Sunday, May 5, 2013

Who Talks like Shakespeare?

In the previous post, I wrote about contradictions and contrasts in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the self-contradictory wordplay comes from Romeo. He may not be clever enough to figure out that a girl with a bloom on her cheek even after two days in a crypt probably isn’t dead, but he’s terribly clever with words. His first streak of oxymorons comes in some melancholy banter he offers Benvolio. With dismay, he asks Benvolio why he doesn’t laugh, so clearly he thinks of his stream of verbal conflicts as clever and, with a sunnier delivery, potentially humorous.

We need some explicit reinforcement like this for confirmation that Romeo himself knows he has a way with words: we might be tempted to credit all the linguistic skill in the dialog to Shakespeare himself. The bard may well have had the most linguistic skill of anyone who ever lived. No one I have ever met speaks as eloquently as Shakespeare. But in his plays, everyone we meet talks like Shakespeare. So how are we supposed to take all these characters that speak his poetry? When we watch or read a Shakespeare play, are we being transported to an alternate universe in which everyone has amazing eloquence? Or are we instead supposed to take what we see as something of a translation of a more realistic story? In other words, is the lovely language just Shakespeare’s way of letting us see more deeply into the heart of the characters, or are the characters themselves capable of improvising in iambic pentameter? In Romeo’s case, the answer is clear to me: he is well versed in verse, as fully equipped for wordplay as for Swordplay. (I thought that was pretty good.)

Only this view can make the fullest sense of the beautiful exchange between the title characters at their first meeting:
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.
Romeo and Juliet aren’t just two pretty young faces who get each other’s hormones flowing at a party. If they were, we wouldn’t care about them nearly so much. Romeo is smart, so he needs a smart girl who can match him quip for quip. And Juliet is that girl. Not only can she improvise in rhyming, metrical verse, she flows right along with Romeo’s conceit of the pilgrimage. Imagine what must be going through Juliet’s head. She’s thirteen and has never thought of marriage. And then one night at her dad’s soiree, a handsome boy approaches her and starts speaking beautiful poetry, declaring her a sacred shrine and himself unworthy of her presence. Right away she lets him take her hand without protest, and within four lines he comes up with justification for a kiss. But Juliet quickly finds a way to chastely deny the kiss while still showing her interest in his affections: she accepts Romeo’s role of penitent, makes herself a saint, and reminds him that a touch of the hands is all a true holy pilgrim needs. So Romeo prays for a kiss, which St. Juliet passively grants. But the effect must have been overwhelming, since she suggests a second kiss so that Romeo can take back any impurity he has left on her lips.

I haven’t watched thirteen-year-olds at a party since I was one of them. But I don’t remember anything like this. There was plenty of hand-holding and some occasional shy kissing, but no poetry, much less nuanced, multi-level poetry. Romeo and Juliet have found something very rare and very special, and they deserve to live longer than just three more days.

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