Romeo and Juliet: The Gentle Sin Is This

So now it’s Party Time at Capulet House! And after this party Verona will never be the same. There’s much to see here but this post will concern itself with the most important event by far. Romeo and Juliet finally meet.

Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far about “fair Verona.” It is a toxic place where the forces of civil order are always one step behind the brawling delinquents on the street, where the old men who really run the show are locked in a game of Mafia Wars, where thirteen-year-old girls are forced into arranged marriages, where language itself is at the service of a debased sexuality. The deck is stacked against Young Love. The real circumstances in Verona, drawn implicitly but clearly by Shakespeare’s language, show that the mere thought of Young Love here would be childish and laughable even if the lovers’ families weren’t at war. How can any kind of love blossom in this town without pity?

And yet, and yet . . . . Love, sappy puppy love, love at first sight, does prevail. Perhaps Yeats’s Crazy Jane was right when she told the Bishop that “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” The spark that ignites Romeo’s and Juliet’s passion may be the unrealistic stuff of romance novels—Romeo literally sees Juliet across a crowded room—but just listen:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Imagine Romeo scanning the room for Rosaline, as he must be doing, and seeing Juliet instead. He must have felt he’d been struck by lightning, and the immediate result is a marked improvement in his language. The hackneyed oppositions of the Moleskine-scribbling emo boy give way to images that really mean something because they are about the specific woman in front of his eyes. The imagery may still be conventional black-white contrasts (that “snowy dove trooping with crows” is particularly clunky) but it is suddenly infused with passion. The Romeo who was infatuated with Rosaline couldn’t have come up with a couplet like

 It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—

which simultaneously compares Juliet to a star and a jewel.

But this is just the warm-up.

Shakespeare cleverly interposes a quarrel between Tybalt, who wants to kill this interloper, and Old Capulet, who stands on immemorial traditions of courtesy (and implicitly compares Romeo favorably to, say, Tybalt—“A bears him like a portly gentleman”). This gives Romeo time to slip over to Juliet and realize his intention to “make blessed my rude hand” by “touching hers”:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle 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 do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

[He kisses her.]

Notice the rhyme scheme. Romeo starts with ABAB. Juliet responds with CBCB. They trade lines, D and E, Romeo produces a couplet, DE, and they finish with F and F. Yes. It is another sonnet.

If I can convey to you how incredibly brilliant a stroke this is on Shakespeare’s part, my work here will be largely done. It was one thing to begin the play with a prologue in the form of a sonnet. It’s sheer genius to have Romeo and Juliet’s very first words to each other constitute a sonnet. We’ve all heard about—and some of us even know—people who know each other so well that they complete each other’s sentences. But these are usually couples who’ve been married for upwards of fifty years. What an extraordinary union of hearts and minds, then, to complete each other’s rhymes and create that quintessential love poem, a sonnet, on the spot. And not sound stupid doing it.

Your classic love scene in a musical or an opera is a duet. But when Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet” opera had not even been invented. This may very well be the first duet in world literature. In any case, there’d never been a scene like this before in a play. (Read Marlowe and ask yourself if he has anything like the delicacy it requires.) Once again, picture yourself at the Theatre in that 1585 world premiere audience and try to imagine the effect. You can tell that Romeo and Juliet are made for each other from this first encounter. And it’s done through a poetic form, something they are not even aware of. We, not they, recognize that they improvised a sonnet; we, not they, understand what that means.

But wait, there’s more.

Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d.

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged.
Give me my sin again.

[He kisses her.]

You kiss by th’ book.

 They’re at it again! Only now they are starting off trading lines rather than quatrains, and they split the last line with another kiss. (“Give me my sin again/You kiss by th’ book” is one line; eventually I need a better way to format so as to make this device, called “tmesis,” clear, because Shakespeare uses it quite a lot. Until that time comes, I’ll point out especially significant examples like this parenthetically.)

But they only get this far before they are interrupted by the Nurse with a summons from Juliet’s mother. Even this is significant. True, who but the Nurse would convey a message from Lady Capulet, but when you recall what we already know about her, this interruption doesn’t bode well—as if the windows have been thrown open to admit the sewer atmosphere of Verona, as the dead hand of parental authority asserts itself.

Perhaps this encounter is nothing but a dream. If so, the character we’ll meet in the next post might be able to tell us all about it.

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