Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Romeo and Juliet, pt. 2

Oh hai Mr. Shakespeare: I see what u did thar

I thought I'd focus today on the language of the play. Yeah, I know it's Elizabethan English. What I want to look at specifically is how the way that Romeo speaks shows character growth and an increase in maturity. (One must put aside the knowledge that the play only covers five days for this; although, I submit that because of the increase in Romeo's maturity level as expressed through his speech during the play, and because so very many events transpire, that it feels as if the play must have stretched over a longer period of time. Also, I freely acknowledge that I'm about to argue in favor of Romeo learning what real love is and learning to express himself appropriately, which kind of contradicts some of what I said yesterday. So sue me.)

Romeo first turns up near the end of the first scene, blathering on about his Petrarchan-style adoration of Rosaline and speaking largely in rhymed couplets (some of which rhyme with lines interjected by Benvolio, and some of which are anomalous and do not rhyme at all – still the effect is of a sing-songy rhyme). In scene two, Benvolio and Romeo speak using Venus and Adonis stanza (a poetic form used by Shakespeare in his poem Venus and Adonis, written in iambic pentameter with a six-line stanza rhymed ABABCC) to talk about Rosaline and the upcoming party at the Capulet house. Like so:

When the devout religion of mine eye
Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires;
And these, who often drown'd could never die,
Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!
One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.

In scene five, he's back to rhymed couplets for a while. But once he meets Juliet, he adopts a slightly more courtly poetic form. His first four lines to her are a cross-rhymed quatrain (four lines, rhymed ABAB); Juliet's comments back echo the format he used.

But soft! What form through yonder dialogue breaks!

It is the sonnet!

That's right. As it turns out, the opening lines of dialogue between Romeo and Juliet fit together to make a Shakespearean sonnet (ending with a couplet formed by Juliet's line ending in "sake" and Romeo's ending in "take"). The sonnet is often used as a love poem. Coincidence? I think not.

Their remaining lines together are a cross-rhymed quatrain (four lines rhymed ABAB), where the last line is split in half between the two of them, almost a "finishing one another's sentence" sort of thing.

Here's their first encounter in full:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

                You kiss by the book.
Act I, sc. 5.

Here is a clip of this scene (with Juliet's parting line lopped off) from the 1968 Zeffirelli version, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting:

Oh. Are you swooning? This post will be here all day – take all the time you need to reorient yourself and we'll go back and take a closer look at what Will did here.

Break it down with me, fellas

If you examine this section of dialogue, you can see what Shakespeare did here: He gave Romeo 4 lines to break the ice, then Juliet 4 to establish her footing in the conversation. They are speaking using church-based metaphors, which adds a bit of extra weight to what's being said, and has the overtones of being some form of holy vow. Romeo claims that Juliet is a shrine, at which he worships. He "profanes" her with a kiss (a bold move), and she lets him off the hook for it, giving him leave to touch her hand. Romeo ups the ante by hinting that he wants to kiss her lips, which they talk around for six lines (or until the end of the sonnet), leading to a kiss at the end of the sonnet's last line: "Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take."

The couple continues to flirt, again exchanging rhymed lines, leading to a second kiss. All of this establishes their attraction, as well as creating a fairly light-hearted tone to the play. (It makes it easy, therefore, to discount Juliet's lines to her nurse just after this, wherein she says to her Nurse "Go ask his name; if he be married,/My grave is like to be my wedding bed." Because based on those lines I just quoted and those two kisses, she's already in love with Romeo. And she's not at all happy to find out he's a Montague. But I digress.) Juliet's parting comment, "You kiss by the book" is likely a compliment to Romeo's proficiency.

Back to talking about Romeo's speech.

Let's move ahead to Romeo's next appearance on stage – standing in an orchard in sight of Juliet's balcony and speaking an oft-quoted soliloquy.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
  Act II, sc. 2

Here we see Romeo moving on to blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter, with an occasional line of iambic trimeter (three iambic feet) thrown in for good measure. Both the tenor of his lines and the way in which he speaks show greater maturity and seriousness of purpose. Not only is he using blank verse and speaking intelligently, but he's also using celestial metaphors to describe Juliet in an extended conceit (a conceit being an elaborate metaphor used in poetry).

