Feb 26, 10
poets, and young, angsty people
Read from February 22 to 25, 2010, read count: 2
"Hey! I'm eatin' here!"
So you're at a nice outdoor cafe one day, eating your lunch, and all of a sudden some fool kids come running through the square with their swords out (apparently they've got some strong Second Amendment advocates in Verona) and insist on skewering each other right there in front of you in the square! And seriously all you want to do is just eat your (damn fine, not that anyone asked you) pasta and get back to work before your lord finds some excuse to fire you. But nooooo, instead you've gotta deal with a whole lot of screaming, panicky, dangerous crowds rubbernecking around (and betting on) these rich kids fighting over who knows (or cares) what and there's no way you're gonna get back in time.
Yeah.. that's about the read I got from Shakespeare on this play. This is an excellent deconstruction of the elements that make up major Greek tragedies, breaking it down into parts and fitting them into modern day (or it was then) society. Shakespeare was a great adapter of older tales retold to suit his own purposes, and here, it shows.
So there's this Greek story, right? It's set up on this grand scale, with major, crashing chords that are played over and over throughout the tale. There's the Greek chorus, of course, at the beginning and then somewhere in the middle to remind us what it is we're watching. There's a good deal of sky imagery to go along with this invoking of the old gods- moons, suns, clouds, night, stars, dreams, even the otherworldly fae("Juliet is the sun," "the lark the herald of the dawn" "take him and cut him into little stars", the Queen Mab speech, tons of other examples). By the same token, the gods of the Underworld are equally called to witness- lots of death, grave, earth imagery as well (examples: too many to count). These extreme terms are then often juxtaposed next to each other ("wedding bed/grave" is probably the most frequently used, for obvious reasons) throughout the course of the tale.
Through this, Shakespeare shows you just how seriously his main characters take everything that's going on. Especially Romeo and Juliet, of course, but also all the other family members of the Capulets and Montagues (with the exception of Mercutio). Everything is on a Grand Scale. Everything is the Most Important Thing Ever! Nothing could be more Lofty!....
Until Shakespeare quite strongly states his opposition to that idea.
He thrusts this Grand Tragedy into the midst of a bustling, thriving city, where the participants must brush elbows with and be interrupted by the every day facts of life. He uses each stupid mistake to show us all the ways the end we know is coming could have been and should have been averted, were it not for the stupidest thing that could possibly happen happening in every single scenario. I ended up thinking this after seeing all those scenes of servants at the Capulet house preparing for parties, servants running about the city with messages, escorting Nurse on her errands, inserting a plague that prevented the letter from getting to Romeo. While the two teenage idiots are upstairs enacting this farce, life is happening all around them, and they are just way way too self-centered to see it. Juliet is a bit more aware than Romeo, though. She understands the conflict between the two families, what it will likely mean for them, what she needs to do to get what she wants, and how to accomplish it. And yet... even she is so centered on the fulfillment of what she wants she can barely pause to think of others. There's a great little moment when Nurse comes back from seeing Romeo in the square and Juliet is really impatient to hear what he had to say. Nurse is all 'I'm old! I'm out of breath, give me a second!' Juliet doesn't seem to really care if she dies on the spot, so long as she gets the information she wants, and then Nurse says, accidentally, the words that I think explain this whole play:
Your love says, like an honest gentleman, and a
courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and, I
warrant, a virtuous,--Where is your mother?
EXACTLY. She's THIRTEEN, you guys. That's exactly what he SHOULD have said when he met her, and didn't. You know why? 'Cause Romeo's a virgin who really really would prefer not to be. He tells the Friar that he likes Juliet instead of Rosalind now because she loves him back and will presumably have sex with him whereas Rosalind would not. Friar's great response: "O, she (Rosalind) knew well/Thy love did read by rote and could not spell."
Just another case of why True Love Waits is a poor plan! If only Romeo had himself a girlfriend, this whole thing could have been avoided.
This play displays the soul of adolescence. Both positive and negative. Negative seems to be more promiently on display at first. The characters are self-centered, impatient, convinced that if what they want doesn't come true the way they want it to, the whole world will end. There's also another big adolescent theme: masks. Teenagers spend a lot of time trying to figure out what face they want to wear to the world, what they want to present themselves as, so it makes sense that there's tons of masks, hiding (lots of hiding) and subterfuge going on here.
What's interesting to me though is that it also shows the other side of adolescence, the part that's thinking about growing up, but can't quite leave behind his childish things. One major example of this to me the influence of several characters on Romeo- Mercutio and the Friar, even Benvolio. It seems to me that they're starting to get through to the guy in the short time he's there. Especially Mercutio. He gets him to go to the party, gets him to laugh and joke again, and manages to give him some fine counsel into the bargain. I witnessed a lot of echoes of Mercutio coming out in Romeo... they just don't seem to quite take hold. For instance there's Mercutio's magnificent Queen Mab speech, which he follows up with: "True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind"
Ie, don't take all these heart burnings so seriously, kid! Romeo does appear to consider this later, though he does dismiss it. Similarly, the Friar's long speech about manhood (ie, his great smackdown of how why Romeo is terrible) seems to get to him, even Benvolio's urgings that he'll find someone else to love at the banquet seem to have worked (if not quite in the way he intended). He just couldn't quite get there. Juliet herself... well, I think we see a lot of the mature woman that she could have become- but she doesn't have a woman's experience or resources yet and she ends up giving up rather than having the opportunity to grow. Which, funnily enough, her father predicts in the first act when Paris asks for her hand in marriage with: "Younger than she are happy mothers made," and the dad answers with, "And too soon marr'd are those so early made." Of course, he then proceeds to do the opposite of his own advice, but I don't think that undermines the message.
Elizabeth mentioned in her review that she thought there were a lot of comedic elements in this play. I agree- what with the servant characters, the stupid mixups, and that raillery that takes place between the minor members of the family, and that one Romeo/Mercutio scene before the Nurse interrupts them. My closest guess is that was Shakespeare saying, "Look! I could be writing this! But instead, you people want to see this stupid stupid tale enacted stupidly, so I can't! I can write this soapy crap if you want me to, but this isn't who I am."
Or, as Mercutio says:
"Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature:
for this driveling love is like a great natural,
that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole."
And yet... for all of that annoyance, that satire, that social criticism, that biting realism... for all of that, Shakespeare still gives this tale a beautiful sympathy, putting gorgeous words into the mouths of his leads. He makes Romeo and Juliet people, people you can envision and who you know, people you don't want to see die, in spite of all their errors right there in front of you. He respects the beauty in the craziness, explores it in wonder. He was, after all, a storyteller, and if this was a story to affect people, it deserved to be told and told as well as he knew it to be in him to do, with a understanding that extends from his characters to the audience that wanted to see it.
It is worth reading. Even if you think you've heard it all before. After all, even if you don't like it it is "not so long as (it) is a tedious tale."