That Moment in Romeo and Juliet

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By Persephone

Romeo and Juliet is debatably the most famous play that William Shakespeare ever penned.  Sure, it doesn’t boast the depth and psychological turmoil of Hamlet.  Unlike Macbeth, it forgets to add bloody murders of kings and children to the plot.  Hell, there are times that Romeo and Juliet forgets it has a plot as the two main characters simply stare at each other.  Unlike Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night, it’s not even particularly funny.  Not intentionally, anyway.

What Romeo and Juliet does have going for it, however, is a good old heaping bowl of teenage angst.  If you think the Twilight series started that trend, then look back almost 5 centuries.  Romeo and Juliet has it pegged.

Think about it.  You start off with the lackluster hero.  He’s misunderstood by his whole family, who doesn’t get why he’s all moody over a girl that doesn’t like him back.  Spoiler alert: it isn’t Juliet–the play starts off with Romeo mooning over a chick named Rosaline…a girl who mysteriously has no lines in this play.  He’s a white guy born to privilege who’s young, handsome, and looking for love.  Cue the meet cute with Juliet, who’s also young, gorgeous, and looking for love.  They lock eyes at a party that Romeo and his family crashes, and boom.  Instant lust.

These two crazy kids meet again that night when Romeo follows Juliet home to her bedroom window.  It’s lucky he was so dishy.  Anyone else would have gotten either a bullet or a restraining order for his trouble.  They exchange vows of love and decide to get hitched the very next day.  Even during the Renaissance when this play was written, that was kind of a rushed courtship.  You could argue that they were just that much in love, but come on.  We all know the real reason they decided to tie the knot on their second date.  Juliet wasn’t going to put out otherwise, and Romeo was a teenage boy.  He wasn’t actually thinking with his brain.

Fast forwarding through this lackluster plot, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt challenges Romeo, who eventually slays him.  It turns out that Romeo’s family the Montagues and Juliet’s family the Capulets hate each other.  I’m sure they’ll explain why later.  Anyway, Romeo’s banished from the kingdom, and Juliet’s dad is forcing her to marry another dishy stalker: Paris.  To avoid bigamy, Juliet fakes her death, and Romeo’s letter telling him her plan is lost in the mail.  He shows up and poisons himself (after killing a grieving Paris for no reason, by the way).  Juliet wakes up, sees what happened, and stabs herself.  Their families decide that those crazy kids really were crazy and mend their feud.  They’d probably forgotten just what they were fighting about.  Goodness knows we have.  The end.

I bring this play up tonight for a variety of reasons.  First of all, I love Shakespeare.  I keep encouraging students to learn all that they can about his work, but they always name Romeo and Juliet as the play they most want to learn about.  This is understandable, even if I have a hard time with this request.  It really isn’t my favorite.  I’m not sure this play even ranks in my top 10 favorite Shakespeare plays.  However, I can definitely understand the appeal from the perspective of a teenager.  The plot isn’t particularly intricate, so it’s easy to follow.  The two main characters are young and obsessed with each other, so it resembles a great deal of modern young adult fiction.  Add in parents who are forcing their daughter to marry someone they don’t love and a couple of swordfights, and teenagers today are totally on board.  The tragic ending’s just a bonus.

Despite my criticism of the play, though, there are a few brilliant moments that stand out for me.  As an English major, I had to hear countless professors talk endlessly about certain monologues in Shakespeare’s plays: the “To Be or Not to Be” speech in Hamlet, the “All the World’s a Stage” speech by Jacques in As You Like It, or even the various rants given by both Macbeth and his wife in their play.  While I’ve always felt the “To Be or Not to Be” monologue was overrated, as Hamlet contemplating suicide rather than taking a stand on anything is sort of lame, the other examples have lived up to the hype.  Jacques tackles the concept of both the futility of aging in a society that values youth as well as the mimicking nature of acting.  It’s some powerful stuff.  And both Lady Macbeth and her husband are just bug nuts.  It’s fun to hear what nut-bar thing they say next in Macbeth.

Even so, my favorite monologue of all time has got to be Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet.  Mercutio’s a friend of Romeo, and he eventually dies when he picks a fight with Tybalt for no reason.  Before that, though, he makes this speech.  When Romeo pines over Rosaline, he cannot sleep, so Mercutio says:

“O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
Her collars, of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she ‘gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on cursies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as ‘a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fadom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish, hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she-“

I love this speech.  I love how it starts off with such descriptive imagery, what with Queen Mab’s collars “of moonshine’s wat’ry beams,” but then the character adds depth to his depiction of this fictional dream queen.  What started out playful turns existential.  The speech even ends on some telling thoughts on women’s roles of the time period.  There’s a lot to analyze here.

Yet, there’s one more thing about this play that I love to point out to my students.  When Romeo dies, he dies in complete ignorance of just what he’d done.  It’s true.  He lived a rather clueless existence, considering he jumped from one love of his life to the next, then he got himself banished for killing a guy on impulse.  Now, Romeo decided to one-up himself by jumping the gun and committing suicide next to his presumably dead wife’s body.  He even kisses her before downing the poison, just to add to the gross factor.

But Juliet isn’t ignorant.  She wakes up and feels the horror of what just happened in its entirety.  The truth of it is so painful that she stabs herself in the chest (a much more violent death’s than Romeo’s, oddly enough).

Which is why I love the 90’s version of this play starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  To be frank, there’s some really weird things in this version.  The costumes make no sense, and some of the filters were only considered edgy twenty years ago.  The film feels dated at this point.  Plus, I don’t like how they did the Queen Mab speech.  Despite this production’s many flaws, I’ll love it forever for one very simple change they made to the original play.  Juliet wakes up the moment that Romeo drinks the poison, so he realizes that she’s still alive before he dies.  I’m not the biggest DiCaprio fan either, but he acted the hell out of that moment.  The look on his face as Romeo understood just what he’d done, even as he dies…well, that’s the sort of drama that attracted me to Shakespeare in the first place.

So, while Romeo and Juliet the play promotes a lot of cheese with its obvious shout-out for star-crossed romance, it’s still worth perusing.  If you’ve got a teenager, I highly recommend you have them read it.  Or, at the very least, watch the DiCaprio version.

Photo from ET

Little Women: This Book is Surprisingly Dark

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By Persephone

I was recently presented with the opportunity to read Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel Little Women recently.  Don’t ask how that happened–it’s a long story.  Anyway, I started this book with few expectations.  I’ve read two other Alcott books: Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, but that was back when I was a teenager.  Not much of those storylines stuck with me over the years.  All I remembered was idealism and a boring, plodding plot.  Like I said, not much stuck with me.

As for Little Women, I’ve seen several film versions, but I’d never read the book before.  They always present the four sisters in very sweet, pious, and loving terms…pretty much the epitome of all that is good with American women.  Very “Little House on the Prairie.”  It presents an image for women to aspire to, but they’re also lacking in any real substance or personality.  Honestly, few women are like that, and those who are don’t have many friends.  I like a little bitchiness in the women I hang out with.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually read the dang book.  The first half involves the four sisters as they grow up with only their mother around: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.  Their father, who even lacks much depth when he’s there, is away fighting in the Civil War at this time.  Other than establishing the girls’ differences, not much is accomplished during this part of the book.  Meg is a bit more girly and has a crush her neighbor’s tutor, Jo is boyish and loves to write, Beth is giving to the detriment of her own health, and Amy’s a brat.  So…yeah, there’s definitely some family dynamic there, but surprisingly little clashing.  I’m sorry, but four daughters in the same house…there would be lots of fighting.  There would barely be enough hours in the day for all the arguing that would be taking place.  I say this as one of five sisters.

