Is Romeo dead or alive? Yes or no? (3.2.43-51)

JULIET                        What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?

                        This torture should be roared in dismal hell.

                        Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ‘ay’,

                        And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more

                        Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.

                        I am not I, if there be such an ‘ay’,

                        Or those eyes shut, that makes thee answer ‘ay’.

                        If he be slain, say ‘ay’, or if not, ‘no’:

                        Brief sounds determine my weal or woe. (3.2.43-51)

Juliet can do hyperbole and excess as well as the next woman, and her desperate punning would do credit to Mercutio. The thought of Romeo being dead is torture, the thought that he might have slain himself is worse, and the not knowing is worst of all – and Juliet is not in the mood for playing games (compare, again, 2.5, when she’s been exasperated with the Nurse’s delay, but still quite tolerant and affectionate). The punning on ayand Iis conventional enough: if Romeo’s dead, then the simple affirmation of that will be enough to kill Juliet, I, herself, as swiftly as the eye of the cockatrice (whose glance is fatal). Juliet will no longer be herself, I am not I, if Romeo’s dead, if those eyes, Romeo’s eyes, are shut (the syntax is compressed) in death. Without him, she will cease to exist as the person she has become. Yet even in this passage of manic, terrified wordplay, Juliet recognises her own emotional lability, and the way in which everything stands on a knife’s edge: brief sounds– not even words – determine my weal or woe. Her happiness, her very life, depend on the Nurse’s news, on yes or no. It’s fast and can probably be gently trimmed, but it’s also a brilliant collision of authentically (anachronistically) teenage self-dramatisation, everything is amazing, everything is appalling, and real knife-edge drama, a zero-sum game. A matter of life and death, for real.


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