After the searing intensity of what I’ve come to call Juliet’s Immolation Scene, a mental curtain drops. Whatever happens next on the stage has got to be a letdown, trivial by comparison. And so it is; it’s Old Capulet lording it over the wedding preparations.
Come, stir, stir, stir! the second cock hath crow’d!
The curfew bell hath rung, ’tis three o’clock.
Look to the bak’d meats, good Angelica:
Spare not for cost.
As he says, it’s three a.m., and things are getting frenetic. But what is startling about the next scenes—so startling some readers, directors, and editors haven’t been able to handle it—is that Shakespeare amplifies his effects by incorporating a comic dimension throughout the entire scene.
The Nurse is here, impudent as ever:
Go, you cot-quean, go,
Get you to bed. Faith, you’ll be sick tomorrow
For this night’s watching.
The servingmen, who served for comic relief way back before the banquet in Act I scene v, are also around (IV.iv.14-18; one Peter is summoned at line 16 and, typically, does not appear until line 100), and the Capulets , in their heavy-handed way, are bantering:
No, not a whit. What, I have watch’d ere now
All night for lesser cause, and ne’er been sick.
Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time;
But I will watch you from such watching now.
A jealous-hood, a jealous-hood!
Lady Capulet means that her husband used to stay up all hours like a tomcat preying on mice, i.e. girls—and that she will play the watchful cat now. Even the most straight-laced Capulet is getting in on the fun.
Why would Shakespeare resort to broad comedy with Juliet lying upstairs, dead to all appearances? The effect is very complex.
First, we need something to lighten the mood after the potion scene—and giving us a chance to catch our breaths will make the inevitable discovery of Juliet that much more powerful. As we’ve already seen time and again in this play, Shakespeare is a master of structure, and in this respect he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Second, the near frivolity of this scene tends to trivialize Old Capulet and his obsession with marrying off his child. We’ve seen that so far from being the old fool we might have imagined, he is a ruthless and powerful man; my mob boss comparison, way back, really does turn out to hold water. Yet Shakespeare shows us in the most literal and blatant way that he is completely ignorant of what really matters: the seemingly dead girl upstairs.
Third, at the same time, by showing the servants up to the antics they pulled off yesterday and will pull off tomorrow, Shakespeare achieves the nearly opposite effect of showing how the world will go on without Juliet—as it will go on without each and every one of us, one day. I find the effect comparable to that of Breugel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” as famously explicated by W.H. Auden in “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” With your permission (if you happen to be Edward Mendelson, executor of the Auden estate, I mean that literally):
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
. . .
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.