A note where I may read (1.1.219-229)

ROMEO                                               ’Tis the way

                        To call hers (exquisite) in question more:

                        These happy masks that kiss fair ladies’ brows,

                        Being black, puts us in mind they hide the fair;

                        He that is strucken blind cannot forget

                        The precious treasure of his eyesight lost;

                        Show me a mistress that is passing fair,

                        What doth her beauty serve but as a note

                        Where I may read who passed that passing fair?

                        Farewell, thou canst not teach me to forget.

BENVOLIO      I’ll pay that doctrine, or else die in debt. (1.1.219-229)


The emphasis on sight, and the role of the visual in love continues to dominate here, but the argument that Romeo comes back with is quite distinctive in the conceits that he employs. He’s protesting that if he looks at other women, they will necessarily only be able to make Rosaline look better. When a woman wears a mask (customarily made out of black silk or velvet, and commonly worn either against the sun or as a disguise) then it only serves to make those who see her imagine what might lie beneath, and in particular to picture the contrast between black mask and pale or fair skin. To lose one’s sight only increases the potency of the memory of things seen. And the note overlays seeing with reading, a conceit which is going to recur. It’s a marginal note (not a pass-note as such: passing here is surpassing), explaining something as in a commentary. Every other beautiful woman I see will only make me more convinced that Rosaline is more beautiful still. The black and white of the masked face is implicitly recalled by the black and white of ink and paper, the note that can be read. Patterns of black and white, dark and light, are going to be important too. The repetition of fair through this passage might again make us think of unfair, that characteristically adolescent howl – but patient Benvolio, in the scene’s last line, both answers his friend in a neat couplet and sticks with him, even as he promises to change his mind.

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