Birdsong in the dawn… (3.5.1-5)

[3.5] Enter ROMEO and JULIET aloft [as at the window].

JULIET                        Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:

                        It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

                        That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;

                        Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

                        Believe me, love, it was the nightingale. (3.5.1-5)

Let’s start with that stage direction. Q1 – the earliest text – has Enter Romeo and Juliet at the window. Other early texts, including the Folio, have Enter Romeo and Juliet aloft. (So this is a hybrid.) They’re on the balcony. In films and modern productions, however, this is almost always set in Juliet’s bedroom, and usually in, on, and around her bed. (Edward Capell, the eighteenth-century editor, clearly got so squeamish about this that his stage direction reads ‘Anti-room of Juliet’s Chamber’ [sic], i.e. no bed in sight. Juliet has a suite, clearly.) What’s going on with this? It can be beautiful and touching; I find Zeffirelli a bit prurient and lingering (and the nudity led to classification problems in the US); Luhrmann’s version is more light-hearted, joyous. But it can quickly get tricky with very young or young-looking actors. And, in practical terms, Romeo’s on the point of departure. If the entire scene is on the balcony, he can begin it more or less fully dressed. If it begins with the couple in bed, then he has to dress – which is no huge challenge for an actor, obviously – but adds technicality, fuss, and potential distraction and indignity. Socks, just saying. (Or point-trussing, come to that.)

I’ve thought for a long time – and argued in various places – that turning this into a bedroom scene misses the point. The lovers’ wedding night is private as well as secret; it can be (should be?) hidden even from the audience (who can be assumed to be entirely on their side). The balcony is their space, the space where Romeo has longed to be – elevated, set apart, heavenly, a place of flight and stars and angels. The place where Juliet has longed for Romeo. A small space, intensely focused. A sonnet space.

So there they are, aloft, soaring above the stage and the audience, and they share a song, an aubade, a dawn-song, for parting lovers who don’t want to part. (Donne does these, naturally. See, inter alia, The Sunne Rising, Breake of Day.) It’s a lyrical, intricately constructed duet, bittersweet, evanescent. Do you really have to go? Juliet asks. (He’s already told her that he must; that’s why they’re on the balcony.) Her first line has that monosyllabic directness which has characterised their most intimate moments, and then here are some more of the birds that have fluttered and soared through the play’s poetry thus far. But unlike the peregrine, the tercel falcon, the dove, or even the crow, these birds are imagined not as embodied presences, briefly held in the hand or vividly pictured in their black or white feathers, but invisible, reduced to their song. And it’s a song which has already faded, a melody (unheard, and therefore sweeter, and more bitter) which has been half-heard and half-imagined, before the scene begins, leaving the lovers to take over the song. The pomegranate tree is a reminder of the orchard setting and hence that the balcony has become a version of the hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden, ancient setting for love and lyricism. (That it’s a pomegranate tree makes it exotic, and also imports some of the heady eroticism of the Song of Solomon.) And in the midst of unheard music, the fearful hollow of thine ear, pierced by birdsong: the melody like the blade of a knife.

I think it’s time for some Tchaikovsky – adore the Prokofiev but the intensity of the next few days begins, around 14.00…

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