February 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 2:27 pm

This is a revised and shortened version of a thing I wrote for a friend (as it happens, the Comte) a couple of years ago (before I got into economics). If I remember right, we were discussing sexuality in Shakespeare. The thing I wrote, and reproduce (most of) below, was an attempt to clarify some of my drunken claims.

It still bears the marks of conversation – it sort of starts in the middle of an ongoing discussion, and ends without much notice. There’s loads that should be said and isn’t, especially towards the end. Also, it refers to Frank Kermode’s book ‘Shakespeare’s Language’, and Peter Ackroyd’s recent biography, ‘Shakespeare’, way more often than’s reasonable. That’s because we’d both just read them. Anyway, if anyone’s interested, here are some remarks.  (Warning: this is fucking long.)

Let’s run with the idea that there are two major breakthroughs in the development of Shakespeare’s art: 1595, 1601. (Of course there are countless expansions of Shakespeare’s art throughout his life, but I need to simplify things if I’m ever going to get started.) (Also, these dates are pretty speculative. Any Shakespeare chronology is more than half guess-work.) With R&J Shakespeare reaches a whole new level of achievement. With Hamlet he enters a league of his own.

Now, both breakthroughs are associated with the thematising of the problems of literary representation. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the players to Hamlet. 1595, like 1601, also involves the placing of a performance centre-stage, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Shakespeare isn’t yet ready to bring the theatre into the heart of a tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet the literary form under Shakespeare’s microscope is not the play, but the sonnet. Shakespeare’s earliest sonnets probably date from around this time – at any rate, this was when he was getting serious about the form. (Again subject to the usual uncertainty about almost any dating of Shakespeare’s work.) Romeo and Juliet places the sonnet in its social context. It is, of course, set in contemporary Italy. According to Kermode this was an unusual, even an ‘experimental’, choice. (Ackroyd seems to think Shakespeare knew Italian.) Shakespeare wants to see the society that gave birth to the sonnet sequence; the society that embodied its values; he wants to see what sonnets are incapable of doing, but nonetheless to affirm their power. Shakespeare is the great English sceptic – a non-philosophical sceptic. Philosophy’s scepticism is half-arsed, because it refuses to be sceptical about the mind, about the powers of consciousness. Shakespeare tears through consciousness; his imagination is irresistibly drawn to the corporeal, to flesh and dirt. (But to dream, too. Impossible to adequately characterise Shakespeare. I’m going to be emphasising Shakespeare’s preoccupation with corporeality. But it would be equally sensible to approach him from the direction of the supernatural – and to connect this to his endless imagery of shadows, players, and dreams. I have nothing useful to say about fairies, elfs, hobgoblins, etc in Shakespeare. I recently read an appealingly bonkers article by William Empson about Elizabethan beliefs in the supernatural. (Bonkers because he seems to have read everything on the subject. A true crank, that man.) It probably does no harm to start from the assumption that Shakespeare’s audience believed it all: witches, Robin Goodfellow, Queen Mab, the lot. (Commentators say that Mab was probably Shakespeare’s invention: but the guardians of the textual tradition – university scholars, the self-consciously educated and sophisticated – influence posterity’s view of an age; and they aren’t going to be giving adequate weight to the plebs’ superstitions. This stuff was, surely, pervasive. (It certainly seems to powerfully inform Shakespeare’s view of the world. As far as I can tell, he isn’t a Puritan, an Anglican, a Catholic, a crypto-Catholic, or any of that: he’s a pagan. (Which is one reason Lear, Shakespeare’s reckoning with Christian eschatology, is set in a pre-Christian culture.))) Anyway…) No sooner has Shakespeare adopted a literary form than he starts to gnaw away at it, exposing its failures and lies. Obviously the inadequacy of poetry is one of the great themes of the sonnets; but in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare wants to get outside of sonnets, and expose their inadequacy from a position not compromised by the form. So: we begin with a sonnet, and are then immediately presented with the servants’ ‘bawdy’ banter. (One of my pet hates: the word ‘bawdy’, omnipresent in Shakespeare scholarship. What you mean, mate, is dirty. Or filthy. Or, at a push, sexual. Dirty joke, not ‘bawdy quibble’. Got it?) The sonnet provides a synopsis of the action; but so does the servants’ banter. More candidly than the prologue, the first scene draws out the fundamental link (at least in these male characters’ imaginations – and, presumably, Shakespeare’s too) between the political and sexual strands of the play. The Montagues and Capulets’ rivalry can be expressed in two ways: by killing men, or by raping women.
