For a love story, Romeo and Juliet has more violence and bloodshed than most TV mini-series. The play begins with a riot, ends with a double suicide, and in between has three murders. And all this takes place in the span of four short days. Of course, when you're dealing with love and passion, you're operating on an elemental level. The funny thing is that they have their roots in the same soil. It is common for love to turn to hate - in the blink of an eye.
Love and hate are twin sons of different mothers, separated at birth. They have a doubleness. This ambiguity is reflected throughout Romeo and Juliet
, whose language is riddled with oxymorons. "O brawling love, O loving hate," Romeo cries in the play's very first scene, using a figure of speech and setting up a theme that will be played out during the next five acts.
Like the poles of an electrical circuit between which runs the high voltage of emotions, love and hate create a dialogue and a dialectic, a dynamic tension which powers the action and generates heat.
Hot Enough for You?
When I noticed that two of the plays this season had settings in Verona, I decided to find out a thing or two about the place. Reading the section on "climate" in Harold Rose's rather chatty book Your Guide to Northern Italy, I noted that "Italy is very hot in summer" and that Rose recommends that the smart traveler should "avoid August if you can" because it is the "hottest month." Checking another book, I discovered that Rose, in a typically English way, was understating the severity of the summer weather rather considerably. The second book pointed out that there are times when Scirocco winds
"sweep Saharan conditions northward"; winds which, by the time they reach Italy, bring "humid, stifling weather" with temperatures commonly topping the 100 degree mark.
After reading this, a great deal of the violence in Romeo
and Juliet became more understandable: they're all short-tempered because of the heat! This is even noted by Benvolio when he warns Mercutio that "The day is hot, and Capulet's abroad,/ And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl,/ For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring." Unfortunately, he warns too late, and the brawl he seeks to avoid is met in the form of Tybalt.
The mad blood is stirring...
Think back a few summers to the drought that plagued Illinois: after days and days of humid, 90+ temperatures, didn't you want to kill somebody? Tempers explode when it's hot. At the end of a ten-day heat wave, one newspaper reported that a knife fight broke out when one man asked another, "Hot enough for you?"
The connection between heat and violence is well-known and documented. In 1968, the United States Riot Commission, investigating the ghetto riots that had taken place the previous year found that "In most instances, the temperature during the day on which the violence first erupted was quite high." In fact, in 9 of 18 riots, the temperature reached 90 degrees or more during the day, and in all but one of the remaining cases, the temperature had been in the 80s. The "long, hot summer" of 1967 was just that.
Perhaps it is not too great a stretch to postulate that Verona is experiencing just such a long, hot summer. Something must have happened to have touched off the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.
By the time Romeo and Juliet begins, the violence is already under way. The play opens with a riot, after which the Prince angrily notes that "Three civil brawls...have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets." Obviously, this violence has not been continual, for it is still young enough for people to keep count of the fights. No, this is a new outbreak of an older conflict, as the Capulets and Montagues "from ancient grudge break to new mutiny."
What brings on this conflict? The Prince blames it on "an airy word/ By thee, old Capulet, and Montague." But if this airy word provided the spark, the conditions must have been ripe for fire. And surely the flame, once lit, has been fanned by a kind of fever that has swept the city.
Passion is a Fever in the Mind
Heat, whether internal or external, has a bad effect on judgment. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine once undertook a study to determine how soldiers would perform in hot climates. As Lucy Kavaler describes in her interesting book A Matter of Degree: Heat, Life and Death
Soldiers were required to exercise in heat of 103 degrees at high humidity, which caused a rise in body temperature. They were allowed to rest for a while and then, still overheated, were asked to detect light signals flashed in a random manner. A second group of men exercised at 75 degrees. More light flashes were reported by the men who were hotter, which at first seemed to indicate that this state increased their alertness and competence. But when their detection reports were compared with the number of true signals, it was found that the increase was in false reports. Their judgment was not as sound as that of cooler men. They had become more willing to take a risk and insist that they saw a signal when in fact there was none.
Applying this to interpersonal communication, it might be reasonable to assume that human beings who are hot might see a signal of aggression in another person -- particularly if that person were regarded as the enemy -- when in fact there was none. The slightest wrong move might be perceived as an affront, an insult, a challenge. Under the best circumstances, communication between hostile forces is difficult; under conditions of extreme heat, conflict becomes almost inevitable.
In addition, Kavaler notes, excessive heat calls forth the "fight or flight" reaction in which all body systems mobilize to meet a threat. Given the code of honor which views flight as cowardice, the men of Verona have little choice: they must fight. And they must fight in response to any perceived signal of aggression.
Interestingly, the physiological reactions of the body to heat is similar to its reaction to the onset of rage: the heart beats faster, breathing quickens, the blood vessels in the skin dilate, and there is an increase in blood flow, making the skin flush. If the blood vessels remain dilated for long, some liquid leaks into the tissues and the face looks swollen. So the face of heat is also the face of rage.
I hate and I love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask.
I know not, but I feel it and I am in torment.
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Too hot, too hot!
William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale