Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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The witty exchanges that continue between the two on the occasion of their first meeting, play on this dual nature of Juliet as both human (and therefore subject to mutability and corruption) and divine, as a saint in heaven (and therefore immortal and unchanging). For example, Juliet points out that ‘saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch’ (98), referring to the venerated image (statue) of a saint, which would itself have the relative permanence of marble or plaster. When he kisses her lips, Romeo tells her to ‘Move not’, but to be a statue, like one of these saints – ideas that will have their consummation in the final scene of the play, when Montague promises Capulet that he:

will raise her statue in pure gold,
That while Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet. (V.iii.298-301)

and Capulet vows he will raise up a similar statue of Romeo. While ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes’ (Sonnet 55, 1-2) will endure forever, these statues do, at least, afford the lovers some permanence in spite of mutability and some transcendence in spite of death.

More significant than this, however, are a number of related strains of imagery regarding Juliet which are found in the final scenes of the play. The first of these comes with Romeo’s dream at the beginning of Act Five in which he imagines himself dead and Juliet embracing him, and ‘breath[ing] such life of kisses in my lips/ That I reviv’d and was an emperor’ (V.i.8-9). The lines, of course, are proleptic of Juliet’s final kiss, in which she tries to draw from Romeo’s lips some of the apothecary’s poison that has killed him, and there is an obvious dramatic irony here. However, the dream also recalls the lovers’ first kiss when Romeo claims ‘Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d’ (I.v.106). On the level of the play’s controlling metaphors, Juliet’s kiss can, first, cleanse from sin, and second, bring about a bodily resurrection. The implications of this become clearer if one considers the traditional medieval allegory of the pilgrim lover who enters into the shrine of his beloved and whose spirits are then ‘raised to the heights’ in the petit mort of sexual climax. Analogously, the Christian pilgrim is ultimately required to enter into the tomb with Christ (and therefore die) before being granted resurrection.

Romeo, contemplating the Capulets’ tomb and about to experience death with Juliet, utters one of the darkest speeches in the play:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food. (V.iii.45-8)

The word ‘womb’ here is often glossed as ‘belly’, and the idea of hell as a vast stomach (‘the belly of hell’ or ‘Hades’) into which the damned enter through the ‘rotten jaws’ of hell’s gate is a very common notion is medieval piety, and indeed is found throughout the whole of Christian tradition.

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William Shakespeare