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

Friday, December 16, 2005

Romeo and Juliet and Pornography


The only scene in Shakespeare's plays that is filthier than the opening scene of Othello is the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. As you will recall, the play opens when underlings from each of the feuding families run across each other in a public street. Samson and Gregory, of the Capulets, announce their intention to endure no Montague insults:

Sam: "A dog of that house shall move me
to stand. I will take the wall of any man
or maid of the Montagues."

The renaissance took place in cities of medieval construction, with narrow streets, and Verona, where the play begins, is one of these. When people passed each other, the person of lesser social rank would hop politely into the gutter, allowing the more noble person to pass along the wall. Shakespeare uses this as the basis for a flare-up of Capulet/Montague tensions.

So when Samson says he will "take the wall" of any of the Montagues, he means he will force that Montague into the gutter. But recall that he specifically says he will not take the wall "of any man or maid." Why add "maid?"

I'm afraid the answer is because sex with prostitutes in that day was performed against a wall.

During my teaching career, when I taught Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders, I explained only the social rank aspect of "taking the wall," and I relied on the students not to inquire further - nor did they disappoint me. But ask yourself how you would as a teacher of ninth graders handle the next part of Act I Scene I:

Sam: "…When I have fought with the men,
I will be civil with the maids. I will cut off
their heads."

Greg: "The heads of the maids?"

Sam: "Ay, the heads of the maids, or their
maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt."

Greg: "They must take it in sense that feel it.

"Sam: "Me they shall feel while I am able to
stand, and 'tis know I am a pretty piece of flesh."

Greg: "….Draw they tool. Here comes of the
house of the Montagues."

Sam: "My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will
back thee."

Mr. Abrams, what's a maidenhead? And what's this "while I am able to stand" stuff? What's supposed to be standing? And what are all these tools and naked weapons?

Well, Suzie, a maidenhead is another word for what in Japanese is called the Shojomaku. And the rest of you raise interesting questions as well, and allow me to commend your inquisitive natures, but as I see the bell is approaching….

Actually, I skipped it, explaining to my charges that we were skipping over some dirty bits which they were free to read at home and research at their leisure, but that they would not be tested on. But my teacherly problems with Romeo and Juliet didn't end there. Shakespeare hardly lets up after the first scene. Mercutio in particular has an exceptionally dirty mouth.

But Mr. Abrams (my students actually did ask me), if Shakespeare can get away with all this dirty stuff, how can you criticize Hollywood like you always do for doing the same thing?

Because, Suzie, unlike Hollywood, Shakespeare demonstrates a high moral and aesthetic purpose, and great humanity. The dirty bits are needed for contrast. They are the muddy reality out of which the improbable and impermanent flower of R&J's love will emerge. The audience is briefly reminded of how ugly the world can be, including in its sensuality, to better appreciate the worth of something as beautiful as this (fain means reluctantly):

Jul: "Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I dwell on form – fain, fain deny
What I have spoke, but farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say "Ay,"
And I will take thy word. Yet if thou swear'st
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully….".

Let Hollywood pronounce love faithfully as well, and we will forgive them the occasional sexual reference, though actual sex scenes are to my mind never essential in storytelling. Bardseye is a proud prude, and holds that anything that happens in bed that needs to be described can be referred to without being shown.

Try naming those human cultures, across all time periods, where sex has not been private. I can think of only two:

Ancient Rome in decline, and ours.

Here's a related post from the always recommendable Generation Why.

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