Friday, September 9, 2011

In Her Shoes

STILETTO, a dagger developed in southern Europe and in common use in the 16th century. It had a slender blade about six inches (15cm) long that tapered to a sharp point. Employed only as a stabbing weapon, the stiletto's blade had no cutting edge, but was three- or four-sided to give it firmness and strength. Some stilettos were sturdy enough to penetrate light armor, and some were so small and light that they could be used by a woman. The stiletto's handle was protected by a simple cross guard, or quillon. [Encyclopedia Americana, c. 1980 Americana Corporation.]

In my fashion I was thinking of the Twelve Dancing Princesses so I thought I'd rework a composition in acrylics I'd sent off last Christmas as a gift - some shoes in vibrant hues, hues with a 60s vibe. As I worked with the sketches and colors I heard over and over in my mind, "Why, then is my pump well flowered."

Why was the Creative Voice directing me to "Romeo and Juliet" as I painted fanciful shoes? Was it just that women's high heels are also called pumps? Repeatedly, in my mind, I circled around the prompt of Romeo and pumps, closer and closer until I finally hit the mark: heels, pumps, stilettos. Then: stiletto, dagger, Juliet. On the heels of that revelation came the epiphany that the stiletto, a type of dagger, was Will Shakespeare's incredibly elegant and compact icon describing much about his 'Juliet,' his 'Dark Lady.'

Previously I posited that Juliet's manner of death, stabbing herself with a dagger, was actually a dramatization of the Lucan paradox (Luke 17:33), "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." This woman had chosen to take her life in her own hands. She would guide her destiny.

It is worth exploring now the wider significance with which the playwright imbued the stiletto. Given the references in the play to soles and pumps I believe Will Shakespeare is telling us that his love, his 'Juliet,' his 'Dark Lady' took her financial welfare in her own hands as well and was, in some way, associated with shoemakers, or 'cordwainers' as they have been called for centuries.

My research of the Cordwainers turned up at least two facts I find most interesting and pertinent to this discussion. It is significant to note that the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers is and was located in Cheapside in London - just a ten minute or so walk from the Globe Theater.

Another fact, to which the playwright may be alluding when the Nurse indicates that whoever marries 'Juliet' will have 'the chinks,' is that Henry VI granted the guild a Royal Charter in 1439. A Royal Charter was an important and positive development for a business then, as I believe it is now. This charter likely means that the Company of Cordwainers were shoemakers to the monarchy.

It would be interesting to know the 'Dark Lady's' exact association with the cordwainers. Did she own a shop? Did she herself make shoes? Perhaps she designed them? Unfortunately, there is a very slim chance anything can be learned from the company's records because in 1666 the original hall burned down and most of the records were lost.

The longer I consider the dominant revelation that 'Juliet' took control of her own life by use of a stiletto, a stiletto Shakespeare also wants us to know is a shoe, I find myself wondering if the 'Dark Lady' felt compelled, even at a young age, to fashion for herself a pair of shoes that in some way used actual stilettos as heels. If so, why?

Why would a young girl - a girl barely a teenager and a bookworm, if I read Lady Capulet's lines aright; a girl ardently sought as a bride; a girl Romeo describes as "Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear" - feel it necessary to include stilettos in the fashion of her shoes?

I can only surmise that her beauty, financial wealth, and elevated social status (perhaps nobility) were threats to her welfare at times. Her choice of a stiletto tells me she absolutely meant to defend herself should she find herself cornered, backed against a wall. It would be a close, dangerous fight, but fight she would. Further, if she was of noble birth, her beauty would likely have been known to the court. She may often have been present at court. Those stilettos would have served as a distinctly unquestionable warning to any lotharios. You'd best watch your step when you dance with a woman wearing those shoes.

This focus on 'Juliet's' shoes fleshes out for us the relationship between herself and Romeo, the 'Dark Lady' and Will Shakespeare. When 'Juliet' muses, "What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot," perhaps the line references the son of the glover and the shoemaker? Romeo's line in Act II Scene iv, "Why, then is my pump well flowered," gives us a much more intimate look at the relationship between the playwright and the Beauty. In addition to the sexual connotation I believe it tells us that Will Shakespeare wore shoes from the 'Dark Lady's' shop. Perhaps they also were 'too rich for use' and 'too dear' to be worn on other than grand court occasions?

Beyond that, however, I believe Will Shakespeare was dramatizing for us his theme of "the marriage of true minds." I have written elsewhere that the playwright was presenting the 'Dark Lady' to us as a figure embodying love, compassion, mercy and enlightenment, someone committed to and involved with all living and suffering. When Will Shakespeare tells us he wore 'Juliet's' shoes he is is telling us that like the 'Dark Lady' he puts himself in the shoes of others and walks the path of compassion in hope of guiding others to enlightenment.

Does he not use the language of heavenly bodies of light, the Sun and the stars, to characterize Romeo and Juliet? It is not hard to imagine that he caught the double meaning of 'sun' in Spanish, el Sol, and the sole of a shoe!

The playwright characterizes this facet of their relationship upon this path in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as being "of imagination all compact." Both lovers, crazy perhaps for their imaginings, were poets, their hands composing feet into verses out of respect for and commitment to humanity.

Will Shakespeare used the trend for exaggerated heel height to characterize his 'Juliet's' elevated consciousness. I greatly appreciate their commitment to compassion as more than a 'fashion.'