28 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/13

Romeo meets Juliet

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
   This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
   To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
   Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
   And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

   Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
   They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

   Then move not while my prayers' effect I take.
. . . 

William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, scene 5, ll 95 - 108

Sick of their lovesick friend Romeo and his moping, his friends propose that he join them that evening as they put on masks and fancy dress and crash a big party at the Capulet mansion. There he can compare the object of his mooning – the fair Rosaline whom thou so loves – with other young ladies in Verona, a comparison which, his friends hope, will let him know there are other fish in the sea. He agrees, though reluctantly, a reluctance owing less to his family's ancient feud with the Capulets than to his dismissal of any notion that he can swerve in his love for Rosaline:

When the devout religion of mine eye
   Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fire:
And those, who, often drowned, could never die,
   Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!
One fairer than my love? The all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.

Act 1, scene 2, ll 91 - 96

At the party, he sees another young woman, who turns out to be the daughter of the house, Juliet. And that's the end of the unseen and silent Rosaline.

The main thing to notice about the encounter of the future lovers is that their dialogue (at least the first fourteen lines) is a sonnet in the English or Shakespearean style – three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The sonnet, even in its early days, was the poetic form most associated with love; here it springs from their lips, an expression not only of their love but of how well-matched they are. The two of them trade conceit for conceit (conceit in the sense of an elaborate and elaborated image of the sort much admired in early modern English poetry), playing off each other in an expert and stylish way. The exchange dramatizes a connection goes beyond the similarity in their backgrounds. There's an assumption that the way to make this play "relevant" is to make the young lovers belong to opposing groups (black vs white! English vs Irish! Arab vs Jew!) with quarrels deeply rooted in history and economics, but that's West Side Story, not Romeo and Juliet. In fact we are told in the very first line of the play (Two households, both alike in dignity) that the families are basically the same – both alike. It would have been easy enough to give us a few lines explaining the origins of this enmity, but there are none, so presumably the information is deliberately withheld, because we're not supposed to see the feud as based in anything real or important. It's just an unexplained ancient grudge. The battling parties can overlook the quarrel if they want to: right before Romeo and Juliet meet, we see her cousin Tybalt denouncing Romeo's presence to her father, who is much angrier at Tybalt for criticizing his tolerance of Romeo than he is at Romeo for crashing the party. Part of the play's tragic irony is that the lovers (and assorted friends and relatives) fall victim to a quarrel that is essentially an empty form, an old and bad habit.

Romeo begins in the religious vein that he had used earlier in describing his faith to Rosaline. (It's important to remember the central role religion played in early modern Europe, when arguments over doctrine, or a king's convenience, could plunge a kingdom into bloodshed, or at least radically different habits of worship.) In his earlier remarks he speaks in terms of heresy (and at least some members of the original audience would actually have seen heretics burnt at the stake; this isn't just a fanciful metaphor). Romeo speaks in the elaborate, punning conceits much admired at the time – which means that there's a certain element of the conventional in what he says; indeed his easily jettisoned love for Rosaline is expressed in all the ways standard to a certain type of young man at the time. Maintaining that he weeps constantly for love, he wishes those tears to turn to fire if his eyes abandon the true faith (his love for Rosaline). Those who, often drowned, could never die refers to his eyes: frequently drowned in tears through sorrowing over his unrequited love, yet as living as he is. Transparent in the next line means not only clear, apparent, but also refers to the pellucid quality of the eye. (And of course he does find one fairer than his love, and dies as as result.)

Though he's mining the same metaphorical vein when he first addresses Juliet, there is a difference. His earlier remark played on the idea of heresy and abandonment of faith; now he speaks in terms of some of the most devout believers, the pilgrims (a pilgrimage, particularly to what was then called the Holy Land, could entail great expense, danger, and difficulty). He speaks reverently (if I profane with my unworthiest hand) and conditionally (if . . .). Clearly this girl has left a powerful and unsettling impression. But presumably he's bold enough, or feels enough of a connection with her, to take her hand (the holy shrine). He refers to his sin as gentle: perhaps he means not only mild, but (he is masked and unknown) is also offering reassurance that he is of sufficient social status and manner to be her lover (gentle, which is linked to genteel, can mean of aristocratic birth, as in gentle folk). He is both bold and bashful: he takes her hand, but tells her that he is unworthy and profanes that shrine; but if he has offended, he offers to kiss her tenderly enough to eliminate the offense. His lips are two pilgrims, but blushing ones, referring not only to the red of his lips – presumably, if he's masked, his lips are all she can see of his face, so perhaps Romeo is pointing out that underneath the visor he's a pretty handsome youth? – but also to a certain bashfulness assumed out of genuine respect for her: blushing goes with unworthiest, gentle, smooth, and tender.

The last line of his quatrain deftly plays with smooth / rough / tender: all physical sensations related to touch. The emphasis on touching underscores the physical electricity, the longing for bodily contact, that he is feeling. Rough may seem out of line with the milder words he's using, even though it's there to be smoothed away with tenderness, but it may also be, amid the respect and holiness, Romeo's suggestion that he has a suitably masculine aggressive quality – purely tender and smooth young men are, sadly, not generally admired, and Romeo, so aware of the suitable attitudes of love, is no doubt aware of this as well. The roughness is an excuse for trying to take a tender kiss.

