We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.

Mercutio: I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind

Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Verona

I will never forget the first time I saw Romeo & Juliet. I was young and despite knowing the outcome of the tragic love story I was utterly unprepared for the blunt realness of the characters, the utter truth of their emotions and intentions, and the stark, gut-wrenching sadness of the climactic scene which left me breathless, shaken to my core, unearthing emotions that I had never known in my short life but were curiously understandable and resoundingly authentic.

Since then I have performed, directed, taught, and studied the play in many different forms and each time, without fail, the work reveals further shades of beauty, paradox, irony and consequence. And each time I am left astonished by the power and truth of this most ubiquitous of tales.

One of the great geniuses of Shakespeare is his acute awareness of narrative timing: when to reveal certain information and to whom, making the audience an unwitting and unwilling party to circumstances the characters are unaware of until it is too late, positioning the viewers in that torturous realm of bearing too much knowledge while possessing too little power, and with nothing to do but watch helplessly as events hurtle toward their inevitable conclusions. And with this very deliberate tactic Shakespeare masterfully underpins the ever-present power of fate that the characters observe in the throes of their helplessness throughout the play.

Fate and premonition feature large in Shakespeare’s work, and the audience is constantly challenged to consider the play of cause and effect in each character’s arc, the agony of thwarted plans and mislaid intentions. Shakespeare uses this powerful form of character-sympathy to great effect, causing us to align ourselves not only with Romeo and Juliet, but with the entire cast, the good and the bad. We find ourselves in admiration of Tybalt, entranced by his unflinching honor and prowess, qualities even the cynical Mercutio is forced to respect in his appraisement of Tybalt’s character. We are ever grateful for the presence of the able but peace-loving Benvolio, loyal and caring to a fault, but a man’s man when the occasion calls. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence play stable, wise adults amidst the tumultuous broil of youthful passion, but are real enough to make mistakes and to accept their own powerlessness in the face of the all-consuming hatred between the two households.

But above all it is Mercutio who steals the play. From the moment he first appears we feel the tangible pull of his tragic fate as strong as that of Romeo’s. Yet in a way his story surpasses even his friend’s in the depths of its heart-wrenching sadness because he is the only one who is ultimately faultless and can see the entire charade for what it is: “nothing but vain fantasy, which is as thin of substance as the air and more inconstant than the wind.”

Mercutio is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s ‘fool’ characters whose mocking humor betrays his insight into the reality of circumstances; the futile struggle against the pride and inconstancy of man. His death is among the most telling and tragic moments of the stage, because with him dies the truest of all loyal, wise and innocent spirits.

For even up until his death Mercutio truly wants to believe in the invincibility of his friendships, he wants to believe in the love that Romeo proclaims, he wants to believe in the innocence of their youthful rebellions, he wants to believe in the honor and nobility of Tybalt’s pride, and yet he knows that it is all doomed. This, as much as his defence of Romeo’s honor, is what drives him in anger to challenge Tybalt, knowing as he does that underneath their boyish tussling death waits concrete and inevitable.

John McEnery’s portrayal of the character in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film interpretation is one of the truest renditions yet. From the madness of the Queen Mab speech through to his untimely death, the sheer mortality of the character quivers beneath McEnery’s every mocking phrase and slapstick outburst. Never once does he misinterpret or let slip the intensity of Mercutio’s loyalty to Romeo, even in the throes of death. McEnery’s Mercutio knows the imminence of his fate, and yet when he meets it, he wrestles still with the senselessness of the loss of his young life at the hands of an ancient, baseless feud. This is what makes his famous curse so much the fullness of despair and fatality: “A plague on both your houses!”

Mercutio

Taking us far beyond a simple, tragic love story, in Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare captures completely the beauty and violence of young male friendship, rivalry and loyalty, and through each new interpretation it is those scenes, full of hot-blooded mateship and mischief, that are most savoured, that enthral our emotion and attention: the lewd and tempestuous fight scene at the opening of Act 1; the bizarre yet insurmountably potent Queen Mab speech; the verbal jousting between Romeo and Mercutio in Act 2; and finally the catalytic opening of Act 3 which brings about the death of Mercutio and Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo, and which, some would argue, is the truest climax of the story, packing as much emotional significance as even the lover’s tomb scene.

Romeo & Juliet is more than a tale of ill-fated love and the impotence of pure intentions amidst an ancient vendetta of hate; it is the embodiment of the nobility and beauty of friendship and loyalty, never so strong as in the emotional upheaval of blind youth.

