Making it Human

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E.M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, has the famous epigraph, ‘Only Connect.’ ‘Only connect! That was the whole of [the] sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.’

Forster’s epigraph calls to mind what we commonly do in approaching works of art: we seek a connection, a feeling that, as C.S Lewis once put it, makes us know we’re not alone. A touchstone, a scent that wafts up through years of forgetting; or the whispering of curtains on a hot childhood afternoon, or the experience of being estranged in a familiar world. The very condition of life is that nothing lasts forever; bodies change, feelings change, thoughts change, relationships change.

But in the face of all this change, we constantly seek, and seek again, to connect up the pieces, making our experience amount to something we can understand.

“Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.” (2.1.80-91)

‘What’s in a name?’ asks Juliet. She’s referring to Romeo Montague’s name – ‘Montague’ is a small piece of language that divides him from her. Romeo is who he is in his essence, says Juliet, and language doesn’t box him in to who he has to be – in fact, language discolours him and estranges him from his rightful place. It’s only his name that makes him a Montague: the name is just a lid that declares him ‘closed’ or ‘unavailable’. Take off the lid and there you have it – the perfection that is Juliet’s Romeo.

Much as Juliet might mistrust the effect of language, the perfection she so prizes is, indeed, as ephemeral as is language itself. This truth is embedded in the journey that the two young lovers take. Romeo isn’t perfect – it’s just that Juliet thinks he is. While this doesn’t make him less of a marvel in her eyes, his perfection is essentially in and of the moment – that brief, starry moment when love makes him wondrous and everything seems to have led to this time and place.

The deaths of Romeo and Juliet constitute Shakespeare’s sadly ironic suggestion that such perfection can’t last. It will change – we might die, as the young lovers do, or we might just get old and cranky and sit silently across from each other at the breakfast table. As the prologue to Romeo and Juliet suggests so poignantly, ‘love’ in its first, perfect bloom, is ‘death-marked’, whether we die, or whether we just get tired. This doesn’t make the love any the less – it just makes it human.

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Philippa Kelly, author of The King and I (Shakespeare Now!) series, works as resident dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater. Her current project is 'Shakespeare's Ghosts', a study of why and how we need ghosts. With Laura Hope, she is also writing a book for Ashgate: 'Adventures in Feminist Dramaturgy: the Road Less Travelled.'

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