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Short Stories
Tipps für den Alltag


  • The Tragedy of the Lady of Shalott, or an Artist‘s Dilemma, 1987
  • Cat in the Rain, Narrative Perspective, 1988
  • The American Dream, 1988
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show and American Gothic, 1989
  • Let America Be America Again, Analysis, 1993
  • Lark or Nightingale, 1995 (PDF zweisprachig, 50kB)     
  • u. a.


Lark or Nightingale

Romeo and Juliet didn't have a chance in the first place. The first place in our drama is the prologue, where it says:

From forth the fateful loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.

The inescapability of tragedy does not lie, as is commonly remarked, in the lovers being 'star-crossed'. This happy metaphor, whatever it really means, is much too romantically evocative and beautiful to bear such ghastly meaning. It's not innocent stars what eventually drives the two lovers into their untimely death. No, fate comes in where Shakespeare puts it, in the 'fateful loins' of their foe fathers. Not 'wombs', which in other contexts would go together with the concept of 'household' or family equally well, far from it -, it's 'loins', the seat of masculinity. The claim is that some sort of 'male principle', needless to say a destructive one, is at work in the play.

The introductory scene gives sufficient evidence of this principle. Even if Act 1, Scene 1 is largely a fighting scene, and the idea of fighting is indeed part of the 'male principle', it's not, however, at the core of it. What is more important is the pre-fight ritual of provocation, menace and insult, the noisy show of aggression and rivalry, the excessive sense of pride and honour.
All this boasting and bragging, entirely independent of class or age as it is, betrays itself as explicitly male. In Sampson's 'Draw if you be men' manhood and fighting spirit seem to be one; in Tybalt's comparison of cowards with 'heartless hinds' (i.e. female deer, as such forever born 'unarmed') the need for men to fight becomes an almost biological necessity.

What is at the root of this behavioural pattern is not for literary criticism to find out, - maybe it's nothing, just as the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, 'two households both alike in dignity', is about nothing. Typically, the only hint of an explanation in the drama comes from a female. Unlike Benvolio and the Prince, who also raise a warning and an authoritative voice against the insanity, Lady Capulet expresses in no more than a word how thoroughly ridiculous it is. Her husband, 'Old Capulet in his (night) gown' crying for his 'long sword, ho!' makes it easy for her to reduce the 'male principle' to absurdity. What she recommends is 'a crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?' The message behind this piece of marital wisdom, whether hers or Shakespeare's, is that a sword is really a crutch, an attribute of weakness rather than of strength. In other words, the fighting pose, the pomp, the 'big talk' serve no other purpose than to blow up what is felt to be small in men, to prop up their personalities.

An inferiority complex in Tybalt and Mercutio? Those splendid specimen of Renaissance males: witty, educated, athletic, bold - and well-liked by everyone within their own numbers? Maybe megalomania is indeed the better word. The biggest weakness, for which the two have to pay dearly, is over-estimation of their own abilities. Mercutio's weakest moment is in his death. For all his mental control, he is pathetically mistaken about who is to blame for his death. Four times in between his desperate jesting he curses the family feud, wishing down 'a plague a both your houses', - quite a foolish thing to do for someone who only minutes before literally asked for his death, arguing that two people of Benvolio's (!) quarreling mood 'shortly ... one would kill the other.' Mercutio and Tybalt are doomed, like any other who is so much at home where the 'male principle' rules.

'Oh, where is Romeo? ... Right glad I am he was not at this fray.' It's Lady Montague, his mother, who gives vent to her relief. Romeo starts off pretty well. His critics argue that he is immaturely in love with Rosaline and recites pompous, yet shallow amorous protestations. This is probably true. But at least he is wise enough to keep away from hot Verona's streets. He shuns the day and seeks the comfort of a 'grove of sycamore' before dawn, 'with tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew'. He seems to know what Benvolio knows that 'these hot days is the mad blood stirring'. In the whole drama love doesn't go together with the 'garish sun'. That's why Romeo 'private in his chamber ... locks fair daylight out, And makes himself an artificial night'. The sun is male in English poetry, the night in Juliet's words is a 'sober-suited matron'.

Thus, quite obviously, the antagonism of 'male' and 'female' is matched by a set of similar antagonist concepts: street and chamber, day and night, lark and nightingale. The softening effect of nighttime in the play is remarkable: it makes Old Capulet an amiable host even against his foes, and shows Mercutio as a dreamer. The fact that Tybalt is not in the least affected by such blessing, may indicate that the dividing line between the 'male' and 'female principle' is not a clear-cut one. It's not a case of 'either or', but a fine grading of characters belonging here or there to a larger or lesser degree. Romeo at least is well outside the spell of the 'male principle'.
Or is he? We know that later in the drama he will cross the border and eventually become a killer. He will cast off his softness as 'effeminate' and fly into the fighting pose and end up - a bit like Mercutio - as 'fortune's fool'.

Significantly, at the same time that Romeo spoils it all, Juliet in her famous invocation metaphorically chases away daylight and invites 'love-performing night' to make her mentally ready for the wedding bed. In her down-to-earth way she makes explicit allusi¬ons to the sexual experience she is passio¬nately looking forward to, so much so that one feels tempted to add another pair of antagonisms, namely 'sex' and 'kill' to the above ones.
How could they be driven so far apart? The answer is in the first balcony scene.

Romeo: By yonder blessed moon I vow ... -
Juliet: O, swear not by the moon ...
Romeo: What shall I swear by?
Juliet: Do not swear at all; Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self ...

Romeo has taken to a pose, with his arm probably pointing skyward a pose not unlike the fighting pose we know from the streets of Verona. Juliet has to tell him that there is absolutely no need to blow himself up into a bigger person. She wants him unassisted by the skies, just his 'gracious self'. A simple enough lesson for a woman to teach. But how simple is it for Romeo to learn? Looking at his love rhetoric, we find that it tends to be more sophisticated than Juliet’s. The imagery he uses strikes us as somewhat exotic and extravagant, whereas Juliet's images are at home in rather more earthly concepts. Romeo gets carried away more easily, in his emotions as well as his language, and may have difficulties coming back to the ground, to reality, to his 'self'.

This sort of ecstasy, which is hard and probably unfair to pin down in Romeo's imagery, can be witnessed in a scene follow¬ing Romeo's banishment. Romeo 'with his own tears made drunk' and raving mad about the very word 'banished', envies 'every cat, and dog, And little mouse, every unworthy thing' such as 'carrion flies' that they 'may look on her; But Romeo may not'. This is hysteria to the point of ridicule, but - with Romeo referring to himself in the third person - it is also ecstasy, loss of control of his 'gracious self'.

We have seen in other men, namely Old Capulet and Mercutio, that they are at least inconsistent in their personalities. This may or may not be part of Shakespeare's message, the suspicion remains, however, that Romeo does have an identity problem. How else can a person switch from love and devotion to sheer aggression in a moment, as Romeo does before killing Tybalt and a second time before killing Paris? Juliet on her balcony could not have known this. And yet she warns Romeo of the pose. Did her intuition tell her that Romeo, for all his 'honey words', was still susceptible to male rituals?

What happens to the 'male principle' later on in the play? Has Romeo learnt his lesson?
He hasn't. And the 'male principle' seems stronger than ever. A look at the tomb scene shows that Romeo's mind - with Juliet allegedly dead - is to a surprising degree absorbed by men. Old Montague first; a letter must be taken to Romeo's father, - not his mother. Then he directs a rude seven line warning, 'more fierce and more inexorable far Than empty tigers or the roaring sea', to Balthazar, his loyal servant. After killing Paris, he devotes a long speech to this 'noble County' and buries him next to Juliet. Tybalt is next; 'Forgive me, cousin.' Finally he visions his biggest rival, 'unsubstantial Death'. At least it's not with the 'true apothecary' on his lips that he dies, but 'with a kiss'.
Thank Heavens for that.