Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sacred images of separation and union

Juliet's vision of bliss is interrupted by her nurse, from whom she learns that Romeo has killed Tybalt and has been banished from Verona. (Tybalt had insulted Romeo, to provoke a fight. Romeo declined, but Mercutio jumped in to defend Romeo's honor; Romeo’s restraint of Mercutio only served to make him defenseless against Tybalt's sword. With Tybalt dead, Romeo killed Tybalt..) Juliet is plunged into anguish. At first she thought it was because of the death of her cousin Tybalt. But she recognizes her primary emotional bond is to her husband, and that if Tybalt died, it was in order that Romeo might live. "Wherefore grieve I then?" she asks. Then she remembers what the nurse had said: Romeo is banished. Looking at the ropes she was about to hide so that Romeo could sneak up to her room that night, she says:
 Jul.           ...Poor ropes, you are beguil'd,
Both you and I, for Romeo is exil'd.
He made you for a highway to my bed,
But I a maid, die maiden-widowed.
Come, cords, come, nurse; I'll to my wedding-bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!
If Romeo leaves, she might as well be dead, because all that means anything to her will be gone.

Romeo expresses the same feeling when Friar Lawrence tells him of his banishment:
Rom. There is no world without Verona's walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
                                     ... Heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not.
(III.iii.17-18, 29-33)
And when the Friar objects and says Romeo is overreacting, Romeo tells him he has no right to talk. If he were in Romeo's situation, he too would have the right to feel as he does:
Friar L. Then mightst thou speak, then mightst thou tear thy hair,
And fall upon the ground, as I do now,
Taking the measure of an unmade grave... (III.iii.68-70)
After his experience of the pleroma-fullness--of light with Juliet, a world without her, which he used to take for granted, becomes a hell to escape from. To explicate the difference between these two states of heaven and hell, let us turn to another Gnostic text from Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Philip. This text says of the separation between Eve and Adam:
When Eve was still in Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more. (Robinson 1988, 150)
Here death "came into being" when Adam and Eve were separated, i.e. when Eve was taken out of Adam's body. Orthodox Christianity, in contrast, says that death became a reality when they disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Romeo and Juliet's experience is the Gnostic one. To be sure, Romeo has disobeyed the Prince's edict against fighting and is banished as a result. But banishment is death only because it means separation from Juliet. To reunite with her-and thus regain his Eden-- Friar Lawrence explains, he has to wait until the Friar can safely reveal the marriage and get the banishment lifted.

Our Gnostic text takes a similar position to that of Friar Lawrence. How is it that Adam, or any of us, can regain his former completeness? The Gospel of Philip answers:
..the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him. (Robinson 1988, 151-152)
What is the bridal chamber? As we have seen, the canonical Bible makes a  few obscure mentions of it, just enough to make it respectable. It is that which Paul, Augustine, Bernard and others said was the marriage of Christ with his Church, or of the Word with the soul. But the Gospel of Philip speaks of it in other terms: it is the place where "the image and the angel are united with one another" (Robinson 1988, 149). Here "the image" simply means any ordinary human being, typified by Adam, who was made in God's image; the "image" then is to receive the "angel," described as "a male power or a female power." And where is one to receive these angels or powers? The text continues: "One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber." Here the bridal chamber is described as "mirrored" so as to indicate that the event in this world is one that mirrors another event in the upper world.  This mirrored bridal chamber is then that which unites the two, the image and the angel, as "the bridegroom and the bride" (all quotations from Robinson 1988, 149).

I think we can now see more clearly the sacred aspect of the imagery in the play. When Romeo sees Juliet as an angel, he sees in her the being of light with whom, if he unites with her, he will be complete. It is not just completeness, but transcendence and hence being beyond the world and its demands, and moreover beyond death as well, in a timeless bliss. This is what both want, a kind of indestructible union. For that, apparently, they need the bridal chamber. Juliet understands this point in a this-worldly way when she asks that Romeo arrange the wedding and then impatiently awaits its consummation. That image of the wedding, and then the night together afterward, is the image of the two becoming one.

This image of the angel as expressing the transcendence of marriage is one that D. H. Lawrence uses in his novel The Rainbow, when at the heroine's wedding he has her father Tom Brangwen exclaim, in a kind of momentary piercing of the veil that shrouds our world, that "it seems to me as a married couple makes one Angel" (1943, 130). Such angels are also the primal beings that Plato in his Symposium had Aristophanes imagine as the original humans, before Zeus, feeling threatened by their power, split them in two, creating the sexes. A similar image appears in Jewish Kabbalistic writings, which were extant in Shakespeare's time. The Zohar, from 13th century Spain, describes how the female and male aspects of the godhead relate to each other:
The Female spread out from her place and adhered to the Male side, until he moved away from his side, and she came to unite with him face to face. And when they united, they appeared as veritably one body. From this we learn that the male alone appears as half a body...and the female likewise, but when they join in union they seem as veritably one. (Zohar iii 296a; quoted in Pope 1977, 164)
The first two sentences describe God, as a unity with male and female aspects. The last sentence is about humans, when they imitate the Godhead in marriage; in sexuality, they elevate their own status and even contribute to the power of the Godhead itself.

Shakespeare would very likely have known Plato's much-cited text. Knowledge of the Zohar passage was more difficult, but it could have come by way of Englishmen visiting Italy, where it had been published in Hebrew (Edel 1988), Spanish Jews in exile in London or the Netherlands, or scholars anywhere. Kabbalah was in vogue, beginning with Pico della Mirandola in Italy, followed by such figures as Giordano Bruno, who visited England in the 1580's, and John Dee, Elizabeth's court astrologer.

Of course Romeo and Juliet will not, after the wedding night, literally be one. Yet they seem to themselves as one, and the union is more than physical. What is it about being with another person, an ordinary human being, that suggests completeness? After all, in this world they are two separate beings. And why is it that separation seems like death? It is all a matter of what we are in the presence of, of what we see and know through here and now experience. The Gospel of Philip has an explanation, one that is rather mysterious unless we see it in the context of either Gnosticism or our play:
It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place and you become those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw [the father, you] shall become Father. So [in this place] you see everything and [do] not [see] yourself, but [in that place] you do see yourself--and what you see you shall [become]. (Robinson 1988, 146-147; bracketed words in published translation.)
So when Romeo sees Juliet as an angel, he becomes an angel himself--he is in the angelic place; and when Juliet sees Romeo as a white being on a raven, the same is true. You enter the other world briefly when you see something from it.

 The text I just quoted makes another point. When you see something of the other world, what you are seeing is an aspect of yourself. This is the point that Jung (1969) made when he spoke of the animus, an unconscious male image in women, and the anima, the unconscious feminine in men. Each is an aspect of our unconscious selves that we project onto others; and when we get to know these aspects and recognize them as of ourselves, we are both making ourselves whole and becoming truly ourselves, instead of the part-selves ignorant of  their other parts.

Unfortunately, in this world we are not always in the presence of the one on whom we have projected the angel; we need continual renewal. It is similar to the worshiper's need for the repetition of the mass or other holy service to help him or her be in a sacred space at other times. Thus separation of the lovers, even after the marriage, feels like death to them.

The Gospel of Philip, we have seen, speaks of men uniting with female powers and women uniting with male powers. But for Gnostics the physical sex of the angel was not that important. In the Hymn of the Pearl, for example, the angelic being is portrayed as brother to the male human being in this world. In the Pistis Sophia, similarly, Jesus's counterpart is at first identified as his brother. These texts, we must remember, were written after Plato, who in his Symposium had Aristophanes imagine three kinds of original human pairs, male and male, male and female, and female and female. Everything said applied to all three. For Gnosticism, in relation to the bridal chamber, the human being is actually in the position of the female, whatever his or her physical sex. It is the same as in the orthodox Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs, in which the woman is held to stand for the human soul. The Gnostic bridal chamber is that place where the soul receives its light-power from above, which is then embodied in us. The Gospel of Philip puts it this way:

Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore, his body came into being on that very day...(Robinson 1988, 152)
When that light hits us, we are all Marys giving birth to the Christ within. To the extent that the light from above for us, in the days after Christ, is imaged as coming by way of Christ, rather than from the Father directly, we could also say that the soul receiving this light is the bride of Christ. In that sense the Gnostic agrees with Augustine in saying that the sacred marriage is that of Christ with his church.

