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.


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