True love’s rite? (5.3.18-24)

Whistle Boy.

PARIS              The boy gives warning, something doth approach.

                        What cursèd foot wanders this way tonight,

                        To cross my obsequies and true love’s rite?

                        What, with a torch? Muffle me, night, a while. [Retires]

EnterROMEO and [BALTHASAR with a torch, a mattock, and a crow of iron].

ROMEO           Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.

                        Hold, take this letter; early in the morning

                        See thou deliver it to my lord and father. (5.3.18-24)

This is all so controlled – the rising tension, as the Boy whistles to warn Paris – the momentary uncertainty as to who this might be (could it be Friar Lawrence?) – and the introduction of these apparently banal tools, so ordinary, yet promising desperate action. Paris intends only to remain outside the tomb, strewing his flowers and moaning a bit, but Romeo is going to break in. What’s in the letter? We didn’t see Romeo write it (although we did hear him ask Balthasar for ink and paper) – another way in which the time has jumped forward. Paris has concealed himself: what will happen when he reappears? what kind of confrontation will there be? The language seems straightforward, matter of fact, at least from Romeo. Paris is more interesting. A note of self-righteousness has appeared: whoever this is, disturbing him, getting in the way, is cursèd. (Or he could just be feeling really self-conscious about his extravagant display of emotion?) This is the second time in the space of a few lines that he’s used obsequies – which is an entirely accurate word meaning funeral rites, rituals performed for the dead (hence obsequious! which has come to be used much more broadly) – but it’s a fussy word and, even if he’s anxious not to be seen, Paris is perhaps aware that he’s performing actions with which he’s ill at ease. He is not, shall we say, very spontaneous. He is concerned with appearances. Even more, true love’s rite stands out, because we know that Paris’s love for Juliet can be as nothing in comparison with Romeo’s. And, we might well hear not rite but right, as in rights, as in Paris claiming that he’s the chief mourner here, here by right, here with a claim. No chance.

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