Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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Act One, Scene Four

1 ‘shall this speech be spoke for our excuse?’ – Romeo and his friends are essentially gate-crashing, but doing so in a courtly and polite fashion, having adopted an appropriate ‘masquerade’ dress and having prepared a poetic speech with which to ask for entrance to the Capulets’ party.

3 ‘The date is out of such prolixity.’ – ‘such long-windedness is out of date.’

4 ‘hoodwink’d’ – ‘blindfolded’.

5 ‘painted bow of lath’ – i.e. made of cheap wood. A ‘Tartar’s bow’ was shaped rather like a lip.

6 ‘crowkeeper’ – someone employed to scare off crows.

7 ‘without-book’ – i.e. spoken by heart (and poorly memorised).

9-10 ‘But let them measure us […]’ – Benvolio uses ‘measure’ in three senses: first, ‘to judge’; second, ‘to measure out, or provide’; thirdly, ‘to dance a measure’. He is suggesting that they knock on the door in their costumes, do a little dance, and then ‘be gone’ if they are not invited in.

11 ‘ambling’ – ‘affected manner of moving on one’s feet’, by which Romeo means the proposed dance.

15 ‘soul of lead’ – Romeo’s love-melancholy.

18 ‘a common bound’ – ‘a normal jump in the air’, though possibly with a secondary sense of going beyond normal boundaries.

21 ‘I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe.’ – ‘I cannot jump a stone’s throw [a considerable distance] above my melancholy thoughts.’ There is probably a pun intended on ‘pitch’ in the musical sense; ‘burden’ in the next line can mean the repeated chorus of a song.

23-24 ‘And to sink in it, should you burden love –/ Too great oppression for a tender thing.’ – ‘For [your member] to “sink” down while you were on top of your lover [would be] too great a sorrow for the “tender thing” beneath you.’

28 ‘Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.’ – The slang meaning of ‘prick’ was current in Shakespeare’s time. That said, Mercutio’s primary sense here is that if you ‘stab’ (penetrate) love for the injuries it has done you then you will ‘beat’ in ‘down’, probably in the sense of the de-tumescence that follows sexual intercourse.

29 ‘case’ – ‘cover’ i.e. a mask.

30 ‘A visor for a visor.’ – Mercutio considers his face as grotesque as the mask he is about to don, or perhaps the line is a recognition that his own face masks his true self.

31 ‘quote’ – ‘observe’.

32 ‘beetle brows’ – According to Cotgrave, having beetle-brows meant ‘having very great eye brows, frowning, or looking sowrely; surlie or proud of countenance.’

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William Shakespeare