ROMEO [To a Servingman] What lady’s that which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?
SERVINGMAN I know not, sir.
ROMEO O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear:
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (1.5.40-52)
This is one of the (many) passages in the play that I’ve thought about with pleasurable anticipation. It’s satisfying in so many ways. First – to start on a slightly sour note? – Romeo’s first response to seeing Juliet is tinged with the vocabulary of capital, recalling exchanges between Capulet and Paris; she enriches the hand of her dancing partner (because she is beautiful); use (as in usury) and dear (in the sense of both valuable and costly) continue the financial conceit, although they’re obviously doing other work too. It’s not clear who she’s dancing with; in performance it’s often Paris. Editors worry about why a Capulet servant doesn’t recognise Juliet; she could be wearing a mask (but then how can Romeo see her face?) or the Servingman might be one of the servants who have apparently accompanied the Montagues, as torchbearers, and so not familiar with the Capulet family. Romeo’s next line might support this.
So what’s going on here? There’s the trope of light and darkness, or, more specifically, light in darkness: Juliet is brighter (and warmer; hotter?!) than a flaming torch. Fire, of course, burns and consumes, and that’s going to be another motif for the lovers. The idea of Juliet teaching the torches is partly because she is the model, the example, the idea of brightness, but she’s also going to teach Romeo; in 1.1 he’s protested to Benvolio that he can’t forget Rosaline, that Benvolio might as well teach him how he should forget to think. There’s the black/white contrast, but remade and reinvigorated. Romeo’s used this of Rosaline in 1.1, immediately before issuing his challenge to Benvolio to Show me a mistress that is passing fair. In 1.2 Benvolio has told Romeo that one fire burns out another’s burning, and given the crucial instruction in relation to the party: Compare [Rosaline’s] face with some that I shall show, | And I will make thee think thy swan a crow, reiterating that Romeo needs to take note of some other maid | That I will show you shining at this feast. So the terms of Romeo’s response to seeing Juliet have been established very early on, and are carefully recapitulated here, notably in the snowy dove trooping with crows.
What about that gorgeous conceit of the rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear, and the idea of Juliet hanging upon the cheek of night? Is this just black-and-white again? I don’t think so, and I think, too, that this simile is something that Queen Mab makes possible. We have to imagine a pearl, gleaming and quivering, its pendent curve matched by the curve of a cheek. Juliet hangs upon the cheek of night like a star, a heavenly body – also recalling the way in which to embrace is to hang about or upon someone’s neck; to kiss is to hang upon their lips. Here there is proximity, tactility, implied or imagined action. There’s a pearl, a little, round thing – not unlike a hazelnut – and there are body parts – a cheek, an ear. There’s that sense of a sudden, vivid zooming-in, so intense it’s disorienting; some of that cognitive buzz I suggested might be generated by Queen Mab – and by the music, the bustle, the dancing. Most importantly, this is an account of beauty that imagines both touch and tactility – the sensuality of reaching out a hand to stroke the softness of that cheek. (The cheek is made even softer by the subsequent imagining of feathers; like (and because of) the pearl, it has a sheen in the torchlight.) And touch is the thing that Romeo fixates on. He can see Juliet, he can hear the music (the measure of the dance) – but all he can think of is touching her hand – which he hasn’t even mentioned until this point – but we know it’s soft.
Romeo comes back to sight at the end, but his idea of true beauty has been irrevocably altered; it’s glowing, sensual and, above all, embodied. This looks forward to the lovers’ actual meeting, later in this scene (another passage to which I am looking forward with immoderate excitement) but it looks back not only to all the Petrarch 101 exchanges with Benvolio, and to Queen Mab, but to the body talk of the opening. A play that has opened with the biting of thumbs can also imagine the stroking of a cheek, the gentle touch of hands.
It’s in rhyming couplets, but doesn’t clunk at all; a series of beautifully matched pairs (there are no half-rhymes). With knight / bright / night / sight / night, both night and bright resound (and light, rite, fight, blight, and plight, and other rhymes we might imagine…)