Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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Such ‘mutability’ is the very essence of life, and leads, inevitably, as Spenser points out, to the corruptibility of death. Only Hamlet, of all Shakespeare’s plays, is, to borrow a phrase of T. S. Eliot’s, as ‘possessed by death’ as the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet. Much of the action takes place in a tomb, and much of the poetry concerns the ending of life and – as in Hamlet – the fate of the body after death. We learn of a corpse’s pallid skin – of rigor mortis – of the ‘carrion flies’ that light upon the lips of the dead (III.iii.36-7) – of the newly-buried Tybalt turning green and ‘festering in his shroud’ (IV.iii.43) – of ‘loathsome smells’ ( ibid. 46), while Juliet imagines herself running mad and ‘playing with [her] forefathers’ joints’ (51). Such horrors, fully consonant with the darker world of Hamlet, can seem somehow strange – even inappropriate – to the audience of Romeo and Juliet, since for all the apparent power of corruptibility, it does not provide the dominant strain of imagery in the play, but is set in counterpoint to another cluster of metaphors that circle themes of transcendence, religious devotion, and, finally, resurrection and incorruptibility.

This, rather than the dawning of light, is the prevailing poetry of Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (I.v.92-5)

The mingling of religious language with the theme of secular love is as old as Jeun de Meung’s portion of the Roman de la Rose, which makes much of the ‘pilgrimage’ of love, and even today it is easy to regard such lines as poetry of a highly conventional type, however beautifully executed. Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious, Romeo here imagines himself a pilgrim, arriving at the shrine of a saint, and kissing that saint’s hand or reliquary as thousands would have done throughout the Middle Ages. In passing, it might be noted that many saints’ relics were – or were at least believed to be – incorrupt (Saint Cuthbert being one of the more famous examples). The memory of such things had not, perhaps, entirely faded from newly-protestant England. Moreover, the somewhat clichéd nature of Romeo’s meaning (‘You are a saint and I adore you’) takes on new import when it is recalled that at the end of the play, Romeo will again ‘profane’ with his hand the ‘shrine’ of the Tomb of the Capulets to kiss the hand and lips of his (supposedly) dead Juliet.

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William Shakespeare