Kissing by the book, xx (1.5.106-9)

ROMEO           Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.

JULIET                        Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO           Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

                        Give me my sin again.

JULIET                                                            You kiss by th’book. (1.5.106-109)

Uncharacteristically, I haven’t included the stage directions here. The edition from which I’m taking the text, the current Cambridge edition, has [Kissing her.] after purged, in line 106, and then [Kissing her again.] after again in 109; the current Arden puts the first direction a line earlier, after line 105, the sonnet’s couplet; this makes more sense to me (a couplet is a kind of kiss). So there are two actual kisses here. I like the way that this 4-line exchange is another quatrain that continues the stichomythia of the sonnet; it’s as if the sonnet continues, or another begins. That Romeo kisses by the book is nicely textualising (especially given Lady Capulet’s strange book conceit when she’s been talking up Paris in 1.3) and it also reinforces my sense here that the materiality of the sonnet matters.

The repetition of lips half-adds more kisses, through its assonance; it shifts the focus slightly from hands to mouths, and narrows it. The larger moment – this exchange of 18 lines – demonstrates some of the focalising mechanisms available to early modern actors and writers, techniques of drawing the attention of an audience to small areas of the stage space and the action in a shared light space. Some of them are still familiar: stillness when the main stage picture is one of activity. The patterns of intricate rhyme and, as I’ve suggested already, a particular discrete verse form the associations of which can set itself apart. The naming and description of small things – whether imaginary, as in the case of Queen Mab, or the gleaming pearl against the cheek – or present – the hands, the lips. Small, delicate actions: a touch, a kiss. Our aural and imaginative attentiveness is accompanied by visual and physical attentiveness – as is the case for both actors and characters.

One of the most cunning stagings of this scene I’ve seen was a student production in Cambridge directed by Rob Icke, which he later drew on for Headlong. The party was going on, as it were, backstage and exuberant guests could occasionally be seen through a central entrance/exit at the back of the stage – but the lovers both kept periodically escaping from the noise, as if into the non-party areas of the house, for a breather, for time out – and they kept running in to each other. It worked not only dramatically (neither of them really wanting to be in the middle of a noisy crowd) and in terms of a production with a small cast and, presumably, budget: no need for a crowd scene or rehearsal-hungry choreography. Smart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *