‘My heart’s dear love is set/
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet./
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine.’
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Alexander Niccholes writes that ‘though love and lust, […] dwell under one roof, yet so opposite they are, that the one, most commonly burns down the house, that the other would build up.’ (1) Where Niccholes separates love and lust, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its recycling of the traditional Petrarchan love language and bawdy male bonds initially suggests that love is, in fact, lust in disguise. However, as the play progresses Romeo fashions his own definition of his love with Juliet that incorporates both love and lust.
According to Dympna Callaghan, ‘the model for the play’s [Romeo and Juliet] poetry, […] was Petrarch’. (2) Throughout the play Mercutio ridicules the Petrarchan conventions, which, in turn, breaks down love and turns it into lust. In Act Two, Scene One, Mercutio looks for Romeo and commands:
‘Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh./
Speak but one rhyme and I am satisfied./
Cry but ‘Ay me!’ Pronounce but ‘love’ and ‘dove’.’ (3)
Romeo is turned into cliché when Mercutio links his appearance to a ‘sigh’ and tells him that he will be satisfied if he speaks the simplistic rhyme that pairs ‘love’ with ‘dove’, so lampooning its connotations with purity. Mercutio continues with what Callaghan calls his ‘mock blazon’: (4)
I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And demesnes that there adjacent lie.’
(2, 1, ll. 17-20)
He begins conventionally but his language creeps into the lewd with his reference to the ‘quivering thigh’ and ‘demesnes that there adjacent lie’, clearly referring to Rosaline’s reproductive region. (5) This perverse parody of the blazon illustrates how, in the setting of male friendships, the Petrarchan conventions are stripped back to reveal that lust is what lies beneath the artificial language of love. As the speech continues, the sexual imagery gets increasingly vulgar, and is less hidden beneath convention, as seen in Mercutio’s reference to Rosaline as an ‘open arse’ (2.1.l.38). The language rapidly unravels the Petrarchan love parody from the beginning and shows how, at the start of the play, love is merely lust.
However, as Romeo’s relationship with Juliet develops, the play shows their attempt to create a language of love that incorporates their lust for one another. The famous balcony scene shows how Romeo’s love begins to be free of Petrarchan conventions. Romeo asks Juliet for ‘The exchange of [her] love’s faithful vow for [his]’ (2. 2. l. 127), to which she states ‘I gave thee mine before thou didst request it’ (2. 1. l. 128). As Callaghan points out, their love is ‘a profoundly reciprocal passion [in which] […] Juliet exercises considerable agency – not simply the Petrarchan fantasy of female power’. (6) This mutuality is what allows Romeo to stop using the conventional Petrarchan language. Romeo later tells Friar Laurence, ‘my heart’s dear love is set/On the fair daughter of rich Capulet./As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine’ (2.3.ll. 53-55). The repetition of
What Keirnan Ryan calls ‘symmetrical syntax and matching diction’ is what ‘define the equal exchange of desire and power that makes this relationship so different’, and it shows Romeo’s attempt at trying to articulate a new language for his love with Juliet. (7) The emptiness of Romeo’s speech from elevated Petrarchan metaphor ironically reveals the authenticity of Romeo’s love for Juliet. Romeo later engages with the bawdy language of his friends when he states he is ‘pink for flower [vulva]’ (2.4.l.57), and that his ‘pump [penis] is well flowered’ (2.4.l.59). This response contrasts his with ignorance to their comments in the play’s opening. (8) A comparison of both scenes reveals that Romeo’s love for Juliet becomes both free of Petrarchan convention and a place where he no longer needs to repress sexual desire. He is coining a love that involves his lust for Juliet. In Juliet’s chamber, after consummating their marriage, Romeo states that he ‘must be gone and live, or stay and die’ (3.5.l.11). Due to the sixteenth century pun which connects the verb ‘to die’ to orgasm, this reference suggests not only Romeo’s recognition of the consequences of their match but also that his staying would result in orgasm. As his relationship with Juliet develops, Romeo creates a new love in which lust is a large part. Whilst Mercutio makes love a façade to hide lust, Romeo puts love and lust together. In both cases however, they are not separate as Niccholes suggests, instead, they are closely connected.
Featured Photo: J.E. Jackson Adent, Romeo and Juliet, Poster, Metropolitan UTHO, Available at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Romeo_Juliet.jpg [accessed 24/09/2018].
1. Alexander Niccholes, ‘A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving and of the greatest mystery therein contained: How to chuse a good wife from a bad.’, in The Harleian Miscellany: Or, A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, as well in Manuscripts as in Print, Found in the late Earl of Oxford’s Library, Interspersed with Historical, Political and Critical Notes Volume 3, ed. by William Oldys and John Malham, (London, Robert Dutton, 1804), pp. 251-288, (p.273)
2. Dympna Callaghan, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Texts and Contexts (Boston: Bedford/St Martins, 2003), pp.1-35, (p. 11)
3. William Shakespeare, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, ed, by T.J.B Spencer, (London: Penguin Books, 2005), (2,1.ll.8-10) All further references to this play are to this edition and the Act, Scene and line numbers are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.
4. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18
5. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18. Callaghan also notes that the term ‘‘demenses’ refers to property directly possessed and occupied by the owner and not leased out’. This link between women and property works alongside Mercutio’s bawdy language to reduce of love to lust.
6. Dympna Callaghan, p. 18
7. Kiernan Ryan, ‘Deconstruction’, in Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, ed. by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowin Orlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 518-524. (p.522)
8. Romeo’s earlier response to Benvolio when Benvolio refers to the vulva, ‘A right fair mark, fair coz is soonest hit’, is full elevated references: ‘Well, in that hit you miss. She’ll not be hit/With cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit’ (1.1. ll.209-208). He continues with the Petrarchan convention and therefore cannot engage with the bawdy language.
Written by Estelle Luck.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.