A Valentine for My Friends

John Haber
in New York City

Romeo and Juliet in New York

The subways may not be everyone's idea of poetry, but they include some among the ads. Mostly, the text is selected for sentiment and political correctness, but it lifted my spirits the whole day to read this one. It is the scene from Romeo and Juliet (III, 2) that inspired "Tonight," from my favorite music (other than Beethoven and the Beatles), West Side Story. I have been singing it to myself ever since. Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968)

I have been reflecting on how William Shakespeare communicates such intensity so simply—in a matter of words. Juliet says only that Romeo will make even the dark of night beautiful, but the result is pretty steamy. The playwright's only tools are a clarity and density of language unknown even to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. As a Valentine for my readers, let me dig in. Let me indulge myself by sharing my own thrill at Juliet's words:

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess'd it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy'd: . . . .

The face of heaven

I can sense Juliet's anticipation from the moment her words hit me, with that tremendous surge forward. There is the rhythm of sound, as in the firm, slow insistence of "he will make the face of heaven so fine." It seems to hold so much back, and it finds its release in the smoothly flowing line that follows: "And all the world will be in love with night."

Language, too, has its rhythms. "Come," "night," and "Romeo"—those first words of Juliet's desire—gather force by their repetition, until they can act as her motifs. The insistence of the passage, which really starts several lines earlier, is more than an excerpt on the subway can concentrate. And then it builds, from the innocence of "snow," "gentle," and "the face of heaven" to "worship," "love," and explicit sex. When I hear "possess'd" and "enjoy'd," do I even stop to ask how Juliet got that far?

I shall always think of Romeo and Juliet as a young writer's play, just as West Side Story was a young lyricist's musical, both still flushed with the pleasure of their own words. They put their wordplay, like an adolescent's headstrong passion, in its most positive light, by assigning it to the heroine.

Shakespeare was never to be so far from cynicism again. By Julius Caesar, his very next tragedy, rhetoric has turned to something dense, difficult, and threatening. In the mouth of Brutus, it is hardly more than mental weakness to excuse indecision. In the oratory of Antony, it is deceit and manipulation in the interests of power. A maturer Sondheim developed much the same suspicion of emotional outpourings.

There is more going on, however, than repeating a loving message. Juliet appears to keep Romeo's light above and apart from the darkness. She appears to say that he can bring joy to the night. Increasingly, however, her words jumble these opposites together. As they do, a girl's first love gains an almost frightening intensity through its undertone of sex and violence.

To be in love with night

Her images of darkness never lose their somber associations. No, Juliet piles on her praise for things that violate what I can only call traditional values. She pictures a raven. She makes the night into a black-haired, brooding human figure. She wishes for Romeo's death, and if that were not enough, she tears his body to shreds. She ends alone, waiting herself for death, in the desolate image of an empty house.

Juliet's images suggest forbidden desire—and not only by breaking all the rules of poetic and moral decorum. They also have direct associations with sex. It is obvious enough what she feels when she wants to take Romeo's body apart. Back then, of course, "dying" was a cliché for sexual climax, as a plea to "come" still is. Freud wrote that a house is an archetypical symbol of woman as a sexual object.

With terrible irony, the words never let one forget that the play ends with both their deaths and the ultimate empty house, a tomb. In just a few more lines, this very scene turns abruptly to murder and banishment, with news of Romeo's killing Tybalt. And then the darkness will return with more sinister force: as if parodying the delight of white snow on a raven's back, Romeo's enemies will call him a raven fiendishly disguised as a dove.

Most of all, the growing confusion of sense takes up the turmoil in Juliet's head. She may start by calling for Romeo to take away the darkness of night, but the very next cry of "come" is for night itself. One moment Romeo lies upon night, as something light and foreign, but soon he is absorbed in it like a star in the firmament, and "all the world will be in love with night."

In the last sentence, Juliet is somehow both the purchaser and the item sold. A perfect intermingling of contraries may be the passage's real theme, and the only possible embodiments of that theme are sex and death. Yet they fatally upset the resolution for which she longs.

Romeo's turn

To allow a woman so much desire took courage and frankness—maybe even feminism. Shakespeare gives her a beautiful dream of possessing. In reality, it is men rather than she who will do violence to Romeo, but one cannot say that her independence is ever positively crushed or asserted. I see her quiet death as ambiguously at her own hands and in the hands of others.

Romeo's longing is necessarily more straightforward. By convention a young man takes action, and he must idealize his passion. Still, Juliet's language is his, too. Her headlong cadence echoes in all his heedless deeds; her dark imagery animates his words. Friar Lawrence will sense them when he cautions, "They stumble that run fast." I hear Juliet's dreams again in the cry that "she doth teach the torches to burn bright."

Besides, it is not just a young woman's psyche that is torn in two. Juliet's entire world is riven, broken violently by two clans, and neither can fairly claim to be the good guys fighting the bad guys. It is not just adolescence that cannot tell black from white. Reality looks as murky and threatening as her wildest imaginings.

She and Romeo reconcile the opposites by their love, but transiently and fatefully. Their death will reconcile the two clans, but at the price of their love.

So what is Juliet's anticipation really about? Is the message that, in happiness or tragedy, love brings a kind of peace, a desire painfully close to death? Is it that adolescent passion, left unchecked, will lead to disaster? Or is it that society is not yet ready for a woman's enterprise?

Well, yes to all, and merely to ask shows Shakespeare's modernity. Like Juliet in her love, I have to admit confusion. In Senecan tragedy, emotion run wild always comes to a degrading, sad end. I doubt that anyone takes Romeo and Juliet as solely a cautionary tale about teenage hormones, just as West Side Story was not exactly a recommendation to clean up Ninth Avenue and build Lincoln Center. Friar Lawrence's warning makes perfectly good sense, but only as one voice among Shakespeare's many others.

Day in night . . .

In the play's final scene, Juliet's dream of reconciliation has triumphed, but the muddy language of haste and darkness is still not dispelled. It has become a kind of societal value in its own right. Friar Lawrence's explanation must be as brief as "my short date of breath." Even in the play's last speech the Prince begins, "A glooming peace this morning with it brings."

To rebel against the specter of war, the lovers speak with a passion that is darkened and divided. In turn, it is a lyricism that discolors peace. At the end, the grandeur of Juliet's longing still runs in my head.

Questions, voices, emotions, images—they multiply on me the faster I try to get a handle on them. They color the characters' speeches the faster the plot resolves them or sets them aside. Yet amid the disorder of Juliet's feelings, Romeo and Juliet cannot afford to sound chaotic, florid, and overwritten, and somehow it never does.

To communicate the disorientation of adolescence takes precision, even if precision entails a numbing confusion. Juliet's most private longings play out against a world as dark, broken, and disordered as our own. It is a disorder that cuts to the heart of language. "Tonight . . .!"

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Since the subways inspired me, allow New York City the last word. Although West Side Story contributed to the West Side's renewed optimism, Lincoln Center had already begun at the time of the movie. I owe the details to Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (Knopf, December 2001), by James Sanders.


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