"King of Pain", "Richard III", "Romeo and Juliet", 2012, Courts of Love, Desdemona, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henri II, Ireland, Marie de Champagne, Munster, Plantagenet, Prince John, the Police, transit, Venus
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today … “
[“King of Pain,” The Police, 1983]
Last week, in the midst of painting some furniture and rearranging, re-organizing my writing space, I happened to hear the news of the upcoming transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun today and tomorrow, June 5 and 6. This is a rare occurrence, recorded only six times before and not due again until 2117. Venus (Goddess of Love) will present as a dot on the face of the sun, with a diameter 1/30th that of the sun’s. You could say she will look like a beauty mark on the face of that giant star.
Now, of course astronomers are excited, as I would be if I were an astronomer, and happily describing the science and the mathematics of it all. Too, there are astrologers aplenty analyzing the import this signals for human consciousness – very interesting hypotheses given the state of the world today.
As for me, considering ‘Venus’ and the ‘Sun’ in conjunction with one another immediately triggered thoughts of Will Shakespeare’s beloved Juliet and those lyrics by the Police crept into my thoughts. While it is true that photos from Venus’s last transit show ‘Her’ as a black dot edging in front of the star, I didn’t feel that was the final image I was to use as my focus.
In due time I realized the answer: Richard III.
The sun imagery fairly leaps out at the audience in the opening lines of that play (I.i.1-2): “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.” One son of York speaks of an elder son’s victory and we quickly learn that Richard, the last of the Plantagenet line, is, as Lady Anne calls him (I.ii.82) a “defused infection of [a] man.”
Richard himself gives voice to his malignity all too clearly in the first scene (emphasis mine) (I.i.24-30): “… I, in this weak piping time of peace,/Have no delight to pass away the time,/Unless to see my shadow in the sun/And descant on mine own deformity./And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain…”
Imagine the jolt theater-goers must have experienced when, in time, Will Shakespeare immortalizes his Juliet with these lines (II.ii.2-4) as she enters above: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?/It is the East, and Juliet is the sun./Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.”
I can almost hear the collective indrawn breath as the audience realizes the playwright is purposely linking the fair Juliet – whom Romeo has previously described (I.v.54) as a “Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear” – to the malignant, the malevolent, the deformed final scion of the Plantagenet line.
Perhaps they heard wrong? Perhaps it is just a coincidental use of a figure of speech?
I admit that some historians challenge Will Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard III as false. Whatever the degree of historical veracity the character possesses or lacks, it is the portrait the playwright intentionally proffered his audience. The contrast between Richard III and Juliet is startling, I admit, but it is intended to link Juliet and the House of York, the Plantagenet line, in the minds of his audience.
Astute members of the audience, well-versed in their nation’s history, would more than likely have noted the references to the Wars of the Roses – the struggles for the throne of England between the Yorkists and Lancastrians – sprinkled throughout the first few scenes of “Romeo and Juliet.” The iconic first line of the play’s prologue clearly alludes to the conflict: “Two households, both alike in dignity.”
We have a working familiarity with the play Shakespeare’s earliest audiences did not have. Thus, when we focus on Romeo’s assertion that “Juliet is the sun” as we work forward through the play, we begin to see clues emerge. At the end of the first scene (lines 216-247) Romeo and Benvolio engage in an exchange which, upon reflection, may hint at an identification of his love with the tradition of courtly love. “Amour courtois” is most famously associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine who, with her second husband King Henri II, founded the Plantagenet dynasty.
We see these verses pulling together a portrait of a woman from a line of roses, with hints at courtly love. Before the scene ends, however, that hint of courtly love is expanded significantly in the exchange between Romeo and Juliet about lips, pilgrims, saints, palms, and mannerly devotion.
The Courts of Love, attributed to the world-renowned beauty and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and her eldest daughter (by Louis VII of France) Marie de Champagne, codified the course of love between individuals not married to one another. Alison Weir has written, “Those who had acted correctly towards their chosen ladies were awarded the palm of amorous courtesy.” While Ms. Weir concludes “that the Courts of Love were nothing more than a literary fiction,” a conclusion Joseph Campbell did not share, it is apparent that William Shakespeare and his ‘Dark Lady’ were aware of their precepts.
Further, when Friar Lawrence characterizes Romeo’s recent passion for Rosaline, I consider the friar’s lines (II.iii.94-95) to be a reference to that courtly ‘formula,’ if you will: “O, she knew well/Thy love did read by rote, that could not spell.” However closely he followed the formula, Romeo could not cast a ‘spell’ on ‘Rosaline.’ Take a closer look at the name of Juliet’s cousin, Rosaline. Break it in two. Rosa line, line of roses, combined with reference to a formula for address to a chosen lady, can certainly be seen as allusions to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Courts of Love.
I also see that Shakespeare alluded to Queen Eleanor’s famed beauty. Just before we learn Rosaline’s name we hear the Lord Capulet tell Paris, Juliet’s suitor, that, basically, his young daughter is notthe only beauty of the family (O.iii.30-33): “Hear all, all see,/And like her most whose merit most shall be;/Which, on more view of many, mine, being one,/May stand in number, though in reck’ning none.”
A line of roses, courtly love, the House of York … I return to the line which clinches the argument for me (II.ii.3): “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.”
Given my previous assertion that Juliet/the ‘Dark Lady’ was of Irish descent I must note here the possibility of a convergence of Ireland and the Plantagenets. In 1185 Henri II sent his youngest son, Prince John, then 17, to oversee diplomatic relations with the Irish. In the decade preceding John’s arrival in Ireland Munster had been a thorny sector for his father’s court. Perhaps young John – handsome, brash, impetuous – travelled to Munster in the course of his stay and shared his favors, shall we say? It is not difficult to imagine an affair nor is it difficult to imagine that over the course of nearly four hundred years his ‘by-blows’ could be absorbed into the nobility.
As I wrote previously, when the letters in the name of another of Shakespeare’s heroines, Desdemona, are rearranged we see the name ‘Desmond,’ which means ‘of Munster.’ I note now as well another little trick with that name: drop the final vowel and separate the remaining name into the words ‘des demon’ – ‘of the demon.’ The House of Plantagenet and its forebears, especially the Duchy of Aquitaine, were perennially described as being ‘of the devil.’ Lady Anne (“Richard III,” I.ii.50-53) states this succinctly: “Foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not,/For thou has made the happy earth thy hell.”
Yet Shakespeare identifies Desdemona with his Dark Lady. Interesting.
This York ancestry, incidentally, points to shared ancestral roots with Queen Elizabeth I, whose grandmother and great-grandfather King Edward IV, whom Richard III succeeded, were Yorks. To consider Juliet, the Dark Lady, as sharing York ancestry with the Queen also makes it easier to imagine how a playwright, a glover’s son from Warwickshire, could have and use such extensive knowledge of the court and other subjects in his work.
The most important thing to remember about Juliet, the ‘Dark Lady,’ especially given the backdrop of courtly love, is that she was Will Shakespeare’s soul mate. Doesn’t the lyric tell us so?
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today … That’s my soul up there …”
Barbara Butler McCoy
[[Bibliography: Shakespeare, William. “Richard III.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1996; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1992; Warren, W.L. “Henry II.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973; Weir, Alison. “Eleanor of Aquitaine.” New York: Ballantine Books, 1999]]
[[Photos: Top – ‘Venus in the a.m.” Nov. 2010; Middle – “Dawn, Nov. 23, 6:58:16 a.m.”, 2010; Bottom – “Pink Roses” February 2011.]]