Saturday, August 11, 2012

Is "Romeo and Juliet" really a stern morality play ?

William Hatherell (1855‑1928) 
O, Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo? 
Circa 1912 
Gouache on paper 
 241 x 178 mm
Tate Britain, London

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Roméo et Juliette devant le tombeau des Capulets
c. 1855
Oil on paper marouflé on canvas 
35.2 x 26.5 cm
Musée Eugène Delacroix, Paris

Print made by Francesco Bartolozzi  (1728 - 1815)
Published by James Birchall (1781 fl - 1794)
After William Hamilton (1750 - 1801)
Romeo and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet; in the centre, Romeo dressed as a pilgrim, standing in profile to right, holding Juliet's hand with his left hand, and a stick and a mask in his right; on the right, Juliet's nanny standing; on the left, two figures with masks standing in background;
Etching with stipple, printed in red ink on paper
257 millimetres x 201 millimetres
The British Museum, London

Published by Bowles & Carver (1763 - 1830)
The Scene of Romeo and the Apothecary, in the 5th: Act of Romeo & Juliet
Mezzotint on paper
350 millimetres x 250 millimetres
The British Museum, London

The Catholic Herald carries an essay by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith on Romeo and Juliet

Entitled Romeo and Juliet shows the danger of privatising love: The truth is that love is not a purely private matter. Every marriage has a public resonance

Both criticise the modern interpretation of the play 
"as an extravagant tale of love at first sight that for some horribly twisted reason had been doomed from the beginning. The whole thing just wasn’t fair. And then everyone died. The two had simply languished in Fate’s hands. What a waste."

Fr  Lucie-Smith`s take on the play is 
"the madness of love. Neither Romeo nor Juliet chose to fall in love, and their falling in love is clearly not a good idea, but neither of them have any choice in the matter. The Nurse does not help, in that she starts out as very helpful and then loses her nerve, and the same can be said of the Friar. In fact, all the adults fail these two children in love ..."
He goes on:
"What this play warns us about is the privatisation of love. Of course we admire Juliet and her Romeo, but the truth of the matter is, surely, that love is not a purely private matter. It has public resonance and the rite of marriage is always to be celebrated before proper witnesses, who represent the community in which the marriage takes place. Married love is a special relationship, but at the same time one of the many sorts of relationship that goes to make up the web of relationships that is society. 
So, Romeo and Juliet and the Friar and the Nurse all ought to have given more thought to the needs, not just of the young couple, but of Verona itself."
The comments on the article are scholarly and interesting

Could this be the start of a re-interpretation of a much misunderstood play ?

Shakespeare's primary source for Romeo and Juliet was Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, first published in 1562, two years before Shakespeare's birth. It was  reprinted in 1587, about eight years before the first performance of Romeo and Juliet.

The complete original text, with a glossary and a search engine are here

Whem one looks at this source one can see that neither Meg  Matenaer nor Father Lucie-Smith  are stretching the text. Indeed they cast light on some of Shakespeare`s most interesting speeches within the play which too often are ignored or simply passed over

Could the modern popular re-interpretation be a very striking example of how modern men and women are imprisoned within their culture, formed by the Enlightenment and unable to truly ynderstand what a late medieval mind such as Shakespeare intended the play to mean ? Has modern mankind simply regressed to a time before the advent of Christianity in Western Europe ?

Could it be that Pope Benedict XVi was spot-on when in Deus Caritas Est he said:
"The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love.  
In the critique of Christianity which began with the Enlightenment and grew progressively more radical, this new element was seen as something thoroughly negative. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice. 
Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine? 
 But is this the case?  
Did Christianity really destroy eros?  
Let us take a look at the pre- Christian world. The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness.  
All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: “Omnia vincit amor” says Virgil in the Bucolicslove conquers all—and he adds: “et nos cedamus amori”—let us, too, yield to love.  
In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution which flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine. 
The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity.  
But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.  
Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited.  
An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man.  
Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns"