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Should we avert our minds when it comes to Titus Andronicus? Should we avert our minds when it comes to any horror?

In his introduction to Shakespeare the Thinker, A.D Nuttall writes about his time at a conference in Stratford, at which point he left the group and wandered through Shakespeare’s hometown, ruminating. I could not help conjure up, as I read this section around midnight while waiting for a bus, a kindly old man with white hair leaning on his walking stick. I never met the late scholar: he may have very well been kindly: he did not have white hair: and there was no mention of a walking stick. But throughout his work (written towards the end of his life) we are presented with a sentimental man. And I do not mention all of this to provide any critique of Nuttall, or to muse on a great scholar, but to provide some initial impressions to Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus (Titus). Nuttall spends roughly a page discussing this play, and most of that is taken up by Marlowe’s influence. Nuttall mentions the disgustingness of the play, likening it to modern film or TV, and at the end of this he writes “I wish at once to avert my mind” before shifting quickly to Love’s Labour’s Lost – which is very clever as I will show in my follow up post on Love’s Labour’s Lost. So either Titus affronts Nuttall’s sensibilities to such an extreme he cannot write about it, or, like Harold Bloom, he doesn’t consider the play worth his time. I’m inclined to believe it is the latter, except for his use of the word “avert”. Not only does he have to avert his mind, like someone stumbling upon a horrible scene (incidentally, Marcus did anything but avert his mind when he came upon Lavinia, but I’ll get to that) but he must at once avert his mind – Titus presents an immediate threat that cannot be considered. Titus presents a gut reaction that cannot be tolerated – it violates the sanctity of tragedy by eliminating catharsis! But of course I can’t claim to know the veracity of this thought because the scholar so abruptly averted his mind. Bloom is a little more detailed in his analysis of Titus, while he slightly shifts in his position, wrestling with disgust (intellectually rather than viscerally) but acknowledging fascination at times – he finally concludes with the thought.

Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us. – Bloom, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human.

So what exactly are we dealing with when it comes to Titus? For those not familiar with the play, here it is.

In a slightly fictional period of late Roman history, Titus Andronicus – great warrior and great procreator – returns to Rome with Tamora Queen of Goths, her three sons, and secret lover Aaron (the Moor) as captives. In a relatively few lines, Titus has his sons sacrifice one of Tamora’s sons: has his brother Marcus, Tribune of the People, proclaim Saturninus Emperor of Rome: pledges his daughter Lavinia to the new emperor: finds out Lavinia is in a relationship behind his back with Saturninus’ brother: kills one of his own sons for supporting this relationship: pisses everyone off. At the end of this scene Tamora swears vengeance for her dead son, but does little. It is Aaron (the Moor) who seems to take the initiative, for no more reason that he enjoys it. Iago has more motive for vengeance than Aaron does, but his character gets mixed in with Tamora’s so most people assume his acts are a reflection of her desires. It is not hard to draw such a conclusion with such lines as:

So Tamora:
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown.
Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch, whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fetter’d in amorous chains
And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal’s.
Holloa! what storm is this? (Titus II.i)

Aaron is trying to be the orchestrator of her desires because his one desire is her.
So the revenge begins with Aaron and Tamora killing Bassianus and Lavinia because they know about Tamora and Aaron (who doesn’t though?). Tamora has her two living sons – Demetrius and Chiron – stab Bassainus and kill Lavinia. They do stab Bassianus but don’t kill Lavinia. Instead they rape her and cut of her arms and tongue – you can see why Nuttall loved this play.
Next, through one of Aaron’s convoluted plots, two of three of Titus’ remaining sons are accused of killing Bassianus. Aaron tells Titus that for one of his hands he can save his sons. Titus sends his chopped off hand and a messenger sends back his hand with his sons’ heads. This prompts one of the most gruesome lines in the play:

Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth. (Titus III.i)

Bloom points to this as clear evidence that the play is a parody. We shall see. Also, Titus’ remaining son, Lucius, is banished and goes to the Goths to raise an army.

