's as much to say such a case as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams.
Meaning, to curtsey.
Thou hast most kindly hit it.
A most courteous exposition.
Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.
"Pink" for flower.
Right. (2.4.48-61)

Romeo responds here like someone learning to work a pun the way children learn to read using the phonics method; he seems to be sounding it out: "meaning, to curtsey," "'pink' for flower." It's almost like he has flash cards, with the word on one side and its rude connotations on the back. He even loses the perfect opportunity for a pun on Mercutio's use of "conceive." His response should be, "Not unless I were a woman, but I won't accuse myself of that until the next act." If you continue with Gil's interpretation, Romeo's change begins to come in the next few lines.

ROMEO (continuing)
Why, then my pump is well flowered.
Sure wit, follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, solely singular.
O single-soled jest, solely singular for the singleness. (2.4.62-68)

Here, the "follow me this jest" could be read as instruction, Mercutio leading Romeo back to the promised land where every word reveals a multiplicity of meanings and possible roads of response and where the best jest is to make something of the road less traveled in the hopes that one will lose one's opponent in jest and thereby win the battle of wits. And after soles and singles, it is "goose," "sweet," and "broad," until Mercutio finally proclaims "Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?"

Is it? Among the compelling oppositions explored in this play, perhaps one of the most interesting is the language of love vs. the language of comaraderie. Both modes have rules (i.e. Petrarchan, sexual innuendo). Both modes establish character or a certain Self. Romeo the lover uses the language of love. Romeo the mate uses the quick wit of adolescent chumminess. In this, I suspect, language precedes character. [And maybe this is what marks this as an early Shakespeare play, while later the language will flow from character?] Romeo is the language that he uses, and because Mercutio and Benvolio don't respect the language he uses when mooning over Rosaline (they never really hear him go on about Juliet), he is notRomeo. (Though god knows what Mercutio would do if he overheard Romeo's comment to Juliet, "Call me but love …". He'd probably refer to him as ButtLove until Romeo makes wormsmeat of him in Act 3.)

In other words, I think Gil's interpretation bears out, although I see it more as a shift from one mode to another instead of a return to Self. What's more, if I were staging this scene, I'd put the brakes on this REalignment a bit, because I think Rosaline's spell is different from Juliet's. The former affects Romeo because of what is withheld, the latter because of what is offered. I think Juliet's offer of love (to Romeo, it's love, marriage, sex, whatever) transforms Romeo from mooning adolescent to cock-of-the-walk. And this makes him receptive to Mercutio's school for scandalous wit, whereas prior to Juliet (Queen Mab speech, Medlar tree jests) he is not.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Thou Talk'st of Nothing

"True, I talk of dreams." I dreamed I was teaching a roomful of indifferent students a lesson which would demonstrate the power of poetry. It was a wonderfully crafted hour, and just before I got to the crescendo, a recitation of that masterpiece of understated emotion, Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal," the hour ended, they clicked their Bics, picked up their backpacks, and began to leave. So I woke up and thought of…

"Now thou art sociable, now thou art Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature" (Romeo and Juliet, II.iv.93-95), which I argued yesterday acknowledged that Romeo was realigned with the Montague boys, out from under Juliet's spell. But I forgot the preface to this encounter in the street, the previous night under the balcony.

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name…
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, thou not a Montague…
Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo. (II.ii.33…51).

Thus, he is notRomeo, until Mercutio revives him. Which, notRomeo or Romeo, marries Juliet? Which steps between Mercutio and Tybalt? Which kills Tybalt? Someday, I'd like to run all the contexts in which the name Romeo appears.

I went back to sleep, hoping to dream what he should change his name to: Pritzpilski? Too alien for Verona. Petruchio? Already taken. Antonioni? It wouldn't scan in all those pentameter lines. I think I could imagine Lady Montague had named her cute little son Monty.

And so (back) to bed.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Surrogate Dads

I was a bit careless in my last posting ("Moms and Dads in Romeo and Juliet"). I got a bit tired after describing the two pairs of parents. I was trying to show they are not balanced and matched pairs, as were the two sets of twins in Comedy and as the NEO-classical unifiers will attempt a century after Shakespeare and, when I should have concluded about Capulet, I hunted for an exit line instead – rejecting a second Mommy Dearest characterization of Lady Capulet, I just grasped at Randall's discussions of the Friar.

No, I didn't take "actual father" literally, and I quite agree that absent any Montague parental backbone, Friar Lawrence certainly has served Romeo as Randall notes beyond the narrow limitations of priestly office. Fortunately, Randall finished the point I was really driving at, that Capulet is all of a piece, his early magnanimity about Juliet's consent to marry Paris and his expansive pleasure hosting the feast are not inconsistent with his rage at Juliet's refusal to immediately consent to marry Paris two (or three) days hence. Capulet is a head of the household of an ancient family, and we see him attempt to consolidate the social (hosting a feast for half of Verona), the political (an upward alignment by his daughter's marriage with the nephew of the Prince), and economic (the gold statue at the end seem to be wergeld (there's that word again) to repurchase the Prince's favor. After Tybalt's death, all this is jeopardized, and Juliet receives the entire fury of her frustrated father.

