Snakes and bears and bones: bring it on, says Juliet (4.1.77-88)

JULIET                        O bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

                        From off the battlements of any tower,

                        Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk

                        Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears,

                        Or hide me nightly in a charnel house,

                        O’ercovered quite with dead men’s rattling bones,

                        With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;

                        Or bid me go into a new-made grave,

                        And hide me with a dead man in his shroud –

                        Things that to hear them told have made me tremble –

                        And I will do it without fear or doubt,

                        To live an unstained wife to my sweet love. (4.1.77-88)

Paradoxically, I think this lightens the mood as Juliet seizes with relief on any possible way out: we might imagine the knife clattering to the floor as she gabbles on with her amazingly vivid imagination, and a remarkable degree of prescience. The sudden swerve into Hammer Horror is faintly ridiculous – another example of Juliet’s tendency to excess – although we know she is deadly serious, and this is also mostly a reminder of how young she is: these things are partly bed-time-story frightening (the serpents, the bears, although obviously many in an audience in mid 1590s London would be familiar with the sound of roaring bears, and with their baiting: it was usually the bears who were chained to be ‘baited’, having dogs set on them, so Juliet is perhaps imagining herself chained, being baited, attacked by bears). The escalation as her imagination starts to run away with her is wonderful: the leap is extreme, but it’s relatively colourless, then thievish ways, going to dodgy parts of town (my mother told me I never should), then lurking where there are snakes. (The voice of the Nurse seems close to the surface here.) But then there is a snap into high definition as Juliet’s real nightmares, not the Nurse’s bogeymen, appear. And of course the things she’s most afraid of – being with the dead, their bones, their decomposing bodies, their stink; being buried alive, sharing a shroud with a dead man– these are the things that are most horribly, ironically apt for what the Friar is about to suggest. But she’ll do it, she promises, because above all else, she will live an unstained wife to my sweet love. Again, the emphasis on her identity as Romeo’s wife. And my sweet love – like a shaft of light in the dark horror of what she has just imagined.

(A parenthetical hard-core Shakespeare geek speculation. The leap from off the battlements of any tower seems slightly at odds with Juliet’s other macabre imaginings; it’s a leap to certain death, rather than being put in a perilous or terrifying situation with scary things like bears and corpses. I wonder if the actor for whom Shakespeare was writing Juliet here had also played Arthur in King John, dated to around 1596, possibly earlier, a child who is fearsomely articulate and also has a scene of great pathos, pleading with a torturer, and who dies when he attempts to escape imprisonment by leaping from a tower, onstage. R&J is most likely 1595, but the first Q is 1597. The structure of this speech would make it very easy to add lines.)

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