Juliet’s living nightmare, #1 (4.3.30-35)

JULIET                        How if, when I am laid into the tomb,

                        I wake before the time that Romeo

                        Comes to redeem me? There’s a fearful point!

                        Shall I not then be stifled in the vault,

                        To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,

                        And there lie strangled ere my Romeo comes? (4.3.30-35)

And now Juliet is really starting to visualise the detail of the scenario: what if the timing’s wrong, and she wakes up alone in the tomb? This part of the speech – which is  becoming progressively more vivid and fantastical, real hallucinatory stuff – explains why Juliet previously told the Friar that she would do anything, including the things that she finds most terrifying, to avoid marrying Paris – and these included being hidden in a charnel or a new-made grave. She has already articulated her worst nightmares, and now she contemplating experiencing them for real. But, set against this increasing terror, she still tries to proceed logically: there’s a fearful point, the language of disputation (Hamlet in the ‘bad’ quarto: ‘to be or not to be, ay, there’s the point’). The vault here is imagined as having a kind of corporeality: it’s a body (earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she, said Capulet, of his surviving daughter) – and here the vault indeed has a foul mouth. Rather than breathing in healthsome air it is full of poisonous miasma, foul air, that will not only stifle her, but strangle her – as if the foul air in the tomb will be so choking that it will be like hands, throttling her. If Romeo’s not there when she wakes, who will comfort and protect her in this nightmare? Who will fight off the monsters?

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