Past our dancing days (1.5.26-39)

CAPULET                    More light, you knaves, and turn the tables up;

                                    And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot.

                                    Ah, sirrah, this unlooked-for sport comes well.

                                    Nay sit, nay sit good Cousin Capulet,

                                    For you and I are past our dancing days.

                                    How long is’t now since last yourself and I

                                    Were in a mask?

COUSIN CAPULET                                         Berlady, thirty years.

CAPULET                    What, man, ’tis not so much, ’tis not so much:

                                    ’Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio,

                                    Come Pentecost as quickly as it will,

                                    Some five and twenty years, and then we masked.

COUSIN CAPULET     ’Tis more, ’tis more, his son is elder, sir;

                                    His son is thirty.

CAPULET                                                        Will you tell me that?

                                    His son was but a ward two years ago. (1.5.26-39)


So it seems as if the servingmen haven’t quite got everything ready, even though the dancing’s now underway: the tables – boards on trestles – need to be carried out to make more room. The detail of the room being too hot is a good one – there is, of course, no fire – but the instruction adds to the febrile atmosphere. (Like Shakespeare, we might have forgotten that it’s meant to be July.) Sirrah – a jocular, quite low-status form of address – mate? – could be addressed to himself, to his cousin, or to another participant in the dance; Cousin Capulet is, it seems, around the same age, or at least generation, as Capulet, and this exchange is mostly about further establishing their age. It’s not just that they work out that they haven’t danced for around thirty years (with some mis-remembering along the way, as well as incredulity: noooo, get away, it seems like yesterday) – but the repetitions too: ’tis not so much, ’tis not so much; ’Tis more, ’tis more, and also the moderately archaic oath, Berlady, By our lady. The nuptial of Lucentio gives pause: such a wedding celebration had been seen in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew a few years’ earlier (perhaps even the two-ish to which Capulet alludes in relation to the son’s wardship, given the slightly fuzzy dating of both plays), and Padua is near enough to Verona. Two other observations. The mask here can be both a face mask, the visor or vizard to which Mercutio has referred, suggesting perhaps that many of the guests are thus disguised. Or it could be – in addition – a reference to masquing, a suggestion that the Montague boys, at least, are in masquing attire, fancy dress. And, in terms of keeping an eye out for vaguely sonnet-shaped things – this is a fourteen-line exchange, which sort-of divides into 8+6 and includes some stichomythia. It’s emphatically not a sonnet, but it marks out a space into which such a thing might fit.

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