CAPULET All things that we ordainèd festival,
Turn from their office to black funeral:
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast;
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change;
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse;
And all things change them to the contrary. (4.5.84-90)
The figure of the oxymoron, so characteristic of the play in general and Romeo in particular, and of pairs of opposites, pops up again here, broadly speaking. Shakespeare has done this sort of thing before (and it’s a particular commonplace, the wedding turning into the funeral): there’s a version in Gloucester’s opening speech in Richard III (‘Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, Our dreadful marches to delightful measures’) and, most famously, in Hamlet, in which Claudius describes his speedy wedding with Gertrude as ‘mirth in funeral’ and ‘dirge in marriage’. What Capulet proposes here, the change of our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast, is bitterly mirrored (in reverse) by Hamlet, to Horatio: ‘the funeral baked-meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’. All things change them to the contrary, as wedding becomes funeral, flowers are caught by frost, and the young die before their parents. Oxymoron, of a kind, but far more bitter than sweet. Capulet has picked up the Friar’s prompt and is starting to think in practical terms: they have to organise a funeral (beginning with the slow, melancholy tolling of the passing bell, a pre-Reformation custom which survived well into the seventeenth century and beyond, rather than the musicians waking the bride and conducting her to the church). There are still these musicians to pay off, as we’ll shortly see. There’s all this food to deal with, the pies and the quinces and the spices (and there were certainly funeral feasts, and also a customary dole of food to the poor). But the flowers – and above all the rosemary – will change themselves, in an instant, from bridal to burial, as quickly and as silently as shocking death. All things change them to the contrary has a stunned quality to it: all things. Everything is different, and everything is wrong.