Romeo and Juliet, it is believed, is likely a variation of the Persian tale Layla and Majnun rewritten by Shakespeare for a Western audience. To bridge the culture gap that then existed, Shakespeare had to make some significant changes.
The most pronounced and discussed of these is consummation (or lack thereof). In the Persian tale, the love that Layla and Majnun have is "virgin love", that is, never consummated by sexual intercourse. Romeo and Juliet do famously marry and enter into those relations. The reason for that particular variation is that the two cultures viewed (view?) sex and marriage in entirely different lights.
There is much glorification in Romeo and Juliet of the giving and the taking of the maidenhead. Much of the play seems preoccupied with it. The play opens with two bawdy young men bragging that they will kill the men and rape the women belonging to their enemy's household. Juliet's nurse, her mother, herself, even Friar Laurence speak of it with a candor that would certainly not have amused Queen Victoria. For a modern audience, this can be uncomfortable when they realise that Romeo and Juliet themselves are but 14 and 13 years old, respectively. In Shakespeare's time, that was the common marriage age, but to a modern audience they are only children.
Consider this passage spoken by Juliet on her wedding night while waiting for consummation:
"Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties, or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty. ...
O, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed. So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them."
To the culture of Shakespeare's Europe and time (and indeed today), love could not exist without sex, though sex could exist without love. An unconsummated love was no love at all. But to the Eastern culture that birthed the story which inspired Shakespeare, the opposite was true. Love in its purest, most divine form was always a virgin love, never consummated, for consummation made it earthly and of men.
Both stories end in the deaths of the lovers, but here too is a major variation. To Shakespeare's England it was nobler to die for love than to live without it. Maybe this romanticism was born of the fact that, at that time, almost no one actually married for love. And that is the choice both Romeo and Juliet make (or are fated to, depending on how you choose to interpret the chorus' prologue to the play). But to Persian culture, to die for it was an easy out and no proof of faithful, eternal love. (Remember, too, that almost no one married for love there either.) It was recognised that it much more difficult to live the lie of being one person's lover while in actuality being in love with someone else whom one was bound by honour and duty to be always sundered from. Hence, this is what was glorified there. To experience such a state and be faithful in one's heart was to be closer to the love of the divine than any other human on earth. Thus, Layla is married to another and eventually dies of a broken heart while Majnun roams the wilderness spouting poetry for his Layla and dying years later near her grave. In this way, Majnun attains to the status of a lesser god, for only a god could possess so pure a love.
Regardless of the variations enforced by cultural receipt, the stories are both enduring examples of the power of love.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
The "Shakespeare In Community" class on Coursera.org opens by discussing briefly the first lines of Hamlet. But what of first lines?
It feels like a worn-out subject - an elementary thing - to consider first lines. Are they powerful? Yes. It is the ending any writer is aiming to have remembered, but usually it is the first line that everyone can quote verbatim.
Some of my favorites are:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett) Never read this book, but that is profoundly true.
"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939) Finnegans Wake is a pure delight, beginning to end, is it not?
"Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested." —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell) This book haunts me every day.
"It was like so, but wasn't." —Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (1995) Never read this book either, but that has to be the most intriguing opening line ever conceived. That could also be the most concise definition of poetry available.
But the one first line that is always mentioned first:
"Call me Ishmael." —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
That shouldn't be a first line success story. It tells you nothing. Sets you up for nothing. Is only mildly intriguing and not at all interesting. It's like opening a book with small talk. Even cashiers at check out registers have name tags but most people don't care to read them unless they intend to file a complaint. "Call me Ishmael."
So why does it succeed? Because names are at the most primal of human instincts and needs. In the Bible, the first assignment God gave to Adam (before creating Eve and therefore predating the commandment to "fill the earth") was that of naming the various creatures that co-inhabited Earth with him. Names are so deeply integral to our psyche that often we name our phones and other devices, even our cars. I know an extreme case where a man named each of his fingers. Herman Melville revealed his genius when he appealed to that by beginning his meandering masterpiece with "Call me Ishmael."
First lines are the spine on which all other hangs in literature. Shakespeare was keenly aware of that. So he opened Hamlet with "Who's there?" A call to attention that requires an instant answer. An action phrase to begin a play of action and deeply pregnant with all the paranoia and uncertainty that drives Hamlet all the way to its bloody conclusion. By the time he has a character utter "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark", the repetition of that paranoia is already stifling and choking like flame without air.
First lines are even more important in today's post post-modern poetry. It has been said that a poem must be composed entirely of first lines to keep a reader engaged all the way to the end. Hamlet's constant refrain of paranoia (beautifully illustrated in The Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant with the ever-present motif of security cameras and hidden spying eyes - "A rat! A rat!") seems to foreshadow this development. Some are put off by Shakespeare's dogged repetition; to me is seems somewhat mantic. He seems to be pointing to this time when the power of first lines has become so strong as to be everything, as to be poetry itself, when poetry cannot survive unless it be composed entirely of first lines.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
So we're well into National Poetry Month 2015 and it's an exciting one! I hope you'll spend some part of it with me. I have arranged for three contests this month as follows (pay attention to contest end dates and details, since they are not the same):
The Goodreads Giveaway can be entered at the link above. There are two (2) copies of "Linger To Look" up for grabs, both signed and dated. The contest is run by Goodreads and the winners chosen randomly. Runs until April 30, 2015.
Same story here. Two (2) copies available, this time unsigned, since they will be shipped direct from Amazon. Runs until April 16, 2015.
Post selfies of yourself with any or all of my books on my Facebook Page and use hashtag #LTLSelfie. I will collect these photos and upload them to their own photo album on my Facebook Page. The most creative shots will win hand-proofed and signed galley prints of "Linger To Look". The contest ends on April 30, 2015, but the selfies don't have to!
Happy National Poetry Month and have fun, everyone!