Romeo and Juliet
Act Two, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
From Stanley Wells, another view of the balcony scene, plus a glimpse of the Nurse and Mercutio:
“For all the scene’s rapture, it is conceived in fully dramatic terms. At its opening, the lovers are apart, and Juliet is unaware of Romeo’s presence. Each has what is in effect a long soliloquy; each in a private world seeks to reach out to communicate with the other. And when they do address each other directly they are at first restrained by consciousness of the feud between their families. Steadily they come towards each other, but the climax of their encounter comes not with physical contact but with a silence, a sense of equilibrium, of time suspended in a perfect communion that needs no words:
I have forgot why I did call thee back.
Let me stand here till thou remember it.
I shall forget, to have thee still stand there,
Rememb’ring how I love thy company.
And I’ll stay, to have thee still forget,
Forgetting any other home but this.
[MY NOTE: YOU say goodbye first. No…YOU say goodbye…]
The scene permits too a delicate comedy in the lovers’ hyperbole and their self-absorption; after hearing Juliet say no more than ‘Ay me,’ Romeo may make us smile with the amazed delight with which he utters ‘She speaks,’ as if this were a feat that could scarcely be expected of one so young; and after Juliet has enjoined him not to swear by the moon, he may seem touchingly puzzled in his response ‘What shall I swear by? – the poor boy is doing his best.
Though the heat of the play may indeed be a love-duet, there is far more to its body than this; the novelist George Moore was quite wrong to describe it as ‘no more than a love-song in dialogue.’ For one thing, idealism is only one aspect of Romeo and Juliet’s love. Famously, their first conversation takes the form of a shared sonnet, a sonnet that is witty as well as lyrical, that uses religious imagery but somewhat subverts it by its admission of physicality; it is a sonnet of courtship, and its climax is not a prayer but a kiss:
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.
HE KISSES HER
Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
This is a love that seeks, and finds, full physical consummation. Juliet looks forward to her wedding night as an occasion of sexual union:
Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With they black mantle till strange love grown bold
Think true love acted simple modesty.
And the play’s final love-duet is the lovers’ doom-laden conversation at daybreak after their marriage night, when Romeo is already banished. He seeks to remain, even at the cost of his life; she urges him to go, to save his life.
There are, then, three love-duets, one in the evening, one at night, and the last at dawn; each represents a moment of tremulous, threatened stasis in the lovers’ developing relationship, and each is interrupted by Juliet’s Nurse. She is a reminder of the world of daylight reality which endangers their love, and she is also a measure of the greatness of that love. If R&J is the most romantic of Shakespeare’s plays, it is also, from the opening episode with its ribald jesting between Capulet’s servants, the bawdiest. In the scene that introduces us to Juliet, her Nurse tells a tale that, looking back to Juliet’s infancy, also looks forward to the loss of her virginity: ‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit.’ And the idealism of the balcony scene is prefaced by Mercutio’s dirty talk of Rosaline:
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse, and thou a popp’rin pear.
Mercutio is Romeo’s best friend, the Nurse is closer to Juliet than her parents; they are parallel forces, the two richest and most strongly individual characters in the play, but each is fatally limited in understanding just where it is most needed. Mercutio, for all the delicacy of imagination suggested in his Queen Mab speech – a virtuoso display for actor and author as well as for the character – expresses a satirically reductive view of love between man and woman: ‘this driveling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole,’ and for the Nurse, one healthy man is very much the same as another: she admires Romeo’s physical qualities – ‘for a hand and a foot and a body, though they be not to be talked on, yet they are past compare’ – but after hearing of his banishment immediately transfers her allegiance to Juliet’s official suitor, Paris:
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or ‘twere as good he were
As living hence and you no use of him.
The technique of juxtaposing romantic and anti-romantic attitudes to love is the same as Shakespeare uses in his comedies; here as there the romantic attitude survives criticism, partly because of the sheer poetic of the lovers’ passion, and also because it includes as well as transcends the physicality to which Mercutio and the Nurse are limited.”
And from Garber, a look back and a preview of what is to come:
“With the death of Mercutio, the possibility of containment, and of comedy, dies too. From this point, from the first scene of the third act, tragedy becomes inevitable. The voice of imagination and moderation and perspective is dead, and we stop laughing. Letters now go undelivered, parents can no longer speak with their children. Tragic disorder has come full force upon the play’s world. Tybalt is gone, Mercutio is gone, all by the beginning of the third act, and there is no turning back. Uninstructed by the wiser and more worldly Mercutio, badly counseled by the Friar and the Nurse, Romeo and Juliet are left to fend for themselves in a world whose blackness is no longer tipped with silver. Yet under this pressure they do not fail. They learn, they grow, and they change, so that their deaths are tragic, but not futile.
The most striking instance of such growth in the play is the transformation that Juliet undergoes. When we first encounter her, she is wholly submissive, even passive. She is not yet fourteen, and her life is still dominated by external authority: her father, her mother, and the Nurse who has been with her – at first as her wet nurse – since she was born. One of the quieter poignancies of this play is the story of the Nurse’s own daughter, Susan, who dies young, and offstage, before the beginning of the play. It is a story we have heard before, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where it was Catherine’s sister who had died; we will hear it again, in a fictive version that is nonetheless powerful and haunting, in Twelfth Night, when Viola disguised as the boy Cesario, speaks of the ‘sister’ who pined away for love ‘like patience on a monument,/Smiling at grief.’ To call this touch Shakespearean is merely to beg the question of its evocative power, and to comment on the rate of child mortality in the period is largely to miss the point. By inventing these backstories for his characters, Shakespeare as playwright gives the characters enormous depth and reach.
