Thursday, 11 December 2014

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

Let's talk about grammar--only kidding, I'm not really a grammar fiend, not only am I not qualified to opine with even a modest authority on the subject, I just aint bothered about it that much. Yeah some things do get up my nose, I've just read a newspaper report with a [sic] inserted into a verbal quote, at least it's a fine demonstration of irony I suppose, we don't expect a great deal beyond the supercilious from our newspapers anyway. No, I just wanted to come out as having a bit of a Shakespeare bug and it think it was probably the lines, from act ii, scene ii of Romeo and Juliet that were responsible. George Sewell it was who recited them, not most people's idea of a Romeo type I would imagine but he was using them out of context in an episode of UFO, the 70's sf tv series. It's weird really, that a snippet inserted by a script writer to indicate a character's quaint foible, should spark such an interest. Of course being at rather tender age, nine or ten probably, and in the days before the internet, the efforts expended to track down the source of this quote, where limited to, "Where does this come from dad?". Fortunately, the Secondary Modern, at which my educational prospects were languishing, was transitioning to a Comprehensive. The early days of that social experiment saw the English curriculum elevated from, this is how you use a Biro, to a more aspirational level that encompassed some literary classics, which in my case included Romeo and Juliet.

In case you're not aware, Romeo and Juliet is considered: starter Shakespeare, light enough to be digested by young minds. To a certain degree this is quite apt, it does lack some of the classical references of other works and its rather less convoluted than something like Macbeth, which suffers a bit form being a teensy bit labyrinthine. One reason why Romeo Juliet might be a bit lighter in tone, is that it probably wasn't actually written by Shakespeare. It only appears in quarto and it's more or less universally acknowledged that the first quarto edition is reconstructed from memory, probably by actors who performed it. Later editions do embellish on this, quite a lot as it happens but there's a temptation to be suspicious over the authorship of those embellishments. This doesn't necessarily mean that you should view the work as something inferior to, real Shakespeare, because the text of the work actually benefits in some aspects. There's a quality of consensus about the work, a certain degree of erosion yes, but erosion that has come about through familiarity and the fondness you feel for that old chair, you should have thrown out long ago but it's too comfortable to discard. Yes, it is something of a melodrama but it's not completely without depth and you should remind yourself that it was intended to be light, even comic, depending on interpretation. The text benefits from this levity too, there's more room for some slightly frivolous wordage, a little bit of showing off without too much portent or meaning.

So I have something of an affinity with opening of act ii scene ii, it's probably this affinity that has spawned a certain dissatisfaction with most performances. It's unfortunate really that this scene is such a touchstone for Shakespeare, Romeo's opening words are the prelude, to what's regarded as Juliet's iconic, "...wherefore art thou...". Consequently, actors being actors like to throw their effort into leaving their mark on it. That's not really what should be happening, the previous scene, with its ribald allusion to medlars and graphic references to certain anatomical details (I think it's the 1st quarto edition, that remains un-bowdlerised), begs for contrast. Romeo doesn't have to do much, except look pretty and remember the lines, perhaps a good voice helps too but the words should do most of the work for him.

The other problem with performances of the scene is the opening line, "He jests at scars that never felt a wound". OK I understand it's metaphorical but the meaning is pretty clear, if not explicit, scars that never felt a wound aren't really scars at all are they? Yet there's this is in insistence on interpreting the line as: he jests at scars, yet never felt a wound, which is stupid. Let me explain why it's stupid, the previous scene shows Romeo's kinsman Benvolio and their friend Mercutio, searching for him after he's gone missing from the party they gate crashed. During the search they engage in lots of teasing, as they call out for their missing compatriot, over his infatuation with Rosaline, which unbeknownst to them, he's already moved on from. During the first act, Romeo portrayal as an effete youth indulging in self obsession through his romantic focus on a woman he cannot win approaches dramatic irony, as he mills around thinking he's the first man in the world to suffer an unreciprocated attraction. This narrative introduces a certain tension between Romeo and his peers, who perceive his relationship as the audience might, as a trivial youthful episode and it's this tension that is played out in scene i. So--when Romeo acknowledges his own folly, "...scars that never felt a wound" not only does that indicate a process of maturation, it also indicates an easing of the tensions between them, because he's vindicating their view of his behaviour. In the context of the scene about to unfold, this narrative makes a whole lot more sense than the one presented by the idiot seen petulantly proclaiming his wounds are still smarting.

