bardseyeview

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Romeo Decoded

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Except for his love of Juliet, Romeo is a bit of a Hamlet. We first hear of him brooding in the sycamore trees, avoiding his friend Benvolio and hiding from the sun in his room. When Ben questions him, Romeo offers a Hamletty discourse on love, one which sees both sides to the point of paralysis:

Rom: "O heavy lightness, serious vanity
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, …"

And:

Rom: "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet."

To the chagrin of our romantic hearts, the love Romeo professes is not for Juliet but for some other girl named Rosaline. It will occur to the reader to therefore wonder if the Bard is serious or tongue-in-cheek when it comes to love.

How are we to tell? Bardseye suggests a taste test. Compare the above Rosaline poetry to the poetry the Bard later gives to Romeo to describe Juliet:

Rom: "O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows."

Which are the Arabica beans and which are the mere Robusta? Which is the real turtle soup and which is only the mock? It seems clear (to me) that with the Rosaline-related lines Shakespeare is toying with the clichéd conceits of the standard love poetry of the day. It's the mark of a great poet to willingly dumb down his own poetry purely for fun and effect.

Shakespeare lets us know even before Romeo himself does when the feelings he professes represent true love or puppy love. And would that we had such a barometer to measure the feelings of all those to whom we grant power over ourselves, whether our lovers or our country's leaders. Hard as it is to tell, alongside the question of whether we agree with someone we should also ask, does this person love us (or our country) above him or herself, as Romeo loves Juliet? Or is their love only an imagined pose, one that they themselves may believe in, as Romeo believes in his love for Rosaline, but that at heart is affected only because they like the way they feel when they're feeling that way. Mercutio suggests Romeo's desires are earthier than he realizes:

Mer: "If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down."

Bardseye disagrees with John McCain on most issues, but feels that, egocentric as he may be, he still places our country before himself. The same goes for President Bush and Rudy Giuliani among Republicans and John Lieberman and Democratic '08 contender Russ Feingold among Democrats.

I would think that each of these Americans would surrender their personal ambitions to advance the country in their preferred direction – an operational definition of love of country. (Bardseye is not so sure that Hillary Clinton would surrender her ambitions in exchange for moving the country in her direction. And for those who disagree, bardseye has an additional question to ask: Which direction is that?)

Anyhoo, as a touchstone for the sacrifice we should ask of those we entrust with power over ourselves, whether as leaders or lovers, here is the sacrifice Juliet offers to remain faithful to Romeo, and to avoid marrying Paris, the man pressed on her by her parents:

Jul: "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'ercovered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chopless skulls;
Or hide me with a dead man in his tomb –
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble –
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstained wife to my sweet love."

Juliet's speech reminds Bardseye of the response he received from a number of the young women he made bold to ask out in high school. Sure, Jeremy, I'll go out with you – just as soon as I jump off of this battlement….

Hope you enjoyed!
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