Thursday, April 21, 2011

To Know William Shakespeare ...

The lunatic, the lover and the poet, at this point in the month of April, celebrate, honor and acknowledge the life and art of a man, William Shakespeare by name, whose impact upon Western literature and Western culture resonates more strongly year upon year. Shakespeare's art has also influenced culture in the East - witness the work of Akira Kurosawa.

In the West the phenomenon of the 'letters to Juliet' is a case in point for Shakespeare's influence. When I learned last year that a movie with that title was to be released I just shook my head. I figured the letters to Shakespeare's tragic fictional lover were meant to be only narrative devices to entice us. Not so.

I stumbled across a copy of the book of that title by Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman and learned that letters to Juliet, all with love as their 'argument,' have been left at her tomb and mailed to the city of Verona, Italy for nearly 200 years. Veneration at a tomb reputed to be that of Juliet Capulet has, since early in the 19th century (early 1800s), attracted "an increasing number of pilgrims ... (Curiously, as the adoration of Juliet increased over time, Romeo's 'presence' was no longer required.)"

As I wrote previously, I believe Romeo to be William Shakespeare's alter ego, shall I say, so his presence is vital to an appreciation of Juliet's character and William Shakespeare himself. Some may ask why anyone cares anymore about "a pair of star-crossed lovers" who end their plight by taking their own lives. Many young women, in fact, dismiss Juliet for just that: "Kill yourself over a guy? That's just stupid."

As the centuries of veneration of and letters to Juliet attest, the story of these lovers has taken root in the world's imagination. Imagination has a vital influence upon one's heart and mind, thus whatever influences it deserves consideration and study. In this case the influence derives from the mind of William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet what can we know of the presence which considered Juliet's model and crafted this character? Nearly 450 years after his birth William Shakespeare's life is cloaked more in mystery than buttressed by material evidence. We ask, to borrow from Yeats, "Those masterful images because complete/Grew in pure mind but out of what began?"

Quite simply I believe that Shakespeare gave us clues about himself in his art, most especially in "Romeo and Juliet." To begin this study, however, I turn to Sonnet #76 because in it the reader learns that Shakespeare's love, the Dark Lady, is the ALL of his art. His verse is "barren of new pride," "far from variation," and all his "best is dressing old words new." He states that "every word doth almost tell my name." "O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,/And you and love are still my argument."

Read his work, read him.

The couplet concluding the sonnet packs in some significant information: "For as the sun is daily new and old,/So is my love still telling what is told." That pair of words 'my love' signifies two subjects - his love as a state of mind and heart; his love as the object of his love who is, herself, "telling what is told." The allusion to the sun in the couplet points our attention to Juliet, the light breaking the darkness, and indicates to me that the play is as much about Romeo's/William Shakespeare's mind as hers.

In fact what emerges is a portrait of two lovers who have become one love. Know one, understand one of the lovers, and the other is known and understood. There is an intimation of this in the dialogue of each. "Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven/Having some business, do entreat her eyes/To twinkle in their spheres till they return." (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.15-17) "Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven so fine." (Romeo and Juliet, III.ii.22-25)

Together, wedded, they are heaven's light, sun and stars. Romeo is to Juliet a face of heaven so fine, so to speak, and Juliet is for Romeo "Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear." Heavenly love, a beautiful life - right? Love, heaven, beauty - what could go wrong? Such dear, rich beauty of body and mind - why end it in suicide?

This is the challenge of the play, I think. It is not easy to see love die - until one realizes that the death, the suicide, is symbolic. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are tragic, yes, but beyond that they are a dramatization of verse 33 of the gospel of Luke, chapter 17: "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." Romeo and Juliet take their lives IN their own hands, demonstrating theatrically this teaching.

The decision to take one's own life in one's own hand, to guide one's life by one's own compass, was quite daring for someone living in the repressive society of Tudor England. There were any number of entities vying for authority over the lives of others (church, state, family, spouse, guild, censor). Every would-be authority had its preconceived notions about what should be and was willing to enforce them. Transgressors were stigmatized, exiled, or executed.

The consequences of one's actions weighed heavily upon the mind even if the transgression was known only to oneself. It could be a bed of thorns, lying awake contemplating the regrets and anxieties of things done or not done, things said or not said. These two lovers, however, looked at what they truly were, not merely at their regrets or at what others held they should be.

As I wrote previously, Shakespeare portrayed his love, Romeo's Juliet, as living at a higher level of consciousness than he lived when they met. He learned of his Self, in part, from her, and I think we see evidence of her tuition in some of Juliet's lines, which echo some verses from St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. Compare, "Thou art thyself, though not a Montague./What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,/Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part/Belonging to a man," (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.42-45) with, "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ." ... "If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,' is it therefore not of the body?" (I Corinthians 12: 12, 15)

His love's singular point to William Shakespeare, as I see it, is that one aspect of one's self, one's experience, does not constitute the whole Self.

Shakespeare's allusion to this chapter of First Corinthians sheds light on the character of Juliet's Nurse and her influence in the girl's life. Verse 13 of I Cor. 12 instructs that all have "been made to drink into one Spirit." I feel strongly that it is that drinking of the one Spirit that Shakespeare intends us to understand in the Nurse's discourse (I.iii.18-53) about nursing Juliet as a babe.

As a babe Juliet, the Dark Lady, was fed upon the Spirit and grew with its nourishment into the woman who came to love William Shakespeare. Again, I Corinthians influences Will's art in offering an image of this nourishment and learning: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able."

Juliet learned, as did Shakespeare, to examine all they had ever learned about themselves, all their 'methoughts,' to use some lines from Nick Bottom, the Weaver in "A Midsummer Night's Dream": "Methought I was -- there is no man can tell what. Methought I was and methought I had -- but man is a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had."

That reference to "a patched fool" calls to mind another teaching from the gospel of Luke, 5:36: "Then He spoke a parable to them: 'No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old.'" Romeo/Will, it seems, looked at all the 'methoughts' he'd learned to apply to himself and realized, "Tut, I have lost myself. I am not here./This is not Romeo. He's some other where." (I.i.205-6) Juliet illumined his life and mind and he understood he needed a new garment of Self, not some foolish patch job that would disintegrate.

So, in what spirit does one reconceive one's concept of Self? As Juliet and love are all his argument he constantly thinks on truth and beauty because the Dark Lady, still telling what is told, taught him according to Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

They each considered these things and forged for themselves a 'marriage of true minds.' Romeo alludes to this when he says, in effect, that Juliet's eyes are stars. She sees as he sees, he sees as she sees.
In "Romeo and Juliet" we glimpse Juliet as a babe even as we see her as a teen. Further, as I
think the Dark Lady was approximately the same age as William Shakespeare, and that she was known to the theater crowd, I sense he wrote the part of Juliet at the behest of that crowd. I also sense he wanted the crowd to see Juliet and think of this verse, Philippians 4:9: "Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me (Juliet) do: and the God of peace shall be with you."

I have come to see this play as being existential, just as "Hamlet" is. Yet, lest we feel Juliet's death was an unnecessary end consider, please, Luke 8:52-55, the story of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, thought to be dead: "Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, 'Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.' And they laughed Him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. But he put them all out, took her by the hand and called, saying, 'Little girl, arise.' Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And he commanded that she be given something to eat."

[[Scripture verses: Luke 33:17 NKJV, Luke 5:36 NKJV, Luke 8:52-55 NKJV; I Corinthians 12, 12, 15 KJV, I Corinthians 12:13 KJV, I Corinthians 3:1-2 KJV, Philippians 4:8 KJV, Philippians 4:9 KJV. As I understand it, the King James Bible is the closest to the Geneva Bible, which was in use for much of Shakespeare's life.]]

[[Bibliography: Friedman, Lise. Friedman, Ceil. "Letters to Juliet." New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006.

Yeats, William Butler. "The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (Richard J. Finneran, ed.)." New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1996.

All references to Shakespeare's plays are to those published by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.]]

[[Photos: Top - Homemade birthday cake for my son, April, 2011; Middle - the Sun on my courtyard wall, April, 2011; Bottom - roses in a McCoy pitcher, 2011 (all by Barbara Butler McCoy)]]