“Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!”

Romeo and Juliet

Act Three, Part Two

by Dennis Abrams


Much to discuss today:  Mercutio, the Nurse, and the parallels between Romeo’s and Juliet’s crises, and the very different ways they handle them.


First up Garber, whose view of the fight between Mercutio/Romeo/Tybalt is very different from that of Goddard’s:

“…the overarching structure of the play, borrowed in part from the language of love poetry, is the confusion between love and death.  Expressed in such general terms this sounds like a banality, but the exchange is meticulously worked out all levels of language and action, cascading perhaps from the familiar Elizabethan pun on ‘did,’ which means both to cease to be and to come to sexual climax.  [Note] the Friar’s homily, expressed in a paradoxical couplet whose rhyme-words were themselves a familiar pair:

The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb.

What is her burying grave, that is her womb…


And this sentiment is repeated throughout the play.  When she first meets Romeo, Juliet sends the Nurse to find out about him, remarking, ‘If he be married/My grave is like my wedding bed.’  Later, faced with the prospect of a hasty and unwelcome wedding with the County Paris, she tells her parents, ‘Delay this marriage for a month, a week;/Or if you do not, make the bridal bed/In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.’  Lady Capulet, confronted with Juliet’s refusal, exclaims in exasperation, ‘I would the fool were married to her grave’ – a wish that, ironically, comes true.  What begins as a kind of literary cliché, depending on the clichéd rhyme of ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ takes on an increasing reality as the play progresses, and finally crystallizes when Romeo declares, ‘Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.’  Twice we hear mentioned the curious image of Death as a bridegroom – once from old Capulet, and again from Romeo in the final scene…

There is a confusion of love and death too in the comic scenes:  in all the sexual puns of the servants at the beginning of the play, quarreling about whether to cut off the heads of the maids or their maidenheads, and in the dialogue between the Nurse and her servant Peter, whom she upbraids for not intervening when she feels herself insulted by Mercutio.  ‘And thou,’ she says to Peter, ‘must stand by too, and suffer every knave to sue me at his pleasure.’  ‘I saw no man use you at his pleasure’ is his swift reply.  ‘If I had, my weapon should quickly have been out.’  Even sex in the daylight world of Verona is equated with violence, rather than love.

The most tangible sigh of this violent disorder is the duel, stemming from the civil war in Verona’s streets.  If Romeo and Juliet were a romantic comedy, like Love’s Labour’s Lost, it would end where it begins, with the masque at old Capulet’s, a dance, love at first sight, and a pledge of marriage.  But it is a comedy gone wrong, a comedy turned inside out, and Romeo’s wondering first sight of Juliet at the feast – ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ – is sharply disrupted by an alien and anarchic force in the person of Tybalt:  ‘This, by his voice, should be a Montague./Fetch me my rapier, boy.’  Tybalt is a kind of character we will encounter frequently in Shakespeare’s plays in one guise or another, an old-style hero from a world that is almost mythic, primitive, or tribal, a spirit of heroic warfare and revenge.  Like Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, like Hector in Troilus and Cressida, like King Hamlet, and even like Antony in Antony and Cleopatra as described by his Roman admirers, Tybalt is a warrior of the old school, and his method of warfare is single combat, the one-on-one fight intended to defend his honor and the honor of his family:  ‘Now, by the stock and honour of my kin,/To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.’  Recall that he is saying this at a family party, an ‘old accustomed feast,’ in a culture (that of Elizabeth’s England as well as Escalus’s Verona) that places a high value on hospitality and the host-guest relationship.  Even old Capulet, no lover of Montagues, thinks Tybalt’s behavior is inappropriate:  ‘I would not for the wealth of all this town/Here in my house do him disparagement.’  Later echoes of this hospitality theme will come from such diverse speakers as Lady Macbeth, who exclaims, stagily, ‘What, in our house?’ when told about the murder of Duncan for which she and her husband are responsible; and the blinded Duke of Gloucester in King Lear, who in his agony reminds his torturers that he is their host, and they are his guests.  Figures like Tybalt are representatives of an old order of heroism and revenge – on the one hand, heroic, but on the other, unable to function in a modern world of politics and compromise, the world of The Prince, the world of law and language.  Such characters never survive in Shakespeare’s plays.  They all die, as did their historical models, usually, before their time.  They are like dinosaurs, heroic beasts unfit for a smaller world of accommodation and grace.

