Flying words, and a bit of sonnet-ness (2.5.9-16)

JULIET                        Now is the sun upon the highmost hill

                        Of this day’s journey, and from nine till twelve

                        Is three long hours, yet she is not come.

                        Had she affections and warm youthful blood,

                        She would be swift in motion as a ball;

                        My words would bandy her to my sweet love,

                        And his to me.

                        But old folks, many feign as they were dead,

                        Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead. (2.5.9-16)

Here the clock and the landscape have become one and the same: noon is the highest hill, and Juliet labours her point: those three hours have been dragging like the Nurse slogging up a hill, even though she’s had plenty of time. It’s the Nurse’s fault in being old (genuine teenage note): how could she possibly understand what it’s like to be in love, to want news, to want things, to want everything, with such urgency? The ball here is a tennis ball, the racket Juliet’s words, as if the Nurse is being propelled through the air, carrying messages between the lovers like a high-speed rally at the net. (Do such things even exist in real tennis? Never mind.) The couplet is conventional as well as again authentically teenage (old people are so slow and out of touch with True Love that they might as well be dead), and the joke is much better if the Nurse is not particularly old (which she can’t be; she had a child who was the same age as Juliet, so if we’re going to be boringly literal about age in the play – which I’m not, most of the time – she’s in her mid fifties at most).

This longer passage is – just for a change – an almost-sonnet, of which this is the not-quite-sestet. As a whole, it’s fifteen-and-a-half lines, an (unrhymed) octave followed by six-and-a-half lines, with the couplet on the end. The half line – Juliet imagining not only her own words flying to Romeo, but his speeding back to her – is where it overgoes itself, a moment of imaginative and emotional excess which, perhaps, pauses in the reverie of anticipating what Romeo’s message might be. The couplet closes it down, as well as cuing the Nurse with a slightly sulky note.

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