Monday, January 22, 2007

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,

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