But soft…. (2.2.1-9)

ROMEO           He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

                        But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

                        It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

                        Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

                        Who is already sick and pale with grief

                        That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

                        Be not her maid, since she is envious;

                        Her vestal livery is but sick and green,

                        And none but fools do wear it; cast it off. (2.2.1-9)

The scene break is entirely notional, of course, not least because Romeo’s first line forms a couplet with Benvolio’s last. There’s continuity here, then, and a sense, perhaps, of continuing connection between Romeo and his friends, even as he’s embarking on something of which they have no inkling. It matters that Romeo’s heard all Mercutio’s obscene banter, first because he doesn’t respond – it’s not just that he’s not bothered (because he’s no longer thinking about Rosaline) he’s also not interested in being one of the lads at the moment, because he’s found something different, more exciting, more real. He has actually kissed a girl, after all. But it also matters that that wild (sexual) energy is there at the top of the balcony scene; what follows may be about to reframe ideas about bodies, and desire, and how they can be put into words – but poetry is not the opposite of sex. (I’m not going to speculate about pronunciation, but at least in modern speech, found / wound is a half-rhyme. Change, as well as continuity.)

Scars that never felt a wound means that Romeo is over Rosaline, he doesn’t even recognise that version of love, or of himself. But it’s also suggestive in its physicality: the scar that never felt a wound is like a simulacrum of skin, skin that has never been touched, or hurt. Touch is already important in this play and this relationship. So when Romeo notices the light and says, but soft, of course he’s saying, hang on, calm down, shut up – but he’s doing so in an idiom that is wonderfully multi-sensory, and not least, tactile (even though that’s not its primary sense here). (Soft is also the opposite of Mercutio’s preoccupations, which have been loud, fast, and hard.) And here’s the light, another instance of that light in darkness which has already been identified with Juliet – but now she’s everything, the sun, the ultimate source of light. (We might note in passing it’s a window. Not a balcony. Whatever, she’s inside, and upstairs. She may not be visible just yet – but a light is.) She’s identified with the sun at daybreak, so, new beginnings, new life. If and when Juliet appears, she’ll be brighter than the moon: even though, as a chaste woman, she is the moon’s maid (because the moon is identified with the virgin goddess Diana, patron of virgins). The sun-moon conceit is elaborate, and beautiful (and the moon perhaps recalls the earlier pearl, glowing in the night) – but it is still the case that Romeo is saying, don’t remain a virgin. Cast off, set aside, the vestal virgin’s pale dress, evoking green-sickness, the anaemia to which unmarried women were apparently prone, for which the only cure was marriage. The idiom may be lyrical and courtly, and it’s no less heartfelt and beautiful for saying, in essence, you are beautiful, I desire you, and I am already, at some level, thinking about you naked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.