Enchanted Objects in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Milton’s Comus
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“charm’d drinkes and amorous potions”
Romeo and Juliet and Comus make ubiquitous reference to potions, and inherently magical objects, both imprisoning, soporific, poisonous, and catalytic. Such ambivalent objects append both play and masque in juxtaposing narrative modes, revealing other tensions. They represent what Pollard calls a “hybrid genre intrinsically divided between the domain of tragedy (death) and that of comedy (erotic desire)” (95). Contextualised by Early Modern pharmacy, the narcotic drink, with its ambiguous identity of medicine and poison, reflects on the play’s intentionally hybridised status, as in the 1597 quarto title: “An Excellent Conceited Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare 395) . While promises of ease, gratification, and revitalisation link sleeping potions intrinsically with comedy, an inherent threat of fatality evokes tragedy too. Similarly, Comus’ sticky chair: in holding the chaste, yet sexually mature Alice Egerton in place, it allows the reestablishment of the masque court, when the nymph Sabrina employs her “[…] office best / to help insnared chastity […]” (Milton lines 908-9). However, this popular masque convention is destabilised by the inability of any but a female medicinal ‘matron’, not the traditional monarchic or paternal figure, to release the Lady from her “gumms of glutenous heat” (918). The poison of tragedy or antimasque, catalysed by enchanted objects, in its own paradoxical way enhances the presence of the medicinal and comedic, both often categorically female.
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The dichotomy expressed by both poison and cure roots itself in another inherently ‘enchanted’ object of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: theletter. Letter writing, and language become objects of intense debate. While Romeo views them as news givers and love carriers: “I will omit no opportunity / That may convey my greetings, love, to thee” (3.5.49-50), Benvolio and Mercutio discuss that “Any man that can write can answer a letter / […] how he dares being dared” (2.3.9-10). An element of duplicity exudes itself from the text from the moment the debates begin: when physically expressing feelings, news, or challenges in writing, there is always the danger of deception.
For the lovers, and indeed those writing, letters become a “signifying chain […] proceed[ing] with blind automatism to cross and corrupt the paths of subjects at random.” Though Lehmann guarantees that “the letter always arrives at its destination” (204), for every mistake along its journey it “leaves a symbolic debt in its wake which must be paid.” (204). In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the consequence of missed, and failed signifiers, is suicide. However, I would argue that Lehmann’s criticism misses a vital strand of meaning. Romeo and Juliet, portrayed by Shakespeare as physical vessels of language, themselves become enchanted objects, poetical letters, interpolated and coerced into doing things “by th’ book” (1.4.124). Not only does Lady Capulet express Juliet’s future husband as “delight writ there with beauty’s pen […] this precious book of love, this unbound lover” (1.3.84-9), needing only Juliet’s dynastic lineage as a cover “to beautify him” (1.3.90), but Romeo suggests that his “love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books” (2.1.202). Framed as volumes of ancient knowledge, bound by dynastic marriage, or lineage, Romeo and Juliet become mere by-products of their forefathers.
Such assertion calls to mind the Early-modern preoccupation with parody, and the re-appropriation of texts in the pastiche world of early-modern theatre. Romeo and Juliet, parodies of their forbearing paternal identities: Capulet and Montague, are also parodies of Shakespeare’s original inspiration, Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. This linguistic environment, in which the only supposed mode of articulaction is “speech in a dead language” (Lehmann 194), marks the point where some critics place early-modern authors as “doomed to circulate like a dead letter postdating its own ideological demise”, (Lehmann 194), citing their emergence prior to the birth of the ‘Author’ under eighteenth-century trademarks of individualism, and copyright. Such frank dismissal of Shakespeare’s work fails to realise the intricate play of linguistics and consent in the characters of Romeo and Juliet. As enchanted objects, written upon the page and physically acted out, they contain the liquid and humoral fluctuations of non-consensual familial interpolation, physicalising the anxiety of being a mere blank parody of their Petrachan source, both textually speaking, and within the world of the play: “Romeo: Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu.” (3.5.59), and, “Juliet: Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks, / with thy black mantle, till strange love grows bold” (3.2. 14-5). Not only does ‘blood’ allude to the dangerous humoral imbalance of sexual passion and desire, but also to the obsessive, and anxiety provoking allusion to the dynastic ancestries that swamp the play.
The idea of consent throws up issues that also surround Milton’s Comus, and especially the attempted rape of his Lady. In a bold figuration of desire, Comus ensnares Alice Egerton in his lair, and attempts to force and seduce her into drinking from his cup:
“And first behold this cordial Julep here
That flames, and dances in his crystal bounds […]
Is of such power to stir up joy as this,
To life so friendly, or so cool to thirst.” (670-6)
She resists, naming “the freedom of [her] minde” and pure, virgin chastity as her sustaining sources (663). Imbued with the historical weight of Comus’ mother, Circe, the Cup becomes the oxymoronic figuration of abnormal sexual desire, rape, and even bestiality:
“Soon as the Potion works, their human count’nance,
Th’ express resemblance of the gods, is chang’d
Into som brutish form […]
And they, so perfect is their misery, […]
But boast themselves more comely then before” (63-78)
Comus’ troupe, sordid Freudian nightmares infused with latent sexuality, unwillingly become carbon copies of himself, lacking only the magical quality of his phallic staff, becoming merely the image of uncivilised fiends: “headed like sundry sorts of wilde Beasts, […] with Torches in their hands.” (144).
Kerrigan reads a distinctly Freudian aura in the Lady’s resistance to Comus’s raping cup, viewing it as a Foucauldian case in which sense “exude[s] its own adversary, and ‘no’ means ‘yes’” (Foucault 43). This interpretation precedes the explanation of why the Lady remains glued to the throne by the “gumms of glutenous heat” even after her brothers confront Comus (917). It is “because her virtue is bound to a repressed wish for sex.” (Kerrigan qtd. Stockton 233) However, Stockton debunks this victim blaming interpretation, suggesting, “Taking an intoxicating drink from the cup is not a symbol for sexual compliance, nor is it the metaphorical end of this romance seduction” (233). Neither does it preface sex. The innate idea of symbol and metaphor assume a physical sexual intercourse about which the masque can only allegorise, anticipating, but not actually representing sex.
In exploring Comus’ “Crystal Glasse” (66), imbued with historical treasure from Odyssean heights, one cannot fail to come to the potion within it: Comus’s “orient liquor” (66). This enchanted vessel encompasses an even more interesting and nuanced signifier. Derrida suggested that the ambiguous nature of narcotics offers a direct interplay with status of language and literature, and has done for centuries. “In attacking poetry in The Republic, Plato refers to literature as a Pharmakon, an amalgamation of poison and remedy. Aristotle used a similar vocabulary in arguing that plays held medicinal value, inducing a katharsis of the emotions they elicited.” (Derrida qtd. Pollard 96) This debate was echoed in early modern Engalnd, where play-goers drew on pharmaceuticals to describe the effects of theatre, Censure demanded the public to ruminate upon drama as a “charmed drinke, & amorous potion” (Munday 101), or even “Soule-devouring poison” (Prynne 38). In turn, those supporting the theatre described playwrights as “good Phisitions” (Lodge 5).
Romeo and Juliet offers Shakespeare’s most complete and obvious explorations of potion, prescription and medicine. However, “the prescription most discussed and finally sought to resolve the ills of the play-world is posion, underscored by the fourteen times that the word is used in the play – the hightest incidence in all of Shakespeare’s drama.” (Bergeron 360) In professing either metaphor and allegory, or in direct reference to the two forms of narcotic drink that catalyse the play’s dénouement, the text formulates its identity within the realms of the medicinal, or deadly.
Friar Lawrence provides Juliet with a sleeping potion in Act 4, which she cautiously observes, before taking: “What if it be a poison which the Friar / Subtly hath ministered to have me dead” (4.3.23-4). Juliet suspends the action, wondering if both the ministry of the Church, and indeed her herbal cure might in fact turn out to be a poison. Though she means this literally, it also takes on a more allegorical significance, when viewing the play as a whole.
The sleeping potion and, by association, the imaginative realm of sleep and dreams “temporarily suspend the play’s identity, holding out the possibility of a return to comedy by offering the lovers the means to escape a tragic ending” (Pollard 96). Nonetheless, its apotropaic remedial potential is underscored by the Early-modern observation of such an enchanted object within the tradition that “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy” (Paracelus qtd. Pollard 98)”. Ultimately, it is this dichotomy, and the dosage of the sleeping potion that poisons the action of the play, leading to Romeo’s own desperate search for an actual poison, juxtaposing and disguising it as a “cordial, and not poison” (5.2.85), viewing himself as sick in “bitter conduct, […], unsavoury guide, / Thou desperate pilot” (5.3.116-7). Thus the potion-poison dichotomy speaks to the sick-health paradox explored by Beregon: “the lovers are willing to distort meaning, to designate that which kills them as a balm for their weary souls” (362). Just as Juliet renames and reshapes the nominal influence of a rose in Act 1, both she and Romeo seek to re-assign genial qualities to that which eventually identifies itself as a toxin.
In blank terms, the enchanted vessel, containing either toxin or remedy is also applied to the early-modern body, especially when seen through the lens of Hippocratic discourses of humoral temperance. Just as Romeo and Juliet become enchanted vessels of anxiety, Alice Egerton becomes a humorally dependent object of desire, and chaste virtue. Her “gumms of glutenous heat” (918), denoting her leaky “corporal rind” (664), and uncontrolled excess of humoral fluids, link her to the Early Modern illness found in sexually mature, yet inactive women: greensickness, or, “Irregularity of menstruation and certain other uterine troubles, [denoting] chlorosis, and general debility” (“Greensickness”). Juliet is also accused of greensickness, when Capulet mistakes her lovesickness for Romeo: “out you greensickness carrion” (3.5.155), and again, when Romeo first beholds her on the balcony. He charges her to find a cure in emphatic caesura: “Her vestal livery is sick and green, / And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off” (2.1.51-2).
I would argue that Juliet’s ‘greensickness’ is cured by her chaste appeal to marriage, and though she seeks to defy social convention by marrying one to whom she is not promised, she still conforms to the early modern ideal of wifely devotion and chaste marriage: “The good vvife is in feare, least her husband should go from her.” (Abbot 99). Alice Egerton, on the other hand, seeks to remain virginal and unmarried, and is only relieved of the ‘greensickness’ by the matronly medicine of Sabrina. However, in order to prove her virtue, she must be tested, an insignia that frames Milton’s masque, culminating in her imprisonment in Comus’ sticky chair:
“Nay Lady sit; if I but wave this wand,
Your nerves are all chain’d up in Alabaster,
And you a statue; or as Daphne was,
Rootbound, that fled Apollo.” (659-662)
Comus introduces into the masque’s mythological world a violent allegorical reading. Volatile, warm and female godly bodies are replaced by the rigid, stone like Daphne. Throughout the text, Milton has stressed the power of Comus’ Cup and Wand, but these verbal patterns look forward to the more, dreadful possibilities- an immobilisation in stone, or more effectively a rape: in this case, culminating in the test of Comus’ sticky chair.
