Earth-treading stars (1.2.20-25)

CAPULET        This night I hold an old accustomed feast,

                        Whereto I have invited many a guest,

                        Such as I love, and you among the store,

                        One more, most welcome, makes my number more.

                        At my poor house look to behold this night

                        Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light. (1.2.20-25)


The shift in Capulet’s speech is partly drive by a plot-point: the need to set up the party at which Romeo and Juliet are going to meet. That the feast is old-accustomed suggests the status of the Capulets, and also, perhaps, that this is a seasonal gathering, a custom. There’s no specific indication of season here, although the following lines might just suggest that the feast is associated with spring, which would be appropriate for the romantic context, the play’s emphasis on youth, and the frequent references to buds and flowers. (It’s Christmas in the source, and might be summer by the time it gets to 1.5.) Is there a suggestion that Paris is a late and hasty addition to the guest list, one more? Poor house is entirely conventional. But the last line here is striking: the string night-earth-stars-dark-heaven-light creates a kind of oscillation, between time of day (night-light, or night-day) and low and high (earth-stars-dark-heaven, if dark relates to earth); there’s a little bit of cognitive dazzle here. The final phrase is especially dense: heaven is usually associated with brightness, light; here it’s initially dark but then brightened, by the paradoxically earthly stars; it’s simultaneously dark and light. This is part of the larger pattern of light and darkness in the play, and its frequent invocation of stars (perhaps there’s even a glance at Sidney’s Stella, an archetypal beautiful and desirable woman, so central to the sonnet tradition which Shakespeare references and periodically evokes), but there’s also a specific anticipation of the terms of Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, and of her subsequent invocation of him as day in night.

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