Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sacred images of the partner in Romeo & Juliet: luminosity in darkness

Shakespeare does not have the earlier versions’ extensive temporal correspondences between human and divine passions, there is only the reference to Lammas, a symbol which neatly combines both sacred death and sacred marriage. What he has in abundance is metaphorical imagery putting the couple’s relationship in sacred terms. Consider Romeo's speech when he first sees Juliet at the Capulets’ ball:
Rom. Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows...
Did my heart love til now? Forswear it sight,
For I ne'er saw true beauty til this night
. (I.v.43-55)
Romeo does not even know who Juliet is, but already he sees her in a special way, as a spark of light on a field of darkness. In the Song of Songs there is a comparable image: the man calls the woman a “lily among thorns” (2:2). But the issue here is light more than beauty. "Light" in all Indo-European symbol systems means spirit; darkness means lack of spirit; or even stronger, it is the color of evil. The Book of John, for example, says, "The light has come into the world, yet men have loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil" (John 3:19).

In the play, Montague has already indicated these conventional opposites in the course of worrying about his son’s habit of wandering at night and sleeping during the day. Romeo’s avoidance of the “all-cheering sun” (I.i.132) and “fair daylight” (I.1.137) in favor of an artificial night”(I.i.138) portends a “humor” that is “black” (I.i.139)-i.e. melancholia. At the Capulets’ night-time ball, the enmity between the two rival families is a similar metaphorical darkness, and Juliet is the light in that darkness. This imagery makes her an object of veneration, like Christ a divinity come into the world of sinners at the darkest time of year.

Despite the Montagues’ positive evaluation, however, light in Christianity does not always mean good.: Lucifer, the light bearer, is in traditional Christianity another name for the devil. And lights in the dark are most likely, in folk tales, evil spirits, not good ones, especially if they are female. Good spirits, it is said, do not need the cloak of darkness to hide them. From this perspective, Romeo's perception of Juliet should be of that which he had a foreboding before he went to the Capulets, something that would be his doom.

Yet it might be that the day-world, with its rivalries and ambitions, is evil, and what he finds at night is of the highest good, so fine that it approaches the sacred, as Romeo soon expresses in wanting to "make blessed" his hand by touching Juliet’s. What Romeo intuits corresponds to the Gnostic and Neoplatonic myth of the spark of the highest divinity that lies trapped in dark matter, the human spirit. Yet such a view, that the human spirit has a spark of the divine, would be heretical to orthodox Christianity, for whom the only divine human is Jesus himself.

Romeo now approaches Juliet and compares her first to a shrine and then to a saint, with himself a pilgrim. In respect to the imagery of light, a conventional Christian basis for the comparison might be that saints are metaphorically surrounded by light, depicted in paintings with halos. At the same time he sees her in romantic terms, using the imagery of the sacred to advance a romantic interest:
Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Jul. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Rom. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?...
And so on. A kiss from a young man is likely to be with lustful intent, Shakespeare’s audience knows (from Castiliogne’s Courtier, translated 1561, if nowhere else). Romeo’s imagery is designed to suggest a nobler impulse. Here Juliet first responds to his metaphor as though to parry his advances; Romeo finds another advance, and so on, still within the metaphor, until he finally gets his kiss. A religious setting is turned to serve relations between the sexes, thus elevating the sexual to a higher realm.

There is a conventional sequence here. A pictorial example is Fig. 2b, love as a tree to be climbed by means of the senses: first sight, then sound, then touch, and so on.
 The ascent suggested spiritual as much as sexual love. Honorius of Autun described the Song of Songs as such, with five stages of sexual love paralleling five stages in the history of salvation. .A modern scholar has summarized Honorius’s list, with the stages of salvation in parenthesis after each stage of sexual love:
1) Seeing the Beloved (God’s covenant with Abraham), 2) Speaking with her (God’s conversation with his people through Moses and the Prophets), 3) Touching her (Christ’s incarnation and historical life), 4) Kissing her (the gift of Peace given the disciples by the Risen Christ, and 5) having intercourse with her (perfect union enjoyed in heaven). (Ansel 1990, 31-33)
Romeo’s quest for Juliet thus becomes elevated to a quest for union with the divine. Even Romeo’s name lends itself to the double entendre: “Romeo” is “pilgrim” in Italian. When our couple kiss, it is  not mere lust, but a mingling of souls, as Castiliogne described the non-lustful but still passionate kiss of two lovers (1901, 356).

Later, as Romeo nears Juliet’s window, the metaphor returns to that of light in the darkness, but in a different image. Romeo says:
Rom. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun....(II.ii.1-2)
The audience would recall that in early Christian hymns the rising sun is the second coming, Paradise, where the soul joins God. Juliet to him seems just such a paradise. Then he sees her looking up at the sky, and his fantasy leads him to contrast the brightness of her eyes with that of the stars. Supposing two of the "fairest"--i.e. brightest-- stars were put in place of Juliet's eyes, then:
    Rom. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
    As daylight doth a lamp;..
Similarly, supposing her eyes took the place of  those stars in the sky, then:
Rom.            ...her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
 Imagine stars so bright birds would think it day: so bright are Juliet's eyes, shining from within.

This particular image, of a woman glowing with an intense inner light, occurs in traditional Christianity in the representation of angels and of saintly women, such as the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. It occurs also in alchemy, as a representation of the spirit that is hidden in matter (Fig.  3 below, Jung 1968, 189, labeled the “soul of Mercury”).

Yet the image of the woman of light expressed by Romeo corresponds most closely to one encountered in Gnostic texts describing Adam's experience of Eve at the beginning of humankind. (Romeo similarly is at a beginning). The Apocryphon of John describes this experience in a retelling of Genesis. Adam, in the moment of Eve's separation from his body, sees her as illuminated from within by light.
And he [Adam] saw the woman by him. And in that moment the luminous Epinoia appeared and she lifted the veil which lay over his mind. And he became sober from the drunkenness of darkness...And he recognized his counter-image, and he said, "This is indeed bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh."  (Robinson 1988, 118. Comments in brackets added by MH)
Epinoia, literally "after-thought" in Greek, is the feminine spiritual principle in the world, whose spirit the divine father/mother had  breathed into Adam to help him escape the prison of matter into which the powers of evil, the archons or authorities, had thrown him. The luminosity is a spark of the divine mother/father. Originally a being above matter, Adam had his own luminosity, but it lost its shine. As the text relates:
And when they [the archons, rulers] recognized that he [Adam] was luminous, and that he could think better than they, and that he was free from wickedness, they took him and threw him into the lowest region of all matter...And he [the blessed One, the Mother-Father] sent, through his beneficent Spirit and his great mercy, a helper to Adam, luminous Epinoia which comes out of him, who is called Life. And she assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his soul (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, which is the way he came down. And the luminous Epinoia was hidden in Adam, in order that the archons might not know her. (Robinson 1988, 116.)
But the archons saw the spirit inside Adam and wanted it; they took Eve, as they called her (Hebrew for Life), out of Adam's body for the express purpose of possessing that spiritual power through rape. To escape them, Epinoia left the body of Eve. Yet for a brief time Adam was united with this feminine figure of light. 

In Romeo's eyes, Juliet is as Eve first appeared to Adam, without the "veil" of "drunkenness," i.e. his ignorance of the divine; she is a divine light. which yet is of the same being as himself, flesh of his flesh. The Capulets' orchard is from this perspective a version of the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Adam and Eve story is no longer something from long ago; seen from this new perspective, we are each of us Adam when we suddenly see another person as though lit from within like a torch and "flesh from my flesh." Romeo evokes one further image looking at Juliet on her balcony:
 Rom.                 ...She speaks!
O speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond'ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air. (II.ii.25-32)
Shakespeare is putting the image in a familiar context: From orthodox Christianity we identify an angel as a being of light, and also as a "winged messenger of heaven." Just as the winged Hermes in Greek mythology communicates between Olympus or Hades and our world, so do angels in Christianity communicate from heaven to earth. In the Neoplatonic ladder of being described by the Renaissance philosopher Ficino, an image well known in Shakespeare's time, angels are on the second level from the top; between spirit, i.e. God, at the top and the human soul on the third level. Angels are filled with the light of God and can transmit that light to humanity. Clearly, there is much more light here than an evil spirit would want to muster up; moreover, it is a light permeated throughout with love, love from an infinite source as Juliet articulates later in the scene:
    Jul.  My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
    My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
    The more I have, for both are infinite. (II.ii.116-118)
An infinity of love and bounty, however, is more appropriately attributed to God; she, then, is a conduit of love from God to man-if not like Christ, then at least like the Virgin Mary.

Romeo's image of Juliet as a luminous angel corresponds also to descriptions of Adam and Eve In the Apocalypse of Adam, another text found at Nag Hammadi. Adam is with his son Seth, imparting secret knowledge to him about the way Eve was when he first experienced her:
When God had created me out of the earth along with Eve your mother, I went about with her in a glory which she had seen in the aeon from which we had come forth...And we resembled the great eternal angels. For we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know. (Robinson 1988, 279)
The "God who had created us" in Gnosticism is Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, the dictatorial lord of a garden who plants a tree expecting his creation toobey his order not to taste it. I will say more about this god, the Gnostic demiurge, in Part II. The "glory" is another reference to the light around them, which comes from a higher source than their creator.

Later on in the play, after Friar Lawrence has secretly married the pair, Juliet also speaks in images of light shining in darkness. Anticipating the wedding night, she says:
Jul.  Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
...Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties...(III.ii.5,8-9)
This is the same image of the spirit shining from within, but it is one that she specifically associates with "amorous rites," i.e. sexual activities. Then she has Romeo flying to her on a great black bird:
Jul. 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-browed night,
Give me my Romeo… (III.ii.17-21)
First Romeo is called "day," similar to Romeo's calling Juliet the sun. But he is "day in night," imaged as new snow on a raven's back-- rather like the jewel on a black African's ear, as Romeo had spoke of her on first sight. This image of Romeo on a raven's back also complements Romeo's earlier image of Juliet as an angel riding a cloud.

For Juliet, Romeo is the snow lying on the back of night, and the bird is the raven on whose back Romeo flies. The raven had sacred significance in the Celtic tradition. Roman writers reported that ravens were considered sacred to “Gaulish Mercury,” and that the word “lougos” in Celtic even meant “raven” (Green 1992, 135).  The text De Fluviis, attributed apocryphally to Plutarch, relates that at the founding of Lugdunum, named for Lugh, ravens with a few white feathers in their plumage flew down from the sky. This was considered a good omen, and a shrine was built on the site (Kondrataev, 1997).

Juliet’s image of  white snow on a black raven is especially appropriate if, as Kondrataev (1997)  has argued Lugh was a god of storms rather than the sun, and his brightness that of lightning against a dark sky. MacNeill (1962) includes in his collection one reminiscence of what old Gaeilic-speakers used to say during a storm: “Lugh Long-arm’s wind is flying in the air tonight!” and “Yes, and the sparks of his father!” This last, the informant explains, referred to sparks made when a smith shoved a hot iron bar into Balor’s eye before he had a chance to kill anyone with it (598). If the “smith” is really Lugh throwing a thunder-bolt, the story fits Kondrataev’s hypothesis. The symbolic significance, Lugh as a bringer of enlightenment to a world in dark ignorance, is as related to the Gnostic vision as the concrete image is to our play.

Juliet's lines here have some of the characteristic sounds and rhythms of Christian litanies, which often had series of invocations beginning with the word “come.” An example is the Roman Catholic “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” or “Come Holy Spirit”:
Veni Sancte Spiritus            Come Holy Spirit
Et emitete caelitus.              And from thy celestial home
Luces tuae radium.              Shine your radiance.
Veni pater pauperum          Come father of the poor,
Veni dator munerum           Come mother of our souls,
Veni lumen cordium…        Come light of our hearts…
(I thank Ed Smith and Steven Marshall for this reference and translation).
 There is also a famous Roman Catholic prayer that begins
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love.
I do not know how this prayer was adapted to the Anglican rite, but in 1707, a century later, I find the hymn (http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/c/o/comehshd.htm):
Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all Thy quick’ning powers;
Kindle a flame of sacred love
In these cold hearts of ours.
So clearly the prayer had not simply died.
 Imaginally, these Catholic hymns contrast the white warmth of the divine with the impoverished coldness of humanity.  But Juliet' evocation of “snow on a raven’s back” is of a divine spark of human love that shines in the darkness of the world--a typical Gnostic, world-negating image. That such a presence should be located in the person of her lover, and be brought only in the dark of night, would for the orthodox Christian, if he thought about it, be the height of Luciferian heresy.

Juliet’s next image is even more extravagant:
Jul.         …and, when I 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... (III.ii.21-25)
Juliet is not saying that Romeo should be chopped into bits when she is dead. The Elizabethans used "die" as a euphemism for sexual climax; so she is imagining Romeo turning into little stars at the height of her love, like a kind of fireworks display. An additional meaning is that it will be like the second coming, the state of timeless bliss that both sex and life after death were imagined as having. The literal meaning is only a distant third, an ironic foreboding.

Perhaps to forestall the audience from supposing that Juliet actually wishes Night to kill Romeo if she dies, the Folio edition of Shakespeare changed "I" to "he" in the first line above: from “…and when I shall die” to “…and when he shall die.” In that case, people unfamiliar with the euphemism would simply think, how nice, when he dies she wants him up in the sky like a constellation, immortalized. Other people would appreciate the sexual message: In this Folio version, she is asking Night to really light Romeo's fire, metaphorically speaking, when she gives him bliss. Perhaps to emphasize Juliet's own budding sexual feelings, the Arden edition adopts the "I" of the earlier Quarto edition of the play.

The sun, which here Juliet repudiates, is in Christianity an image of the second coming, and darkness is the reign of evil. So her wish that "all the world will be in love with night" could be seen as a call to love evil. Gnostic imagery was given a similar treatment by its enemies. But such an interpretation takes the imagery out of context. The sun here is that which shines on the world that keeps Romeo away from her, the world of Romeo's and her fathers. In the Gnostic perspective, this day world is seen from a higher perspective as an evil darkness filled with bits of divine light trapped in the dark matter of circumstances not of their own making.

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