Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Romeo and Juliet, pt. 1

Whereas the posts for Much Ado About Nothing walked through the play start to finish, I find myself inclined to approach the discussion of Romeo and Juliet a bit differently. I'm going to assume right up front that you know this story, because you read it in school and/or saw it on stage and/or you saw either the 1968 Zeffirelli version starring Olivia Hussy or the 1996 Baz Luhrman version starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, and/or because you got the gist of it from some movie or TV show that had this play going on as a theatre production and/or because you love West Side Story, so I'm jumping right to discussion.

In which I jump to the discussion

First, an important point: The story of Romeo and Juliet is not original to Shakespeare. There was an earlier play called Romeo and Giulietta (in which Juliet was 16), Painter's Palace of Pleasure, Hero and Leander, and Pyramus and Thisbe (known to fans of A Midsummer Night's Dream as the play performed by Bottom and his friends – there's probably no coincidence that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the same time, and the theme of star-crossed lovers touches both plays).

Romeo and Juliet is, hands-down, one of Shakespeare's best-known and most popular plays. It's been a major motion picture twice already during my lifetime, and I remember seeing it at the drive-in when I was little. (For those of you born in the time of VCRs and whatnot: you've probably only seen a drive-in in the movies (Grease and Twister both feature them). Back in the day, they'd play 2 (and sometimes 3) movies. The first one was always kid-friendly. The second one was for the grown-ups, with the theory being that families could leave or that in many cases, the kids would be asleep. Which explains why so many children in pajamas could be found at the drive-in.) I have no clue what the opening movie was, but I can assure you that I was awake for most of Romeo and Juliet, and that I was riveted by it. Particularly since there's a naked bed scene in the Franco Zeffirelli movie. Then there was poison and a dagger and death, and I was dumbfounded. (Did I mention that I was, like, four at the time?)

These days, I've found other things about the play to dumbfound me. Such as the fact that the time-line for the entire play spans a mere five days. Five days from the beginning, where Romeo is convinced he's horribly in love with a girl named Rosaline, who won't give him the time of day, until Romeo is dead, having met and married Juliet, murdered someone, fled the town, and returned. I mean, really . . . he didn't stay fled for long, is all I'm saying. Or, if you prefer this take, five days from when Juliet – a mere two weeks from her 14th birthday (!) – meets Romeo until she kills herself, having married and bedded him in secret, and then having been all but sold off to Count Paris by her father in the interim. That's right – she's still 13 at her time of death. I have heard it said that most Englishmen in Shakespeare's time hadn't met any Italians, and they conceived of them as a hot-blooded, passionate people, with men predisposed to temper and women predisposed to marry and breed at an exceedingly young age. Still, I find Juliet's age as selected by Shakespeare to be a bit skeevy. Particularly when one examines some of his likely source material and finds that Juliet/Giulietta was previously depicted as being 16 – much, much more appropriate, methinks.

Setting aside your dismay for a moment, what about the play?

Um, not yet. First I want to talk about why I picked Romeo and Juliet to follow Much Ado About Nothing.

Okay, then. Why did you pick this play to follow Much Ado About Nothing?

Well, you see . . . it has to do with Claudio. Tessa Gratton () said it concisely in one of her comments to yesterday's play-related post: "One note that I want to make about Claudio, which is appropriate since we're moving on to R&J tomorrow: If Romeo had lived, he'd have become Claudio. They have the same faults. Probably why I dislike them both." Well-spoken, Tess.

Claudio, as you may recall, was all "I'm bored now that there's no war, gee, Hero's kind of pretty – is she rich? Okay, I'll marry her," and then he proved ambivalent about wooing and to be a complete wanker later on, although he did deign to marry her after all. Romeo, as you probably know, begins the play pretty much in tears, mooning over Rosaline, who won't give him the time of day. In a trice, he forgets all about the woman he's been pining over for weeks and fixates on Juliet, and in five days, he's dead. Had he not been dead, the likelihood of him staying "happily ever after" was pretty slim – one of the reasons that Shakespeare killed his characters off, according to Harold Bloom, is that Shakespeare faced two "pragmatic possibilities" when dealing with romance: "Love dies or else lovers die". (See Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 88.) This play chooses option B.