“When I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids [‘civil’ is disputed – in Quarto 4 it was changed to ‘cruel’, which many editors accept. But ‘civil’ has got to be right. It’s a typically irritating piece of Shakespearean word-play. Obviously the civil strife of the city is on Shakespeare’s mind, and he’s trying to draw a connection between ‘civil’ in its political sense and ‘civil’ in its everyday sense of politeness (‘civilised’) – here used sarcastically, in relation to civil strife. (Having half-punned on ‘civil’ in the Prologue – “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” – obsessive compulsive Shakespeare now has to deploy every other meaning of the term before he can let it go. [Ackroyd says we should not use the anachronistic terminology of obsession or compulsion to describe Shakespeare. Nonsense.]) But there’s too great a distance between the senses here for the connection to be grasped in an intuitive way; so the double-meaning serves as a nagging pull on your reading (or hearing) of the line, drawing your attention away from the scene of the drama] – I will cut off their heads.”
“GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
“SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.”
[That is, the ‘civil’ (the civilised, but also the essence of the city-state) can be taken in two senses: sexual conquest (the mixing of bloodlines) and family feud (the battle between bloodlines). You could do, no doubt, a quasi-Hegelian reading of R&J: the thesis of violence between clans; the antithesis of a desire that escapes the norms that generate this violence; and then the Aufhebung in which the reappropriation of desire creates a unified polis ruled by absolute law. (Although the reading would be slightly more sophisticated f I knew anything about Hegel). But that would miss the fact that (no matter what some morons say) Shakespeare’s heart is with the lovers. (This also goes some way towards suggesting how central Shakespeare’s irritating half-puns are to his way of thinking.)]
Shakespeare is developing a portrait of the world that produced the modern sonnet sequence, but he is doing so by beginning with the elements most resistant to appropriation by the sonnet form – a view of the sexual relation as utterly non-transcendent and utterly non-courtly. Romeo and Juliet very deliberately moves through the whole social spectrum, and through the linguistic registers that belong to them; it locates the sonnet at a specific place: the children of the upper middle classes who have yet to adopt the high-style social conformity of their parents and social masters. One of the reasons the play isn’t a complete success is that it loses energy grievously in the second half; and this is partly because the working class characters are excluded. (It’s also because Mercutio dies. A question: why exactly is Mercutio the Nurse’s double?) The big exception, energy- and destitute-character-wise, is the Apothecary of V.I.
“APOTHECARY: My poverty but not my will consents.
ROMEO: I pay thy poverty and not thy will.”
Fucking amazing. Anyway, as everyone knows, Romeo and Juliet begins with sonnets as a false structure for the expression of false love: Romeo is a typical trendy leisure class youth, infatuated with the romantic shtick of Petrarch, and, by proxy, with Rosaline. The sonnet form proper is only reached, however, at the moment Romeo and Juliet meet. (Their first exchange is a sonnet.) The next sonnet, the exchange that immediately follows, is interrupted:
“Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.
JULIET: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
ROMEO: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
He kisses her.
JULIET: You kiss by th’book.”
At which point the nurse, on Lady Capulet’s behalf, barges in. But the sonnet’s rhythm has already been disrupted by that kiss, mid-line. (Even without it, Juliet’s last phrase doesn’t scan.) The corporeal is derailing the linguistic. The first sonnet (I.5.93-106) is a perfect achievement of form. The next is undermined by the form’s meaning: sexual love. Having moved toward the sonnet for the first act, the remainder of the play will be a movement away from it. The sonnet may provide the perfect expression for the beginnings of love – first love, tentative love, fake love – but real, mortal, sexual love cannot be adequately expressed in sonnet, or in any other poetic, form; the rest of the play’s energy derives from a straining at the bounds of poetic expression. The play’s conclusion disappoints (‘disappoints’ in comparison to Hamlet or Lear, of course), because the story itself is reappropriated by the civil language Romeo and Juliet wanted to escape (with Friar Lawrence’s and Montague’s speeches). But before that happens, Shakespeare has opened up linguistic resources that he has never tapped before – and he’ll continue to extend and deepen them for the next ten years.

Juliet’s line “You kiss by th’book” resonates with themes of love, bookishness and social conformity that have already been established. The key passage is I.3.80-100, in which Lady Capulet tries to talk Juliet into marrying Paris. Lady Capulet’s sales pitch takes the form of an elaborate analogy between a husband and a book.
“Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,
And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content.
And what obscured in this fair volume lies
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.

That book in many’s eyes doth share the glory,
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him making yourself no less.”
Again the nurse interrupts, this time on behalf of sexual reality (the nurse’s alleigance moving from mother to daughter).
“NURSE: No less? Nay, bigger! Women grow by men.”
– a line which also interrupts the rhymed couplets that precede and follow it, the high style of the high born undercut again by plebeian blank verse.
Ackroyd says that Shakespeare associates books with love. But this speech rather establishes an opposition between books and sexuality. (Which doesn’t, of course, contradict Ackroyd’s idea that books and love are frequently connected in Shakespeare’s imagery.) Juliet is asked to cover or contain an unbound lover, which carries a pretty obvious sexual meaning; but the effect of Lady Capulet’s speech (whatever her ‘intention’) is to portray Paris as the epitome of deathly sexlessness; an idea which is in turn connected to the production of literature.
When Juliet says to Romeo “You kiss by th’book”, she is praising his technique but she is also teasing him: you kiss unfeelingly, with too much calculation, by numbers (just as Mercutio calls Tybalt “a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic” (III.1.102-3).) Shakespeare is always busy with his half-concealed symmetries: the two aspects of the ‘civil’ are both accused of being practised “by the book”. Tybalt Capulet fights by the book; Romeo Mercutio loves by it. Romeo and Juliet as a whole is a movement beyond books (even if Shakespeare isn’t yet ready to drown them); but books will also eventually close over the lovers’ heads. In the play’s last scene Montague says: “I will raise her statue in pure gold, / That whiles Verona by that name is known, / There shall no figure at such rate be set / As that of true and faithful Juliet.” The theme of naming (the earlier manifestations of which we’ll get to in a minute) resurfaces here, adding an apparently unnecessary complication to Montague’s pious remorse. The memory of Romeo and Juliet will survive, but only while their language survives. More specifically: their memory, which is the memory of their names, will survive only with the name of their city-state. The civil and the nominal are here combined in the name ‘Verona’ – the triumph of naming, and of language (and thus also of literature) is the triumph of the polis. The rhyme’s glibness suggests that Shakespeare the poet does not take comfort in this conclusion – his verse dies when he writes it.
So, with Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss they begin to reject literary imagery – Romeo beginning to turn away from his Petrarchian rhetoric, Juliet cementing her rejection of the “fair volume” Paris. And this is where we start to get to the problem of reference. Romeo and Juliet is, as far as I know, the first work in which Shakespeare starts getting really sceptical about the possibilities of poetic expression. It is also, non-coincidentally, the work in which his poetry starts to really take off (by his own stratospheric standards). (As Kermode says, after R&J Shakespeare would take a long detour into substantially prose works. In R&J the high-born poetry and plebeian prose aren’t always successfully integrated – hence, partly, the loss of energy in the second half as the prose characters drop out. By the time we get to Hamlet, Shakespeare can do anything.) Shakespeare’s scepticism about the possibilities of literature is one of the most important themes in R&J; and his most sustained concentration in this area comes to focus on a single trope: the proper name.

Now, it’s no kind of a stretch to say that names are central to Romeo and Juliet. One interesting angle is to compare Shakespeare’s treatment of the proper name in R&J with his treatment of the same theme in the sonnets. Bearing in mind the surely intimate connection between this play in particular and Shakespeare’s own sonnet sequence, isn’t it interesting that in the sonnets Shakespeare pledges to immortalise his lover’s name, while at the same time bequeathing us the most notorious case of literary anonymity in history. In R&J, on the other hand, the lovers are desperate to shed their names – their names are anathema to their love – and yet their names are what survive of them. (Very schematically: the gorgeous young man of the sonnets literally survives ‘in’ the poems; his posterity is reduced to language by Shakespeare’s jealous linguistic imagination. Conversely, Romeo and Juliet want to do without names, and can’t.) (Which of course completely ignores the importance of breeding to the early sonnets; but I’m not going to try to sort that out now.) Derrida discusses some of this in his essay on R&J (and I’m obviously drawing hugely on Derrida a lot here). But as I’m going to say, I don’t think Derrida’s analysis of the play is altogether adequate.

Kermode discusses how Shakespeare’s linguistic preoccupations have a tendency to turn up in his plots, and vice-versa. Shakespeare will fixate on a word, try out all its possible senses and resonances, and, as part of this, he will manufacture situations that explore its meaning. Sight and eyes in Lear. Honesty in Othello. Time in Macbeth. In Romeo and Juliet, names. The plot is opened by a set of names that fail to reach the people they denote. A servant is sent to “trudge about/ Through fair Verona” and invite people to the Capulet’s party; he is given a list of names. But the servant can’t read. “Find them out whose names are written here!… I am sent to find those persons whose names are here writ, and can never find what names the writing person hath here writ.” (I.2) Enter Benvolio and Romeo. Romeo reads the names in the list for the servant (“County Anselm and his beauteous sisters…”), spots the name Rosaline, and decides to gatecrash. (Why ‘Rosaline’? Rosalind is the name of Spenser’s love in The Shepherd’s Calendar – so perhaps Shakespeare is referencing and parodying the tradition. But there are also Rosalines in As You Like It and Love’s Labour’s Lost; and Ackroyd tells us that the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets “seems to have some connection” with LLL’s Rosaline, “who is described as being ‘as blacke as Ebonie’.” All good fun gossip. (I saw ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ at the Globe last year. An excellent production, partly because it shamelessly played for laughs. This is how half of Shakespeare’s stuff was meant to be performed, of course. His clowns would banter with the audience, they’d improvise their dialogue. It’s a cliché, but one of the challenges in performing Shakespeare today is that playing it broad and populist (as much of it obviously is) automatically carries the resonance of debunking a cultural icon. Shakespeare’s canonization has put him at odds with his own writing.) (Back to R&J, that guest list is worth quoting in full, it’s a hoot. “Signor Martino and his wife and daughters. County Anselm and his beautious sisters. The lady widow of Utruvio. Signor Placentio and his lovely nieces. Mercutio and his brother Valentine. Mine uncle Capulet, his wife, and daughters. My fair niece Rosaline and Livia. Signor Valentio and his cousin Tybalt. Lucio and the lively Helena.” In 1593 Giles Fletcher published a sonnet sequence to Licia; so, conceivably, Rosaline and Livia are both slightly deformed characters from late sixteenth century English romantic poetry. More importantly, Mercutio’s brother is called Valentine.)) Romeo and Juliet only meet because these names, at least from the perspective of the illiterate servant, do not adequately denote their objects: illiteracy, non-literacy, absence of literature and the written word watch over R&J’s romance.
Flash forward to the play’s last act, and another letter fails to reach its addressee. This time things are a little less meticulously schematic – it’s the plague, not language, that delays Friar John. Still, the resonance with the opening is clearly deliberate.
(And this also provides interesting insights into Shakespeare’s use of his source material. I’d assumed that he brought on the plague in the last act because of the force of Mercutio’s dying words. But the plague is there in Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet; so it must be the other way around. According to the Arden edition, one of Shakespeare’s big contributions to the story is that he “makes the plot depend crucially on messages.” The Nurse as messenger; the false report of Juliet’s death; the confused report of Tybalt’s (again, failure of names to attach to their referents). Shakespeare knew where the story was heading – a letter that fails to reach its addressee – and this breeds in his mind with the theme of naming, to generate these resonances. It’s even possible to connect Shakespeare’s single biggest plot-contribution to this theme. Shakespeare builds the character of Mercutio pretty much out of nothing, developing a name he found in Brooke. Why this name? Well: Mercury is the messenger of the Gods. When the messenger of the Gods is killed, he calls down a plague; and this plague in turn puts a stop to another messenger of God – that is, to a friar bearing a message. Given Shakespeare’s focus on names, is it too much to see a peculiar significance in Mercutio’s? (Furthermore, it’s a message of love: those brothers, Mercury and Valentine. I realise this may sound like a forced reading (and perhaps I’m imagining these connections). But this sort of stuff happens all the time in Shakespeare – it’s the way his mind works. He’s not laying puzzles for the reader, a la Joyce; it’s just that his mind is always at work, populating every sentence with connections only half legible (or, no doubt, often not legible at all) to an outsider. And these ‘intellectual’ games are somehow connected to the poetry that cuts you to the heart even when you barely understand it. Shakespeare is often at his most calculating when he’s at his most moving – think of the intolerable scenes in Lear concerning eyes, and then the way that the imagery of eyes is deployed with a meticulous symmetry that’s frankly chilling. Again, it’s the way his mind works.))
In any case, the central scene w/r/t names is II.2. Everyone knows this. I’ll be brief.
“’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. [What other part belonging to a man could Juliet have in mind? It’s a mistake to overemphasise, as most critics do, the contrast between the lovers’ poetry and the other characters’ sexual innuendoes. Romeo and Juliet have plenty of innuendoes of their own.] O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name [Q1; most subsequent editions have ‘word’] would smell as sweet.
[And here’s Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy: “rose. Pudend; maidenhead. The rose with its velvet, fleshy leaves recurs in modern slang, in a slightly different sense (see A Dictionary of Slang, 2nd ed. 1938 [Partridge is writing in 1947], and cf. the entry at velvet leaves). – ‘He that sweetest rose will find, Must find love’s prick and Rosalind [That name again]’, As You Like It, III.ii.112-113. See quotation at thorn and the third at prick, v. – Lucrece, v.492.” Is this pun too tenuous? Given that Juliet has just referred to Romeo’s cock, the development of ideas seems fairly straightforward. (Though no critic I’ve read seems to have mentioned the possibility; I guess I haven’t read enough Shakespeare criticism.)]
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.” [The sexual meaning of which is obvious.]
That’s six (or five) names; two Montagues; three Romeos. Shakespeare’s art is beginning a movement towards an absolute density of repetition. (Destination: “Never, never, never, never, never”; “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill”.) (Interestingly, the Penguin editor of the sonnets (John Kerrigan) also talks about Shakespeare’s movement “through tautology towards bare repetition”. “Shakespeare exceeds the Erasmian copia, shunning ‘variation’ for the sake of tautologous recurrence.” When Shakespeare successfully limits himself to this programmatic anti-poetry, however, “the effect is, not unnaturally, a little flat. A poem like 105 is scrupulously and Shakespearianly dull, but it is dull nonetheless.” This guy’s got some interesting things to say.) The obvious plot-driven obstacle to Romeo and Juliet’s love is that they are children of rival families; the problem with Romeo’s surname is that it embodies this conflict. Romeo’s Christian name should be neither here nor there. But Juliet focuses more on ‘Romeo’ than ‘Montague’. Why? Because her objection is not to names as representatives of family allegiance, but to names in general. Unlike the Petrachian or Dantean romantic love of the classical sonnet sequence (where it is the memory or the idea of the beloved that is revered, rather than the corporeal woman), sexual love demands the physical presence of the lover. To the extent that names distinguish a person’s identity from their physical existence (to the extent that names are representatives of or substitutes for the object or person named) (which is to say, always), names are an obstacle to physical love. Language distances, abstracts, mediates; Juliet, in her desire, wants to love not the thought of Romeo, or a linguistic representation of Romeo, but Romeo himself – and any name, as name, is always going to be a betrayal of the corporeality of the beloved. A condition of sexual love is the loss of language. “Romeo, doff thy name; / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself.”
But, of course, to express this desire to escape language, Juliet must use language; and this is so even if she wants to express it only to herself. Indeed, this is Juliet’s wish: she speaks alone on the balcony, expressing her desire to escape names by repeating, almost as an incantation, the name she wishes to reject. (And recall that in the previous scene Mercutio had made much play with summonings and incantations – summoning by name and summoning by sexual allure, both of which immediately take place.) Shakespeare milks the ironies.
“JULIET: What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night
So stumblest on my counsel?
ROMEO: By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.

JULIET: … Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?
ROMEO: Neither, fair maid, if either you dislike.”
Having deplored the distance between Romeo and his name, Juliet now seizes on it as a way to keep her lover beside her when the man himself is absent, and to summon him back when he’s leaving.
“Bondage is hoarse and may not speak aloud,
Else I would tear the cave where Echo lies,
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine
With repetition of ‘My Romeo!’”
Echo is, of course, the maximally, purely linguistic lover, who has no existence except through words (the air is her only tongue).

Now, in his essay on R&J Derrida makes all these points – but he also, I think, overemphasises the extent to which R&J involves the reappropriation by language of the rejection of language. Obviously this is part of what’s happening in the play, but two things need to be remembered. 1) This is still a comparatively early work. Shakespeare is here opening up an aspect of his literary project that he will continue to develop and deepen over the next ten years or so. 2) Shakespeare’s a playwright, not just a poet. When Derrida says that Romeo and Juliet survive in their names, he’s ignoring the fact that Shakespeare wrote not for the study, but for performance. (Obviously Derrida wouldn’t deny this. There’s no way to discuss Derrida briefly without resorting to wild over-simplification. And I really don’t want to get involved in the whole speech versus writing thing, which is perhaps unfortunate, since it’s basically the issue at stake here.) The point about Juliet’s speech is that she’s rejecting the linguistic in favour of the physical; and this carries such force because an actual person of flesh and blood is speaking the words. This is why Shakespeare rejected his burgeoning career as a writer of narrative verse for the comparative ignominy of the theatre. The people themselves are the source of his words’ power. (And this in turn is part of the movement from poetic to dramatic language that Kermode gives such weight to. The later Shakespeare’s ellipses and silences are only possible because his language is not bearing the full weight of his work’s meaning. The movement towards this dramatic language is thus connected to Shakespeare’s scepticism about language’s power. Shakespeare’s final turn away from the stage comes from the same source as his greatest poetic triumphs.)

To work towards an end, very hastily, I’ll make a few more points.

First: would it be going overboard to say that Shakespeare is England’s greatest philosopher? At any rate, Shakespeare’s work seem to me to have greater philosophical profundity than any English-language philosophical work I know. Two reasons: 1) Shakespeare’s a genius (duh). 2) Because he’s a playwright, not an actual philosopher, Shakespeare isn’t committed to the qualities of abstraction and unworldliness that are part and parcel of the genre of philosophy. One of the things that interests me most in Shakespeare is the way he connects his philosophical themes to sexuality – to a degree that seems to me to be unparalled in the canon. There’s so much here I’m incapable of adequately discussing. But where I want to go with this is towards the link made in Macbeth (which in some moods seems to me to be Shakespeare’s greatest play) between sexuality and time. Here’s the American philosopher and literary critic Henry Staten (who’s written an outstanding piece on Hamlet, and whose stuff I rely on just all over the place) discussing Heidegger: “As for Heidegger, where is he to be located in all this? He is mostly silent on these subjects, hardly a word about Eros and the female to be found anywhere. But here is one telltale link in the chain, a scent that puts us on the trail of Heideggerean piety: ‘Being is the ether in which man breathes. Without this ether, he would descend to the mere beast and his whole activity to the breeding of beasts.’” This is the vision Shakespeare’s great tragic protagonists articulate again and again in their raptures of sexual disgust: sexuality as bestial and, therefore, meaningless. But Shakespeare also, at the depths of his poetic vision, connects sexuality with time itself. (“the seeds of time”). I’m interested in the binding together of these themes. Since Heidegger came to believe that poetry was the truest form of philosophical vision, and Heidegger’s meditation on being and time is, in my opinion, a flight from sexuality, it would be nice to use Shakespeare to write about the connections between time and sexuality, and thereby take on Heidegger. But this is a task for another life…

A couple of other things.

1) The Phoenix and the Turtle. This poem is, of course, among other things, a philosophical treatment of the question of identity. It’s very interesting to consider it in relation to deconstruction. (Interesting for me, at least.) Briefly: 1) In this poem Shakespeare is rejecting the principle of identity. 2) This is also a rejection of the classical picture of the functioning of language.
“Property [= a latinism; the ‘proper’; that which is proper to a thing; that which constitutes a thing’s quiddity or essence] was thus appalled / That the self was not the same [i.e. there can be no such thing as quiddity or essence once we have rejected the self-identity (self-sameness) of an entity] / Single nature’s double name / Neither two nor one was called [once we have rejected the proper, there can also be no proper name which picks out a unique entity. This stanza pretty much crams Derrida’s entire corpus into four lines.]

2) But in The Phoenix and the Turtle Shakespeare is operating in a realm of extreme abstraction. Here is the excellent feminist critic Janet Adelman: “The paradoxes that animate The Phoenix and the Turtle are as much emotional as intellectual; they rest, I think, on the fusion of lovers’ language with an insistence on absolute chastity.” Beginning with Hamlet, Shakespeare will apply the principle of non-self-identity that he charts out in (the watershed work) The Phoenix and the Turtle to actual sexual existence.

3) Doing so generates all sorts of nightmares, for Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s great tragedies, powered by his examination of the duplicity of language and performance, are also powered by misogynistic sexual disgust. And this disgust is connected to poetry. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare circles around the idea that real love cannot be articulated in language – the lovers’ love is exemplified by the fact that they want to reject words. The play itself, therefore, cannot fully enter into this love. This is confirmed by the last scene, in which the deathly voices of conformity and orthodoxy tell the lovers’ story. Shakespeare cannot wrest his play away from these voices.

And this has an unappealling consequence for a poet of genius – sexual love, his great subject, in some sense escapes his art. If language itself is an enemy of love, then how can Shakespeare pursue his profound investigation of sexual being? The answer, in a word, is by making sexual disgust the driving force behind his meditations of sexuality. Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth – are all driven by sexual disgust – because disgust, by its very nature, mobilises the mediating powers of language. Language is “that dangerous supplement”, the danger of which must be embraced, because it is, as Rousseau puts it, far preferable to “cohabitation with women” (Of Grammatology). Perhaps the clearest, most schematic, most remorseless exemplification of this in Shakespeare’s work is Lear. The tragedy is set in motion by Coredlia’s “Love, and be silent.” Cordelia’s love has no linguistic content – it does not feature in the play. (Things are actually more complicated than this, but I don’t want to embark on a reading of Lear.) Lear’s fury, by contrast, a fury and madness that circles constantly around the most violent misogyny, is Shakespeare’s poetry at its most remarkable. And this poetry’s violence is inseperable from the tension between Shakespeare’s subject and his means of expression. One might say: it is only by turning his sexual emotions pathological, that Shakespeare is able to pursue his art.

Now all this needs to be discussed in way more detail, with proper readings of all the great plays, not just a partial reading of Romeo and Juliet, if it’s going to be even halfway convincing. But I can’t do it; I don’t have the resources. So I’ll end here. I do, however, strongly recommend Adelman’s book, the feminist/psychoanalytic readings of which seem to me to get closer to the heart of Shakespeare than anything else I’ve read. It seems to me that, with rare exceptions like that book, most Shakespeare scholarship has totally failed to understand what he’s on about. Perhaps we’re only now developing the critical resources we need to understand him.


  1. “To the extent that names distinguish a person’s identity from their physical existence (to the extent that names are representatives of or substitutes for the object or person named) (which is to say, always), names are an obstacle to physical love. Language distances, abstracts, mediates.”

    As one of the most skilled wordsmiths in history, Shakespeare must have known more about linguistic limitations than anybody else.

    I didn’t read much farther than the above passage, but I was wondering if you considered how Shakespeare attempts to convey the malleability of life/nature through the use of double and triple entendres? Language as a medium is brilliantly sophisticated, but can a triple entendre express the multifaceted beauty of a tree swaying in the wind? I remember Shakespeare being preoccupied with questions such as these when I was reading his plays a few years ago.

    I thought of some crossover implications to philosophy in your thesis. If language is how we interpret our thoughts and emotions, and if we impose our thought structures on the world we see–and use language to make sense of what comes back into our eyes–is it safe to say that the scope of our realities are somewhat limited by linguistic limitations? In other words, does my (or anybody’s) ability to analyze the world based upon how many ways I can construct words and sentences into meaningful thoughts mean that my reality is only as big as my vocabulary and grasp of grammatical rules, etc.? Even though Shakespeare is conveying the tension between linguistics and the corporeal, and he tries to break out of the confines of language by using language, he–like the rest of us–is already a slave to language. Interesting.

    Comment by robertjerome — February 12, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

  2. Robert –

    “is it safe to say that the scope of our realities are somewhat limited by linguistic limitations?” This is certainly one of the big themes of modern philosophy. There’s a trend in 20th century philosophy – the ‘linguistic turn’ – that tends to see thought & experience as massively – perhaps totally – conditioned by language. My favourite philosophers – Wittgenstein and Derrida – are associated with this trend. But I tend to think that the trend itself is bollocks. Not altogether, obviously – some of the greatest philosophy ever has (IMO) come out of this tradition – but I think the modern emphasis on language, textuality, etc, is pernicious in important respects. One of the things I’m trying to do in this lousy incoherent post is use Shakespeare to attack that tendency (represented by Derrida’s essay on ‘Romeo and Juliet’). So yeah, as you say, Shakespeare is very preocuppied by his inability to express what he wants to using language – and because nothing linguistic is closed to him – Shakespeare can do anything at all with words – he sees clearer than anyone just how palty langauge’s communicative/expressive abilities are. In my opinion Shakespeare’s work is a powerful corrective to the idea that language dominates thought. But what do I know?

    Comment by praxisblog — February 16, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

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