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Department of Missed Tricks: Schama on Me

You’d think I’d have said everything that needed to be said about Simon Schama’s Shakespeare in the 6000 or so words I spent on it. But no. in writing a post for, I realized I left out an important point.

Schama wants to say that Shakespeare created the English national character and that one way he did so was by putting the common people on stage in Henry VI Part 2. Schama is of course referring to the scenes in Act IV depicting Jack Cade’s Rebellion. I could have gone on and on about how Schama glosses over the complexity of Shakespeare’s presentation (and I will do so when we get to the play in due course), but I just want to make one point I overlooked. I’m not alone. It is rarely if ever pointed out that Cade is not an independent actor, but an agent provocateur. He has been hired by Richard, Duke of York, to make trouble, facilitating Richard’s schemes to seize the throne:

And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduc‘d a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can

York had announced his intention to take power as far back as Act I. (I highly recommend York’s soliloquies delivered to the audience; he is a fascinating precursor of his more famous son—Richard III.) The rabble, so far from being the proto-proletarians they are in Schama’s world, are but pawns in Richard’s game. (As a sidelight, one would think that if they were proto-proletarians then Marx, who knew his Shakespeare much better than Schama, would have mentioned them as such. As far as I know, he does not.)

Schama might defend himself by claiming that all he actually said is that Shakespeare in Part 1 is one of the first playwrights to present a crowd scene of common people. If that were true, it would be close to acceptable, although not very interesting. But it is not true. Among other things, Schama calls Shakespeare “the first poet of class war,” which requires taking Cade’s Rebellion at face value and justifies my “proto-proletarian” persiflage. Further, Schama has to insinuate that much more is going on than a historical first, because there’s no obvious reason why Shakespeare’s putting a mob on stage helps to constitute the English national character.

Schama’s view impoverishes the complex characterization of Cade and the mob he leads, and divorces them from their context in the play. He’s even more wrong than I thought.

Romeo and Juliet–Never Was a Story of More Woe (2 of 2)

Who should choose this very moment to show up but, you guessed it, Friar Laurence:

Saint Francis be my speed. How oft tonight
Have my old feet stumbled at graves.

Now for once I’m going to go easy on the old fool. Did he really take longer to get to the crypt (which presumably is close to his cell) than Romeo took to get there all the way from Mantua? Well, yes, but this time it isn’t his fault. This is an example of Shakespeare’s manipulation of dramatic time. It wouldn’t have worked dramatically for Friar Laurence to have been waiting for Romeo; so Shakespeare has no compunction about slowing him down, even though it may not be realistic. We’ll see this effect often as we continue through the plays.

While the Friar is dithering over the corpses, his plans in ruins around his ears yet again, Juliet awakes:

O comfortable friar, where is my lord?
I do remember well where I should be,
And there I am. Where is my Romeo?
(V.iii. 148-150)

So much for her fears! She finds something far worse than the terrors she imagined: Romeo dead because the one adult she trusted has failed again. His response?

Come, I’ll dispose of thee
Among a sisterhood of holy nuns.
Stay not to question, for the Watch is coming.
Come, go, good Juliet, I dare no longer stay.

How characteristic this speech is, from the cowardly refusal to face the consequences of what he’s done to the chilling assumption that Juliet is his to “dispose of.” Again in character, the young woman proves how much stronger she is than the old man:

Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.

The lovers are alone at last, for the first time since the Aubade. But the vision Juliet’s “ill-divining soul” had as they parted then, of Romeo “dead in the bottom of a tomb,” has come horrifically true. There is only one thing left to do:

What’s here? A cup clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl. Drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them
To make me die with a restorative.
Thy lips are warm!

The authorities are near:

WATCHMAN [Within.]
Lead, boy. Which way?

Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger.
This is thy sheath.

Juliet’s death is so loaded with metaphor, from the cup to the sheath to the necrophilic kiss, that in any hands but Shakespeare’s it would be over the top. Who but Shakespeare would have the audacity to let Juliet go out with a dirty joke worthy of Mercutio?

In any case, love ends in completely avoidable catastrophe. I don’t have much to say about the ironies of the situation—it’s pretty clear what they are—except to call your attention to how expertly Shakespeare has stage-managed the action. The scene builds with the intensity of a speeding train, yet there are so many places it could have gone off the rails. To see this you have only to read (or read about) other versions of the story, such as those in which the lovers are awake at the same time and conduct a touching farewell dialogue. Think about other ways this action could have been arranged, and you will see how very effective Shakespeare’s version is.

I called the episode in which Juliet drinks the potion her Immolation Scene, but unlike Brünnhilde, she doesn’t die there. So what do we call her death scene? Easy. It is the Liebestod, the Song of Love and Death. The theme of erotic death, or consummation of love through/in death, figures in any number of myths (such as that of Pyramus and Thisbe, which Shakespeare was reworking at more or less this time) and in the original story of Tristan and Isolde, but Romeo and Juliet is its paradigmatic expression in western literature along with Wagner’s Tristan.

(Incidentally, in discussing the Aubade I nearly compared it to the duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde at the end of Act I of Die Walküre, an equally incandescent scene of lovers raised to transcendence who don’t know that they have only one night together. Since Wagner was well-versed in Shakespeare—his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, is an adaptation of Measure for Measure!—the specific comparison still strikes me as a bit of a stretch, but it’s far from impossible.)

And now we come to the end. Everybody left alive shows up more or less at once: the pages, the watchmen, Friar Laurence, the Prince, the Capulets, and Old Montague—whose wife, he will inform us, can’t be there because she has just died of grief. (In truth, one character left alive is not on the scene. Remember Benvolio? Is it significant that the man whose name means “good will” vanished quite some time ago?) They’re all in character. The Capulets:

O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!
This dagger hath mista’en, for lo, his house
Is empty on the back of Montague,
And it mis-sheathed in my daughter’s bosom.

O me! this sight of death is as a bell
That warns my old age to a sepulchre.

Old Capulet is unaware that he is making the same dirty joke Juliet did, and Lady Capulet is unaware that she is actually in a sepulcher as she speaks.

Meanwhile the Prince tries to sound as if he is in control of the situation:

Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while
Till we can clear these ambiguities
And know their spring, their head, their true descent,
And then will I be general of your woes
And lead you, even to death.

At last it is time for Friar Laurence to account for himself, which he does in an exceptionally long speech that—of course—starts “I will be brief” (V.iii.228). and concludes:

. . . if aught in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrific’d some hour before his time
Unto the rigour of severest law.

He richly deserves the death he’s asking for but I rather suspect he knows he won’t get it, as the Prince responds “We still have known thee for a holy man” (V.iii.269). Meanwhile, Balthasar reveals that Romeo wrote a suicide note to his father; it confirms Friar Laurence’s story, and the Prince pronounces:

Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.

Perhaps Old Capulet is thinking “Haven’t we been punished enough?” for he abruptly extends a hand to Montague and says:

O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more
Can I demand.

“Jointure” is the male version of “dowry,” that is, the property the husband brings to the marriage, so Old Capulet is saying that the hand of friendship is all her can ask as a wedding offering on behalf of Juliet. Even more surprising, Montague picks right up (line 297 is actually split between them, a nice, subtle touch):

. . . But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.

(Thanks to 21st-century tourism, that last couplet has turned out to be truer than Montague or Shakespeare could have imagined.)

And now that we’re all such good friends—

As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie,
Poor sacrifices of our enmity.

So Friar Laurence wins after all! Peace comes to Verona as the Montagues and Capulets settle their feud! It took the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to show the older generation its folly, but at least they did not die in vain.

It only remains for the Prince to pronounce the exordium, with its famous final couplet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings:
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

And so the tragedy ends. But what amazes me is that so many people take this ending at face value, believing that at least Romeo and Juliet did not die in vain, that their deaths will indeed bring peace to Verona. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised; I certainly read the ending that way until I started thinking about it.

