Hell, damnation, howling, banishment (3.3.44-51)

ROMEO           Hadst thou no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife,

                        No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,

                        But ‘banishèd’ to kill me? Banishèd?

                        O Friar, the damnèd use that word in hell;

                        Howling attends it. How hast thou the heart,

                        Being a divine, a ghostly confessor,

                        A sin-absolver, and my friend professed,

                        To mangle me with that word ‘banishèd’? (3.3.44-51)

The poison and thesharp-ground knife are horribly, precisely proleptic, but let’s not go there. Romeo is edging closer and closer to saying, I’ll kill myself; he’s reproaching, or even baiting, the Friar: you’re a priest, my confessor, and you said you were my friend, but you’re killing me with this word, and tempting me to suicide. His hysteria is acquiring a dangerous edge; there’s the invocation of the knife and the poison, but also a real sense of of the infernal in the cacophony of his imagining of hell, as if banishèd, that bell which has resounded, tolled through these scenes, is now competing with the howling of the damned. (There is, perhaps, an echo of this moment in Measure for Measure: after the Duke, disguised as a Friar, has apparently reconciled Claudio, sentenced to death for fornication with his beloved Juliet – aha – to his fate in the great Be absolute for death speech, Claudio loses his nerve in his conversation with his sister Isabella as he imagines, like Hamlet, a something after death: he too imagines the howling of the damned, a pain beyond language and humanity.) Mangle is the word that Juliet has used to reproach herself for her initial fierce response to the news that Romeo has killed Tybalt – she has mangled his name – and here again it has the effect of taking emotional and psychological pain into the body, making it physical. More than that, even, it suggests that the golden axeof banishment does not sever cleanly; this is death by torture. That both Juliet and Romeo have used this same shockingly corporeal word, mangle, makes clear that they are being divided not simply from each other, but from themselves; they have indeed become one flesh in marriage, wedded, bonded, truly incorporate. The diptych of these two scenes, hinged on banished, sharing the nightmare of an emotional pain so acute that it feels like torture, mirrors the way in which Romeo and Juliet are each other’s other half, in the terms of Plato’s hermaphrodite (in the Symposium, a text we might reach for more readily in relation to the cross-dressing of the comedies). Having found each other, in that mirrored moment of the shared sonnet, and healed a wound that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they had, they’re now facing not only the rupture of something which has seemed whole and perfect, more than the sum of its parts, but the destruction of their individual selves too, because their identities and lives are now entirely contingent upon each other. One flesh.

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