But I digress.  After their childhood personalities have been established, Alcott moves the plot forward several years.  Meg gets married, Jo tries to become a real writer, Beth grows into a true invalid, and Amy’s a brat.  What I wasn’t expecting was the realistic portrayal of assumptions placed on American women.  Throughout the entire novel, the girls’ mother reminds them of what is good and morally right, and even she admits that these aren’t fair rules.  When Jo’s temper gets the best of her, her mom admits to having her own temper that proves a constant battle.  However, she urges Jo to keep these emotions bottled up.

Meg eventually gets married to the tutor, and they live rather blissfully until she has twins.  Then he grows upset when she spends  all her time with their newborn children.  That poor man.  Rather than helping her, he resents her.  Meg’s mom pulls her aside and says that she’s going to have to make time for him for their marriage to work.  It’s a sickening conversation that reminds every reader that women aren’t allowed down time when they decide to have families.  Seriously.  Meg’s mom describes how her entire life has to be balanced between her husband and children, and I’m sorry, but the babies should take first place in her heart.  That’s natural.  The book even admits this, yet Meg’s under pressure to place more stock on her husband, even though he doesn’t have to help raise the kids or maintain the household.  This is reminiscent of an earlier conversation when Meg argued with her husband.  Her mom told her that she would have to be the first to apologize and admit wrong, even if she didn’t do any wrong.  Such is how to maintain a healthy marriage.

By far the most interesting character, Jo goes off on her own to become a writer elsewhere.  Despite her creative nature, she has a very obvious conversation with a Mr. Dashwood, describing “a friend” who wishes to publish her work.  He finds the entire scenario hilarious, and I just wanted to bang my head on the desk.  Mr. Dashwood obviously was fine with having a female author as long as she wasn’t too bright.  It might have been too intimidating otherwise.  Jo’s experiences as a writer followed this same theme.  She writes mainstream fiction rather than more moral stories in order to make a living, and she still made less than her male counterparts.  As a country bumpkin, people in the city treated her kindly with seeming kid gloves.  She didn’t seem capable of entering into this profession without some sort of support network.  It was quite disheartening.  Everyone had to help her and advise her throughout.  No thought she had seemed to originate in her own head.  As for romance, she at least had the decency to reject the spoiled neighbor Laurie, but no one seemed to consider her to be a real adult until she married someone else.  To keep her new husband close by, she starts a school for boys.  Yeah.  She’s obviously going to have tons of time to devote to her writing career now.

Beth really was giving to the point that her health was ruined.  She contracted scarlet fever when helping out a neighbor’s family.  While she recovered initially, her health suffered greatly.  She practically has a stamp on her forehead saying “I will die tragically in order to create greater dramatic effect in this book.”  And she didn’t disappoint in this respect.  However, there was a moment that I found rather sad before she died.  She claimed that, unlike her sisters, she never thought much of her future.  She couldn’t see herself ever getting married or having children, so that meant it was her time to die.  God dammit!  As a childless spinster myself, I find it frustrating when a woman’s only worth seems to come directly from her value as a mother and wife.  I’m an awesome aunt, an okay writer, and an excellent student.  I have my moments, and none of these moments should be lessened in importance just because I haven’t procreated yet.  Beth deserved a better ending.

And Amy was a brat.

For a book that has remained a symbol of the American woman throughout the years, Little Women was fucking bleak.  In order to live completely as a woman, a woman must marry.  In order to be a good wife, she must ignore her children more to focus on her lazy husband.  If she screws any of that up, she will be judged.  Hell, even if she conducts all of it perfectly, she will be judged.  Such fair expectations, and Alcott (a childless spinster herself) portrays these expectations in all their grueling, unending glory.

For the record, though, it wasn’t just women who were treated unfairly.  The men in this novel lacked personality, work ethic, or forgiveness, which is why so much pressure rested on the ladies’ shoulders.  As the daughter of an incredibly kind, hard-working man, I found this an offensive generalization.  Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that there are an awful lot of good men out there.  Apparently, Alcott didn’t meet any of them.  That’s too bad, because this was a very unfair story all around.

Picture from feministclassics.