How Do I Love Thee?

What are soul mates? In his Symposium Plato gave a very fascinating answer: a soul originally was a perfect sphere, which was cut in two halves. One half of the soul went to your body, while the other found abode in your soulmate’s body. Since then, we keep searching that missing part for our entire life and if we are lucky enough to find it: BANG! It is like two magnets ‘attraction: strong, irreversible.  For Plato any other relationship different from the bond which arouse from that natural attraction could not work, just because it was not meant to be. In fact, if you reverse the polarity of one magnet,  they repel. Despite your efforts there is no way to keep together those repelling  magnets for long : it is not in the laws of nature. At that point  you may choose whether to live hopefully  a satisfactory but empty life with the wrong partner or to keep searching for that special kind of connection, which you can experience only with your soul mate.

Of course the paths of love are the most unexpected.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s path was poetry. Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone. She found consolation writing poems. This how her missing half, poet Robert Browning, found her. He had come across her writings and felt that power, that connection of the souls and wrote asking to meet her. They eventually fell in love and the intensity of their feelings can be felt in any line of the letters they exchanged before eloping to Italy, like in the following excerpt:

“For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you – I have come back for you alone…at your voice…and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you – I bless God for you – you are too good for me, always I knew.

In her famous sonnet “How do I love thee?” she means to define her intense feelings and the ways in which the love for her husband can be expressed. But how can love be explained when it stretches over the limits of reason?

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”

In fact, Elizabeth Browning  finds insufficient to measure it by means of a rational language – “depth”, “breadth”,” height”-  and chooses to express the immensity of their soul connection through words  such as  “soul”, “being” and “grace”. A spiritual, but passionate love at the same time which goes beyond the limits of death itself.

Also young Juliet knew well how the connection of two souls worked. Once she meets her  half in Romeo she finds herself in a whirl of emotions which transcends space and time:

“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.”

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

The meeting of the two magnets lights up the sparkle of love , which darts Romeo and Juliet in a new overwhelming dimension , where they are no longer bodies , where time and the disputes of their families can’t affect them, where there is no fear; there they become infinite in Plato’s unique perfect wholeness again.

But, what happens  if  the two soul mates cannot enjoy their love despite the force of  their magnetic attraction, for any reason? In Wuthering Heights , Catherine finds her soul mate in Heathcliff. She is well aware of that, in fact, she refers to him saying :“I am Heathcliff” or even more: “He is more myself than I am”. Rules of society forbids a connection to somebody so below to her station, hence, she yields to those rules, marrying the best catch the marriage market offered, Edgar Linton, who is even a good sort of man, but he is not her half. The comparison between the two men is merciless: Catherine compares the intensity of  her feelings for Edgar to images like “moonbeam” and “frost” while her love for Heathcliff takes the form of “lightening” and “fire”. Marrying Edgar, the tension between the two halves Catherine and Heathcliff, who remain close but cannot complete each other, becomes toxic and will inevitably lead to a tragic outcome.

A soul marriage doesn’t provoke any such tragedies. It cannot fear anything according to Donne, even a long separation. It is steadfast love. In his poem “Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”, which was written for his wife Anne before he left on a trip to Europe, Donne tells his wife that theirs is not a real separation , because their love is spiritual and transcendent, they are soul mates, and soul mates are always connected: a connection of minds rather than bodies. So there is no need to cry. Those who believe that love corresponds to physical attraction, those “dull sublunary lovers” cannot admit absence, because they love the body. Hence, if the body has to leave they cannot any longer have love, so let them cry.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

But his leaving cannot alter their love, because as she loves his mind, his mind cannot go away. It is ever present. Then he introduces one of the most convincing metaphor to describe how beautifully connected they are:  a compass. One leg of the compass  must be grounded to allow the other one to spread and go out to make a circle. So, the poet  says to his wife that to make a perfect circle he has to leave  and that the only way he can make that trip and come back is that she stays where she is. Because she grounds him.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home
.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

Progression or Regression?

I fell asleep. I fell asleep and for a couple of months I have been lulled by the sound of waves, sun kissed. I fell asleep and fluttered every single day on leisure-land where a pleasant and reinvigorating breeze weakened any attempt of the few sensible thoughts left hidden somewhere in a synapse of my dormant brain to make me quit that state of bliss. I would have slept even longer, in fact, but for that annoying bell, a school bell, actually , which forcibly brought me back to the dullness of the real world and duty. Good-bye leisure-land, I must go, uncertain of my fate.

When you have to start afresh, it is advisable to begin with baby-steps, something effortless and pleasant, if possible, at the same time, to break the ice, otherwise one always tends to postpone the initial effort, which is usually perceived as huge. I thought that filing all the works, projects, power points I had left scattered on the computer the year before would have been a good start and so I did. While watching the screen, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology had actually helped me beat my natural disorganization ( and laziness); in fact , all the school years with papers, tests etc. . were there, beautifully ordered before me. It is memory. Whatever I needed , with a click it was at my disposal.

And I clicked. I don’t know whether it was an evil school-elf or just curiosity which induced me to do so, but I clicked on year 2015 first, 2010 then to get to the early twenties and then I stopped, a bit puzzled. Evoking memories, even working memories can be cruel sometimes.  What remained of that summer state of bliss and dizziness definitely faded away as the facts were plainly before me and needed to be assessed.    

