Of Being and Doing

john-lennonWhen I was a kid, adults would occasionally ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer ranged variously from astronaut to spy to knight. (I was as much a realist back then as I am today, obviously.) Eventually I settled on “being a teacher,” but what I came to realize in my formative years in the classroom that being a teacher isn’t important; doing a teacher’s work is. I was lucky to have fallen into this realization, because I feel the work I do now with young people in my English and Social Studies classes really is important, and I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from it.

But these kids in my classroom are bombarded with messages I was only occasionally acquainted with: they are told repeatedly that they need to be something—specifically, they’re told to be wealthy, attractive, and popular; they are, in short, told they need to be important, or else they will be failures. Consider these three aspects of “being”: they’re all vague and subjective, and rarely attainable by the average person. Take me, personally: I’m not poor, but I’m certainly not wealthy; I don’t consider myself ugly, but neither do I consider myself attractive; and though I have positive relationships with the people in my personal and professional life, I don’t consider myself “popular.” Does this make me a failure? Does this make me unimportant?

The media’s bombardment of messages certainly say, “yes.” I could be contrarian and pretend I don’t care, that I find success in my own way—for example, in my happy marriage, in my two wonderful children, in the relative comfort I have in my daily life—but that’s not always so easy. Even I have my moments of doubt. (The difficulties I have paying my college loans usually bring on the biggest bouts of doubt.) And my general steadfastness in the face of the media is the result of thirty-three years of living with its constant carpet-bombing of messages. I have a certain immunity to these messages that young people generally aren’t equipped with.

Rather than making young people worry about “what they will be,” let’s instead empower them by asking them, “What will you do?” Be-ers aren’t do-ers. We need do-ers. We need young people with clear aspirations to some type of meaningful work. We need to tell them, “It’s not what you are that makes you important; it’s what you do.” After all, we are only failures if we give up on our work. Though it’s not possible or healthy to achieve the media’s goals of wealth, attractiveness, and popularity, it is possible to achieve personal and societal success through the positive contributions you make through your work. So don’t just be something when you grow up; do something. Write; act; practice law; experiment in the lab; invent; find cures; heal the sick; explore space; teach. You—we—will be better for it.

The Queen Mab Speech: Mercutio’s Unwitting Prophecy

"She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone" (I.iv.59-60)

“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone” (I.iv.59-60)

Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech (1.4.58-100) has elicited many interpretations, such as the belief that the monologue demonstrates Mercutio’s genius at improvisation as well as the notion that it illustrates Mercutio’s disdain for women. While one (or both) of these interpretations may be true, there is another reading of the speech that works on a different, structural level: though he most certainly does not realize he does so, Mercutio uses the Queen Mab speech to symbolize the narrative structure of the play—a happy-go-lucky “good dream” that quickly turns into a dark, oppressive nightmare.

The monologue begins as Romeo and Mercutio argue over the ostensible veracity of dreams:

Romeo. I dreamt a dream tonight.
Mercutio. And so did I.
Romeo. Well, what was yours?
Mercutio. That dreamers often lie.
Romeo. In bed asleep while they do dream things true.
Mercutio. O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. (1.4.53-58)

Romeo is apparently arguing that dreamers dream reflections of reality—if not reality itself. Mercutio, ever the realist, happily jumps on this opportunity to mock his sensitive, overly imaginative friend. Rather than continuing the argument in any straightforward manner, he instead launches into a flamboyant speech about how dreams—granted by the fantastical fairy, Queen Mab—only reflect the desires of individuals, not reality:

Mercutio. And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lover’s brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtier’s knees, that dream on cur’sies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream of fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweemeats tainted are. (1.4.75-81)

Lovers, for example, desire love and so dream of love; lawyers, by Mercutio’s same logic, desire money (“fees”) and so dream of money; and so on. Thus, Mercutio ruthlessly proves Romeo wrong: dreams are not real, but are instead mere reflections of our desires. Believing that dreams are true, he insinuates, is as foolish as believing in fairies.

But starting with line 80, Mercutio’s descriptions of dreams as being reflections of desire takes a darker turn: in an outright explicit turn of phrase, he indicates that Queen Mab often gets angered and “plagues” the lips of ladies with “blisters” (i.e., herpes) “[b]ecause their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” (i.e., Mab infects ladies’ lips with herpes after she sees that they have been “tainted” by oral sex). Certainly, this is not the stuff dreams are made on.

Darker still are Mercutio’s following descriptions of dreams: while still demonstrating that dreams only reflect desires, he says,

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom 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. (1.4.87-93)

Truly, not all people are peaceful civilians, so not all dreams are placid. Soldiers, Mercutio says, desire killing enemy soldiers in battle, and thus their dreams are full of violence and death. At last, before being cut off by Romeo, Mercutio mentions that Queen Mab also brings to young girls dreams of the pain associated with both sex and childbirth. Obviously, dreams of sickness, death, and pain are quite different than the aforementioned dreams of love, money and kisses. Thus, dreams can be happy and frivolous, but dreams can also be dark and frightening.

Symbolically, this speech on the nature of dreams parallels the narrative structure of the play: at first, we have a happy, frivolous love story. Romeo and Juliet, it seems, will get married and live happily ever after once they reconcile their families with their love. But then Act 3 arrives, and Mercutio is pronounced dead by line 120 of the first scene, soon followed by Tybalt less than 20 lines later. To make matters worse, the Prince exiles Romeo at the end of the scene, a decree that ultimately leads to the miscommunication that results in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Thus, much like Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the frivolity of the first half of the play quickly dissolves into nightmarish violence. Though he does not realize that he does so, Mercutio outlines the structure of the entire play with his speech, demonstrating that while he is speaking of dreams, he is most certainly not talking of “nothing”.

Of The Revenant (2015)

 We see things in Alejandra González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) that we have not seen before and will not see again. This is not hyperbole; just consider the way the film was shot: out in the wilderness, under only natural light, where leading man Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the cast were perpetually in physical danger1. I wonder how much Iñárritu lied to or withheld information from the producers in order to get this film made, because the risks involved in shooting it seem too risky for your average production company like New Regency. Nevertheless, The Revenant is a mesmerizing and evocative film, and it’s a sure contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar.

Though the plot is paper-thin, Emmanuel Lubezki’s astonishing cinematogrophy and the film’s nearly three hour run time help you to forget this. Essentially, The Revenant is a revenge story, based loosely on the impossibly true story of 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass. Glass is mauled by a bear early in the film—in a brutal scene that, in typical Iñárritu and Lubezki fashion, does not once cut (recall their enigmatic Birdman [2014], which seems never to cut)—and left for dead by his fellow trappers. While imobile and mute2, Glass witnesses his companion Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murder his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) when the latter spots the former attempting to kill the wounded man. Fitzgerald hides Hawk’s body and enacts a plan involving a lie about approaching “Ree Indians” (the Arikara) so that he will have a good reason to tell his superiors why he left Glass for dead in a shallow grave. The rest of the film follows Glass’s painstaking pursuit of Fitzgerald, which I want to stress again is roughly based on a real historical event3.

Though the plot is relatively straightforward, it occasionally dips into the metaphysical via hallucinations and dream sequences involving Glass’s murdered wife. People have criticized these moments as being disconnected from the rest of the film, but I can’t see the logic in this argument: if nothing else, The Revenant is a revenge story, so it makes perfect sense for us to see Glass constantly reminded of his murdered wife and son. They are the reason he is enduring, after all. Consider that before Fitzgerald murders Hawk, Glass essentially agrees to let Fitzgerald murder him; but after he watches the man knife his son, his will to survive strikes up because he now has a reason to live. Avenging his son—and, symbolically, his wife, who was also murdered by a white man—is what drives him forward; so it would indeed be odd if we didn’t have those dream sequences showing us that Glass is perpetually haunted by his murdered family. Critics too have questioned the relevance of the sub-plot involving Glass’s liberation of the Arikara girl from sexual enslavement to the French trappers. Without this moment, there wouldn’t be any reason for the Arikara to kill Fitzgerald and leave Glass alive in the closing moments of the film; with it, we’re given closure. Despite what the film’s detractors might argue, this film is not disjointed. There are no plot holes, due no doubt to the story’s simplicity, and even the odd metaphysical moments have relevance.

A word here on the Native Americans in The Revenant: they are not simply elements in the forces of nature; they are a force of nature. Throughout much of the film, they seem to be coming out of the trees and the earth. In the beginning attack sequence, they are barely visible until the scene is almost over; the only way that we are aware of the presence is through the death that suddenly appears: men go down with arrows mercilessly driven into their throats and other body parts, and though we, like the trappers, try frantically to find the attackers in the trees, they are too well concealed for us to really see. They literally seem to be a natural part of the landscape. Given that they are depicted as a force of nature, I’m perfectly content with their role in the ending. “Vengeance is in God’s hands,” Glass realizes as the film winds down; and so, he releases Fitzgerald downstream towards “God,” or as close to God as can be found on earth—nature, represented here by the natural force of the Arikara. The natives, a force of God, complete God’s vengeful work.

To say that Emmanuel Lubezki achieves the same level of cinematographic success that he did in Birdman and earlier in Gravity (2013) is a vast understatement: I mentioned earlier the mad decision to film The Revenant only in natural light; this, in conjunction with the frequent mobile longtakes and the intimate nature of the shots (we see the condensation from DiCaprio’s breath layer the camera lens more than once) makes us feel as though we are there, as though these terrible things were happening to us. The bear mauling scene is one continuous take, devoid of the cuts that help remind us it’s “not real;” Glass’s stealthy dip into the frigid river and his subsequent escape from the Arikara are likewise filmed continuously, and it feels to us as though we’re there in the hypothermic water.

 Much has been made about this being the performance that will finally nab the Best Actor Oscar for DiCaprio. I certainly hope for his sake that he gets it. Warm feelings aside, he has earned it; if he wins, it won’t be a case of “He-wasn’t-that-good-but-for-God’s-sake-just-give-it-to-him-already!” Though Lubezki’s cinematography plays a major part in engrossing us in the film, we wouldn’t be wholly engrossed without DiCaprio’s performance. He gives it the last touch it needs to suspend our disbelief and make it feel real. When discussing the bear mauling scene with my wife last night, I realized that it isn’t the bear that makes that scene so terrifying, nor is it just the continuous take; rather, it’s the continuous look at DiCaprio’s face and his reactions to the bear. His expressions don’t look like stock Hollywood reactions; he doesn’t stoically accept his fate, nor does he scream helplessly. Much to the contrary, his face is perpetually terrified and he legitimately seems to be suffering. You realize with horror upon watching this that this is what it looked like when Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing documentary Grizzly Man (2005), was eaten by an Alaskan Grizzly Bear in 2003. It is gutwrenching and nervewracking, but not superfluous, since it is the starting point of the narrative proper–and, of course, because it actually happened!

DiCaprio’s is not the only noteworthy performance. Tom Hardy is particularly effective as the squirrelly, wild-eyed (and partially scalped) Fitzgerald. One gets the feeling that any other actor would have made Fitzgerald a stock villain, contemptuous and violent; but Hardy’s mannerisms reveal depth–a genuine fear of the natives and a determined belief that wasting their time with the nearly dead Glass is bringing them all a step closer to being nearly dead themselves. Domnhall Gleason4 gives us a terrific performance too, bringing a strong sense of humanity to what otherwise might have been the stock stoic military leader; like DiCaprio and Hardy, Gleason’s facial expressions reveal a subtly complex humanity beneath the battered surface of his skin.

 

Tom Hardy as the wild-eyed Fitzgerald

 

Also of note here is the music, which like the performances, is subtly complex. It almost adds an element of a horror film to the movie, putting us on edge without overwhelming or distracting us. Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s score, while perhaps not deserving of the Best Original Score Oscar5, is effectively eerie and sets us in the right aural frame of mind.

The Revenant is not a film for everyone; my wife, for instance, will never watch all of it. The violence and brutality are simply too realistic and jarring. One walks away from this film feeling like he’s just watched a nearly three hour version of the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. But those who can make it through the film will be treated to a cinematic experience unlike any that has been or will be. Like Glass is haunted by his memories of his family, so will you be haunted by your memories of this film. Iñárritu’s directing here is unparalleled–second perhaps only to Werzog’s infamous but brilliant directing on the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), itself a blood-brother to The Revenant–the cinematography is genuinely idiosyncratic, and the acting is provacative. Even if you have to close your eyes during the particularly gruesome bits, see this movie now. It is a transcend talk and transformative cinematic experience.

 

You will feel like DiCaprio looks when you finish the film

 


Footnotes

1Consider this article from Looper; Iñárritu filmed in some of the coldest and most formidable places on the planet. DiCaprio has said, “[I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” He has certainly come a long way from being the whiny kid James Cameron made fun of for complaining about the cold water on the set of Titanic.

2Glass is rendered mute by the bear in one of the most disturbing moments of the film: after the bear saunters off momentarily to communicate with her cubs, Glass raises his rifle again and shoots her; furious, she bounds back and swiftly swipes Glass’s throat before flipping again into his back so she can proceed to tear at his spine. It’s not just seeing the almost casual swipe of the bear’s paw that is so horrifying; it is more so Glass’s reaction–clutching his throat and gurgling.

3In reality, Glass did not have a half-native son, though he did crawl two hundred miles out of a shallow grave after being mauled by a bear in pursuit of a man named Fitzgerald.

4Gleason had a busy and successful 2015: in addition to The Revenant, he was also impressive in The Force AwakensBrooklyn, and Ex Machina—all noteworthy releases.

5This award ought to go to Ennio Morricone, whose classical “Morricone” score helps redeem Tarantino’s Hateful Eight of its disappointing mediocrity.