Tybalt fights by single combat, by challenge, by the word, and he is, like others of his character type, a nonverbal man, a man of few words who fights instead of speaking, preferring and valuing war over politics.  So that when at the beginning of act 3 Tybalt meets Mercutio, the man of infinite language, infinite fantasy, and infinite imagination, conflict is inevitable:


Mercutio, thou consort’st with Romeo.


‘Consort’?  What, does thou make us minstrels?  An thou made minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords.  [Touching his rapier]  Here’s my fiddlestick:  here’s that shall make you dance.  Zounds – ‘Consort’!

Mercutio is almost willing to fight because he doesn’t like Tybalt’s language.  The quarrel is a more intricate one than it may first appear, since ‘consort’ meaning to associate with and ‘consort’ meaning to play or sing together come from different root words, though they were beginning to be combined in the late sixteenth century.  Shakespeare uses ‘consort’ in each sense.  As for ‘minstrels,’ they were by definition artisan-entertainers, originally of a servant class, and in any case far below Mercutio and Tybalt on the social scale.  Mercutio’s quibble thus pretends to understand Tybalt as offering an insult to his rank – hence the colloquial ‘Zounds’ (God’s wounds), underscoring the supposed enormity of Tybalt’s flat-footed address, intended merely to assert that Mercutio and Romeo are friends.  Needless to say, this is far beyond the baffled Tybalt.  For just as Tybalt is a man of the old order, doomed to die because he cannot fit into a new political and social world, so Mercutio is also an alien element in custom-bound Verona, representing for this play the spirit of creative imagination and improvisation.

It is Mercutio – whose name is linked to the quicksilver god Mercury – who tells the story of Queen Mab, the Fairy Queen, who brings to birth all dreams of wish fulfillment, all fantasies.  Mab, imagined as a tiny being who can traverse the bodies of sleepers,

gallops night by night

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

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

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

This logic of sensor association, Mab drives over a soldier’s neck and he dreams of cutting throats – seems strikingly modern, in one sense, even as the notion of a mischievous Fairy Queen who tangles the manes of horses in the night links Queen Mab to folk superstition and to the equally tiny fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed],.  Most characters in Romeo and Juliet, when they speak of dreams, have in mind the older sense of omens and portents.  ‘[M]y mind misgives/Some consequence yet hanging in the stars,’ says Romeo.  But Mercutio is the spokesman for the power of dreams, and even though he gaily dismisses them as ‘the children of an idle brain,/Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,’ for him dreaming is an aspect of possibility and change, of identity and expression, related to what a much later era would call ‘the unconscious.’  And when he dies, this capacity of transformation through language and imagination dies with him.  He is not its agent, but rather its emblem, the sign of that possibility. [MY NOTE:  Further down, we’ll see Goddard’s very different look at Mercutio and his dreams.]

We may notice that the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt has again been anticipated, in the play’s comic structure, by a comic scene that seems at first to be of little consequence.  In act 2, scene 3, we see Mercutio engage Romeo in a battle of wits, rejoicing that his friend has become ‘sociable’ once more, recovered from his debilitating infatuation with Rosaline.  As the puns and quips fly, Mercutio pretends to be overcome, and finally calls upon a friend to part the combatants:  ‘Come between us, good Benvolio.  My wits faints.’  As was the case with the Nurse’s first message, the mood here is playful.  But a few hours, and only three scenes later, when the friends encounter Tybalt, the same scenario results in tragedy.  The weapons this time are swords rather than words, and it is Romeo who intervenes, while Mercutio is mortally wounded as a result of his intervention.  Romeo’s murmured explanation, ‘I thought all for the best,’ telling reinforces the parallel between this duel and the previous one, for the name of Benvolio, the peacemaker in the duel of words, means ‘well-wisher’ – one who thinks all for the best.