Are we really supposed to believe that the Prince, who has been ineffectual throughout, at best barely able to control the violence on the streets, is suddenly going to grow a backbone and crack down? Are we really supposed to believe that Capulet and Montague, who have been at each other’s throats forever, will lie like lion and lamb once they get over their grief? Isn’t it much more likely that they will take up their feud with redoubled fury, fueled by their bitterness at the deaths of (as far as we know) their only children? We assume they are reconciled but all they’ve promised to do is to erect a couple of statues. That those statues are supposed to be gold should set off alarm bells. Remember what Romeo said to the Apothecary?

There is thy gold—worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.

You see why I called this out. The association of gold with poison subliminally conveys that this memorial is poisoned.

Everything that has transpired has been for naught. Young love has been snuffed out. The anarchic stew that is the civil life of Verona, presided over by the figurehead Prince, will roll on.

It’s Verona, Jake.

Romeo and Juliet–Never Was a Story of More Woe (1 of 2)

We’re here. Act V. Two short establishing scenes and it’s over.

First, Romeo in Mantua. A dream has given him a nebulous optimism:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breath’d such life with kisses in my lips
That I reviv’d, and was an emperor.

To us, four centuries after the world premiere, this is one of the most bitter ironies in the whole play; we know that in almost no time Juliet will find him dead and try to revive him with a kiss but will not succeed. We might also note that this is our first real encounter with one of the most pervasive devices in all of Shakespeare, the dream. Dreams in Shakespeare can offer treacherous, illusionary prophecies, like this one, or genuine ones, as in Richard III, where they also realistically depict the inner workings of a tormented mind. One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays is all about interlocking dreams, and Hamlet’s second most famous line is undoubtedly “To sleep, perchance to dream.”

I said first “real” encounter. Do you remember Romeo’s other dream? Neither do I, because before he could tell it Mercutio launched into the Queen Mab speech. But you—and Shakespeare’s first audience—will remember that the first thing Mercutio says about Mab’s doings is that “she gallops night by night/Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love” (I.iv.70-71). And that he concludes:

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 . . .

The original audience might not have had hindsight, but they would have remembered these lines, a tipoff that this dream is not to be trusted.

And then Romeo’s nascent optimism is shattered by the arrival of his man Balthasar.

Wait, Romeo has a servant? How come we haven’t seen him before?

We may have done; there’s a nonspeaking character named “Balthasar” who walks on during the Sampson/Gregory melee at the beginning, but we have no idea whether this is the same character. A servant would have been convenient for Romeo at various points in the play—and he does have a more active servant in earlier versions—but with typical economy Shakespeare needs and uses Balthasar only now, to bring Romeo the disastrously mistaken news:

Her body sleeps in Capels’ monument,
And her immortal part with angels lives.
I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault,
And presently took post to tell it you.

This is all the excuse Romeo, impulsive to the end, needs to return to Verona “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars!” [24]), despite Balthasar’s sensible counsel (“I do beseech you sir, have patience” [27]). Can he do anything for the supposedly dead Juliet? No. Would it not be more sensible to wait for confirmation from Friar Laurence?

. . .
Hast thou no letters from the Friar?

No, my good lord.

                        No matter. Get thee gone.

So much for that idea. But I really shouldn’t be so hard on Romeo. He is, as we have seen and will see, as much of a hothead as Tybalt, and if Juliet really is dead what does he have to live for? We should not be surprised to see him riding pell-mell into the jaws of death.

But first he has to buy the poison with which he will kill himself. Which requires the enigmatic little sequence with the Apothecary, a man with a severely inadequate business model. Selling poison in Mantua carries the death penalty, so it’s little wonder he is starving. This is what Romeo’s come to. This scene is often cut, for example by Zefferelli, but it is one of the many little touches with which Shakespeare deepens his themes. It’s not hard to see that the Apothecary is a distorted version of Friar Laurence. The one sells poison to Romeo; the other gives a facsimile of poison to Juliet. This vignette is cunningly placed: looking back, it all but forces us to question once again whether Friar Laurence’s role s quite as benign as he thinks; looking forward, it is another sign presaging tragedy. Note also Romeo’s parting words:

There is thy gold—worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.

Keep them in mind when we get to the very end.

Meanwhile back in Verona, another brief establishing scene, in which we learn that Friar John, whom Friar Laurence sent to Mantua, never made it with that letter for Romeo; he managed to get himself quarantined in a plague house. You’re excused if you’re thinking “Idiot! Why didn’t you give the letter to Balthasar?”—as Romeo half expected. (No doubt one reason Shakespeare withheld Balthasar until Act V was to forestall that question.) He decides to do the only thing he can, really; go to the tomb, wait for Juliet to awake, and intercept Romeo. Shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

All the pieces are in place, then. Who should be first to arrive at the tomb but the County Paris? He’s taken it into his head to leave flowers at Juliet’s tomb—in the middle of the night. It’s a private moment, so he sends his page away to stand guard. His verse hasn’t improved any:

. . .
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Romeo and Balthasar appear at this point. Like Paris, Romeo sends his man away, though Paris managed it without frenzied threats like this:

But if thou jealous dost return to pry
In what I farther shall intend to do,
By heaven I will tear thee joint by joint,
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

Romeo breaks open the tomb with a crowbar, addressing it in lurid imagery:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food.

Paris, damn fool that he is, picks precisely this moment to show his face:

This is that banish’d haughty Montague
That murder’d my love’s cousin . . .
Stop thy unhallow’d toil, vile Montague.
. . .
Condemned villain, I do apprehend thee.
Obey, and go with me, for thou must die.

For a man in a frenzy, Romeo is incredibly forbearing, giving Paris one last chance:

I must indeed; and therefore came I hither.
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
Fly hence, and leave me: think upon these gone;
Let them affright thee. . . .
. . .
Stay not, be gone; live, and hereafter say,
A madman’s mercy bade thee run away.

Never one to heed good advice, Paris stands, fights, and dies, while his page sneaks out to summon the authorities.

The action is moving too quickly for us to reflect on it, but this must make Romeo officially the best swordsman in Verona. He has now killed both Tybalt and Paris. In truth, he is what Tybalt only seemed to be; the baddest dude in town. (Yes, I really did just write that.) In fact, isn’t it mildly shocking to realize that Romeo is responsible, one way or another, for every single death in the whole play?

In any case, time has run out for Romeo. His final speech of some fifty lines is a mad scene, even though we may not think of it as one, compared with the better-known examples such as those in Hamlet and King Lear. He seems fixated on Juliet’s lack of physical decay:

O my love! my wife!
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
. . .
Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

This is hardly an unreasonable question to ask in a crypt full of rotting corpses (including Tybalt’s), but one has to think that Shakespeare is also laying on an extra brushstroke of characterization. If Romeo were not so frenzied, so bent on his own destruction that he can’t see anything else, might he at least have wondered whether Juliet is actually dead? That would be the last chance to avert tragedy, but it slips away:

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
. . .
Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.

And he does.

(To be continued . . .)

Romeo and Juliet–The Return of the Foolish Friar

Juliet’s world is shattered. Is it any surprise she makes the worst possible decision?

I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy.

You—well, I—want to shout at her “Don’t go there, girl!”  but can you really blame her? Who else does she have to turn to now?

Yet she can’t even talk to him at first, for she interrupts a conference with, who else, the County Paris. Aren’t you amazed she doesn’t scream?

They’ve met, if at all, only offstage, at the Capulet party, and we have to wonder whether that introduction went like this:

Happily met, my lady and my wife.

That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.

That may be must be, love, on Thursday next.

What must be, shall be.

That’s a certain text.

 When Juliet met Romeo their conversation formed a sonnet. Here Juliet and Paris also speak in stichomythia (one line, one line, back and forth) but the dialogue refuses to get off the ground. Juliet’s answers to Paris form couplets, which previously were associated with inauthentic feeling (Romeo’s “passion” for Rosaline) and here express barely concealed loathing. Meanwhile Friar Laurence is so perfectly in character, completing Juliet’s line with a sententious platitude that also brings the verse to a thudding halt. (Read these lines out loud and see if you get a sense of how bad the rhyme is. “Next” and “text”? Really? Note also Paris’s “may be must be, love”; you can just hear him patting himself on the back at getting off this line whose rhythm is clunkier than he thinks it is.)

