Friday, April 28, 2006

Romantic Reversals

The trouble with Romeo and Juliet is that no one understands it.

(Apart from me of course.)

I blame Goethe.

That little exercise in putting Faust back into the meeting of Romeo and Juliet prodded me to think about what happened to Faust when the nasty, Romantic German got his hands on the story: He gave it a happy ending.

Because of Faust's love of a woman, he is saved from hell.

They then did the same to Shakespeare - Romeo, well down in the hottest pit of Hell, gets yanked up to heaven - just because he loved Juliet and she loved him.

From being a good educational tool warning the youth of Shakespeare's day to keep a grip on their urges, Goethe and his like turn the whole thing "arse over tit" and killing yourself comes into fashion.

And that led onto to Wagner!

Shakespeare, why couldn't you stay a nice English provincial?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Shakespeare stealing again

One of those frequently misunderstood problems with Shakespeare is his propensity to lift material from other people - nowadays we would call it plagiarism.

One of the most fascinating, I think, is the meeting of Faustus and Helen:

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.--
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!--
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Now, do you remember Romeo seeing Juliet for the first time?

Something like

- Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright. -

Do I smell the smoke of Jupiter in this?

And what are we to make of the stage action - Kiss and Kiss again?

ROMEO 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.

JULIET 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.

ROMEO Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

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

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

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

ROMEO Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

JULIET Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

Now, if that isn't a direct copy of the Faustus scene, I am a Dutchman.

What is amazing is the way this connection is frequenltly ignored.

Why has Shakespeare chosen to lift a scene where a man very close to death and on his way to hell is instantly struck by a beautiful illusion and plays a word game of passing sins and souls in kisses?

He knew his audience - and they knew Marlow's play.

Modern interpretations of the Shakespeare scene all seem to focus on the beauty of the young lovers, the magnificent of the sentiments, the way Romeo has suddenly matured into a warm feeling adult (hours before he was an unfeeling teenager).

Put it next to Marlow though and a rather darker image emerges - a fool heading for death and hell, blinded by the devil's false beauty.

And because of the mindset, it is beautiful, interpreters tend to ignore the blasphamy too. Romeo, in order to impress Juliet, uses religous images - compares himself to a pilgrim and links prayer to his base wish for her body.
That would not go down well with the strongly held religous views of Shakespeare's audience.