Names, and parts, and the scent of a rose (2.2.38-49)

JULIET                        ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

                        Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

                        What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,

                        Nor arm nor face, nor any other part

                       Belonging to a man. O be some other name!

                      What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

                     By any other word would smell as sweet;

                    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

                     Retain that dear perfection which he owes

                    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

                  And for that name, which is no part of thee,

                 Take all myself. (2.2.38-49)

Like the shared sonnet in the ball scene, this is one of the moments to which the play’s body talk, whether Petrarchan, violent, or bawdy (these categories are not mutually exclusive) has been pointing. How do bodies relate to, and express, identities? How are relationships between bodies made and expressed? Language is most of what we have to do that work, but there’s always a gap, between word and thing, name and person, language and body. The prominence of hand here matters, I think; hands were central to the previous encounter between the lovers (can we call them lovers yet?) and they should/could be in this scene too. I’ve suggested already the importance of the vertical dynamic in this scene – Romeo, and the audience, looking up – and this is partly because this scene has at its heart a staged version of the Petrarchan dynamic, a beautiful woman on a pedestal, a wooing man below. That’s only the starting point, though, because Juliet speaks, and reciprocates, and acknowledges and articulates her own desires. I think hands are physically important too, because that vertical dynamic – the physical fact of an actual balcony (or window) and of distance between the lovers – can perhaps only be overcome by hands. I always feel a bit cheated if the balcony is self-evidently climb-able. There’s a delicate, nostalgic purity (not moral! emotional) in Romeo and Juliet only being able to touch each other’s hands, as well as a sense of that gap in language and experience, when touch can express what words cannot. There can be real electricity in that single point of contact, the teenage kick galvanic. (If I’m allowed to choose the cover of the new edition, at the moment I favour two hands, one reaching down, the other up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

And there’s the rose, imparting its heady imagined scent to this already overloaded moment.

It’s OK for Juliet to get a laugh on any other part belonging to a man: one of the most appealing things about her character is her frankness. (And her intelligence, and wit.) The parts of the body she names are solid, graspable – hand, arm, foot, face – not the more delicate features of the conventional blazon (brow, lip, cheek). She matches Romeo’s conceit of virginity as a vestal livery that should be cast off with a name as something that can be doffed, a garment; if he takes off his name, as he would a hat or a shirt, she will give him, instead of his name, all herself. (They are both thinking about each other’s bodies, naked.) And there’s a fantasy of reintegration here: just as hand has met hand, lip lip, in the embodiment of a sonnet, so here the parts of the body, fragmented by the necessity of names and their destructive practices, by blazon and banter, can be re-embodied, renewed, given, taken, experienced as a whole.

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