New infection (1.2.44-55)


BENVOLIO      Tut, man, one fire burns out another’s burning,

                        One pain is lessened by another’s anguish;

                        Turn giddy, and be holp by backward turning;

                        One desperate grief cures with another’s languish:
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,

                        And the rank poison of the old will die.

ROMEO           Your plantain leaf is excellent for that.

BENVOLIO      For what, I pray thee?

ROMEO                                               For your broken shin.

BENVOLIO      Why, Romeo, are thou mad?

ROMEO           Not mad, but bound more than a madman is:

                        Shut up in prison, kept without my food,

                        Whipt and tormented, and— (1.2.44-55)

It seems that ever since they exited together at the end of the previous scene, Benvolio has still been trying to persuade Romeo to look at other women, in order to get over Rosaline (or at least get some perspective). His comparisons have become much more extreme, however, and much more physical: whereas at the end of 1.1 he was exhorting his friend to Giv[e] liberty unto thine eyes, | Examine other beauties, now he speaks of fire, pain, infection, and poison. There’s a certain desperation here, and frustration, tut man, get over yourself, stop being so defeatist and silly. But Benvolio himself has been infected by the conceit of love-as-sickness, and the physicality of his language is striking. In the midst of all the pain and infection, the more homely, even comic Turn giddy, and be holp by backward turning can be lost, but it’s nicely disorienting; it has a distinctive cognitive impact, a bit of a head-rush, as one imagines spinning around. (Those moments are important in the play.) That Romeo is still capable of morose sarcasm, with his suggestion of a plantain leaf for a graze, interrupts and apparently amazes his friend (the broken shin might be imagined as a childhood injury, grow up yourself, you don’t understand), but the suggestion of madness only serves to set Romeo off on another riff, the love-melancholic, maddened by passion, in a prison of his own making, shut up in his room, off his food. It’s superficial, though, and easily interrupted. Perhaps Romeo himself is getting tired of his own posturing.

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