I worry a bit when Randall speculates "maybe women are better off if they don't have anything to do with men." Well, yes, but… Years ago, I saw a B- movie Untamed Women (calm down, this was before X-rating, back when the Hayes code required one-foot-on-the-floor in any scene with a man and a woman) in which a tribe of Druid women had lived for ages on a tropical island with dinosaurs, until a plane full of American fliers crash landed. Leaving the film, us guys had three questions: dinosaurs?!?, why did they speak English?, and how had they procreated all those decades? Perhaps those dinosaurs were really Komodo Dragons sharing a little sex ed. Fortunately, I was old enough to buy some beer afterwards.

I would argue with Randall that it is not the spell of Juliet that has changed Romeo: It is the company of Benvolio and Mercutio, after he has been purged of his addled love of love by the friar. "Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as nature," in response to Romeo being full of puns and some bawdy badinage, back playing with Mercutio. "Now thou art sociable" translates to all boys together, at which point Mercutio renames him "Romeo," restoring him to his manhood. I keep trying to tease you all into agreeing that, had not the Nurse happened by, Romeo would have forgotten that Juliet had trapped him into a promise of marriage the night before. Don't forget "O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?," "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?", "yadda, yadda, yadda!!"…"three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed./ If that thy bent of love be honorable,/ Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,/ By one that I'll procure to come to thee,/ Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite," and into her chamber she goes. Half an hour before he was baying at the moon and now he is committed to marriage to…what is her name again?

No, I never for a moment suspected that Lady Montague had a fling with the good friar, nor Lady Capulet either. I have always imagined that Capulet's "earth hath swallowed all my hopes but [Juliet]" suggested that Lady C is the second marriage for the (widowed) Capulet, and he has lost all his previous children. He certainly is much older. He was a ladies' man 25 or 30 years ago, but he has not been able to dance since then. He married Lady Capulet when she was just thirteen. So yes, I am suggesting Lady Capulet has not, or will not, or cannot, have further children. Miscarriages would also explain this, but either way, this is an unhappy marriage, and Lady Capulet is a very angry woman.

Speaking of strange parentage, I once had a student essay claiming, as I remember, that Juliet is really the Nurse's daughter Susan (see Act 1, scene 3, 16-20), a changeling. How that would change the dynamic!


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Beauty and Valor

Ladies and gentlemen,

Is it gauche to present a question, then answer it oneself? Perhaps, but I think I'll turn one of mine around. I asked: What is your favorite language moment in the play? (I've actually offered mine; it's Fr. Lawrence's "There art thou happy" speech.) But I've also located my least favorite language moment.

In Act 3, scene 1, Mercutio is dead, and Romeo is blaming himself and taking stock of the situation. He says,

O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper softened valor's steel. (3.1.118-120)

I am often suspicious of reversals of the natural order. One hardens steel when one tempers it, but here tempering has softened it. This is un-natural and frequently unnatural things in Shakespeare are bad. (Visions of horses eating other horses and sparrows chasing after eagles in Macbeth come to mind.) How is it that Juliet is suddenly responsible for this unnatural thing?

The implication is that Romeo's valor has gone soft, too. But what is this "valor"? Is it a willingness to let Mercutio and Tybalt fight rather than attempt to stop them? What about the resolve to chase down Tybalt and slay him despite the fact that a) the Prince's punishment will doom Tybalt to death without Romeo's intercession, b) the Prince's punishment will doom Romeo to death if he does take action, c) Romeo's killing Tybalt will put his relation with Juliet (about whom he has recently said "come what sorrow can, / It cannot countervail the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight") in jeopardy, or d) the desire to perpetuate a trivial but gruesome feud which has ancient roots no can remember and has been rekindled by an "airy word," that is by something of no substance? This hardly puts "valor" in a good light.

Is Shakespeare criticizing a young man's macho attitude about valor? Would the audience have cheered Romeo at this point -- you go, boy; avenge your best friend's death! Would they have agreed that his effiminateness is a little sickening?

My students have watched a number of scenes from the big videos: Cukor, Castellani, Zeffirelli, and Luhrmann. They feel that the Zeffirelli is the most successful, devoted as it is to youth and passion, but when watching this particular scene, they find Leonard Whiting's Romeo whiny and childish as he jumps around trying to get his friends to stop fighting. So when he calls himself "effeminate" they see it as a moment of recognition that he has been ... well, a bit limp-wristed.

I am disturbed by this reaction. I think, however, that Shakespeare encourages it. (Later he has Fr. Lawrence refer to Romeo's tears as "womanish.") Here it is Juliet's beauty that has made a woman out of him. Should men turn their backs on attractive women lest we all be metaphorically castrated? And how, given how little true power she has, did Juliet suddenly become responsible for Mercutio's death?

This is the moment I really dislike Romeo. But I wonder, how much of the lines are a product of the Renaissance concept of gender, and how much is Romeo's flawed character? Do women, and the love they inspire, unman men? Assuming that valor is a valuable male trait, are men not men if they are in love? What does this do to the courtly concept of love? Where is Romeo's Petrarchan nature now?

From a modern perspective, Romeo is just sexist here, and a bit feckless, shifting as he is the blame for Mercutio's death to Juliet's beauty and its affect on him.

Earlier Romeo says, "I ne'er saw true beauty til this night." I find it shameful that even for Mercutio's sake, he may wish at this moment that he ne'er saw it at all.


RE: Romeo and Juliet - Moms and Dads

Wow. I want to clarify that I should probably have used the phrase "surrogate father" for Fr. Lawrence rather than "actual father." Fr. Lawrence advises Romeo in love and life. He reprimands Romeo for his rashness; he is the person to whom Romeo turns not just because he has the power to perform the marriage ceremony but because he seems to be the authority figure who can bring quickest resolution to Romeo's problems.

The issue with the phrase "actual father" is that it implies that Lady Montague might have had a fling with the good friar and that is not what I meant. Now Lady Capulet might have had a fling with the good friar, if I read Gil's deconstruction of the parents right. But are you also suggesting that Lady Capulet's early pregnancy resulted in her inability to have further children? Capulet describes women in general as "too soon marred are those so early made," but if he's speaking from personal experience his next line -- "Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but [Juliet]" -- points to probable subsequent miscarriages and/or infant deaths.

There is a slipperiness, or moral relevancy, at work in Romeo and Juliet that intrgues me: the Nurse's overlooking the sin of bigamy in her advice to Juliet, the Friar's marriage of Romeo and Juliet without their parents' consent, the ease of procuring illegal poisons, the willingness to engage in fighting/dueling/brawling despite the Prince's prohibitions. Reading Kyd and Marlowe, I am struck by how different Shakespeare's characters are. Where the other (good) playwrights characters tend to be more flat or absolute, good or bad, or if good and bad shifted by external influence rather than internal rationalization, Shakespeare's characters seem to turn on a more individual compass.

Capulet impresses me a lot in this way. His violence toward Juliet, which Gil succinctly puts in a larger context, is so different from his earlier magnanimity, yet one can still see the connection, the character trait that illuminates how he could go from one extreme to the other realistically (concern for social standing).

In fact, I would argue that there is only one true flat character in the play: Tybalt.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Moms and Dads

Shakespeare familias,

For Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare took his source, Plautus’s Meneachmi, and ingeniously doubled the number of twins, raising the possible mistaken identity twists exponentially. So, when the first two words of Romeo and Juliet are “two households” we may anticipate that the title lovers will have two fathers and two mothers, and all the changes on the theme of adolescent love would be rung. Romantic comedy—boy sees girl, obstacles arise, boy gets girl—has most frequently used the blocking figure of a parent as the “obstacle.” Might we imagine the (Joan) Crawford-Capulets and the Cleaver-Montagues? But unlike the two Antipholi and two Dromios, Romeo and Juliet is not overloaded with balance for the sake of form, and Juliet’s parents are richly and depressingly complex compared to the lightly shaded Montagues.

They all appear at the street brawl, comically as I earlier noted, the two old men pretending to rage (illustrating the “leading from behind” folly that Gregory has already joked about: Sampson: I will back thee. Gregory: How? Turn thy back and run?) while each is ridiculed by his spouse (“”A crutch, a crutch!” calls Lady Capulet while Montague is being held back by his wife, though nothing suggests she might be mistaken for Hippolyta), so the Prince intervenes by negotiation appointments to impose peace in our time. The time of the ancient grudge is surely past, despite hotheads such as Tybalt, and it seems to me that both these old men would use any face-saving excuse to sign a peace treaty. (They should have gone to see The Fantasticks.)

Exeunt all but the senior Montagues, who indeed display their proper roles as parents. Dear Lady Montague, surrounded by possible blood and broken swords, the judgment of ‘pain of death’ still echoing in the square, says only “O, where is Romeo? Saw you him today?/ Right glad I am he was not at this fray.” World War IV may have broken out, but all’s well as long as her boy Romeo is safely out in the woods carving initials in the bark of trees. What a Mom! But lest you think I’m trivializing such maternal affection, remember that she disappears from the action until it is reported that she has died of grief because her beloved son has been exiled.

Montague is similarly sketched: old soldier (“Hold me not, [wife]), then after the fray he solicits Benvolio to spy on “his heavy son” Romeo to discover “from whence his sorrows grow” anticipating Polonius’s fatherly interference when Renaldo is hired to spy on Laertes. After Tybalt is slain and the Prince evokes wergeld: “Romeo slew him; he slew Mercutio./ Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe? (III.i.184-85), Montague pleads for his son’s life, despite the “irrevocable” judgment: “Not Romeo, Prince; he was Mercutio’s friend;/ His fault concludes but what the law should end,/ The life of Tybalt” (III.I.186-88).

[Note: Signet follows Quartos 2 and 3 and the 1st Folio and gives this speech to Capulet, but the 4th Quarto, New Cambridge, Norton, Riverside and Bevington logically give this to Montague.]

Lastly, after universal darkness has buried all, Montague is left to compete with Capulet to see who will build the biggest gold statue to his child’s beloved. As was Lady Montague, he has been a concerned, devoted, and completely ineffectual parent. As Randall notes, he is rarely seen, but his physical absence seems to reflect an absence of parental influence or authority as well.

