Cramming the rotten maw of death (5.3.40-48)

BALTHASAR   I will be gone, sir, and not trouble ye.

ROMEO           So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that,

                                    [Gives a purse.]

                        Live and be prosperous, and farewell, good fellow.

BALTHASAR   [Aside] For all this same, I’ll hide me hereabout,

                        His looks I fear, and his intents I doubt.     [Retires.]

ROMEO           Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,

                        Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,

                        Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,

                        And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food.

                           [Romeo begins to open the tomb] (5.3.40-48)

There is so much going on here. Paris is hiding, his page is still around somewhere, and now Balthasar is going to hide too. On the page at least, it’s busy in a way that we might not envisage. Romeo makes some amends for his fearsome threats to Balthasar by giving him money and, touchingly, addressing him as good fellow, and thanking him for his friendship. (We remember Benvolio, and Mercutio.) And, touchingly again, Balthasar is worried, he’s not going to leave him. Staging here is very tricky: where is the tomb? at the beginning of the scene, at least, it is imagined as being beneath the stage, a vault – but at some point, Juliet has to appear, lying on a tomb, fully visible to the audience, as if the action has shifted underground. Perhaps there’s a nice hydraulic under a trap on the stage that will enable this (not impossible, although certainly not hydraulic in the 1590s; more likely a winch; such a thing might have been used a little later for the Ghost in Hamlet). What’s most striking here is the grotesque conceit of the tomb as simultaneously maw, mouth and womb, a hideous body which has consumed Juliet, the dearest morsel of the earth, as if she were a dainty sweetmeat. (Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she.) That it’s the womb of death makes Romeo’s enforcement of its rotten jaws– we imagine some action with a crow-bar – a kind of rape (and we might remember here that Romeo and Juliet is close in date to Titus Andronicus, in which a bloody pit, simultaneously tomb and womb, is a central conceit, not least in its notorious rape scene). It’s all so messed up, sex and death and desire and appetite, and the sense of death itself as a grim physical presence, a ravenous body, who must be fed. (This looks back, partly, to the starving death’s-head of the apothecary.) Romeo himself is, of course, the food with which death’s dreadful mouth is to be crammed. That verb, to cram, is not just about excess but about surfeit, and the sense of having had enough, too much, no more, is a note which is going to recur in Romeo’s remaining speeches.

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