“If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:/My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand /To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”

Romeo and Juliet

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


The twentieth century actor and director Harley Granville-Barker, commenting in his Preface to Romeo and Juliet, wrote “this is a tragedy of youth, as youth sees it,” and some have argued that R&J, with all of its turmoil and emotional and physical extremes, is about nothing less than the process of adolescence.  Romeo enters the play the archetypal moody teenage boy, mooning distractedly over Rosaline.  Significantly, she never appears.  But then, she doesn’t need to, for Romeo, it seems, is not in love with Rosaline, but in love with love itself, and his passion for Rosaline disappears as soon as her Capulet kinswoman, Juliet, arrives on the scene.  ‘O brawling love, O loving hate,’ he exclaims to Benvolio:

O anything of nothing first create;

O heavy lightness, serious vanity,

Mishapen chaos of well-seeming forms,

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Romeo does not yet understand a love which is anything more substantial than oxymorons – one reason, perhaps, why Benvolio urges him to look elsewhere.  Juliet is, similarly, on the cusp of maturity (and seemingly more mature than Romeo); though her father initially considers her “yet a stranger in the world” (her fourteenth birthday is two weeks away at the play’s opening), at the lover’s breathless initial meeting she is more than able to hold her own, calmly parrying Romeo’s flirtatious words – and in fact Shakespeare makes their first exchange into a fourteen-line love sonnet, as if urging Juliet that, despite her youth, she has not a moment to lose.  Indeed, the fact that the lovers speak a poem almost without realizing it acts as a kind of miraculous confirmation that their destinies are ties to each other.  While, at the same time, the very intensity of their encounter seems to hint that, like poetic lovers before and since, they are doomed to separation.

But let’s step back for a moment.  The Prince and his municipal guard have restrained the brawlers and restored order, leaving Montague, his wife, and Benvolio by themselves on the stage.  As Old Montague questions Benvolio about how the brawl started, Lady Montague interrupts them, changing the focus of the play from the “pernicious rage” of the grudge to her son, Romeo, as she worried about the melancholy gloom which has been afflicting him and causing him to keep himself removed from social intercourse.  (Not unlike, shall we say, a teenager of today who would hole himself up in his room with headphones in front of the computer.)  At his parent’s request, Benvolio promises to find out from Romeo the cause of his melancholy.  Montague and his wife withdraw then they see Romeo approaching, and Benvolio greets him.


…What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?


Not having that, which, having, makes them short.


In love?




Of love?


Out of her favour, where I am in love.


Alas, that love, so gentle in his vies,

Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!


Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,

Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!

Where shall we dine?

This exchange, on the surface, seems to establish what is to be expected:  Romeo is in love, stubbornly and willfully in love, and because his love is unreturned, he is tormented both by desire AND by the overwhelming desire to be in love.  Yet…there are several disconcerting elements, perhaps not the least in the way that Romeo changes key as he asks, “Where shall we dine?”  He is apparently forlorn and melancholy, but yet, at the same time, suffering no loss of appetite.  Perhaps, then, his melancholy is not so much a result of unrequited love than of his will being slighted and the desire to DESIRE being thwarted.  When he complains of his “beloved” Rosaline’s failure to reciprocate his love, his complaint sounds a little less like the anguish of an anguished lover than like the response of a petulant will to denial, or, of a man whose strategies to win over Rosaline have failed, robbing him of the gratification of victory and pride:

…she’ll not be hit

With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;

And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,

From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.

She will not stay the siege of loving terms,

Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,

Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.

He’s complaining that she’s frustrating him.  His strategies and his language seem to exist in order to create for himself the identity of a lover rather than either to know, win, to celebrate, or, even to mourn the loss of his beloved.  In one of his lectures on R&J, Samuel Coleridge says of this love that “Rosaline…had been a mere name for the yearning of [Romeo’s] youthful imagination,’ that his love for ‘Rosaline was a mere creation of his fancy; and we should,” Coleridge concludes, challenging the authenticity of this love, ‘Remark the boastful positiveness of Romeo in a love of his own making, which is never shown where love is really near the heart.”  In this, Romeo’s love is motivated by the will to be in love, to create an identity as a lover.  Speaking in Renaissance terms:  The beloved serves to define the lover to himself.


Before getting to the fateful meeting of Romeo and Juliet, I’d like to take on Mercutio, one of the play’s most…interesting characters, via Harold Bloom:

“Mercutio is the most notorious scene stealer in all of Shakespeare, and there is a tradition (reported by Dryden) that Shakespeare declared he was obliged to kill of Mercutio, lest Mercutio kill Shakespeare and hence the play.  Dr. Johnson rightly commended Mercutio for wit, gaiety, and courage; presumably the great critic chose to ignore that Mercutio also is obscene, heartless, and quarrelsome.  Mercutio promises a grand comic role, and yet disturbs us also with his extraordinary rhapsody concerning Queen Mab, who at first seems to belong more to A Midsummer Night’s Dream than to Romeo and Juliet.


O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.


Queen Mab, what’s she?


She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate stone

On the forefinger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomi

Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut made by the joiner squirrel or

old grub,

Time out o’mind the fairies’ coachmakers;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs;

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

Her traces of the smallest spider web,

Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,

Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat,

Not half so big as a round little worm

Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love,

O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight;

O’er lawyers’ fingers who straight dream on fees;

O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,

Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.

Sometimes she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,

And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;

And sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,

Tickling like a parson’s nose as a lies asleep;

Then dreams he of another benefice,

Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck

And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

Of breaches, ambuscados, Spanish blades,

Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon

Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,

And being thus frightened swears a prayer or two

And sleeps again.  This is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night

And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

That presses them and learns them first to bear,

Making them women of good carriage.

This is she—

Romeo interrupts, since clearly Mercutio never stops once started.  This mercurial vision of Queen Mab – where ‘Queen’ probably means a whore, and Mab refers to a Celtic fairy, who frequently manifests as a will-o-the-wisp – is anything but out of character.  Mercutio’s Mab is the midwife of our erotic dreams, aiding us to give birth to our deep fantasies, and she appears to possess a childlike charm for much of the length of Mercutio’s description.  But since he is a major instance of what D.H. Lawrence was to call ‘sex-in-the-head,’ Mercutio is setting us up for the revelation of Mab as the nightmare, the incubus who impregnates maids.  Romeo interrupts to say:  ‘Thou talkst of nothing,’ where ‘nothing’ is another slang term for the vagina.  Mercutio’s bawdy obsessiveness is splendidly employed by Shakespeare as a reduction of Romeo and Juliet’s honest exaltation of their passion.  Directly before their first rendezvous, we hear Mercutio at his most obscenely exuberant pitch:

If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.

Now will he sit under a medlar tree

And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit

As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse, and thou a poperin pear!


Mercutio’s reference is to Rosaline, Romeo’s beloved before he falls, at first glance, in love with Juliet, who instantly reciprocates.  The medlar, rotten with ripeness, popularly was believed to have the likeness of the female genitalia, and ‘to meddle’ meant to perform sexual intercourse.  Mercutio happily also cites a popular name for the medlar, the open-arse, as well as the poperin pear, at once pop-her-in-her open arse, and the slang name for the French pear, the Poperingle (named for a town near Ypres).  This is the antithetical prelude to a scene that famously concludes with Juliet’s couplet:

Good night, good night.  Parting is such sweet sorrow

That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Mercutio at his best is a high-spiritual unbeliever in the religions of love, reductive as he may be:


Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo!


Without his roe, like a dried herring.  O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!  Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in.  Laura, to his lady, was a kitchen wench – marry, she had a better love to berhyme her – Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so, […]


Obsessed as he may be, Mercutio has the style to take his death wound as gallantly as anyone in Shakespeare:


Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much.


No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.  Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.  I am peppered, I warrant for this world.  A plague o’both your houses.


That indeed is what in his death Mercutio becomes, a plague upon both Romeo of the Montagues and Juliet of the Capulets, since henceforward the tragedy speeds on to its final double catastrophe.  Shakespeare is already Shakespeare in his subtle patterning, although rather overlyrical still in his style.  The two fatal figures in the play are its two liveliest comics, Mercutio and the Nurse.  Mercutio’s aggressivity has prepared the destruction of love, though there is no negative impulse in Mercutio, who dies by the tragic irony that Romeo’s intervention in the duel with Tybalt is prompted by love for Juliet, a relationship of which Mercutio is totally unaware.  Mercutio is victimized by what is most central to the play, and yet he dies without knowing what R&J is about:  the tragedy of authentic romantic love.  For Mercutio, that is nonsense, love is an open arse and a poperin pear.  To die as love’s martyr, as it were, when you do not believe in the religion of love, and do not even know what you are dying for, is a grotesque irony that foreshadows the dreadful ironies that will destroy Juliet and Romeo alike as the play concludes.”

