In architecture, space is not merely the medium in which architectonic ideas are realised, but is the very essence of the possibilities, combinations, and complications that are the real source of artistic invention; and similarly in poetry (...) language is not only the means of expression, the alpha and omega of the artistically possible, but also the source of inspiration; it is not only the form, but also the matter and content of the poetic experience.
Arnold Hauser (1)
Our imaginative capacity can be exercised by the different forms of ambiguity in a variety of media. The use of ambiguity in a text, in a work of art and in designing a space provides us with the necessary gap in which we find the “opportunity to feel ourselves making the connections between apparently unrelated and impertinent contexts and meanings, and to delight in those intellectual athletics.” (2)
During the late English Renaissance the use of ambiguity was an important intellectual resource for writers. In order to provide the necessary gap in which the reader can exercise his/her imagination, the Elizabethans largely employed rhetorical figures based on the ambiguous meanings of words. This kind of wordplay, which is created by ambiguity in meaning, is technically a paronomasia and colloquially called a pun. It was not perceived as merely “an elegance of style [...] but also a means of emphasis and an instrument of persuasion.” (3)
Shakespeare was one of the most significant users of puns. Through the use of puns, he was able to establish the instability of meaning that revealed instability of the human experience in general (4). Thus Shakespeare used puns to emphasize the paradoxes that define the personalities of his characters. By playing with the meanings of the words, he was able to manipulate important aspects that were fundamental to his way of seeing the world: the incongruence, the discomfort, the likeness in difference, the tension.
This same approach of conceiving the human experience as instable was a very important aspect of Italian Mannerist architecture. In Britain, the influences of Italian Mannerist architecture came after 1610 with Inigo Jones and through the translations of important books, such as Quattro Libro, by Andrea Palladio. Like Shakespeare’s poetry, that “arises out of the spirit of language, not so much filling it with content as deriving content from it”, Italian Mannerist architecture explores “possibilities, combinations, and complications” as the real sources for artistic invention. Such an exploration of non-intuitive possibilities aims to design a space where tension is established. The spatial tension physically reveals, as the pun does in Shakespeare, the tension that characterizes the human experience in general. While the Elizabethan writers used the wordplay for establishing the instability, Italian Mannerist architects explored instability by the renouncement of a tectonic logic, provoking the experience of the discomfort that is so characteristic of the building from this period.
Michelangelo, Vasari and Andrea Palladio were three of the most important artists of Italian Mannerism. Inigo Jones, a British architect, brought Palladian style, developed by Andrea Palladio in Italy, to England in early 17th century. However, although Jones used the forms of Palladian architecture, he did not share the same architectural principals which defined Palladio’s works as characteristic of Mannerism. These principles are related to the idea of creating spaces in which sensations of discomfort and tension are produced by architectural elements. Jones was more concerned to explore the external and essentially formal aspects of Palladio’s architecture, rather than to approach the buildings of the Italian architect as a physical translation of a way of seeing the world through the ambiguities of human existence.
This paper will explore how Early Modern English literature and Italian Mannerist architecture made use of ambiguity as a resource in order to establish the tension that characterizes the human condition in both genres of art. I will analyse the use of puns in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the inversions of tectonic logic in Laurenziana library, Uffizi’s gallery and Villa Rotonda, by Michelangelo, Vasari and Andrea Palladio respectively.
In Romeo and Juliet, according to M. M. Mahood, there are about 175 wordplays. Such a high rate of occurrence supported the selection of this play for analysis in this paper and, in addition, this information confirms how much Shakespeare appreciated this rhetorical figure. For this study, I will focus on the wordplays representing the idea of love as religion, war and malady in the play. The architectural works selected were not only innovative in their period, but they are also powerful examples that physically reveal a way of seeing the world in which there is no logical tectonic equilibrium. Rather, “it creates a conception of space irreconcilable with empirical spatial conceptions and involves a confusing antagonism of the criteria of reality.” (5)
According to Geoffrey N. Leech, in A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, ambiguity is best defined as the “narrow sense which we may represent as ‘more than one cognitive meaning for the same piece of language’” (6). Sister Miriam Joseph says that ambiguity is the “capacity to signify more than one meaning.” In this sense, modern criticism would define it as polysemy, “the multiple senses of a single verbal sign.” (7)
While the Romans attempted to eliminate or avoid ambiguity in order clarify speech, as Russ McDonald (8) explains, English descendants “find a more liberal appreciation for the uses and pleasures of ambiguous verbal constructions.” (9) During the Elizabethan period, the use of ambiguity provided many opportunities for creating wordplays, an intellectual exercise largely preferred by the writers at the time. Although “regarded as a rhetorical ornament by Elizabethans”, wordplays have been “frequently despised as false or degenerated wit from the eighteenth century to the present day.” (10)
Several categories of wordplays were used in Early Modern English literature and such a variety of different types attests to the affinity of Elizabethan writers to this kind of intellectual exercise. According to Sister Miriam Joseph:
Rightly to appreciate Shakespeare’s puns, one should regard them as examples of four highly esteemed figures of Renaissance rhetoric – antanaclasis, syllepsis, paronomasia, and asteismus – which have their roots in the logical distinction between the various meanings of a word, and depend for their effect on the intellectual alertness necessary to perceive the ambiguity. These figures may be adapted to comic or to serious purposes. (11)
The categories of wordplays vary according to some authors. In the Elizabethan period, there were many different names to classify the pun. As it is not the aim of this study to discuss the categories, I agree, for this case, with the suggestion given by M. M. Mahood, also adopted by McDonald, that “Naming the parts does not show us what makes the gun go off” (12). Therefore, for the purpose of this paper I will use the general category of pun to refer to the intellectual exercise based on the wordplay conceived through polysemy and amphibology, in other words, by multiple and ambiguous meanings. In this sense, this study focuses on the pun as “a subversive agent. The pun requires the reader or listener to hesitate, to look in two directions at once, enforcing a momentary shift into another context and thus mudding and/or enriching the meaning of the verbal text.” (13)
Shakespeare’s wordplay: puns in Romeo and Juliet
Play on words, besides enabling a writer to shine exploiting double meanings and creating the impression of eloquence wit, often helped to spark off and sustain the flow of dialogue.
Today, Shakespeare’s critics recognise “wordplay as a major poetic device, comparable in its effectiveness with the use of recurrent or clustered images.” (14) Indeed, in Shakespeare’s plays, the pun “holds together the play’s imagery in a rich pattern and give an outlet to the tumultuous feelings of the central characters. By its proleptic second and third meanings it serves to sharpen the play’s irony and helps to establish their final equipoise.” (15)
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses ambiguity in several aspects of the play. According to Sister Miriam Joseph and M. M. Mahood, the use of puns in Romeo and Juliet is a linguistic manifestation of ambiguity that constitutes the gap in which the reader can exercise his imaginative capacity creating connections between different contexts in search for meanings. A fundamental aspect of this play is the double-sided characterization of feelings according to the binary amour-passion, as M. M. Mahood suggests. A central aspect of the drama, the amour-passion is constructed through the use of puns and in the composition of the imagery of the play. The idea of amour-passion determines the existence of tensions related to the concept of love. The most important tensions in Romeo and Juliet are as follows: love as war, love as religion, love as malady. (16) These three tensions construct the notion of love as an ambiguous feeling and they support the construction of other ambiguities throughout the play, whether in terms of imagery or language.
At the beginning of the play, Romeo is in a melancholic state of mind, completely absorbed by his unrequited love for Rosaline. As we can read in the excerpt below, a fundamental ambiguity of amour-passion is presented: love is a religion, and all the terms with which Romeo refers to Rosaline are theological terms that characterise the saints: fair, wise, merit, vow.
Rom. She hath, and in that sparing, makes huge waste:
For beauty starv’d with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise; wisely too fair,
To merits bliss by making me despair;
She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow,
Do I live dead, that live to tell it now. (17)
The wordplay with wise and fair approximates Rosaline to the figure of a saint, not to that of a lover. She becomes almost an image of tyranny, when he says wisely too fair, for the expression can be taken in the ironic sense that she knows all too well what she is doing with him, and persists in order to hurt him.
Romeo introduces death as an existential condition of his feeling. Hence we have another derivation from the main ambiguity of amour-passion – besides love as a religion – which is love as a fatal malady. “Love is sickness as well as a cult” (18). The proximity of the words live and dead with love emphasises the radical pathos of Romeo’s feelings, constituting paths to diverse ideas of what love represents to human life: does it mean fulfilment? Does it mean despair? Does it mean life? Does it mean death? “All the Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan conventions are thus presented to us in this first scene: love as malady, as worship, as war, as conquest.” (19)
The scene of the young couple in the Capulets’ house is a definitive scene in which the ambiguity of amour-passion is also represented by the tension of love as religion. Although their speeches intend to distinguish their harmonic love from any tension, there is tension in their names, in the spatial organization of the scene, and in the light that illuminates their encounter.
Jul.‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague,
What’s a Montague? It is not 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 the dear perfection which he owes,
Without that title, Romeo doff thy name,
And for thy name which is no part of thee,
Take all my self. (20)
The introductory pun connecting name and enemy links their love with war. But more important is the tension between res and verba, between the things and the words: the rose is still the beautiful flower it is, even if we do not call it a rose. This tension between res and verba suggests that it does not matter how one names beauty, beauty will still exist in its divine perfection. One can argue that names are men’s inventions; therefore, according to a religious way of seeing it, they are less important than the divine creation itself. Names are not important compared to the uniqueness and eternity of Romeo and Juliet’s love.
The image of the rose increases the sense of perfection which the young couple attributes to their feelings. In addition, the image of the rose suggests worship – another aspect of the tension created by the pairing of love and religion –, once Juliet relates the perfection of the rose to Romeo. However, because hand, foot, arm and face form the figure of the Man, this wordplay suggests that in a certain way, their love is more carnal and “real” – in the sense that it happened in reality – than the unrequited love of Romeo for Rosaline. Therefore, the tension in this scene is not just between love and religion, but rather it involves notions of divinity and profane, mortality and immortality. Romeo and Juliet believe their feelings have characteristics of a divine love, but as humans, not only they might die, as with every man or rose, but also their feelings might also cease to exist. These contradictions suggest a conflict between body and soul which is also embraced by the tension created by the pairing of love and religion.
In addition to the rose imagery, that suggests the “strength and fragility” of love, in the following excerpt the word frank, which introduces Juliet’s vows of love, can mean “generous”, and thus emphasises the idea of love as a boundless sea. At the same time, frank meaning “candid and open” reinforces the tensions between the strength and fragility of love.
Rom. O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
Jul. What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?
Rom. Th’exchange of thy Love’s faithful vow for mine.
Jul. I gave thee mine before thou didst request it:
And yet I would it were to give again.
Rom. Woldst thou withdraw it, for what purpose Love?
Jul. But be frank and give it thee again, And yet I wish but for the thing I have,
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. (Mine italics) (21)
In order to ever more explore the relationship between love and religion, Shakespeare also often uses the image of the light.
Rom. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp, her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream to bright,
That birds would sing, and think it were not night:
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek. (22)
The image of the light is an appropriate one: light, according to a religious point of view, can be associated with the idea of illuminating the way, leading to heaven; thus the lover is associated with a divine character that is able to guide their partner to eternal happiness. Therefore, I can argue that the image of light constructs a relationship of dependence in which the salvation of one depends on the other. It describes, in fact, a destructive relationship between the lovers, in which any fault one may commit will remain as a sin to be exonerated, including destructive feelings of guilt and revenge.
Insisting on the idea of the uniqueness and eternity of his love, Romeo, in the excerpt below, plays with the words teach and forget, drawing a parallel of his feelings with the traditional concepts of religious love. According to some Christian ideas, so great is the love of the Lord, that any effort to forget divine love cannot be stronger than love itself.
Rom. O teach me how I should forget to think.
Ben. By giving liberty unto thine eyes,
Examine other beauties.
Rom. ‘Tis the way
To call hers, exquisite, in question more;
These happy masks that kiss fair Ladies’ brows,
Being black, puts us in mind they hide the fair;
He that is strucken blind, cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost;
Show me a mistress that is passing fair,
What doth her beauty serve but as a note,
Where I may read who pass’d that passing fair:
Farewell, thou canst not teach me to forget. (23)
As Romeo believes in the uniqueness and eternity of his feelings, he finds it impossible that Benvolio could teach him how to forget. For Romeo, his feelings are similar to divine love and thus they are stronger than any processes of memory that might cause him to leave his feelings behind.
The idea of teaching how to forget, suggested by Benvolio to Romeo, is embraced by Benvolio’s way of seeing life as a cycle. He believes everything passes and through a process of substitution any love or suffering will be replaced in future. There is a particular speech in which he predicts a new – in relation to the old unrequited love for Rosaline – suffering in Romeo’s life. He emphasises this suffering by using emotive words like burn, burning, pain, anguish, grief and languish.
Ben. Tut man, one fire burns another’s burning,
One pain is lessen’d by another’s anguish,
Turn giddy and be holp by backward turning:
One desperate grief, cures with another’s languish:
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.” (24)
The use of burns and burning explores the image of the fire, comparing its violence and danger to the flames of hate that separate the Capulets and the Montagues. Also, burning suggests the connotation of ambition: the image suggests the idea of the flame of the young couple’s forbidden love consuming the ambitions of both families. In addition, associated to the idea of burning ambition, the words burn and burning reveal another characteristic of Romeo and Juliet’s feelings: their love is itself ambitious, because they believe that though their feelings they can conciliate years and years of a tradition of war and hate between the two families.
Benvolio’s catastrophic prediction becomes more profound when related to the deaths of the young couple later in the play. Referring to the old as a poison (“And the rank poison of the old will die”) he makes a wordplay that introduces a central element of the play, that is the poison itself. Poison is presented not only in the figurative sense of corruption or degeneration, but also in the sense of a substance that can lead to death. Poison has a central role in the play because it validates the idea of life as a suffering cycle, as suggested in Benvolio’s speech above. Romeo finds Juliet apparently dead, after she has taken some kind of poison. Distraught with grief, he then kills himself with poison. When Juliet awakes, she finds him dead and tries to kill herself with the vestiges of poison that Romeo used. The poison continues the cycle of suffering in life, as Benvolio predicted, in the same way that water drives a water wheel.
For Benvolio love is clearly associated with war through the idea of substitution. As a new dispute replaces an old one, the anguish and the pain which one feels in the present can be in a short time replaced by another source of grief and pain. There is also a suggestion of tensions between past and future, considering the reference to the idea of the new replacing the old: a new love will replace Romeo’s unrequited love for Rosaline.
The wordplay in Romeo and Juliet constitutes a very important linguistic resource; it embraces the idea of paradox which is fundamental to the play. For example, the central tension of the ambiguity of amour-passion is explored in the notions of love as religion, as war and as malady. The ambiguity of the meanings together with the ambiguous imagery, created by Shakespeare, prevent a simplistic and easy path for constructing interpretations of the play: it is necessary, as Marhood suggests, to exercise the imaginative capacity in order to achieve some kind of balance, that is “neither the satisfaction we should feel in the lovers’ death if the play were a simple expression of the Liebbestod theme, nor the dismay of seeing two lives thwarted and destroyed by vicious fates, but a tragic equilibiurm which includes and transcends both those feelings.” (25)
Michelangelo and Andrea Palladio: discomfort and tensions through architectural elements
The instability of language, explored through the use of puns, reveals the ambiguities of human experience. Such instability can be compared to the experience of body discomfort that is produced by the combination of some architectural elements.
The sense of restriction and unfreedom in spite of all its desire for release; the flight into chaos in spite of all its need of protection against it; the tendency to depth, the advance into space, the effort to break out into the open combined with the sudden sense of isolation from the environment (...) the overloading with decoration of relatively small areas of wall surfaces. (26)
Through the use of unusual architectural elements, some buildings from the Italian Mannerist school became famous for deceiving not only the expectations of the eyes but also those of the body.
One of the fundamental principles of (early) Renaissance composition was the uniformity of the scene rendered, its local coherence, in short, logical, spatial relations. The whole system of perspective, proportions, and tectonics was only a means of creating the effect of space. Mannerism led to a breaking up of this structure, the scene rendered was split up into areas separated from each other externally and differently organised internally, and the result of this process of atomisation was that the dimensions and the spatial position of the figures ceased to bear any logical relationship to their significance from the point of view of the content. (27)
Michelangelo and Andrea Palladio provide us with great architectural examples: Laurenziana Library, St. Peter’s Basilica and Villa Rotonda. They were all decisive works in the sense that they redefined how architecture translated the ambiguities of human existence into space through discomfort and tensions.
A common aspect of these buildings is the fact that instead of compelling the observer to feel a sense of elevation and harmony, they both make one feel “bewildered, uprooted, insecure, removed to an artificial spatial structure that seems abstract in relation to ordinary experience.” (28) Thus, the experience of the body in this kind of space makes the spectator uncertain and, therefore, he tends to enquire reality and its reliability. In all these examples, architecture provokes the observer to interrogate the tectonic logic of spaces and their functions, once the expectations created by the forms of the buildings often do not correspond to their real uses. The spectators thus have to exercise their minds and their imagination to understand the architectural novelty in order to find themselves a place within such an atmosphere of transgression. In this sense, the architectural translation of ambiguity requires from the observer not only exercising his/her imagination in order to embrace an aesthetic experience, but it also demands the physical movement of the body in the space. In other words, the strangeness and ambiguousness of the buildings provoke the spectator to walk in the physical space in order to try to diminish the sensation of discomfort that that architectural composition provokes. However, the more the observer moves, the more he feels such a discomfort because he cannot decipher the peculiar proportions and the lack of harmony that usually characterise these buildings.
(...) the main difference between mannerist and all other architecture is that is creates a conception of space irreconcilable with empirical spatial conceptions and involves a confusing antagonism of the criteria of reality. All architecture that is not purely utilitarian to an extent raises the beholder out of everyday life, but that of mannerism isolates him from his environment, not only in the sense that it takes him to a higher plane, places him in an unusual, ceremonial, harmonious framework, but also in that it emphasises his alienation from it. (29)
The Laurenziana Library, by Michelangelo, is a particular important example as its spatial composition strongly encourages the feeling of strangeness and discomfort. In its anteroom, Michelangelo creates disproportioned steps of magnificent stairs too large for the straight space of the room. The frames of the windows underneath are exaggeratedly heavy although they do not reveal any view for the user. So too are the forms of the columns that are dramatically bigger than they were supposed to be in terms of structure. Both these elements, the windows’ frames and the columns, suggest the idea of a palazzo facade, which is an external space. However, they are located in the interior of the building. This contradiction helps to create ambiguity in the space which in turn provokes the strange feelings of discomfort in the observer.
The principle of elongation prevails in the architecture of mannerism just as it does in painting and sculpture. Thus features like the corridor, the gallery, and the long, street-like courtyard are characteristic of it, and that is why it makes such frequent use of long, narrow approaches to further rooms in the interior of a building or to the entrance of a palazzo or villa in the open air. (30)
The Uffizi’s Gallery by Vasari constitutes another great example of Mannerist architecture. The colonnade in the Uffizi’s Gallery provides a sense of depth, which is reinforced by the length of the building along the street. The colonnade also produces the illusion of an interior place defining an ambiguous space that is simultaneously exterior and interior. On the opposite side, instead of a symmetric design, there are no columns and the ground-floor is no longer accessible for the pedestrians on the street. The narrow street and the long length of the building contribute to the idea of a long perspective with a “promised resting-place for the eye” that cannot be accomplished. This happens because the perspective lines are suddenly interrupted by the loggia at the end of the court. Since the loggia strangely interrupts the long perspective lines created by the narrow street and the building, the eye is no longer allowed to “wander unrestrictedly in the distance”. Or rather, the eye can wonder in the distance but only through the arches of the loggia. It means that impediment and permission come together in order to define the strangeness for the user’s body experience of the space. “The whole is a typical instance of a manneristically inhibited attempt to flight, a borderline position between two orders, two different systems, creating a feeling of unrest and uncertainty.” (30)
Andrea Palladio became one of the most famous architects in late Mannerism and his work influenced other countries, particularly England. The British architect Inigo Jones, after his stay in Italy, was responsible for bringing Palladian architecture to the United Kingdom. The influence of Palladio also occurred through the translations of some of his books, such as Quattro Libri (32). Although Jones brought the forms of Palladian architecture, the same did not happen to the architectural principals and that is why one cannot say that Palladian architecture in England has examples that fit with the idea of tension that characterizes Italian Mannerist architecture. Palladio became very known especially through the great number of villas that he designed in the surroundings of many Italian cities. These villas, settled in the countryside, similarly to the palazzos in the cities, generally belonged to important personalities of the time.
One of the examples of Palladio’s villas is Villa Rotonda, maybe the most famous work of the Italian architect. “In many respects this masterpiece of Palladio’s is one of the most typical examples of mannerist architecture.” (33) An important aspect of this building is clearly the jarring symmetry of the four facades, all identically designed. Despite the symmetry of the facades, there is no sense of wholeness or unity from the several parts that constitute the building. This is because each part functions independently. For example, each facade could be the principal one. There is no hierarchy in terms of spatial organization and spatial order. The lack of hierarchy thus increases a sense of tension instead of harmony between the four facades. In addition, the perfection of the symmetrical disposition of the building increases the sense of discomfort as it does not evoque a traditional idea of the house. There is also an ambiguous relationship between the villa and the surroundings where it is located. “The contention that building and environment were first harmonised in Palladio’s villas has been definitely refuted. The antagonism between earlier mannerist villas and their surroundings is present in them too.” (34) Although the landscape is dramatic, the symmetrical disposition of the facades all leading to the central space covered with a dome functions as a centripetal force that tends to draw the attention for the inside of the house. This centripetal force alienates the building from the landscape, instead of integrating it with the surroundings. The four facades “contribute to isolating the building from its environment by emphasising its geometrical shape and thus enhancing its abstract quality. Not only does it in fact sharply isolate itself from its environment, but it looks so stiff and unapproachable that it is hard to understand how anyone could live and feel comfortable in it” (35)
There is a clear convergence between the ways in which Shakespeare and the Italian Mannerists Andrea Palladio and Michelangelo conceived paradox and discomfort through figures of speech or spatial elements of ambiguity. These artistic manifestations represent the tensions that characterize the human experience through different artistic resources, and both share a way of seeing the world where it is necessary to hesitate, to look in two directions at once. Another meaning can be found underneath the superficial definition of a word just as another sensation can be provided by an unexpected element in a physical space. Ambiguity was an important product of Shakespeare’s wordplays and Italian Mannerists’ unusual architectural elements. Both the puns and the unusual elements are able to cause doubts, enquires, suspicions and discomfort in the reader or observer.
Although there are many other examples in terms of literature and architecture, Shakespeare and Michelangelo/Palladio are particularly important not only because they were among the first to explore these approaches, but also because of the expressiveness of their works. They are known worldwide and their influence is profound, as we can see in England, where Palladian style became popular.
Some final considerations that emerge from this study are related to the great tendency in the present time of making writing, spaces and images with obvious or ready-made meanings, as if they were products to be consumed. Therefore, a great part of the imaginative capacity of society is compromised. Would it be one of the reasons of a certain cultural and political passivity that tend to characterise a great part of the population today? This question remains to be explored in further opportunities of research.
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