She Teaches the Torches to Burn Bright

from the NY Times

Unexpectedly and at short notice (which is the best way to do many things), a friend invited me to see “Romeo and Juliet” performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  From the moment  I filed into the cavernous Drill Hall, I felt I was participating–not just passively observing but actively engaging–in something very special.   I climbed winding stairs to a tier overlooking a stage in a replica of its main theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon–shipped from England in 46 shipping containers (“Millimeter for millimeter, it’s pretty much the same as what we’ve built in Stratford,” said Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, told a New York journalist).  Surrounded by beautifully dressed people (one young woman nearby wore a dress that seemed to be made of silken white petals and sky-high white heels) I witnessed a drama that was more than a spectacle in space:  what unfolded was an event that reminded me that human lives can contain moments of “timeless time. ”

The Yale professor and author Harold Bloom teaches that there is no greater portrait in the Western tradition of literature of a woman in love than Juliet.   Her constant generosity is a model of the utmost capacity of the human heart to hold and give a force, an intelligence beyond what we humans know as feeling.   In describing Juliet, Bloom quotes the modern philosopher Wittgenstein, who came up with this aphorism: “Love is not a feeling.  Love is put to the test, pain not.  One does not say: ‘That was not a true pain, or it would not have passed away so quickly.'”

This RSC production put Romeo and Juliet in slouchy, sloppy modern dress while all around them are players in Elizabethan garb.  This decision  underscores the way Shakespeare smashes stereotypes and explodes easy summations.  He took a well-known story about the rebellious impulsiveness of youth and made it a celebration of the possibility of transcendence in the midst of lives doomed by the mechanical turning of many wheels.  He put into the mouth of a 14-year-old girl lines of extraordinary wisdom and beauty; and he showed how Romeo’s very being was changed by her capacity for love. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”  I left out the customary slash marks and capitalizations so you might better appreciate the insight under the poetry.  She understood what it might mean to enter the timeless.

Naturally, the New York critics had any number of things to say about this production and I agreed with some of what they said–I too wanted the transforming purity of Juliet’s love to rise up and be a still point in the turning world.   And yet the RCS production came at just the right moment for me, a “teachable moment.” Flames and smoke shot up when the Montagues and the Capulets circled one another in the heat and passion of anger; flames and smoke shot up when the men and women at the Capulet’s masked ball circled one in a courtship dance–while powerful drum-driven music evoked the playing out of inexorable laws of nature, of blood and tribal loyalty.  And in the midst of it, something brighter than fire, a timeless moments of clarity, of love.   There I was, heavy-hearted about the riots in England and the seeming hopelessness of the way things are going here and here in the midst of the doom and gloom–and in an American armory of all places–were 41 English players and the Globe itself unfolding this timeless event–the opening to true love.   I remembered that such a moment can change a life.  I remembered why Shakespeare stays fresh and why his work calls people to make such extraordinary efforts.

“The path of all buddhas and ancestors arises before the first forms emerge; it cannot be spoken of using conventional views.”  Translated from the great Zen master Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye by Kazuaki Tanahashi, this mysterious line appears in the current “Seeing” issue of Parabola.  Reading this line late at night after “Romeo and Juliet,” I felt certain that there always is hope for us, always a higher source of wisdom and compassion, and that Shakespeare knew this.  In his introduction in Parabola, Tanahashi explains Dogen uses the word “dream” to describe enlightenment.  Shakespeare knew how to dream.

3 thoughts on “She Teaches the Torches to Burn Bright

  1. Tracy,

    How wonderful for you, wonder filled. I’m so very glad you got to go, and as we all know there is certainly something timeless about Shakespeare’s plays and his portrait of our human lives, life itself. Life too, is wonder filled, isn’t it; in such moments of gift and grace, in the pleasure of a play on a summer night.


  2. What a lovely coincidence. I was browsing the Parabola site, wondering if I could gracefully contribute a pretty healthy and noble insight about nuclear fission, and this blog is for me a doorway into the wholeness of this troubling subject.
    At some earlier time, I found myself looking at the whole ugly frightening business of nuclear fission with Carl Jung’s eyes, and that changed everything. I came to see that the fission event which alarms us so much is basically a meeting of the masculine and feminine forms of energy that we have learned to release out of their shared bed in matter.
    This universal pair leap up out of matter, and seeing each other as if for the first time, immediately develop an enormously loving and sexually charged relationship with each other. I need to direct you to a web site I have created around this insight that you can see the series of photographs, taken by the French military when they were testing a nuclear device, which allow us to follow the drama of these two intelligent, conscious forms of universal energy.
    Only that the whole process is speeded up because it happens at an atomic scale of time do we find it hard to recognise the essential, and sensual, nature of nuclear fission. This is Romeo and Juliet, now playing on the stage of the Atomic World.
    I’m sorry to be so abrupt with sharing this insight. Our perception of this subject is so clouded by our general horror and fear of nuclear weapons. Once you see what I am talking about, it is so obvious. But look out, because the pain that attends Juliet when they separate, and the numbness of Romeo, are familiar feelings that we all know in ourselves because of some precious relationship that came apart. Ouch !
    Romeo and Juliet. Yin and Yang. As always, seeking to be together. More clearly and passionately, it seems to me, in this instance of nuclear fission, where they are pure streams of these same universal forces that move through us.
    Have I said enough ? I am optimistic. This sight of the holistic content of nuclear fission flags up the holographic nature of our Universe. A door opens for us, us Humanity, to dream of how we might reach down to this next level of our shared universal home and seek to heal the aches and pains in the fissioned materials. The effect we know as radiation. I imagine we will draw on our own experience of healing ourselves. With love.
    I have shown this material to the military and the nuclear agencies in the UK, but they simply can’t get their mind around what I am talking about. I would mention that I came to this nuclear insight by way of first seeing the whole effect of the field of feminine power and masculine strength that forms in the ceiling of our world room every year. My kids showed me how to see it. I’ve put this whole perception in another web site , should it be of interest to you.

    Tracy, is this the kind of boomerang effect you had in mind ? Thanks anyway for the space to post and many good wishes.
    Ian Turnbull
    Findhorn, Scotland.

  3. Dear Ian,

    This is indeed a surprising boomerang to receive in response to a post about Romeo and Juliet. I look forward to looking at your website. Many good wishes to you, Tracy

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