Romeo and Juliet
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Friar Laurence outlines his solution to a desperate Juliet: she will agree to marry Paris, but on the evening of the weeding take a drug which will put her into a death-like sleep. When she is laid in the family tomb, Romeo will be there waiting for her, and the two can escape to Mantua. Juliet takes the potion as planned, and Friar Laurence takes charge of the funeral arrangements.
So, now it seems that things are racing out of control. Time, which is a dominant theme throughout the play is running out. And the poetry, except for Juliet’s extraordinary speech before she takes the potion, seems to be disappearing.
A few things from a few people:
From Maynard Mack:
“What, for instance, do the repeated hints that this love is as dangerous as it is beautiful – perhaps beautiful because dangerous – signify? Like the blaze of gunpowder, says Friar Laurence:
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
To be sure, the friar is an old man, skeptical of youth’s ways; yet can we help reflecting on this diagnosis when we recall at the play’s end that five young people have died: Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo, and Juliet? Does it suffice to hold the feud alone accountable?
Then there is the repeated situation of enclosure. With the exception of their marriage scene at the exact center of the play, we see Romeo and Juliet together only in the interval between evening and dawn, and always in a kind of enclave or special space which is threatened from without. At the ball, they are framed by a sonnet and by a sudden quiet that is made the more striking and precarious by Tybalt’s attempted intrusion. In the first balcony scene, their enclosure is the Capulet’s walled garden, and the interview is twice on the point of interruption by the Nurse. In the second such scene, where the setting is Juliet’s chamber, their leave-taking is interrupted, first by the Nurse’s warning and then by Lady Capulet’s appearance. Even in the tomb the social order intervenes, in the person of the Friar, between Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s.
What goes on here, apart from the requirements of the plot, is a playwright’s rendering of the feeling of intense but vulnerable privacy that all lovers know. Does it also tell us that the irreconcilability of this love with the ordinary daylight world is a tragic consequence of its nature, a trait not separable from it without destroying the thing it is – and so more tragic on that account?
Similar ambiguities hover about the relationship established between the passion of Romeo and Juliet and the death that seems to be implicit in it. Significantly, the last scene takes place in a tomb. This is a remarkable denouement, and we have been prepared for it by a succession of references, prophetic of the outcome even when dropped casually or in ignorance, in which love and death are identified or closely linked. First, by Juliet herself:
Come, cords; come, nurse. I’ll to my wedding bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!
[MY NOTE: To be followed in Act Four by this from Capulet to Paris: ‘O son, the night before thy wedding day/Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,/Flower as she was, deflowered by him.”]
Soon after, by her mother, angered at Juliet’s disclination to marry Paris: ‘I would the fool were married to her grave.’ Next, by her father, supposing that his daughter’s apparent death on the eve of her wedding is real: ‘Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir.’ Later, by Paris, acting on the same supposition at the tomb: ‘Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew’ And finally by Romeo:
Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear o that I still will stay with thee…
The playwright’s insistence throughout on pairing the bride-bed with the grave reaches a climax in the tomb-scene, where death and sexual consummation become indistinguishable as Romeo ‘dies’ (a word often used in Renaissance literature to refer to the culmination of the sexual act) upon a kiss, and Juliet, plunging the dagger home, sighs: ‘there rust, and let me die.’
We must recall, too, that from the moment they acknowledge their love these lovers have been made to sense that it spells or may spell doom:
Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! my life is my foe’s debt.
If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.
Their apprehension can be attributed in part to the feud, but only in part. Juliet’s lines above are spoken while she is yet in ignorance of Romeo’s identity, and Romeo’s premonitions of ‘Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars’ precede even his visit to the ball. We in the audience, moreover, have been assured from the very beginning that that this love is ‘death-marked.’
What are we to make of such evidence? Does the play urge us to conclude that every high romantic passion, by its very finality and absoluteness, its inwardness and narcissism, is necessarily allied with death, even perhaps (however unconsciously) seeks death? being oblivious of all competing values to a degree that ordinary human lives cannot afford and determined to hold fast to a perfection that such lives cannot long sustain? and therefore tending irresistibly to a ‘love-death’ because unable or unwilling to absorb the losses imposed by a ‘love-life?’ Or is the implied connection at once simpler and more universal: that death is always the ‘other pole’ required to generate love’s meaning – the little negotiable domestic loves that most of us aspiore to as much as the austerest romantic pang? that our loves, too, are ‘death-marked’ and (in the senses that matter most) ‘star-crossed,’ because both marked and crossed by the general human fate, which is to die? and therefore that those audiences are right after all, who despite the play’s concern with a particular pair of lovers in a particular situation, sense it in a universal parable that speaks eloquently to their own condition?”
“Shakespeare’s play starts with lead and ends in gold: in between it is mainly silver, silvery, and iron (daggers are ‘iron,’ while there are ‘silver sounds,’ silver among the musicians, silver-tipped trees at night, and a prevalent silver moonlight). I have no doubt that Shakespeare was alluding to the classical idea of the four Ages of Mankind – as outlines in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example – with the brass age here elided. But, this being Shakespeare, the Ages are here reversed – so that we are presented with, not the downward declensions of history, but the soaring ascensions of poetry. Romeo is all lead to start with, pure inertia. No dancing for him:
I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe.
Under love’s heavy burden so I sink.
We will see him ‘bounding’ soon enough (‘he ran this way and leapt this orchard wall,’) but he has yet to be sparked into lightness and leaping, soaring motion. In this, unawakened youth is like age. Juliet, thinking the Nurse much too slow, complains:
But old folks, many feign as if they were dead –
Unwieldly, slow, heavy and pale as lead.
It is, of course, primarily Juliet herself who will ‘feign as if she were dead’ – [MY NOTE: That’s great – I’d completely forgotten about that line.] the play is a tissue of unconscious and conscious premonitions, but here, her ‘warm youthful blood…would be as swift in motion as a ball.’
Romeo, aroused, is now the reverse of leaden. ‘O, let us hence! I stand on sudden haste,’ he says impatiently to the Friar; who replies, with a sagacity which no longer has any purchase – ‘Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.’ Nothing can now stop Romeo in his running – and his stumbling. Contemplating the moment of his imminent marriage, Romeo declares:
But come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight.
Another omen – the joy will be ‘countervailed’ by exactly ‘one short minute’ in the tomb. Here, it is the Friar who gives voice to apprehensions:
These violent delights have violent ends.
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
In many ways, these lines sum up the play. Apart from the honey turning loathsome in its own deliciousness – that belongs squarely in Troilus and Cressida, another of the only three plays entitled by a couple’s names (the third is Antony and Cleopatra). Romeo and Juliet’s love is too quick and short to have time to curdle. It is violent and explosive, and they kiss and ‘consume’ – and are consumed – at the same moment. In their ‘triumph’ – i.e. the flash-point of an explosion – they do, indeed, die. But also – they die in triumph, in the wider sense of the word; or, their death is their triumph. A triumph was probably originally a thriambos, a hymn to Bacchus; and, as Juliet and Romeo toast each other in festal poison prior to death, that will do nicely for the occasion. ‘Moderation’ is, of course, out of the question; and ‘long love’ was never on the cards. And they are too swift in their tardiness (or too tardy in their swiftness), arriving, and acting, somehow both too late and too soon. (When old Capulet says ‘it is so very late/That we may call it early by and by,’ he is in the spirit of the play – it is, invariably, both very late, and yet too early.) The precipitately planned marriage of Paris to Juliet ‘should be slowed’ when they should be, just as other things refuse to be accelerated when they need to be. Explaining his failure to deliver the crucial letter to Romeo, Friar John describes how he was forcibly detained in a house of ‘infectious pestilence…So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.’ Things are too fast, or, more rarely, too slow. Nothing seems to go at the right speed. The ‘speed ‘ of the young lovers is only ‘stayed’ in, and by, death. Thereafter, they are transformed into ‘pure gold’ statues. Permanently slowed – definitely stayed. Art forever.
They are, in a sense, simply too young – love hits them prematurely, as we may say (hence, I think the deliberate juvenalization of Juliet to fourteen; an age at which, even in those days and among high-born families, it was, apparently, very rare for a girl to marry.) As John Lawlor puts it – ‘in both we meet youth on the hither side of experience.’ But, if it finds them pre – or im-mature, they are something very different by the end. In a sense, they have moved beyond considerations of maturity – as it feels, out of time altogether. But, in the world of the play, in hot, feasting, feuding, fighting, joking, courting, drudging, playing, Verona – where people are ‘soon moody to be moved’ time is – as it were, everywhere. Characters think back over the years – wasn’t that wedding twenty-five years ago, come Pentecost? The Nurse can tell Juliet’s age ‘to the hour.’ In this play, you are never from a clock, or a time check. Romeo’s first words are ‘Is the day so young?’ ‘But new struck nine,’ answers Benvolio. Thereafter, Shakespeare ‘sustains the emphasis on the continuous counterpoint between extended periods and an exactly stipulated day, hour, moment’ in Brian Gibbons’ felicitous formulation.
