Making peace with Tybalt (5.3.97-101)

ROMEO           Tybalt, liest thou there in thy bloody sheet?

                        O, what more favour can I do to thee

                        Than with the hand that cut thy youth in twain

                        To sunder his that was thine enemy?

                        Forgive me, cousin. (5.3.97-101)

This speech in the tomb (of which this is, obviously, only one small part) is by far Romeo’s longest, and in fact it’s one of the longest speeches in the whole play. Most of Romeo’s big moments occur in dialogue with others – with Mercutio and Benvolio, with the Friar, and above all with Juliet – and so here his addressing of Tybalt’s corpse, as with his talking to Juliet’s supposed body, and even his speaking directly to Paris just after he has killed him, emphasises that he is all alone – somehow, even more alone than if this were in fact a pure soliloquy, with no one else on stage. He’s not talking to the audience – he is, most of all, talking to Juliet – and for him to be surrounded by the dead and thought-to-be-dead, who cannot answer back, makes him seem much lonelier. (Another reason why this is such a big ask for the actor, and why he needs to dig deep: no one to bounce off.) Of course, this is also an easy-ish cut, if a production doesn’t want to bring some version of Tybalt’s corpse on stage, although Romeo could just gesture. (The Zeffirelli tomb scene, like the film as a whole, is deeply invested in realism, which means that there is a tricky mixture of fake ancient Capulet corpses and Michael York’s Tybalt, keeping very still, and Juliet, breathing visibly in close-up…) There is no way that Tybalt would be in a bloody sheet, buried in the state in which he’s died, rather than washed and in a shroud – but Romeo’s invocation of it is a reminder of the whole mess of bloody, pointless violence that’s brought him here, and his own culpability, and it gives him the opportunity not only to ask Tybalt’s forgiveness, but to repeat the terms in which he tried to defuse the quarrel: that he and Tybalt are now kin, through marriage. Forgive me, cousin. The conceit of cutting thy youth in twain – cutting the thread of life, as spun by the fates – is a pretty standard one, but it’s a stark reminder of the youth of so many of the characters, and not least, of course, Romeo himself.

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