And from Bloom, a brief introduction to the Nurse, of whom I’ll have more as we continue on:

“Juliet’s Nurse, despite her popularity, is altogether a much darker figure.  Like Mercutio, she is inwardly cold, even toward Juliet, whom she has raised.  Her language captivates us, as does Mercutio’s, but Shakespeare gives both of them hidden natures much at variance with their exuberant personalities.  Mercutio’s incessant bawdiness is the mask for what may be a repressed homoeroticism, and like his violence may indicate a flight from the acute sensibility at work in the Queen Mab speech until it too transmutes into obscenity.  The Nurse is even more complex, her apparent vitalism and her propulsive flood of language beguile us in her first full speech…

There are a few isolated instances of realistic distincts in Shakespeare’s characters before Romeo and Juliet, [but] the fourfold of Juliet, Mercutio, the Nurse, and Romeo outnumber and overgo these earlier breakthroughs in human invention.  Romeo and Juliet matters, as a play, because of these four exuberantly realized characters.

It is easier to see the vividness of Mercutio and the Nurse than it is to absorb and sustain the erotic greatness of Juliet and the heroic effort of Romeo to approximate her sublime state of being in love.  Shakespeare, with a prophetic insight, knows that he must lead his audience beyond Mercutio’s obscene ironies if they are to be worthy of apprehending Juliet, for her sublimity is the play and guarantees the tragedy of this tragedy.  Mercutio, the scene stealer of the play, had to be killed off if it was to remain Juliet’s and Romeo’s play; keep Mercutio in Acts IV and V, and the contention of love and death would have to cease.  We overinvest in Mercutio because he insures us against our own erotic eagerness for doom; he is in the play to some considerable purpose.  So, in an even darker way, is the Nurse, who helps guarantee the final disaster.  The Nurse and Mercutio, both of them audience favorites, are nevertheless bad news, in different but complementary ways.  Shakespeare, at this point in his career, may have underestimated his burgeoning powers, because Mercutio and the Nurse go on seducing audiences, readers, directors, and critics.  Their verbal exuberances make them forerunners of touchstone and Jacques, rancid ironists, but also of the dangerously eloquent manipulative villains Iago and Edmund.”


And finally… a look at Juliet’s first encounter with Romeo, from Garber:

“…in this very symmetrically designed play, the difference between doting and loving is a principal reason why we are first shown Romeo infatuated with someone other than Juliet.  Doting on Rosaline, Romeo, in the inevitable pattern of Petrarchan lovers, is comfortable only in the dark.  When dawn comes he ‘[s]huts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,/And makes himself an artificial night.’  Artifice is ‘art,’ but it is also make-believe – this is an artificial night for an artificial love.  We never learn much about Rosaline.  She is glimpsed, once, at the Capulet ball, but she is not a dramatic character in the play:  she has no lines, she is all Romeo’s projection.  Like many a fantasied Petrarchan lady she has ‘sworn that she will live chaste’ – that she will die a virgin and without progeny, another dangerous sign in a Shakespearean world concerned with procreation and fertility.  By contrast, Juliet’s refusal near the end of the play to be ‘disposed of’ in a sisterhood of holy nuns marks a choice against the nunnery and for marriage and marital love.

Balancing the false pair of Romeo and Rosaline is the equally inappropriate couple of Juliet and Paris, a pairing that is artificial for a different reason.  It seems almost as if Juliet has never set eyes on Paris, though they live in the same town.  His proposal is brought to her by her mother, in the form of rhyming couplets that function almost like the portrait borne by an ambassador in a royal marriage by proxy when the parties live in distant countries.  Here, of course, the practice is pointless, and therefore comic.  The passage is certainly one of the most gloriously artificial of the play, as Lady Capulet describes Paris as a good book, for whom Juliet will be the ‘cover.’

Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,

And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.

Examine every married lineament,

And see how one another lends content;

And what obscured in this fair volume lies

Find written in the margin of his eyes.

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,

To beautify him only lacks a cover.

Juliet’s lukewarm reply, “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move,’ seems perfectly suitable in the face of this rather daunting description, which is not really the description of a person at all.

Romeo and Rosaline, Juliet and Paris.  The hackneyed language of Petrarchan clichés, on the one hand, and the ornate, bloodless, and perfectly rhyming couplets of Lady Capulet’s favorable book report, on the other.  Everything will be shattered when Romeo and Juliet first catch sight of each other.  It is important to acknowledge that love at first sight is a common phenomenon in the Shakespearean world, and not something to distrust.  Like the famous couples of Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, whose glances met and held, so Shakespearean lovers from Romeo and Juliet to Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest meet, exchange glances, and fall in love.  Significantly, in Romeo and Juliet they do so in a sonnet, and it is a sonnet that ends sonneteering for the rest of the play:

Romeo: [To Juliet, touching her hand]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this.