There is recurrent emphasis on the time of dawn – Romeo is described as walking in a sycamore grove at dawn, before we see him: he leaves the Capulet orchard at dawn: he leaves Juliet at dawn after their wedding night: Juliet’s supposedly ‘dead’ body is found at dawn by the Nurse: and it is dawn when the Prince surveys the dead bodies and predicts that the sun will not rise that day. Dawn is, or should be, usually accompanied by a sense of new beginnings, a refreshing and renewing light dispelling the last of the darkness. But in this play, it is more characteristically associated with separation, departure, and death. But, for Romeo and Juliet, might death not be a kind of dawn? I think we should feel something like that. Certainly, everyday time is against them, down to that last single minute when Romeo, ever precipitate, kills himself far too quickly, just too soon. In the inner universe of love they have created for themselves, it is as if they, somehow, recede from the world’s time into a private, ecstatic, timelessness. But these worlds collide, and clock time, calendar time, will not let them be. In other plays, time, ‘ripe time’, is often a restorative, regenerative force, helping to expose evil, bring justice, effect reconciliation. But not in this play, the ever-resourceful, benevolently plotting Friar, still thinks, or hopes, that he is living in a ‘comic’ world in which everything is still possible. So, after the sentence of exile has been passed, he packs Romeo off to Mantua:
Where thou shall live till we can find a time
To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back
With twenty hundred thousand times more joy
Than thou went’st forth in lamentation.
In a comedy, this is just what would happen, one way or another. But it is too late, or too early – or too something – for that here. The Friar is always optimistic that he will ‘find a time’ – time for this, for that, for the other. But, here, there is no time to be found; and, as we say, no time to be lost, either. For Romeo and Juliet, there is just no time.
The Friar uses ‘blaze’ to mean ‘make public’; but he could hardly have fastened on a more appropriate verb (it comes from older words meaning both ‘blow’ and ‘shine’). The hot afternoon son blazes down on the square in Verona, heating ‘mad blood’ to fighting point. In the great houses at night, the torches and fires are blazing as the feasting and dancing go forward. ‘More torches here…More light, more light!’ is the host’s cry. Romeo is a torch-bearer first and last – self-effacingly at the ball; brave and determined at the tomb. If his marriage to Juliet is as short as a flash of lightning, it is, for its duration, an incandescent blaze. Fires go out, or are quenched, as surely as lightning disappears. ‘Come, we burn daylight…We waste our lights in vain, like lights by day,’ says Mercutio, impatient to get to the ball. There is something strange about, say, a candle flame in bright sunshine, and ‘burning daylight’ is a graphic way of evoking that rather curious light-devouring-light phenomenon. The question becomes – is the ‘blaze’ ignited by Romeo and Juliet’s love a wasted light? Or something else? ‘What light through yonder window breaks?’ becomes, by the end, an almost metaphysical question.
But there is another source of light in the play, which is the reverse of transient – the stars. Before his feast, Capulet in a gracious invitation, declares:
At my poor house look to behold this night
Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light.
There are number of references to ‘earth.’ Juliet is, for her father, ‘the hopeful lady of my earth,’ while Romeo addresses himself as ‘dull earth’ before he leaps the orchard wall, and starts to ‘soar.’ Beautiful young ladies are ‘earth-treading stars’ – so much is gallantry, a courteous conceit. But, in a much more powerful and dramatic way, Romeo and Juliet begin to emerge as ‘earth-treading stars’ in earnest, and it is the earth that they would be glad to leave behind, below. This is adumbrated by Romeo’s reaction to his first sight of Juliet:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs above the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
Not, finally, too expensive for the earth to purchase, since the tomb claims her at the end. But, as M. Mahood suggests, she will prove ‘too rare a creature for mortal life.’ Romeo, who at the start is a young posing, Petrarchan ‘lover’ who could have walked out of Love’s Labour’s Lost, is still indulging himself in self-congratulatory conceits – hence the ‘Ethiop’s ear’ business. But, once inflamed, he soon ‘blazes’ into authentic, coruscating poetry. Juliet at the window, not only serves to ‘kill the envious moon’ (the planet of periodicity and cyclical time), but outshines the stars as well:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp [that phenomenon again!];
her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region scream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
Reciprocally, Juliet on her wedding night, addresses the darkness:
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
As Professor Mahood very accurately puts it, Romeo and Juliet ‘stellify (to turn into a star) each other.’ And the reminder of how recently Juliet must have been cutting out stars in some child’s nursery game, is not only exquisite. It reminds us that she has been, precipitately, launched into the seas of adult passion, with only a little girl’s experience to draw on.”
And one last statement on the Nurse, from Bloom:
“Like Mercutio, the Nurse moves us at last to distrust every apparent value in the tragedy except the lover’s commitment to each other.”
Our next reading: Romeo and Juliet, Act Five
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.