Thinking Slowly (2) – Shakespearean Metastability

This post is really the second half of the last, so I thought I’d get it on here straight away rather than milking the moment of suspense. I am trying to identify literary versions of the ‘metastable’ states discussed there. What we’re looking for are moments where characters or narrative achieve ‘a state falling outside the natural equilibrium state of the system but persisting for an extended period of time’.


When Romeo and Juliet first meet, something goes right. Within the larger context in which their love has to be understood as something that goes wrong, there is a moment of special, lucid harmony. Somehow or other, they write a spontaneous sonnet together:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
You kiss by the book.

They produce a sonnet, rhyming (as Shakespeare’s sonnets do) ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and it ends with a kiss. This could demonstrate the coercive effects of genre, as they are both manoeuvred into commitment by the shaping power of verse form. Perhaps more often it’s read as a sign of something which could seem delightful, the rightness of them being together. I would argue that this ‘rightness’ is a form of metastability. That for a powerfully extendable moment they demonstrate love-above-all, and this moment could be isolated (in a kind of suspension) from the subsequent unfolding of their tragic story.
      Another wonderful thing. Romeo emerges from the kiss ready to repeat the feat. He starts a new sonnet: ‘Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged’. Juliet seems ready to pick it up herself, following with another line. Romeo completes his own rhyme, then carries on, but Juliet takes over mid-line to match ‘took’. She mocks him for being conventional in the way he kisses (‘by the book’).
      The truncated second poem could be understood and performed in a number of ways. Over-eagerness might lead to a premature kiss, most likely by Romeo but perhaps by both. It might also be taken as the breaking of a spell. That suspended moment in which they made a sonnet and exchanged their first kiss can’t quite be repeated, and with a blush or a wink Juliet steps out of the mood. I suggest that one way or another the quality of time changes here, and the play reaches a positive metastability that briefly but tenaciously denies the tragic necessity of their story.


It may be that some or all in the audience can’t see much stability, given that from the play’s Prologue onwards (at least; long before, really) we have known that this is a doomed love. In this case, the sonnet’s attempt to fix itself as a generic state that’s hard to leave is thwarted. It may, nevertheless, be thought of by analogy with the psychological categories at stake here: metastability may not be so easily reached in an Elizabethan tragedy as it is, Kringlebach et al. argue, in our brains. But this could tell us something about both.
      My second example from Romeo and Juliet is no more straightforward. I am interested in the way Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech settles into its own mode (drawing out the idea of the mischievous dream-fairy at length, to the extent that Romeo interrupts his friend). On the one hand, this isn’t exactly a stable state: it’s mocking, it evokes a slightly nightmarish world, it’s not evoking some genre into which literature typically gravitates. If the audience is slow to leave it, it’s perhaps only because Mercutio distends it so effortfully.

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she–
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.

So, yes, it is rather long. I love the bit in Shakespeare in Love where Ben Affleck, playing the part of top actor Ned Alleyn, praises the speech but wonders where the rest of his part has gone. It is an anomaly, and a diversion. Perhaps an audience sees something like a way out: if we continue in this fantastical mode we won’t need to watch the lovers die. However, it comes too early in the play for that retardant effect to be all that welcome.
      (For something like that, what about the ‘Willow’ scene in Othello? Precariously but tenderly Desdemona and Emilia set up something like a stable moment, with the danger of male intrusion just about distanced. I also wonder about the scene in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo berates the apothecary: it goes on a bit too long and a bit too vehemently, but maybe it sets up an alternative pattern for Romeo, peevishly attacking tradespeople but not reverting to the pathway to disaster.)
      The ‘Queen Mab’ speech is not, as I say, stable, but it is an extended turn to a different tone that’s at odds with the overall systematic shape of Romeo and Juliet. There’s something in this idea of metastability, I think, and it’s something that might be operating instructively, insightfully, in literature. There must be other, better examples out there.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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