RomEMO and Juliet

And so the stage is cleared for the introduction of Romeo. We hear about him before we see him. Old Montague wants to know: Who started this? Lady Montague is more interested in Romeo’s whereabouts (he is the heir apparent, so this is not necessarily a hint that he’s a mama’s boy—though you might decide he is, on other grounds). What has he been doing while the rest of the clan has been brawling?

He’s been moping, if you must know. Benvolio saw him wandering around in the woods before dawn:

Madam, an hour before the worshipp’d sun
Peer’d forth the golden window of the east
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad
. . .
So early walking did I see your son.

He approaches Romeo, who avoids him:

Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood.

Old Montague chimes in; he’s heard it before:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night.

Though we don’t yet know what Romeo’s problem is, through this (deliberately) overblown language we already know what kind of person he is. (I want to say emo, but a crawl through the series of tubes tells me that word does not mean what I think it means. It’s evocative of the right attitude, though, and the pun in the title of this post is too good, or bad, to pass up.) Old Montague is describing a boy who, if he were around today, would be writing poetry while listening to The Cure or Joy Division by candlelight—at midday. When he appears in a moment Shakespeare doesn’t specify that he’s wearing black; but then he doesn’t have to. His characters’ language does it for him.

When Romeo appears, the Montagues retire so Benvolio can pump him for information. He doesn’t have to try very hard. Romeo quickly confesses that he is “Out” . . .

BENVOLIO
Of love?

ROMEO
Out of her favour where I am in love.

Seeing the aftermath of the fight, he says:

Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen 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.

And after a pause for breath he continues:

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.

You’ll notice that though Romeo goes on and on about love and how he’s in it, he says nothing whatever about the woman he’s in love with. He doesn’t even mention her name in this scene. Instead, he uses a series of trite oppositions and paradoxes (”heavy lightness,” “feather of lead,” and so on). This is our first indication that he’s not really in love. He may be in lust, infatuated, or in puppy love (we don’t know exactly how old he is, as we will be told in Juliet’s case, but he’s definitely still a teenager), but not love.

It’s also true, as scholars will point out, that Romeo is playing at being in love according to literary conventions of the time, specifically those inspired by Petrarch, the great fourteenth-century Italian sonneteer, whose poems describe his love for the abstractly described Laura. Shakespeare is mocking the drippy emo lover of a particular literary tradition. The sonnet fans in that first audience would have picked up on this, but even those who didn’t would have known that something was amiss.

But what none of them would have realized is that it’s not Juliet Romeo is in love with. It’s the mysterious Rosaline. She has no dialogue and we never see her; she’s a completely abstract figure who might as well be a figment of Romeo’s imagination. Oh, and she’s unattainable—and we all know what that does to adolescent passion:

BENVOLIO
Tell me in sadness, who is that you love.

ROMEO
. . .
In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.

BENVOLIO
I aim’d so near when I suppos’d you loved.

ROMEO
A right good markman! And she’s fair I love.

BENVOLIO
A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.

ROMEO
Well, in that hit you miss; 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 uncharm’d.
. . .

BENVOLIO
Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?

ROMEO
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste.


(By the way, I’m quoting a chunk of this exchange to show how adeptly Shakespeare blends metaphors and imagery. “I aim’d so near when I suppos’d you loved” alludes to aiming a bow in archery, as Romeo picks up with “A right good markman.” Then Benvolio picks up on Romeo’s “fair” with “A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit”—literally, “A prominent target is the first and easiest to hit,” but since “hit” can also mean, as it does now, “have sex with,” metaphorically “A beautiful woman is most willing [soonest] to have sex.” Finally Romeo—credit where it’s due—cleverly combines these meanings by bringing in the archer of love, Cupid. Again, see how much we learn about both characters in a few short lines, with none of it told, as screenwriting teachers say, “on the nose,” i.e. in flat literal expository terms.

This quote is also to prepare you for Love’s Labour’s Lost, where Shakespeare makes downright outrageous use of the “hit” metaphor.)

So we see that Romeo is so besotted that he is speaking in rhyme, if not writing it. Which again makes a point. Apart from the triteness of the imagery, Romeo is speaking in couplets, which create a singsong effect if used too zealously (we’ll see that in spades when we get to The Comedy of Errors), and which were not considered to be as “serious” as blank verse.

Some directors, including Zeffirelli in the 1968 film I’ve criticized at length, depart from Shakespeare by showing Rosaline. I understand that this is a tradition but I think it’s tremendously wrongheaded. I’m making a certain amount of fun of Romeo and so is Shakespeare, but we can all do that because we’ve all been exactly where he is; unlike him, we all grew out of it and have had a chance to look back on our earlier selves and laugh. Why can we laugh? Because when we look back on our first object of infatuation, if we can remember him or her at all, we recognize that what we were attracted to with the full intensity of young passion was not the person we didn’t know, but the illusion we’d constructed for ourselves. So go easy on the poor kid.

Living up to his name, Benvolio gives Romeo the advice any friend would give and that is never taken:

BENVOLIO
Be ruled by me, forget to think of her.

ROMEO
O, teach me how I should forget to think.

BENVOLIO
By giving liberty unto thine eyes;
Examine other beauties.

Yes, there are so many other fish in the sea. (Never mind what we’ve done to the bluefin tuna, wisenheimers. It’s not literal, it’s a cliché.) And Benvolio will get his chance to show some to Romeo sooner than he thinks. For while they’re speaking, Old Capulet is entertaining a proposal of marriage to his daughter Juliet from the County Paris, the Prince’s nephew. (“County” is just another spelling of “Count.”) He’s reluctant at first, because Juliet is so young (“She hath not seen the change of fourteen years”—despite Shakespeare’s best efforts to rub this in, people seem to forget that Juliet is thirteen), but he suggests that Paris come to the party he is throwing that night to look over the ladies. Which is exactly what Benvolio suggests to Romeo when they find out about the party. This they do when the servant sent by Old Capulet to invite the guests—but who can’t read—asks Romeo to help him out. Romeo reads the guest list, which, wouldn’t you know it, includes “My fair niece Rosaline.” Benvolio has his opening:

At this same ancient feast of Capulet’s
Sups the fair Rosaline, whom thou so loves,
With all the admired beauties of Verona.
Go thither and with unattainted eye
Compare her face with some that I shall show
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.

Romeo in effect says “No way” but agrees to go so he can see Rosaline:

I’ll go along, no such sight to be shown,
But to rejoice in splendor of mine own.

And so, even though the servant specifically said “if you be not of the house of Montagues I pray come and crush a cup of wine,” these two Montagues are going to crash the party. Things will never be the same in Verona.

To conclude on one curious note, we just saw that Rosaline is a Capulet—Shakespeare specifically says so twice. Which raises the question: What makes Romeo think he could get anywhere with her even if she hadn’t taken a vow of chastity? Her family is at war with his.  His infatuation provides the excuse, in plot terms, for him to go to the party, but it raises all the same problems his love for Juliet will.

Something’s already been going on in Verona, but Shakespeare doesn’t care about it. He moves right on to introduce us to the other title character.

Comments are closed.