Full of light (5.3.81-86)

ROMEO                                   O give me thy hand,

                        One writ with me in sour misfortune’s book!

                        I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.

                         A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth;

                        For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes

                        This vault a feasting presence full of light. (5.3.81-86)

At some point, the entrance to the tomb has to be opened, Juliet has to appear, lying on the tomb, and the action has to shift into that space. If one overthinks the levels involved, it just gets messy; it usually works in performance, I think. And the crucial thing – however it’s accomplished, and modern theatre lighting makes it pretty straightforward – is that Juliet has to ‘appear’, glowing, as the scene’s focus narrows and intensifies. Shakespeare takes a risk here, with Paris’s death – it can’t distract, and his body can’t clutter the tomb. (This is tricky on film, especially if Tybalt’s body is there too.) I haven’t thought previously about the potential physical effort for Romeo (and the actor playing him), moving Paris’s body, the way in which it can be used to increase the sense of exhaustion, burden, and strain. (The most terrible example of this is, of course, Lear’s appearance with the body of Cordelia; perhaps Shakespeare filed away the effect.) Romeo gets his biggest moments in the play in this final scene; he has to keep, and find, a great deal of energy, and lightness, and passion in reserve. And the gesture of taking Paris’s hand is a particularly poignant one – because hands, and the clasping of hands, have been so vital in this play. As has sour misfortune, the randomness of things.

Weirdly, this is one of my favourite, most bittersweet moments in the play, when Romeo sees Juliet – because it is so passionate, so audacious, and because it ties things together with such painful ecstasy; it’s one of the moments to which some of the play’s central tropes have been driving. Juliet’s beauty, and Romeo’s love for her, transform the tomb: it is no longer a grave, but a lantern, and here a lantern is not a portable light source (although it could be), but rather an architectural feature, like an enormous skylight at the top of a building, letting light in, and out. Juliet is, once again, teaching the torches to burn bright; she is the bright angel, the sun, the morning sky; she illuminates everything. Look up, again, not down into the grave (which might be imagined as underground) but up to the heavens. (Vault allows for this playfulness, partly, because the word can mean both a cellar, like the crypt of a church, a subterranean space, and a ceiling, as in a cathedral; the sky or heaven is sometimes described as a vault.) And that light makes the grave itself a feasting presence full of light – like the room where Romeo first saw Juliet, a presence chamber, a party, full of torchlight and flame, glowing sensuality, erotic promise. Romeo is back in that space, remembering that moment. He has to smile, as well as weep; it’s paradoxically a moment of great joy. Oxymoron, grave and lantern, darkness and light. Bittersweet.

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