Yet even as Mercutio lies in the street dying, he is still able to joke.  Romeo says to him wishfully that ‘[t]he hurt cannot be much,’ and receives this devastating reply:

No, ‘tis not so deep as 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!

The ‘plague,’ of course, does come – in multiple forms.  There is an actual plague abroad in the city, an ‘infectious pestilence’ that keeps Friar John from delivering the vital letter that would have prevented misconception and tragedy.  And the more metaphorical plague of hatred, civil war, and banishment also spreads through the city, and through the theater.  The disease is a mortal one, and its name is tragedy.”



And this from Goddard, a look at the Nurse, and her curious resemblance to Mercutio.

“Shakespeare sees to it shall not mistake [the] white flame of Romeo’s love, or Juliet’s, for anything lower by opposing to the lovers two of the impurest characters he ever created, Mercutio and the Nurse.  And yet, in spite of them, it has often been so mistaken.  Mercutio and the Nurse are masterpieces of characterization so irresistible that many are tempted to let them arrogate to themselves as virtue what is really the creative merit of their maker.  They are a highly vital pair, brimming with life and fire – but fire in a less heavenly sense than the one just mentioned.  Juliet, at the most critical moment of her life, sums up the Nurse to all eternity in one word.  When, in her darkest hour, this woman who has acted as mother to her from birth goes back on her completely, in a flash of revelation the girl sees what she is, and reversing in one second the feeling of a lifetime, calls her a fiend (‘most wicked fiend’).  She could not have chosen a more accurate term, for the Nurse is playing at the moment precisely the part of the devil in a morality play. And Juliet’s ‘ancient damnation’ is an equally succinct description of her sin.  What more ancient damnation is there than sensuality – and all the other sins it brings in its train?  Those who dismiss the Nurse as just a coarse old woman whose loquacity makes us laugh fail hopelessly to plumb the depth of her depravity.  It was the Nurse’s desertion of her that drove Juliet to Friar Laurence and the desperate expedient of the sleeping potion.  Her cowardice was a link in the chain that led to Juliet’s death.

The Nurse has sometimes been compared with Falstaff – perhaps the poet’s first comic character who clearly surpassed her.  Any resemblance between them is superficial, for they are far apart as the poles.  Falstaff was at home in low places but the sun of his imagination always accompanied him as a sort of disinfectant.  The Nurse had no imagination in any proper sense.  No sensualist – certainly no sensualist – ever has.  Falstaff loved Hall.  What the Nurse’s ‘love’ for Juliet amounted to is revealed when she advises her to make the best of a bad situation and take Paris (bigamy and all).  The man she formerly likened to a toad suddenly becomes superior to an eagle.

Go, counselor,

cries Juliet, repudiating her Satan without an instant’s hesitation,

Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.

It is the rejection of the Nurse.  But unlike Falstaff, when he is rejected, she carries not one spark of our sympathy or pity with her, and a pathetic account of her death, as of his, would be unthinkable.  We scorn her as utterly as Juliet does.

The contrast between Friar Laurence and the Nurse even the most casual reader or spectator could scarcely miss.  The difference between the spiritual advisor of Romeo and the worldly confidant of Juliet speaks for itself.  The resemblance of Mercutio to the Nurse is more easily overlooked, together with the analogy between the part he plays in Romeo’s life and the part she plays in Juliet’s.  Yet it is scarcely too much to say that the entire play is built around that resemblance and that analogy.