Lady Capulet is more vivid. Initially sarcastic about her aging husband: “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?” and then we learn some possible motivation for this scorn. As she begins to negotiate marriage to Paris, the Nurse establishes with truly impressive verbosity that Juliet is a fortnight shy of fourteen, and Lady Capulet notes that “Younger than you, here in Verona…, are made already mothers. By my count/ I was your mother much upon these years/ That you are now a maid.” This gives a chilling take to Capulet’s earlier response to Paris’s argument that “younger than [Juliet] are happy mothers made.” “And too soon marred are those so early made,” may be Capulet’s comment on his own wife.

By my calculation, Lady Capulet is 27, with only a single child—Capulet is now too old to “dance”—and she seems a willing accomplice in having her daughter deflowered as she herself had been. At Capulet’s feast, remember, when Juliet is improvising rhymes with Romeo, they are separated by the interference of Lady Capulet: “Madam, your mother craves a word with you.” Zeffirelli, through body language and mutual exits, implies that this unsatisfied wife and the young Tybalt are more intimately related than just by kinship. After the balcony, the marriage, and Tybalt’s death, we see at last a passionate Lady Capulet:

"Tybalt, my cousin! O my brother’s child!
O Prince! O cousin! Husband! O, the blood is spilled
Of my dear kinsman! Prince, as thou art true,
For blood of ours shed blood of Montague.
O cousin, cousin!" ( III.i.148-152)

which makes Zeffirelli’s choice look very interesting, or at least aligns Lady Capulet with the young Turks rather than the aristocratic authorities. Tybalt’s death has left the Capulets in social jeopardy, so Capulet grasps at the marriage to the Prince’s nephew Count Paris. Lady Capulet intrudes on Juliet’s tears at parting from the now banished Romeo, certainly violating the bliss of consummation, mistakes Juliet’s tears for mourning her cousin (“Some grief shows much of love;/ But much of grief shows still some want of wit,” anticipating Gertrude rationing Hamlet’s mourning for his father to 30 days), sooths Juliet by reporting she will hire a hit man to assassinate Romeo in Mantua, and then reveals the joyful tidings that Juliet will marry the County Paris two days hence. When Juliet demurs, again we see the naked passion of her mother: “I would the fool were married to her grave!” and after Capulet’s volcanic fury, disowns her “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word./ Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” This is more than a conventional parent, though she is ignorant of the facts, opposing young love. This is raw, destructive jealousy.

I think I’ll leave Lady Capulet’s last words, part of the (hypocritical) antiphonal mourning over the apparently dead Juliet, so much at odds with her previous scorn for her daughter’s independence. Can I get away with the critical cowardice that suspects that Act 4, scene 5, was written by another hand? That Arab trader we know was in London in 1595, Sheik Zubar? Could Oxford have written so moving a line as “But one, poor one, one poor and loving child”? Or maybe we have here the hand of William Henry Ireland, that greatest of all English tragedians?

Oh, Dad, poor Dad. Capulet. “A crutch!,” of course, which sets him at an age of declining power, though possibly it would be useful to have a balance of experience against youthful passion, and the rumble in the rialto occasions not only the Prince’s (unenforceable) law, but also a foundation for temperance in Verona: “But Montague is bound as well as I,/ In penalty alike; and ‘tis not hard, I think,/ For men so old as we to keep the peace.” (I.ii.1-3). This is the sentiment I base my impression that this feud would be over if the old men followed the opportunity for wisdom. And it is this venerable father who is negotiating his daughter’s hand to the County Paris, the Prince’s nephew, a very favorable alignment for the Capulets. But he has a father’s delicacy, and notes “my child is yet a stranger in the world.” I’m not going to go Freudian on you, but he does have qualms, and the evidence suggests Juliet has spent her scant fourteen years exclusively in the company of the Nurse, occasionally officially with the Friar, but only as a rare object of possession with her parents. He imposes a very fatherly proviso: “But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart;/My will to her consent is but a part./ And she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair according voice.” (I.ii.16-19). This gives him a (hoped for) out, and relieves him of a bit of responsibility.

Another father who sets such a condition is Baptista, who after setting a dowry of half his estate plus 20,000 crowns to anyone who will marry Kate, adds “Ay, when the special thing is well obtained,/ That is, her love, for that is all in all.” (Shrew II.i.128-29). Yeah, yeah, Baptista would marry Kate to Christopher Sly if he could get away with it, but I’m inclined to believe Capulet believes himself when he sets this condition.

