(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 2, 2016

Romeo & Juliet (and Milton's Paradise Lost) by the book

In the Shaksper Conference, a thread was recently started that raised the question about the following two usages of the phrase “by the book” in Romeo & Juliet :


ROMEO  Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET  Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
JULIET  Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
JULIET  Then have my lips the sin that they have took.


TYBALT under ROMEO's arm stabs MERCUTIO, and flies with his followers
Exit Page
MERCUTIO  No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o' both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that FIGHTS BY THE BOOK OF ARITHMETIC! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
ROMEO  I thought all for the best.

I responded today as follows:

First, here is an online essay that gives extraordinary detail on the nuances of Mercutio’s complex wordplay about the “book” by which he mockingly claims Tybalt was fighting:  “Fighting by the BOOK of Arithmetic”
This is most to the point: “In the late 1500s the English fighting style taught by the English Masters of Defence was holding fast to an old school tradition of cutting with the side of the weapon (blows). The new-fangled foreign style— particularly the Italian—claimed the “thrust” (the use of the point) to be superior and began developing attacks, parries and footwork based on mathematical principles (complementary moves).”

I believe, based on the above, that Mercutio does mean to derogate Tybalt’s mechanical, scripted style of fighting – and yet, ironically, as has been observed (I can’t find the cite now), Tybalt does diverge from that script when he unexpectedly stabs Mercutio.

Second, I agree with Hannibal Hamlin (and the consensus of comments readable on the Net) that Juliet is very likely being sarcastic, hinting that Romeo is an inept, inexperienced, wooden kisser, who speaks flowery words of love, but who doesn’t kiss the kiss, so to speak – and that is a major “Ouch!” moment, considering that Juliet the kiss critic is a mere 12 year old girl who, we may presume, has never been kissed before! I do, however, also detect that, beneath that sarcasm, Juliet may be a little ambivalent, in that she also seems to be complimenting Romeo’s cleverness in playing the “let’s improvise a Petrarchian sonnet together” game very well indeed. I.e., she seems to be saying that she enjoys his creative, romantic mind, but she wishes his lips were equally romantic!

I also found brilliant Mr. Hamlin’s connecting the dots between Shakespeare’s two “by the book” usages in R&J, on the one hand, and North’s usage of same in his introduction to his Plutarch translation (a text which we all know was crucial to Shakespeare in writing his Roman plays), on the other. By the way, when you read North’s introduction all the way through, the sneaking suspicion was born in my mind that North may have been one source in Shakespeare’s wicked mind when he wrote Polonius’s speech to Laertes, in which he equivocates endlessly – really, you have to read North’s intro to believe it—he is like Tevye the Milkman with all his predilection to “on the other hands”!

The above is prelude to my main point, which is that those two “by the books” usages in R&J are actually part of a larger pattern in the play, in which we find nine usages of “book”. When I examined each one, it became immediately apparent that this was not, as Larry Weiss suggested, a mind-worm, mindless sort of repetition on Shakespeare’s part. Rather, it’s clearly a subtly orchestrated, nine-part meditation on the word “book” as a metaphor for a variety of themes, such as creativity/freedom vs. mechanical expression, personality as a text to be read, bookishness vs. experience (as per North’s Plutarch intro), etc.

I went into JSTOR, and quickly found two articles that pick up on this theme. First, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet” by Harry Levin in Shakespeare Quarterly 11/1 (Win. 1960), 3-11, quotes nearly all nine of those usages of “book”, but, surprisingly, does not address them as a group, and only in this one excerpt does Levin zero in on the thematics of “book” in R&J”:

“…Significantly Lady Capulet, broaching the theme of Paris in stiffly appropriate couplets, has compared his face to a volume:
This precious BOOK of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride
The fair without the fair within to hide. (1.3)
That BOOKISH comparison, by emphasizing the letter at the expense of the spirit, helps to lend Paris an aspect of unreality; to the Nurse, more ingenuously, he is "a man of wax". Later Juliet will echo Lady Capulet's metaphor, transferring it from Paris to Romeo:
Was ever BOOK containing such, vile matter
So fairly bound? (3.2)
Here, on having learned that Romeo has just slain Tybalt, she is undergoing a crisis of doubt, a typically Shakespearian recognition of the difference between appearance and reality. The fair without may not cover a fair within, after all. Her unjustified accusations, leading up to her rhetorical question, form a sequence of oxymoronic epithets:
"Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical,…honorable villain!"
W. H. Auden, in a recent comment on these lines, cannot believe they would come from a heroine who had been exclaiming shortly before:
"Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds... "
Yet Shakespeare has been perfectly consistent in suiting changes of style to changes of mood. When Juliet feels at one with Romeo, her intonations are genuine; when she feels at odds with him, they should be unconvincing. The attraction of love is played off against the revulsion from BOOKS, and coupled with the closely related themes of youth and haste, in one of Romeo's long-drawn-out leavetakings:
Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their BOOKS;
But love from love, towards school with heavy looks. (2.2)
The school for these young lovers will be tragic experience. When Romeo, assuming that Juliet is dead and contemplating his own death, recognizes the corpse of Paris, he will extend the image to cover them both:
O give me thy hand, One writ with me in sour misfortune's BOOK! (5.3)
It was this recoil from BOOKISHNESS, together with the farewell to compliment, that animated Love's Labour's Lost, where literary artifice was so ingeniously deployed against itself, and Berowne was taught-by an actual heroine named Rosaline-that the best BOOKS were women's eyes.” END QUOTE

The other article, "At Thy Word": A Reading of Romeo and Juliet by Leslie Brisman in The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 21-31, is spot-on, and does indeed address that overarching theme in a number of interesting ways. Brisman’s article is too thorough and wide-ranging to be excerpted from, I just recommend that you download it and read it all the way through.

And finally, given that I have previously argued, in two blog posts I call “The Satanic Shakespeare/Milton acrostic code in Romeo & Juliet”  ...that Milton’s “SATAN” acrostic is based on the “SATAN” acrostics in both Romeo & Juliet AND Brooke’s Romeus & Juliet as well, what I also found intriguing in Brisman’s article were these insightful intuitions and ruminations with which Brisman begins:

“In the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, the problem of name may be taken as a shorthand for the multiple problems of originating action or feeling in the context of family tradition or an inherited scheme more generally. With characteristic and winning directness, Juliet pleads that Romeo free himself:
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
For love to "originate," to come from lovers themselves and not be imposed by their families or social setting, lovers must deny their fathers in some sense, supplanting one understanding of their origin --biological and social -- with the new beginning they make together. "Therefore," Genesis says, "shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Let us go back for a moment from Juliet to the first named woman in Genesis, Eve. Her name is not imposed by God as father-creator but invented by Adam, who says, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman (ish-ah) because she was taken out of man (ish)." In naming Eve, as in naming all animal life, Adam exercises his power of origination, his ability to share the creation with God. (In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, who embodies something of the playwright's power of origination, returns Tybalt's name to its cat nature and demands one of those nine lives. In a play about desire in a fallen world, names are reconceived at the price of lives exacted, not brought into being.) In Genesis, it is important that Eve is conceived out of a need to originate that which Adam could name ishah, could see as originating from him. Giving names to others, Adam discovers his own desire…[quote from Genesis]
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo does not sleep the night of the balcony scene (as Friar Lawrence observes the next morning) and only in the tomb, when both Adam ("from the earth") and his ishah (from man) are literally returned to the earth can the lady both be taken from the man and rest with him. Shakespeare seems to speed the temporal sequence of his plot-source to further the sense that the tragic experience of the play is the dream of love which must be compassed before waking too soon-as Juliet actually does-to the fact of loss. Romeo and Juliet does not allude to the Genesis story, but there is a significant way in which the creation of the play is related to the kind of creation Adam could and Romeo would perform.” END QUOTE FROM BRISMAN

My only disagreement with Brisman is in his final sentence, above. I believe that Shakespeare very much had the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in mind as he wrote the characters of Romeo and Juliet; and, equally important, I believe Milton was 350 years ahead of me on that point, and that’s why, as I’ve also previously argued, Milton subtly alluded not only to Romeo and Juliet in forming his own Adam and Eve, but also to Shakespeare’s closet Satan, Friar Laurence, in forming his Satan!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: