Seeing the wound: blood and ashes, red and white (3.2.52-56)

NURSE            I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes

                        (God save the mark!), here on his manly breast:

                        A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse,

                        Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaubed in blood,

                        All in gore blood; I sounded at the sight. (3.2.52-56)

I’ve written a bit about this elsewhere, because it’s a really neat example as to how bloody wounds can work on the early modern stage. This is the first description of Tybalt’s death wound; there was nothing comparable in the previous scene. So, should this description be taken as an implicit stage direction, suggesting that Romeo inflict a bloody chest wound on Tybalt? Is this a description of what an audience has seen? I don’t think so, despite the emphatic language of witness and testimony: I saw, I saw; it was a sight, a spectacle. But, with Juliet, with the Nurse, we visualise and in effect remember such a wound, even though we probably didn’t see it the first time. There are actions: here on his manly breast; the Nurse gestures to her own chest, or even to Juliet’s. And, above all, there is that classic combination of red and white, the contrast between gore blood and pallor, pale as ashes, and we imagine not simply the bloodless face, the bloody wound, the pool of blood, but also the bloodstain on the shirt, red on white. This is how wounds are still staged, not as pierced skin, but as stained textile. Blood and wounds are spoken into existence as much as – and I’d argue, much more than – they are staged. (It’s the laundry bills.) Ashes are funereal earth and dust, but they are also what’s left after fire and lightning, that conceit which has marked the development of Romeo and Juliet’s love too. And here the Nurse describes Tybalt in a kind of perverse blazon – red and white – a body, a corse, not a person. She is perhaps enjoying it, but she is also genuinely distressed at what she says she’s seen, as she reimagines it; she loves a bit of drama, but this is something else. She says she fainted; she’s modelling a possible response for Juliet. The Nurse knows she’s talking about Tybalt, as do we; Juliet, though, still thinks she’s talking about Romeo. How will she respond? Will Juliet, too, swoon?

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