Romeo and Juliet—The Comedy of Capulets

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.

CAPULET
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.
(IV.iv.3-6)

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:

NURSE
Go, you cot-quean, go,
Get you to bed. Faith, you’ll be sick tomorrow
For this night’s watching.
(IV.iv.6-8)

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:

CAPULET
No, not a whit. What, I have watch’d ere now
All night for lesser cause, and ne’er been sick.

LADY CAPULET
Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time;
But I will watch you from such watching now.

CAPULET
A jealous-hood, a jealous-hood!
(IV.iv.9-13)

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.

But now it’s time to wake the bride. Charged with this task, the Nurse is up to her old smutty tricks:

NURSE
. . .
What, not a word? You take your pennyworths now.
Sleep for a week; for the next night, I warrant,
The County Paris hath set up his rest
That you shall rest but little! God forgive me!
Marry, and amen. How sound is she asleep!
I must needs wake her. Madam, madam, madam!
Ay, let the County take you in your bed,
He’ll fright you up, i’ faith. Will it not be?
(IV.v.5-8)

“He’ll fright you up”? He’s da bomb! But to give her the credit she’s due, when she finds Juliet she’s devastated:

I must needs wake you. Lady! Lady! Lady!
Alas, alas! Help, help! My lady’s dead!
O weraday that ever I was born.
Some aqua vitae, ho! My lord! my lady!
(IV.v.14-16)

“Weraday” is the unusual exclamation the Nurse uttered when she reported Tybalt’s death to Juliet, a piercing expression of grief:

NURSE
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.
(III.ii.37-39)

Expect no more frivolity from the Nurse. And yet, and yet . . . . Isn’t she just a little over the top in that last passage? The repetitions bespeak a real but exaggerated, acted-out sorrow. That is even more obvious here, where it would be possible to play the whole Capulet household’s reactions as black comedy. Shakespeare depicts their genuine grief yet allows us to distance ourselves from them by exaggerating it. Thus, Old Capulet exclaims:

CAPULET
Death, that hath ta’en her hence to make me wail
Ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.
(IV.iv.31-32)

But just then Friar Laurence and Paris (with the wedding musicians) show up and Capulet’s tongue is miraculously loosened:

FRIAR LAURENCE
Come, is the bride ready to go to church?

CAPULET
Ready to go, but never to return.
O son, the night before thy wedding day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir.
My daughter he hath wedded. I will die,
And leave him all: life, living, all is Death’s.
(IV.iv.33-40)

The sex/death imagery is just a bit too insistent for one who is supposed to be in shocked mourning (although it fits with other imagery we’ve seen and foreshadows, yet again, the ending), but now the whole household voices a fugue of overstated grief:

LADY CAPULET
Accurs’d, unhappy, wretched, hateful day.
Most miserable hour that e’er time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage.
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catch’d it from my sight!
(IV.iv.43-48)

Considering that Lady Capulet washed her hands of this “one thing to rejoice and solace in” last time she saw her, this strikes a little too dramatic a note.

NURSE
O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day.
Most lamentable day. Most woeful day
That ever, ever I did yet behold.
O day, O day, O day, O hateful day.
Never was seen so black a day as this.
O woeful day, O woeful day.
(IV.iv.49-54)

Even compared to the Nurse’s earlier speeches, this is over the top. I have trouble believing that any dramatist, let alone Shakespeare, could write a line like “O day, O day, O day, O hateful day” and mean it completely seriously.

PARIS
Beguil’d, divorced, wronged, spited, slain.
Most detestable Death, by thee beguil’d,
By cruel, cruel thee quite overthrown.
O love! O life! Not life, but love in death!
(IV.iv.55-58)

At least Paris is trying to keep up, though it’s never quite clear who is “beguil’d,” himself or Juliet. And though it may have sounded different to Elizabethan ears, that “cruel, cruel thee” is so awkward to me that it takes on a kind of magnificence. Similarly, and perfectly in character, it seems unintentional that instead of “life in death” he should come up with “love in death,” not a figure of speech in itself but more appropriate to a central theme of the play—one which, ironically, will not involve him even though he’ll be dead.

CAPULET
Despis’d, distressed, hated, martyr’d, kill’d.
Uncomfortable time, why cam’st thou now
To murder, murder our solemnity?
O child, O child! My soul, and not my child,
Dead art thou. Alack, my child is dead,
And with my child my joys are buried.
(IV.iv.59-64)

As with his wife, this is rich coming from Old Capulet, who just hours before was willing to see Juliet in Hell. Notice, too, how he gets off a double significance of the sort Juliet managed with Paris. “My soul, and not my child/Dead are thou” could be addressed to Juliet, meaning “You are not just my child, you are my soul, and you are dead”; or it could be addressed to his soul, and mean “O soul, it may be that this child is dead, but in truth and more important, so are you.” His buried “joys” are more likely his hopes of dynastic triumph than any love for his child.

Scholars recognize the comic elements of this threnody. Professor Gibbons’s Arden Second commentary notes the opinion that it is a parody of a 1581 translation of Seneca’s tragedies (the more notable accomplishment given the humorlessness of the Roman philosopher’s closet dramas). Professor Levenson opines that “these laments, frequently cut or omitted on the stage since the eighteenth century, have often impressed editors and producers as indecorous or unsuitably comic”; she also notes the view of C.B. Lower in favor of adopting a reading that underlines their “purposeful comedy.” Without getting into the intricacies of textual analysis, I heartily endorse Lower’s phrase.

Purposeful for what, then? To achieve all the effects I’ve specified. Again, I’m not suggesting that any of the Capulets are feigning grief; I’m suggesting that Shakespeare makes it as clear as he can that the grief they feel is not really for Juliet. And just in case anybody doesn’t get it yet, he has Friar Laurence, of all people, call them on it:

FRIAR LAURENCE
Peace, ho, for shame. Confusion’s cure lives not
In these confusions. Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid, now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid.
Your part in her you could not keep from death,
But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.
(IV.iv.65-70)

This idea that Juliet, or anybody for that matter, is body and soul, and is better off becoming all soul after death, is quite conventional, but in this context it is a reproach, and the next two lines are an outright slap in the face:

The most you sought was her promotion,
For ’twas your heaven she should be advanced,
(IV.iv.71-72)

and again:

O, in this love you love your child so ill
That you run mad, seeing that she is well.
(IV.iv.75-76)

“That you run mad” is nothing less than Shakespeare’s stage direction.

Possibly frightened by his own temerity, Friar Laurence quickly reverts to bromide, but the point is made (with that extra fillip of irony in “seeing that she is well,” i.e. in heaven, when of course he knows she is well, i.e. alive; he too is playing a part). When Friar Laurence is the voice of reason, you know the world’s been turned upside down.

But this is still not enough for Shakespeare; he has one last twist of the knife before leaving the scene. This is the curious little interlude with Peter the Capulets’ servant and Paris’s musicians that runs from lines 95 to 141. Here the comic lower orders, like the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, take over the stage. The Second Quarto has the name of Will Kemp, the clown in Shakespeare’s company, rather than Peter in the stage direction. This is evidence not only that Kemp played Peter, which he did, but that the interlude was inserted to give him a set piece. (Notoriously, Kemp’s name appears instead of Dogberry’s in Much Ado About Nothing, and there are other instances in Shakespeare of insertions for the clown, above all Launce’s two speeches about Crab the dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.) Certainly the interlude is so out of tune (you see what I did there) with the preceding lamentations that this speculation makes perfect sense. It also means that this passage always gets cut. I don’t think I have ever seen a production that includes it. Yet even if the scene exists only because Shakespeare’s company had forced him to insert a scene for the clown, the fact is that he chose to put it here, topping off a short scene, already packed with irony, with what may be the first upstairs/downstairs scene in English literature.

If I were a director, I might very well cut every word I’ve been talking about in this post. It’s a much more difficult scene than at first appears, and I can easily imagine not being able to make it work on stage. Nonetheless, this easily overlooked scene is an integral part of Shakespeare’s design.

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