Having spent the latter portion of Tuesday evening rocking back and forth in a fetal position and moaning, “The Supreme Court! The Supreme Court!”, I woke Wednesday morning to a grey and brooding sky. Almost the first thing that popped into my head – after the one about how maybe it was all a bad dream or there had been a miracle between sometime after two A.M. when exhaustion, emotional and physical, finally claimed me – was a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.” It ran through my head through that whole dreary day, along with the line that precedes it: “A glooming peace this morning with it brings” – although how “peaceful” I was could have been debated.
When I was an impressionable 14, we were sent by our English teacher to see Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was love at first sight. Having that summer been the victim of a seriously unfortunate short haircut (when entering high school in September, three months after the disaster, the first words of the man who is now my beloved life partner, whom I’ve known since we were nine, to me were “What happened to your hair?”), I fell in love with Juliet (Olivia Hussey)’s hair and spent the rest of high school unsuccessfully trying to grow my hair as long and lush as hers (I’m still trying). And I fell in love with Romeo (Leonard Whiting), not to mention the actor playing Benvolio, and with the costumes, with Nino Rota’s score (setting off a life-long love of the early music on which the score was modeled), the sets, the romance of the story (who doesn’t want to die for love at 14?) – oh, yes, and the language.
I inhabited that film. I saw it several times, pored over the souvenir program I’d gotten (yes, boys and girls, in those far-off days, first-run movies did often have souvenir programs you could buy), bought the record album that contained the music and many of the words, and listened to it endlessly – so endlessly that nearly 30 years later, when the dear friend I was visiting in England took me to a production of Romeo and Juliet outdoors in the ruins of an old abbey, she (a teacher) was stunned to realize I was “lip-synching” my way through the play along with the cast. (I told her, “Don’t get too excited. This is the only Shakespeare play I can do this with.”)
So maybe that’s why the words of that final speech, given by the Prince, kept echoing through the sorrow and rage yesterday, the raw weather and the raw emotions. It felt (cliché alert) as though the world were weeping with us – and I say “us” because the majority of the people I know were at least as distraught as I was at the prospect of a petty, vindictive, spiteful, hate-filled, smirking ignoramus (and those are some of the kinder things I could say) about to become our President.
But what does a fixation on Romeo and Juliet have to do with our current national tragedy? Well, on the way home, my mind, still on the play, drifted to an earlier scene, where Romeo is hiding out with Friar Lawrence after having murdered in a sword fight the odious Tybalt in revenge for Tybalt’s having (perhaps accidentally) just killed Romeo’s good friend Mercutio in a similar fight (one Romeo had been trying to stop). Friar Lawrence, who in some ways can be looked at as a fool – without his well-intentioned meddling, there would be no tragedy – yet what he says to the grief-stricken, fearful, helplessly wailing Romeo is actually quite useful to one willing to hear it (Romeo wasn’t): He lists for Romeo not what his (very real) problems are, but what his (equally real) blessings are: Tybalt would have cheerfully killed Romeo, had Romeo not got Tybalt first; the law says death for his crime, but the Prince has mercifully changed it to banishment; Juliet is alive; Juliet still loves him. As he ticks off each item on the list, he says to Romeo, “There art thou happy.”
All that “happiness” doesn’t make Romeo feel any better. Friar Lawrence’s “pack of blessings” mean nothing to him. The only thing he can see is the horror before him; the loss has obscured the good that remains. And I realized that, in this dark night into which we have plunged, good still does exist – something to nurture and build on. Hadn’t I spent the previous night and all day telling other sorrowing people, “We have each other”? That’s no small thing. Hadn’t I told them, too, “We have to keep holding on to each other”? I know we will, and that’s no small thing, either. I know, too, that there are other groups of people like us – we make up at least half the country, and we will not be silenced. Standing together, we can be a very big thing, indeed.
The Prince’s full speech is:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
It can feel as though there’s never been woe like ours, but that’s not true. So, yes, let us mourn this event that feels like a death to so many of us; let us have more talk of these sad things. But, at the same time, let us not forget those things of which we can still say, “There art thou happy.” Let us, in our grief and anger, not forget that pardon has a place, and that revenge ends up uselessly with a stage full of bodies. And, arm in arm, let us work together, fight for justice together, be kind to each other, believe in each other and what we can do together, and never forget that “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (Not Shakespeare, but another great stylist, St. Paul: 1 Cornthians 13:13)