In addition to perceived similarities between Claudio and Romeo, both couples have similar issues in their relationships. For instance, both have a troubled relationship that involves the female pretending to be dead at some point. In both cases, the virginal maiden falls for the swashbuckling guy, to whom she is faithful and true. In Hero's case, she is slandered, falls into a swoon and everyone pretends she's dead until Claudio comes to his senses. In Juliet's case, her father tries to force her to marry Paris, so she takes a sleeping potion and everyone thinks she's dead; she's supposed to come around once Romeo comes to Verona, but, well, things gang agley, so to speak.

Anything else?

Gee, I'm glad I asked.

In both cases – that of Hero and Claudio and that of Romeo & Juliet – reference is made to the much older story of Hero and Leander, an ancient Greek tale that appears to have been wildly popular in Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare references the story of Hero and Leander directly in Much Ado About Nothing, not only by using Hero's name (which would have reminded contemporary audiences of the story of Hero & Leander on its own), but also by having Benedick compare himself to Leander; in Romeo and Juliet, the tragic ending, wherein Juliet kills herself once she learns Romeo is dead, is a direct echo of the story of Hero & Leander as well. In addition to Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh all wrote about Hero and Leander as well.

This ancient Greek tale, let me tell it to you

Hero was a lovely woman (and one of Aphrodite's priestesses) who lived on one side of a strait. Leander, her lover, lived on the other. At night, she'd put a lamp in the tower and he'd swim across to her. Things went beautifully well for a while, until the night that a storm came up and Hero's lamp went out and Leander drowned. In sorrow, Hero threw herself off her tower and died.

Wow, that's sad.

It is indeed sad. Which reminds me that I'd like to talk about what this play is.

This play is not a love story.

There are folks out there who will tell you they think it's one of the greatest love stories ever told. I am not one of them. I will say that I believe it's one of the best tragedies ever written, but I don't think it qualifies as a love story, really. Sure, Romeo and Juliet fancy themselves in love with one another. Certainly, Juliet has some of the loveliest love lines ever spoken on stage. During the balcony scene, Romeo asks her to exchange vows of love with him.

I gave thee mine before thou didst request it,
And yet I would it were to give again.

Would'st thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?

But to be frank and give it thee again;
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
  Act II, sc. 2

Those last three lines are gorgeous. But when one thinks they're said by a 13 year old virgin, they lose a bit of credibility; who among us wasn't desperately "in love" as a young teenager, only to find out that we had no clue what love really was? Also, let's be real here: Juliet's declaration of love was based on her brief meeting with Romeo in Act I, sc. 5, in which they exchanged little more than 14 lines of dialogue and two kisses. In my experience, they made it to the infatuation level and decided that was the same thing as "epic and true", which is laughable. (Probably why this T-shirt from zazzle.com, excerpted from Sarah Rees Brennan's recent release, The Demon's Lexicon, is so funny to me.)

But as S said yesterday when I discussed this notion with her, it doesn't matter whether or not Romeo and Juliet were actually in love; they themselves have become a metaphor for true love whether they actually qualify as great lovers or not. I have been schooled by my 16 year-old, but I'll be damned if I don't think she's right. I'd love to hear what others think about this particular issue: Is Romeo and Juliet a love story?

In which I blather about Shakespeare's use of suspense and expectation

I think the story structure is what makes the play so compelling – and so tragic, really. When it opens, this play feels like a comedy, notwithstanding the somewhat ominous prologue that assures listeners that it's a sad story, the first two Acts lull the reader/watcher/hearer into a false sense of security. The play opens with comical characters in the form of Capulet and Montague henchmen who are biting their thumbs at one another. There are hints of violence between the two families, and warnings about death to anyone who breaks the peace, but those are more than counterbalanced by Romeo's ridiculous mooning over the unattainable Rosaline, whom he quickly swaps out for Juliet after meeting her at a party, and by the developing relationship between the two young lovers, who acknowledge that being from the warring families is a problem, but not enough of a problem to prevent them from getting hitched.

By the end of the second Act (a total of eleven scenes), nothing's actually gone wrong. The young lovers have met, wooed (such as it is – one conversation where she's on a balcony and he's in the orchard isn't much of a basis for a relationship, but perhaps you think me too cynical), and managed to get married. Well done, happy ending, let's all go home.