What facts? To make myself clear let’s take a class as example: the third year of high school , average age 16 and let’s follow how learning and expectations have changed in these last 25 years. I have always enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet at this stage, as the theme of love is captivating and it is a good starting point to get to know Shakespeare, but how has the way I do it changed in time and why?

LATE NINETIES: in those years I was a devout reader of the Arden Shakespeare editions with all those beautiful notes and explanations, hence, I wanted all my students to have one. Despite it was not so easy to find it as we are in Italy and there was no Amazon then, they found a way to get one eventually, all of them . As far as I can remember they enjoyed the accurate study of lines and sources of Romeo and Juliet. How do I know? Well, the following year they asked me for more, so I infer, they liked it. But, did it really matter in the late nineties whether students really enjoyed or not a lesson?

EARLY 2000s: all of a sudden it seemed  it had become quite hard to find the Arden edition anywhere, hence, I told them to buy whatever edition they could find, I would have provided them with the missing information . Of course,  there were always two or three students in the class  who managed to find the Arden edition, but the decline was now inevitable.

LATE 2000s: As in the last years I had found hard managing to read the entire play by the end of the school-year, I decided that they could have used a bilingual edition. We would have read and analysed the most important parts in class in English, while the rest could have been done even in Italian if they wanted, and they wanted .  After all, the knowledge of the main themes of the play was what really mattered I said to myself. It seemed a good compromise to me.

EARLY 2010s: These where the years when school started to be overloaded with projects of any kind, hence, as I was always running out time I decided that the reading of Romeo and Juliet would have been limited to the “Balcony scene” and the end of the play. I also made them watch the catchy “Romeo and Juliet version”  with Di Caprio. It seemed they truly enjoyed it. I was satisfied.

LATE 2010s: I thought it was I good idea to make them act  the “Balcony Scene” and shoot a video. I chose 6 couples e six directors, one for each couple, and gave them the lines. They shot from the balconies of their homes and eventually the films were assembled together with soundtrack, titles, backstage funny moments etc. . It was creative, it was fun. I was proud of them – and myself.

COVID YEARS: on-line learning has required a new way of communicating in order  to be effective. Words couldn’t but go hand in hand with images to be catchy. In this respect I have found useful GIMP,  a cross-platform image editor which I have adopted to embellish my power points. For Romeo and Juliet I decided to take and edit some shots from Di Caprio’s movie and create a sort of photo novel of the “the Balcony Scene” and make  William Shakespeare himself comment and explain the lines of the play:

It was fun, I have fun exploring the news frontiers of learning, I must admit it,  but looking back to what I used to do almost 30 years ago, I cannot help but wonder: what chances of success would my precious Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet have with today’s students? How should I consider all this process of continuous adaptation to new generations’ educational needs a progression or a regression in learning ? Are these needs real or I have simply surrendered, choosing the shortcut of light entertainment? Is it possible that eventually I am the one to be blamed?

What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

Love Game

Romeo-and-Juliet

Each age has always had its own set of rules for courting, for sure. Certainly nowadays, the equality of the sexes, the crush of old taboos, Sex and the City, why not, have utterly affected our behaviour in playing modern love games, as the roles are no longer fixed and immutable.  In the past, the man led the “minuet” of courting and the lady followed him in the dance.

Hawei's_Dorigen_During the Middle ages and Renaissance,for example, the body of conventions which governed the relation of aristocratic lovers was called “courtly love “: a sort of idealized and sometimes even illicit kind of love in which the knight consecrated himself to a woman often superior in rank or even married – the prototypes are Lancelot and Queen Genevieve – who deliberately displayed a certain indifference in order to preserve her reputation. The ” mistress”  was certainly beautiful, pure like an angel, distant ; therefore the essence of pleasure in this love game stood in the craving and pain of the lover who, despite his many attempts, believed the object of his desire unattainable. In short: a woman should play hard to get.

romeo-juliet-baz-luhrmann-1_largeHence, when Juliet  innocently reveals her feelings for Romeo, who “bescreened in night” ungentlemanly lets her profess her love for him, suddenly she finds herself in an unknown, dangerous land where distance has become closeness. Furthemore, she had ended her speech with an ambiguous and dangerous:” take all myself” (soul, body or both?). All the rules of courtly love have been crushed and she is unprepared to play the new game. ” What will Romeo think of me now?” she thinks and blushes. Well, Romeo is a smart guy and he likes playing the role of the bold lover. He wishes somehow to reassure Juliet for his temerity and apparently doesn’t seem to give consequence to what he has just heard, but his words reveal that he is well aware of the change of scenario, especially when he addresses her.

Romeo-Juliet-romeo-and-juliet-5125592-992-424Before hearing Juliet’s words, Romeo had called her “angel“, that is perfectly in line with the given canons. The first time he speaks to her, she becomes “saint“, therefore preserving the requested idea of unattainability, but after a while Romeo names her “maid“, which is still good, because he surely means: virgin, untouched, but undoubtedly a “maid” is more accessible than a “saint”. It ‘s only when Romeo,  in one of his wordy metaphors, refers to her as “merchandise”  that a very alarmed Juliet understands that this love match is unfair and decides not to “dwell on form” . She urges Romeo to speak clearly and swear love to her, only in this way the match will be more even. Juliet is only looking for a sincere, direct  “I love you too” but at this point Romeo doesn’t seem so confident without the courtly lover repertoire, he babbles some nonsense like “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops….”  and it is only when a disappointed Juliet pretends to go away that Romeo somehow gives the answer she is awaiting for. Game over.