The indications abound that Shakespeare created these two to go together.  To begin with, they hate each other on instinct, as two rival talkers generally do, showing how akin they are under the skin.  ‘A gentleman, nurse,’ says Romeo of Mercutio, ‘that loves to hear himself talk, and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month.’  The cap which Romeo thus innocently hands the Nurse fits her so perfectly that she immediately puts it on in two speeches about Mercutio which are typical examples of her love of hearing herself talk and of saying things she is powerless to stand by:

An a’speak anything against me, I’ll take him down, an ‘a were lustier than he is, and twenty such Jacks; and if I cannot, I’ll find those that shall.  Scurvy knave!  I am none of his flirt-gills; I am none of his skains mates.  (Turning to Peter,  her man) And thou must stand by took and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure!…Now, afore God, I am so vexed, that every part about me quivers.  Scurvy knave!

That last, and the tone of the whole, show that there was a genuinely vicious element in the Nurse under her superficial good nature, as there invariably is in an old sensualist; and I don not believe it is exceeding the warrant of the text to stay that the rest of the speech in which she warns Romeo against gross behavior toward her young gentlewoman – quite in the manner of Polonius and Laertes warning Ophelia against Hamlet – proves that in her heart she would have been delighted to have him corrupt her provided she could have shared the secret and been the go-between.  ‘A bawd, a bawd, a bawd!’ is Mercutio’s succinct description of her.

But, as usual, when a man curses someone else, he characterizes himself.  In what sense Mercutio is a bawd appears only too soon.  In the meantime what a pity it is that he is killed off so early in the action as to allow no full and final encounter between these two fountains of loquacity!  ‘Nay, an there were two such, we should have none shortly,’ Mercutio says it in another connection, but it applies perfectly to this incomparable pair.  Their roles are crowded with parallelisms even down to what seem like the most trivial details.  ‘We’ll to dinner thither,’ says Mercutio, for example, parting from Romeo in Act II, scene 4.  ‘Go, I’ll to dinner,’ says the Nurse on leaving Juliet at the end of scene 5.  A tiny touch.  But they are just the two who would be certain never to miss a meal.  In Shakespeare even such trifles have significance.

The fact is that Mercutio and the Nurse are simply youth and old age of the same type.  He is aimed at the same goal she has nearly attained.  He would have become the same sort of old man that she is old woman, just as she was undoubtedly the same sort of young girl that he is young man.  They both think of nothing but sex – except when they are so busy eating or quarreling that they can think of nothing.  (I haven’t forgotten Queen Mab; I’ll come to her presently.)  Mercutio cannot so much as look at the clock without a bawdy thought.  So permeated is his language with indecency that most of it passes unnoticed not only by the innocent reader, but by all not schooled in Elizabethan smut.  Even on our unsqueamish stage an unabridged form of his role in its twentieth-century equivalent would not be tolerated.  Why does Shakespeare place the extreme example of this man’s soiled fantasies precisely before the balcony scene?  Why but to stress the complete freedom from sensuality of Romeo’s passion?   Place Mercutio’s dirtiest words, as Shakespeare does, right beside Romeo’s apostrophe to his ‘bright angel’ and all the rest of that scene where the lyricism of young love reaches one of its loftiest pinnacles in all poetry – and what remains to be said for Mercutio?  Nothing – except that he is Mercutio.  His youth, the hot weather, the southern temperament, the fashion among Italian gentleman of the day, are availing please; not only Romeo, but Benvolio, had those things to contend with also.  And they escaped.  Mercutio is close to the sun.  But it was the material son, Sol, not the god, Helios, that Mercutio was close to.  Beyond dispute, this man had vitality, wit, and personal magnetism.  But personal magnetism combined with sexuality and pugnacity is one of the most dangerous mixtures that can exist.  The unqualified laudation that Mercutio has frequently received, and the suggestion that Shakespeare had to kill him off lest he quite set the play’s titular hero in the shade, are the best proof of the truth of that statement.  Those who are themselves seduced by Mercutio are not likely to be good judges of him.  It may be retorted that Mercutio is nearly always a success on the stage, while Romeo is likely to be insipid.  The answer to that is that while Mercutio’s are relatively common, Romeos are excessively rare.  If Romeo proves insipid, he has been wrongly cast or badly acted.

‘But how about Queen Mab?’ it will be asked.  The famous description of her has been widely held to be quite out of character and has been set down as an outburst of poetry from the author put arbitrarily in Mercutio’s mouth.  But the judgment ‘out of character’ should always be a last resort.  Undoubtedly the lines, if properly his, do reveal an unexpected side of Mercutio.  The prankish delicacy of some of them stand out in pleasing contrast with his grosser aspects.  The psychology of this is sound.  The finer side of a sensualist is suppressed and is bound to come out, if at all, incidentally, in just such a digression as this seems to be.  Shakespeare can be trusted not to leave such things out.  Few passages in his plays, however, have been more praised for the wrong reasons.  The account of Queen Mab is supposed to prove Mercutio’s imagination:  under his pugnacity there was a poet.  It would be nearer the truth, I think, to guess that Shakespeare put it in as an example of what poetry is properly held to be and is not.  The lines on Queen Mab are indeed delightful.  But imagination in any proper sense they are not.  They are sheer fancy.  Moreover, Mercutio’s anatomy and philosophy of dreams prove that he knows nothing of their genuine import.  He dubs them

the children of an idle brain,

Begot of nothing but vain fancy.

Perhaps his are – the Queen Mab lines would seem to indicate as much.  Romeo, on the other hand, holds that dreamers ‘dream things true,’ and gives a definition of them that for combined brevity and beauty would be hard to better.   They are ‘love’s shadows.’  And not only from what we can infer about his untold dream on this occasion, but from all the dreams and premonitions of both Romeo and Juliet throughout the play, they come from a fountain of wisdom somewhere beyond time.  Primitives distinguish between ‘big’ and ‘little’ dreams.  (Aeschylus makes the same distinction in Prometheus Bound.)  Mercutio, with his aldermen and gnats and coach-makers and sweetmeats and parsons and drums and ambuscadoes, may tell us a little about the littlest of little dreams.  He thinks that dreamers are still in their day world at night.  Both Romeo and Juliet know that there are dreams that come from as far below the surface of that world as was that prophetic tom at the bottom of which she saw him ‘as one dead’ at their last parting.  Finally, how characteristic of Mercutio that he should make Queen Mab a midwife and blemish his description of her by turning her into a ‘hag’ whose function is to bring an end to maidenhood.  Is this another link between Mercutio and the Nurse?  Is Shakespeare here preparing the way for his intimation that she would be quite capable of assisting in Juliet’s corruption?  It might well be.  When Shakespeare writes a speech that seems to be out of character, it generally, as in this case, deserves the closest scrutiny.

And there is another justification of the Queen Mab passage.  Romeo and Juliet not only utter poetry; they are poetry.  The loveliest comment on Juliet that I ever heard expressed this to perfection.  It was made by a girl only a little older than Juliet herself.  When Friar Laurence recommends philosophy to Romeo as comfort in banishment, Romeo replies:

Hang up philosophy!

Unless philosophy can make a Juliet…

It helps not, it prevails not.  Talk no more.

‘Philosophy can’t,’ the girl observed, ‘but poetry can – and it did!’  Over against the poetry of Juliet, Shakespeare was bound, by the demands of contrast on which all arts rests, to offer in the course of his play examples of poetry in various verbal, counterfeit, or adulterate estates.

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,

To beautify him, only lacks a cover.

That is Lady Capulet on the prospective bridegroom, Paris.  It would have taken the play’s booby prize for ‘poetry’ if Capulet himself had not outdone it in his address to the weeping Juliet:

How no!  a conduit, girl?  What, still in tears?

Evermore showering?  In one little body

Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind;

For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,

Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,

Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs;

Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,

Without a sudden calm, will overset

Thy tempest-tossed body.

It is almost as if Shakespeare were saying in so many words:  That is how poetry is not written.  Yet a little later, when the sight of his daughter, dead as all suppose, shakes even this egoist into a second of sincerity, he can say,

Death lies on her like an untimely frost

Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

There is poetry, deep down, even in Capulet.  But the instant passes and he is again talking about death as his son-in-law – and all the rest.  The Nurse’s vain repetitions in this scene are further proof that she is a heathen.  Her O-lamentable-days only stress the lack of one syllable of genuine grief or love such as Juliet’s father shows.  These examples all go to show what Shakespeare is up to in the Queen Mab speech.  It shines, and even seems profound, beside the utterances of the Capulets and the Nurse.  But it fades, and grows superficial, beside Juliet’s and Romeo’s.  It is one more shade of what passes for poetry but is not.”


So now that we’ve said our final goodbye to Mercutio…what do you think?  What’s YOUR reading?   Whose reading seems to come closer to yours — Garber?  Goddard?  Do you have your own take?


And finally (yes, I know this is a long post, but there’s a lot to talk about – my apologizes) – a quick look at the last two scenes, from Goddard:

“Romeo’s mental condition following the death of Tybalt is proof of the treason he has committed against his own soul.  Up to this point in the scene, as we saw, Shakespeare has given us three Romeos.  Now he gives us a fourth:  the man rooted to the spot at the sight of what he has done.  The citizens have heard the tumult and are coming ‘Stand not amaz’d,’ cried Benvolio – and it is a case where one poet’s words seem to have been written to illustrate another’s.  Wordsworth’s lines are like a mental stage direction for the dead Romeo:

Action is transitory – a step, a blow,

The motion of a muscle – this way or that –

‘Tis done; and in the after-vacancy

We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed;

Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,

And has the nature of infinity.

‘O, I am fortune’s fool,’ cries Romeo.  ‘Love’s not Time’s fool,’ says Shakespeare, as if commenting on this very scene, in that confession of his own faith, the 116th sonnet.

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

There is an astrology at the opposite pole from that of the Chorus to this play.  Romeo’s love looked on a tempest – and it was shaken.  He apparently has just strength enough to escape and seek refuge in Friar Laurence’s call, where, at the word of his banishment, we find him on the floor,

Taking the measure of an unmade grave,

in a fit of that suicidal despair that so often treads on the heels of ‘fury.’  It is not remorse for having killed Tybalt that accounts for his condition, not even vexation with himself for having spoiled his own marriage, but shame for having betrayed Juliet’s faith in the boundlessness of love.

Meanwhile, at the scene of the duels, citizens have gathered, followed by the Prince with Capulets and Montagues.  Lady Capulet, probably the weakest character in the play, is the first to demand more blood as a solution of the problem:

Prince, as thou art true,

For blood of ours, shed blood of Montague.

But the Prince asks first for a report of what happened.

Benvolio, who began this bloody fray?

Benvolio mars what is otherwise a remarkably accurate account of the affair by failing utterly to mention Mercutio’s part in instigating the first duel, placing the entire blame on Tybalt.

He is a kinsman to the Montague,

cries Lady Capulet,

Affection makes him false, he speaks not true.

Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,

And all those twenty could but kill one life.

Her sense of reality and character are on a level with her courage.

In Capulet’s orchard, the Nurse brings to Juliet the rope ladder by which her husband is to reach her chamber – and with it the news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment.

O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

cries Juliet,

O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,

When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend

In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?

Even in the exaggeration of her anguish, Juliet diagnoses what has happened precisely as Shakespeare does:  a fiend – the spirit of Mercutio – has taken possession of her lover-husband’s body.  Contrast her insight at such a moment with the Nurse’s drivellings:

There’s no trust,

No faith, no honesty in men; all perjur’d.

All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.

Ah, where’s my man?

A fair sample of how well her inane generalizations survive the test of a concrete need.

Back in Friar Laurence’s cell, the stunned Romeo is like a drunken man vaguely coming to himself after a debauch.  When he draws his sword to make away with himself, the Friar restrains not by his hand, as Romeo had once sought to restrain Mercutio at a similarly critical moment, but by the force of his words:

Hold thy desperate hand!

Art thou a man?

And he attempts to sting him back to manhood by comparing his tears to those of a woman and his fury to that of a beast.

Thou hast amaz’d me…

Why rail’st thou on thy birth, the heaven, and earth?

Since birth, and heaven, and earth, all three do meet

In thee at once, which thou at once wouldst lose.

No nonsense about ‘star-cross’d lovers’ for Friar Laurence.  Shakespeare, like Dante before him and Milton after him, knew where the stars are, knew that heaven and hell, and even earth, are located within the human soul.  Romeo is the ‘skilless soldier’ who sets afire the powder in his own flask.

Juliet too in her despair can think of death. But with what relative calmness and in what a different key!  The contrast between the two lovers at this stage is a measure of the respectively innocent and guilty states of their souls.

Their meeting at night is left to our imagination, but their parting at dawn is Shakespeare’s imagination functioning at its highest lyrical intensity, with interwoven symbols of nightingale and lark, darkness and light, death and love.  Then follow in swift succession the mother’s announcement of her daughter’s impending marriage with Paris, Juliet’s ringing repudiation of the idea, the rejection of her, in order, by her father, her mother, and the Nurse – the first brutal, the second supine, the third Satanic.  And then, with an instantaneousness that can only be called divine, Juliet’s rejection of the Nurse.  In a matter of seconds, the child has become a woman.  This is the second crisis of the drama, Juliet’s which, with Romeo’s gives the play its shape as certainly as its two foci determine the shape of an ellipse.  If ever two crises were symmetrical, and opposite, these are.

Romeo, in a public place, lured insensibly through the influence of Mercutio in the use of force falls, and as a direct result of his fall, kills Tybalt.  Juliet, in her chamber, deserted by father and mother and enticed to faithlessness by the Nurse, child as she is, never wavers for an instant, puts her tempter behind her, and consents as the price of her fidelity to be ‘buried’ alive.  Can anyone imagine that Shakespeare did not intend this contrast, did not build up the detailed parallelism between Mercutio and the Nurse to effect it?  Romeo, as we said, does not give quite ‘all’ for love.  But Juliet does.  She performs her miracle and received supernatural strength as her reward.  He fails to perform his and is afflicted with weakness.  But eventually her spirit triumphs in him.   Had it done so at first, the tragedy would have been averted.   Here again the heroine transcends the hero.  And yet Romeo had Friar Laurence as adviser while Juliet was brought up by the Nurse!  The profounder the truth, the more quietly Shakespeare has a habit of uttering it.  It is as if he were saying here that innocence comes from below the sources of pollution and can run the fountain clear.”


Thoughts?  Is there, indeed, far more to the play than a mere tale of “star-cross’d lovers?”


Our next reading:  Romeo and Juliet, Act Four

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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2 Responses to “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!”

  1. GGG says:

    First, thanks for the captions!
    I think I am with Goddard on this one. The nurse, from the beginning where she repeats the story of Juliet “falling on her back,” seemed to me a rather repellent (although humorous) character. And Mercutio’s word-play has a sense of menace to it. I can see them as the sort of “mischief-makers” that Goddard portrays.
    This play has made me think several times of the sonnets we have read and Shakespeare’s conflicted feelings about love and desire. Do you think that fits with these opposing pairs?

    • GGG: Very much. One of the many things I’m learning doing this blog is that while the sonnets are probably (although possibly not) more personal and autobiographical than the plays (in which Shakespeare is everywhere and nowhere), the line between the two is not as strong a one as I’d previously thought.

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