A sail… (2.4.82-93)

ROMEO           Here’s goodly gear!

EnterNURSE and her man[PETER]

A sail, a sail!

MERCUTIO     Two, two: a shirt and a smock.

NURSE            Peter!

PETER                        Anon.

NURSE            My fan, Peter.

MERCUTIO     Good Peter, to hide her face, for her fan’s the fairer face.

NURSE            God ye good morrow, gentlemen.

MERCUTIO     God ye good den, fair gentlewoman.

NURSE            Is it good den?

MERCUTIO     ’Tis no less, I tell ye, for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon. (2.4.82-93)

Goodly gear might be bawdy (it can mean genitalia, so, here’s fresh meat, in a number of senses) or it could just mean something ridiculous (is the Nurse wearing a distinctive hat, for example?). There’s certainly the suggestion that she’s moving in a stately fashion, on her dignity, and perhaps in a large dress, if we want to assume that this is partly why Romeo compares her to a ship. But A sail, a sail! is also what a look-out would cry to indicate that he had spotted a ship on the horizon, and Romeo is certainly looking out for the Nurse. (Everyone knows about the Spanish Armada of 1588, but there were other Spanish attempts to invade England in 1596 and 1597. The possibility of invasion, of the sighting of a hostile fleet, was a live one.) Mercutio picks up on sail– white cloth – and identifies Peter and the Nurse as a shirt and a smock, the characteristic linen undergarments worn by men and women and often used metonymically as here: it’s a man and a woman. The Nurse is nervous – we’ve seen her before, normally she has plenty to say for herself and absolutely no boundaries and no filter – but here she’s trying to be as formal as possible, and not to draw attention to herself, or perhaps even to conceal her identity. (The fan also makes it seem hotter, which the Nurse will comment on later, and gives her something to do with her hands – a good way of drawing attention to her nervousness.) She’s planned what she wants to say, the formal God ye good morrow, gentlemen, Good morning, gentlemen, but Mercutio puts her off by saying it’s already the afternoon, or at least noon. (God ye good den, good day, usually means any time after noon.) Juliet will say, later on, that she sent the Nurse at 9am. What’s she been doing for 3 hours? Debating with her conscience like Friar Lawrence, perhaps, something which the comedy of the scene, and the character, can obscure. The risk that she is taking here, and what she is about to facilitate, is terrifying.

Mercutio’s joke is gratuitous and deserves no comment.



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