Conjuring Romeo 2 (slightly more NSFW) (2.1.17-29)

MERCUTIO     I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,

                        By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,

                        By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,

                        And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,

                        That in thy likeness thou appear to us.

BENVOLIO      And if he hear thee, thou wilt anger him.

MERCUTIO     This cannot anger him; ’twould anger him

                        To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle,

                        Of some strange nature, letting it there stand

                        Till she had laid it and conjured it down:

                        That were some spite. My invocation

                        Is fair and honest: in his mistress’ name

                        I conjure only but to raise up him. (2.1.17-29)

Back to body language (bawdy language) again, and it’s notable that there are no hands here. Rosaline has been all about looking without the possibility of touching (and indeed imagining without the possibility of her ever being seen by the audience, a kind of paint-by-numbers imaginary not-girlfriend). The adjectives are mostly quite non-specific: bright (but what colour?), high, fine, straight – none of these bring Rosaline to life or particularise her. Neither does scarlet; it’s a slightly odd word to apply to a lip, because although it can simply refer to a bright, sometimes slightly orange-y red, it’s overwhelmingly used to refer to scarlet cloth (especially the scarlet robes of legal or civic officials). In particular, a not very systematic database search of poetry and drama of the period suggests that it’s only vanishingly rarely applied to lips, or to flowers: roses are not scarlet, usually. This isn’t a typical blazon or sonnet word. (Oddly, blushes are often scarlet, but the textile sense seems to be retained, because a blush is something that appears and disappears, like a garment. But this is all a minor point, and relates more to my current textile preoccupations.) Lip, though. Yes, they are often singular, but the lips in Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet were very much animated, in pairs, and conjoined. That Mercutio starts with the face, then moves to the foot and thence upwards is a pretty typical blazon move, as is the evocation of a woman’s genitals, which – of course – can’t be named or described, but only gestured at, in a rather sniggery way. The only vaguely sensual aspect of this description is the quivering thigh. As a blazon, whether erotic or pornographic, it’s pretty unsuccessful (and, like other blazons, it dismembers).

What is animating this moment – and suggesting what Mercutio could be doing – is the assumption that spirits are raised by drawing a circle on the ground, here identified with a woman’s no-thing, nought, her genitals. Audiences were used to seeing circles drawn or evoked in scenes of conjuring, for example in Doctor Faustus, and in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI. (In the latter, the stage direction explicitly says ‘make the circle’ and Southwell, one of the corrupt priests, reads an incantation beginning ‘Conjuro te’, I conjure you.) Obscene hand gestures might also figure here, perhaps with a handily phallic torch, dagger, or rapier. Benvolio rebukes Mercutio for making a dirty joke about the woman with whom they still imagine Romeo to be infatuated, but Mercutio, er, rises to the challenge: this wouldn’t make him angry, he protests; what would make him angry would be for another man (Mercutio himself, for instance) to have sex with Rosaline – and in any case I’m only talking like this to find out where Romeo is, raise him, by provoking him into a response. And, incidentally, to turn him on, which is futile, because Rosaline will never have sex with him. (There is, of course, a whole homoerotic thing going on with Mercutio, too.)

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