ROMEO O my love, my wife,
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquered, beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks
And Death’s pale flag is not advancèd there. (5.3.91-96).
As anyone who’s ever worked on this play with me can attest, this is one of the bits with the potential to Really Finish Me Off. My love, my wife. The reminder of their marriage. That he is the only person in the world who can address her as my wife. And that he has grown up, that he is a married man, a widower even, and yet, in this moment, must sound heart-breakingly young. It’s the only time we hear Romeo call Juliet his wife (he’s usually said my lady, my love, my Juliet) – perhaps the first and last time he tries it out, wondering at the word’s strangeness, and its rightness, on his tongue. Then the first part of this beautiful but simultaneously grisly conceit, as death is imagined as a lover, vampiric, but gentle – far more sensual and seductive now than the rotten jaws and the detestable maw that Romeo invoked, earlier in the scene. To imagine Death as sucking Juliet’s breath like honey should be disgusting; it may disturb, but it’s also beautiful; it makes her breath sweet and fragrant as a flower; the liquidity of honey, as much as its sweetness, eroticises it. It is intimate, and draws the audience in; we have to be as close as Romeo, see through his eyes and already, perhaps, imagine the kiss of death. (The delicacy of the interplay between the predominant monosyllables and polysyllabic words is also striking here: honey and beauty and crimson in particular stand out, are lingered on; power needs to have 2 syllables for the line to scan.) A resurgence of the old Petrarchan idiom, the crimson and the implicit white of Juliet’s complexion, but also the conceit of the army, the ensign or banner of Juliet’s rosy beauty, as opposed to the pale flag of Death. Thou art not conquered, he says, and perhaps it’s not just Juliet’s beauty that is, as yet, apparently undiminished by death, but her very self. Thou is the word that matters. She is still, to Romeo, Juliet. My love, my wife.