Monthly Archives: May 2011

Romeo and Juliet: Enter Mercutio

For Juliet, the functions of adviser and bawd are combined in one person, the Nurse. For Romeo, they require two people. We’ll see his adviser, Friar Laurence, rather later. Now, as Romeo and his friends prepare to crash the party, wearing masks, we meet the man who tries to keep Romeo’s head in the gutter: Mercutio.

I’m going to try something a little different in dealing with this character. Throughout our reading of Romeo and Juliet so far, I’ve been stealing slowly up to the balcony scene, showing in detail how this play is all about language. Mercutio takes it to a whole other level. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to stick with him, even though he will take us a good deal further into the play.

Mercutio, like the County Paris, is a relative of the Prince, so he has no direct stake in the Montague-Capulet mafia war. He’s only drawn into it because he is Romeo’s friend. (Some have suggested that is he, or wants to be, much more than just a friend to Romeo. We’ll get to that later.) We meet him with the Montagues. What we notice first about Mercutio is his energy in every sense. He is a frenetic force, an instigator, most importantly a linguistic whirlwind. He is more interesting than the mopey Romeo in every way. Like the Nurse, he introduces himself with a series of dirty puns:

I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe.
Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.

And, to sink in it, should you burden love—
Too great oppression for a tender thing.

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.

If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.

So far, Mercutio is simply picking up on the bawdy implications of Romeo’s innocent language. We still speak today without a second thought about “doing it,” so “sink in it” is dirty, and “tender thing”—need I explain? “Prick,” of course, is also still in use today. Perhaps not as obviously, “beat love down” means “cause to lose an erection,” which can happen if love is rough with one. I am again being a little unfair to Romeo. In thrall to his Rosaline he may be, but he still holds up his end in this banter of fratboys about to party—a cut above Sampson and Gregory but the same kind of wordplay.

Until Romeo’s reference to having “dreamt a dream tonight” provokes Mercutio into the amazing forty-line outburst known as the Queen Mab speech. Here it is in its entirety. Skim if you must (it’s so long I doubt that any production does it without cuts), but it is worth lingering over:

O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers;
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider’s web,
Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,
Tickling a parson’s nose as a lies asleep;
Then dreams he of another benefice
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she—

Finally Romeo can’t stand it any more:

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Romeo and Juliet: The Gentle Sin Is This

So now it’s Party Time at Capulet House! And after this party Verona will never be the same. There’s much to see here but this post will concern itself with the most important event by far. Romeo and Juliet finally meet.

Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far about “fair Verona.” It is a toxic place where the forces of civil order are always one step behind the brawling delinquents on the street, where the old men who really run the show are locked in a game of Mafia Wars, where thirteen-year-old girls are forced into arranged marriages, where language itself is at the service of a debased sexuality. The deck is stacked against Young Love. The real circumstances in Verona, drawn implicitly but clearly by Shakespeare’s language, show that the mere thought of Young Love here would be childish and laughable even if the lovers’ families weren’t at war. How can any kind of love blossom in this town without pity?

And yet, and yet . . . . Love, sappy puppy love, love at first sight, does prevail. Perhaps Yeats’s Crazy Jane was right when she told the Bishop that “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” The spark that ignites Romeo’s and Juliet’s passion may be the unrealistic stuff of romance novels—Romeo literally sees Juliet across a crowded room—but just listen:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Imagine Romeo scanning the room for Rosaline, as he must be doing, and seeing Juliet instead. He must have felt he’d been struck by lightning, and the immediate result is a marked improvement in his language. The hackneyed oppositions of the Moleskine-scribbling emo boy give way to images that really mean something because they are about the specific woman in front of his eyes. The imagery may still be conventional black-white contrasts (that “snowy dove trooping with crows” is particularly clunky) but it is suddenly infused with passion. The Romeo who was infatuated with Rosaline couldn’t have come up with a couplet like

 It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—

which simultaneously compares Juliet to a star and a jewel.

But this is just the warm-up.

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Yes, It Was a Trick Question

Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the clip at the end of the post before last!

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The Battle of Britten

[Edited 24 May because I forgot to insert an intended reference to The History Boys]

I was interested to see this review of the English National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I generally like Britten’s work (I more than like his magnificent Cello Suites), but I’m not familiar with the opera, so I couldn’t possibly comment on the parallels the reviewer discerns between the staging and Britten’s personal life. However, I certainly can comment on the director’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s plot as reported in the review. There is nothing in Shakespeare to support the idea that Puck is Oberon’s abused, rejected son, and I can’t imagine how that idea can illuminate the play. (Lest you think I’m just being hopelessly conservative, I would be willing to consider a staging of The Tempest in which Caliban is the son of Prospero and Sycorax, even though it’s clearly stated that Caliban was on the island before Prospero arrived; such a staging wouldn’t be the first to discern a literal level in Prospero’s line “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”) Still less do I see any merit in the idea that Puck grew up to become Theseus and dreams the play to work through his abuse traumas. Among other things, that would simply wreck Shakespeare’s carefully arranged oppositions between the mutually impermeable realms of the fairies and the humans. Of course, this is a staging of Britten, not Shakespeare, but it sounds rather more inspired by The History Boys (brilliant, brilliant play, by the way; I was lucky enough to see Richard Griffiths in it in New York) than by the Dream. Do keep these points in mind when we get to the Dream, though, along with the question the staging gives precisely the wrong answer to: whose dream is it?

Note that I am not suggesting that this production I haven’t seen is bad—just that it isn’t Shakespeare or likely to illuminate Shakespeare. If I were in London I would certainly see it and probably be moved to reflection by it. Here is a review from the Guardian that is far less equivocal than the Telegraph’s. And here is one from with a bonus clip of a staging by our old friend Baz Luhrmann!

Baz Luhrmann Mashes up the Last Two Posts, Courtesy of YouTube

[Edited 23 May to add a further thought, expressed in the two new sentences at the end of the first paragraph.]

Thank you, YouTube and monkeydancer411! Looking for a self-contained video of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the star of the next post, I discovered that the latter has posted what looks to be the entirety of Romeo + Juliet in chunks. The one linked here, through pure serendipity, starts with the Montague parents wondering what’s up with Romeo and ends just as the Capulets’ party is about to begin—exactly the material covered in the last two posts. It’s a very interesting exercise to read along with this energetic but loose adaptation. I quite like how Luhrmann  moves up a snippet of the “heavy lightness” speech to show Leo writing the words in his Moleskine-like thingy. Didn’t I tell you he writes sappy poetry when he’s alone? This has the nice effect of heightening the artificiality when he mouths the same words to Benvolio a bit later. And yes, he is wearing black!

On the other hand, I’m really not sure what accent Paul Sorvino thinks he’s using in his brief turn as Old Capulet, but it’s atrocious. And what do you think of how Luhrmann had the beloved British actress Miriam Margolyes handle the Nurse’s speech?

Romeo and Juliet: The Case of the Naughty Nurse–and the Underage Bride

[Edited 26 May 2011 to add a thought about maidenheads that got left out of the original draft]

Meanwhile, back at Capulet House, it’s time to break the news to Juliet that she has a suitor. In her first appearance she’ll be quiet and respectful and completely overshadowed by the play’s most vivid character, her Nurse:

Nurse, where’s my daughter? Call her forth to me.

Now by my maidenhead at twelve year old,
I bade her come.

You see right away why she’s one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters: the very first words out of her mouth are a dirty joke. (Swearing on her maidenhead at twelve implies that she didn’t have one at thirteen; we think “That can’t be much of an oath,” as we recall Sampson and Gregory’s byplay about maidenheads. The joke is all the dirtier since, as we’ve already been told, Juliet is thirteen, and as the Nurse says, she “bade her come.” Yes, in this context that means what you think it means.) And she will go on and on like that—though perhaps nowhere more outrageously than in this scene. The subject turns to Juliet’s age—for no other reason, as far as I can see, than to emphasize it—and the Nurse goes to town:

Thou knowest my daughter’s of a pretty age.

Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.

She’s not fourteen.

I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth–
And yet, to my teen be it spoken, I have but four–
She’s not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?

“Teen” is an archaic word for “sorrow,” so the Nurse’s oath about her four teeth is there just to introduce the terrible pun on “fourteen.”

A fortnight and odd days.

Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.

Lammas is August 1, so we have an exceptionally precise indication both of Juliet’s age—born in the evening on July 31, she is about two weeks shy of fourteen—and of the time of the action—between, say, July 12 and July 18 (two weeks and “odd days” before August 1). But the Nurse has hardly gotten started. She knows Juliet’s age because there was an earthquake on the day she weaned her, Juliet’s third birthday. (There has been a huge amount of speculation that assumes Shakespeare is making a topical reference to a real earthquake that happened eleven years before the play’s premiere, allowing us to date that event. Unfortunately, there were too many earthquakes both in England and Verona to single one out.) And the day before that, something even more significant happened:

For then she could stand high-lone; nay, by th’ rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before she broke her brow:
And then my husband—God be with his soul,
A was a merry man—took up the child,
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘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, and 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.’

Consider the impudence: the Nurse is telling a dirty joke about a little girl in that girl’s presence and that of her mother, the lady of the house. In fact, she has the gall to repeat it. Worse yet, after Lady Capulet complains “Enough of this, I pray thee, hold thy peace,” she—well, see for yourself:

Yes, madam, yet I cannot choose but laugh
To think it should leave crying and say ‘Ay’;
And yet I warrant it had upon it brow
A bump as big as a young cockerel’s stone,
A perilous knock, and it cried bitterly.
‘Yea,’ quoth my husband, ‘fall’st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ It stinted, and said ‘Ay.’

Yes, she repeats the joke twice again, until Juliet asks her to stop: “And stint thou too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I.” (By the way, “stone” does mean “testicle,” just like you were thinking, and as for “cockerel”—do I really need to spell it out for you? Pretty much whenever you think Shakespeare may be making a dirty joke, he probably is, Beavis.)

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RomEMO and Juliet

And so the stage is cleared for the introduction of Romeo. We hear about him before we see him. Old Montague wants to know: Who started this? Lady Montague is more interested in Romeo’s whereabouts (he is the heir apparent, so this is not necessarily a hint that he’s a mama’s boy—though you might decide he is, on other grounds). What has he been doing while the rest of the clan has been brawling?

He’s been moping, if you must know. Benvolio saw him wandering around in the woods before dawn:

Madam, an hour before the worshipp’d sun
Peer’d forth the golden window of the east
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad
. . .
So early walking did I see your son.

He approaches Romeo, who avoids him:

Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood.

Old Montague chimes in; he’s heard it before:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from 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.

Though we don’t yet know what Romeo’s problem is, through this (deliberately) overblown language we already know what kind of person he is. (I want to say emo, but a crawl through the series of tubes tells me that word does not mean what I think it means. It’s evocative of the right attitude, though, and the pun in the title of this post is too good, or bad, to pass up.) Old Montague is describing a boy who, if he were around today, would be writing poetry while listening to The Cure or Joy Division by candlelight—at midday. When he appears in a moment Shakespeare doesn’t specify that he’s wearing black; but then he doesn’t have to. His characters’ language does it for him.

When Romeo appears, the Montagues retire so Benvolio can pump him for information. He doesn’t have to try very hard. Romeo quickly confesses that he is “Out” . . .

Of love?

Out of her favour where I am in love.

Seeing the aftermath of the fight, he says:

Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

And after a pause for breath he continues:

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.

You’ll notice that though Romeo goes on and on about love and how he’s in it, he says nothing whatever about the woman he’s in love with. He doesn’t even mention her name in this scene. Instead, he uses a series of trite oppositions and paradoxes (”heavy lightness,” “feather of lead,” and so on). This is our first indication that he’s not really in love. He may be in lust, infatuated, or in puppy love (we don’t know exactly how old he is, as we will be told in Juliet’s case, but he’s definitely still a teenager), but not love.

It’s also true, as scholars will point out, that Romeo is playing at being in love according to literary conventions of the time, specifically those inspired by Petrarch, the great fourteenth-century Italian sonneteer, whose poems describe his love for the abstractly described Laura. Shakespeare is mocking the drippy emo lover of a particular literary tradition. The sonnet fans in that first audience would have picked up on this, but even those who didn’t would have known that something was amiss.

But what none of them would have realized is that it’s not Juliet Romeo is in love with. It’s the mysterious Rosaline. She has no dialogue and we never see her; she’s a completely abstract figure who might as well be a figment of Romeo’s imagination. Oh, and she’s unattainable—and we all know what that does to adolescent passion:

Tell me in sadness, who is that you love.

. . .
In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.

I aim’d so near when I suppos’d you loved.

A right good markman! And she’s fair I love.

A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.

Well, in that hit you miss; she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow, she hath Dian’s wit;
And in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives uncharm’d.
. . .

Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?

She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste.

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