Ernst has characterized the next facet of Capulet wonderfully, including “his enthusiasm for looking at (down the fronts of?) the good-looking young women he invites to his banquet shows him to be a bit of a letch.” He is an expansive host, full of good humor (may I be the 125,879th to call his joke about the ladies’ feet “corny”), and, as Ernst notes he is expansively generous, showing off his wealth, but also forcefully shutting down Tybalt’s rage in order to preserve conviviality (I would have said gemutlicheit, but I couldn’t spell it), after he and Tybalt have recognized the masked Romeo [Cindy and I can argue they recognize Romeo by his stutter]. So far, so good: a benevolent, paternal protector, feeling good about himself. But Mecutio is killed, Tybalt is killed, the villain Montague is banished, and “things have fall’n out, sir, so unluckily/ That we have had no time to move our daughter.” (III.iv.1-2), circumstances strip down all the delicacy: “ Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender/ Of my child’s love. I think she will be ruled / In all respects by me; nay more, I doubt it not” (III.iv.12-14). Dramatic irony. His paternal confidence, which he seems to think is still velvet gloved, is based on ignorance, and the following scene, Juliet’s refusal, brings on one of the most savage scenes in Shakespeare:

“Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you greensickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow face!” (III.v.152-58)

No compassion. No understanding. No mercy.

“And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.” (III.v.193-96)

I can think of no more vicious curse in all of Shakespeare. This father, who wore paternal possessiveness as part of his own self-satisfaction, dooms his only daughter. I have a long argument about comedy and tragedy here, but this is the moment for me when death is inevitable, when Juliet has no more social space in which to exist (this phrase may have been articulated for me, but it is exactly what I see in the play). Exit father. Lady Capulet: “Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” Exit Mother. Nurse: “I think it best if you married with the County. O, he’s a lovely gentleman!” A little bigamy is fine, as long as no one knows. Exit Nurse (“O most wicked fiend”).

I have been thinking of this for a couple of weeks, the canopy of parents so variously failing to cover the children, and perhaps it shaped toward a “paper” rather than a conversation. But then Randall offered up Friar Lawrence as Romeo’s actual father, and I need to start again. OK, anyone for the Nurse as Juliet’s actual mother?

I hope to come back at least once more.


Romeo and Juliet - Numerology


The wisdom of Friar Lawrence, part 2.

If I had to boil it down, I'd say that Romeo and Juliet is a play of oppositions, oxymorons, paradoxes, or paired conflicts. It seems everything comes in twos, and they are in opposition. Romeo has two girlfriends -- Rosaline and Juliet -- one aloof and one willing ... to get married. Juliet has two boyfriends -- Romeo and Paris -- one classically parent-picked and one modernly self-selected. Two families, both alike in dignity, but at each other's throats. Light and dark. Day and night. Love and hate. Young and old. Sorrow and joy. Swans and crows. Virtue and vice. Feathers of lead. Souls of lead. Bright smoke. Cold fire. Sick health. Damned saints. Honorable villains. Wombs and tombs. The list (Fr. Lawrence calls them "opposed kings") goes on.

Into this dramatized yin and yang comes Romeo, freshly banished for the slaying of Tybalt. He turns to Fr. Lawrence for advice, gets it ("Be patient for the world is broad and wide.") but fails to listen. He draws his dagger, ready to bring his life to an end.

Fr. Lawrence responds with the "there art thou happy" speech, and here something very curious happens. Shakespeare evolves the balance of opposites to something more complex.

Fr. Lawrence's argument begins predictably enough, with an opposition. Romeo's tears are "womanish," and he should act more like a man. But Romeo is also a "beast" because of his wild acts. So we have "Unseemly woman in a seeming man, / And ill-beseeming beast in seeming both." Is Romeo two opposing personalities here, or three? The ambiguity makes a sly transition from the oppositional imagery of the play to Fr. Lawrence's more complex world view.

He continues by asking Romeo three questions: "Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself, / And slay thy lady that in thy life lives"? In terms of punctuation this is two questions, but Fr. Lawrence is asking Romeo if he will, by the end of the scene, have slain three people. To do this once is clever; twice is a motif.

More? How about three in one? Romeo shouldn't rail at "thy birth, the heaven, and earth, / Since birth and heaven and earth, all three do meet / In thee at once."

Still more? Fr. Lawrence upbraids Romeo because "thou shamest thy love, thy shape, thy wit." This is my favorite part because again we get the oppositional pairs, only this time they are embedded in each leg of the triad. One's shape should be noble, but Romeo's is "wax"; one's love should be sworn, but Romeo's is perjured; one's wit should be an ornament, but Romeo's is "misshapen."

And more. Finally, having chastised Romeo fully, Fr. Lawrence begins to point out his reasons for optimism. There are, of course, three of them: Juliet is alive, Tybalt is dead instead of Romeo, and Romeo's death sentence has been commuted to mere banishment.

(For fun, I'll add one more pair of threes that's clearly coincidence. I reviewed the 1597 Quarto and found that no act or scene numbers are indicated in the text. But in my modern Folger edition, Fr. Lawrence's speech takes place in Act 3, scene 3. [Sound eerie organ chords here.])

The form, I would argue, cries out the art, but what's with these persistent Lawrencian triads in this speech? Is it a rhetorical swipe at the pairs of oppositions that will result in the tragic death of five adolescents? Is it the product of a mind that thinks of things in a more complex way than others around him? Is it due to his religious training which divides the supernatural into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? (Is that even relevant?) I have no idea what's really at work here. Speculation is welcome.

As with all Fr. Lawrence's advice to Romeo, the rhetorical flair of this speech goes unheeded. In the next scene the lovers are once more entrenched in their opposing pairs, fretting about larks and nightingales and mourning that, as the sun rises, "more light and light, more dark and dark our woes."

Tired, but happy,

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Fatherly Advice

Quiet Colleagues,

"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
"I do bite my thumb, sir."
"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
[sound of crickets chirping ...]

I don't know how enlightening this will be, but I want to accept Ernst's challenge on behalf of Friar Lawrence. In a play dominated by youthful passion, rash acts, and pyrotechnical literary flare, I find Friar Lawrence to be a soothing antidote (how appropriate) -- he is wise, he is hip, he is measured (until the final act), and he is modern. He is also, since we rarely see Lord Montague, Romeo's actual father.

I'll look at wisdom in Act 2, scene 4, where Fr. Lawrence is introduced: When Romeo comes blasting into Friar Lawrence's begging "I pray, that thou consent to marry us today," Fr. Lawrence has some pieces of advice for him.

First, "Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift. / Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift" (2.3.59-60). This is not only advice against youthful over-exuberance, but against too much cleverness. And while I love Romeo's cleverness, at times you just want him to talk straight. It seems to me that Romeo runs into the same problem with Tybalt, when he tells him: "The reason that I have to love thee / Doth much excuse the appertaining rage / To such a greeting" (3.1.63-65). If Romeo had simply said, "Gosh, Tybalt, I've just married your cousin; / Let us bury the hatchet and be friends," perhaps the tragedy is avoided.

Second, Fr. Lawrence asks Romeo "Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, / So soon forsaken?" and concludes "Young men's love then lies / Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes" (2.3.70-72). Marriage proposal or not, Romeo is vulnerable to this criticism. And as a young man who grew up smitten with Farrah Fawcett Majors whom I knew from a cheesecake poster rather than from any human interaction, I doubt Romeo can offer much argument. (In fact, he lamely counters "Thou chid'st me oft for loving Rosaline." Ha!)

Third, after pointing out that Romeo has made a lot of noise and shed a lot of tears for Rosaline, Fr. Lawrence warns him "Women may fall when there's no strength in men." Literature and life will bear out the truth of this consistently in the coming centuries: Moll Flanders, Hester Prynne, Tess D'Urberville, ... Monica Lewinsky, Lacie Peterson. (Although if we consider Dido in The Aeneid, women may fall when there IS strength in men. Maybe women are better off if they don't have anything to do with men.) Fr. Lawrence aks Romeo, "Art thou changed?" This is a tough question. According to Benvolio, Mercutio, and his parents, Romeo was changed when he was moping over Rosaline. Now, under the spell of Juliet, Mercutio senses the difference and proclaims, "Now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art" (2.4.91-92). While one may argue that Juliet is good for Romeo because she allows him to be himself AND in love with her, I think that Fr. Lawrence's observations teach us that Romeo is changeable (as many young men are), and this is his weakness. It takes only the death of Mercutio to change him again from centered peace-maker to veangeful spirit.

Finally, Fr. Lawrence is given the final word in Act 2, scene 4: "They stumble that run fast." This has the quality of an Aesop moral. One can almost see the poor hare, sprawling ungainly on the road, as the tortoise trudges past to the finish line. But Fr. Lawrence's words, especially framed in third person voice, stand as a check on the rash impetuousity that drives so much of the play's characterizations.

Romeo heeds none of this wisdom, and, just prior to Fr. Lawrence's final aphorism in this scene, has insisted that the Friar marry him "on sudden haste." That doesn't even sound good.

So. Speak plainly. Love with your heart, not your eyes. Be strong so that others don't suffer from your impetuousness. And go "wisely and slow." That strikes me as pretty good advice. I wonder what Polonius would think.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Appetizers from Capulet's Feast

Experience Shakespeare Projectors,

Randall noted the familiarity of Romeo and Juliet, and Ernst's sister Juliet has taught it at least 25 times. In my first posting I catalogued the history of more than 90% of all my non-major students entering the class with some experience of Romeo and Juliet.

For any Shakespeare play I taught, I would collect "ah-ha's" from students who were not familiar with a text, but who recognized lines or phrases anyway, and for Romeo and Juliet, I'd poll students who really only knew the play from film. Randall's list summarized their responses, though my students might add "'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door" or "A gloomy peace this morning with it brings." Ah-ha's are the sorts of phrases that detach themselves from the play itself and show up in comedy routines, editorial cartoons, or E. D. Hirsch's vast trivia lists. I have a clipping (the typeface identifies it as from that most scholarly of journals, The Reader's Digest) in which the teacher warns students not to slop nouns into verbs such as "to party." "But teach," quoth the student, "What about Romeo and Juliet: 'partying is such sweet sorrow'?"

I used to set "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo" on the trivia section of Colorado State's Master's Exam, and ask the candidates to punctuate it, to see how many thought "wherefore" really meant "where" (he's under the balcony, you twit!!). Forgive me. "A rose by any other name [sic] would smell as sweet" is on my list of frequently misquoted lines: "alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well [sic]"; "the best laid plans [sic] of mice and men"; "play it again, Sam [sic]". OK, if you teach long enough, you get sic [sick].

To these phrases, I would add entries in my Commonplace Book:
  • "O, teach me how I should forget to think";
  • "It is an honor that I dream not of";
  • "Thou talks't of nothing./ True, I talk of dreams"
  • (or: "Dreams...are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy");
  • "He jests at scars that never felt a wound";
  • "Young men's love then lies/ Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes";
  • "Wisely and slow, they stumble that move fast";
  • "Past hope, past cure, past help";
  • "There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls/ Doing more murther in this loathsome world/ Than these poor [poisons]";
  • And "'tis not hard, I think,/ For so old as we to keep the peace" (so now we know that Cheney and Rumsfeld never read Romeo).

Juliet's intellect is remarkably subtle between the moment we first meet her in the Nursery, where to my mind she has spent 13 years exclusively in the company of the Nurse, save weekly chaperoned visits to church, to the point twelve hours later when the Capulet feast is over. "How stands your dispositions to be married?" asks Lady Capulet. "It is an honor that I dream not of," she replies, guarded, absolutely noncommittal, until she can discover where her mother's question leads. "Can you like of Paris' love?" "I'll look to like, if looking liking move." hat a perfect "if," preserving her independence.

Juliet, as Randall notes, is subject to the agendae of the men, and more directly to the men's surrogates, Lady Capulet and the Nurse. How can we account for this reserve? After the feast, the dance, the sonnet(s) improvised by the dance floor, the Nurse interrupts to call Juliet to her mother, and here she has already developed social guile. She does not "give it up" by blurting out 'who is that sexy dude???' Instead she asks the Nurse first who is yond gentleman? Why, the son and heir of old Tiberio. And, what's he that now is going out of door? Marry, that, I think, be young Petruchio. And only then, who is that other one who would not dance. Misdirection. I love it.

But intertextual fans, just arriving from Taming of the Shrew, where does Romeo take place? Verona. And where has the eligible Petruchio, seeking a wife, arrived in Padua from? Verona! If only Juliet had paid attention to her Nurse, and stopped at two, we might have had The Taming of the Capulet.

I agree that Romeo is introduced as feckless, addled by being in love with love, completely unhinged from reality. Nor do I think he ever matures to the measured intelligence that Juliet shows from the start. After the feast, after the balcony, after he has raced (Zeffirelli has him plunging down a ravine) to tell the Friar he has fallen in love at first sight (old Gilbertism: love-at-first-sight exists only as a convention in literature), without remembering to tell Lawrence that it's not Rosaline he has spent the night with, he meets Mercutio and Benvolio in the street. All boys together. They jest. They pun. They engage in carnal badinage (a Henzeism, Cindy), until Mercutio declares "Now art thou sociable, now thou art Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature" [free of "this driveling love"] (II.iv.93-95). Is this nominalism? Romeo gets his name back, and he is natural, manly, witty, sociable.

The Nurse appears, Mercutio goes on another of his ever-bawdy confrontations, and when the Nurse asks "Gentlemen, can any of you tell me where I might find the young Romeo?" Romeo turns the inquiry away with a joke. He is so caught up in being sociable again, he doesn't twig who the Nurse might be, and I'm not sure impulsive, driveling Romeo would have remembered the marriage had not the Nurse come to fetch him. The Friar was right about young men's infatuations, and had Lawrence not had another agenda-resolving the ancient grudge-he would have sent Romeo home to take a cold shower or go teach Bianca to play the lute in Padua. I have not made a through argument, but this, to me, illustrates Juliet's true grit in contrast to Romeo's shallow impulsiveness.

Oops. Ernst compares Romeo, a Renaissance Man (at least in the making), as he bests by-the-book Tybalt (who has learned his role in the "received universe") to Hamlet besting Laertes (who also has studied his roles: advising your sister, fencing, revenging your father). I would also add Renaissance Hal as he bests Romantic-throwback Hotspur.

Gee, I'm just getting started. There are some lovely things to discuss with Ernst's Juliet, as well as fathers and tragedy and...well, let me hear from you.

And, as Mr. Spock might say, live and be prosperous (V.iii.42).


Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Odds and Ends

Betty and I have never watched television more than a couple of times a year, never had cable, or more than two or three stations at the end of our antenna. However, now, suddenly, we have a dish, and Turner Classics has seduced us more than once. Last night, West Side Story happened to be on. What a coincidence. Even more of a (bitter) coincidence is the fact that someone was shot to death in central Kingston while we were watching – probably a gang killing, although I am not sure. There are gang problems and a growing crime rate here.

Certainly, there are a lot of lovely things about West Side Story, which film's New Haven opening I happened to sing for (as part of the Yale Russian Chorus--don't ask for the logic here) so many years ago. The dancing is terrific and the music is lovely, if not as great as Shakespeare's music. In a sense. the characters are closer to us – as we are Americans and know about racial (and other) prejudice in this country. In a sense, we can relate to West Side Story's characters because we know people very much like them – like the dead young man about fifteen blocks away from my desk here.

My sister Juliet, who is in her last year of teaching middle-school English at The Park School in Brookline/Boston, had some initial thoughts on Romeo and Juliet – based on her years of teaching it to eighth graders, which I include below.



