Swearing / not swearing (2.2.107-115)

ROMEO           Lady, by yonder blessèd moon I vow,

                        That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops –

JULIET                        O swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon,

                        That monthly changes in her circled orb,

                        Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO           What shall I swear by?

JULIET                                                            Do not swear at all;

                        Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,

                        Which is the god of my idolatry,

                        And I’ll believe thee. (2.2.107-115)

Romeo still has his eyes, and mind, on the heavens, the moon, beautifully evoking the shimmer of moonlight on the leaves of the imagined orchard. (That’s one of those vivid, fleeting, almost pictorial moments, so precisely described that for a moment we see it, every leaf delicately outlined in silver. And it’s also claiming back the medlars and pears that Mercutio evoked with such gleeful obscenity, in what seems an entirely different play – but really isn’t – from this scene of soaring lyricism.) And the moon has already been rejected by Romeo, both for its apparent envy of Juliet’s sunny beauty, and for its association with virginity. Juliet’s objection is a different one, however: the moon is inconstant and mutable, because it waxes and wanes through the month. But Romeo is determined to swear; lovers need to swear, dammit, and he has some lovely vows all ready to go. Juliet’s solution is various: don’t swear at all (she’s already voiced her concern that lovers – men in particular? – habitually perjure themselves in making vows which they then fail to honour, at which, she says, Jove laughs). Recalling that, she suggests that Romeo swear by himself, because he is her god. The religious language might take us back to the sonnet, but idolatry perhaps gives pause. (It’s about to give Juliet pause too.) Shakespeare’s own Sonnet 105 begins, ‘Let not my love be called idolatry’, answering the charge that love can become a form of blasphemy, a sin, if the beloved is treated as a god. Juliet’s suggestion that Romeo swear by his gracious self has equal weight, though, and I like its concrete simplicity. Make a promise in the name of everything that you are, your own being, your own integrity, your own body. Put yourself on the line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *