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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Tears and Laughter in Romeo and Juliet

I have been re-reading, with much pleasure, Shakespeare's earliest plays. Two Gentlemen of Verona might not be a play-goer's or a reader's favourite, but its themes and even plot elements run through all the later comedies up to Twelfth Night, and the early play can in fact be seen as a comic version of "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet", Arthur Brooke's narrative poem based on the Italian legend (Brooke's poem is used as a source in both Two Gentlemen and Romeo and Juliet).

At the same time, Shakespeare was probably writing his sonnets, with their rumination on Time and Love. Romeo and Juliet makes use of the sonnet form, firstly in the famous prologue:

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;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

but also -- and much more daringly -- within the action itself, in the most "public" part of the action: Capulet's feast, which Romeo (rather reluctantly) and his friends have gate-crashed in disguise (masquers were often welcomed as uninvited guests on such occasions). The headstrong Tybalt has recognized Romeo and is champing at the bit to challenge him to a duel there and then; he is restrained by his angry father, for whom even the presence of a hated Montague isn't worth spoiling his party for. Meanwhile, the guests and the disguised Montagues are enjoying a public dance, from which the love-lorn Romeo (still in love with Rosaline Capulet at this point; a character we never see in the play!) feels excluded by his melancholy ("I have a soul of lead/So stakes me to the ground I cannot move") and he takes little interest in proceedings until he catches sight of Juliet ( ("O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!"), and goes over at the change-over between dances to introduce himself, still in disguise, obviously. At this point, in this most public of scenes, the two lovers enter into their own private world; and Shakespeare uses a sonnet to symbolise this removal of the lovers to an internal sphere into which the world, even at its noisiest, may not intrude:


[To JULIET] 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.

They begin another sonnet at once, but this one is interrupted by the nurse; all too brief are the private moments allowed to the lovers in this play.

At the same time, some parts of the play are not so successful. I find Juliet's sudden use of extended legal metaphor (a favourite trope with our poet) when she tells Friar Laurence of her woes in Act 4 scene 1 to be highly unsuitable both for the character and for the situation. Also, when the Capulets learn of Juliet's supposed death (she's taken the friar's potion which makes her appear lifeless for 42 hours, remember), their lamentation borders dangerously on the comic.

What noise is here?
O lamentable day!
What is the matter?
Look, look! O heavy day!
O me, O me! My child, my only life,
Revive, look up, or I will die with thee!
Help, help! Call help.


For shame, bring Juliet forth; her lord is come.
She's dead, deceased, she's dead; alack the day!
Alack the day, she's dead, she's dead, she's dead!
Ha! let me see her: out, alas! she's cold:
Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff;
Life and these lips have long been separated:
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

O lamentable day!
O woful time!
Death, that hath ta'en her hence to make me wail,
Ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.

Enter FRIAR LAURENCE and PARIS, with Musicians

Come, is the bride ready to go to church?
Ready to go, but never to return.
O son! the night before thy wedding-day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded: I will die,
And leave him all; life, living, all is Death's.
PARIS Have I thought long to see this morning's face,
And doth it give me such a sight as this?

Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day!
Most miserable hour that e'er time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage!
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catch'd it from my sight!
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!
Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain!
Most detestable death, by thee beguil'd,
By cruel cruel thee quite overthrown!
O love! O life! not life, but love in death!

Despised, distressed, hated, martyr'd, kill'd!
Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now
To murder, murder our solemnity?
O child! O child! my soul, and not my child!
Dead art thou! Alack! my child is dead;
And with my child my joys are buried.

How did Shakespeare expect his audience to take this highly artificial scene of extravagant lamenting? First, the audience remembers that the Capulet family has repeatedly rebuked Juliet for (as they supposed) over-doing her mourning of her kinsman Tybalt (slain by Romeo in revenge for the death of Mercutio). In Act 3, scene v, though Tybalt, by the play's chronology, cannot have been dead for more than a few hours, Lady Capulet, advancing the case for Juliet to marry Paris, rebukes her daughter thus:

Evermore weeping for your cousin's death?
What, wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears?
An if thou couldst, thou couldst not make him live;
Therefore, have done: some grief shows much of love;
But much of grief shows still some want of wit.
Not just "want of wit" (i.e. derangement); excessive grief was held to border on heresy, by seeming to impugn the justice of providence, as Claudius reminded Hamlet:

Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.'
Although Claudius is of course disingenuous (since he is the undiscovered murderer of Hamlet's father), his advice is sound from the religious point of view; as is Lady Capulet's more curt advice, albeit showing a want of feeling for her daughter's grief (although she does not know that her grief is for Romeo, her cousin's murderer, rather than for Tybalt himself).

The Capulets extravagant woe over their apparently lifeless daughter lends a retrospective irony to Lady Capulet's earlier advice. This has the effect of distancing the audience from the Capulets' grief; although, since we know that Juliet is not really dead, but only sleeping, we cannot enter into their feelings anyway. Furthermore, well-meant advice that is useless because the giver of it cannot truly enter into the feelings of the person for whom it is intended is a common Shakespearian theme found already in his earliest comedies, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors. However, Shakespeare goes still further than this: the Capulets' over-use of rethorical tropes* (*for the record, as listed by the Oxford Shakespeare they are a) apostrophe: "O lamentable day!"; b) exergasia, repeating the same thought in many figures; c) repetition; d) prosopopeia, the personification of death; e) asyndeton, the omission of conjuctions; f) recurring epizeuxis, the repetition of the same word in close succession) makes one suspect that Shakespeare is sending up the whole tradition of Senecan Tragedy. Indeed, a line of Paris's ("O love! O life! not life, but love in death!") directly recalls a much parodied passage ofThomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy:

O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;
O life, no life, but lively form of death;
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs...

Evidently, a parody of the older play's bombast could be counted on for a laugh even at the end of the century; Kyd's flowery rhetoric is memorably sent up in the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet. At this point in Romeo and Juliet, however, with the action moving swiftly towards its tragic denouement, this highly stylized scene of artificial lament has struck many directors, audiences, and readers as inappropriate. For once Friar Laurence's sententious rhetoric, reminding Lady Capulet of her own earlier sentiments, in putting an end to this scene of extravagant lamenting is entirely welcome:

Peace, ho, for shame! confusion's cure lives not
In these confusions. Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid; now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid:
Your part in her you could not keep from death,
But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.
The most you sought was her promotion;
For 'twas your heaven she should be advanced:
And weep ye now, seeing she is advanced
Above the clouds, as high as heaven itself?
O, in this love, you love your child so ill,
That you run mad, seeing that she is well:
She's not well married that lives married long;
But she's best married that dies married young.
Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church:
For though fond nature bids us an lament,
Yet nature's tears are reason's merriment.
There is a strong suggestion that Shakespeare may have been trying to add "local colour" by sending up the extravagance of Italian lamentation. Under this interpretation, Friar Laurence becomes an honorary Englishman, reasserting the importance of restraining one's emotions and maintaining a "stiff upper-lip"! After this rebuke, Capulet's sad and dignified speech is more genuinely moving than his family's previous weeping and wailing:

All things that we ordained festival,
Turn from their office to black funeral;
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

This almost rescues the scene from parody. Directors have frequently gone further by cutting the preceding lamentations; indeed the "bad" quarto of Romeo and Juliet omits several lines, suggesting that even in Shakespeare's day the scene may have been cut. One wonders whether the play's earliest directors, or Shakespeare himself, realized that a scene that was written with the intention of provoking some mirth was destabilizing the tragic resonance of the play as a whole by provoking out-right hilarity among the "groundlings", and consequently reduced the scene significantly in later performances (the "bad" quarto also cuts many of Juliet's legal tropes in the scene discussed earlier). The audience's reception of the scene as originally written may have inspired Shakespeare to write a parody of his entire tragedy and play it purely for laughs as the play acted by the "mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream (which most scholars believe was written shortly after Romeo and Juliet). Theseus and Philostrate may give us an indication, allowing for exaggeration, as to how the lamentation scene in Romeo and Juliet was received by its first audiences:

Reads 'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.'
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious; for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted:
And tragical, my noble lord, it is;
For Pyramus therein doth kill himself.
Which, when I saw rehearsed, I must confess,
Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears
The passion of loud laughter never shed.

Not that laughter and death need be kept wholly separate. Earlier in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio (one of Shakespeare's superly drawn minor characters) dies as he has lived: with a merry quip and a pun.

Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.

No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Some find the pun as excruciating as Tybalt's mortal thrust itself; but it is entirely in character for the jesting Mercutio, who cannot even be "grave" about his own death. Death has the last laugh, however; only he can make Mercutio "grave", by providing him with one. Symbolically, Mercutio's death marks a change in the mood of the play, which up till then had been mostly a comedy; thereafter the tone of the play becomes, on the whole, more grave.

But not entirely, for Shakespeare was aware of how laughter and tears, life and death, are closer to each other in the real world than in the discreet genres insisted on by the neo-classical playwrights, for whom comedy and tragedy must be rigorously separated. Auden captured something of Shakespeare's understanding of life when he wrote, in MuseƩ des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood...

Shakespeare shares the Old Masters' sense of live as a tragicomedy: while Hamlet is immersed in his melancholy, the grave-diggers pun and quip amidst the remains of human existence; while the Capulets are preparing for a feast upstairs, the servants are noisily moving joint-stools and clattering pots and pans below.

The Shakespearean pun has often come in for criticism; but the pun shows in verbal form how easily tragedy and comedy may slide into one another, how closely allied are laughter and tears; as such it is eminently suited to convey Shakespeare's concept of life as tragicomedy. However, this balance between tears and laughter must be handled very acutely by the playwright, and there are signs that Shakespare temporarily lost control of this balance in Act 4, scene iv of Romeo and Juliet.


Anonymous said...

god you write a lot

Joan said...

I just looked in to gleefully view the countdown clock, and found that I had missed your revealing new spin on Romeo and Juliet. Because it is usually presented during high school, the universal human comedy aspects are mostly lost on love-lorn hormonal teenagers. But the Auden crystallizes its significance. Insightful writing, as usual. Thanks