*N.B.: Celestial metaphors help to establish an ongoing theme throughout the play that is related to astrology. It begins with the mention of "star-crossed lovers" in the Prologue and threads itself throughout the play, as far as the Prince's concluding words, wherein he mentions the fact that "the sun (to which Juliet has just been compared in Act II, sc. 2), for sorrow, will not show his head". I'll be back to talk about that point again in a wee bit.

In the next scene, where Romeo plots his marriage to Juliet with Friar Laurence, a man obviously well-acquainted with Romeo, the entire scene is written in rhymed couplets using iambic pentameter. It gives the scene a decidedly plotting feel (as in, those two guys are plotting something – kind of like in The Court Jester, where the exchange between Danny Kaye's character and others runs playfully as "Get it?"/"Got it."/ "Good." Not rhymed couplets, but playful interplay to show serious intent to conspire.) In the following scene, Romeo jests and puns with his friends but speaks in earnest with Juliet's nurse, and then is again quite serious of purpose (and all in blank verse) when we reach the wedding scene in Act II, sc. 6. From thence onward in the play, he sticks mostly to blank verse, with an occasional rhymed couplet when declaring intention or in postcoital conversation with Juliet (wherein they trade the lines back and forth).

Oh my stars!

In the First Folio edition of Romeo and Juliet, it's described as a "conceited play", meaning that it contains an extended metaphor. Given the vast number of references to celestial bodies throughout the play, beginning with the Prologue and continuing until the last part of the last scene of the last Act, it is quite possible that the "conceit" was astrological in nature, particularly when one considers that astrology was widely relied upon at the time (it was considered a form of science), with the Queen and upper classes relying on individual consultations with astrologers and the less affluent relying on almanacs.

By specifying that Juliet's birthday was on Lammas Eve (the midway point between midsummer and the fall equinox), and having this play take place within a two-week period as she approaches her 14th birthday, Shakespeare invoked the approach of Juliet's first Saturn opposition – a time when the individual tends to act out against authority, something that Juliet does in spades in this play, not only on her own, but in convincing Romeo that they must be married in secret. Now, at that point in time, secret marriages were a big-time no-no, and could (and did) get people imprisoned – just think of Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned in the Tower of London when the Queen discovered his secret marriage to one of her ladies-in-waiting.

The astrological thread throughout the play indicates that Fate is against the relationship between the lovers. Consider, for instance, Romeo's lines in Act V, sc. 1, when Balthasar tells him (wrongly) that Juliet is dead: "Is it e'en so? – Then I defy you stars!", and shortly before he kills himself with poison inside Juliet's family burial vault, he says, ". . . O, here/Will I set up my everlasting rest/And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars/From this world-wearied flesh!" (Act V, sc. 3)

Friar Laurence's lines, "A greater power than we can contradict/Hath thwarted our intents" are further testimony to the prominence of the notion of Fate governing the lives of the characters in the play, and were probably seen as a warning that individuals ought not to buck the system.

*Trying to get down to the heart of the matter

Near the end of yesterday's post, I dubbed Juliet "the true heart of the story." Despite all the swordplay and bluster, and despite us having met him first, it's my opinion that Romeo isn't really the main character as between the two leads. As a brief digression, it makes me wonder who the young man was for whom Shakespeare wrote Juliet's role (remembering that back in Elizabethan times, all roles were played by males). He must have been exceedingly pretty and a very emotive actor, I think. But I digress.

Juliet is both the central figure to the story (why else would so much of the play, including pretty much all of Act IV, revolve around her?) and a "true heart" – a person who believed her love was epic and true. Some of her lines in the balcony scene are magical (and no, not the rose by any other name line, which is a filthy sexual pun, by the way). Some of her lines that are completely swoon-worthy (in my opinion):

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

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.

