Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A drop of sweet sorrow within the fallen world: Romeo and Juliet

The Verona of "Romeo and Juliet" is a violent, pornographic world in which wealthy young men (and their servants) stalk the streets, armed with swords and spoiling for deadly combat to fan the flames of ancient feuds while making obscene puns with every breath, claiming that all men are lechers and all women are bawds. Their elders would end this long-running mafia-style warfare, and have even forbidden the combat, but they cannot control the sex-and-violence-obsessed wealthy young men. Fathers lock up their daughters, making them socially available only during chaperoned parties and church services. The prince of Verona and the working classes are all sick of these rich families, sick of them committing murders in the streets, sick of them treating the city as a debauched playground. But even the prince's own man runs with the Montague gang, bragging of sexual exploits and making endless filthy jokes. Verona is the Fallen World, a sinful world, a cynical world where innocence exists merely to be mocked and defiled. It is within this awful city of Verona that William Shakespeare has trapped the innocents named Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. They will attempt to live in a different Verona, a pure city hidden inside the depraved city. As the opening prologue tells us, they will fail.

Romeo begins the play as one of the disaffected violent young men, son of one of the merchant families who have grown to become more powerful, maybe, than the nobles who "rule" Verona. Romeo spends much of his time alone, brooding, as does his cousin Benvolio. They are bored young men, rich and without occupations; no wonder they roam Verona looking for sex and death. Romeo, however, will rebel against this disaffected lifestyle and stand away from his friends when he meets and falls in love with Juliet. Much critical ink has been spilled already about Juliet and Romeo's separateness from the decay around them, the poisonous air of Verona.

What's Shakespeare getting at here? I am tempted to read the play as a condemnation of the rising merchant class and the lowered respect given to the nobility. The prince would have order, if anyone listened to him. Count Paris would have Juliet for a wife, if that ratbastard merchant's son Romeo hadn't wooed her already. The priest would have us believe that words have meaning, that the word of the law and the word of God insist upon order, but the young men of Verona speak in puns and double-meaning because even language--even the intention behind any given thought--can be transgressed, violated. When we laugh at the jokes, are we implicating ourselves in the fall of civilization? Maybe that's all too much. Maybe Shakespeare just used what he found, and "Romeo and Juliet" was well-known to English audiences when Shakespeare took it up. Maybe the play's version of Verona is so foul because Shakespeare thought it was funny to write it that way, and the dislocation of Romeo and Juliet within that foul Verona exists only because the playwright wanted to preserve the possibility of sentimentality in telling the lovers' part of the tale.

Am I going to quote anything here? No, I am not going to quote anything here. I'm reading the Pelican edition, edited and with notes by Peter Holland.


  1. You have given me much to think about with your posting.

    In my previous readings of R&J, I have read it simply as Shakespeare's basic contrast: the purity of transcendent romantic love in contrast to the carnal, unpleasant impurity of . . . well, almost everything surrounding the doomed couple (and the public theater audiences). In Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters, the key was the performance effect rather than the deeper critical observations we like to bring to the plays in our time, and Shakespeare's contemporary audiences (I think) could easily identify with the dramatized contrast between the pure and the carnal -- many in the audiences were surrounded by the latter and longed for the former. I also think Shakespeare had not yet soared to the heights of his abilities. That would come soon with his greater tragedies, comedies, and romances. But that is just my humble opinion.

  2. Hmm, I'm not sure what you're getting at. "Romeo and Juliet" was written, likely, between 1591 and 1595. What else was Shakespeare writing during that time? "Richard III," "Henry V," "The Comedy of Errors," "Love's Labor's Lost," and "Richard II." Those comedies are not great, but they are not unsophisticated, and those histories are pretty solid pieces of work, even if you don't consider them as having been written by a man who has "soared to the heights of his abilities." My contention is that the 30-or-so-year old William Shakespeare was more sophisticated and subtle than the hypothetical Elizabethan audience you propose, and that "Romeo and Juliet" certainly is strong enough to support heavier things than simple contrast. It's a straightforward play in terms of form, certainly, but so is "Macbeth." Also, you are comparing Shakespeare-the-early-genius to Shakespeare-the-late-genius. Who else was being performed in London in 1597, when R&J was first published? Slaughter, Dekker, Chapman, Peeles, and Jonson. Only Ben Jonson is even remembered today, but who performs him?

    Besides, my reading is a lot more fun than what you propose!

  3. Fair enough. I will counter -- without intending argument -- by saying this as fact rather than opinion: reading is not what Shakespeare had in mind, and -- following the playwright's intent -- I think of the plays almost exclusively in terms of performance. Perhaps that is a shallow approach, but my undergraduate years as a theater major lead me to that approach, and it has not been altered by my studies in grad school as an English major. But, of course, perhaps I learned nothing in either discipline. So be it.

