Friday is moaning
and Sunday is laughing,
but Saturday is silence.
I breathe the deep stillness of both
the cross and the empty tomb,
but the disciples and the women
knew only the pit of having had Him
and being left with nothing, and silence
weightier than existence,
that broke the earth
and rewrote it backwards and forwards.
Silence that fills lower and higher--
pouring out of a sepulcher
that calls forth my adoring wonder.
(Last two lines inspired by The Valley of Vision)
a two and a half hour sobbing
scream for mercy that doesn’t come
even with a happy ending, it doesn’t.
trapped in history, squeaking folding seats
pain, over and over
flirting with the line--artistic flaw
punishing us for things we didn’t do
but continue to live with.
I’m not the one still suffering.
but I am the one asking myself
what I would have done:
I know the answer.
I would have batted my fan
and gone back into the house.
in my head I speak truth and live with open hands
in my heart I just want to be okay
and that’s why I squirmed
that’s why we all squirmed
watching a history that was, and could be
again if we forget stripe-crossed backs--
answered only by stripes
stripes thank God.
Okay, it’s kind of a love story. But only in a secondary, frustrating kind of way. Let me explain.
I have always felt like I was “over” the story of Romeo and Juliet. Even the first time I heard the plot explained, when I was probably around ten years old, I thought it was kind of dumb. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves over a misunderstanding? Seriously? When I got older, and watched, among other productions, the lush Baz Lurhmann Romeo + Juliet, I liked it a little better. But it still rang hollow for me. I still hated the idea that people held it up as the greatest romance of all time. And I didn’t want to read it because it just seemed kind of silly.
However, my Shakespeare class will be working on Romeo and Juliet, so this week, I actually read it for the first time. About half way through, I realized that I had been right: it is not the greatest love story of all time. It was never meant to be. But it is a very, very good play. A play that is so much more than the silly, passionate sob story it is misrepresented as.
My first realization hit me about the time Romeo and Juliet decide to get married. This happens a little over a third of the way through the play, on the same night that Romeo and Juliet first meet. Now, Shakespeare sped the timetable up quite a bit on everything that happened in his plays, but even taking that into account, this is a pretty rash decision. Especially since the two households are on such bad terms, I kept thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to wait, and plan this out? Isn’t anyone going to tell these two that this is a really bad idea?”
And then it hit me. That’s exactly what I’m supposed to be thinking at that point. Shakespeare didn’t mean for people to say, “What a great decision! Love conquers all! Yay Romeo and Juliet!” He wanted people to have my exact reaction--to realize that yes, this is a terrible decision. Romeo and Juliet’s passion is certainly legitimate, but rarely in any of Shakespeare’s plays does “love at first sight” hold much weight. Rosalind and Orlando spend weeks in the forest getting to know each other. Viola and Orsino are in close companionship for a long time while love blooms. Benedick and Beatrice spar and jest and flirt for years. It’s true, some of Shakespeare’s more minor couples do get together after a quick glance (Miranda and Ferdinand, Hero and Claudio) but by and large, love takes time in Shakespeare (and in the case of Miranda and Ferdinand, Miranda has a wise father who counsels them to take time to get to know each other before getting hitched.) So when Romeo and Juliet suddenly, rashly decide to get married the very next day, I don’t think it was intended as a triumph of love. I think it was a chance for the audience to ask, “Where are these kids’ parents??”
And that is what the play is about. It’s about what happens when the guidance that should be there, isn’t. It’s about the consequences of a family’s decisions on the younger, less wise members. It’s about a girl and a boy who can’t talk to their parents. That is why this play is beautiful, and horrible, and important. Not because of the fervent but misguided romance of Romeo and Juliet. Because no one is there to stop it.
Both Romeo and Juliet are smart and courageous, and very likable. But Juliet, we’re told, is not even fourteen yet. Romeo is probably older, but still very young. His youth is betrayed at the beginning of the play, when his storyline starts with him pining after Rosaline, only to switch his affections to Juliet when he sees her at the ball. The Friar, perhaps the only real source of wisdom in the play, chides him later for this sudden switch. But neither the Friar, nor Juliet’s nurse--the only two people who know what’s going on between Romeo and Juliet--have any real authority over the two lovers. They both try to dissuade them, but the nurse is so ineffectual that Juliet just laughs off her advice, and the Friar is likewise ignored. And though he gives good advice, by the end he is as cowardly as any, and leaves Juliet in the crypt to stab herself.
What struck me most was the tone of the love scenes. Shakespeare was still quite young when he wrote the play, and that youthful abandon--that whole-hearted passion--is abundant in the love scenes. They were all the more poignant for being so misguided; I felt that if the situation had been right, Romeo and Juliet could have been a beautiful power couple, with more eloquence and honesty than perhaps any other Shakespearean duo. But the love scenes are sandwiched between scenes of incredible violence--Romeo’s duel, Juliet’s confrontation with her parents--and ultimately end in the deaths of not just Romeo and Juliet themselves, but also Paris, who did nothing wrong but himself love Juliet. This is a love story gone all wrong, and not just because of the outside influences working on Romeo and Juliet. Because they themselves do not have the wisdom or the patience to deal with what is happening to them.
The scene that most broke my heart was not the final death scene. We all know that’s coming from a mile away. What just killed me was the scene in which Juliet’s parents tell her she must marry Paris, and she, already married to Romeo, refuses. Juliet, pleading, begs her mother to hear her. Lady Capulet replies: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word./Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” She exits. I cried. I can’t impose on the text what it doesn’t say, but it makes me wonder what kind of relationship Juliet had with her parents previous to the opening of the play. If neither her mother, nor certainly her father, will hear her passionate pleas to delay the marriage, we must suppose that they have no real relationship with her. And while we don’t get to see Romeo’s interactions with his parents, we must assume that since he goes to the Friar for advice and comfort (and has before, it is implied) his relationship with his parents is likewise not one of counsel or influence.
Some people focus on the political morals in the play--the chastisement against feuding factions, the reminder to “make love, not war.” But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Because Shakespeare was the great playwright that he was, we sell him short by pitting Romeo and Juliet against the other characters in the play. It’s not as simple as saying, “Romeo and Juliet were good, and they were slain by the hatred of their families.” Romeo and Juliet were very flawed, and very young and stupid, and they were slain by the lack of wisdom available to them. It is a political play, it is a romance (with some of the most beautiful poetry found in any play)--but most of all it is a cautionary story about what happens when parents fail their children. Fail them by nurturing hate, or by neglecting to cultivate a relationship in which they are imparting honesty and wisdom. The result, Shakespeare tells us, is a generation of beautiful souls wasted.
I will take my children to the graveyard.
I will let them run through tombstones
like shards of rain, beating into the earth
between cracks in the sidewalk, yelling
and laughing and hiding behind big stones.
I will tell stories, snuggling our toes into the grass
curled over the Smiths and the Wrights,
and show them the woman who lived to be one-hundred.
Seated on the tombstone benches
we will grieve those who are dead, and rejoice for those
who will never die--
who are alive
for the first time, the longest time, forever.
My children will grow strong;
death shall not frighten them
when they understand that the bones of those who have died
salted the world they live in, and gave sweat to the groaning
of this very good creation. And when they grow old enough,
they will lay my bones beneath the ready earth
and they will cry--
but they will also laugh, because they will know,
as they did when they played hide-and-seek among old names,
that death has no victory--
supposedly, it does not even have sting.
Death clutches our lungs for just this one, wilting moment.
Thank you for the curve of my legs--
I like them.
Also thank you for my ingrown hairs,
even though they’re gross.
Thank you for fingers that have wrinkles on them--
nobody else’s wrinkles,
and I can slap and eat and touch with them.
Thank you for my round eyes
and my achy inner ears,
and the bump on my nose.
Thank you for my hair,
because it’s beautiful--
and even when it’s not,
Thank you for the jagged, fisted cramps
that keep me awake once a month,
not just because they remind me
how good notpain is,
but because they are mine,
and only mine,
and this whole body is mine alone:
Given to me mine,
mine as a mystery:
body, mind, soul.
And when I’m gasping or retching or bitching
Here I am
in the body, and the mind, and the soul
that was created as me.
With hairline fractures and canyon fissures
love cracks open the heart like an egg,
pecked through and broken up and changing
what used to be a solid, gracious orb
into a mess of chipped flakes and gooey yolk and whites
running out and pooling in patches underneath.
Love doesn’t hatch anything
just takes a carton of pearly spheres
and sprays them all over each other
and fries them a little in the sun
until the yellow and white and shell are all baked
together without cleanness, or sterility.
The cracks widened when I said no to a boy;
when I read something my brother wrote;
when I laid my hand on the head of a dog
who breathed in three long yelps
that came out of her throat after her spirit fled.
Love dried and cracked and poured, that day.
When people say that love is beautiful
it’s because once it’s cooked it’s easy;
it’s all it can be and has been
and the widened cracks empty our shells.
I don’t want to be
the only egg
Cycling through puddles and rivers,
the toss of the ceaseless salting triumph of the ocean,
and finally the sky--
only to falllllll to earth
and meet the coldness of a city,
where even these are forgotten and wrecked.
A steel spider; a lotus flower.
A broken symbol, because shelter is something
so far out of context in the workworkwork
workworld of Chong Qing.
The distant promise of ice cream
can’t give faces to faceless people and a smileyface sign--
rain dripping on the undersides of shoes,
and bent metal, and broken faces,
and the endless search for evaporation—because
please, God, I want to be an ocean again, or a river--
or at least a puddle.
~Ruthie (photo by Hannah)
This semester I took a class called ‘Acting Shakespeare,’ a class that I was incredibly intimidated by. The thought of memorizing Shakespeare weekly for an entire semester was very daunting, but once the class started I realized that the scariest thing about the class was not memorizing the words or understanding what the heck they meant; the biggest challenge was doing justice to the characters created by William Shakespeare. And I realized that Shakespeare knew women. Really, really knew them.
This was a surprise to me. Through my experience with Shakespeare before the class, I knew that many of his female characters had great lines. But after studying and scanning and getting up and speaking some of those lines, I found myself connecting on a whole new level with the women whose lines I was saying. It was while I was weeping before the class as Hermione, having felt something pull at me in her lines:
How will this grieve you
When you shall come to clearer knowledge that
You thus have publish’d me. Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me throughly then, to say
You did mistake
that I was really sold on Shakespeare. Really, really sold. This guy has something to say to every situation.
And he understood women. He understood them because he understood humans, probably, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Most of his female characters were smart as whips—many smarter than their male love-interests. And because Shakespeare had this understanding of women, he did what he could with them, and then when he needed a little more freedom he put a pair of pants on them and they paraded around the stage speaking as women in disguise.
It’s their wit that makes them impressive, but it’s their struggles and their hearts that make them unforgettable. Shakespeare’s characters are so much more than the intellectual, hard-to-understand thees and thous people commonly think of. Even Juliet, the archetypal girlish lover is so much more than her swooning stigma. How beautiful are her words—spoken from an incredibly agile mind—when she says to Romeo,
They are but beggars that can count their worth
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.
I guess it’s that blend of strength and beauty that made me first fall in love with Shakespeare’s women, but there’s more. The situations he puts his characters in are so insightful. How did he know to write about Phoebe from As You Like It, and the more likable Olivia from Twelfth Night who are both proud and bored—how did he know that what they really want is just to be seen for who they truly are? Play Olivia as a woman who is beautiful and just wants to be praised, and she’s flat. Play her as a woman who is beautiful and has known only praise, and then is faced with a man who tells her that he’s not in love with her and calls her out for her pride—play her as that startled, intrigued woman and she breathes with life. Even if it means being told to their faces that they are “too proud,” women want to be seen. Shakespeare knew that.
How did he know to write about Helena, the lover from A Midsummer Night’s Dream who is beautiful, and smart, and in love with a man who doesn’t love her? How did he know to give her a part where she knows she’s too good to be chasing after Demetrius, and yet does it anyway? How did he know to write about Rosalind, the brilliant leading lady of As You Like It who gets in over her head and then tortures the man she loves with her playmaking because she’s dressed as a man and can’t stand the pain their interactions cause? How did Shakespeare know that it never works out well to pretend to be something you’re not, and how did he bring his female leads to that beautiful conclusion in so many of his plays?
There is poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, along with the wit. But it’s not the beauty of the words that makes Shakespeare’s work enduring. It’s the fact that he knew humans. He knew what they needed, and how they acted, and what they said and what they should have said. I’m convinced that my acting teacher is right—Shakespeare is not for English majors. It’s for actors. His work is worth reading and studying, but it was meant first to be seen on a stage. Of course an actor has to do the work of scanning and looking up words and figuring out what she’s saying. But if an actor truly knows her character, I’m convinced that Shakespeare’s plays will make more sense to the audience just by hearing her speak than if the audience spent hours studying the meaning of the text.
I worked a lot on Hermione, the wronged queen from The Winter’s Tale. After reading the play, I still don’t know why she comes back to life, and whether there is some deeper meaning in the text. But from working on her as an actor, I have learned about her forgiveness, and her grief, and her constant dignity. Those things—and the things that I still can’t articulate about her but can feel within me—are the things I think Shakespeare meant us to remember about her. Those are the things that made him a brilliant playwright, and a frighteningly accurate observer of human behavior.
So go watch some Shakespeare. Better yet, pull out a play, do the work of understanding the text, and then speak it out loud. Embody it. Figure out why the lines that are supposed to be iambic pentameter have an extra couple syllables. Shakespeare didn’t just make mistakes—he always had a reason. His women—and his men too—can tell you something about those reasons.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria