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).


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