ROMEO If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (1.5.92-105)
I have really been looking forward to this one (and I’m not doing it justice)… Where to start? Well, I’m fond of David Tennant’s comments on playing this speech in the 2000 RSC production (with Alexandra Gilbreath, dir Michael Boyd):
Their conversation begins with what is, to my mind, a rather brilliant chat-up line from Romeo … I’m quite sure that he’s used this line before. It seems far too polished and well constructed to be an extempore remark and it is right up his particular alley of pure obsession.
But, as he continues,
Even if he has tried this line before, however, he has never had the response that he now enjoys … And this is where it all starts changing for Romeo. Not only has he been entranced by the physical shape of Juliet from across a crowded dance-floor; now he has met his match intellectually (from Players of Shakespeare 5, ed. Robert Smallwood [Cambridge, 2003], 122-3).
I concur. How does it work? The obvious thing is that perfect English sonnet, allowing Juliet first to match Romeo’s quatrain with one of her own (which repeats not only the b-rhyme as the d-rhyme but, helpfully, the word kiss). He thinks he’s seized back the initiative at the volta, but she’s on to it, only letting him get one line before she caps it; then he caps it again, and concludes the third quatrain. And they share the couplet: he may conclude it, with a kiss, but she has established the rhyme and the terms.
This sharing of a sonnet certainly creates an intense intimacy, but how? It’s been anticipated by the earlier passages of stichomythia, alternating lines, in the play. The way in which the alternation more or less gathers momentum, 4+4+1+1+2+1+2, makes the heart beat faster. But it also creates a space, a shared space; a sonnet is not simply a little song but a stanza, literally a room; as John Donne suggests in ‘The Canonization’, ‘we’ll build in sonnets pretty roomes’ (the poem probably dates from around 10 years later). The play coincides with the sonnet craze of the 1590s, and it’s not just their structures and tropes which are important here – although they are – but also, I think, their evolving appearance and reception in print. While the first editions of Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in 1591 had split poems over page breaks, so that typically a page includes one whole sonnet and bits of two others, Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti in 1595 printed one poem per page, each page bordered with printer’s lace at top and bottom, as did Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1594) and Michael Drayton’s Ideas Mirrour (1594); this is the way we now expect to see sonnets. (Although notably Shakespeare’s own Sonnets appeared spread over page breaks in 1609.) This is a long-winded, bibliographically geeky way of suggesting that Romeo and Juliet are on the same page. (Sadly this is a twentieth-century idiom.) It might also be speculated that – much as sonnets can be read aloud – they can also evoke the privacy and intimacy of silent reading, of the book that’s about to be evoked in the next few lines. And if we imagine the space of a sonnet as a page, as well as a shape on that page, then the stage narrows, zooms in. It’s a sonnet-shaped spotlight.
Critics speculate as to whether Romeo is in fact dressed as a pilgrim but, frankly, who cares? (I do, a bit, because I think that it resonates with the falcon/bird stuff elsewhere if he’s a peregrine, and Romeo can mean pilgrim in Italian.) All he’d need would be a cockle-shell badge in his hat or elsewhere on his costume.
What of the content? It’s full of body language. There are hands, and palms, and lips; here is the fantasy of touch as Romeo has imagined it, but better, because mutual, touching and being touched. The accompanying action can be one of mirroring and symmetry, as palm meets palm. This is, I think, one of the moments to which the play has been driving, not simply in terms of plot – although that too, obviously – but (of course, and inextricably) in its conceits: this exchange stages the possibility of a new kind of embodiment, of corporeal re-integration rather than dismemberment. In some senses, Samson and Gregory, Mercutio and the Nurse and Romeo himself have made this moment possible. Because this is no abstracted blazon or obscene catalogue: this does everything that a sonnet can do, and also puts real bodies in it; the minds meet at the same time as the hands and the words. Two become one. It’s shockingly intimate.