A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Benvolio Deciphered


In Act I of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues are worried about their son. They ask his friend Benvolio what he knows about Romeo:

"Madam, an hour before the worshiped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from this city's side,
So early walking did I see your son.
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood,
I measuring his affections by my own,
Which then most sought where most might not be found,
Being one too many by my weary self,
Pursued my humor, not pursuing his,
And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me."

Poetry of this level today can distract from one's usual practice of posing hallucinatory Shakespearean parallels. So I won't compare Romeo's avoidance of Benvolio to Senator Clinton's avoidance of a clear position on withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Instead, bardseye will invite bardseye viewers to the bardseye classroom to decipher Benvolio:

We will start right in at line two, which has a word missing. 'Peered forth the golden window of the east.' Shakespeare left a word out to make the line scan (ten syllables; weak and then strong; duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM). Name that missing word! Naomi?

"I dunno"

'Peered forth the golden window of the east.' Hint: the missing word is between "forth" and "the." Sam?


Yes! Say it with confidence, Sam! Peered forth from the golden window. Now do you understand that line better? I will take your silence for assent. The window is golden because something is rising in the east. Not a soufflé but – Anyone? It bringeth the dawn? It's yellow? Round? Really hot? I know you're messing with me. Fine. The sun.

Moving right along. Drave, as in 'a troubled mind drave Benvolio,' is an antique spelling of a word you already know. Anyone? No one? Whose parents drave them to school this morning?

"Ah. Drove."

Correct. Good.

"Why'd he make this stuff so complicated, anyway?"

Poetry, Jethro, by definition involves complication, just as plain speech involves simplicity. Why did they add the three-point line in basketball? An increased reward follows an increased challenge - .

"They added the three-point line? There used to not be one?"

Yes. Let's proceed. Apply yourselves to the text. Pretend it is an opposing lineman, those of you who are on our benighted football team.

"What's benighted mean?"

What is our team's record?

"Zero and five."

That's benighted. Now Benvolio's troubled mind drave him to walk abroad. Today abroad means overseas but obviously Benvolio is using it differently, so ask what related meaning might it have.


Good, Jethro! Around and about. Next line: 'But he was ware of me and stole into the covert of the wood.' What does 'ware' probably mean?

"Put clothes on?"

Incorrect, James, but allow me to compliment you on a fine touchdown last weekend.


Suzie that is correct.

"Teacher's pet."

I heard that. Covert – as in covert operations – means what? Anyone? I'll give you a cookie.


Good. Shakespeare uses it as a noun, though, which we no longer do, but so what? The meaning is clear enough. Approach the Bard with a little flexibility and much of the strangeness will yield to you.

Next we have a beautiful line. 'Measuring his affections by my own.' Anyone ever do that? You are in a solitary mood, you are experiencing adolescent angst. You are Benvolio and Romeo's age, after all. You have slapped on a pair of those protective Beanpod headphones -


Whatever. I mean thank you. You have slapped them on your ears and you have pulled a sweatshirt hood over your eyes. You see a friend doing the same. Are you going to walk over and say hi to your friend? Anyone?


Correct. Just like Benvolio, you have measured his or her affections by your own. Next we have:

- 'Which then most sought where most might not be found.'

What's doing the seeking? Look to the prior line. OK, I'll tell you this one. Benvolio's affections – 'my own' – are seeking the place where they might not be found. I admit that one's hard.

He then says he is 'one too many by my weary self.' He's bad company even to himself. He so wants to be alone that he'd prefer to leave even himself behind.


I agree. Next is: 'Pursued my humor, not pursuing his.'

Humor means mood. And the subject of 'pursued my humor' is the 'I' from three lines back. The result: I pursued my solitary mood by not pursuing Romeo in his solitary mood. Got it? Now in this last line: - 'And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me.' – there's a missing word. What's missing?

"Him! – Gladly shunned him who gladly fled from me."

Excellent, Ralph! It's 'he,' actually, but let's not quibble. You got the idea. Suzie, I see your hand is raised.

"I translated the whole thing into normal English, Mr. A."

Did you?

"Yeah, like this:

'Mrs. Montague, an hour before dawn I had a
troubled mind so I took a walk in the woods
by those sycamores that run from the western
side of the city. There was Romeo! I walked
toward him but he knew I was there and he
snuck behind some shrubbery. I figured his
feelings were similar to mine, and since I was
seeking a place where I would not be found
(even by myself I felt like one too many), I
avoided him just like he avoided me.'"

Very interesting, Suzie.

"Why couldn't he just write it like that?"

"Yeah!" (multiple students)

A useful question. Allow me to explain. If you take time to reread Benvolio's speech, you will see that -,

(The bell rings).

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