Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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The point of the ancient metaphor, however, is not only the horror of death, but the fact that a stomach can be emptied. That indeed is the rationale behind ‘cram[ming]’ the stomach of death with ‘more food’ – more morsels – until finally it vomits all forth. The Harrowing of Hell play from the Chester Mystery cycle uses Shakespeare’s own word ‘morsel’ in this context:

A noble morsell ye have mone;
Jesu that ys Godes sone
Comes hither with us to wonne. (101-3)

By its devouring of ‘the dearest morsel of the earth’ (Christ himself), in terms of Christian tradition, hell was purged and emptied and the dead vomited forth into paradise, so that even in the midst of these particularly lugubrious lines describing mankind’s corruptibility there is a hint of restoration and, indeed, of resurrection. Shakespeare’s choice of the word ‘womb’ to describe hell, also strongly implies a place of renewal and rebirth, very much in harmony with the paradox of the Christian Easter.

Central to the paschal services of both the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the Book of Common Prayer is the sudden access of light in darkness. The Mystery Play quoted above begins with Adam, then Isaiah, describing the light that has suddenly appeared in the place of death. As Romeo drags the body of Paris into the tomb, where Juliet lies in a state indistinguishable from death (yet, like Christ, in a condition of bodily incorruption, since she is, in fact, alive and about to awake) he speaks of light in a manner that could not have failed to remind a contemporary audience of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (emphases added):

I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.
A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughter’d youth.
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence, full of light.
Death, lie thou there, by a dead man interr’d. (83-7)

Tombs do not usually have windows, but Juliet’s effulgence before her awakening from ‘death’ is, apparently, so great it can transform a sepulchre into a ‘lantern’, her light shining even through stone walls. Her presence in the tomb, like that of Christ’s, turns a mournful fast into a feast. The final line given here, although it refers specifically to the dead Paris as ‘Death’ and to Romeo as a ‘dead man’ cannot but be intended to recall the Easter proclamation that Christ’s death and burial have brought death upon Death itself.

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William Shakespeare
the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul