Book of love (1.3.80-89)

LADY CAPULET         What say you, can you love the gentleman?

                                    This night you shall behold him at our feast;

                                    Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,

                                    And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen;

                                    Examine every married lineament,

                                    And see how one another lends content;

                                    And what obscured in this fair volume lies

                                    Find written in the margent of his eyes.

                                    This precious book of love, this unbound lover,

                                    To beautify him only lacks a cover. (1.3.80-89)


Lady Capulet seems to suggest, here, that Juliet has never met, or even seen, Paris before. Her extended conceit of Paris as a book is odd (and it’s not in the first quarto), so what’s going on? Paris is being blazoned as if he were a female love object, like Rosaline, but the comparisons are curiously abstract and, well, papery, not alluringly sensual or precious. His face is a volume to be read, and he’s apparently good-looking; the delight written in his face is Juliet’s, a promise of future happiness. His lineaments, the contours of his features, are harmonious, married, although it’s also as if his face is an exemplum of happy marriage, in which one another lends content, punning on happiness and the content of a book. His eyes are even more revealing: they’re like the margins of a book in which annotations and commentary are added to explain things that remain obscure in the text. But if Paris’s eyes are margents, margins, then the conceit doesn’t quite cohere, eyes being, after all, in the middle of the face. Books were (mostly) sold unbound (Paris too is on the market, after all), and here Juliet is imagined as the cover that will make him complete, punning on the bond of marriage (and possibly on the idea that, in being joined to him as his wife, she would lose her own identity, as a feme-couvert, the term used to describe the status of a married woman in law). (What Juliet might get out of such a match remains unclear; Paris is the winner here.)

If Paris is a book, then he seems to be the coffee-table variety. Is Juliet a reader, a writer? (One can imagine a production that made this part of her character, the teenage girl with her nose in a book.) Mostly, this conceit, and the rest of the speech, is doing two things. It’s attempting to give a more elevated, refined account of love and marriage than that suggested by the Nurse. But it’s also anticipating the terms of Romeo and Juliet’s meeting, now fast approaching, not least because Paris is being described in black and white.

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