It is a celebration of the colour, life and passion of human relationships, a message that Mercutio sings loud throughout the play and which will never ring dull on the ears of a contemporary audience, not in the past, not now and certainly not into the future.

 

Elise Janes

 

One More Day

Frozen faces, brittle like ice
thawing gently in the sun,
how tentative smiles break,
lapping gently at thin lips.

Sunset Image

The first snow marks the true passing of fall; when those last few tenacious leaves are finally torn from their desperate perches and left to the wind’s mercy.

The man stood silent and alone, the dying sun sinking behind the Blackthorn Stronghold. Every day he stood on the same grassy knoll to watch the sunset and every day his breath fogged in the air just a little more clearly. Flags snapped in the chilled air behind him and he knew that if he were to turn he would see tents so numerous as to be impossible to count. And yet despite the vast numbers, his army had yet to breach the walls to which they had spent a season laying siege.

Now the cold crept slowly in, spreading delicate webs of frost and misting one’s breath in the mornings and nights. The man ran scarred hands over the creaking leather straps of his armour, his blade heavy at his side.

Just one more day. Please. Just give us one more day. It was a prayer the soldier had made every evening of the last week. As though if he willed it strongly enough it would ward away the snow and the season of gold and orange would remain eternally.

For he knew as soon as the snow set in, those gathered outside the stronghold would be far more vulnerable than those trapped inside. For even the hardened people who had lived and grown here fear the white of winter and struggle to survive it. Left exposed to the elements in naught but tents, his men would slowly fall. Much like the wind whittling away at a cliff face, chipping away at stone until it all collapses. The man took a breath and felt the weight on his shoulders as though it were a cliff. To win the campaign would be at the cost of most of his men, and the wealth waiting inside would do little to comfort the dead.

The gentle crunch of browning grass being crushed beneath booted feet, drew him from his thoughts. They were far too light to belong to any of his men.

“Remus.”

He does not turn as his wife approaches and settles at his side. Nor does he look at the small figure standing to her left or the bundled one he knows she carries in her arms. When he speaks he looks still towards the fading sun. “You should not be here.”

“And yet here I stand.”

“Gisele. The children—”

“Winter is not yet upon us. They will keep.”

“They will catch their deaths.”

Gisele shifts at his side. “Soon so will we all.”

Remus turns to her and thinks there is little difference from the sight he just turned from and the one he looks upon now. Her fiery hair weaved in intricate braids had once blended with the leaves of the trees, all a ruby so brilliant that the entire forest looked as if it was aflame. Now the red locks stand out against the stark nothing that coats bare branches. Gisele meets his gaze with firm eyes, one hand resting on the curls of their older sons’ head, the other cradling their new son to her chest. The hem of her dress is damp and the fur mantle of her cloak engulfs the delicate arch of her shapely neck. They are so beautiful. Alive and breathing. And Remus fears. He has seen too much death and he doesn’t think he can bear to witness theirs.

This was always a war of attrition. If those inside the keep could last until winter, then those outside would be doomed. It was always unsure what manner of supplies Blackthorn possessed. They could be days away from starving, or could still be weeks from it. Remus had no way of knowing and because of that was stuck.

At his feet Julien moves from his mother to pluck the grass from the ground, tearing it apart as children are wont to do. Remus wishes it were as easy to keep his son safe as to entertain him.

Gisele must read something of his thoughts on his face and speaks. “I have thought of a name.”

“A name for what?” Remus asks, though he knows already.

“For our son of course.”

“It is too soon.”

“It is a good name.”

“A good name will do no service to the dead. It is too soon.”

Remus is not wrong. There are too many dangers that could steal children from the world – sickness, cold and hunger. Many parents would wait at least two seasons before naming so as to not get attached only to have the babe die. His youngest son came into the world just as the leaves started turning gold, and only now did the last of them fall. It was too soon.

Gisele huffed, but let the subject go. Remus thought she feared their son dying without a name. But Remus was responsible for more lives than those of his sons.

“If I order these men to stay I sign their death warrants.”

“Great men are rarely good ones.”

“Perhaps I only wish to be a happy one.”

Remus gestures Julien over, face already pink from the cold. Remus sweeps his son up so Julien is hanging from his throat like a necklace. Julien buries his cold face in Remus’s neck as Remus wraps Gisele and the baby both in his arms and breathes them in. There is great wealth waiting inside Blackthorn that is true. But gold was cold and gemstones were sharp and his wife and children were warm in his arms.