Act IV is a strange one and can be summed up with: Aaron (the Moor) goes through great lengths to protect his (and Tamora’s) lovechild. This also prompts one of the most mature lines in Shakespeare’s works:

CHIRON
Thou hast undone our mother.
AARON
Villain, I have done thy mother. (Titus IV.2)

While this is happening, Titus – who has learned the truth about Lavinia’s rape, orchestrates a plea to the gods in the form of arrows with messages reigning down on Rome. Saturninus is none too pleased, but Tamora urges him to smooth things over because news of Lucius’ march on Rome has come. She arranged for a great feast to be held in Titus’ house. Next Act.

The one time when Tamora tries to take revenge into her own hands, she dresses herself up as Revenge, and her sons as Murder and Rape, and goes to provoke Titus in his madness. He plays along but is not fooled. He agrees to the banquet, keeps Tamora’s sons, kills them, bakes them into a pie, feeds that pie to Tamora before killing her, but not before he has killed Lavinia, Saturninus is none too pleased so he kills Titus, Lucius kills the emperor (who was not guarded?) and is the new emperor. In some editions the stage direction indicate, after Lucius killed Saturninus, “confusion follows” – because everything up to this point has been nice and calm.

The play finishes with the following speech, delivered by Lucius:

Some loving friends convey the emperor hence,
And give him burial in his father’s grave:
My father and Lavinia shall forthwith
Be closed in our household’s monument.
As for that heinous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man m mourning weeds,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And, being so, shall have like want of pity.
See justice done on Aaron, that damn’d Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning:
Then, afterwards, to order well the state,
That like events may ne’er it ruinate. (Titus V.iii)

Here’s the interesting part: the final four lines do not appear in the first quarto (considered the authentic version of c. 1594). They were added in the second quarto of 1600, and their validity is questionable. Still, the compositors of the third quarto, the first folio, and most subsequent editions print these final lines. Why? Probably because “Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;/And, being so, shall have like want of pity” is the worst end couplet you can find in Shakespeare. The added lines are not much better, but they are better.

To bring everything together: at first glance, we have a play that has the most gruesome act (rape): the most immature line (did you pick up on my sarcasm earlier?) and the worst final couplet – you might be able to see why Nuttall averts his mind, and Bloom dismisses the play’s value. It’s an early work – it shows where Shakespeare came from, not what he is capable of. Enough said.

But…..

There’s one thing that really intrigues me about Titus. There is an intriguing relation between parents and children in this play. Shakespeare centres a few plots on the relation of parent to child: Henry IV, Hamlet (sort of), King Lear, Tempest to name a few. Titus explores the relation in an interesting way.

I think we can agree that there is no one in the older generation in this play that is truly innocent, and not a little bit monstrous. Even Marcus, the voice of reason and sentimentality, savagely murders the fly.

MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife

What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

MARCUS ANDRONICUS

At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

TITUS ANDRONICUS
Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.

MARCUS ANDRONICUS
Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

TITUS ANDRONICUS
But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill’d him. (Titus III.ii)

and then of course, they launch into racism – but that is another matter. Marcus, as intent on revenge as Titus, is not above the murder of the innocent (even a fly). When it comes to their children, however, these villains are protective, and at their most genuine and sincere.

The play opens with a contrast to this idea: two brothers (Saturninus and Bassianus) argue over their father’s legacy (the crown) with no regard to the man. The first mention of the late emperor comes early enough, in line 5, but in the lines

I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome (Titus I.i)

The late emperor is reduced to the subject of his son. He is further reduced to a pronoun. We never learn the emperor’s name. Bassianus is even worse

If ever Bassianus, Caesar’s son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome (Titus I.i)

Here the father is dissolved into Rome itself. He is, as they all are, Caesar, and Bassianus is not concerned with his favour or honour, bot Rome’s. While the sons have no respect for the father, fathers (and mother) place their children (for the most part) above all. When Titus returns to Rome, he does not speak of his victories, but says:

Romans, of five and twenty valiant sons,
Half of the number that King Priam had,
Behold the poor remains, alive and dead!
These that survive let Rome reward with love;
These that I bring unto their latest home,
With burial amongst their ancestors: (Titus I.i)

Only a few moments later, we shift back to the beginning, with a son (Mutius) disrespecting his father (Titus). Yes, Mutius is probably in the right here, but he, like Bassianus, places his father below his state – and is stabbed for it.
In between Titus praising his sons and killing his son, we have Tamora’s first speech – a plea for her son:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son. (I.i)

Image

We have no impression of Tamora prior to these lines, except that she is a Goth, the enemy of Rome, and is conquered. Still, it is hard not to find some sincerity in her pleas. She can swear revenge, and order to the deaths of Bassianus and Lavinia quite easily, but she is not heartless. Titus stabbed his son, but he was willing to chop of his hand to save his other two. There is a strange dichotomy between the villainy of these characters and the humanity they display when their children are in danger. Or maybe it is a synecdoche. If you are in a war, and kill an “other”: this is a casualty of war, and an unavoidable reality of the situation. If you kill your own, this is murder – a heinous crime. What is the difference in the act? Why is one so quickly brushed off and the other received with a visceral reaction? And consider the fact that we have Romans, Goths, and a Moor crammed on the same stage: and the majority of killings are by an “other.” Is Lavinia’s rape a casualty of war?

The most drastic dichotomy of character is Aaron (the Moor). He, who when asked if he is not sorry for his heinous deeds, says:

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (Titus V.i)

Just a few lines before, however, he makes Lucius swear to God that his child will be safe. Why?

Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus,
With all his threatening band of Typhon’s brood,
Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war,
Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands.
What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-limed walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (Titus IV.ii)

Can we trust these lines? Tamora seems sincere in her pleas, we have seen Aaron do too much to believe this to be anything but empty rhetoric. But there is no arguing the truth in the lines. He would kill all of Rome’s children, but his child must live. This is a perversion of humanity.
In a year or so, Shakespeare will reiterate the sentiment, through Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good: (Rom. III.v)

So long as the victim is an “other”, the limits of one can do to them is endless. The rape of Lavinia is gruesome, but Tamora does not need to feel any pity, because she is not hers. Tamora is as distant as we are: guiltless. Even Marcus reduces her to an “other” in his ekphrastic speech. He talks about Lavinia in the same way Shakespeare will later write about his mistress’ eyes and lips in Sonnet 130. Toward the end of the speech, Marcus says

Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father’s eye (Titus II.iv)

He did not say that he was made blind, or overcome by sorrow – she is not his. The horror of Lavinia’s rape can only be felt by a parent. As long as there is some othering, there is safety and freedom from blame.

What are the possible consequences of these thoughts? There are two that I have touched on: the political, and the theatrical.

The political consequence is simpler. The Spanish Armada, and its defeat, was fresh in Shakespeare’s (and England’s) mind when this play was written. By great luck (let’s call it what it is), the Spanish Armada sunk and there was much rejoicing. This was a glorious victory. Who made up this Armada? Who cares? They were the enemy, and they are dead. Shakespeare was not silent about the casualties of the ordinary man in the face of the rhetoric of war. It appears as early as I Henry VI, and is reinforced in Henry V, and Hamlet. As long as we allow ourselves to be swept in the rhetoric of our state, we will continue to overlook the death, murder, and rape of the ordinary subservient people of this state. It would not be until Napoleon’s campaigns that such a notion was considered on a larger political scale – and not until WWI that was treated with any concern.

But the theatrical notion is more interesting. As audience members, we are blameless for anything that occurs on stage. We watch the tragedy in order to expel our own guilt and concerns. We seek catharsis at the cost of (albeit fictional) suffering. What does this say about us? We are able to watch Lavinia hobbling around after being raped and, some may avert their minds, but many will be fascinated as Marcus was. We see Titus plot to chop Tamora’s sons into a pie and then feed it to her and we are filled with such sadistic pleasure. They are the others, we cannot help them, so we might as well enjoy the show, right? Who are we? Marcus or Aaron?

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Why does Lady Montague die at the end of Romeo And Juliet?

 

It is difficult to begin formulating opinions of Romeo and Juliet (Rom): the play has grown to such a height, and built up so many expectations and assumptions – what more can be said? Stephen Greenblatt begins his exploration of this play by likening Rom to Plato’s Symposium. Harold Bloom, in his analysis, brings in the rivaling philosophies of Heraclitus and Empedocles in order to establish the tensions of Rom. Granted Shakespeare may have been drawing form Greek influence in writing this play, but it seems to me that  the aim on both Bloom and Greenblatt’s part is to bring this most popular (in the broadest sense) play into an academic and esoteric sphere: to bring the two lovers, who have run so far away from “Shakespeare” back into the world of Shakespeare, so they may approach it on the same level as other plays. And I must say that I am not claiming to do a better job than either of them.

For Romeo and Juliet – as an entity – have ascended their play in the same way Hamlet rises above his. They have become Love incarnate, a paragon of youth, the symbol for struggle in an oppressive society – they have transformed into paintings, ballets, musicals, zombies &c. Even before their revitalization in the 19th century, the two star-crossed lovers were a success and helped propel Shakespeare into the world as a tragedian (Titus Andronicus was not entirely successful at this, as popular as it was). Dr. Samuel Johnson comments on the sensory success of the play in his Prefaces:

“The play is one of the most pleasing of our Author’s performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting and the process of the actions carried on with such probability at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.”

Even Shakespeare seems to reflect on the success of the two larger-than-stage lovers: in Antony and Cleopatra, the eponymous characters try to achieve this status, and outgrow their play, their world. Antony tries to die as Romeo does – at the hand of love (Eros) – but fails. Cleopatra may have a bit more success. Regardless, Shakespeare recognizes that Antony and Cleopatra are not Romeo and Juliet, for Romeo and Juliet are bigger than their play. Shakespeare even prophesies this success at the end of the play:

 

MONTAGUE

While Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.

CAPULET

As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie;
Poor sacrifices of our enmity! (V.iii)

Verona today is still Verona: and if we follow Montague’s economic example, nothing has risen in value in Verona above Romeo and Juliet.

This is, however, a double-edged sword. If the lovers have outgrown their play, so has their love outgrown its context. The love of these two have risen above its lyric roots, its satirical element, and its careful construction: for these reasons, it is often misconstrued. The most prevalent complaint I hear from students who have studied this play is that it is too fake, that “people don’t talk like that.” I have to explain that, even in 1595, people didn’t talk to each other in sonnets (see Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting in I.v). Teachers, directors, and people in general all have a tendency to take this play too seriously, and to ignore the constructed nature of it. Of course the opposite can be equality damaging: look no further than Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. And so I want to take this opportunity to place the two lovers in their proper context, exploring the play as it was before it grew to its present height. To do this, I wish to use as my jumping off point a seemingly minor detail about a very minor character – that is the death of Lady Montague.

Lady Montague dies at the end of the play, concurrently to the climatic catastrophe. We learn of her death from Old Montague. Of course, the simple answer to the question of why does Lady Montague die is given to us by Old Montague:

PRINCE

Come, Montague; for thou art early up,
To see thy son and heir more early down.

MONTAGUE

Alas, my liege, my wife is dead to-night;
Grief of my son’s exile hath stopp’d her breath:
What further woe conspires against mine age? (V.iiii)

Simple enough. But it seems to come out of left field at first, doesn’t it? After all that has happened, can the death of a character who is in two scenes (silent in one of them), and has a grand total of three lines – can she inspire the necessary pathos that a tragic death demands? But we when examine this moment in the context of the play, it begins to fit into place.

In Rom, we are dealing with a heightened reality. The play is set in contemporary Verona (that is, around 1595), but it is not a world audience goers would have recognized. Here is just a quick list of some of the heightened reality in this play

There are three sonnets: We have two prologues, both in sonnet form. As well, there is the famous meeting between Romeo and Juliet, here transcribed into its sonnet form:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine 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 (I.v)

Not only does the rhyme scheme fit into this most constructed form, but there is a volta in which the tone shifts, and the rhyming couplet to bring it to a conclusion: albeit a different conclusion than most sonnets.

Lyrical language: Rom is one of Shakespeare’s three “lyrical plays” written around 1595. The language is almost exclusively verse, but not only that, is grander than you find in his other plays. Such lines as –

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humour prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove. (I.i)

Which are beautiful poetry, but out of place in the context of contemporary drama.

Petrarch Satire: Romeo beings the play as a satire of Petrarch’s poet. He makes use of Petrarch’s paradoxes, such as –

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! (I.i)

which lack the context that Petrarch places them in. Romeo is prompted to this speech by the remains of a previous fight: a fight that has far more to do with hate – and vanity – than love. The idea that everything prompts him to feel the dualistic forces of love would have provoked laughter in an audience forced to study Petrarch in school: this is why Romeo asks Benvolio “dost thou not laugh?” Benvolio is probably the only one not laughing. Mercutio draws this comparison when he notes that Romeo out Petrarchs Petrarch: “Laura to his lady [Rosaline] was but a kitchen wench” (II.iv). While Romeo pines for Rosaline – or when his friends think he pines for Rosaline – he is not a tragic figure, nor one that inspires pity: the Romeo of the first two acts is a comic lover – much in the same as Orlando is in As You Like It.

The time-frame: If you know this play, you probably know the exaggerated time-frame (another aspect that has to be explained to students). Romeo and Juliet meet on a Sunday evening, propose on Sunday night, marry Monday afternoon, part forever Monday evening, and die together Wednesday night. This is not a normal relationship nor is it meant to be. For all the meticulous timekeeping that goes on in this play, there is a lot of muddling of time. Old Capulet bumbles over what day it is at any given point, probably because he doesn’t seem to sleep at all during the play. There is some confusion of whether the final actions of the play take place on Wednesday or Thursday night (it’s Wednesday) because Old Capulet constantly changes what day it is, or on what day the wedding is supposed to happen. Romeo and Juliet too fumble over the hours. After she learns that Romeo slew Tybalt, Juliet laments:

“Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?” (III.ii)

In the next scene, which takes place at the same time or just after III.ii, Romeo laments:

“Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel:
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered” (III.iii)

Indecently, I am inclined to believe Juliet here because she has done nothing but wait and count the hours at this point. The discrepancy may be an error, but more likely, it shows how fickle time is in the heat of such passion. Romeo and Juliet, just like their play, overcomes time: forcing eternity into four short days.

Given all of this, why should death reflect a natural reality? After the climactic tragedy, should there not be more woe? Should not the grief be as heightened as everything else? Such is why the death – the tragedy – does not end where we expect it to, but continues with one final death.

Fair enough, but why Lady Montague? Why not Lady Capulet (who we see more of) or the Nurse (who we are more attached to)? For this, we must again look at the construction of the play. There is constructed language (the use of lyricism) and constructed reality, but the play itself is also very carefully crafted. There are a lot of parallels that exist in this play – everything seems to be in balance. Fate and Fortune play a large role in the play: we have, after all, star-crossed lovers. There is a sense that someone, some external force, is controlling everything. In The Tempest this force is Prospero, in Rom it is an unseen Author. Or it is the Prologue and the whole thing is meant to be seen as a story: such metafictional interpretations are not too farfetched.

Let’s start with the first prologue. Imagine you are seeing this play for the first time and know nothing about Rom. The Prologue steps on stage and begins his speech:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (Prologue)

YOU: Wait, what?

OTHER: What’s wrong?

YOU: He just gave away the ending! Now we know that Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

OTHER: Are you really surprised? It’s a tragedy, you knew they would die. That would be like being shocked at the happy ending of a Disney movie.

YOU: So – are we supposed to be in 1595 right now, or 2013?

OTHER: …………

You get the idea. The prologue points out the inherit constructed nature of theatre and genre. We are dealing with The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – we know that convention dictates that Romeo and Juliet will die. Being so explicitly reminded of this fact at the start of the play does not ruin the play, but adds an exciting element to it. Their death – their suicides – hang over everything that happens in the play: including the first comedic half.

That’s right – the first half of this play is a comedy. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses the figure of Time to transform a clear-cut tragedy (the first three acts of the play) into a pastoral comedy (Act IV), before muddling up the waters of comedy and tragedy. In Rom the transition is more seamless, but the arc of both comedy and tragedy are present. In “The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet” two lovers have a problem that they must overcome. Romeo is saddened because Rosaline will not return his love. Juliet is troubled over the fact that her parents are trying to force a marriage on her. When they meet and fall in love, they are faced with a new problem – they are supposed to be enemies. They overcome their trials and the whole thing ends in a marriage. A straightforward comedy. The first half also contains the prevalent comedic characters of the play: The Nurse, and Mercutio. The Nurse cuts the tension that is the conflict between Juliet and her mother by providing bawdy stories and crude humour.

“’dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it: ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’” (I.iii)

Trust me: it’s funny.