Shakespeare could not, of course, have read the Gospel of Philip. Nor is it likely that Augustine did. But both Augustine and the Gospel of Philip were influenced by a common source, Platonism as interpreted in the Roman Empire. Such Platonism also shaped the perspective of the Renaissance, including the myths and allegories the Platonists had adapted to their purposes.

One myth that was especially popular in the Renaissance was that of Cupid and Psyche, as related by the Middle Platonist Apuleius at around the same time as the Gnostics. In this story Cupid is not the little boy we typically think of, but rather a young man. This Cupid, with his romance with  the young woman Psyche, was the subject of numerous Renaissance paintings, fresco cycles, and wedding chests (Cavicchioli 2002). Engravings or at least descriptions would have reached England-the frescoes decorated buildings designed  and used for occasions of state in Rome and Mantua. In addition, Apuleius’s text was available in both Latin and English. His philosophical works were included in the Latin edition, and members of Shakespeare’s circle would have appreciated the allegorical significance of the tale.

There are numerous allusions to Cupid in the play, sometimes by name and sometimes as “love,” the translation of his other name Amor; such references are often followed by a reference using the pronoun “he.” They mostly are of a generic nature and need not refer to Apuleius’s tale. Yet the scene their first night at Juliet’s window is more specific, as Shakespeare scholar Mark Skavig (2000) has pointed out. I want to put that observation into a broader Renaissance context.

Juliet asks how Romeo managed to get to her window. Romeo replies: “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls” (II.ii.66). Renaissance representations have Cupid falling in love with  Psyche at first sight, just as Romeo does. An example is a Florentine wedding chest  from the 1470’s, which shows Psyche being adored by young men, while Cupid does the same from above (Fig.  4 below; Cavviocholi 2002, 74). The winged Cupid, dispatched by his mother Venus to get rid of Psyche, has been wounded by his own arrow. Romeo similarly speaks of his “wound” caused by love (II.ii.1). The word “psyche” is Greek for “soul,” and indeed that is just what Romeo calls Juliet, saying “It is my soul that calls my name”(II.ii.162).

Like Juliet, Psyche at first does not know her beloved’s identity, as he comes and makes her his wife under cover of night. In Psyche’s case, Cupid has forbidden her to know his identity, and when she finds out anyway, he flees. In Juliet’s case, her lover flees when he acts like a Montague and kills his enemy-that is, when he momentarily assumes the identity he had hidden from her. Like Juliet, Psyche undergoes several trials before being reunited with her beloved, in her case including a journey to the underworld which results in her death by poisoning. As for Juliet, death, or its appearance, is what brings Psyche’s lover back. Cupid flies from his sick bed at his mother’s house to Psyche’s side  An illustration is Fig.  4a (Cavviocholi 2002, 131), from a fresco cycle in Mantua, in a room of the Palacio Te, a palace known also as the “Sacrarium of Venus.” If Venus’s house is in Mantua, Cupid and Romeo race in from the same place!

In Psyche’s case, the story has a happy ending. Cupid asks Jupiter to bring her to Olympus so they can be officially husband and wife. She duly ascends to heaven, and the fruit of their union is a daughter named Voluptas, Latin for Joy--the Joy of unity with the divine, in Platonic allegory.

Apuleius’s essay De Deo Socrates, which was published in the same volume as the Latin text of the tale, gives the philosophical meaning, which Cavviocholi has summarized:
The search for a mediation between men and the perfection of a sublime and distant divinity as one of the leitmotivs of his [Apuleius’s] time, the goal toward which the new religious and contemporary schools of thought were striving. Apuleius’s answer to the problem is that of a Platonist, heir to the long tradition of interpretation of Plato’s Symposium, in which Eros is presented as a daemon, a being whose nature falls halfway between men and gods and makes a relationship between them possible. Consistent with this vision, Cupid, besides being an Olympian, is presented as the means by which Psyche will rise to heaven. (2002, 43. Word in brackets added by MH)
The affinity with the Gnostics’ conception of the “bridal chamber” is evident. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, writers such as Boccaccio and Ficino synthesized  Apuleius with Christianity. Love is ignited by the apprehension of the divine within another individual, the sight of which which transports the lover to divine heights. This doctrine was given a popular presentation in Castiliogne’s The Courtier, a book which enjoyed great popularity among Elizabethans. Such an appreciation applied to Romeo and Juliet would not have been lost on the educated members of Shakespeare’s audience.

Romeo and Juliet certainly feel joy from their union, although Juliet's does not last long, thanks to her father’s plan to marry her to Paris. Romeo's lasts a little longer. Waking up in Mantua, he feels a "joy" occasioned by a dream he had during the night, which he thinks is prophetic of "some joyful news at hand."  He reflects that:
Rom. .. All this day an unaccustomed spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead--
Strange dream that gives a man leave to think!--
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived and was an emperor.
Ah me, how sweet is love itself possessed
When but love's shadows are so rich in joy! (V.i.4-11)
The dream reminds us of what she said earlier about the fireworks at Romeo's death (on the Quarto's reading, where it is he who dies, not she). After Romeo's reflection on his dream, his servant enters and tells him of seeing Juliet's funeral. Immediately Romeo knows what he is to do--he says, "I defy you, stars!" meaning he knows how to escape the fate that governs men's lives in this world, and which means to doom Juliet and him to separation. A person's fate, even in Shakespeare’s day, was thought to be determined or at least influenced by the positions of the planets and the zodiac at birth and throughout the person's life. In Gnosticism the planets are the particular archons that possess one. It was only by an ascent beyond the stars that one could transcend one's fate, in Gnosticism as well as in pagan cults such as Mithraism. In the context of ancient and Renaissance Neoplatonism, even orthodox Christianity presupposed the rule of fate, unless one was saved by Christ. In Romeo's case, I think we must suppose that he sees himself dead in Juliet's tomb, and Juliet's spirit, which is still nearby, transforming him in a triumph over fate. Juliet for him takes the role of Christ as the liberating power from above. In Gnostic terms, he will be united with his angel by transforming to spirit, his majestic form, upon which the stars have no power, by a suicide which complements what he imagines has been her choice of suicide over separation.

This philosophical context gives an extra meaning to Romeo’s phrase "love's shadows" in his reflection on his dream. In the context of the dream, the phrase refers to the image of union that was contained in the dream: An image is the shadow of the thing it is an image of, a thing without substance but suggesting a reality of which it is the shadow. If this thing without substance is sweet, he is saying, how much sweeter is the real thing.

In the context of Juliet's death, and Romeo's impending suicide, the phrase takes on another meaning; it becomes a reference to Plato's allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato speaks of things in the material world as shadowy copies of a higher reality in the perfect world of Forms, like images projected onto a cave wall of wooden cutouts moving at the front of the cave, which themselves are copies of a Reality outside the cave. Juliet's and his earthly love is a shadowy image of their true love in the eternal realm. The language of the Gospel of Philip is similar. The “image” of the bridal chamber is a shadow and harbinger of divine union in the world beyond the archons. In this Platonic framework, shared equally by Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, Romeo's earthly love for Juliet is the love of his divine spark on earth for its counterpart in the heavenly realm, which will become complete only with his earthly death. (This Platonic play with "shadow" happens again in Shakespeare, to make different points, when Hamlet speaks with his school friends and the Fool with Lear.)

Given the dream, Romeo--like Juliet before the wedding night--is eager with expectation; he is already imaginatively in the world beyond the stars, in union with his angel. He refers to this cheerfulness again in the crypt as he looks at the lifeless Juliet:
Rom....How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! which their keepers call
A lightening before death. O, how may I
Call this a lightening? O my love! my wife! (V.iii.88-91)
The "lightening" that Romeo experiences (spelled with and without an "e," depending on the edition) suggests both brilliant light and lightness, lack of weight. In his enlightened state, he has detached from the world, in anticipation of his reuniting in death with Juliet, in a bridal chamber after death, of which the earthly bridal chamber was an anticipation. Compare the feeling here with the end of the Gospel of Philip:
Every one who will enter the bridal chamber will kindle the light, just as in the marriages which are [.....] happen  at night. That fire [....] (burns?--MH) only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of that marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light. Neither that day nor its light ever sets. If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light....And none shall be able to torment a person like this even while he dwells in the world...The world has become the eternal realm (aeon), for the eternal realm is fullness for him. This is the way it is; it is revealed to him alone, not hidden in the darkness and the night, but hidden in a perfect day and a holy light. (Robinson 1988, 160)
This, it seems to me is what Romeo experiences coming into the crypt, the "lightening."  This text also suggests that the spiritual bridal chamber has something in common with the ordinary marriages, the ones that "happen at night." The latter are images of the former, which are in turn images of that perfect marriage "of the day and the light."  Thus ordinary marriage, even though as fleeting as an individual life, still has something sacred about it, as a tertiary image of the divine--just as in the Allegory of the Cave.

"Great is the mystery of marriage!" exclaims the Gospel of Philip; later it offers an analysis of that mystery, as pertaining to the couple's desire to hide their concourse from the world:
No [one can] know when [the husband] and the wife have intercourse with one another except the two of them. Indeed marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of defilement, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to the will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light. (Robinson 1988, 158; interpolations by translator)
Romeo in the crypt is approaching this light, the "lightening" in both senses, an easing of the mind and a flash of light from beyond this world, as though thrown by some sky-god.. His new marriage, very much like that of Christ on the cross, is not of desire, that is, physical pleasure, but rather the very opposite, something which must be conceived by the mind and willed in accordance with that conception. As Romeo sees such a union, it is by a conscious decision to die, which he does by swallowing poison. In this same vein is Juliet's will-power later, withstanding pain and the resistance of her bone as she plunges Romeo's dagger (a phallic symbol on a higher level than sex) into her heart! The pain is that of Christ's marriage bed of the cross, in Augustine's analysis of the sacred marriage, in which Christ's place is now taken by Juliet's angelic counterpart, Romeo.

Let us go back to Romeo in the crypt. Once he is actually there, looking at Juliet's body, he begins to have doubts about whether he is having a lightening or not. The problem is that Juliet looks so lifelike: "Why art thou yet so fair?" he asks himself. Then it occurs to him: Death has claimed her as his own and so keeps her beautiful for his own pleasure:
 Rom.                             ...Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour? (V.iii.102-105)
It is the "death and the maiden" theme, death getting the maiden as his bride. Or in Gnostic terms, it is the separation, which gives Juliet and hence both of them to death. As Romeo says, in answer to his previous question:
Rom.  For fear of that, I still will stay with thee,
And never from this place of dim night
Depart again. (V.iii.106-108)
To save her from the unwanted groom, he must be with her; he must die himself to give her life.

Despite the Christ-like gesture, this commitment to some bridal chamber after death seems an unchristian idea--it is not the marriage with Christ that is to save her from death, it is the marriage with Romeo. But on the spiritual level, perhaps it is the Christ in Romeo that has married her. It is the one who has pledged himself totally to the other, with not even a "til death do us part":  The death of a spouse does not cancel the contract. And when Juliet dies to be with Romeo, we see that it does not cancel the contract for her, either. "He who gives his life, so shall he save it; but he who preserves his life shall lose it," says the Gospel of John. That much Gnostic and exoteric Christianity agree on. It is in anticipation of that sacrifice that Romeo feels the "lightening" that I spoke of earlier.

With his commitment to the final sacrifice, I submit, Romeo, and later Juliet as well, are also feeling that holy bridal chamber of which the Gnostics spoke. They each die for the sake of the other. And notice that Romeo is not saying that in this way they will be in heaven. It is so unselfish, he is fully prepared to be excluded from heaven, in fact he even expects it:
 Rom.                  O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. (V.iii.109-112)
Suicide, after all, is a forbidden act in the Judeo-Christian tradition; this was true in Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity alike. Yet it is the fantasy of a unity which makes immortal that still governs this scene. The myth of Psyche’s ascension to heaven to be Cupid’s lawful bride is there, enhancing the tragedy of its non-fulfillment. And the fruit of this union is not joy but grief. Yet the myth of the Sacred Marriage, in which the sacrifice of the couple brings fruitfulness to the land, still governs the play, as the families in Verona finally end their feud and put the wasteland of death behind them.

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