Light, and light’ning (5.3.87-91)

ROMEO           Death, lie thou there, by a dead man interred.

                                    [Laying Paris in the tomb.]

                        How oft when men are at the point of death

                        Have they been merry, which their keepers call

                        A light’ning before death! O how may I

                        Call this a light’ning? (5.3.87-91)

Paris is death, because he is dead, but Romeo is also a dead man, because he has only moments to live (and also because, if Juliet is dead, then so is he, already). And now, Mercutio-like, Romeo puns and plays with words, with desperation but also, perhaps a kind of grim pleasure; it brings another kind of energy to the scene, gives him another range of emotional colours to play with. Light is the word that has started this, suggesting the light’ning before death, the revival of spirits and the merriment apparently seen – by jailers, keepers, for instance – in those about to die. (This is a bit of a Renaissance thing, part of making ‘a good death’, but also what would now be called gallows’ humour; there are lots of records of those about to be executed making grim jokes with the executioner.) This can be played in a number of ways, of course, Romeo unable to see any way in which his spirits could lift (how may I call this a light’ning? how on earth?) or else confirming that yes, he is weirdly feeling better: how – how much, in how many ways, how do I love thee? – may I call this a light’ning. But a lightening – that which lightens, in terms of weight (and heaviness has been a recurrent motif) or illumination is also lightning, a violent, destructive flash, gone almost before it’s seen. Even in the balcony scene, Juliet had, momentarily fearful, compared their declarations of love to the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens’.

In the UK,  Samaritans, phone 116 123, and, for young men in particular, CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (for resources, not crisis support).

View 6 comments on “Light, and light’ning (5.3.87-91)

  1. I am so envious! The work that you produce is so fluent and uses such amazing vocabulary. Do you have any advice for writing up my analyses for Romeo and Juliet?

    1. Hi Abi – I’m glad you like it! I think the main thing is to read slowly and think about the language – don’t get distracted too easily into theme, for instance. And re-read, too – the more time you spend living with a text, the more things you’ll notice about it. We’re all really good at ‘reading for meaning’, going for a hot take – but sometimes, thinking and rethinking and musing is important too… It took me most of a year to write about R&J every day! and I’ve just finished another #SlowShakespeare blog of Tempest, which took around 8 months (it’s shorter!) R&J is a great play and I think we take it for granted sometimes…

  2. “how may I / Call this a light’ning?” – I can’t help picturing Romeo pointing at Paris’s dead body which he has just carried to the vault (perhaps realizing it was heavier than he thought). Does the word ‘light’ning’ allow that, or am I kinda wrong? I know there are several meanings anyway but that would be the only ‘comical’ one, so I’m not positive about ‘adding’ it to the other ones.

    (huge thanks, by the way, for the awesome work you did by putting your whole commentary online!)

    1. And – belated thanks! I’m glad you’ve found this interesting and useful. It would be a brave actor who’d entertain the possibility of getting a laugh there – but it’s not impossible… I think that the word is already doing a lot of work – the lifting of spirits, the play on lightning that’s recurred earlier on in the play – so adding a third possibility is not out of the questions – but I think it’s probably unlikely? Paris’s body is *always* a problem – because how to get ‘into’ the vault is always a problem – and anything that draws attention to the spatial issues there – like lugging the body too obviously, or too far, or with too much exertion – could be tricky…

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