Or these, wherein she proves herself a woman capable of decision and action, and basically proposes to Romeo:

Three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed.
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word to-morrow,
By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

Other things that I considered writing about, but didn't, so I'll pose them as topics here:

1. The light motif running throughout the play.
(I know, I kill me, too.) By which I mean all the various references to light and dark, and how neither one is classified as absolutely good or bad; it's all a matter of context. The word light is used in terms of weight (as contrasted with heavy), and includes appearances in words such as lightning as well (to indicate "lightness" or rapidity of speed). How big a deal is that for you in this play?

2. The idea that this is a condemnation by Shakespeare of the Petrarchan lover, who is fixated on his notion of the ideal (think Romeo at the start, worshiping the unattainable Rosaline from afar), and how far off the skids he goes once he takes up with Juliet, the embodiment (as it turns out) of an individual who is bent on action; she defies her parents in taking up with Romeo, then marries him secretly, then decides she'd rather die than deal with Paris and, when she wakes up in the tomb to find Romeo dead beside (or on top of) her, she refuses the offer of life in a convent and offs herself.

3. The emergence of the individual as a being separate from society. Romeo's focus on his feelings from the start of the play – whereby he wants nothing to do with the feud between the families, but prefers to moon after Rosaline – and Juliet's willingness not only to defy her parents in selecting a partner of whom they would not approve, but also to engage in a secret marriage (which would have been frowned on by society) are indicative of them behaving based on their individual desires, rather than as compliant society members obeying convention. The dichotomy between society and the individual is a key element of the play, which was written at a time when society was changing dramatically.

4. How Mercutio's death is the fulcrum on which this play turns. Mercutio was neither Capulet nor Montague; he was related to the Prince, and was Romeo's friend. He is named after Mercury, the Roman god of communication. His personality is mercurial, or changeable, and he is witty and flamboyant and irreverent. He's a scene stealer; so much so that Shakespeare is reported to have said that he had to kill Mercutio, or else Mercutio would have killed him. When Mercutio dies (cursing Tybalt and Romeo with "a plague on both your houses", then punning about them finding him "a grave man"), the play seesaws irrevocably from possible comedy to definite tragedy.

5. The enormous quantity of sexual puns and double entendres in this play. From the opening dialogue between two men who serve the house of Capulet, to the exchange at the end of the balcony scene that immediately precedes Juliet's "Goodnight, goodnight, parting is such sweet sorrow!" line (involving a wanton and a bird, with Romeo wishing to be the bird, and Juliet saying she'd kill him "with much cherishing"; *wonders whether the phrase "to flip the bird" is related somehow, and suspects it is*) to references to death and dying in their post-wedding night conversation (where "to die" is a reference to orgasm, as much as to actual death)

Talk Amongst Yourselves

I'll give you a topic, even. "The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman. Discuss." Kidding – that's one from Coffee Talk with Linda Richman. Try this instead: What do you believe the principal theme of the play is? Or, if you prefer, what is its message?

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Lan Nguyen said...

Hi, I randomly stumbled across your blog when looking for things to write about Romeo and Juliet relating to the emergence of the individual identity versus the family. The Romeo and Juliet I'm writing about is the anime adaptation, which plays quite loosely with the plot; nevertheless, many of Shakespeare's original themes are intact. It's been a long time since I studied Romeo and Juliet, but I recently saw a production of it. While, I haven't quite decided the ultimate message of the play, I do firmly believe in the truth of Juliet and Romeo's love. I remember watching the production and noticing a jarring difference in the tone of the dialogue in the first and second acts. I realized that the couple had transformed from teenagers to adults. Okay, this comment is getting long enough. I just wanted to write that your post was very well written and provocative.

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks for the comment - I was struck by how the characters matured as well (as you can tell). And although they are both the youngest members of their families (that we know of), they show greater maturity in looking past the differences than their elders do. And Romeo decidedly tries to turn the other cheek until the whole Mercutio thing goes down.

Best of luck with your paper!