Juliet’s living nightmare, #3 (really losing it, now) (4.3.45-54)

JULIET                        Alack, alack, is it not like that I,

                        So early waking – what with loathsome smells,

                        And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,

                        That living mortals hearing them run mad –

                        O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,

                        Environèd with all these hideous fears,

                        And madly play with my forefathers’ joints,

                        And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud,

                        And in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,

                        As with a club, dash out my desp’rate brains? (4.3.45-54)

Juliet is fantastic and brilliant and in this moment you just want to give her a hug and say, really? really? sit down and take some deep breaths. The incremental way that this continues to build is so controlled, as it teeters over from horror into ridiculousness (I think) – in the way that nightmares, especially recurring ones (which this perhaps is?) always sound ridiculous when they’re described. And the out of control syntax (all those subordinate clauses) and the and and and and the breathlessness, as it all tumbles out. Juliet’s started with the vault as airless, entrapped, and then added the loathsome smells, the bones, the corpses – Tybalt, in particular. And possible ghosts. Is it the ghosts that shriek like mandrakes, a sound so terrible that living mortals hearing them run mad? The corpses? Juliet herself? Juliet is imagining an assault on all her senses, not just the terrible sights she might see – and into this moment of hyper-vigilance, all her senses primed, she imagines going mad, a madness that will make her play with the skeletons of her ancestors – which might raise a smile – and with Tybalt’s mangled corpse (considerably more gruesome; do we imagine a macabre dance?) and then, finally, dash out her brains with an enormous bone – presumably a thighbone – which is all a bit Flintstones, really. I don’t mean to be flippant, because one of the things I think is so brilliant about this passage is that the terror is utterly real, heart-felt, almost existential: its causes and its possible manifestations are expressed in such extreme ways that it tips into bathos – but Juliet is properly terrified by what she’s about to do, and this is the only vocabulary in which she can express it. And underpinning these fears that she can at least articulate – no matter how baroque the expression – is the fear that she will be too afraid to take the potion. That’s the fear that these horror-struck imaginings displace. What she needs in this moment, most of all, is some sleep – and that, at least, she is going to get.

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