Romeo and Juliet: The Unkindest Cut (1 of 2)

Happy new year! Happy Chinese New Year! It’s been a long time, I know, but we’ll be posting more regularly this year. As with the first part of this multipart post, which has been gestating for no little while.

Possibly the best thing about writing this blog is working closely through a passage in Shakespeare and realizing, in a flash: This is even better than I thought. I knew this soliloquy of Juliet’s is singularly beautiful and moving, but didn’t understand how much was going on until I sat down to explain it to you. I hope I convey the exuberance of that discovery.

When we left off with Romeo and Juliet we’d looked at Act II scene v, where Juliet learns, despite the Nurse’s withholding the information as long as possible, that Romeo does want to marry her. Since the joy of the marriage catastrophe has intervened, and we pick up at Act III scene ii, with Juliet, ignorant of the terrible events of the morning, again waits for the Nurse (who has been tasked by Romeo with obtaining a rope ladder with which he can get into Juliet’s bedroom).

Juliet opens this scene with an astonishingly beautiful speech that is also bitterly ironic in light of what we know and what she doesn’t. It’s not just beautiful, it’s key to the story thematically and imagistically. You may remember my complaint that one of the worst sins of Zefferelli’s adaptation was cutting it. Here I explain why.

JULIET

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.

In case you need a refresher on your mythological imagery, Phaethon was the son of the sun god Helios; he lost control of his father’s chariot, and had to be slain by Zeus before the Sun crashed into the Earth. So, clearly, Juliet is venting her impatience; she’s urging the Sun to set right now and night to come so that she can be with Romeo. More than impatience, desperation; she’s willing to see the Earth destroyed by Phaethon’s fiery crash if that’s what it takes.

But hold on a minute. Is this passage really saying nothing more than “I wish it would hurry up and get dark so I could be with Romeo?” Then why doesn’t she just say that? Isn’t this a perfect example of the obscure language that has turned off generations of students to Shakespeare and led some pundits (as before, I’m not going to link to them) to propose that he be “translated”? Why does Shakespeare use, and why should we have to read, indirect language (Metaphor! Simile!) that has to be explained? I have three points:

  1. Things have to be explained? Boo hoo. If you don’t understand something, look it up; it’s easier than ever. I hear they have this thing called Google now. Not knowing or not understanding something is a good thing, a spur to your curiosity. You are curious, aren’t you? If not, there are plenty of websites that track the straightforward, easily understood sayings of the Kardashians.
  2. Heightened language is what’s appropriate to Juliet’s character and what she is experiencing. There are many, many characters who speak in a straightforward “on the nose” (as they say in Hollywood) manner. There are probably even some in Shakespeare. But that isn’t the kind of person Juliet is or the kind of experience she is undergoing. She is in the full flush of first love. She’s consumed with impatience and longing and passion, emotions she’s never felt. She doesn’t just want it to be night, she wants it to come like a racehorse. She wants it bad enough to risk setting the Earth on fire—and destroying herself. Do you really expect her to express all that like a Valley Girl?
  3. Language is so much more exciting when it does more than one thing at a time. One of the lovely things about this passage is how it mirrors Juliet’s emotions; Earth may be safe from Phaethon, but she is already on fire. Juliet’s language may verge on the operatic, but that’s exactly what is called for in these circumstances. It’s not just a device of characterization but of character development. This is not a thirteen-year-old girl talking. This is a girl rocketing toward womanhood. Her chariot is as out of control as Phaethon’s. Just wait until she loses her virginity!

All this in four lines. Still think Shakespeare needs to be “translated”? Be my guest.

One thing that’s so amazing about Romeo and Juliet, one thing that justifies our paying attention to it after 400 years, is how Shakespeare transforms puppy love (she’s thirteen) into Western culture’s archetype of romantic love. For that to happen, Juliet must become not just a woman, but a woman as formidable as Lady Macbeth. This speech is one of the places where that happens. And Zefferelli dropped it in exchange for the excruciating earworm “A Time for Us.” Shall we pick up where we left off?

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