Good hearts (1.1.174-185)

ROMEO           Dost thou not laugh?

BENVOLIO                                          No, coz, I rather weep.

ROMEO           Good heart, at what?

BENVOLIO                                          At thy good heart’s oppression.

ROMEO           Why, such is love’s transgression:

                        Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast,

                        Which thou wilt propagate to have it pressed

                        With more of thine; this love that thou hast shown

                        Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.

                        Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,

                        Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes,

                        Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.

                        What is it else? a madness most discreet,

                        A choking gall, and a preserving sweet. (1.1.174-185)

Here, there’s both a continuation of Romeo’s Petrarch 101, and a partial reinvention of it. Benvolio is probably laughing, but the possibility that he might be weeping (turning away? his head in his hands?) seems to elicit genuine concern from his otherwise self-absorbed friend. (Of course, the same exchange could be read in a different way: what are you crying for, you don’t have anything to be upset about.) The repeated good heart is encouraging: Romeo is (probably) concerned for his friend, whom he addresses affectionately; he too has a good heart. Benvolio’s gentle mockery enables Romeo to laugh at himself a little too: if you feel sorry for me it’ll only make it worse, I’m miserable enough as it is; my grief is already too much. And that excess sets him off again, but this time it’s freer, more complex, and also more precisely sensual. The smoke made with the fume of sighs is visual, aural, and possibly even olfactory (fume for perfume). The eyes are close enough not only to be seen to sparkle, but to reflect fire. The sea is nourished with tears, not simply augmented by them, and the choking gall and the preserving sweet are intensely experiential and active; together they make bitter-sweet, the oxymoron left implicit rather than beaten to death with a feather of lead. The smoke of Romeo’s imagined, insubstantial love for Rosaline will be purged by his meeting with Juliet; their love too will be bitter-sweet.

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