Grey eyes (and an unexpected owl. Possibly.) (3.5.17-22)

ROMEO           Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,

                        I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

                        I’ll say yond grey is not the morning’s eye,

                        ’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;

                        Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat

                        The vaulty heaven so high above our heads. (3.5.17-22)

I continue to be really interested in the monosyllables here. (I also recognise that this is in part a strategy in order to avoid dissolving in a little puddle of emotion.) One of the things that the (surely?) high proportion of monosyllables in the lovers’ dialogue does is that it allows the lovers to say a lot in a short space of time – as well as having that effect of simple directness, which I’ve sometimes termed purity when noting it before. But there’s the beginning of a shift here, played out grammatically: whereas previously Romeo has said that if he stays he will die (allowing for the erotic wordplay) he now imagines other agents: Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death. Other people are involved, and the peril that the lovers are in briefly comes a little more into focus. (Remember that even in the balcony scene Juliet had warned Romeo that If they do see thee, they will murder thee – and that was before the death of Tybalt and Romeo’s banishment.) Content is a weighty word, more absolute (because not invoking fortune and its vicissitudes) than happy (although it’s also simply allowing the line to remain perfectly iambic). Yet there’s still time for another beautiful conceit, whereby, as in Juliet’s imagining of the little stars decorating the face of heaven, the sky is once again embodied. The grey light (of the dawn) isn’t the morning’s eye, Romeo suggests, but rather the shadow or reflection of the moon, Cynthia’s brow. And the birdsong returns; it’s surely not the lark, its notes again imagined as a weapon, beating the sky (its vault imagined as a high-arched ceiling) as it has already pierced the lovers’ears. (The nightingale, no nightingale, is never named again: the lovers know it is the lark, as they have all along.) As in the balcony scene, as in Juliet’s gallop apace, the sense of height, of soaring space beyond the close confinement of the balcony, the verse, the lovers’ desperate plight, is palpable.

(Long speculative note about Greek, eyes, and birds follows…. Grey eyes are a standard feature of beauty in Renaissance poetry, invoked more often than blue but seemingly used interchangeably as a descriptor. Homer and his imitators describe the goddess Athene’s eyes as glaukopis, often translated as grey-eyed but also as flashing, gleaming, bright. (I have been thinking of this after seeing Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre at the weekend; Athene and her eyes feature.) Glaukopis shares its etymology with glaux, a little owl, perhaps so named for its own flashing eyes: the owl is one of Athene’s most enduring attributes. It is also a bird of ill-omen. There is of course no owl in this scene. But I will at least entertain the idea that there’s a little chain of Greek etymology and mythology here which allows the invocation of grey eyes – and Cynthia in the next line might confirm it – to evoke, via Athene, an ominous owl. Birds birds birds. Oh, and when Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’, he mostly meant, ‘compared to me’. Shakespeare almost certainly had enough Greek to play with standard Homeric epithets.)

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