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.



Oh all right, there’s one other line I want to show you before we come to the nightingale and the lark. Act III, scene iv is where Old Capulet gives Juliet away to the County Paris—little suspecting she is no longer his to give. After Capulet opens with a marvelously clueless speech—



Things have fallen out, sir, so unluckily
That we have had no time to move our daughter.
Look you, she lov’d her kinsman Tybalt dearly,
And so did I. Well, we were born to die.
‘Tis very late.  She’ll not come down tonight.
I promise you, but for your company,
I would have been abed an hour ago.

Come on—you’ve known old men who talk exactly like that. However, what I wanted to quote was Paris’s response:


These times of woe afford no time to woo.

Remember at the beginning when I said that all Verona was word-mad, even spear carriers like Sampson and Gregory? Here’s more proof, as Paris, the thickest character in the play, can get off a line like this. And it is exactly in character: it’s clever, with the play on two senses of “time” and on “woe” and “woo”—but not too clever. Not so clever that he’s good enough for Juliet. And since we’ve been alert to the language throughout, we might just anticipate that Shakespeare is setting us up; the next time Romeo and Juliet appear they’ll knock our socks off.

One other quick note: notice that Shakespeare has cleverly given us a time indication. It’s nighttime but not so very late, an hour later than Capulet usually goes to bed. Eleven, say. And he tells us that it’s Monday, so that as Capulet says “Wednesday is too soon.” “Tybalt being slain so late” (so recently), it wouldn’t do to have a lavish wedding, so it will just be “some half a dozen friends” on Thursday. That’s all the time left to Juliet.

Act III scene v is obviously set some hours later but we have no sense of time having passed. Just like Romeo and Juliet. While Capulet has been plotting to marry her off, using her as a counter in the game the Capulets play with the Montagues, she has become a woman.

I’ve been surprised and chagrined that I haven’t been able to find many clips of this scene to post. There are large numbers of student versions, but Zeffo, Baz, and even Shakespeare in Love‘s versions (where Gwyneth Paltrow, for all the world that she has a website called “GOOP,” shows that she actually can act when she wants to) are unavailable on YouTube. This 1974 BBC production is a little pallid, but it will have to do. At least it’s closed captioned, so you don’t even have to follow along in the text:

But here the text is anyway.


Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale and not the lark
That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.


It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.


Yon light is not daylight, I know it, I.
It is some meteor that the sun exhales
To be to thee this night a torchbearer
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet: thou need’st not to be gone.


Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.
Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
I have more care to stay than will to go.
Come death, and welcome. Juliet wills it so.
How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.


It is, it is. Hie hence, begone, away.
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for she divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes.
O, now I would they had chang’d voices too.
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.
O now be gone, more light and light it grows.


More light and light: more dark and dark our woes.


What is so poignant about this scene that even Joseph Fiennes could be affecting as Romeo? First, of course, it is the Morning After; following the moment the whole play has been leading up to, it naturally has to be the most emotionally charged scene thus far. It is our first glimpse of Juliet now that she has become a woman physically as well as in heart and mind. But that doesn’t explain its power. What matters is the moment and the emotions Shakespeare has chosen to depict. Think back to your own Morning After. (You have had one, haven’t you?) Do you remember the feeling that you never wanted it to end? Did your heart not call out to your lover “Don’t go!” even though you knew they had to? You would have given anything to snatch just one more moment together. You were poised on a knife edge of emotion—and it is this precise moment that Shakespeare captures with an image of genius, really. Any writer could have chosen the boundary between night and dawn to represent this moment (though to associate night and dark with bliss, as Shakespeare has done throughout, would already be interesting and unconventional). To associate this so fleeting moment with the change of birdcalls is so right it’s breathtaking. If your heart isn’t ripped out when Juliet says “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale” it’s because you are dead.

Yes, dead. Because of course Juliet is trying to hold back Death. It’s not just as we have noted, that “die” also means “have an orgasm” and that Romeo means it in both senses when he says “I must be gone and live, or stay and die.” He means it only in the primary sense when he says “Come death, and welcome. Juliet wills it so.” Neither has quite forgotten that he is under sentence of death if he’s found in Verona, let alone in Juliet’s bedroom, and that is why Juliet shifts gears so suddenly; the lark with its “harsh discords and unpleasing sharps” brings her back to reality; it “divideth us,” with a nice play on the musical sense of “division.” And so the bird of morning becomes the bird of mourning.

That it is the Nurse who interrupts the lovers (with the newly charged address “Madam”) is an ominous foreshadowing even though she comes to warn them of Lady Capulet’s approach. From here on romance, let alone comedy, is banished along with Romeo. Juliet’s vision of Romeo dead—


O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?


I doubt it not, and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our times to come.


O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale.


—will prove all too prophetic. We come back to Larkin (“Lark-in”!) in the end.

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