Romeo and Juliet; Enter Beavis and Butt-Head

The Chorus walks off the stage. You’ve sat up (or stood up) and taken notice that this play is going to be something different, something special.

The action of Romeo and Juliet begins with the entry of two very minor characters:

SAMPSON
Gregory, on my word we’ll not carry coals.

GREGORY
No, for then we should be colliers.

SAMPSON
I mean, and we be in choler, we’ll draw.

GREGORY
Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.

As I’ve said, I’m very particular about this opening. To repeat myself, Sampson and Gregory are literally and figuratively spear carriers for the Capulets. They never appear again after this scene. Some say that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a screenwriter. But any screenwriting teacher today would tell him to give them some grunts and mutters and get them offstage as quickly as possible. (Unless he had a post-Tarantino hipster instructor, who’d have let him get away with some pop culture–based repartee laced with obscenities. But only if he’d kill Romeo halfway through.) What does Shakespeare do? He lets them stand there and trade puns for forty lines.

Those first four lines show how it works. The Arden Second (there isn’t an Arden Third of Romeo and Juliet yet, though there is one of Double Falsehood) editor tells us that “carry coals” is ”A current expression which meant ‘to submit to insult or humiliation.’” Gregory’s reply, “for then we should be colliers,” picks up on both the literal meaning (“then we’d be people who hauled coal”) and the metaphorical (colliers were proverbially dishonest, so to be one is not to be true to oneself). Sampson brings it back to the literal—“if somebody makes us angry (“in choler”), instead of ‘carrying coals’ and taking it we’ll draw our swords.” To which Gregory puns (or “quibbles,” as you’ll always see the scholars put it—same thing) on “draw” as well as “collar,” meaning roughly “just so long as you keep your neck out of the hangman’s noose.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production that gives Sampson and Gregory full rein without cutting any of their lines. I’ve seen more than one production in which they were simply omitted. Reading that opening exchange, you might well sympathize. The wordplay might seem labored, if for no other reason than that the words have slipped away (who even uses “choleric” these days, let alone “choler,” and who even knows what a collier is?). I’d insist, though, that if you cut the words you’d better replicate their effects somehow. You, the twenty-first-century reader, might not be taking it all in, but rest assured Shakespeare’s original attentive listeners were. Just as (if my history is right) they had never heard a play introduced by a sonnet before, they had never seen one open with such a burst of rapid-fire wordplay. The first thing you would have to do, then, is to find an equivalent way of blowing your audience’s minds

And the second thing? Let’s pick up:

SAMPSON
A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY
To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand:
therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON
A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will
take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY
That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON
True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.

GREGORY
The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

“Moved” can mean “to be aroused” and “stand” means what you suspect, “to have an erection.” So you have Sampson throwing down the gauntlet to Gregory, and Gregory, ahem, rising to the challenge, essentially telling Sampson “you can’t get it up.” The whole business about the “wall” reminds us that in these days before indoor plumbing, the gutters were open sewers and people would empty their chamber pots from above without being too fastidious about warning those below. Thus when walking you wanted to be closer to the wall, away from the street. With that information, you can trace how Sampson and Gregory pun on that sense and the sudden violence in “the weakest goes to the wall” (i.e. “up against the wall” more or less in the 1960s sense) and thrusting the Montague maids to the wall, where Sampson imagines doing to them exactly what you’re thinking.

Again, all this wordplay is showing off, but it has a purpose. By this point you know these guys are thugs, and though you don’t know who they are, you know they have a problem with the Montagues. Not bad for less than twenty lines into the play: this is what we call dramatic economy.

SAMPSON
‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY
The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON
Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY
They must take it in sense that feel it.

The overtone of sexual violence that entered with the idea of thrusting the maids against the wall takes over. I don’t need to explain “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads” to you. At least I hope I don’t.

SAMPSON
Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

GREGORY
‘Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been poor John. Draw thy tool! here comes two of the house of the Montagues.

SAMPSON
My naked weapon is out: quarrel, I will back thee.

And by this time we are in Beavis and Butt-head territory. Seriously. That’s who these guys are.

Think about how much we’ve learned from this exchange. We know that Romeo and Juliet’s Verona is a cesspool. Not just of physical violence (we in 2011 assume that, but that’s because we know the story; you in Shakespeare’s original audience come with a clean slate), but of debased sexuality. Sampson and Gregory are as vulgar sexually as fratboys. And yet they are as verbally adept as literature Ph.D.s. Verona is a place where even the lowlifes can carry on a game of Ping-Pong with puns—dirty puns. Even language is drawn into the cesspool.

Thirty lines, and do you see how the cards are already stacked against Romeo and Juliet? With language itself held hostage in this town without pity, their language has to be downright transcendent if their True Love is to escape. I’m sure that Shakespeare was showing off here. I’m equally sure he was doing so in earnest, to make the points I’ve just sketched, and that his audience got it. We already know the game is going to be played for the highest possible stakes, and we haven’t even met the players.

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