Sunday, January 4, 2009

Romeo and Juliet - Numerology Redux

Shakespeare detectives,

Who killed Lady Montague?

I don't suppose that's a question plaguing you much as you work your way through Henry V, but I'll pose it (and answer it here) as a temporary diversion since I've just finished re-reading Romeo and Juliet.

Two years ago, I noted Shakespeare's relentless use of opposed pairs in Romeo and Juliet, and now as I read with greater familiarity I actually find it intimidating to think about the pervasiveness of the various paired motifs, images, scenes, relationships, and events in the play. I don't like to play the "intent" game but there's almost a mathematical precision to this play. From the get-go ("two households") until the conclusion (a golden statue each for Romeo and Juliet, and a balance of pardon and punishment), Shakespeare crafts the play as if he were working with a balance rather than a pen.

I've already mentioned narrative pairs, like Romeo having two girlfriends and Juliet two boyfriends. This time through I noticed a slightly deeper set of parallels in the narrative. First, in Act 1 Scene 2, Benvolio pooh-poohs Romeo's lust for Rosaline, suggesting he "compare her face with some that I shall show" at the Capulet's party and arguing that, to the eye, there are prettier women available. Romeo responds with eloquently phrased skepticism. Cut to Act 1, Scene 3, where Juliet's mother asks her to look over the County Paris at the party to see if she might consider him, by sight alone, a suitable husband. Juliet responds with diplomatically phrased caution.

What's going on here, I think, is that when Romeo and Juliet are not together, Shakespeare is establishing parallel experience, unifying them when they're apart, even as and even before they seek to join themselves as a couple. There's a really nice moment in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) that captures this in a visual metaphor. The first time we see Juliet (Clare Danes) she has her face in a basin of water; the image is made identifiable by Luhrmann's placement of the camera in the basin of water, looking up at Juliet's submerged head. Later in the scene, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is at the Capulet party seconds away from seeing Juliet for the first time. He's stoned and steps into an anteroom to clear his head by dunking it in a basin of water. Same camera angle, same image, unifying the two characters immediately before they begin their courtship.

Another example that I found intriguing in the play occurs two acts later. Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished for the deed to Mantua by Prince Escalus, bringing on two parallel scenes of distraught lovers coping with the consequences. In Act 3, Scene 2, Juliet (under the mistaken impression that Romeo has been killed) first proclaims that she has been cast by the news into hell: "What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?/ This torture should be roared in dismal hell" (3.2.49-50).

Similarly, in Act 3, Scene 3 Romeo complains that his banishment is equal to damnation: "There is no world without Verona walls/ But purgatory, torture, hell itself" (3.3.18-19). It's probably not earth-shattering criticism to note that both characters, separately, are upset by what has happened or even that the news has simultaneously made a hell of their hoped for heaven. But Shakespeare continues to offer paired events in which scene echoes scene for the two characters. Both, for example, contemplate suicide (in the presence of Friar Lawrence) when their social space collapses. And both acquire a potion, providing the "antidote" to their problem. When I finished reading the play, I resisted summarizing it in the form of a t-chart.

So, who killed Lady Montague? Mr. Montague shows up in the Capulets' fatal tomb some 200 lines into Act 5, Scene 3, and somewhat off-handedly tells the Prince: "Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight./ Grief of my son's exile hath stopped her breath" (5.3.218-219). Natural causes? I think not. Let's look at the numbers. The Capulets suffer the loss of two kinsmen: Tybalt and Juliet. Prince Escalus suffers the loss of two kinsmen: Mercutio and Paris. If you removed Montague's two odd lines from Act 5, the Montagues would only have lost one family member, Romeo. What to do? We must have balance.

Thus, Lady Montague is done in by … narrative necessity. I think it used a pair of pillows.



Sarah Eriksen said...

Interesting! I really enjoyed this. Another pair of moments you might want to consider starts in Act II, Scene I, where Mercutio mocks Romeo's lovesickness by demanding: “Speak but one rhyme and I am satisfied. / Cry but ‘Ay me!’ ” (2.1.9-10). In the very next scene, Juliet's opening words on the balcony are a brooding “Ay me” (2.2.25). Subtle, but I think it (subliminally) adds to the whole fated, "star-crossed" thing. If you're interested in Romeo and Juliet, you might check out Shmoop for more.

Randall said...

Great observation, Sarah! I don't know about fate, but it also adds to Shakespeare's both mocking and using the Petrarchan love conventions. Thanks for the links.