Only the play isn't over – there are, in fact, three Acts to go. And in the first scene of Act III, a street fight breaks out, wherein Juliet's cousin Tybalt kills Romeo's friend (and fan favorite) Mercutio, and Romeo manages to kill Tybalt, making him a dead man walking (because either the Capulets will get him, or the Prince's men will, the Prince having declared a penalty of death to anyone who breaks the peace between the families). In the 4th scene of Act III, we learn that Juliet's father (unaware of the secret marriage between Juliet and Romeo) has decided to sell marry her off to her cousin, Paris. In the final scene of Act III, we find that Romeo and Juliet have consummated their marriage, and that he's bound for Mantua, out of range of the Prince's men. Readers/hearers may be excused for hoping that perhaps maybe this will all turn out well after all. It could happen, right? It's at least possible.

Act IV is all about Juliet, who is the true heart of the story. (Why, yes, that was a double entendre, thank you for noticing.)* Paris at least seems to be in love with her, judging from his conversation with Friar Laurence. Juliet is having massive hissy fits and threatening to kill herself, and good Friar Laurence figures out how to give her a sleeping draught that will cause everyone to think she's dead. He sends a letter to Romeo to let him know what's up. Juliet takes the sleeping potion, everyone thinks she's dead – just as planned. Hey, this could still have a happy ending!

Act V contains 3 scenes. In the first, Romeo gets word from Balthasar that Juliet is dead, so he buys poison for himself and plans to head to her grave. In the second, we learn that Friar Laurence's letter telling Romeo about the sleeping potion never got sent; Friar Laurence rushes off, hopeful of catching Romeo at Juliet's tomb. In the third, Paris shows up to pay tribute to the sleeping Juliet, followed by Romeo and Balthasar. Paris intercepts Romeo, they fight, Paris dies. Still, our lovers have a chance, right? After all, Juliet might wake up in time. And Friar Laurence is on his way. And then, in rapid order, Romeo hauls Paris into the tomb, soliloquizes, then drinks his poison and dies. And the audience now knows for the very first time – a mere 200 lines from the end of the play – that things are not going to end well. Friar Laurence turns up, Juliet to wakes up, figures out that Romeo is dead and stabs herself, just to be sure she's good and dead before anyone can stop her. Pretty much everyone in the cast enters to mourn their losses and make a real and lasting peace, which comes far too late to do anyone any good. Ironic, isn't it?

Points to ponder

Tomorrow, further discussion of the play. Meanwhile, remember that substantive comments to this post count as entries in this week's contest. The clever suggested yesterday that perhaps it'd be easier for folks to come up with substantive posts if I asked questions to get things started. So here are a few to think about: Is this play a love story? Can you remember what your expectations were the very first time you saw or read this play? At what point did you know that it was not going to end well, and why did you come to that conclusion?

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Anonymous said...

Your blog on R&J was very interesting. I am a big fan of Shakespeare and am very grateful for Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version for making this great story relevant and perhaps bringing to understandable light many of the finer points of this story that have for 2-3 centuries been glossed over by readers forced to endure a great story thru the prism of a context which is completely foreign to them.

Yes, he kept the language which ordinarily would be a hindrince to comprehension, but when spoken in the context of modern imagery, the mind perceives meaning which otherwise might be lost.

Okay, 'venting' - check!

My comment is just this. R&J is considered a great 'love' story by many, most I think. Of course it is when only R&J are focused on. Perhaps readers/viewers can be forgiven, afterall they are the 'titled' characters.

But when viewed in a wider context, a context w/o which the love takes on no particularly special meaning, it is a story of entrenched hate which gives way to much sorrow.

That is really what the story is about. I think a great story fo rthe big screen might be a prequel to R&J in which these themes are the dominant subject matter.

One final note, I am not as cynical about R&J's love as some. It doesn't occur to me that their love is not genuine, sincire and actually love, as opposed to a puppy love crush.

The length of time they had makes no impression on me one way or the other as to their true feelings. Yes it is common for 13, 14, well all teenagers to have 'puppy love' and think it is the real thing.

Real love can be felt at that age, yes it may be rare, but maybe that is why their is a great story written about them!

If the reader has any doubt, I think their choices at the very end, driven by such deep and heart-felt emotions, seperate them from the cheap, common pack of lovers with 'puppy love' crushes, as opposed to timeless, yes rare love that lives and endures across the universe.

Allen T.

Kelly Fineman said...

What a FABULOUS comment - thank you so much for stopping by and for leaving it! And I have to say that since I wrote the post, I've altered my perspective and have to agree with you that R&J's love could indeed have been very, very real and true. Just because they are young does not mean they cannot be truly in love. So I suppose I recant that particular sentiment!