Romeo and Juliet is certainly a play of the humours and of the heavens— typed imagery and ideology of this period.

Think about the names:

  • Romeo - Romance;
  • Juliet - jewel;
  • Paris - thieving lover, pretty boy;
  • Benvolio - Well-wisher;
  • Montague - mountain, absolute ruler;
  • Mercutio - Mercury, merchandise, quick-silver;
  • Laurence - bay tree, gardening (?); crafty person (Scots 1567);
  • Capulet - head;
  • Tybalt - tyrant (?), gallows.

Shakespeare is so playful here and inquisitive — fooling around with names, humours, flat characters, genre.

Mercutio: is a movie star whose part was written only in order to get him to take the job; he's a screwed up thermometer: hot cold, cool, warm. He hates women— finds them disgusting; is inexperienced in love (I'll to my trundle bed:), yet dying to talk dirty; does it matter whether or not he lusts after Romeo?

Work with basic terms to chronologize the play: exposition; rising action; climax; falling action and denouement; walking away. The climax is more of a turning point: when Tybalt kills Mercutio; the deaths are simply a very sad end.

Tragedy: I like your point, Ernst. Could we call this a social tragedy, chock-full of IRONY? a precursor of the great 19th century playwrights— Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg? But with Shakespeare there is absolutely nor catharsis, nor is there any epiphany; but a great deal of social commentary.

Shakespeare is very concerned here about class and corruptibility; less concerned about character. In fact, they're all flat, except for Juliet. Capulet attempts to round out, but there he is at the end going into a statue competition with Montague.

The sex stuff focuses on class, entertaining the audience, and setting off the purity and innocence of Romeo and Juliet's high passion.

After having taught the play at least 25 times (it was the first thing I ever taught) I am as moved as ever by the brilliant, luminous language. I am in the enviable position of teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Othello simultaneously, along with coaching others who are teaching Midsummer Night's Dream. My heart belongs to Macbeth. Every winter I cry during the long Malcolm/Macduff scene. Somehow, I teach the children that they also should cry then. I even call that scene the climax. Oh! But that's a different play.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Getting Off the Ground

Fellow Shakespeareans:

First Responses: As I listened to Romeo and Juliet (which I feel I have not read for years) on the highways between Kingston and Boston, I noted that it is supposed to take two hours’ worth of listening time. I know the Elizabethans are supposed to have spoken (and probably apprehended) faster than we, but I appreciated to need for speed to enhance the pressures of passion that drive the play. Indeed, by the time I got to the closing acts, I found a good bit of the talk bothersome, almost as if added by someone else to “flesh out” the playwright’s original. The beautiful poetry of the lovers as they approached their necessary deaths was what I wanted to hear. The hell with the other stuff!

I wanted to formulate some sort of glib assessment, such as, “This is a tragedy – not of character, but of the poetry of youth.” It is, in a sense, a different sort of tragedy. Both Romeo and Juliet are what we would call “children,” and quite brilliantly portrayed as such. But what attracts us to them in the first couple of acts is less what we learn about them than it is the beauty of the way they talk to one another, a beauty none of us present in this conversation will ever quite know again. That is the great loss in this play. There is very little talk (by either the characters themselves or others) of how their peculiar flaws have brought them to their terrible ends. There is no real moment of self-understanding, no moment when either reflects and says, “My God! What have I done!”

Rather, there is a kind of bowing to the necessities imposed by fate and passion, which is foreshadowed by all the references to death and tombs that fill the play’s final acts. In a sense, what we have here may be the first great non-Aristotelian tragedy of the modern world. The only other possibility is a Senecan tragedy (like The Spanish Tragedy), with bodies piled up and lots of speechifying, but that doesn’t work for me either.

Some other things I noticed or found interesting:

1. Tybalt and Mercutio: Mercutio is rather crude (especially in 2.4), if wonderfully likeable. Tybalt represents the kind of courtier Shakespeare seems to hate, a person so fussy about living “by the book” in certain areas that he dehumanizes himself (Sir Andrew’s letting himself be “taught” about courtly ways by Sir Toby is a lighter example). Tybalt is a creature of fencing books and simplistic venomous quips and is sure to fail in the face of a true Renaissance Man (even in the making) – much as Laertes will be bested by Hamlet’s sword-play. Thus both have courtly flaws, although I sure as hell know which one I would prefer to hang with. One could, I suppose, compare Mercutio, Romeo, Paris, and Tybalt as four different sorts of (courtly) men. Which kind are you?

2. The use of a “Chorus” (That is a Senecan device) to introduce the scenes. I wonder how the play would be different without this narrative-enhancing device.

3. The characters of the fathers – as much as they are developed. I find Capulet (“old desire”?) most interesting in his generosity at the party, although his enthusiasm for looking at (down the fronts of?) the good-looking young women he (like Don Giovanni) invites to his banquet shows him to be a bit of a letch.

4. My sister wants to blame the Nurse and Friar Laurence for their parts in doing the young lovers in. I am not at that point yet. I don’t find either character particularly interesting, although I am ready to be enlightened.

These are, I will admit, somewhat shallow musings, but I want to get them down and sent out before I read Gilbert’s initial discussion.