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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Followup re the allusion to Romeo & Juliet in Fiddler on the Roof



In the Shaksper listserv, Larry Weiss responded to my post as follows: "I suppose Arnie Perlstein is suggesting that the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof might at one time or another seen or read Romeo and Juliet.  Strange as that might be, it is not entirely implausible."

Larry, thanks for your reply, but let me briefly reiterate what I suggested. In a nutshell, I made a case in  chronological literary order:

First, Sholem Aleichem, a century ago, appears to me to have had Capulet & Juliet in mind as he originally wrote the Tevye stories bearing on the marrying of his three eldest daughters;

Second, a half century ago, the creators of Fiddler seem to me to have had both Romeo & Juliet (as well as its "offspring" West Side Story) and the Tevye stories in mind as they conceived Fiddler, in particular the Us versus Them theme particularly reflected in the major group dance numbers;  and then

Third, as part of that adaptation process described above, the lyricist of Fiddler zeroed in still further on the Capulet family, in the lyrics of both "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" (Juliet & her father) and "Far From the Home I Love" (Juliet & her mother).

I think it’s extremely plausible, not only because of the textual evidence, but also if you look at the big picture. The most global themes of Fiddler are about modernity’s impact on (a) intergroup hostility on a societal scale; and (b) courtship and marriage on the scale of the individual family. As to both (a) and (b), those are the identical global themes of Romeo & Juliet.

My previous posts about the allusive presence of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in both Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his daughters, and in Fiddler as well, fit like a glove with what I am saying in these current posts.  And that makes perfect sense, as Romeo & Juliet and Pride & Prejudice have both been at or near the top of the list of stories in Western literature involving courtship and marriage—so of course a modern adaptor would pick up on all of them.


Larry also wrote "It is also conceivable that he was somehow familiar with York’s line in Richard II, II.iii.85: “Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.”  I marvel that Arnie left it out."

But my central point in the first section of my post was to show that the lyricist not only echoed Capulet's two consecutive "neologizing imperative retorts", he also extremely closely tracked the context of that specific speech by Capulet, as I explained thusly:

"Both scenes are about daughters coerced by parents to marrying rich older men those daughters don’t want to marry- plus Tseitl, like Juliet, has already secretly declared her love to a younger suitor. In Romeo & Juliet, Capulet spews abuse at Juliet, an insane overreaction to her diplomatic, deferential, and desperate attempt to avoid his draconian fiat. In Fiddler, the girls in that final stanza seek to do exactly the same as Juliet—by not challenging parental authority directly, but instead cajoling diplomatically, asking “only” that no match be brought “unless he’s a matchless match”!   And there’s also a subtly ironic pun in the word “matchless”, that I never noticed till today ---on the surface, it’s a comparative; i.e., the ideal husband is unmatched by all the other suitors. But there’s also a subversive “chop-logic” hidden meaning –he can be a “match” only so long as he’s “matchless”, meaning he must not be a match….imposed on her against her own free choice! And by the way, we hear that same comic chop-logic in the rabbi’s prayer that God keep the Czar (who, like Capulet, is prone to cruel, irrational, and deadly edicts)……far away from the Jews he victimizes!  [etc etc]"

The context of York's line otherwise has nothing to do with matchmaking, although, interestingly, it is similar in tone to Capulet's speech, in that it is a bitter outburst by an older male against a younger close relative.  So, I believe this particular poetic structural element was clearly associated in Shakespeare’s mind with that sort of situation.

By the way, as the article I cited explained, there are "neologizing imperative retorts" in several 16th and 17th plays other than those by Shakespeare. One in particular seems to me to be directly based on that specific speech of Capulet in R&J. It’s in John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and here’s the relevant scene (Annabella is “Juliet”, Putana is “Nurse”, and Grimaldi and Soranzo are “Paris”). Note that Ford gives Putana the “leave me no leaving”, and this scene is clearly the analog of the one in Romeo & Juliet in which Nurse abruptly changes her tune, and starts pushing Juliet to accept Paris after all:

PUTANA. How like you this, child? here's threatening, challenging, quarrelling, and fighting, on every side, and all is for your sake; you had need look to yourself, charge, you'll be stolen away sleeping else shortly.
ANNABELLA.  But, tutoress, such a life gives no content To me, my thoughts are fix’d on other ends.
Would you would leave me!
PUTANA. Leave you! no marvel else; LEAVE ME NO LEAVING, charge; this is love outright.
Indeed, I blame you not; you have choice fit for the best lady in Italy.
ANNABELLA. Pray do not talk so much.
PUTANA. Take the worst with the best, there’s Grimaldi the soldier, a very well-timber’d fellow. They say he's a Roman, nephew to the Duke Montferrato; they say he did good service in the wars against the Milanese; but, ’faith, charge, I do not like him, an't be for nothing but for being a soldier: not one amongst twenty of your skirmishing captains but have some privy maim or other, that mars their standing upright. I like him the worse, he crinkles so much in the hams: though he might serve if there were no more men, yet he's not the man I would choose.
Ann. Fie, how thou prat’st!
PUTANA. As I am a very woman, I like Signior Soranzo well; he is wise, and what is more, rich; and what is more than that, kind; and what is more than all this, a nobleman: such a one, were I the fair Annabella myself, I would wish and pray for. Then he is bountiful; besides, he is handsome, and by my troth, I think. wholesome, and that's news in a gallant of three-and-twenty: liberal, that I know; loving, that you know; and a man sure, else he could never have purchased such a good name with Hippolita, the lusty widow, in her husband’s lifetime. An ’twere but for that report, sweetheart, would he were thine! Commend a man for his qualities, but take a husband as he is a plain, sufficient, naked man; such a one is for your bed, and such a one is Signior Soranzo, my life for’t.

But…I am not suggesting that Fiddler is based in any way on Tis Pity She’s a Whore! 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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