Juliet, asked by her mother what her thoughts are about marriage, says, ‘It is an honor that I dream not of.’ Confronted with Lady Capulet’s approving book report on Paris, she answers only, “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.’ She is a daughter rather than a prospective wife. It is therefore striking to see how quickly she changes once she sets eyes on Romeo. Immediately this guileless girl of almost fourteen becomes a clever strategist, decoying the Nurse with false preliminary inquiries so that she can attain her true object, to know Romeo’s name:
Come hither, Nurse. What is yon gentleman?
The son and heir of old Tiberio.
What’s he that now is going out of door?
Marry, that, I think, be young Petruchio.
What’s he that follows here, that would not dance?
I know not.
Go ask his name.
And then, aside to us the minute the Nurse bustles off: ‘If he be married/My grave is like to be my wedding bed.’
Juliet will use the same device later in the play when her mother tries to press her toward a hasty and unwelcome marriage, telling her that ‘early next Thursday’ Paris will make her ‘a joyful bride.’
I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam,
I will not marry het; and when I do, I swear
It shall be Romeo – whom you know I hate –
Rather than Paris…
She deceives her mother with Mercutio’s weapon, wordplay and double meanings.
Nowhere is Juliet’s sudden transition to adulthood clearer than in the balcony scene, where she controls the scene completely, declaring her own love rather than waiting for Romeo’s declaration, warning him against false vows and rash love contracts. Twice she leaves the balcony, and twice she returns; her exits and entrances are deliberately theatrical, and when she reappears on the balcony she reappears to the audience as well. Each time we think she has departed – to answer the Nurse’s call, the barrier of authority, or to obey her own instinct toward modesty, the barrier of formality – she reappears and she herself summons Romeo back. The iconography will mirror her dominance, as she stands above and speaks to her lover. The next love scene between them in the space, the aubade scene (3.5), will find them both aloft, having spent the night in lovemaking. But between those two scenes comes the marriage itself – fatefully performed, in terms of staging, in Friar Laurence’s cell, below, almost surely in the same space that will later be used for Juliet’s tomb, visually underscoring the play’s relentless twinning of womb and tomb. The stage location is thus yet another foreshadowing of the tragic pattern that is about to overtake them. The wedding takes place in the last scene of act 2; in the very next scene, the first scene of act 3, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt occur. Again the day world defeats the night world, and the Prince, persuaded of his own generosity in doing so, commutes Romeo’s death sentence to banishment. All this while, Juliet has been waiting for another night. When we hear her next, she will speak, again from her chamber balcony, in the voice of sexual impatience and desire. Her great speech begins:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Toward Phoebus’ lodging. Such a waggoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
It is a magnificent piece of poetry, and is fraught with danger signals at every turn. Juliet wishes the chariot of the sun were drawn by Phaethon, Apollo’s headstrong son, who was too young for such a task. The horses ran away with the chariot, and Phaethon was scorched by the sun, and drowned in the sea.”
And finally, the beginning of Garber’s look at the Nurse:
“Just as the play provides Romeo with Rosaline, and Juliet with Paris, as signs of what they do not yet know about themselves and about love, so also each has an older adviser, whose assistance and hindrance will together demonstrate the limits of ‘wise counsel.’ Juliet has her Nurse, Romeo has Friar Laurence. Juliet’s Nurse is one of the great comic characters of all literature, and her brilliant and funny colloquial speeches illustrate Shakespeare’s mastery over the medium of realistic speech. In the opening scenes of the play the Nurse’s earthiness and practicality, as well as ser frankness in sexual matters, offer a welcome antidote to the artifice, false idealism, and even prissiness embodied in Lady Capulet’s advocacy of Paris. The Nurse swears by her maidenhead – as it was, intact, when she was twelve years old. She is secretly delighted by Mercutio’s remark that ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon,’ even as she pretends to be insulted by his innuendo. Her sense of insult is itself physical, titillated by innuendo: ‘Now, afore God, I am so vexed that every part about me quivers.’ And her long comic narrative about Juliet’s fall as a child, a narrative that turns on her late husband’s labored sexual quip (‘dost thou fall upon thy face?/Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit.’) shows her at her most amusingly and inconsequentially garrulous; the point of her anecdote seems to be to prove to Lady Capulet that Juliet is almost fourteen years old, something Lady Capulet has just said to the Nurse. The proper Lady Capulet and the young Juliet of these opening scenes are embarrassed by the Nurse’s bawdiness, and they try to hush her (‘Enough of this. I pray thee hold thy peace’). The audience is more likely to be pleased by the volubility and sexual frankness of this forthright descendant of the Wife of Bath.
Yet the Nurse is a dangerously static character who does not change in the course of the drama. Like the Friar, she is established as a fixed type, and since she does not grow or change, while Juliet does, we can see at once her charm in a comic world, and her inadequacy for the darker world of tragedy. Like the optical test in which the same color looks different against a light background and a dark one, so the Nurse is framed – and assessed – differently in the two halves of the play. Shakespeare shows this to us in two deliberately parallel scenes, one comic, one tragic, in both of which Juliet tries to get information out of the weary and rambling Nurse. (The device is parallel to the two contrasting wooing scene in Richard III, where Richard’s early success with the Lady Anne is not repeated when he tries the same approach a second time – aiming to marry the daughter of his brother Clarence – and his suit is rejected.)”
More on the Nurse, Friar Laurence, and much more, in my next post.
Two questions for the group:
1. How do you like the pacing of the reading and my posts? A better pace? Too long between acts?
2. Now that we’re about halfway through the play, for those of you who have read it before (or who know it from adaptations etc.), how does it compare to your memories of it?
Our next reading: Romeo and Juliet, Act Three
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning