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“It’s been proven through history that wimmin’s a mystery.”

So says Popeye the sailor man, and I suspect that one of the several more mysterious women in history – literary history, at least – is William Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady,’ his ‘Juliet’.  We see the heights his love for her dared him to attempt and indeed achieve, but what do we see of her as a woman in her own right, rather than primarily his Muse?

Previously I have shared my theory that the ‘Dark Lady’ had as her guiding principle the paradox expressed in the gospels of Luke (17:33) and Mark (8:35) that to keep one’s life, one must ‘lose that life.  Thus, ‘Juliet’s’ suicide should be seen as symbolic.  Too, the emphasis on shoes throughout the play, and ‘stiletto’ as both a type of dagger (her weapon of choice) and a shoe, prompted my theory that she was in some way connected with shoemakers.

Those theories seem to have shown me an opening in the curtain veiling the ‘Dark Lady’s’ identity and I’ve slipped in to discover some especially illuminating details. My investigation commenced not long after the posts touching upon the ladder and William Shakespeare, and gained momentum when I mentioned Finn MacCumhaill.

How was I ever to forge a logical connection among the disparate topics of a ladder, Will Shakespeare, and Finn MacCumhaill?  Talk about mental gymnastics!  Luckily, a bit of my personal history – a visit decades ago to the Ballard Locks in Bellingham, WA – provided the key.  The Ballard Locks is a ladder for salmon; they ‘climb’ past the locks to reach their spawning grounds.

With that memory this disparate set begins to make a little more sense, but to connect Mr. Shakespeare to a salmon takes more contemplation.  In the end it is startling to discover the answer lies in line 43 of Act One, Scene One of  “Romeo and Juliet,” spoken by Sampson:  “I will bite my thumb.”

Though Duke Theseus (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) asserts he “never may believe/These antique fables, nor these fairy toys,” Will Shakespeare himself appears to have taken to heart the story of Finn MacCumhaill.  Finn had been learning the art of poetry from the bard and teacher Finegas, who had made it his life mission to catch and consume Fintaan, the Salmon of Knowledge or the Salmon of Wisdom.

Finegas did indeed catch Fintaan.  He then gave the fish to Finn to cook and instructed him that under no circumstance was he to taste the fish.  In the grilling of the fish, however, the salmon’s skin burnt Finn’s thumb and he, understandably and reflexively, bit his thumb to ease the wound, thus gaining the salmon’s knowledge and wisdom.  Ever after that when Finn MacCumhaill deliberated a complicated situation he could be seen to bite his thumb to gain insight.

That thumb line in the opening scene of “Romeo and Juliet” has been a source of confusion for many, I would say.  That confusion clears when we consider it as an allusion to the Salmon of Knowledge/Wisdom in Irish mythology and realize that Will Shakespeare is directing us to associate that salmon with the Capulets, specifically Juliet.

Consideration of the influence of Irish culture in this work sheds light on another puzzling aspect of this exchange about thumb-biting, the reference of “the law on our sides.”  I strongly suspect that the playwright is alluding to Brehon law, ancient Irish law – very different from English law.

This argues as well, I feel, for consideration of Portia’s character in “The Merchant of Venice,” especially in her guise as a lawyer, as an extension of this knowledgeable, wise woman of Irish lineage.  Her “Quality of Mercy” speech is non pareil.  It transcends time, place, race and gender.  Compassion is the perfection of Wisdom and, taken together, Juliet and Portia offer a composite portrait of these qualities.  I feel the case for these two characters as embodiments of the ‘Dark Lady’s’ character is bolstered when one considers the plays were very likely written in about the same period of time.

As I contemplated Will Shakespeare’s identification of Juliet with the Salmon of Wisdom I thought more and more of a portion of the Finnish epic poem “Kalevala” wherein an impetuous brother, Joukahainen, sells his sister Aino in marriage to the ancient singer Vainamoinen to get himself out of the trouble in which he’s literally been buried.  Aino, who was never consulted in this, is most upset when she learns of it and her anger is only fueled when she realizes that her entire family supports the marriage.  (Some of their reactions resemble those of Juliet’s parents when she refuses to wed the county Paris.)  In her distress Aino leaves home, wanders to the river and drowns, transforming into a salmon.

Vainamoinen hears of her transformation and sets off to cast the waters for her.  He does indeed catch her, but that is where his luck ends.  In one version of the story she leaps from his grasp before he can slice into her.  In my favorite version he tosses her back because she is too plain to have been his beautiful Aino.  She promptly resumes her form and taunts him for not recognizing her when he had her and letting her go.

Here is a portion of Vainamoinen’s subsequent melancholy:  ” … all my sense is somewhere else.  She I waited for always and half my lifetime … to be a friend for ever and a lifetime’s mate came on to my hook flopped into my boat: I could not keep her carry her off home but lost again …… Nor do I know now at all how to be, which way to live in this world to dwell in these lands to roam.” (p. 59)

Will Shakespeare learned from this old bard’s tale.  He found his love, his source of wisdom and he knew her.  He held onto her, her wisdom of how to be.

There are scholars who believe Will Shakespeare worked on a first version of “Hamlet” some time between the years 1589-93, which is very close to the time frame for the composition of “Romeo and Juliet.”  This persuades me that Ophelia, the drowned maiden of the Scandinavian country Denmark, resembles the Salmon Maiden from the epic of the Scandinavian country of Finland.  Yet, does she link to ‘Juliet’ and, if so, how?

First we must acknowledge that centuries of invasion by and commerce with Scandinavian countries and the British Isles would allow for a cultural cross-pollination of sorts, a sharing of stories.  For a writer such as The Bard, who closely associates his Muse with Ireland and Irish mythology, it would be all too easy to see the similarity between the name of Aino and that of Anu, the great mother goddess of Ireland.  Anu is closely identified with the figure of Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’) as well.  A parallel theme of “Romeo and Juliet” is the tension between Juliet’s choice as a bride and her family’s choice for her to be a bride.

Bride.  Bride.  Bride.

She is identified with the earth itself, as Juliet is identified with The Globe.  She is so high above mortals that her brass shoe is all that may be grasped.  We have seen Will raise Juliet above the rest on her balcony and we have seen him connect her with the theme of shoes.  Of further interest here is the knowledge that the supreme Celtic god Lugh possessed many crafts, among them that of shoemaking.  Ellis writes (p. 126): “And, finally, in Ireland, as the old gods were driven underground by Christianity Lugh diminished in people’s minds, becoming simply a fairy craftsman – Lugh chromain, ‘little stooping Lugh’.  Now all that is left of this potent patron of Celtic arts and crafts is the anglicized version of Lugh chromain – the leprechaun, a fairy cobbler!”

As Anu, Bride embodies fertility, creative inspiration, and abundant nourishment, symbolized by the pair of hills in County Kerry called “The Paps of Anu.”  Does not Juliet’s Nurse sayof her (I.iii.72-74): “Were not I thine only nurse/I would say thou hadst sucked wisdom from thy teat.”  ‘Thy’ teat – not ‘my’ teat.

Further, to consider one of the talismans made to honor Bride, we see the sun, the moon, and the stars come into play – as well as that ladder.  In some counties in the north of Ireland the people fashion representations of the sun, the moon, and the stars of straw.  These are then affixed to paper or cloth, along with a symbolic ladder – to help them reach those heights, perhaps?  The sun, the moon, and the stars are all heavenly images Shakespeare deploys in his tragedy.

There is a fact about the Cult of Anu that points us to a certain area of Ireland, the southwest, and to another of his tragic heroines.  The goddess Anu’s cult was especially associated with Munster; the name ‘Desmond’ means “of Munster.”  If one removes the second ‘e’ and the final ‘a’ of ‘Desdemona,’ then moves the lower-case ‘d’ to the end one has ‘Desmond.’

Numerous scholars have pointed to “Tristan and Iseult,” the Irish story of star-crossed love, as the model for “Romeo and Juliet,” and we now glimpse strong aspects of Irish culture, previously unnoticed, in the play.  There is still another aspect of note from Irish culture, one also found in other Celtic cultures – The Wild Hunt.  The Wild Hunt at times seems to morph into talk of ‘The Wild Geese’ and here I must acknowledge that it is due to Diana Gabaldon’s treatment of ‘the Wild Geese’ in her recent release “The Scottish Prisoner” that the theme leapt out at me the other day.

I had decided it would be best to read the play again in its entirety, just to see what might reveal itself.  In Act II.iv.73-76 Mercutio says: “Nay, if our wits run the wild goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”  Could Will Shakespeare possibly have been referring to the Irish soldiers, mercenaries, or was it something else?

As mentioned, the Wild Hunt and Wild Geese seem to be rather mercurial terms so I took my cue from the context of the lines, the reference to wits running wild.  In Celtic mythology this motif tends to deal with what sounds like out-of-body experiences.  The person is separated from their body, perhaps sojourning elsewhere for a time; the supernatural horde usually are blamed for this dislocation.  Could such an instance be the inspiration for Romeo’s line in I.i.205-206: “Tut, I have lost myself.  I am not here./This is not Romeo.  He’s some other where.”

Most curious, however, is the tendency of people in centuries past to describe what happened to someone in such a circumstance by saying, “She fell backwards …”  Juliet has barely uttered a dozen words, none of them about herself, before the Nurse rambles on and on, giving us this nugget in the process, I.iii.46: “Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit.”

Were Will Shakespeare and his ‘Dark Lady’ among those touched by the fey?  I find this hint intriguing.

As regards the ‘Wild Geese” Irish mercenaries, I cannot discount the possibility that the playwright was indeed referencing them.  They fought on the European continent in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  Indeed, Elizabeth I once sent a group to the Unified Dutch countries to bolster them against the Spanish.  From a reading of the scant material available online, it appears these Wild Geese caused considerable headaches for the Queen.

I note that at least two men associated with the O’Neill, the Earl of  Tyrone, have the curious name ‘Roe’ as one of their names:  Hugh Roe O’Donnell, active in Munster at one time, and Owen Roe O’Neill, the earl’s nephew.  This is intriguing because Mercutio speaks of Romeo (II.iv.39-40) thusly: “Without his roe, like a dried herring.  O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified?”

My instinct is to say that Will Shakespeare was pointing up a distinct difference between himself, ‘Romeo,’ and a ‘Roe.’  Given the possibility of ‘Juliet’s’ ancient Irish lineage and a connection to Munster, was there a ‘Roe’ who’d coveted her against her wishes?  Pedigreed, beautiful, wise, rich, popular – she’d be quite a catch.  In aligning ‘Juliet’ with a pre-Milesian (Milesians were of Spanish origin and the final invaders of Ireland) Mother Goddess of Ireland, he may have been highlighting a wiser, more enlightened, more compassionate aspect of Ireland than society credited at the time.

As I close this complicated piece I must say that I find these insights to be a testament to the incredible subtlety of William Shakespeare’s art.  At a time when those rebels were harassing the Crown he presents a sympathetic portrait of that very culture – which the censors never caught.

This, for me, fleshes out a portrait of an amazing artist.  Too, I find it argues for the authenticity of the Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare brought to the public’s attention in 2009.

Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2012

[[Bibliography:  Butler, Ewan. The Horizon Concise History of Scandinavia.” New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., c. 1973; Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel. “The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.” London: Hermes House, c. 1999, 2008; Ellis, Peter Berresford. “A Brief History of the Druids.” New York; Carroll & Graf Publishers, c. 1994, 2002; Lonnrot, Elia (Keith Bosley, Translator). “The Kalevala.” Oxford: Oxford University Pressd, c. 1989, 1999; Shakespeare, William.  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” New York: Washington Square Press, c. 1993; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, c. 1992.]]

[[All photos Barbara Butler McCoy, 2011}}