Monthly Archives: June 2012

Heaven Help American Education

I’m listening right now to a report on the discovery of the remains of The Curtain on US National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition that began by explaining how important plays had premiered there, such as Henry V. The presenter, Rachel Martin,  is supposed to be a reasonably well educated, sophisticated American woman, some with authority for other reasonably well educated White People. And she says of the one play that tells us it’s being played at the Globe that it premiered at the Curtain.

I don’t know what more to say. I really don’t.

Postscript: Well, perhaps I can say that I consulted the introduction to the Arden third and the editor, T.W. Craik, notes that the Globe may not have been ready and that Henry V “may” have premiered at the Curtain. Given the uncertainty, though, it was a reckless choice for the report.

Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 2 of 2)

(Picking up where we left off in the previous post . . .)

So much for the Nurse and my point 4. What of the heart of the story, the passion of Romeo and Juliet? In Brooke, it is a damp squib. So far from the all-consuming fire we know from Shakespeare, so far from a balcony scene that happens immediately after the Capulet banquet, in Brooke Romeus spends six months mooning under the balcony. That’s not a lover: that’s a stalker. As for the actual words the lovers speak, as Peter King put it in his e-mail to me: “frankly, the lines Romeus and Juliet exchange at the party are really bad. It’s like the
love dialogue in Attack of the Clones. Maybe not as good.” Remember, this is the scene in which Shakespeare has the lovers speak a sonnet in alternating lines. Could there be a better example of how Shakespeare has deepened, improved, and transcended his source material?

Well, maybe. This is Brooke’s version of the Aubade:

Thus these two lovers pass away the weary night,
In pain and plaint, not, as they wont, in pleasure and delight.
But now,somewhat too soon, in farthest east arose
Fair Lucifer, the golden star that lady Venus chose;
Whose course appointed is with speedy race to run,
A messenger of dawning day and of the rising sun.
Then fresh Aurora with her pale and silver glade
Did clear the skies, and from the earth had chaséd ugly shade.
When thou ne lookest wide, ne closely dost thou wink
When Phoebus from our hemisphere in western wave doth sink,
What colour then the heavens do show unto thine eyes,
The same, or like, saw Romeus in farthest eastern skies.
As yet he saw no day, ne could he call it night
With equal force decreasing dark fought with increasing light.
Then Romeus in arms his lady ‘gan to fold,
With friendly kiss, and ruthfully she ‘gan her knight behold.
With solemn oath they both their sorrowful leave do take;
They swear no stormy troubles shall their steady friendship shake.

Shakespeare gives us the back and forth, the mercurial shifts of emotion of real human beings in love, brilliantly externalized in the what-bird-is-it byplay. Brooke gives us conventional images (Lucifer, Venus, Aurora, and Phoebus!), his usual labored verse, and some downright weird behavior from his characters. Where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually make love, Romeus waits until it’s almost dawn and time for him to fly before he even embraces Juliet—after which they exchange a “friendly” kiss. It’s true that the OED does give “lover” as one sense of “friend” and cites instances in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Measure for Measure, but it cautions that this is not a usual sense (it certainly isn’t now, when the line “I just want to be friends” signals a crushing disappointment rather than a consummation). It actually does seem to be Brooke’s sense, though, since Romeus and Juliet don’t betray any interest in intimacy.

In short, everything that makes the Aubade at once so beautiful and so heartrending is Shakespeare’s contribution.

Continue reading

Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 1 of 2)

Occasionally—only when dealing with matter other than the works of Shakespeare themselves—I adopt the motto “I read ‘em so you don’t have to.” Alas, sometimes I’m too late to save you from yourselves. Thus it was that my dear friend Peter King, professor of philosophy and medieval studies at the University of Toronto, asked me whether Shakespeare was really responsible for what I praised as his clever use of Friar Laurence to cover up a major plot hole—and before I could post, answered his own question by reading Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562). Before any of the rest of you make the same mistake, this post provides you with as much about this, Shakespeare’s principal source, as you’ll ever want to know. Brooke’s 3,020-line poem is worth knowing about as a vivid case study in Shakespeare’s transmutation of his sources. Not even I have the cheek to call Shakespeare the Rumpelstiltskin of literature, but if you want to see him spinning dross into gold, look no further.

The Romeo and Juliet story originates in folklore, but narrative versions can be traced back to fifteenth-century Italy. The introduction to the stand-alone Oxford edition gives an account of the Italian novelle that relate the tale and that Brooke drew upon. (Brooke’s poem is the first version of the story in English; William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, on which Shakespeare also drew for other plays, came some years later.)

We know nothing about Brooke except that he published Romeus in 1562 and died in a shipwreck a year later. Romeus contains pretty much everything you would read in a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet, but it all comes down to the details.

The first obstacle to overcome if you actually try, against all my entreaties, to read Romeus is the style. We’re used to blank verse, the unrhymed iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and Marlowe, because pretty much everything we still read from the Elizabethan period (let alone later) was written in it, but it was not the only verse form popular at the time. In particular, Romeus is written in a form called “poulter’s measure,” consisting of alternating lines of iambic heptameter (so-called fourteeners, with seven feet and fourteen syllables) and hexameter (six feet, an alexandrine). This page has examples and a good explanation of the various forms, including poulter’s measure, related to the “common measure” used for hymns.

But since you’ll be very hard put to find anything recent written in poulter’s measure, here is the opening of Romeus:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;
Built in a happy time, built on a fertile soil
Maintained by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toil
The fruitful hills above, the pleasant vales below,
The silver stream with channel deep, that thro’ the town doth flow,
The store of springs that serve for use, and eke for ease,
And other more commodities, which profit may and please,–

I think this gives a pretty clear sense of how alien this verse form feels to us modern readers. We are not used to alternating lines of different lengths (yes, I know about The Star-Spangled Banner) and I, at least, experience them as having a distracting start-stop quality. I kept getting thrown on the short line expecting the extra foot and vice versa. That meant that I kept counting syllables, which was even more distracting.

Go ahead and chalk that up to my failings as a reader. That doesn’t change the fact that Brooke is a terrible versifier. Look at that opening again:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;

The man is shameless, or clueless, enough to torture the syntax into “Verona men it name” just to get the rhyme with “fame”—and this is only the second line of the poem. I’m not going to belabor these formal features (not even “profit may and please” to rhyme with “ease” at the end of this excerpt). Just take my word for it that they don’t get any better, and that they make for an extremely trying read.

More important, of course, is Brooke’s version of the story. How does it compare with Shakespeare’s? What did Shakespeare take from it and what did he add? Consider the half-dozen or so most striking things we have seen about Romeo and Juliet:

  1. The atmosphere of Verona, a town without pity whose combination of gang violence and family tyranny is as oppressive as its externalization, the August heat;
  2. The great set pieces between Romeo and Juliet—the balcony scene, the Aubade, the tomb;
  3. Juliet’s evolution from child to something more than woman, and her glorious soliloquies;
  4. Mercutio and the Nurse;
  5. The electrifying shift from comedy to tragedy that pivots on the duel;
  6. Friar Laurence’s delusions of grandeur and his farcical attempts to manipulate the action.

These are at least some of the features that make Romeo and Juliet what it is. Would you believe that none of them can be found in Brooke’s poem in recognizable form? Continue reading

My Latest Post for!

Here is my second post for As you’ll see, it is a fairly casual reaction–a big fat yawn–to the recent news that the “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha has added the works of Shakespeare–from an unspecified textual corpus–to its database. Despite some buzz in the uninformed press, the result is equally useless to students and scholars.

I have finally managed to find a copy of Brian Vickers’s Shakespeare: Co-Author on sale for less than $50; once it arrives I expect to use it as a springboard to further thought on these issues about databases, particularly in view of recent developments such as the half-baked attribution to Middleton of parts of All’s Well That Ends Well that I mentioned some time ago. Stylometry and attribution studies and the relation between them are definitely up-and-coming topics; I’ll try to keep you informed on a nonspecialist level.