Last night on WFHB’s Interchange I hosted a discussion about Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. You can download the podcast here: Interchange – The Prick of Noon: Romeo & Juliet.
I believe that, after Hamlet, it is the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. I also understand that some folks think it is too juvenile and too sappy. Most of us probably remember the first balcony scene, or rather, a few of the lines from that scene, like this
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
And we all smile at these expressions of a hard crush. Yes, you remember that first kiss, that first hand-holding, and that first desperation to know that your crush is crushing for you too.
And while this is THAT, it is also far more serious.
This scene follows hard upon the vulgarity of Mercutio’s jesting at love and in the jesting revealing he has no concept of love–that his jokes are crudely aimed at the sexual “game” of conquest.
This cannot anger him: ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down;
That were some spite: my invocation
Is fair and honest, and in his mistres s’ name
I conjure only but to raise up him.
If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
An open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!
Mercutio mocks “love” as he mocks the sex act–and all is act for him–uppermost in the minds of clubbed male thinking–that she be “O” (open) to his “standing pear” and the only way he could offend would be not this mockery, but rather if he were to “raise his own spirit” into the loved one’s “circle.”
In answer to this crudeness Romeo speaks to himself, “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” Which I think we should interpret as an assertion of 1) Juliet’s virginity or 2) Mercutio’s inability to know love. But it’s the nature of Shakespeare’s words to find interpretation less than “on target.”
But it’s after this aside of inexperience that there is penetration–“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” It is Juliet who wounds Romeo with a light which breaks out of her parents’ home and inspirits him. (Is it going to far to insist that “soft” means not “hard” here–that the coming consummation is not comparable to what Mercutio jests at?)
And in the light he is “new baptized;/Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”
This is the key to the human dream of peace, the dream that wakes to nightmare in the play through the machinations of institutional expectations.
Both Juliet and Romeo, in this moment of Love’s consummation, symbolic of sex via the stage directions, divest themselves of their names. To be a named thing is to be captive to the namer and the name.
Call me but LOVE. And once called LOVE there is hope.
From this baptism Romeo is reborn and in meeting a “warring” Tybalt he refuses to fight and instead offers love of the hated enemy. Tybalt, in 1.1, provides the text that Romeo seeks to erase:
What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee:
Have at thee, coward!
The tragedy of the play, of all civilization organized under physical domination, is in those three lines.
One cannot be drawn and speak of peace–but of course, that’s exactly what leading world powers do, the U.S., the chief culprit, is always drawn and speaking of peace (but this is a fact of nation-states). I find it interesting too that Tybalt hates peace AND hell while also hating the “enemy”; thus, he hates “the word”–Peace (which is love to the hero of the Gospels) and Hell. And these actions are all sprung of cowardice. Romeo responds from inside the light to counter Tybalt’s darkness–the culture’s darkness–attempting to diffuse the tribal ire. This is short-lived though, and perhaps expresses the greatest truth. There is light, but the darkness is deeper.
Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this,–thou art a villain.
Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.
Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.
I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet,–which name I tender
As dearly as my own,–be satisfied.
Romeo claims he cannot be hateful because he does not hate…he cannot be hated by “name” (the appertaining rage) because he is no longer a name, but love; he is no longer “just” Montague, but joined to Capulet–he is a cousin.
(Here, as everywhere in the play, sex is implicated alongside violence–Romeo asks Tybalt to be satisfied with his expression of love–just as Juliet chastised Romeo earlier. Where the man wants the satisfaction of coital completion he also wants the satisfaction of killing the enemy–a man “kills” the woman in sex and the woman “dies” in her orgasmic bliss.)
Where Romeo might be able to walk away, Mercutio, who knows not love, and doesn’t even know this feud, being kin of the Prince and not of either warring tribe, draws to fight against the INSULT given to Romeo.
O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
What wouldst thou have with me?
Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.
I am for you.
And in an act meant to reiterate the opening scene when Benvolio draws to break up a fight–so does Romeo now draw and talk of peace. And so he is drawn back into the masculine traditions and back into the TIME of this civil strife, drawn away from the timelessness, the infinity of Juliet’s love.
Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.
Come, sir, your passado.
Draw, Benvolio; beat down their weapons.
Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage!
Tybalt, Mercutio, the prince expressly hath
Forbidden bandying in Verona streets:
Hold, Tybalt! good Mercutio!
TYBALT under ROMEO’s arm stabs MERCUTIO, and flies with his followers
I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
And Death is all that will be satisfied.