I can see that, the last paragraph seems a bit of a rant, I don't really feel that I want to prescribe how a scene should be interpreted though, just  expressing some incredulity at how some interpretations are arrived at. Anyway, lets have a look at Romeos opening soliloquy from the scene:-


But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!


Some wordy gorgeousness there but it's not just piffle, fodder for Thespians to memorise and impress the ladies with. There's meaning in there, it's not the kind of profound meaning that'll reveal the meaning of life to you, it's meaning within the context of the broader narrative.

The line: "It is my lady, O, it is my love!" is interesting, have a look at the next line, "O, that she knew she were", it's short by five syllables. That short line is out of place in this position, that wouldn't be the case if this line came just before, "Two of the fairest stars..." but here it's a bit of a hiccup. I've speculated that the reason for this is that the previous line has been edited or rather amended, through iteration or a failing memory perhaps and that line should read: "It is my lady, O, that she knew she were!". Incidentally, the first quarto omits this portion of the soliloquy entirely. The themes within this soliloquy are balanced, or thrown into contrast if you prefer that analogy, that's a common Shakespeare trait. Look at the choice of words, arise juxtaposed with kill, vestal livery described as sick and green. Its also balanced in a temporal sense, split into two clearly delineated stanzas, if you'd care to think of it as a poem but I think it's obvious, the dramatic pause follows "...'tis not to me she speaks". After which Romeo bashes out a rather quaint and slightly awkward analogue, drawing comparison between Juliet's beauty and the night sky. I imagine this quaintness is what prompts its omission in some performances: huge mistake, it's this property, the slightly flowery musings of vain youth that marks the start of Romeo's transition and it probably presents a, usually overlooked, opportunity to introduce some levity into the scene.

I tell you what, just for fun, lets have a look at the first quarto edition version of this soliloquy, which runs from page 19-20. This time I'll include the opening line of the scene. The long s is rendered as a lower case f in the copy, as it is here:-

He iefts at fcars that never felt a wound


But foft, what light through yonder window breakef?
It is the Eaft and Iuliet is the Sunne.
Arife faire Sunne, and kill the enuious Moone.
That is alreadie ficke and pale with griefe:
That thou her maid, art far more faire than fhe.
Be not her maide, finfe fhe is enuious,
Her veftali livery is but pale and green,
And none but fools doe weare it, caft it off.
She fpeafes but fhe fayes nothing. What of that?
Her Eye difcourfeth, I will anfwer it.
I am to bold, tis not to me fhe fpeakes,
Two of the faireft ftarres in all the skies,
Hauing some bufines, doe entreat her eyes
To twinckle in their fphears till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head,
The Brightnes of her cheekes would fame thofe ftars:
As day-light doth a Lampe, her eyes in heauen
Would through the airie region ftreame fo bright,
That birdes would fing, and think it were not night.
Oh now fhe leanes her cheekes vpon her hand,
I would I were the gloue to that fame hand,
That I might kiff that checke.


It's a little different to the standard text isn't it? My Shakespeare bug is an occasional one, Shakespeare veneration throws up a couple of obstacles for casual interest, he's surrounded by all the huff and puff the pseuds can muster, consequently it's easy for a mortal to be put off by the subject. His familiarity can also pose a problem, I recall after a peformance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Stratford, which was absolutly brilliant and well appreciated by the audience, I retreated to a pub with my companion. We happened upon a couple approaching retirement age, it became apparent quickly that they were buffs of the bard. Of course we enthused over our night of entertainment at the theatre, Oh how the easy delight of the hoi polloi must have twinkled in our eyes for them. My companion found it hard to reconcile their mildly disparaging commentary as we retreated from their company, quite quickly. I was just a little more tuned into the vibe, I told him that they'd probably been to dozens of plays from all over the place, experts such as them, would be a bit harder to please. "But they haven't even seen it!" he protested, say no more.

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