ROMEO God-den, good fellow.
SERVANT God gi’ god-den. I pray, sir, can you read?
ROMEO Ay, mine own fortune in my misery.
SERVANT Perhaps you have learned it without book; but I pray, can you read any thing you see?
ROMEO Ay, if I know the letters and the language.
SERVANT Ye say honestly, rest you merry.
ROMEO Stay, fellow, I can read.
He reads the letter.
‘Signior Martino and his wife and daughters,
County Anselme and his beauteous sisters,
The lady widow of Vitruvio,
Signior Placentio and his lovely nieces,
Mercutio and his brother Valentine,
Mine uncle Capulet, his wife and daughters,
My fair niece Rosaline, and Livia,
Signior Valentio and his cousin Tybalt,
Lucio and the lively Helena.’
A fair assembly: whither should they come?
ROMEO Whither? to supper?
SERVANT To our house.
ROMEO Whose house?
SERVANT My master’s.
ROMEO Indeed I should have asked thee that before.
SERVANT Now I’ll tell you without asking. My master is the great rich Capulet, and if you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray come and crush a cup of wine. Rest you merry. [Exit.] (1.2.55-81)
It’s now the afternoon; the careful calibration of the passage of time, through time-sensitive greetings (God-den, good-evening, works any time after noon, pretty much), is important in the play, and worth looking out for. One can only imagine what kind of business the clown has been involved in while Romeo and Benvolio have been speaking, but he has finally succeeded in attracting Romeo’s attention, in order to get help with his task. His question is an innocent one – can you read? – and Romeo initially – self-parodically? – continues in his posturing, mine own fortune in my misery. The servant should get a laugh at his expense: suggesting that Romeo has learned it without book could mean, appropriately, by heart, but also by rote, mechanically. Romeo has a comeback: of course I can read, provided I know the language, which is a step too far for the unfailingly polite servant, who thinks he’s dealing with a madman and is off to find someone else to help him. But Romeo relents, and helps.
This functional list – introducing Mercutio and Tybalt, as well as Rosaline – gives a neat insight into Capulet’s thought processes. The women are mostly introduced through their relationships to men, as wives, daughters, nieces, and a widow (to be fair, there is a brother, an uncle, and a cousin too). Some of them aren’t named. And it’s only the women who are described – even if they’re not named – as beauteous, fair, lively. The hot girls, as promised to Paris. It was a lovely touch in the Marlowe Society production for Peter the servant to recite the list a split second behind Romeo, as he demonstrated that he had committed the list to memory, a neat illustration of the way in which many in Shakespeare’s original audiences would similarly have relied on the speedy memorisation of oral information in their daily lives, rather than a written record.
So it’s all going to be the servant’s fault – it’s his invitation (everyone else in Verona seems to be on the list, as he prepares to trudge; why not add this nice helpful young man and his friend?). Romeo perhaps gives some sign of recognition at Rosaline’s name, or Benvolio does. There’s a reminder of the feud, of course. And a final, casual knowingness in the servant’s valediction, Rest you merry, have a nice day – of course Romeo hasn’t been merry at all at the beginning of the exchange, but he may well be now.