Thursday, June 18, 2009

Empathy For Tybalt?

Saw this as a Google search term in my logs today, thought it was interesting. Not exactly two words I tend to put together, empathy and Tybalt.

Am I missing something? Is he not the classic example of everything that is wrong with this sort of situation? The whole “We hate each other and nobody can seem to remember why….but I don’t really care, I don’t need a reason” type of character?

Maybe there’s something to this. Let’s look where we see him: Jumping into a fight in the very first scene. Not, like Benvolio, trying to stop it. Heck, Tybalt doesn’t know how it started or who started it, he just sees swords drawn and wants in on the action.

Later he’s willing to ruin Capulet’s party by starting a fight in the middle of it. Maybe, *maybe* we can start to side with him here a little if you truly believe that he's defending his family honor, that he believes Romeo is there to ruin the fun. We know it’s not the case, but part of empathy is being able to see things through other people’s eyes.

Next up, he challenges Romeo to a duel. This is just logical behavior for him, as predictable as Laertes coming after Claudius to avenge Polonius’ death. In Tybalt’s world, if you are dishonored, you challenge the person to a duel. Primitive by today’s standards? Sure. But he’s not acting by today’s standards.

Here’s where it gets interesting, because of Romeo’s reaction to the challenge. Tybalt doesn’t know it, but Romeo is now his family (having secretly married Juliet). So Romeo showers him with love like a brother. What’s going through Tybalt’s head? Obviously he thinks he’s being mocked. Here he is trying to do the right and honorable thing to do, reclaiming his honor (although much like the bad guy in Karate Kid II (Ralph Macchio Goes To Japan) he never seems to realize that he is the one costing them their honor, not restoring it). Had Mercutio not been in the picture, things might have turned out differently. Tybalt might have declared Romeo a lunatic and refused to battle.

Instead – Mercutio drew first. Don’t forget that. Mercutio did not defend Romeo from harm. It was Mercutio who basically attacked Tybalt unprovoked (we can do “empathy for Mercutio” later). Well, we all know what happens next, Tybalt gets in the lucky (cheap?) shot, Mercutio dies. How’s that play out for Tybalt, though? Does anybody think Tybalt was actually trying to kill him? Or was it an accident? It was a dirty blow, no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean it was supposed to be a killing one.

I think here’s it’s strictly up to interpretation. Back in the Zeffirelli version it was played out more like “kids taking things too far” – but in the Luhrman version with Jon Leguizamo, Tybalt *is* physically beating Romeo, and Mercutio’s rescue is much different. They really are trying to kill each other:

What do you think?


Cris Drumond said...

I think Tybault (it works for Mercuccio too) acted like a real human being, with the complexities and dilemmas typically present in Shakespeare's fictional characters. He is not the bad, or the good guy (he's "human, all too human"). Of course we tend to take Romeo's side, even because we know what was going on his mind when the fight involving Mercuccio started. But the hell is full of good intentions... Even Romeo was not a saint; he had his devils inside, too. He was also able to kill a man, moved by (questionable) honor and vengeance reasons. Who is to say it was not the same with Tybault? We didn't know him enough to say. The way I see it, all caracters (including R&J's relatives, their friends, and Frade Lorenzo) were driven by the happenings. At the end, they all realized the same: They were fortune's fools.
(I'm following you on twitter as CristyDrumond)

Craig said...

Great presentation of clips. It's been forever since I've seen the Zeffirelli version, but it makes a very thoughtful and valid choice in presenting the big duel as mostly skylarking. R&J starts out as nearly a romantic comedy--could easily have ended as a romantic comedy, but for a few twists of fate.

On one level, Tybalt is a young thug, and our inclination is to dislike and fear him. But R&J is a play about how parents destroy their own children, and of course
Tybalt is certainly deserving of our empathy, if not affection. He was born into a world not of his own making, and is trying to make his way in it. Is he a conspicuous moral monster? Not in fair Verona. His elders taught him to bear grudges, pick fights and lash out at any wound to his "honor." He's just trying to live the values he was taught. The only thing we could condemn him for is for failing to soar above the foolishness and shortcomings of his own world--and that seems like a lot to lay on the shoulders of a teenaged boy.

amusings_bnl said...

think of all the modern instances where family events are marred by a cousin, second cousin, someone whipping out a knife and stabbing some guy who he thought did something to someone whenever... babyshowers in lawrence ma, weddings, fights at the yacht club.

tybalt lacks a certain maturity to let things go, to let a family feud simmer quietly. he has hot blood and is quick to fight no matter who with. he enjoys a fight. it's a classic young male punkass attitude.

and when romeo is married, holding this new realization that tybalt is now his family, he "grows up" and changes his gangland punkass tone, embraces him as cousin and brother and blood.... which tybalt can't understand because he doesn't know why...

tybalt deserves our empathy because we all have been punkass kids, or we know some. all of these characters grew up together, they've known one another since childhood... schoolyard fights, pranks, playground teasings, and it escalates to death...

i think of it when i look at my 12 yr old son, who is having a 'feud' with another boy he's known since he was 5. will this continue to 18? will it stop? will it escalate to violence where one of them is severely injured?

good thing none of them have swords...

i agree with craig with the notion that the play is about parents who destroy their children. one can say that tybalt is a sad drive-by parenting victim, and yes... deserves our empathy. all of them deserve our empathy... and in the end, capulet and montague stand there devastated by what they raised, caused, and did by their half-assed non-parenting (to steal from lisa simpson).

Colin Ryan said...

To me the key to understanding Tybalt comes from answering this question: Why is he being raised by his uncle? aka where are Tybalt's parents?

I played the part a few years back and my solution to this helped me make a role that has 16 lines feel, for me at least, much more fleshed out and human. Tybalt's parents (or father at least) were killed by the Montagues.

Of course this was interpretation, and has no specific textual reference to back it up. but nothing contradicts it either, and since Shakespeare was more or less congenitally unable to write one-dimensional people, I like to think it's near the mark :)

Willshill said...

What comes might seem as though I have no regard for subtext.This isn't true--BUT

As opposed to looking first for subtext outside, then lathering it on over what's already there, (possibly then covering up and missing what's there) there is a way, conceptually, to reverse the process; to allow it to evolve out of the text itself.
When it comes down to what Shakespeare actually needed Tybalt to accomplish, his character is a towering success at 'simple'--powerfully and convincingly so.
He needs to be this one dimensional bulwark of a personality, so that Shakespeare can bounce antithetical qualities off of that wall. He's the base relief, and represents everything at its ugli-EST about the values that have killed an awful lot of innocent people and ultimately wind up killing more.
And is that wall ever thick and Deep!
But consider the affects of blind allegiance and conviction-- to any cause or thing. It can make anyone obtusely single-minded, bull-headed, ugly--a broken record--and monotone. I don't mean in key, but rather in notation.
A close reading of the lines will reveal a predominance of measured, studied, all or mostly all single syllable lines written for Tybalt.
He's a johnny-one-note while being ironically complex;, meant to serve a purpose: to remain a mystery as to how he could possibly be SO pigheaded in a situation such as this. In that, he also teaches a lesson about thinking so one-dimensionally.
Shakespeare's characters wear their tongues on their sleeves--and are always honest--to US--even when they're lying. (picture Richard III or Iago on Sigmund's couch?)

I think we undermine and weaken Tybalt's character and its strong effect in attempting to "feel" something for him, or make excuses for who he is or how he "might have come to be that way". If "deep down" he really "cared", then he'd alter his behavior and become at least 2 dimensional--then maybe Shakespeare would have written a sequel: "The Most Excellent Lamentable Tragedie of Tybalt the Rat-Catcher". But quite simply, he is what HE IS ON THE PAGE--no more, no less--"deep----down". And That's a Lot. He has no need to apologize for that (and never tries--in any way--to do so). Why do we try so hard to do it for him.? Why would I do that--I don't even like him! But I Love his character :)
The essence of Tybalt's character and what makes him tick might easily become the subject of a ten volume edition of essays penned by any slightly overzealous student of psychoanalysis-- or any member of a hollywood film acting class.(or is that redundant?) That isn't "deep sub--text"--it's wishy-washy Sub----Play. If there's one thing Tybalt ain't, it's wishy-washy--right or wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think Mercutio had arrived at the party not to 'scorn' at the Capulet's solemnity, but to gently mock it. The question needs to be asked. Would Romeo have down the same at a Montague banquet, knowing the full extent of the hatred between two families. If Tybalt was at a Montague banquet, I am sure sure the repurcussions would be huge and maybe we should not simply see Tybalt as a disillusioned antagonist. Maybe there is more.

JM said...

Had the situation been reversed, perhaps Mercutio would have responded similarly, perhaps not. Although he can't stand Tybalt, his antipathy seems more personally driven. Mercutio doesn't seem very interested in the Hatfield VS. McCoy drama, and in fact condemns it as the reason for his demise. (And for whatever it might be worth, he is a kinsman of the Prince--technically bi-partisan after all)

Romeo has from the beginning, for whatever his initial reasoning might be, shown even less interest in the feud than has Mercutio. And we see the wisdom and reasoning power of Benvolio at the top. Where does Tybalt stand, if anywhere, amongst these, and further, as compared to his own kinsman Lord Capulet?

Certainly there's more. But I don't think Tybalt's character can be found in comparisons to the analysis or reactions of others. And I don't think Tybalt is either disillusioned on the one hand, or, on the other hand, might have any doubts about the validity of anything he feels. It's the strength of his conviction and its obvious single-mindedness, whatever its source might be, that causes him to respond far differently than the head of the entire Capulet clan.
An over-zealously adopted philosophy of any kind can quickly take over as the "logical" and sole substantiation needed for its own "religious" existence. And acting out the "deeds" the philosophy speaks to the zealot kills two birds--at once it shows the strength of conviction of the doer and supports the doing, both of which lend credence (though illogical) back to the philosophy they support, itself illogical in the first place. Round and round we go...
How does someone come to be so taken? It's a question that may be asked about Tybalt--or about many people; but the answers may or may not evoke sympathy for the character--and from what evidence I can find in the play, Tybalt hasn't been given an opportunity to evoke it for himself. He seems not to need it.