    As for any incoherence in what I have said now or earlier, let us just write it up to me being incoherent (again), and the reasons for that incoherence are not worth chattering about here. Such is life.

    1. I don't get the distinction of reading versus performance. The actors will perform the words I read. I imagine a performance as I read the script. The selfsame lines are in the book I hold that are coming from the actors' mouths, yes? My interpretation, I argue (what's wrong with argument?), is based on the identical material.

    2. There is a long history of a 20th century schism between theater people and English literature people; their different perspectives on plays and their different theoretical approaches really are different, and too often the different factions resist understanding or acknowledging each other. I have seen this frequently in the academic setting; English departments "see" plays one way, theater professors "see" plays in another way, and both sides often remain polarized.

      Performance is an instantaneous, communal, quickly passing event; for example, audiences are not readers but are a different kind of participant in an communal experience bound by place, time, and senses that is very different from the solitary praxis of reading.

      Consider, for example, what happens when you are confused when reading. You go back and reread characters' words in order to mitigate the confusion. Audiences do not have that luxury. Also consider your imagination of the performers mouthing the words; actors in a live performance in front of an audience will never match up to your imagination. It is a physical impossibility because those actors are not creations of your mind.

      When you read, you can imagine a performance to your heart's content. That is fine. However, directors and actors have one shot at imagining the script for that one performance; i.e., every performance is different, and each performance is immediately irrelevant to the next performance.

      Then there is this question: have you performed in a play on stage? I think every performer understands that differences that I am trying to articulate. I am doing a very poor job of explaining myself, but theater directors and actors would do a better job.

      Instead of my ongoing babbling, perhaps you ought to read some performance theory and dramatic literature theory. Each approaches the script in a way that is quite different from the way readers and literary critics approach a text. Better yet: become an actor, and you will discover some important differences between scripts and texts.

      Of course, I could be completely wrong about everything. That may be your opinion.

      I will finally say this: Shakespeare never wrote a play with the idea of it being a reading experience; performance was the only thing that mattered. If you doubt that, consider the reality that he never participated in the publication of his plays during his lifetime.

    3. I would point out that Shakespeare was a working actor, so he would've seemingly known the limits of his stage, his actors, his audience, and he was writing for all of those groups. I don't know. Certainly there is a great difference between reading an orchestral score and hearing a symphony, but there is much to be gained from sitting alone and reading the score. I don't understand your argument, I guess. You seem to be telling me never to read a play, only to watch a performance of it.

      We don't really know what Shakespeare would think about his plays being considered literature, of course.

  4. Postscript:

    Please, Scott, let me say one more thing --

    I know that my comments tend to perplex or annoy you, so I make you this pledge: I will remain silent and use my dwindling and confused energies for diversions that are less irksome to others (i.e., my mind simply does not cope well with much of anything these days).

    Even as I read what I have just written, I realize that the tone is all wrong. Nevertheless, that is my pledge. I hope there are no hard feelings.

    1. Annoy? No! Perplex? Sometimes, but that just means I have failed to understand. I fail to understand a great deal of what people say; I think that's common to every one of us, yes? I guess I don't understand why you back away as soon as someone disagrees with you. The only reason we have the internet is so we can disagree over long distances. At least I haven't found any other good use for it. Well, cute cat videos. Anyway, I am offering you the chance, if you'll take it, of convincing me of something. Perhaps it's exhausting to to keep repeating things to me, because I am thick and stubborn and slow to understand, which traits grow stronger as I get older. Hard feelings? What are those?

  5. "become an actor" - I wish! I woulda made a great Iago.

    In The Meaning of Shakespeare, Harold Goddard identifies the ethical argument of R&J as against haste. The brilliant thing about this argument is that it rehabilitates everything annoying about the plot. Of course Romeo should not have ___; of course, Juliet should not have ____; etc. Can you kids just wait five more minutes? But they cannot.

    1. Haste is good, yes. Every disaster happens because people are in a rush, every disaster could be averted if there had only been a little more time. I accept haste as one of the arguments in R&J.

      I played Caesar. His part was easy; he's so one-dimensional. "Am I not Caesar? Do I change? No, boys, I do not change." I also played Titus Savage in "The Curious Savage," a play with which of course you are quite familiar, it being so well-known. And a bit part in "Our Town," and whatshisname, the princess's uncle or whoever in "The Mouse That Roared." Iago would've been fun. I love that character. "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" is delicious.

    2. No, really, ha ha ha, I was Samuel Savage! I auditioned for Titus but instead got the other brother. I won my school's best supporting actor award for that performance! We did two plays a year, so the pool of potential supporting actors may have been as many as four.