A little hopping bird (2.2.176-183)

JULIET                        ’Tis almost morning, I would have thee gone:

                        And yet no further than a wanton’s bird,

                        That lets it hop a little from his hand,

                        Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,

                        And with a silken thread plucks it back again,

                        So loving-jealous of his liberty.

ROMEO           I would I were thy bird.

JULIET                                                            Sweet, so would I,

                        Yet I would kill thee with much cherishing. (2.2.176-183)

So the time is telescoped; it was late at the beginning of the scene – past bedtime – and now it’s near dawn. Because of the way in which they’ve just been playing with the subjective experience of time (the way it drags, or races, or stands still for lovers), the audience too might lose their sense of how long this scene has lasted – an instant (like the lightning?) or the hours between, say, midnight and dawn? (Without wanting to be pointlessly literal: it’s meant to be summer, so sunrise is early. But they haven’t been talking for four hours…) The invocation of the dawn, however, anticipates the later dawn scene between the lovers, as does the bird; there’s a little bit of aubade, the dawn-song of parting lovers, here too (which is perhaps one way of thinking about the scene’s turn to a heightened lyricism in its last movement, as well as the intimacy that has been created, and the frank expression of desire). The wanton’s bird here is on a smaller scale than the tassel-gentle or even the nïesse, however; we might imagine a starling (as in Holbein’s wonderful portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel (although this one might not be a pet) or even a sparrow (which were definitely kept as pets; see the Tudor poet John Skelton). There’s no swooping and soaring here, just that little hop, and above all the hand, and the silken thread (not even the more substantial jesses of an adult hawk): so, it’s back to hands, and touch, and small, soft things; tiny, delicate movements and a zoomed-in, intimate focus. There’s also a shift back to the monosyllables and stichomythia that characterized the lovers’ first meeting (which was also, of course, about hands and touch), in that simple, heart-felt I would I were thy bird. Sweet, so would I. And a tiny, bittersweet twist, yet I would kill thee with much cherishing: something so small, and delicate, and fragile, can be all too easily destroyed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *