News from Verona! (5.1.12-19)

Enter Romeo’s man [BALTHASAR, booted].

ROMEO           News from Verona! How now, Balthasar?

                        Dost thou not bring me letters from the Friar?

                        How doth my lady? Is my father well?

                        How doth my Juliet? That I ask again,

                        For nothing can be ill if she be well.

BALTHASAR   Then she is well and nothing can be ill:

                        Her body sleeps in Capel’s monument,

                        And her immortal part with angels lives. (5.1.12-19)

Booted, which appears in the Q1 stage direction (and therefore might record early performances) is important, because it means that Balthasar, Romeo’s servant, has just jumped off a horse and hasn’t even paused to change out of his riding boots. He’s ridden from Verona to Mantua at top speed. And Romeo’s delight, his high spirits, his relief at seeing a friendly face is shown in his babble of questions, tumbling out all at once – but even in his haste to have all the news, all at once, it’s Juliet he asks after, twice: my lady is Juliet, not his mother – That I ask again– and how doth my Juliet? It’s his most vital, urgent question. Buried in the middle, where we might overlook it, something even more important: Dost thou not bring me letters from the Friar? that was the plan; oh, Romeo, stick to the plan, and perhaps pause to think why it’s Balthasar bringing news, not the Friar himself, or another Friar, or even someone like Benvolio, and what might be the implications of that. But no.

If we’re thinking in realistic terms, we also might wonder how Balthasar has planned to break this news, what phrasing he’s been trying out as he’s galloped post-haste from Verona. But Romeo, heartbreakingly (get used to it) gives him the words: For nothing can be ill if she be well. She is everything to me. ‘Nothing else is’. And so Balthasar – with relief? – resorts to commonplace: Then she is well and nothing can be ill – because she’s dead. As Cleopatra will say with suspicion, told by Antony’s messenger from Rome that ‘He is well’, ‘We use to say the dead are well’; in Macbeth, Ross tells Macduff initially that his murdered wife and children are ‘well’: ‘they were well at peace when I did leave ’em’. The two lines spoken by Romeo and Balthasar, with the repetition of ill-well, well-ill, make the rhetorical figure called a chiasmus, a cross. Star-crossed.

The funeral has already taken place, but Balthasar can’t quite bring himself to say that Juliet’s dead. Instead, ironically, he mostly tells the truth: she is asleep in the Capulet tomb, just as the Friar planned. And, as he thinks, her soul, her immortal part, is in heaven, with the angels. (Speak again, bright angel!)

Leave a Reply

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