Acting alone: come, vial (4.3.14-20)

JULIET                        Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.

                        I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins

                        That almost freezes up the heat of life:

                        I’ll call them back again to comfort me.

                        Nurse! – What should she do here?

                        My dismal scene I needs must act alone.

                        Come, vial. (4.3.14-20)

This is an absolutely classic soliloquy, a debate with only one participant: Juliet sets out a series of propositions and questions, explores and answers them herself (just like Hamlet). But we probably would be less likely to think of it as such than we would Hamlet, or Brutus. Why? Some of them might be to do with gender…. (but given Juliet got the epithalamium, the bridal song usually associated with the bridegroom, in Gallop apace, why not a soliloquy?) Mostly I think it’s the tone that means we might be a bit dismissive, later on – because it does go right over the top, as Juliet sets out, and attempts to allay, all her worst fears. She starts here with the monosyllables (mostly) which have always characterised her most intense moments. The first line wrenches – God knows when we shall meet again – real pain, radical uncertainty. For all their faults, these are the people whom she loves and knows better than anyone, Romeo aside. And then the language goes into the body, and perhaps into our bodies too. I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins that almost freezes up the heat of life: the subtlety of it – not a shiver down my spine, but an almost imperceptible, icy shudder. Thrill means to pierce; it’s a word more associated at this time with fear than delight, but it’s still got a sensuality to it. The blood runs cold. A brief waver: I’ll call them back to comfort me – and it’s the Nurse she calls for, not her mother – but then immediately she relents. Comfort is a word that has become fraught in the play – Romeo has come to comfort her, the Nurse has comforted her marvellous much (sarcastically) – comfort means reassurance, safety, warm affection, sitting with her arms around the Nurse. But there is no more comfort, and she has to do this herself, all alone, and find whatever comfort, and strength, she can. This is the only way forward. My dismal scene I needs must act alone: scope there for a sharp, self-aware, wry acknowledgement of the theatricality, the histrionic nature of the rest of the scene? this is all a bit over the top and stagey, I know, I know? Come, vial – it’s a half line; there’s time allowed for her to find it – in a pocket? – and produce it, silently – and so we focus, once again, on something small, something held in a hand, the thing on which all hope rests.

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