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Milton often referred to this image of the tested or tempted Christian, especially in his 1644 Aeropagitica, suggesting: “Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary” (12). Ultimately, Comus’ antimasque chair allows such tribulation, revealing the chastity of its occupant, and restoring the masque scene: “’Tis chastity, my brother, chastity. / She that has that is clad in complete steel,” (406-7). As Shullenberger implies, “The Mask stages a rite of passage for its Lady from childhood into womanhood. Her fixture in the chair, subject to Comus’s temptation and threat, makes sense as an element typical of rituals of initiation” (184)
However, the sticky chair also provides a subversive element to Milton’s masque. Legislatures of male chastity, the Egerton brothers head off the libertine, Rochester-esque Comus, but Egerton needs a woman’s touch to release her from her chair, completing her initiation. Comus’ enchanted chair thus divides Milton’s masque in two, both sections with a presiding supernatural figure that involves themselves with the sticky chair. Shullenberger suggests that Comus “plays the role assigned the figure of the ‘mock bridegroom’ […] presid[ing] over the first phase of her trial” (184). According to Richards, the Bemba of Zambia also practice the tradition, where “the mock bridegroom’s role involves sexual teasing and threats to the initiate” (122). She is given instruction concerning her vulnerabilities when in contact with male sexual potency, in this case, Comus’ staff, cup and chair. Conversely, governing the second part of the trial, is Sabrina, a “tutelary godmother, to mediate the generative mysteries of womanhood to the Lady, and to mobilize her for the social exercise of those mysteries” (Shullenberger 184). Sabrina personifies a remedial maternal influence. The restorative remedy to Milton’s antimasque of greensickness, is decidedly female.
The structural trope of masque and antimasque brings to mind the Jacobean court masques of Ben Jonson, who in the preface to his 1631 masque, Chloridia implies, “Upon this hinge, the whole Invention moov’d” (2). Jonson describes the abrupt volta in the masque, transforming the scene and announcing the masquers. With no concrete masquers in Comus, its “hinge” remains elusive. I posit that its identity is revealed by Wilkenfeld when he says, “I believe that the “hinge” in Comus is neither a myth nor an act, but an emblem: the concrete, visual, dramatically viable emblem of the Lady paralyzed in the seat of Comus” (170-1). As with Romeo and Juliet, the innate identity of the text is at once revealed and complicated by its enchanted objects.
Will Stockton opens The Seduction of Milton’s Lady, with the assertion, “I will argue that […] Milton’s masque distance[s] sex from the genitals, suffusing all bodily appetites with sexual and moral significance” (238). In blank terms, Stockton refuses to acknowledge any direct reference to genitalia and its meaning for sexuality in Milton’s masque. In my opinion, in refusing to explore such angles, Stockton negates the inherent power of both Comus’ Cup and Wand, which White argues are themselves phallic and vaginal metaphors that recreate Northrop Frye’s distinction between “the demonic world” and “the analogy of innocence” (22). For White, they remain “at once [Comus’s] inheritance, his trademark, the source of his power; and, as the Attendant Spirit tells the Brothers, seizing them is the only way to overcome him” (qtd. Stockton 23).
Comus is said to bear Circe’s cup: “The daughter of the Sun? Whose charmed Cup / Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape, / And downward fell into a groveling Swine” (51-54) Milton associated the Odyssean goddess and witch with deceit, bestiality, and the temptation of the flesh: “let Ignorance throw off her humanity, let her have Circe’s cup and betake herself on all fours to the beasts” (Milton Prolusions 7 155). Not only does this bestial, flesh metaphor take hold in the form of the cup, but independent of the wand, the chalice would have suggested the Christian Eucharist, the sacrament through which man is reconciled to God. The wand is connected with healing and also with the serpent, like Mercury’s caduceus, the symbol of medical professionals.
Opposing this view of the Cup and Staff as visual classical and medicinal archetypes, I would like to argue for their allegorical reference as direct symbols of sexual appetite and indeed human genitalia. Irene Tayler suggests, “Comus’s wand is a sign of his phallic power; […] an image of perverted sex” (24), a symbol proliferated long before the birth of Christian tradition. They are sex symbols of universal acceptance, “the Lance, or Spear, representing the Male, the Cup, or Vase, the Female, […] they are absolutely in place as forming part of a ritual dealing with the processes of life and reproductive vitality” (Weston 75). On the most basic level, both the Cup, and Wand imply Comus’ use of sexuality to enthral, charm and seduce. In a deeper strand of meaning, they adhere to his ability to manipulate the reproductive forces of life itself.
The enchanted imagery of objects, impregnated with phallic and vaginal metaphor also permeate Shakespeare’s text. They surface in the bawdy references of Mercutio and the Nurse, “Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid / Her chariot is an empty hazlenut” (1.4.64-5), and again in the self-made epithalamion of Juliet: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love, / But not possessed it; and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed” (3.2.26-7). Not only do these references seek a source of feared, yet necessary power in the text, ultimately held by pervasive sexuality, they also coin an identity for their users.
In exploring the role of enchanted objects and identity in these texts I turn briefly to another work of Shakespeare, Hamlet. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet suggests:
“[…] the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.17-24).
Emphatic extended metaphor exposes the notion that enchanted objects, like mirrors, reflect the identity, personality and intentions of those who possess them. One of the most obvious examples of this, is Romeo’s vial of poison, of which he tells the apothecary: “I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none” (5.2.83-4). Gone are the oxymoronic, Petrarchan ideals of love that Romeo’s apostrophe expresses in Act 1: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity” (1.1.174). His character has undergone a shift that reimagines his oxymoronic speech in a physical search for the most lethal cure he can find: poison. As Seward implies, “When all hope, all joy have been drained out of a person, life, like the Apothecary’s shop, becomes nothing more than a repository of worthless objects, a faded and shopworn collection of unwanted merchandise” (29 qtd. Grace). Not only does the setting inform both plot and intention, but the reworked and shifted object, the vial, implicit in the poison-potion dichotomy, makes Romeo’s volta in character ever stronger.
In astute rhetoric, Hamlet’s musings also throw up the use of enchanted objects within the world of the play. It would be unwise to forget that each of the items mentioned also take physical form in staged performance, or within the masque. Not only are they a reflecting medium through which to convey a character’s intention, but they denote a direct performance and relationship with their intended audience. Gramscian theory suggests that “Man is above all else mind, consciousness — that is, he is a product of history, not of nature” (42), and within such ideological and cultural hegemony, objects, too, are woven with cultural signifiers that have an intended socio-political purpose. In an early-modern play world, this cultural significance would have been intensely important. Lacking the elaborate scenery and staging of the later baroque era, early-modern props conform to Stanislavsky’s principle of “central objectives” (104), where a director delegates characters ‘central desires’ that “direct [them] along the right path and restrain [the actors] from false acting” (105), allowing the audience to see a realistic depiction of human nature and environment. Props create, reflect and resituate the world of the play or masque within the central objectives and imaginations of the audience’s own ideological hegemony.
Both Milton and Shakespeare reflect on an early modern world saturated with images of enchanted objects. Not only vesicles of latent power, sexuality and humoral temperance, they contain an entirely human nature that exposes itself throughout the texts. Young lovers become letters that tell of anxious dynastic identity, and virgin daughters appear as chalices, symptomatic of a humoral greensickness that threatens the patriarchal world of drama. In themselves, such structures only serve to paint the literary world, and verse in particular, as a sacred, enchanted object. Milton’s Lady says as much, looking forward to an even greater enchanted text:
“Thou art not fit to hear thy self convinc’d;
[…] dumb things would be mov’d to sympathize,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magick structures rear’d so high,
Were shatter’d into heaps o’re thy false head.” (792-9)
Where Romeo and Juliet hypothesises the dynastic lineage of its form into the hybridised peak of Shakespeare’s later dramas, Comus prophecies a textual object to make the Earth quake. In both meaning and physicality, these texts themselves become enchanted objects, momentarily suspended in their textual moment.
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