Romeo and Juliet: At Last! The Balcony Scene

At last we come to the scene my whole discussion of Romeo and Juliet has been building up to. Forget everything you think you know about it: all the clichés, all the sentiment, all the parodies—even Bugs Bunny. (Though after you’ve read this post, why not treat yourself to a double bill of “What’s Opera Doc?” and “Duck Amuck”? Embeds at the end.) As I’ve asked you to do before, imagine yourself at the 1595 world premiere of Romeo and Juliet and that you know nothing about the play except what you have seen thus far.

What exactly have you seen thus far? You’ve seen a master dramatist set the stakes exceptionally high for the “star-cross’d lovers.” Verona is a tinderbox, a height-of-summer session of Mafia Wars with an ineffectual godfather. The “civil strife” between Capulet and Montague stacks the deck against Young Love as high as it could possibly be stacked.

You’ve seen Shakespeare ratchet up the tension. The brawl incited by Sampson and Gregory; the appearance of “fiery Tybalt” (who, though ultimately ineffectual, looks terribly menacing at the start); Juliet’s being promised to the County Paris (and I should have mentioned at the time how much must be riding on this for Old Capulet—a match between his family and the Prince’s would have to be devastating to the Montagues); Romeo with eyes for nobody but Rosaline; all combine to show that not only is love between Capulet and Montague forbidden, love between this particular Capulet and this particular Montague is impossible.

And yet—it happens. The instant Romeo sees Juliet, he forgets Rosaline. That their first words to each other are a sonnet shows more clearly than anything else could that they were made for each other. Boy and Girl Against the World may be a cliché (thanks at least in part to Romeo and Juliet itself) but here, for once, we can believe it.

You’ve seen one other thing: you’ve seen Shakespeare build tension through the way his characters speak, as much as through what they say. From the vulgar jests of Sampson and Gregory and Old Capulet’s couplets, almost mechanical in their regularity, to Mercutio’s quicksilver and the Nurse’s vulgarity, a subtext emerges of the soulless world in which the lovers find themselves—an infernal machine. To the 1595 audience, then, the balcony scene is not a cliché. It is a miniclimax within the play, the culmination of the initial struggle between nothing less than Love and Death.

That’s why I have spent so much time on the on the runup to this scene. Out of context, it’s a subject for parody, even boredom. In context, it is not only thrilling, it is of a piece with all that has come before; it too is all about language. I could only strip away four centuries of overfamiliarity and get to the essence by showing you exactly how we got here.

So let’s pick up where we left off:


O Romeo, that she were O that she were
an open-arse and thou a poperin pear!


Allow me to remind you that Mercutio delivers one of the dirtiest lines in all of Shakespeare right before the balcony scene. Romeo, who had been hiding, must have heard it, because when Mercutio and Benvolio leave he comes out and says:


He jests at scars who never felt a wound.


That is, Mercutio only mocks because he has never been in love.

And then it begins. Juliet is standing at a window. (That’s the actual stage direction; I’m afraid you’ve been misled all these years about the balcony, but “Window Scene” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Just remember not to leave a request for romantic advice at the balcony if you ever visit Verona. By the way, I was going to embed clips, but both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann cut too many crucial lines—though Claire Danes is rather charming—and a version filmed at the Globe is marred by a badly acted Romeo and Blair Witch camera movement.)

Romeo looks up.


But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious,
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.


We saw how Romeo’s imagery improved from the moment he first saw Juliet (“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright”). Here the astronomical imagery is more conventional—“Juliet is the sun,” yadda yadda—but Romeo does something interesting with it. Juliet does not realize she is the sun; she’s a handmaid of the moon, which is sick with jealousy of the very idea that Juliet will discover her true nature. But what is that nature, and what does the moon—much though I loathe putting it this way—symbolize? Well, look at the “vestal livery” he exhorts Juliet to “cast off.” In ancient Rome, the Vestals were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, and they took an oath of chastity. When we also recall that the Moon is sacred to the virgin goddess Diana, Romeo’s meaning becomes unmistakable: “cast off” your virginity.

Suddenly Romeo has become as clever as Mercutio. And as with the Queen Mab speech it makes sense to think that Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the Moon is referred to at least fifty times, at the same time.

With your indulgence, I’m going to skip over the rest of Romeo’s thirty-line soliloquy. It’s worth close reading, but I want to get to the famous bit. Not because it’s famous, but because it’s really important. The entire soul of the play has rested in how its people use language. We’ve just seen Romeo’s language begin an extraordinary transformation, from clichéd to soaring, on the basis of one exchange with a thirteen-year-old girl. Her language had better be at least as extraordinary. For that first audience of attentive listeners, everything rides on what Juliet says next:


O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.


Forget that these are among the most overfamiliar words in our entire language. Do you see the breathtaking thing Shakespeare has done here? Juliet has raised the stakes to a whole other level. Suddenly the play is about language itself. Change words, Juliet is saying, and you change reality.

For Juliet, speaking with the certitude of first love, it is so simple; it’s just a matter of changing one word. What could be more poignant than this conviction? Now consider the other Most Famous Line she gets to speak. Remember, you are in the 1595 audience and have never heard this before:


‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.


Electrifying, isn’t it? First she proposes to him (“And I’ll no longer be a Capulet”). Now she offers “all myself” for “thy name, which is no part of thee.” And those two lines, familiar as a proverb, are at the heart of an argument for Love over Death.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

Romeo’s name is not an inseparable part of him like his hand or foot. Without it he would still be the man she loves. Change the name and you don’t change the reality. Or, from another angle, you do: “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.” (An important observation I can’t see where else to fit in: in the balance of the scene Juliet addresses Romeo as “Montague” twice. This would seem to be a paradoxical expression of her view; the name is so unimportant, so drained of any totemic power it supposedly has, that she can use it almost mockingly: “Sweet Montague, be true.” Needless to say, we the present-day audience can put several sorts of ironic spin on her choice of expression.)

If it were up to Juliet and her oceanic passion, this argument would prevail. That it isn’t up to her is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Call a rose triantaphyllo, as they do in Greek, and what matters to us about it doesn’t change. It does still smell the same. But a rose is an inanimate object; the qualities that matter to us about it—smell, color, and so on—are, indeed, independent of its name. But Romeo is not a rose. He is a human being embedded in a web of social relations, of which his name is an important indication but which would not evaporate if he were to change it. Let him change his name to Schmidlapp and he is still the son of Montague. The feud with the Capulets will still go on, Tybalt will be no less eager to pick a fatal quarrel with the nearest Montague at hand even if he shouts “I’m no Montague, I’m a Schmidlapp!” Even the power of Juliet’s passion can’t change the reality of Verona.

Romeo, at least here, is carried away by that passion. The first words he addresses to her take up the theme:


I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.


(Going back to an earlier typographical issue, I’m trying to indicate that “Take all myself/I take thee at they word” is one line.) “I take thee at thy word” is a different sense of “word” but underscores that it’s all about words. For Juliet’s love, Romeo will undergo a new baptism (with the decline of Roman Catholicism it’s harder for us to appreciate the force of this line, but as I know only too well from my years with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, it’s baptism that admits one into the Church and thus creates the possibility that one’s soul will be saved). Alas, to say “I never will be Romeo” goes too far, as he bitterly expresses in hiding after he’s killed Tybalt (the Nurse has just reported that Juliet “on Romeo cries/And then down falls again”):


As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her, as that name’s cursed hand
Murder’d her kinsman. O, tell me, Friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me that I may sack
The hateful mansion.


What’s in a name? In this town without pity, death. (Sometimes I half suspect that Juliet knows this and is desperately trying to reassure herself. That she knows, even before her love has begun, that it will end in tears.)

But for the moment, that is, the rest of the scene, Shakespeare gives us a beautifully observed and composed picture of young love discovering itself—the stops and starts, the rhetorical flights, the hesitations and doubts suddenly bursting into full, too-good-to-be-true commitment. There’s a lovable playfulness about it that is half the lovers’ and half Shakespeare’s. His is most clearly shown in Juliet’s two false departures (she’s called away from the window by the Nurse), which anybody ought to be able to play for comic effect. But what is most striking is how totally Juliet is in control. Although Romeo does get off conventional lovers’ passages like


With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt:
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.


Juliet keeps him in his place:


Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—


O, swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.


 What shall I swear by?


Do not swear at all.
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,

Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.


She doesn’t want romantic platitudes; she wants—and feels—real love, a passionate commitment between a real man and a real woman. The balcony scene is, among so much else, Juliet’s coming-out party. It’s the scene where the passive girl who “dream[t] not of” marriage becomes a woman of extraordinary—terrifying, really—power, a woman who, as we’ll see later, is willing to move Heaven and Earth to get what she wants. (When the time comes, ask yourself: just how fine is the line that separates Juliet from Lady Macbeth?) The girl we first saw deferring to her mother and the Nurse is gone. In her place is the woman ready to make sacrifices as terrible as any in Greek tragedy, the woman who can apostrophize the really astounding lines

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.


Juliet is Shakespeare’s first great female character.

* * *

And with that we come—believe it or not—to the conclusion of the first part of this blog. You know by now that I am not interested in a conventional discussion of Shakespeare. If you want help with the plot or the “forsooth”s, the Cliff’s Notes do as good a job as I could and a better job than I’m interested in doing. In this blog, I’m trying to convey to you why Shakespeare is alive, and more than alive, to me. I hope that in the process I’ll show how he can come alive, or more alive, to you too.

Why, in 2011, should you bother to read Shakespeare? I am trying to convey the exhilaration he offers if you open yourself to him, attune yourself to what he’s trying to do. Forget that the Internet turned you into a newt. Forget your high school teachers’ relentless attempts to grind all the joy of reading, of learning, of being alive out of you and attend, really attend, to the words in front of you. Listen as closely as his first audiences must have. Surrender to his wordplay and understand that it tells you everything you need to know—if you make just a little effort. Shakespeare pays you the compliment of expecting that you’ll meet him halfway.

And you will. Because no matter what some embittered older reviewers may say, the Internet has not turned you into a newt. You’ve come this far with me because you know, or suspect, or want to be convinced, that Shakespeare really is great, not because your teachers said so but because the plays are the work of a fully alive individual fully engaging with his world to a degree unique in world literature. To experience his work forces us to engage with the world, too; to be more alive. (It makes us laugh, too. No writer can even rise to mediocrity without humor. I’ll say more about this way, way down the road when I explain why Shakespeare really is superior to Tolstoy.) Shakespeare isn’t great because he gives us Insight Into The Great Questions of Existence or any such folderol. He’s great because above all other writers he exemplifies the motto attributed to the Roman playwright Terence: Nihil humanuma me aliemun est, “Nothing human is alien to me.” A certain John Davies dedicated a poem to Shakespeare in 1610, addressing him as “our English Terence”; I like to think that’s what he meant.

Shall we continue to discover his work together?

(sorry about the Cartoon Network logo)

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