Monthly Archives: March 2012

Romeo and Juliet—The Betrayal (3 of 3)

The Worst Blow: The Nurse

Can you imagine the despair Juliet must be feeling, plunged from ecstasy to mortal peril in the space of a minute or two? Where can she turn in this moment of greatest need? Not to her mother—but you could have told her that:

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O sweet my mother, cast me not away,
 . . .

Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.

Cast off by both parents, her husband impotent in his exile, Juliet has only one hope: the woman who has truly been a mother to her. The next exchange, then, is the most shocking in the play, the point from which it cannot get any lower:

O God, O Nurse, how shall this be prevented?
My husband is on earth, my faith in heaven.
. . .

What sayst thou? Hast thou not a word of joy?
Some comfort, Nurse.

Faith, here it is.
Romeo is banish’d, and all the world to nothing
That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you.
Or if he do, it needs must be by stealth.
Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the County.
O, he’s a lovely gentleman.
Romeo’s a dishclout to him. An eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or, if it did not,
Your first is dead, or ’twere as good he were
As living here and you no use of him.

With this ultimate, unexpected betrayal Juliet is completely alone.

The first time we experience this scene, on page or stage, we are surely as thunderstruck as Juliet is. Paris is fresher than an eagle? The Nurse has no more even seen him than Juliet has. Romeo is a dishrag compared to him? These words are coming out of the go-between’s mouth? How? How dare she?

In retrospect we could have seen it coming; seen, in fact, how Shakespeare prepared us for it, how he showed us that the Nurse, for all her jollity and intimacy with Juliet, is a pragmatist, well capable of calculating her own interest and acting on it. Looking back just a little, we would also now be struck by the passage n Old Capulet’s tirade where the Nurse sticks her nose in it:

God in heaven bless her.
You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.

And why, my Lady Wisdom? Hold your tongue,
Good Prudence! Smatter with your gossips, go.
. . .

May not one speak?

Peace, you mumbling fool!
Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl,
For here we need it not.

Old Capulet is not so carried away by his rage that he can’t put the Nurse firmly in her place; “with your gossips, go.” She’s a menial who belongs with the other old ladies, not a “Lady Wisdom” or “Good Prudence” whose place is to dare criticize her lord, but a “mumbling fool.” Old Capulet’s mocking epithets remind the Nurse that her place is with the family, not this renegade.

Looked at this way, the Nurse’s betrayal is something we could have seen coming. Why didn’t we? Essentially because we liked her. Until now she had been earthy and funny; if she were an American politician we could have had a beer with her. As with a politician, we were taken in; but I think there is a deeper level. When it comes down to it, the Nurse turns out to be a coward and, in her earlier praise of Romeo here so casually thrown aside, a hypocrite. Given our emotional investment in her, these are the two things we least wanted her to be. She doesn’t just betray Juliet; she betrays us—and that is what we can’t forgive.

Neither can Juliet, once she makes her former protector squirm a bit:

Speakest thou from thy heart?

And from my soul too, else beshrew them both.



Again with that irony meant for us, that goes over the listener’s head. But once the Nurse leaves, Juliet is brutally straightforward:

Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend,
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath prais’d him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counsellor.
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.

I’ve maintained throughout that Friar Laurence is the worst possible adviser to the lovers. Now we’ll see why.




Romeo and Juliet–The Betrayal (2 of 3)

(Edited 28 March to add a comparison with Karl Kraus, the Viennese satirist.)

The Second Blow: Dad

Juliet could handle her mother. Her father is quite another matter. I’ve shown you quite a lot of Old Capulet, and he’s generally come off as rather clueless. We’re about to see that he is not so much a senile old duffer (and yes, the redundancy in “senile old” is deliberate) as a powerful man so completely focused on his own interests that he doesn’t even notice others’. Though how could it be otherwise when—as Luhrmann makes clearest—he’s essentially the head of a Mafia family? (Yes, we all know about Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, who feigned insanity for over twenty years, but even if Capulet set the example for him, the mask drops in this scene.)

It starts innocently enough; entering to Juliet crying, he thinks she’s still mourning Tybalt, but he shortly gets down to business:

How now, wife?
Have you deliver’d to her our decree?

As we expected, Lady Capulet punts to him

Ay sir, but she will none, she gives you thanks.
I would the fool were married to her grave.

(Lady Capulet will get her wish sooner than she thinks.) Old Capulet doesn’t quite get how Juliet, whom he hasn’t even seen since before she met Romeo, can possibly reject his plan for her. You’ve got to admit her response is not exactly forthright

Soft. take me with you, take me with you, wife.
How? Will she none? Doth she not give us thanks?
Is she not proud? Doth she not count her blest,
Unworthy as she is, that we have wrought
So worthy a gentleman to be her bride

Not proud you have, but thankful, that you have.
Proud can I never be of what I hate,
But thankful even for hate that is meant love.

In brief, thanks but no thanks. And now comes the explosion. We all underestimated the old man:

How, how, how, how? Chopp’d logic? What is this?
‘Proud’ and ‘I thank you’ and ‘I thank you not’
And yet ‘not proud’? Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow-face!

Is this how he always talks to his family? From the women’s shocked reaction, almost certainly not; he more likely doesn’t talk to them at all. What is notable in this tirade is the extent to which he fails even to see Juliet as human. First she is a horse (“fettle your fine joints”), then a bundle to be dragged to the church “on a hurdle,” and finally “baggage.”  For her father, Juliet is a lump of property, and—if she really has the temerity to refuse the deal he’s made for her—not especially valuable property at that.

Lady Capulet and Juliet both try to interject, but Old Capulet is on a roll:

Hang thee young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what—get thee to church a Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face.

There’s that “baggage” again. (Just parenthetically, note the irony to us again; Juliet will never look him in the face after Thursday, because she’ll be dead.) If he can’t use her as he pleases, Juliet is nothing but a burden to him—as he goes on to state with vehemence:

Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.
My fingers itch. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is one too much,
And that we have a curse in having her.

For me, this is the most shattering moment in the play.

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Romeo and Juliet–The Betrayal (1 of 3)

(Edited 28 March to note, contrary to the original post’s overexuberant claim, that Juliet probably did meet the County Paris.)

Après l’aubade, le deluge. Mere moments after the most glowing intimacy a woman can know, Juliet’s world comes crashing down around her. It comes in three waves, each a hammer blow more devastating than the one before.

The first blow: Mom

No doubt Juliet has completely forgotten about the County Paris; she’s been making her own decisions ever since she told her mother, way back in Act I scene iii, “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move” (97). Now her mother is back, and before she brings Verona reality brutally back into focus, Juliet engages in some marvelously equivocal exchanges with her. It’s pretty amazing, really, how she and Shakespeare keep this up:

Well, girl, thou weepst not so much for [Tybalt’s] death
As that the villain lives which slaughter’d him.

What villain, madam?

That same villain, Romeo.

Villain and he be many miles asunder.
God pardon him. I do, with all my heart.
And yet no man like he doth grieve my heart.

Lady Capulet will take this as “Villain, and he” meaning “Yes, that villain, and he”; whereas Juliet means “He is many miles from being a villain.” And they will take “grieve” two ways, Lady Capulet thinking Juliet is talking about her grief for Tybalt when she is really talking about the grief caused by their necessary separation

Ay madam, from the reach of these my hands.
Would none but I might venge my cousin’s death.

Juliet implies that she wants to avenge Tybalt all by herself but really means that she doesn’t want anybody else to; they would harm Romeo whereas she would not. Lady Capulet’s response is not equivocal at all, but really quite ominous, hinting at a subplot that was not to be

We will have vengeance for it, fear thou not.
Then weep no more. I’ll send to one in Mantua,
Where that same banish’d runagate doth live,
Shall give him such an unaccustom’d dram
That he shall soon keep Tybalt company;
And then I hope thou wilt be satisfied.

It’s often overlooked that if the tragic ending we all know had not occurred, Lady Capulet had this plan to get rid of Romeo; but the opening night audience would not have known what we know, and would have had her plot at the back of their minds. But we can still marvel at Juliet’s response:

Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo, till I behold him—dead—
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vex’d.

Look at these lines carefully, because I’m not sure an actor could read them so as to convey the multiple meanings. To her mother Juliet is saying: “I’ll never be satisfied with Romeo until I see him dead/My poor heart is vexed for my kinsman [Tybalt].” To us and herself, she’s saying “I’ll never be satisfied [satiated] with Romeo/Until I see him, my heart is dead for my poor kinsman [husband, not blood relative] who is vexed”  and “I’ll never be satisfied until I see Romeo/My heart is dead, etc.” And we today know the further irony that when Juliet next sees Romeo he will be dead. As a writer, I can only imagine how much Shakespeare must have enjoyed writing these lines. And he keeps it going:

Madam, if you could find out but a man
To bear a poison, I would temper it—
That Romeo should upon receipt thereof
Soon sleep in quiet. O, how my heart abhors
To hear him nam’d, and cannot come to him
To wreak the love I bore my cousin
Upon his body that slaughter’d him.

Again, Juliet secretly means she would water the poison down into a sleeping potion—and her last image is so blatantly sexual you might wonder how Lady Capulet missed it.

But things are about to turn, suddenly.

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The image in the header of this site is Visscher’s 1616 panorama of London. Although the image is public domain, Annalina of has requested that I acknowledged the site as the source. I am happy to do so.

Romeo and Juliet: Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought imposible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

—Philip Larkin, “Aubade”

Larkin’s great poem certainly expresses how I feel in those horrible moments before dawn. Romeo and Juliet’s Aubade (for so the opening of Act III scene v is conventionally known), however, paints a diametrically opposed picture. This aubade is the Morning After, and Shakespeare rises to the occasion with what I find the most touching scene in the whole play.

But it is the more poignant for being a short final breathing space on an accelerating path to disaster, and much has happened in the meantime. Friar Laurence has persuaded Romeo to accept his banishment with a dubious scheme (which we’ll examine in a later post), and Old Capulet, completely oblivious to the real action, steams ahead with his plan to marry Juliet off to the County Paris.

There is one passage to which I want to call your attention before we look at the Aubade. In Act III scene iii Romeo, in hiding at Friar Laurence’s, asks the Nurse how Juliet is faring:


Spak’st thou of Juliet? How is it with her?
Doth not she think me an old murderer
Now I have stain’d the childhood of our joy
With blood remov’d but little from her own?
Where is she? And how doth she? And what says
My conceal’d lady to our cancell’d love?


O, she says nothing, sir, but weeps and weeps,
And now falls on her bed, and then starts up,
And Tybalt calls, and then 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, indeed? This passage is nowhere near as well known as the balcony scene, but it is obviously as important in Shakespeare’s overall scheme. He put this speech, a bookend to the balcony scene, here for a reason.


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Nothing in His Life Became Him Like the Leaving It

You know what I thought of Raymond Scott, the despicable little chancer who stole (he was acquitted of the charge, but c’mon, how else did he get it?) Durham University’s First Folio. He was a delusional, loathsome little prick. Even so, I did not wish him actual harm, and I’m sorry to hear he was found dead in his prison cell yesterday. After all, he is now food for–   and the precious book he mutilated will last long after he’s through stopping up bungholes.

So rest, Raymond Scott.