Just one more day, he prayed.

Please just one more day.

 

Jayde Taylor

 

Quid est veritas?

What is truth?

The quest for an answer to this proposition is arguably the driving force behind all human endeavour, sitting at the heart of scientific, artistic, philosophical, historical, cultural and ideological pursuit. Certainly in literature it forms the central narrative drive, propelling action and informing the struggles and motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike. It seems to represent the core struggle and mystery of life’s frustrations.

Significant in literary and historical record, these words are attributed to Pontius Pilate, a question asked during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in an exchange between the two men that has long been the source of much commentary and analysis.

However one approaches Good Friday, whether it be a day of religious, philosophical or simply social significance, the events that form the basis of our cultural recognition of Easter bear some consideration. As with any historical episode that has become part of cultural identity, the story of Good Friday is as significant for its wider implications as for its immediate context.

Within the many layers of narrative and religious symbolism, Pontius Pilate is one character that lends the narrative a deeper resonance of meaning. Confronted by his subjects, whose laws and customs he did not share, to execute a seemingly innocent man on the eve of their most important religious festival, Pilate faced one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of recorded Roman government.

Pilate

Roman prefects were not known for their light hand or mild manners. They were inevitably promoted to office because of their proven military strength, adherence to judicial code, and practical understanding of the intricacies of political strategy and rational decision-making.

Pilate’s apparent disinclination to condemn Jesus is clearly represented in all recorded accounts of the event, but is illustrated most intimately in the canonical book of John where Pilate questions the Nazarene to ascertain a reason for the Jews’ sudden and unanimous call for his death.

Caught between the politically serious accusations of treason, the increasingly violent demands of the crowd, and his personal unwillingness to convict a man who had seemingly done no harm, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the question that initiates their short but compelling exchange, a conversation that is unlike any other recorded between an accused criminal and the man who legally controls his fate. Far from defending himself, Jesus remains strangely obtuse.

Commentators and narrative adaptations have portrayed this interaction from many different perspectives, some interpreting that Pilate was questioning Jesus in jest or that he was supremely disinterested in the whole proceeding and in the affairs of Jews in general. However other glimpses into Pilate’s nature provided by the canonical, apocryphal and historical records portray him as a man who wouldn’t have hesitated on a conviction had he not had cause to doubt Jesus’ guilt. This belies a much greater political if not personal investment in the situation than some commentators would claim, indicating, in fact, the very opposite of indifference: a deep and enduring reluctance to condemn the Nazarene.

It is this reluctance that leads to Pilate’s persistent questioning, an effort to determine if Jesus does in fact believe himself to be a King. Jesus’ simple but confounding responses eventually elicit from Pilate the startlingly personal and equally rhetorical question: “What is truth?”

The proposition is famously left unanswered. Nietzsche considers this to be further evidence of Pilate’s scorn for Jesus, and yet Pilate’s direct response is to publicly declare: “He is not guilty of any crime.”

Furthermore Pilate attempts a political move to dissuade the angry crowd, by appealing to the ritual of releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover. In an almost comical comparison he presents them with the choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer. The crowd, as we know, chooses Barabbas.

Pilate continues to try, even then, to dissuade the Jewish leaders, repeatedly stating his lack of conviction and famously washing his hands of the situation in one account. In light of the context it does not seem likely that Nietzsche and similar commentators were correct in believing that Pilate held Jesus in scorn, much less that he had no interest in the man’s fate.

In his last recorded exchange with Jesus, Pilate tries a final desperate question, strange for its superfluity, perhaps in an attempt to clarify Jesus’ earlier statement that his kingdom is “not of this world”, the one caveat that prevented Pilate from ruling a conviction of treason.

Pilate asks him “Where are you from?” but, as John records, “Jesus gave no answer.”

The same void of response is what makes our titular question so lastingly perplexing. For some reason, in this narrative, we see Pilate thrust into the role of the Everyman. A public figure of great authority, and vested with political power, suddenly in a private aside is reduced to the fundamental human condition where he wrestles with the logic and meaning of his own situation.

“What is truth?”

The lack of an answer does not serve to undermine the significance of the exchange, as some have posited. Instead it carries a much more essential purpose: to force us, like Pilate, to continue in the asking.

 

Elise Janes