[2.6] Enter FRIAR [LAWRENCE] and ROMEO.
FRIAR So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after-hours with sorrow chide us not.
ROMEO Amen, amen! but come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight.
Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring Death do what he dare,
It is enough I may but call her mine. (2.6.1-8)
Slightly ambiguous on the page, although probably not in performance: may the heavens smile, rather than thus, in this way the heavens smile. There’s a return to binaries here: smile and chide, love and Death, and especially joy and sorrow, and also hours and one short minute; it’s not quite oxymoron, but it’s got something of that compressed, bittersweet intensity. The Friar has made up his mind: he is about to perform a holy act that will be blessed by God, and Romeo responds as if to a prayer: Amen, amen! He can’t believe that any sorrow could possibly countervail– outweigh, or even counterbalance – the joy of being with Juliet, let alone of marrying her. Exchange of joy here probably means the joy that I get now in place of such future sorrow, but in the larger context of the speech, the temptation is to recall the exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine which Romeo has imagined and hoped for in the balcony scene. And exchange here suggests a mutual action; the Friar has already invoked an us, but Romeo’s our is just the two of us, do thou but close our hands– and the image of the hands clasped in making the vows of marriage takes us back even to the scene in which the lovers met, when the holy words were supplied by Romeo and Juliet themselves. (That would be last night. Less than 24 hours ago. Or, if you’ve just joined us, on 13 March.) It’s all full of horrible irony: the imagining of future sorrow, the one short minute, the love-devouring Death. (The capital on Deathis an editorial choice, but it turns the knife of irony in its specific anticipation of Romeo’s personification of death in the tomb scene.) But mostly, despite that, and despite the Friar’s best efforts to keep a lid on it, this scene is joyous.
I think what’s underpinning this exchange, and the scene, is the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer – which cannot be shown or staged. So, here, the imagining of the exchange of vows and the joining of hands, of naming (‘I N. take thee N.’), and the invocation of joy and sorrow (‘in prosperity and adversity’, ‘for better for worse’ and so on). It’s both giving us a version of what’s about to happen, and demonstrating how closely that language and those concepts (marriage as being ‘ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other’, for example) are already woven into the texture of the play.
It would be possible to get a bit huffy about Romeo’s possessiveness, It is enough I may but call her mine, but why bother? I’d rather suggest, first, that here Romeo echoes the way in which they’ve already claimed each other in the balcony scene and subsequently: my lady, my love, my niësse; my Romeo, my love. Mutuality and exchange have characterised how they’ve spoken to, and about, each other. To call her mine also recalls the importance of names and naming in the play: if he calls her mine, if that’s enough, all that matters, then she is indeed no longer a Capulet and he, by the same token, is no longer a Montague. To borrow from John Donne’s ‘Lovers’ Infiniteness’, they will ‘be one, and one another’s all’. (Or from Mr Barry White, ‘my first, my last, my everything’. Shakespeare did it first, and Donne did it better.)