Monday, April 22, 2013

In which Alyssa Rosenberg scolds like it's 1562


Alyssa Rosenberg* does not find Romeo and Juliet dramatically satisfying or morally wholesome:
Romeo and Juliet—a play about children—is full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love. And as much as I want to see more interracial couples in pop culture and more diverse casts on stage and screen, I don’t want to see them cast in material that is so horribly depressing.  

Romeo and Juliet itself hasn’t aged well. The story follows Juliet Capulet, who is 13 when she meets Romeo Montague at a party, falls head over heels in love with him, and marries him within a day of meeting him. Romeo's age isn't specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man. ..

..the vision of Romeo and Juliet's deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a "won't they miss me when I'm gone" pout. There's a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony's death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.
Perhaps inadvertently, Rosenberg has reproduced the moral judgment first leveled by the author of Shakespeare's source story, Arthur Brooke, whose Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562, begins with a preemptive strike against any reader tempted to identify with the star-crossed lovers: 
And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th' attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.
Now, I'm a little prejudiced, since my libido officially launched with my rediscovery, circa 1972, of Zeffirelli's 1968 version (set in a meticulously reconstructed Renaissance Verona and so not suffering from chrono-vertigo that Rosenberg complains of). But since it spoke so to my passions, and I still often find myself babbling fragments of the text to my wife, I feel compelled to defend it.

Of course the lovers are  impulsive, imprudent, impudent and ultimately impossible. They are also idealistic, honorable, wholehearted, generous, and fiendishly clever with language, which gives them (and us) a basis to believe that they have the potential to love not just with their eyes but with their hearts, to reverse Friar Lawrence's charge against Romeo (which Rosenberg also echoes) when the latter first confesses his love. They inspire in each other pretty much the best verbal foreplay in the English language:
[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

You kiss by the book (I.v. 95-112).

And then, an hour or so later, maybe the most intense expression of romantic love ever:
O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?

What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?

The exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine.

I gave thee mine before thou didst request it:
And yet I would it were to give again.

Wouldst thou withdraw it? for what purpose, love?

But to be frank, and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite (II. ii. 125-134).
You can deconstruct western notions of romantic love, and in particular love at first sight, all you want, but to use such analytical tools to beat the drama out of the play is to succumb to an updated version of Brooke's prudery. The collision of the lovers' idealistic, sublimated energy and destructive youthful impulsiveness is the point, or rather the source of the play's drama. All that's required is two young people with chemistry to sweep away the moral disapprobation with which the story was first introduced to us.

*Hat tip to, you guessed it, the Dish.

Postscript: Noah Berlatsky, in an interesting response to Rosenberg, suggests that Romeo and Juliet is about childishness, or rather that it's a meditation on the permeable, sometimes interchangeable conditions of youth and age.  That's true, and it points to a larger fact about the play that Rosenberg's complaints about the lovers' immaturity obscures: it is not primarily the young people's impulsiveness that gets them killed, but their parents' rooted, unreasoning hatred.  The play is about mortality and human self-destructiveness. "Fair Verona," where "civil blood makes civil hands unclean," is a microcosm of fair-but-fallen human society.  The lovers try to sweep away the bacillus of inherited hate with the boundless bounty of their love, but in the play's other moment of passion unbridled Romeo succumbs to the revenge ethos that defines the city's social life: away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now, he exhorts himself before posing his mortal challenge to Tybalt. The Prince, who unsuccessfully seeks by threat of law to end the blood feud, does not, in his closing pronouncement, inveigh against the lovers' passion, but rather, berates the bereft parents: see what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. When the play is well done, and the lovers tug your heartstrings, it's hard not to assent emotionally to that takeaway.

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