Saturday, February 24, 2007

Understanding (and misunderstanding) Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

One of the most famous misunderstood lines in all of literature is Juliet's balcony query: "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

As most of you probably know, the archaic "wherefore" means "why." But the misconception that the word means "where" persists, even though the latter would make no sense in the context of the scene: Juliet is musing to herself and Romeo is eavesdropping, overhearing her words without her knowledge. She's certainly not searching for him at that moment.

Shakespeare is difficult, and it's not just because of his use of outdated words that require explanation in order to understand (well, we can hardly blame him; they weren't outdated at the time). We're simply not accustomed to hearing such sophisticated speech and being able to divine meaning from its poetry, its playful images and complex metaphors. Apparently in Shakespeare's day people were more adept at that, but it's since become a lost art.

Studying Shakespeare with a good teacher can bring the words and their meaning alive in a way that makes the plays the beloved masterpieces that they have been for centuries. I once had such a teacher; we'll call him Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones was an ex-actor with a vaguely British accent crossed with a hint of a Jamaican lilt. He was also a black man at a time when African American teachers weren't all that common, back in my junior high school days. How he ended up at my school I don't know, nor do I know much else about him except that he lived with his elderly mother.

Mr. Jones was very big on reading aloud. He had an old-fashioned over-the-top rhetorical style, a huge voice left over from his days treading the boards of un-miked stages, and a fearless disregard for giggle-prone eighth-graders. He would declaim in that commanding voice, and his presence would stifle any desire to laugh. The sounds would wash over us impressively, even if the meaning eluded us.

But he wanted us to understand the meaning, as well. And to this end we spent months studying Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." One would think that this work would be the best choice among all Shakespeare's plays for a bunch of eighth-graders, and one would be right. After all, Juliet, at fourteen, could have been an eighth-grader herself.

But she wasn't like any eighth-grader we'd ever known. And Romeo was no better. What were they talking about? It seemed an impenetrable thicket of verbiage.

Mr. Jones tackled the whole thing by making us read every single word aloud. He called on some students to act out each part for a few pages, then switched to other students, and on and on, right to the last line. It took months. No matter how embarrassed we were, or what poor actors we were, or how we stumbled and faltered, we had to read those words. And he was big on non-traditional casting, too; he'd sometimes call on the boys to read the female parts and vice-versa. Talk about embarrassment!

One boy, Carl Anderson, who had the platinum hair and fair skin of his Norwegian forebearers, blushed scarlet every time he was called on to read. Then he'd blush even more startlingly scarlet as embarrassing words were revealed ("Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!"). But read he did.

Some read in monotones, some gave it pizazz. And then, after every couple of lines, Mr. Jones would have them pause and try to explain the meaning. If they couldn't guess, the class would tackle it. If all else failed, Mr. Jones would tell us. But, line by line, the wonderful and sorrowful story emerged, and we slowly got better at deciphering it.

As the characters came alive for us, line by line, Shakespeare (and Mr. Jones) managed that feat at which the writers of so many modern movies fail abysmally: making us care about the characters, and making us believe the lovers actually love each other, and showing us why. We loved Romeo and Juliet, too; and we could see that they were exceptionally well-suited to one another, each able to express emotions in ways no other teenagers ever have or ever will.

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at the ball, they have a conversation in which both show an equal adeptness at imagery and playfulness. The whole scene is an extended metaphor that compares the religious (the hands in prayer) with the sexual (the lips in a kiss).

Classier pickup lines were never heard, at least not in my life:

ROM: 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.

Juliet plays hard-to-get with an equally witty rejoinder:

JUL: 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.

Ah, but Romeo is not so easily put off from his goal:

ROM: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

But again, Juliet is equal to the task of parrying him:

JUL: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray'r.

But Romeo is not to be dissuaded. He cleverly extends the image in an attempt to get what he's looking for--a kiss (to understand what he's getting at here, think of two hands clasped together in prayer):

ROM: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Ah, who could resist? Certainly not Juliet, who clearly doesn't even wish to hold him off, although she pays some final lip service (pun intended; after all, Shakespeare likes puns!) to restraint:

JUL: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

And Romeo sees his opportunity:

ROM: Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purg'd. [Kisses her.]

Are they not well-matched? Precocious and intensely emotional, they exude the essence of heady young love, love that has as yet no experience of sorrow or betrayal (although they'll know sorrow soon enough). These two love with all their hearts; they are made for each other, and the audience knows it immediately through their words.

A few years later when I saw the Zefferelli film version of "Romeo and Juliet," I marveled at the scene as it was acted out with suitable hand gestures (oh, so that's the way it works!) by the achingly-young Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (I can't locate a photo of that scene, but here's a different one--and, by the way, Whiting was a ringer for my boyfriend at the time):

If you've never seen that film, please take a look. Yes, it was roundly criticized for leaving at least half the play on the cutting-room floor. And for including nakedness (as I recall, a rear shot of Romeo during the post-wedding rendezvous in Juliet's bedroom). And for casting unknown actors who were so young they lacked the requisite Shakespearean gravitas.

But for me, the film made the play come alive. You believed they loved each other. You believed their desperation. And in the death scenes, you could not help but cry at the waste of these two beautiful young lives.

In the film, the meaning of all those Shakespearean lines was clear; a testament to the actors' skill. But they wouldn't have been anywhere near as clear to me--or as wonderful-- without those efforts of Mr. Jones.

[ADDENDUM: I'm pleased to report that fellow blogger and Romeo-and-Juliet-aficionado[a?] Fausta has found a photo of the scene I described from the Zefferelli movie, where the lovers use "suitable hand gestures" in their prayer/kiss conversation. Here it is:

And here Fausta elaborates on her own relationship to R&J, as well as how a nun at her Catholic school inadvertantly drummed up business for the movie.]

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