“I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses.”
The first Shakespeare’s play I read in Yonder Days. I remember hating the story and loving the language, i.e., I still retain from that time that I came out the other side absolutely astonished at the beauty and richness of the language:
"How art thou out of breath, when thou has breath to say to me that thou art out of breath?"
The lovely thing about re-reading something is that sometimes I get to see things I didn’t the first time around:
"Two households, both alike in dignity”: I was intrigued by the use of the word "both". Shakespeare could have written: “Two households, alike in dignity”. Here nothing separates the two households from dignity. But by inserting the word "both' he separates the two households from dignity. Which is what we see in the next lines in the text. One of the tips I always use when (re)-reading Shakespeare is to focus on the boring words. I think we might miss much of what Shakespeare is up to if we focus only on the big important words. Shakespeare’s use of the word “Both” is a good case in point. Multitasking while reading Shakespeare is not a good idea...
“Two households, both alike in dignity”: to me the wonder of the language is that not only can you have this both ways but that any intimate reading I think demands that we have it both ways... the very literal level (both families "Alike in dignity", that is, both respected, high ranking families of the city), and the ironic undercut (what a bunch of undignified oafs, brawling in the street)...seemingly simple statements echo, double back on themselves, mutate...certainly not something exclusive to Shakespeare, but it happens frequently in his work. I'm a text person not a stage person so I am wondering from the point of view of the actors out there how you handle that in the moment... I would have to think it pulls you in contrary directions as a performer. I have always seen this opening line as setting the stage for the almost identical nature of the two families. Nothing that I have found in the play, and also what I’ve seen on stage, seems to dispute this fact and much reinforces it. I also like how Shakespeare avoids what could have been a way to differentiate the two families, explaining the initial cause of the dispute. That seems to be indicative of many conflicts that continue to this day, nobody knows where they truly started, but they have to be continued. I also suggests immediately both separation (opposition) in "two" and essential identity in "alike". There will be no "good" side, no war between "light" and "dark" forces, but a meaningless feud between sides which could see each other in the mirror. The word "in" suggests that both households are in something that exists outside their control. They are both stuck in a conception of dignity from which they cannot break free, thus establishing a symmetry in the families linked together by their dignity and their inevitable doom. They function as objects, i.e., objects being acted upon rather than free willed individuals.
Upon each re-reading I always wonder why Shakespeare does not reveal the reason that the families hate each other. We are told that the households are alike in dignity (social status). We are even provided with a "spoiler alert" when we learn that the "star crossed lovers" will commit suicide, resulting in a halt to the feuding between the two families. In addition, we receive the clue that the feud has gone on for a long time (ancient grudge) However, the omission of the reason for the feud leaves us wondering and imagining a variety of scenarios--just as Shakespeare must have intended. I think it is important for an author to leave a mystery for the reader to explore. In Star Wars there was a sense of mystery about the Force, what was it. Are there any reasons needed, ever? The humankind's history is filled with feuds which are completely pointless... "Ancient grudge", servants' street fight -- and general desire to feel better than someone else. Isn't this very pointlessness that Shakespeare intended the viewers to see?
“Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues”: This time around, I’m still flabbergasted that this is one of Shakespeare’s first plays. Queen Mab’s part, being no Titania, is still, for me, the best part of the play (Act 1, scene 4). It also epitomizes the core of the play; it starts in a merry mode, but Mercutio’s language and tone get darker as the play itself, symbolizing the play’s structure.
“Deny they father and refuse thy name”: On a funny note this is my favourite titbit, when Romeo compares Juliet to the sun, and her eyes to the stars, but she more consciously imagines removing him from society. Just priceless! Maybe this is what love is all about...
The play does move through contrasts. We have the prologue which tells us the ending so there is no suspense even if we didn't know the plot, which everybody did, it was a common story. So we see a frame which is dignified by the prologue but then is broken by the crude jokes and surly boy servants...who go totally out of control for no reason. Then the father's jump in and it all escalated until we have as usual plenty of bleeding or dead bodies. Then by contrast the Duke rides in and yells at everybody commanding them to stop the fighting on pain of death. And establishes the fact that they have these fights all the time. But his order, his threats don't work either. Nothing stops the hatred until we see Romeo and Juliet in love and we contrast their love with the senseless hate. Finally the tragedy of their deaths breaks through the hatred and ends it. But we seesaw back and forth, scene by scene between these passions, passionate hatred and passionate love until the suicides. Some people blame the nurse of the friar for going behind the parent’s backs. There is great dignity in the final scenes, but at what price?
So. What’s my “truth” about Romeo and Juliet? Romeo and Juliet is a play about the misgivings of wisdom, and the absolute power of the heart over the brain. Here are two young people, who oftentimes are criticized for being immature and inexperienced, yet in the middle of a turf war between two brutal houses resulting in death after death, Romeo and Juliet are the only two brave enough to make peace! And what inspires that peace? Socratic Method? Pontificating? Cool-headed discussion? No! Teenage proclivity for, well, conjugation. Some good old fashioned animal instinct driven (with a little help from the wheels of fortune) face licking. Romeo and Juliet dare to defy the ways of their parents who appear to be more than happy with the status-quo. Tybalt tries to kill Romeo, and what does he do? Lay up his sword and proclaim his love for his secretly-cousin-in-law - until Tybalt goes and screws that up.
Romeo and Juliet represent the generation younger, the generation ephemeral and passionate, the generation not turned callous in habits cemented during the noon years of life; Romeo and Juliet represent the same generation that would take up twitter as a tool for civil disobedience, or a tool of entertainment, or simply put a tool for romance. Meanwhile, we The Men and Ladies of Capulet and Montague, sit in our ivory tower telling the Romeos and Juliets what "should be done" and "must be done" because that is "the old way; the right way" being blind to the virtue of immaturity and spontaneity.
I still couldn’t care less for the love story itself. After all these years I still think it doesn't live up to its reputation. For me this time around the crux of the matter was still language (I’m repeating myself…). Love-story-wise it’s one hell of a soap opera. It has all of (the right) ingredients: dying at the end in each other’s arms, everyone going berserk; falling in love with someone that your elders do not approve of; key phrases/words placed in the right places (e.g., ”learn me how to lose a winning match, /played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods”, drawing your weapon, laying knife aboard, forcing women to the wall, thus creating a vivid contrast with the purity of Romeo and Juliet's love and language); your elders repenting of their sins after everyone worth caring for is already dead, etc.
With so much soap-opera-ness how was Shakespeare able to produce this marvel? I don’t know what you call it, but I call it genius. With the all too common ignorance of ourselves and our motives caused by repression and projection, Shakespeare often gives us people who are saying the exact opposite of the truth. The Greeks liked to use blindness as a metaphor for repression. Hence Freud's notorious Oedipal Complex. But this problem of a superficial, ignorant banter that has little to do with reality is very common in theatre because many plays are about crises that force us into the self-awareness that we try to avoid but cannot. Much of Shakespeare explores this subconscious world.
NB: Off-topic. I’ve always been intrigued by the similitude between Shakespeare and Camões. What's with Camões and Shakespeare? Camões' lyrical poetry has also a double fascination for me. First, before Shakespeare he was writing lines like "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", thus also creating poems of wonderfully lucid wit and beauty like Shakespeare. Second, the lyrics show us his progress towards being the poet who would write "The Lusíads" later on.
NB2: Also off-topic. I read it in tandem with the latest Blutengel album “Omen”. Probably affected the way I re-read the play in ways I couldn’t even begin to fathom…dark romanticism befitting Shakespeare’s play (“Asche Zu Asche”, “Dein Gott”, Stay with Me).
NB3: Also off-topic. I read the play it in tandem with the BBC version with Alan Rickman (as Tybalt), John Gielgud (as the Chorus) and Anthony Andrews (as Mercutio). Absolute crap. Anthony Andrews and Alan Rickman are absolutely hilarious. At times I thought I was watching a Comedy…