Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Romeo and Bella and Edward and Juliet

So anyway...

It's been a while, but I'm back. Lots to do in these past few weeks and I have not posted for quite some time. So, what issue of world-shattering importance drags me out of my self-imposed mini-exile? Would you believe the Twilight Saga? 

I know, and you're right: Twilight is a pretty slight entertainment. It's likely that many of you don't even like it, deeming Meyer a less than capable author, and it is also reasonable to assert that she (like Rowling before her) began with a story rather than any discernible unique skill set. Still, it's a cool story (even if these vampires do sparkle for no appreciable reason). And I am an incurable romantic--and a teenage girl at heart--so I readily admit that I read all four books and watched all four movies and enjoyed all of them.

But why bring it up now? It's over! Even the last movie is yesterday's news.

Well, here's the thing:

Bizarrely, I found myself on facebook this weekend doing something I never imagined I would be doing as a 56-year-old writer/English teacher: spending over a hour of my time defending the honor of Twilight and its characters! (I don't wish to go into the whys and wherefores here; it was a tired old internet meme that seeks to equate 100+ year old vampires protecting human girls from dangers they cannot possibly foresee with hypercontrolling, creepy, abusive boyfriends, and in my mind it is ridiculous. Edward Cullen is not Adam on "Girls.") The point is that, in doing so, I found myself actually thinking deeply--God help me--about the Twilight Saga.

And this is what I wrote at one point:

Ultimately, this is a story of the same kind of obsession that drove Romeo and Juliet. One look is all it took to seal them for life. For Bella, this may have been something in her teen nature. For Edward, perhaps it was a fragmentary remnant of his humanity; who knows? For both, it is clearly impetuous, as it is dangerous and forbidden. They should never have embarked on it, but once they did they could not stop. In Meyers' version of the story, as the dangers of the world seek to destroy them, they discover that they are the only thing each other needs, but also the only thing causing the danger to each other. 
Edward, being the older, wiser and stronger, tries to break it off, but in the end he is too far gone and, as do Romeo and Juliet, in Book Two they both find themselves crying and bemoaning their forced separation until, in Book Three, they are brought back together to be wed. Once wed, though, a whole new manifestation of their trouble occurs: in R & J, that is personified by Tybalt; here, is comes in the form of Renesmee. Book Four, as Acts Four and Five of the play, is the playing out of the inevitable climax of all of this drama. 
That Meyers elected to keep her heroes alive is more a matter of playing to her teenage modern audience than anything else; I would like to think that something inside of her would have liked them to die and leave the baby to Jacob and the Cullens, united as the Capulets and Montagues after the final sacrifices. I even suspect (hope?) that, somewhere, a draft of that version exists.

Now I have not read New Moon in many years, and I was utterly unaware when I wrote these lines that the novel actually begins with the following epigraph:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in the triumph die like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.

These lines come from, of course, Romeo and Juliet.  With a bit of internet research today, I see that Meyer did in fact consciously pattern her second book after that play, even (and I did not recall this either) having Bella and Edward watch and discuss the play and its lovers within the text. I do not feel here the need to rehash what has already, it turns out, been thoroughly hashed elsewhere, so I'll merely make my own point.

Meyer has acknowledged her intentional pattern in her second novel, but I think that the entire series is built on the Shakespearean story. While one can certainly find within the plot arcs of New Moon the story of Romeo and Juliet if one wishes to do so, I would argue that it is not that simple. The fact is that it is the first novel that takes us through the first two acts of the play. For Act One of the play, you truly need to read the original Twilight, in which the dangers are established as well as the uncontrollable infatuations, as in Shakespeare. Twilight takes us through the Act Two balcony scene as well, in which they pledge themselves to each other despite all odds, though Edward remains sullen (Cullen?) even after this because he knows too much of the danger he and his life bring to her. He is in fact both Romeo and Mercutio--though he lacks both characters' wit--and he knows it. He fears the darker Mercutio side of himself and all that attends it. And then it concludes with a violent battle that signals the impossibility of the life they are planning for themselves.

The reason many people are unhappy with New Moon--and I know many who are--is that Bella spends the whole novel whining and doing little else. But if you look at this novel as a microcosmic exploration of what happens in Act Three of Shakespeare's play after Romeo kills Tybalt, but before the ultimately catastrophic plan with Friar Laurence is concocted, you might better understand it. In that section of the play, Romeo, having done that deed, is banished from Verona and his "three hours' bride," Juliet. Our lover's response to the punishment?

Banishment? Be merciful, say death
For exile hath far more terror in his look
Much more than death. Do not say "banishment." 

Meanwhile, Juliet spends her time crying so deeply that she cannot be comforted, and the excess of her tears is so dread that her father, mistaking them for grief over her dead cousin, decides to speed up Juliet's marriage to the County Paris from a month from now to two days from now, bringing about even more fits and sobbing.

Oh, shut the door, and when thou has done so
Come weep with me, past hope, past care, past help.

It is Romeo and Juliet in this mode (and this mood) that Meyer is showing us in her second novel. Once Edward decides, with finality, that they are "past hope, past care, past help," and tells her so, Bella lapses into a despondency so deep that she cannot come out of it, much as Juliet did upon losing Romeo to the Prince's proclamation. Juliet would do anything to see her lover again:

Chain me with roaring bears
Or hide me nightly in a charnel house,
 O'ercovered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls...
And I will do it

For Bella it is much the same. She begins to have visions of Edward everywhere, but discovers that they appear to her only when her life is in danger. So she determines to put her life into more and more danger, even at one point diving recklessly from a high cliff into the sea, her actions mimicking a line of Juliet's--"O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris / From off the battlements of yonder tower"--and at the same time fooling the clairvoyant Alice into believing she is trying to kill herself and ultimately setting into motion a sequence of events that leaves Edward believing her to be actually dead so that, like Romeo, he determines to kill himself as well.

Of course this is where Meyer swerves off the Shakespearean path at very high speed in a bright yellow Italian sports car. Bella rushes to stop her lover's suicide and succeeds at the very last minute, and they both live to see another act of the saga. But this is all Meyer jumping ahead of herself: we were mired in Act Three and she simply skipped ahead to the ending of the play. Whatever happened to Act Four and the rest of Act Five? Easy: Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

With the Volturi now a huge threat, Bella and Edward must marry, so the third book is a giant tease, making it a perfect metaphor for Act Four, which in any Shakespearean play is the Great Holding Pattern between the climactic Act Three and the denouement of Act Five. During Eclipse, events (intense though they may get) just play out to get everything in place for the monumental occurrences of Breaking Dawn, when all hell will potentially be unleashed.

So now we are nearing the end, and we finally get the big bold wedding that Romeo and Juliet never received, complete with invitations to the Capulets (Jacob/Tybalt and the werewolf clan).We've momentarily jumped backwards in the play to that brief scene before the lark sings its morning call and disrupts the young married couple from their one blissful night together, which I suppose is fair since New Moon jumped right to the end of the play. After giving them their bliss, though, a new enemy arises, and it comes from within: Renesmee, the baby who at first threatens to kill her mother from the womb and then threatens to kill all of the Cullens through her mere existence.

Death does indeed take our young Juliet--as it does in the play--as she attempts to give birth to her half-immortal baby. It is only through the supernatural interference of vampire blood that she is saved, and her salvation is uncertain for awhile--as is the case in the play as well. Our despondent Romeo, though, this time has his family with him as well as his new baby, so he is safe at least for the moment. And besides: Meyer has already played out that ending and has a completely different one in mind.

She has carefully set up two possible scenarios: one in which Bella and Edward do not survive, and one in which they do. (Giving Jacob his own narrative section in the final book was perhaps the best authorial decision Meyer made in the entire saga.) But, as this is a commercial and not an artistic series, there is really no doubt as to which she will choose. As I said in my little blurb above, I really hope that somewhere there exists a version of the end of Breaking Dawn in which the fight with the Volturi that we witnessed in the film (the stand-in, of course, for the chaos that reigns at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, but which this saga is missing) actually happened, and Edward and Bella die valiantly in it, leaving Jacob with his child/lover and the knowledge that

A glooming peace that morning with it brought.
The sun for sorrow would not show his face.
The internet would yap of what was wrought
Some wishing Jacob could take Edward's place.
There'd never be a tale with more tears shed
Than this of Bella, and her vampire Ed.

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