Mercutio is one of the greatest wits in Shakespeare, and a precursor to Falstaff. The 17th century poet, Dryden, mused about how Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed him. People foolishly think that Shakespeare himself said this, and it is certainly not true. Shakespeare was able to control greater wits than Mercutio: mainly Falstaff and Hamlet (although it can be argued that Shakespeare was killed off by the latter). However, Rom. as a play would have been destroyed if Mercutio was allowed to live. Mercutio is right at home in the Comedy of Romeo and Juliet, but would never be able to survive in the Tragedy. But I must move away from Mercutio before he kills this post.

So when Romeo and Juliet profess their love and engage in the sublime “balcony scene” – we may luxuriate in their love and their poetry, but the ending – the tragedy – looms.

“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!” (II.ii)

Not much needs to be said here: this is some of the finest poetry written in the English language: heightened only by the fact that we know that it is fleeting: this love is doomed before it began. If we thought that they would have a happy ending then this speech and others might just be sentimental bathetic drivel – but here, this is such unfulfilled yearning that we may smile at the poetry and weep at what we know will happen, and these chaotic emotions fuel this play.

Following the comedic half, we have the tragic half of the play, which begins with the death of Mercutio. Here we begin to see some of the parallels between the two halves. Both begin with a brawl in the street between Montague and Capulet, one that draws the citizens and the Prince. In the comic half, no one is hurt and no consequences are laid. In the tragic half, Mercutio and Tybalt are slain and Romeo is banished. Also, both Old Montague and Capulet are given a hefty fine for their part in the tragedy:

“But I’ll amerce you with so strong a fine
That you shall all repent the loss of mine:” (III.i)

Just so I don’t get called out by anyone who thinks the Prince is being metaphorical here, amerce denotes a pecuniary penalty. This point is often downplayed in respect to the human tragedy of the scene, but the economic status of the two households does play a role, and is mentioned before all else – in the first line of the play.

At the end of the comedic brawl, Romeo comments that “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (I.i). This is not true of the comedic brawl, but it is of the tragic one. Mercutio is slain because Romeo’s love of Juliet prompts him to try to stop the fight. Tybalt is slain because of Romeo’s love for Mercutio. The first fight shows a comic satire of love’s destructive power: the second fight shows the tragic realization.

When we are introduced to Romeo in the comedic half of the play, we learn that he wanders at night and during the day shuts himself up and creates an artificial night. Romeo seeks to the night to compliment his “inky cloak” as Hamlet would say. Again, we are meant to see this as a satire of a man destroyed by a love he never had. Picture a teenager hiding out in his room listening to Radiohead because the girl he has been dating for a month broke up with him – the times have not changed. You try to feel bad for him, but you don’t. But when we are introduced to Juliet in the tragic half of the play, she is “singing” her aubade – her morning love song. She calls out for the night:

“And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.” (III.ii)

Juliet, too, rejects the day, and wishes for an artificial night: not to escape the pains of love, but night is when she and Romeo will be together again. Of course, the tragedy is we know that Romeo has already been banished, even if Juliet does not.

The Nurse serves as a third parallel for the two halves of the play. In the tragic half, she has lost her mirth after she witnesses Tybalt’s dead body. Her comic stumbling over words and drawn out tales are turned to tragic stumbling over words and drawn out tales. The Nurse is a character that really needs to be produced visually: she must be over the top in her comedy and her tragedy. In Act Iv, scene v she wails the loudest and fiercest of all the Capulets upon finding Juliet “dead”. Her incessant laughter while telling the story of Juliet falling on her back is turned to incessant tears.

“Lady! lady! lady!
Alas, alas! Help, help! my lady’s dead!
O, well-a-day, that ever I was born!
Some aqua vitae, ho! My lord! my lady!” (Iv.v)

When she calls for her alcohol (aqua vitae) in II.v is it part of the comedy of her “aching bones.” Here, she probably needs it to steady herself so she doesn’t pass out. The remainder of her lines in the scene devolve in cries.

“O woe! O woful, woful, woful day!
Most lamentable day, most woful day,
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woful day, O woful day!” (IV.v)

She is still over the top, but the comedy has become tragedy.

While I am on the subject of this scene: this is the height of genre bending in this play. We have an over-the-top tragedy that can be played very garishly. It is tempered by the fact that Juliet is not really dead,  but has just taken a potion to simulate death. This allows us some respite and even to find a bit of comedy in the “woes” until we again realize that Juliet will, in the end, kill herself. Thus this moment is transformed internally, and perhaps subconsciously from garish, to comedic, to sublime.

Let us come full circle before I overdo myself. This play is very carefully constructed and relies on a sense of balance or fate. So here is the roster of deaths at the point where Juliet takes her life

CAPULETS – Tybalt, Juliet

MONTAGUES – Romeo

Related to THE PRINCE – Mercutio, Paris

It seems a little off-balance doesn’t it? Balance must be preserved and everything must be in order according to this unseen force. Add to this that I have already highlighted two instances where we see human life treated as economic property (at the end of III.i and at the end of V.iiii) and it makes sense that things should equal out for all three “houses” involved. So the Montagues must lose one more to even the score: Benvolio would have been a possible and interesting choice – but Shakespeare chose Lady Montague. Why?

 

We know that the tragedy had to overextend the climactic finale. We know that the death had to be from the Montage side. Why Lady Montague instead of Benvolio? Is it possible that the whole matter comes down to a practical reason? This is a play, and a play is, to an extent, confined to its physical limitations. You must be able to stage it. One such limitation at the time was the amount of actors Shakespeare had at his disposal. There are only a certain amount of principal actors in Shakespeare’s company in c. 1595. There may have been day labourers hired to hold a spear or trumpet, or be part of a crowd, but if a character spoke a solo line he (for it was only he) was part of the principal cast. If we looked at the stage at the close of the show, we would see:

Romeo (dead)

Juliet (dead)

Paris (dead)

Old Montague

Old Capulet

Lady Capulet

Prince

Friar Laurence

Balthasar

Paris’ Page

1st Watchman

2nd Watchman

3rd Watchman

It is very rare that you find this many principal characters (they all have a least one solo line) on stage at the same time, and you never find more at this time period. The most likely scenario is that the actor who played Lady Montague is on stage. I have read a suggestion that the actor who played Lady Montague was also Paris – it makes sense but I cannot confirm it either way. In the reality of the play, it makes sense for the parents of Romeo and Juliet to rush to the scene. There is no reason Lady Montague would have been absent, but because she could not be physically present, she must be dead.

This may not be the most satisfying conclusion, but on the whole we see how carefully everything is done in this play. This is why, when Romeo and Juliet leap from their play and take their place in popular culture, there i much lost. Artistic interpretations of this play can be wonderful, but there is no substitute for the intricacies of one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements.

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The Drowned Book

O! For a Muse of Water! Or a glass – I’ll take a glass.

Some time ago, never mind how long exactly, I decided that I wanted to read or re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I started to do so. Then I realized, why just read them when I could also deconstruct them?

There are so many books on Shakespeare, and I’ve been reading a lot of them. But the more I read the texts themselves the more I find my opinions differing from certain critics. That is why I figured I would codify my own views on the Bard’s texts. Which brings us to this blog.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be sharing my views of the plays; approaching them from both a literary and theatrical perspective. A bit of deconstruction, a bit of reflection – whatever strikes me as important. It won’t be objective, because that’s boring. And while I may reference certain critics, it will not just be a rehashing of their works (so Harold Bloom, if for whatever reason you are reading this, I am not stealing your work!)

I think this is a way to codify my thoughts and to maybe bring to a group of readers some manageable knowledge about the plays. I am not writing these for only those familiar with Shakespeare or his works. Of course, if you have read the work you will have a deeper understanding of what I write and be able to disagree with me, but I will provide all knowledge needed.

These blogs will not be pedantic, but they will be on the academic side – and hopefully enjoyable. So I hope you will take the time and peruse what is here, or what will be here.

I was originally going to go in some form of chronological order, or by genre as most critics do. Marjorie Garber, in her excellent work Shakespeare After All, points to the fact that we should consider Shakespeare’s works in chronological order because one builds upon the others and we see how he develops tropes throughout his writing career. There is certainly a truth to this.

But I don’t really want to do that. So I’m going to go in a random order, whatever I feel like. That way we get a nice blend of comedy, tragedy, history, early, late &c.

I will be starting with The Comedy of Errors: which is coming off the presses soon and should be posted shortly. Stay tuned.

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