Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Juliet and Meditating about Language

Juliets speech about what there is in a name is a fine piece of language philosophy. I have always known this, but during the HUSSE 10 Conference (Hungary) Géza Kállay’s paper on language philosophy in Romeo and Juliet triggered thoughts in me around universal and particular references and gaining maturity as they appear in the next quote:

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
Whats Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. (2.2.38-42)

There is an intricate interplay between the processes leading from the individual to the universal and backwards in Juliet’s use of naming. She starts out with the individual (Romeo “thy,” “thou”), then takes a step towards the more general, i.e. to the family. Then she ascends to a more universal level, i.e. to body parts that can belong to any human being. As a last step instead of specifying body parts, she makes the most universal claim: neither the individual, nor the body part is specified, but she lets the audience decide for themselves.

Juliet at the same time counterbalances this movement towards the universal with another movement leading back to the individual. The last, most universal reference (“any other part”) may function as a rather particular allusion, depending on how the actress acts out what she is saying. Claire Danes in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet utters this line like a “coy mistress”: turns her eyes downwards and smiles. With this act she indicates that she is not alluding to “any” body part, but to a particular one, to the one that a woman in love is interested in very much. Romeo in his masculinity and attractiveness, in his unmistakable individuality, thus, returns for a moment.

In this speech, Juliet, through her dividing the name from the thing (see Erasmus’s “Of Names and Things” in his Colloquia), revealing interest in the problematics of the universal and the particular, grows up in the eyes of the audience. The young lady who knew nothing about marriage when talking to her mother, now displays maturity. She displays intellectual maturity by playing shrewdly the card of a language philosopher, and personal maturity by revealing herself as an emotionally and physically mature young woman in love. All my thanks go to Géza for his paper!

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