Torture and not mercy, and a little mouse (3.3.24-33)

FRIAR              O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness!

                        Thy fault our law calls death, but the kind Prince,

                        Taking thy part, hath rushed aside the law,

                        And turned that black word ‘death’ to ‘banishment’.

                        This is dear mercy, and thou seest it not.

ROMEO           ’Tis torture and not mercy. Heaven is here

                        Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog

                        And little mouse, every unworthy thing,

                        Lives here in heaven, and may look on her,

                        But Romeo may not. (3.3.24-33)

The Friar is, understandably, a bit put out: does Romeo not understand what a narrow escape he’s had? So he restates, slightly more impatiently (stop being a brat). Death is truly a black word, and banishment is not, so enough of this golden axe nonsense. One of the effects of all the repetitions of banishèd and banishment is that other words start to acquire the same force and impact as they are weighed against each other, as the various more or less abstract terms in this logical dispute are laid out: law, death, mercy. But Romeo is having none of it, and he brings it back to the specific, the physical, the everyday, so that banishment continues to act, signify, wound in ways that death and law and mercy don’t. Because this isn’t mercy, it’s torture – yes, Romeo is being histrionic, but he’s also taking language back into the body, suggesting that even the thought of banishment, the word itself – which is the thing itself – is causing him physical pain (and this would be particularly striking if he is physically wounded, or still bloody, from the fight). And actually I find what he says next very moving – partly because of the little mouse, and the mental image of Juliet surrounded by a circle of adorable and adoring animals (which isn’t really the point that Romeo’s making at all; he’s saying, so, dumb animals and even vermin are allowed to look at Juliet, but I’m not?) but it also anticipates/recalls Lear, to the dead Cordelia: Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all? The little mouse is on one level a rodent to be dismissed, even killed without thought, but it is also little – that playing with scale again. We do imagine the little mouse, its tininess, its shyness, its bright eyes, looking at Juliet. The simple addition of an adjective makes it more vividly present than the dog and the cat. That sense of the small and the close-up is going to shape the next movement of the speech.

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