In her response, Juliet takes his conceit and cleverly twists it back at him. She tells him he is too hard on the hand he called unworthy, as the hand is showing its devotion (a term applicable to both religion and love) in a mannerly way (that is, in a way that is courteous but also in a manner appropriate to its nature – and is there a submerged pun on man in mannerly, as in you're behaving like a man by taking my hand and also wanting a kiss?). The mannerly hand is touching the hand of the saint, as a pilgrim would do to the preserved and sanctified body he has traveled to see. She assumes the persona of a holy site he has put on her in the first quatrain, and wittily uses it to refuse his request for a kiss: his hand is on hers, so he has reached the goal of his pilgrimage – he has placed his beseeching hand on that of his saint, and he really can't expect any more. Palmer is another term for pilgrim, because of the palm fronds they would carry back from pilgrimage sites, especially those in the Holy Land (the palms are a reference to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before the Crucifixion, commemorated on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter; palms were also a symbol of martyrdom; and they would also be a suitably exotic souvenir to bring back to Europe).

Punning on palmer in the sense of pilgrim and palm as part of the hand, she tells Romeo that she has already given him a kiss: palm to palm is the appropriate way for palmers/pilgrims to kiss. She sees his conceit and raises him a quick-witted refusal. But why does she refuse him? She hasn't taken her hand away; clearly both feel something. She may be understandably reluctant to surrender right away to a masked young man whose name she doesn't even know; she may be aware (as he is not – he doesn't know who she is until a few lines after this encounter) that she is in her parents' house, and undoubtedly under observation; she may be enjoying the flirtation, and the sheer thrill of playing with his words (perhaps as a prelude to playing with him). For though she is technically refusing him a kiss, she is doing so by telling him they're already kissing, in a way suitable to the pilgrim metaphor he started. Like the opening quatrain, this one ends with references to touching, specifically to people touching each other: the pilgrims touching the saint's hand, the palm-to-palm of the "palmers" greeting. In their first encounter, Juliet, like Romeo, dwells on the physical sense of touch; her longing matches his, and both quatrains end on the word kiss.

Romeo can already see that she's beautiful; her reply gives her a chance to show him her personality: quick, strong, passionate, clever. It gives the audience a chance to see her personality, too. Up until now, we've had relatively little of her; the earlier scene in which she appears is brief and dominated by her mother and especially by her Nurse, with Juliet herself having few lines, and those mostly dutiful and perhaps deceptively conventional. It's the meeting with Romeo, and the love she feels (emotional, physical, and – not forgetting the guiding metaphor of their first conversation – spiritual) that sets off her verbal fireworks, however much her words (on the surface) deflect his request for a kiss.

They now split the third quatrain between them (their ability to collaborate on a quatrain as well as a whole sonnet is another proof that they are meant to be together). Romeo, continuing in the vein of flirtation through wordplay, asks her if the saints and pilgrims don't have lips as well as palms, suggesting the inadequacy of palm-to-palm as a method of intimacy – he wants to use other body parts. She replies that they do have lips, which they must use in prayer. Again, she is officially deflecting him, but in a playful and clever way. Romeo had earlier referred to his lips as pilgrims; here she makes him the pilgrim.

Romeo plays back, pleading that lips should have the same license as hands. He furthers the religious metaphor by pointing out that if prayers aren't granted, faith turns to despair. Juliet responds with a theological distinction, one that was much debated in the Catholic / Protestant divide: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake. Here move can mean to change position but also to cause things to happen: one Protestant objection to Catholicism was the cult of the saints, which they saw as basically polytheistic and lacking in Biblical authority. The Catholic response was that saints are not worshiped and are definitely secondary to God; what the faithful do is ask the saints for help, and the saints intercede with God on behalf of the earthly petitioners, so the whole system is still safely monotheistic. So Juliet is saying that, in the role of saint in which he's placed her, she can't actually grant his prayers – yet she suggestively adds that nor can (or will) she move away (just as an embalmed saint could not).

During a performance of course these words flash back and forth in real time and the audience doesn't have time for careful processing of each layer of meaning; instead, we get a cumulative impression of wit and wordplay and and electric repartee between the two, with the guiding metaphors being twisted and turned back and forth, joining the two characters in the connected aura of their words.

Playful jokes about the doctrines of the saints may seem like odd banter for a first flirtation, but again it's important to remember how deeply religious controversy (and theological knowledge) permeated everyday life in the early modern world. There also is a very long tradition of poetry that blurs the boundaries between erotic and spiritual ecstasies. Also, the play is set in Verona, and anything Italian would carry an exotic Papist aura to the English audience. And the religious talk here may also prepare us for a society in which Friar Lawrence can command such obedience from his headstrong congregants, with ultimately tragic consequences. It's odd that so many of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy, but Italy did have the Renaissance before anyone else, and produced Machiavelli, and stuck with the Popes the English had mostly rejected, and was the birthplace of the powerful and long-lived Roman Empire – it must have seemed like a place where important things happened, a glamorous but dangerous place, an intriguing (in every sense of the word) place – setting a play there was probably like setting a play in New York City is (or used to be) for us.

Since she's pointed out that she won't move, he seizes the opportunity to take (or give) the desired kiss on her lips. That ends the love sonnet the two speak at their first meeting.

He continues:

Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.

She replies, with an assurance that their desire is mutual:

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

And we hear no more about the fair Rosaline.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Romeo and Juliet, edited by Joseph Bryant.

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