Pots, pans, trenchers, and cheerly, boys (1.5.1-14)

SERVINGMEN come forth with napkins.

FIRST SERVINGMAN             Where’s Potpan, that he helps not to take away? He shift a trencher? he scrape a trencher?

SECOND SERVINGMAN         When good manners shall lie all in one or two men’s hands, and they unwashed too, ’tis a foul thing.

FIRST SERVINGMAN             Away with the join-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou loves me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell.

[Exit Second Servingman]

Anthony and Potpan!

[Enter two more SERVINGMEN.]

THIRD SERVINGMAN            Ay boy, ready.

FIRST SERVINGMAN             You are looked for and called for, asked for and sought for, in the great chamber.

FOURTH SERVINGMAN         We cannot be here and there too. Cheerly, boys, be brisk a while, and the longer liver take all.

[They retire behind] (1.5.1-14)

The stage directions here are a little tricky, not least because the conventional scene divisions are editorial and it’s unclear, at the end of the previous scene, whether Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio et al exit or stand to one side. (Editors find various solutions.) It’s another deferral, increasing the suspense: if the previous scene is notionally outside the Capulet house (and perhaps even includes noises off from the party, as well as the musicians potentially accompanying the Montagues) then it might be expected that we’d be going straight into the midst of the party – as per Benvolio’s instructions – as if the stage simply flips, so that we’re inside rather than outside. Instead we get a backstage scene, the servants running around behind the scenes, clearing up after supper. The napkins are a shorthand for establishing that a meal – the supper of which Benvolio just spoke – has been taking place offstage; they’re talking about who’s going to clear the tables (shift a trencher, trenchers being plates) and do the washing up (scrape a trencher). (It is tempting to imagine that the First Servingman – at least in his first line – has a heavy Italian accent, but the grammar is simply Elizabethan.) The Second Servingman is worried that the maintenance of proper standards, good manners, is coming down to them and they’re short-staffed; the First Servingman (could it be Peter? or is he, punningly, Potpan?) is issuing instructions, acting as a steward or butler: they have to clear away the stools (and presumably trestle-tables too), as well as the sideboard on which the household silver or plate has been displayed – all of these clearing space for the dancing. He’d like some leftover marzipan, and he needs the extra scullery maids (Grindstone suggests sharpening knives) to be let into the house. As with Gregory and Samson, there are little clues for the actors, in these lightning character sketches: First Servingman in charge, just, Second a bit more lugubrious and worried about keeping up appearances. The atmosphere is bustling, frenetic, noisy, one of anticipation as the servants rush to do the jobs assigned to them. It’s adding another layer of energy to that of the previous scene – lots of busy verbs in the imperative, people running around – a hubbub – and the sense that the scene is about to get bigger, noisier, more colourful still. The Fourth Servingman’s positive attitude, invoking a long and happy life – let’s do this, guys – is a neat contrast to Romeo’s…

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