And so Juliet comes back to Earth as the Nurse returns with the “cords,” the rope ladder for Romeo to use to gain entry into her chamber. “Ay, ay, the cords,” says the Nurse, and we hear the dismissal in her voice.
Let’s step back to look at the language. You’ll recall how Juliet broke off her soliloquy:
O, here comes my Nurse.
And she brings news, and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence.
Now, Nurse, what news? What hast thou there?
The cords that Romeo bid thee fetch?
Then comes “Ay, ay, the cords,” and note Juliet’s next line:
Ay me, what news? Why dost thou wring thy hands?
The repetition of “news,” as insistent in this small compass as the earlier repetition of “night,” here signifies the intensity of Juliet’s anticipation. She’s waiting for news that the little girl can put on her womanly robes at last. What could possibly be more important? What is that “Ay, ay” all about?
But two can play the game of repetition, it appears:
Ah weraday, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead!
We are undone, lady, we are undone.
Alack the day, he’s gone, he’s kill’d, he’s dead.
Pause to remember how high the dramatic irony is cranked up. Juliet has no idea what the Nurse is talking about. You sixteenth-century first-nighters do know—but you don’t know, as we twenty-first century readers do, that Juliet’s life has taken a turn toward catastrophe.
Juliet’s confusion is evidenced by her next question:
Can heaven be so envious?
(Note that editors here gloss “envious” as “full of enmity” or “malicious,” not “full of envy.”)
This was not a question calculated to get a straight answer out of the Nurse:
Though heaven cannot. O Romeo, Romeo,
Whoever would have thought it? Romeo!
Repetition, which drove Juliet’s rhetoric to the skies just moments ago, now brings the action to a halt, since Juliet can only imagine that it’s Romeo who is dead. Note particularly the mocking callback to the most famous line in English literature. “Wherefore art thou Romeo” indeed!
What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?
This torture should be roar’d in dismal hell.
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ‘Ay’
And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I, if there be such an ‘I’,
Or those eyes shut that makes thee answer ‘Ay’.
If he be slain, say ‘Ay’, or if not, ‘No’.
Brief sounds determine of my weal or woe.
In this little cascade of wordplay “Ay . . . I . . . Ay” conveys the effect of a wail, a lamentation, picked up by the Nurse’s next line, “I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes.” But the Nurse still hasn’t said whose wound she saw, nor will she for another eight lines, until she finally comes out, thirty lines after she enters, with:
Now you see why the last scene I talked about before this one was Act I scene v, where Juliet was waiting for the Nurse to bring the word whether Romeo wanted to marry her. Then the news was good and Juliet and the Nurse could banter as the Nurse dragged out her news on purpose. This scene bookends I.v. around the catastrophe of the duel; the women still talk past each other and the Nurse still takes forever to get to the point, but the tone could not be more different. What happened first as farce repeats itself as tragedy.
The Nurse can’t get out the news that Romeo has killed Tybalt because she’s overwhelmed; distracted by her grief, she’s really talking to herself, barely registering that Juliet is there. (Poor Juliet is left to ask: “Is Romeo slaughter’d and is Tybalt dead?/My dearest cousin and my dearer lord?) The Nurse still doesn’t get the whole story out for another half-dozen lines:
Juliet is caught in an emotional whipsaw. She is now the only person in the play who is literally both Montague and Capulet and she’s lost her most precious man on both sides.
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face.
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical,
Dove-feather’d raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st!
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O nature what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace.
Does this speech sound familiar? It should.
It plainly looks backward to Romeo’s speech in Act I scene i. Shakespeare uses the same rhetorical device he did earlier, a series of oxymorons, but mark the differences. First, Juliet is a better poet than Romeo. His oppositions are trite (“Heavy lightness”? “Sick health”? “Feather of lead”? Is that all you’ve got, Romeo?), whereas hers are apt, original, and complex (you need both of the first two lines to understand what she’s saying—the arresting but obscure “serpent heart hid with a flowering face” is elaborated as a dragon in its cave, whose opening is bedecked with flowers). Was Romeo, back at the start of the play, capable of “fiend angelical,” which both sounds beautiful and compares him to the angelic fiend, Lucifer, implying not only that he is her bearer of light but that he’s fallen?
Note in passing the complex wordplay in the single line “Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st” (“just opposite” = “precisely opposite” and “only,” or “nothing but opposite”; “justly seem’st” = “seems to be just,” “seems precisely to be”) and even the play with the d and s sounds in “Despised substance of divinest show” (try saying it aloud and see if you can feel the contempt in your mouth).
All this play is not frivolous; Shakespeare is using Juliet’s language and the very structure of his play to reveal the character of her emotion. If you read this scene quickly, or see a performance that doesn’t bring out its depth, you might think that Juliet is just reacting like a hysterical girl. And of course she is hysterical; you would be too, under the circumstances—but look closer, as we have been doing, and it becomes clear that so much more is going on. Romeo’s emotion wasn’t feigned, but it was exaggerated almost for show; the way he threw off Rosaline at his first sight of Juliet made it clear that he didn’t feel as deeply as he thought. His emotions were childlike; Juliet’s are anything but. The following speeches are not those of an inconsistent girl but of a woman being torn to pieces.
The Nurse—who really knows what she’s thinking; expressing what she really feels or trying to make Juliet feel better?—launches into a tirade against men in general:
And she concludes:
Shame come to Romeo.
This is too much for Juliet; again, carelessly read her response looks like that of a girl with roiling adolescent feelings, but read closely is seen to be one phase of a complex adult emotional state:
O, what a beast was I to chide at him!
Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name
When I thy three-hours wife have mangled it?
But, wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have kill’d my husband.
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring,
Your tributary drops belong to woe
Which you mistaking offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain,
And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband.
I hope I’m not being pedantic or condescending by highlighting again, but look: “my husband . . . my husband . . . my husband . . . my husband” four times in ten lines, with an “I . . . thy wife” thrown in for good measure. Juliet has managed to bracket her very real grief over Tybalt by focusing on the adult relationship she now has with Romeo.
And it looks like this is going to work, but for one hitch:
. . .
But with a rearward following Tybalt’s death,
‘Romeo is banished’: to speak that word
Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,
All slain, all dead. Romeo is banished,
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound,
In that word’s death. No words can that woe sound.
Five “banished”s in a brief space bring Juliet’s wild emotional ride to a close. She’s gone from not knowing what disaster has happened to thinking that Romeo is dead to thinking that both Romeo and Tybalt are dead, to finding that Romeo killed Tybalt but is alive (she’s got her husband back), only to learn that he is banished (she’s lost him again).
But she still has that rope ladder:
Poor ropes, you are beguil’d,
Both you and I, for Romeo is exil’d.
He made you for a highway to my bed,
But I, a maid, die maiden-widowed.
Come, cords, come, Nurse, I’ll to my wedding bed,
And death, not Romeo take my maidenhead.(III.ii.132-137)
There is something sweet in this apostrophe to the rope ladder, closing the circle from the beginning of this sequence, in spite of the insistent association with death that shadows the play from this point on. But this is also definitively the point at which Juliet becomes a woman, so perhaps it is no surprise that the Nurse volunteers to go to Romeo and bid him come to Juliet’s chamber that night. That sets up what, for me, is the most poignant scene in the entire play, which we’ll look at next.