Romeo and Juliet–The Unkindest Cut (2 of 2)

Happy belated Valentine’s Day! What better antidote could there be to the wilted flowers and long-digested chocolate than a return to Juliet’s speech? Scholarly editors will tell you this is an epithalamion, a song for the bride in celebration of a wedding. That correctly identifies the genre, but this particular wedding song is so much more. To pick up from last time, if you look at Romeo and Juliet as Juliet’s story (and it is), what’s startling—and what burns away 400 years of encrusted cliches—is her development from a naïve, passive girl to a woman prepared to bring down the world for love. Last time I likened her to Lady Macbeth; to venture outside Shakespearean confines, she might also put you in mind of Brünnhilde.

Juliet is a better poet than Romeo. Remember he’s famous for comparing her to the sun. now she identifies herself with the Sun, and all we can say is, Watch out! For Romeo, she’s just this passive source of light (the jewel in an Ethiop’s ear); she is a dynamic force ready to set the Earth on fire. In the balance of this speech we will see her go supernova.

Since the way this soliloquy builds is the key thing, I’m going to give you a bigger chunk than I usually do all at once. Try reading it aloud, or watching one of the many, many readings available on YouTube. (Here are two I chose at random to get you started):

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalk’d-of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle, till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come gentle night, come loving black-brow’d 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.

I’m cheating a little by highlighting the occurrences of “night” in this excerpt—from “love-performing night” to “all the world will be in love with night,” nine in 21 lines, four in a phrase of the form “Come, night” (by the way, there are six “come”s in the passage, and since the sense of “come” as “have an orgasm” was first recorded at just about this time, we can’t rule it out here). Let’s separate them out:

“Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night”
“Come, civil night”
“Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night”
“Come gentle night, come loving black-brow’d night/
Give me my Romeo”

Even from these bare bones, can’t you feel the intensity building with each repetition until it attains the force of an incantation (“Come night. Come night. Come night!”)? Mercutio tried to harness the magic of the Queen of the Night. Juliet invokes the night and its magic directly. Now see what happens when we put the meat back on the bones.

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalk’d-of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night.

Nobody quite seems to know who the runaway is here; I like the thought that it’s Cupid, connecting with “if love be blind” and either turning a blind eye or winking at the lovers, but the sense is clear enough; when night falls Romeo can come to Juliet secretly. Lovers don’t need light anyway; they generate their own.

Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle, till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.

Perhaps “matron” here is meant to recall the Nurse, who is on her way back to Juliet’s room at this very moment, though Shakespeare never tells us what the Nurse wears. More interesting is that Juliet is starting to engage in wordplay; “lose a winning match” straightforwardly means to lose a match one should have won (to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as it was once said), but what Juliet means is to win the match by “losing,” that is, surrendering to Romeo. The stakes, that “pair of stainless maidenhoods,” get echoed by “hood.” You don’t need to know all about falconry, where this image comes from, to understand the night as a hood hiding Juliet’s blush until she can act on her “strange,” that is, timid, love.

Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.

And with this threefold repetition of “come” the incantation really gathers steam, bringing Romeo into the picture and identifying him as “day in night,” and playing with day/night and light/dark images. Some critics say that “new snow on a raven’s back” is absurd, because when is there ever old snow on a raven’s back? More to the point, when do ravens stand still long enough to get snow on their backs at all, but the quarrel misses everything. The point—Romeo’s brilliance, redoubled by contrast with the black background—is obvious, and it’s expressed in a really striking way. To object to “new snow” shows that the image got to you.

Come gentle night, come loving black-brow’d 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.

Juliet’s wordplay signifies her growing self-awareness. Here, “die” meaning “have an orgasm” was the Elizabethan version of “come,” and even more common. (It persists today, if only in French, which refers to an orgasm as “le petit mort.”) But Juliet pretty clearly means it literally as well; when she dies physically, Romeo will be taken up and made into a constellation (“cut him out in little stars” is both beautiful and macabre; it’s one thing for Romeo to be taken up into the heavens, but he might not be dead when he’s being cut into little stars) that will make the world forget the Sun—light in dark indeed. Note also that we in the twenty-first century, but not you as members of the world premiere audience, know the further irony that Juliet will die much sooner than she thinks.

The soliloquy concludes with what I take to be Juliet speaking as a woman:

O, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d. So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.

Our trusty friend Eric Partridge glosses “mansion of love” as “The human body as the vehicle of love’s physical activities, and “sold/Not yet enjoy’d” looks at the situation from Romeo’s point of view. Plainly Juliet is eager not just to express her spiritual passion but to engage in adult sexuality. And it is the wonderful final lines that cinch it in my view. They express a simile: Juliet compares herself to the child who can’t wait to wear her new dress (the child we saw introduced in Act I scene iii), meaning that she is not that child. And yet, clearly, she still is in several senses a child. I suggest that by this very choice of simile Juliet shows that she is aware of her double nature. She sees herself as adult and child at once.

Since Juliet is a virgin, it would be a bit much to liken this soliloquy to Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses, but it does have something of the freight-train intensity of that tremendous yes I will Yes, and it is a similar embrace of life. It is the high point of Juliet’s brief life so far, of the life as an innocent that is about to end. Although she is still basically passive—waiting for the Nurse again?—her emotions are ratcheted into the stratosphere. Shakespeare, of course, conveys this through the words he gives her; they soar that much higher, the further she has to fall. And the higher Juliet flies, the greater is our pity, knowing what she is about to learn. It’s a peripeteia in the good old Aristotelian sense, and to have its full effect the irony must be as sharp as possible. That’s the technical, dramaturgical reason it was not just wrong but clueless of Zefferelli to cut the speech (and for Lurhmann, to be fair, to cut half of it).

And Juliet’s fall from this height is astonishingly swift. Her next lines are

O, here comes my Nurse.
And she brings news, and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence.

Like Phaethon, Juliet is about to crash in fire. But that is the subject of the next post.

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