The Future of History

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

M- M- M- My Verona!

Okay, so now we're going to try to be very clever by linking the previous post ("Shakespeare's Dark Lady") to a forthcoming post (about Shakespeare and the Cobbe Portrait) by way of something that's in the news.

There's a new Romeo and Juliet movie heading our way (see poster, credit: Relativity Media).  Apparently, it's less like Baz Luhrmann's hyperkinetic William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (which came out 17 years ago, can you believe?) and rather more like Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version.

That said, the script has lately come under fire.  Julian Fellowes, who adapted the original for the screen this time around, has been accused of "dumbing down" the language of Shakespeare so that modern audiences can understand it.

Now, I'm not all that surprised that there's a bit of a backlash here.  It's been due for a while, not least of all because (for all its international success) Downton Abbey is an impossibly rose-tinted and soapy work of historical revisionism, in which the upper classes are generally marvellous and the First World War lasted all of two weeks.  At least Gosford Park had Robert Altman at the helm, and so some much needed scepticism and cynicism was brought to the country house dreamworld which Fellowes seems to inhabit.  And it might reasonably be asked, if your intention is to translate Shakespeare's much beloved tale of adolescent longing into today's teenage idiom, whether Julian Fellowes was really the right man for the job.

But in a sense, all that is missing the point.  It's not that Shakespeare's language is impossible to follow (Baz Luhrmann stuck to it, and his flashy adaptation was a huge hit wiv da yout').  The problem isn't the words Shakespeare used.  It's what he was really on about.

The tagline for the latest R & J adaptation is "The Most Dangerous Love Story Ever Told" - which rather puts Antony and Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, Tristan and Isolde, Francesca da Rimini and Abelard and Heloise in their place!  But what is it that makes Romeo and Juliet the "Most Dangerous Love Story Ever Told"?  After all, the reason why those two households, "both alike in dignity", are at war with each other is never explained.

It didn't have to be.  The audience in Shakespeare's day would have known exactly why the Montagus and the Capulets hate each other so much.

Now, a lot of our previous post ("Shakespeare's Dark Lady") referred to events which took place in the year 1594.  Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, turned 21 in October of that year.  He was instantly stung with a huge fine.  His father had died in suspicious circumstances when Southampton was a boy, and he had been brought up under the dubious guardianship of Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister.  Burghley was a self-serving Protestant who tried to marry his aristocratic ward to his own granddaughter, Elizabeth de Vere.  Southampton refused, and was hit with a massive fine for doing so when he came of age.

Southampton himself came from a Catholic family.  His father had died in the Tower of London shortly after the Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion, was arrested.  His mother, Mary Browne, was the granddaughter of the defiantly Catholic Viscount Montagu (and so Southampton was, by way of descent, a Montagu, like the fictional Romeo).  Swithin Wells, the first tutor employed by the Southamptons, was hanged for attending a Mass in 1591.  The Jesuit Father Robert Southwell (a distant cousin of William Shakespeare's) acted as a "spiritual adviser" to the young Earl of Southampton before he was captured in 1592.

When Southampton did eventually marry, it was to Elizabeth Vernon in 1598, when Elizabeth was already pregnant.  It is not known when their affair began, but because Elizabeth Vernon was one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Queen Elizabeth I threw a fit when she found out about the marriage and sent both bride and groom to prison.

It is possible that Southampton was already enamoured of Elizabeth Vernon at the time of his 21st birthday in 1594.  Shakespeare would have spotted the problem immediately: Southampton was a Catholic - a Montagu, no less - whereas Elizabeth Vernon was first cousin to the Protestant Earl of Essex and almost certainly a Protestant herself.  She was, then, a "Capulet" - a "little chapel" person who wore a little knitted cap in church.

The world of Romeo and Juliet was dangerous because of the religious division which was tearing England in two.  It was, essentially, a case of Sunni versus Shia, or Presbyterian vs Episcopalian.  The two households - the Catholic Montagus and the Protestant Capulets - were at each other's throats over their religious differences which, in 1594, when Romeo and Juliet was written, probably as a 21st birthday present for Southampton, were reaching new heights of violent severity.

Romeo is at first in love with Rosalind.  There are several Rosalinds in Shakespeare's plays.  The name was pronounced "Rose-aligned" (think of the rosary).  But when Romeo sneaks into a party at the Capulets' place and sees the lovely Juliet, he falls for a woman from the opposite side of the religious divide (which was also, of course, a political divide, the Protestants furiously persecuting the Catholics because that was how they became rich and powerful).  Their love is doomed, not because they are young and reckless, but because they are caught up in a hideous sectarian conflict.

Put the play back into its context and the language presents fewer difficulties.  "O Rome, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" doesn't mean "Where are you, Romeo?"  It means "Why are you 'Rome-o'?"  Why are you a Roman Catholic, and therefore forbidden to a Protestant girl like me?

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."  Why these labels - "Catholic" and "Protestant"?  A "Roseley" (see previous post) would be just as gorgeous, whether he were a Catholic or a Protestant.  In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a young gentleman protests that he is about to be executed "for a name", the name in that instance almost certainly being "Jesuit".

Shakespeare knew that marriages which crossed the sectarian divide were not necessarily happy ones, having himself been dragooned into marrying a woman from a Puritan family.  It could all end in tears - as it does in the play.

So is it too much to ask that, instead of cheapening or "dumbing down" Shakespeare's language in order to make it easier to understand, we might simply try to understand what Shakespeare was actually saying?  A Catholic might fall in love with a Protestant, and there is no reason at all why their love should not blossom ...

... except that, under Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers (like the egregious Lord Burghley), there was no place for such idealistic and romantic notions.  You were either Protestant, or you were dead.

And so the lovers die, because there is no place for true love under such an embittered, repressive and fanatical regime.

Somehow, though, I can't help feeling that the Julian Felloweses of this world would rather meddle with Shakespeare's text than shine a light on the period in which it was written.  Because if you think Downton Abbey is a fair and accurate reflection of Edwardian England, you're pretty much bound to believe in the "Golden Age" of Elizabeth I.  The very "Golden Age" in which young lovers were likely to die if they fell in love with the wrong people.

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