Proper oxymorons, dissonance, and fear (3.2.73-79)

JULIET                        O serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face!

                        Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

                        Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!

                        Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!

                        Despisèd substance of divinest show!

                        Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,

                        A damnèd saint, an honourable villain! (3.2.73-79)

Oxymorons! (The plural is oxymora only if you’re being a total pedant.) And all those Petrarchan commonplaces that Romeo was spouting a lifetime ago – Before Juliet – yesterday – come snapping back into focus here, and actually mean something. This is a remix of so many of the play’s earlier moments and conceits, the bright angelof the balcony scene imagining her lover as a fiend angelical, and going back even further, the saint of the ball scene imagining her faithful pilgrim as a damnèd saint himself. Honourable villain brings the terms of the fight with Tybalt into this moment too. One of the closest parallels is Romeo’s speech to Benvolio very soon after his entrance in 1.1, in which he invokes miss-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms, which here becomes despisèd substance of divinest show. But what was abstract phrase-making for Romeo, the dreamy, annoying, unrequited adolescent lover, has been transformed: it’s still richly metaphorical language, but it’s now tied to real emotional and psychological experience. Oxymoron is no longer mere Petrarchan commonplace, worthy of note without being remotely noteworthy, but rather the locus of acute cognitive dissonance. The black-feathered raven invoked only moments earlier as the soft, sooty background for the delicate snowflake is transformed into a dissembling hypocrite, the avian version (birds again!) of the more familiar wolf in sheep’s clothing, and hence leading logically to the wolvish-ravening lamb. The lamb is ravening like a wolf (playing on raven) and, while the lamb-wolf opposition is conventional, there’s perhaps a sinister glance at Shakespeare’s own Lucrece: the wolf hath seized his prey; the poor lamb cries, at the moment of the rape. With the serpent and the dragon, maybe there’s even an undercurrent of sexual violence here too: if Romeo’s a murderer, could he be a sexual predator too? (Yes, overdetermined. But the residual erotic charge of the oxymorons remains.) Juliet is frightened as well as shocked. She imagines all the terrible things. And the most terrible is that the person she loves, whom she is married, is not as he has seemed. It’s excess, again, and a kind of cognitive overload: how can one person feel so much, as things so vividly come together, only to pull apart? Oxymoron, reclaimed, rebooted, and electrified.

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