Why It’s Important That Lucasfilm Reorganized the Star Wars Expanded Universe

splinter_of_the_minds_eyeThe storytelling of the Star Wars universe has a long and complex history. There are essentially two strains of stories at work: the jealously guarded “canon” (i.e., everything in the Star Wars films and the occasional external material) and the Expanded Universe (“EU”). The EU is older than most of the canon: Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978) is officially non-canon due to odd elements in the book, like Princess Leia engaging Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel, but it was released before The Empire Strikes Back in 1980; so, the idea of telling Star Wars stories that don’t align with the “official vision” of the films has almost as long a history as the entire franchise itself.

On April 25, 2014, Lucasfilm announced that there would be no more EU stories, and that the entire EU itself was to be reorganized under the moniker “Star Wars Legends.” For fans of EU titles like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy (and they are many), this came as a blow, almost an insult; for the subtext is that from this point forward, there can be no more Star Wars merchandise that explores the “what-ifs” and “what-might-bes;” everything going forward is going to be restricted to a single vision.

heirtotheempirePersonally, I’m happy with this reorganization. I read Zahn’s books as a kid, but when I realized that George Lucas didn’t necessarily approve or confirm everything in those books—and thus that, to me, the events and characters don’t really matter—I felt gipped out of the time I’d spent reading those books. Though certain elements from the EU have crept into the official Star Wars canon (such as the capital city-planet of Coruscant), much has since been proven false or only partially true. (For example, in the EU, starting with Zahn’s books, Leia and Han have twins, Jacen and Jaina, both who become Jedi, though Jacen eventually falls to the dark side; this has since been refuted by The Force Awakens, where it is revealed that Leia and Han [apparently] only had one child, Ben Solo, who—admittedly like Jacen—falls to the dark side.) After I realized that the EU was not authentic, I abandoned it for the most part.

So now, while the EU is not gone, its expansion has ceased. But what this means is that all Star Wars stories in the future will be canon. Consider this excerpt from Lucasfilm’s official April 25, 2014 announcement from StarWars.com:

Now, with an exciting future filled with new cinematic installments of Star Wars, all aspects of Star Wars storytelling moving forward will be connected. Under Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy’s direction, the company for the first time ever has formed a story group to oversee and coordinate all Star Wars creative development.

Kathleen Kennedy

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy

This has already proven to be a useful endeavor. While in the past, I’d ignore the plethora of Star Wars novels out there, now all new Star Wars novels will be worthwhile—indeed, they will contain interesting and relevant material that we don’t and won’t see in the new films. Take Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, which begins to chronicle the 30 years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens: this isn’t speculative Star Wars fiction, but rather official information formulated by the story group at Lucasfilm.

If you’re a casual fan of Star Wars, this probably doesn’t matter much to you; but if you’re a long-time fan of the series like me, this is important and exciting: now there will be good reason to devote your time to the storytelling outside the films, because now it’s all relevant, all part of the greater fabric of the official Star Wars tapestry. I guess this line of thinking marks me as a purist, and so be it: I like my stories in individual universes like Star Wars to make sense in context of one another. My Princess Leias ought never fight my Darth Vaders.

“Violent Ends”: A Chronological Summary of Romeo and Juliet

todd-peterson-romeo-and-juliet

Many students and casual readers tend to overlook the rapidity of Romeo and Juliet‘s narrative, which is unfortunate given the heightened sense of anxiety — and thus sublimity — that this hurried pace adds to the reading or viewing experience. The lovers’ courtship is explosively fast, so it follows that their demise should be explosively fast as well; hence Friar Lawrence’s well-intentioned but hastily ignored observation:

These violent delights  have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss, consume. (2.6.9-11)

Such a relationship would be wrongly construed in a slowly-paced narrative.

The action of the play begins on a Sunday morning and concludes on the following Wednesday morning: thus three full days pass from start to finish. To aid students and casual readers of the play, I have outlined the plot based on this three-day schematic:

Sunday Morning

*1.1: Gregory and Sampson initiate the brawl with Abram and the other Montague servants that results in the full-out street fight between the feuding families. Prince Escalus stops the street fight and declares that any Capulet or Montague (or servant of those families) who ever again publicly fights will be sentenced to death. Benvolio indicates to Lord and Lady Montague that he saw Romeo moping under the sycamore trees on the edge of the city earlier in the morning, and he thereafter questions Romeo about the origin of his recent depression.

Sunday Afternoon

*1.2: Lord Capulet and Paris discuss the count’s marriage proposal to Juliet; Capulet invites Paris to his ball later that evening. In this same scene, by chance, an illiterate Capulet servant meets Romeo and Benvolio in the street and asks Romeo to read the names of the people he needs to invite to Capulet’s ball. Benvolio notices that Rosaline, the girl whom Romeo is hopelessly in love with, will be there, so he suggests they crash the party so that Romeo can find another attractive girl.

*1.3: Lady Capulet approaches Juliet to see if she will agree to Paris’s marriage proposal. She dutifully — though unemotionally — agrees, saying she only consents because her parents do.

Sunday Evening

*1.4: Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and their friends walk to the Capulet ball. Mercutio gives his famous Queen Mab speech to try to lighten Romeo’s mood and prove to him that dreams and fantasies amount to nothing. Before the scene concludes, Romeo indicates his suspicion that something fateful — “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” — will happen that night.

*1.5: The Capulet ball. Romeo sees Juliet and instantly forgets about Rosaline. Tybalt sees that Romeo has crashed the party, but his uncle, Capulet, tells him to ignore the offence. Romeo and Juliet meet and kiss for the first time, though soon after are momentarily separated; during this time, Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet and Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague.

*2.1: Feeling downcast, Romeo runs away from his friends and escapes into Capulet’s orchard, hoping to meet up with Juliet again. Mercutio lewdly taunts Romeo about his passion for Rosaline (which we now know is dead) before going home for the night.

Early Monday Morning (Sometime around 3 am, let’s say)

*2.2: The balcony scene. Hiding in the bushes, Romeo watches Juliet stand on her balcony for a while before announcing his presence. They exchange vows of love and decide that they will get married the following day, provided Friar Lawrence consents to marry them. Romeo tells Juliet to send for him by 9 o’clock.

Later Monday Morning (Sometime around 6-7 am)

*2.3: Romeo asks Friar Lawrence to marry him to Juliet. Hoping that the marriage will end the feud, the friar agrees, but then cautions Romeo to take his love “wisely and slow.”

Monday Afternoon

*2.4: Benvolio tells Mercutio that Tybalt has sent a letter to the Montague housing challenging Romeo to a duel for the offence of crashing the Capulet ball. Romeo arrives, and feeling better now that he is in a mutually-loving relationship with Juliet, playfully banters with Mercutio. The Nurse come onto the scene with her servant, Peter, and asks to speak with Romeo confidently. Mercutio mocks the Nurse and then leaves with Benvolio. The Nurse angrily shouts after Mercutio and berates Peter for not standing up for her, and then she questions Romeo about the validity of his feelings for Juliet. Romeo assures her that he is true, and then he tells her to have Juliet ask permission to go to Friar Lawrence for confession, who she will really see to get married to Romeo. He then tells the Nurse to meet his servant behind the abbey wall, where she will get a rope ladder that Romeo will later use the climb up into Juliet’s room.

*2.5: The Nurse teases Juliet for a while by not giving her the information about Romeo, but finally relents and informs Juliet of Romeo’s gentlemanly behavior. She then tells Juliet to pretend she’s going to Friar Lawrence for confession, while she’s really going to get married.

*2.6: Romeo and Juliet get married. (Note: not 24 hours have passed since Romeo and Juliet first met)

Later Monday Afternoon

*3.1: Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt and other Capulets on the street; Mercutio mocks Tybalt for a while until Romeo comes onto the scene. Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, but knowing that he is now Tybalt’s cousin-in-law, Romeo begs off and protests that he’s never done anything to insult the Capulets. Mercutio attempts to distract Tybalt’s attention from Romeo by engaging the “Prince of Cats” in a mock-duel. Romeo takes the duel for the real thing, and jumps between the fighters, only to bungle things and cause Tybalt to accidentally stab Mercutio. In a panic, Tybalt flees. Mercutio dies, though everyone on the scene thinks he is faking, even after he makes his famous curse: “A plague o’ both your houses!” Mercutio dies; Romeo, realizing the truth of the situation, hurries after Tybalt and engages him in a duel to avenge his friend. Romeo kills Tybalt, and then, realizing what he has done, shouts that he is “Fortune’s fool” and flees the scene. The families gather in the streets demanding justice from the Prince; the Prince declares that Tybalt’s death was assured since he killed Mercutio, but that Romeo cannot be blameless, since he participated in the duel. Therefore, Romeo is banished from Verona, under the proviso that he be killed if he ever is caught back in the city. (Note: this all takes place within the same afternoon that Romeo and Juliet get married in 2.6.)

*3.2: Juliet impatiently waits for night to come so that Romeo can sneak into her room. Soon after, though, the Nurse arrives and at length informs Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. Juliet becomes frantic at first, but quickly thinks through the problem to realize that, while a terrible fate, this outcome is better than the alternative (i.e., that Romeo, her husband, had been killed instead of Tybalt). The Nurse then tells Juliet that she will go to Friar Lawrence’s cell to see if Romeo will come to Juliet’s room as originally planned. Before the Nurse leaves, Juliet gives her a ring to give Romeo as a sign that still loves him in spite of Tybalt’s murder.

*3.3: Friar Lawrence informs Romeo that he has been banished from Verona as punishment for Tybalt’s murder. Romeo repeatedly exclaims that this sentence is worth than death, despite the friar’s protestations that it is actually a good thing. The Nurse arrives and describes Juliet as “crying over” Romeo’s name; in response to this, Romeo desperately asks where in his body his name may be found so that he can stab it out; and he thereafter draws a dagger to kill himself. The friar violently scolds Romeo for this short-sighted impulsiveness and heatedly reminds him that he has much to be happy for. He concludes by sending Romeo in secret away to Juliet for the night, as originally planned.

Monday Evening

*3.4: Lord Capulet, hoping to cheer Juliet up, arranges her marriage to Paris for Thursday. He says they will only invite half a dozen guests to prevent anyone from thinking that they are reveling too soon after Tybalt’s death.

Tuesday Morning

*3.5: Romeo leaves Juliet after having spent their wedding night with her. (Note: this is the last time Romeo and Juliet see each other alive, which makes Juliet’s comment that Romeo looks as though he were pale and dead in a grave all the more ironic.) Lady Capulet arrives and tells Juliet that she will marry Paris on Thursday. Angered at the haste — and no doubt flustered since she is already married to Romeo — Juliet vehemently rejects the proposal. Lord Capulet comes by, and after hearing Juliet’s apparent ungratefulness, violently berates her to the point of verbal abuse (calling her, in effect, “pale, useless dead flesh). Her parents leave, and the Nurse advises Juliet forget about Romeo and marry Paris to appease her parents. Understandably feeling betrayed, Juliet coldly tells the Nurse she’ll go to Friar Lawrence to confess her sins of being “disobedient;” and after the Nurse has left, she vows she will never again share her secrets with her old caretaker.

*4.1: Friar Lawrence and Paris discussing the count’s upcoming wedding to Juliet, who arrives for “confession.” Paris attempts to flirt with her, but she coolly rebuffs his advances. Alone with the friar, Juliet threatens to kill herself unless he can devise a plan to keep her from marrying Paris. Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a special potion that will make her seem dead — though she will really be alive — after she drinks it. He tells her to go home, consent to marry Paris, patch things up with her parents, and then take the potion while she is alone at night. He then predicts she’ll be buried in the Capulet crypt as per custom, where she will stay until Romeo — who the friar will contact beforehand — will come to take her away to Mantua.  Happy at a solution (convoluted though it is), Juliet races home with the potion.

Tuesday Afternoon

*4.2: Capulet makes arrangements for the marriage on Thursday. Juliet enters and begs forgiveness of her father, who happily forgives her and moves the wedding day up to Wednesday.

*4.3: Juliet sends the Nurse away for the night and, after thinking through a litany of fears related to the friar’s plan (including the prospect of seeing the ghost of her dead cousin), she drinks the friar’s potion and falls into a fake death.

Early Wednesday Morning (Sometime around 3 am)

*4.4: Capulet directs the servants in their preparations for the wedding, and he instructs the Nurse to go wake Juliet so that she can get ready.

*4.5: The Nurse discovered Juliet “dead” in her bed, and the entire Capulet house erupts into mourning. Friar Lawrence arrives and begins to arrange Juliet’s “funeral.”

Later Wednesday Morning (Sometime around 6 am, let’s say)

*5.1: Romeo’s servant Balthasar arrives in Mantua with news of Juliet’s apparent death. Quickly turning crazed, Romeo sends his servant to buy horses to ride to the Capulet crypt, and he himself buys poison from an apothecary.

*5.2: Friar John, an acquaintance of Friar Lawrence, explains that he was not able to deliver Lawrence’s letter to Romeo in Mantua because a plague had kept him confined to Verona. Panicked, Lawrence races to the Capulet crypt to rescue Juliet from the tomb before she awakes and finds herself alone in the dark with corpses.

*5.3: Paris visits the Capulet crypt to mourn Juliet, and when he sees Romeo, challenges him to a duel. Romeo kills Paris, enters the tomb and finds Juliet; he then takes the poison, and dies. Friar Lawrence arrives, sees Romeo dead, and finds Juliet waking. He tries to persuade her to live in a nunnery, but she of course refuses. He thereafter leaves her to her fate in the tomb, while she briefly bemoans Romeo’s death and then kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. The guard arrives with the friar in captivity, and Prince Escalus comes soon thereafter with his attendants. The Capulets and Lord Montague arrive too, and the friar explains everything that has happened. Lord Capulet and Lord Montague apparently make amends, and they each vow to pay for statues in honor of their dead children.

***

Thus, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall in love, get married, and die within the course of three days. A bit unrealistic, perhaps, but this narrative simply would not function if it were spaced out over a lengthy period of time: there would be no urgency goading the various characters to their desperate ends, and the situations would therefore be much less chaotic. This urgency and chaos heightens our anxiety, which in turn unveils the play’s sublimity and heightens our appreciation of the narrative. The violent delights do indeed have violent ends, and the explosion that results is nothing if not a marvel to behold.

Juliet: A Study

Waterhouse - Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is the first of Shakespeare’s plays in which he strikes a balance between lyricism, intense pathos, and wisdom. This is nowhere else more evident than in the character of Juliet, who joins her doomed lover in an untimely death, but who for much of the play demonstrates a cognitive power unseen in Shakespeare’s previous plays. Unlike Romeo, who only ever seems to be mastered by his unchecked emotions and unrelenting fear of physical loneliness, Juliet ponders the situations in which she finds herself and thus appears infinitely more mature than her age and hastily conceived love would imply.

While standing on her balcony, thinking herself alone (though, in truth, Romeo is hiding in the bushes below and watching her), Juliet sublimely waxes philosophical as she contemplates names and their relationship to reality:

‘Tis but a name that is my enemy.
Thou [Romeo] 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. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
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. (2.2.41-52)

Recognizing that her family is embattled in a feud against Romeo’s family, Juliet seems desperate to prove that Romeo himself has nothing to do with the violence. Using the metaphor of a rose’s disparity from its given name, she concludes that Romeo’s family name has nothing to do with his actions: being a Montague does not by itself preclude Romeo’s involvement in the bitter Montague-Capulet feud. In fact, Juliet is absolutely correct in this thinking, though there is no way for her to know this information, for Romeo reveals his impatience with the feud in Act 1, Scene 1, when he comes late upon the scene of the street brawl that opens the play:

O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all. (1.1.178-179)

Romeo, Juliet thinks, would retain his perfection even if he were called by any name other than “Montague”–a name that to her, a Capulet, should seem imperfect.

Notably, this ability to think through such a dilemma is completely alien to Romeo. Indeed, after he learns that Juliet belongs to the enemy family, he does not ponder the predicament but instead hastily tries to return to Capulet’s house by way of the garden, finding himself incapable of being separated from Juliet:

Can I go forward when my heart is here?
Turn back, dull earth, and find thy center out. (2.1.1-2)

Romeo’s fear of being physically alone overrides any amount of powerful, original thought he might otherwise have had. The only solution he can find to this problem is to return, as it were, to the scene of the crime.

Later in the play, after Romeo has murdered Tybalt, the Nurse, wracked with agony at the news, tries and fails to clearly relate the turn of events to Juliet; frustrated with the Nurse’s unintelligibility, exclaims,

What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?
This torture should be roared in dismal hell.
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but “Ay,”
And that bare vowel “I” shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of the cockatrice.
I am not I if there be such an “I,”
Or those eyes shut that makes thee answer “Ay.”
If he be slain, say “Ay,” or if not, “No.”
Brief sounds determine my weal or woe. (3.2.49-57)

Even in the midst of her frustration, Juliet has the cognitive power to pull off a triple pun! But, as Northrop Frye has noted, “she’s not ‘playing’ with the words: she’s shredding them to bits in an agony of frustration and despair.” The “ay” – “I” – “eye” figure, then, is an example of Juliet’s authentic strength of mind, for even in a moment of crisis, her thinking far surpasses that of any other character in the play.

In the same scene as Juliet learns that her “three-hours” husband has murdered her cousin Tybalt, she thinks through the chaos and calamity of the situation to discover that fate has graced her with a rather positive outcome:

But wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have killed my husband.
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring;
Your tributary drops belong to woe,
Which you, mistaking, offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain,
And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband.
All this is comfort. Wherefore weep I then? (3.2.110-118)

Though she moves from this into the notion that Romeo’s banishment is worse for her than death — or the deaths of “ten thousand Tybalts,”  or even the deaths of her mother, father, Tybalt, Romeo, and herself — one can hardly blame her for this hasty conclusion: for though she is married, she is still a 13-year-old girl living in a society which dictates that she cannot leave her father’s house without her parents’ permission. Romeo’s banishment, therefore, means that she will never be able to venture forth to visit him outside Verona’s walls; and this loss of love, especially in the context of the ideologies of Courtly Love that so permeate the play, is understandably equatable to death.

I should hasten to add here that Romeo is incapable of reaching Juliet’s conclusion in 3.2.115-116 on his own, and in fact requires Friar Lawrence to spell it out for him plainly:

Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slewest Tybalt: there art thou happy.
The law that threatened death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile: there art thou happy. (3.3.147-150)

Indeed, despite the Friar’s flustered admonishments, Romeo does not so much as calm down until the “ghostly confessor” mentions that he should sneak into Juliet’s room to comfort her during this difficult time. Once again, it isn’t any amount of clear-headed reason that drives Romeo, but rather his overpowering fear of being physically alone, a fear that the Friar assures him still can be remedied by sneaking into Juliet’s room as previously planned.

The last half of the play finds Juliet the victim of circumstances from which no power of thought can save her: the stars have spoken, and the only power it seems she has it to commit suicide. (Not surprisingly, Juliet recognizes this fact at the very end of Act 3, Scene 5, when she declares, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.255).) Her parents violently berate her because she refuses to marry Paris; the Nurse betrays her by advising her to forget Romeo and marry the count; Friar Lawrence victimizes her by way of his convoluted and unnecessary plot involving his “distilling liquor” — unnecessary, for what prevents him from merely secreting Juliet out of Verona to join her husband in Mantua? — and the friar mishandles her yet again when he abandons her in the Capulet crypt. All else does fail, and her only option at the end is suicide. Thus, Juliet’s death is the true tragedy in the play, for Romeo’s is the result of rash behavior: unlike Juliet, he does have options other than suicide. Had he, for instance, remained in Mantua but for a single day longer, he may have lived to see his young wife alive. But Juliet follows the only course left open to her, and in that course, Shakespeare’s first cognitively powerful character aspires immortality.

Some Thoughts on Why The Force Awakens Succeeds Where the Prequels Failed

force-awakens

As an audience member, consumer, and lifelong fan of Star WarsThe Force Awakens is heartening: here is proof that a major media corporation cares about its customers, who will, after all, generate more revenue if they feel appreciated. Disney listened to the pleas of the collective Star Wars fanbase—which sounded something like, “Please don’t make this anything like the prequels!”—and produced a Star Wars film completely devoid of any of the disappointing qualities of Episodes I-III. Perhaps The Force Awakens is a little too reminiscent of the original trilogy, but incorporating those films’ DNA into this new project seems logical since this new trilogy will ostensibly show us Luke fulfilling Yoda’s dying advice: passing on what he has learned (i.e., in those original films).

To be fair, Starkiller Base is distractingly identical to the original trilogy’s two Death Stars, and setting the early scenes on a desert planet that is not Tatooine begs the question—why not just set it on Tatooine? But I don’t feel as though the allusions to (or outright xeroxes of) bits from those earlier films warrants a seal of “unoriginality,” for there are enough new bits and interesting twists to keep the audience enthralled. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking about fifteen minutes into my first viewing of the film that I didn’t even need any of the original characters or anyone in the Skywalker clan to enjoy these movies. As long as characterization and story are prioritized over action and effects—and I feel that’s the case with The Force Awakens—any story in the Star Wars universe will be worth our time.

Let’s consider these new characters: though Rey, Finn, and Poe each bear striking resemblances to Luke, Han, and Leia1, each has an engaging history and complex set of motivations of her or his own. I’m genuinely curious about why Rey was abandoned on Jakku—and by whom—and I’d certainly be fascinated to learn what childhood was like for child-soldier Finn, and what led to his going AWOL early in the film. (And, for that matter, I’d like to know how and why Poe became the best pilot in the Resistance, not to mention the nature of his relationship with Leia.) Disney’s decision to employ thoughtful writers like Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, and J.J. Abrams has certainly provided what the prequels lacked: humanity. Rey, Finn, and Poe are all believable human incarnations, characters we can believe and care about. Even Kylo Ren, who apparently fills the gap left by the markedly inhuman Darth Vader, is a conflicted and engaging human creation: we believe his tears on that catwalk; we feel his conflict. This humanity is what makes the original films so captivating and, hopefully, what will make these new films equally captivating.

The Force Awakens is not the best movie of 2015, and it is not the best film in the Star Wars saga; but it’s not nearly the worst, and it’s a relief to say it’s good as a film and not good as a Star Wars film. It is a movie that my family and I will return to often, and one to appreciate for years to come.


 

Footnotes

1Though I think the similarities are spread throughout these three characters instead of in the form of straight carbon copies; Rey, for instance, seems an amalgamation of Luke, Han, and Leia.