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints to not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.


Her response when he kisses her is ‘You kiss by th’ book’ – a better book, apparently, than Paris’s.  This is a most unusual sonnet, in that it is spoken by two people, and thus breaks the convention of the love sonnet of the adoring lover who writes of, and to, his beloved because he cannot reach her in person, whether because she is married to someone else, or because she insists (like Rosaline) on remaining chase, or, as in the case of Petrarch’s later sonnets to Laura, because she is dead.  Love’s Labour’s Lost offers some especially comic instances of what happens when this convention is broken – when a fretting lover is overheard by his lady as he rehearses or composes his sonnet.  In R&J, by contrast, we have a sonnet that is mutually composed by the two lovers, and, moreover, a sonnet that works.  It results in a kiss.  The sonnet tradition of unattainable or unrequited love is turned inside out, and the artifice of conventional language goes with it.  This is love at first sonnet.”


I’d like to add that it appears to me that when Romeo first catches sight of Juliet, his language seems to be transformed.  “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in Ethiopie’s ear — /Beauty to rich for use, for earth too dear.’  Throughout the play, watch for this image of brilliant light against the darkness as a kind of leitmotif or emblem of the two lovers caught in a tragic pattern.



Our next reading:  Romeo and Juliet, Act Two

My next post will be part one of two on act two, Sunday evening/Monday morning.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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9 Responses to “If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:/My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand /To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”

  1. cricketmuse says:

    It’s only with my seniors that I reveal the down and dirty of Shakespeare’s subtext. I shield my little freshmen from the true meanings since I don’t want parental wrath upon my head. However, I appreciate the extra background you are providing. Thanks for providing such complete lessons.
    Happy Pages,

    • Cricketmuse: Thank you so much — your appreciation is much appreciated. Would it work if you hinted to your freshmen that there was a down and dirty subtext? Maybe they’d be more interested that way…


      • cricketmuse says:

        Oh, my freshies are advancing in underlying euphemisms every since The Odyssey when I alluded how Odysseus when pine for Penelope during the day, yet spend his nights playing Yahtze with Calypso. I just have to come up with the proper euphemisms for Mab and et al in
        R & J. My students are actually more innocent and readily shocked than America statistics and news reports make the public believe. I am reluctant to open their eyes too wide to Shakespeare’s sexual subtleties, otherwise it’s almost like literary soft-porn in that they are looking for the thrill of being titillated instead of being mesmerized by the amazing text and message.

        Your lessons help me select the best of the Act’s moment; I especially appreciate the Youtube clips as that saves lots of time loading them on my own website.
        Blue Skies,

      • I’m glad I can help in any way. And while I see your point about titillation at the expense of the text itself, is the idea that there’s more than meets the eye intriguing enough to get them interested?

      • cricketmuse says:

        I know they are interested in reading the play, simply because they know once in ninth grade they will get to it. Keeping them interested is the tricky part. Yay for YouTube clips! Maybe I will promise Gnomeo and Juliet as their end of unit incentive. 🙂

  2. Mahood says:

    Dennis, in your last post, you asked a very pertinent and worthwhile question:

    ‘As we work our way through the plays, are you finding it easier to read Shakespeare?’

    I have mixed feelings about this – the simple answer is yes, it is getting easier…and yet, as we go through them, I feel that I’m being kept more and more on my toes (not that this wasn’t the case with the first few plays!). You really sense that every word and syllable, every murmur, sentence, stage direction and thought, counts. Certain passages are so powerful that at times they catch your breath: at other times it often feels as if you’re ‘feasting’ on the words…and to really get their full effect, you need to go back and re-read them again and again.

    And that’s where the mixed feelings come in! ‘Easier to read’ is almost a contradiction, because the more you read him the more you realise just how much you’re missing, as each re-read reveals something new – depressing and enlightening at the same time!

    As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the youtube clips are such a bonus: watching them after reading the plays is a great way to ‘hear’ the lines again.

  3. I really, really like this play. And the Luhrmann movie as well. I’m just a sucker for a well written metaphor for love, and overly dramatic self-pity. I really like the way Tybalt is played by John Leguizamo. His delivery of: “What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds?
    Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death.” is very good, and for me Tybalt is the “bad-guy” form I will mold all the “bad-guys” in my own fiction after.

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