Writers are always being told to show, not tell. Here’s how it’s done. Shakespeare shows us how disastrously matched Juliet and Paris would be through their verbal Ping-Pong. Here’s another exchange, to give you the flavor:

Come you to make confession to this father?

To answer that, I should confess to you.

Do not deny to him that you love me.

I will confess to you that I love him.

So will ye, I am sure, that you love me.

The plays on “confess” (in the sacramental sense to Friar Laurence, in the colloquial sense to Paris) and “love”—let alone the “him” in “I will confess to you that I love him” that doesn’t refer to Friar Laurence—are typical Juliet, but unlike her exchanges with Romeo you can feel the words being dragged out of her. Worse, Paris isn’t getting the jokes. He only has one thing in mind.

That is no slander, sir, which is a truth,
And what I spake, I spake it to my face.

Thy face is mine, and thou hast slander’d it.

It may be so, for it is not mine own.

Paris and Old Capulet agree: Juliet is a piece of property. A feisty one, though, who is suddenly getting Paris out of the way by asking whether Friar Laurence has time for some private devotion.

Spare the old priest a smidgen of pity. What a terrible moment this must be for him too. His dream of being Verona’s peacemaker lies shattered, and he’s trapped in his own chamber with a hysterical girl waving a knife around and threatening to kill herself with it (“If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/Do thou but call my resolution wise,/And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52-54), and a bit later “Give me some present counsel, or behold:/’Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife/Shall play the umpire . . .” (IV.i. 61-63; in Juliet’s mind the knife is already bloody—shades of the Macbeths). He must be a little flustered. But the scheme he proposes has all the earmarks of something he’s carefully considered over some little while:

If, rather than to marry County Paris,
Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself,
Then is it likely thou wilt undertake
A thing like death to chide away this shame
. . .

Juliet responds with the white-hot eloquence we’re getting used to. The macabre settings she describes are more terrifying here than they will shortly be when they become reality:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are. Chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel-house
O’ercover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls.
Or bid me go into a new-made grave,
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud—
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble—
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love.

Alas, the “roaring bears” cannot be the ones in the bear-baiting pits around the Globe, since Romeo and Juliet was performed before the Globe was built in 1599 (the First Quarto dates from 1597). But observe how expertly Juliet conjures the very terrors Friar Laurence has in store for her. “Chapless,” that is, jawless, skulls would have made more immediate sense to the world premiere audience; “chap” meaning “jaw” was then a usage less than fifty years old, and everyone would have seen paintings littered with such skulls, memento mori. But it’s “reeky shanks” that seems to me to have a touch of genius. A charnel house, as you’ll recall from your H.P. Lovecraft, is a building that holds the remains of exhumed dead (ah for the days when Venice had a whole charnel island, Sant’Ariano). We would expect it to contain not just whole floors paved with chapless skulls but gobbets of decaying—reeky—flesh. “Reeky” is not just superbly evocative, more than “decaying” or “rotting” and, in its slight strangeness, even more than “reeking”; it plays off the k sound in “shanks” (and further down the line in “skulls”) to evoke the sound of “dead men’s rattling bones.” Admit it: now that you’ve heard the phrase you’ll never forget it.

But I digress. Here comes Friar Laurence’s cunning plan. (Yes, Percy, of course that’s a Blackadder reference.)

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The image in the header of this site is Visscher’s 1616 panorama of London. Although the image is public domain, Annalina of has requested that I acknowledged the site as the source. I am happy to do so.

Welcome No Sweat Shakespeare to the Blogroll!

It’s a great pleasure to add No Sweat Shakespeare to the blogroll. It’s a site that offers a range of resources aimed to make Shakespeare’s language understandable to students “of all ages,” and there’s hardly a cause of which I approve more heartily. I find the site’s blog, in particular, charming and quirky; check out the latest post for a characteristic example–and pay them a visit!

Merry Christmas!

Yes, I know you all saw this story when it made the rounds back in the fall, but it’s singularly appropriate for Christmas, don’t you think? Because if Christmas means anything at all, it is a reminder that the only salvation we can ever hope to find is in community. Which is what the story is all about.

Either that, or you can put this on a loop all day. Or like me, do both: