Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “Romeo and Juliet”

If there’s a Shakespeare play about which it feels redundant to try and say anything new, it’s Romeo and Juliet. I will not go to the effort of giving a synopsis–we all know how the story goes. Indeed, that’s part of the point: it is one of the few Shakespeare plays with a prologue, and uniquely reveals exactly how the tragedy of the “star cross’d lovers” will end before it’s even begun.

Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s first proper tragedy, first staged around 1595. Yes, we’ve already covered Titus Andronicus in Matthew Franck’s “Shakespeare in a Year” reading plan, but that was Shakespeare’s attempt at a Tarantino-esque Roman revenge tragedy, and markedly different from what we normally think of when we think of Shakespearean tragedy.

Looking for any distinctly Protestant notes in the play, my eye was caught by one of the play’s most well-known scenes, Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter at the Capulet banquet in Act 1, Scene 4 (Scene 5 in some editions). Romeo has spied Juliet across the festivities (“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), and made his way towards her. Note how the first 14 lines exchanged between them form a sonnet:

⌜taking Juliet’s hand⌝
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.

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.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
⌜He kisses her.⌝
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

⌜He kisses her.⌝
You kiss by th’ book.

Justly famous lines, which, in typical Shakespearean fashion, stretch an initial conceit almost to breaking point, yet never lapse into being overdone. Romeo frames himself as a pilgrim, unworthy to touch Juliet with his rough hand; Juliet takes up the conceit, excusing Romeo, since pilgrims will touch the hands of saints (or, presumably, saints’ statues) palm to palm, making them “holy palmers”. She puns on a double meaning of “palm” here, since “palmer” was a term for pilgrims to the Holy Land who would carry palm leaves. I wonder if Shakespeare is here echoing Chaucer in the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:

Then people long to go on pilgrimages 
And palmers long to seek the stranger strand
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands
(trans. Nevill Coghill)

The conceit rolls on, moving from hands to lips. Just as a suitor holding his lady’s hand was likened to a palmer revering a statue, so the suitor’s kiss upon his lady’s lips is likened to a prayer–and an atoning prayer at that, which takes away Romeo’s sin (before he playfully relieves Juliet of the burden of his sin, by way of another kiss).

This combination of religious and romantic imagery recurs often throughout the play, often with the explicit association of the removal of sin. The famous balcony scene in Act 2, Scene 1, gives us one of the English language’s great lines, as Juliet wrestles with the fact that Romeo is a Montague:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose 
By any other word would smell as sweet

Romeo’s response:

Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptised: 
Henceforth I never will be Romeo

The love of Juliet, then, will be a new baptism for Romeo.

Later, the lovers’ secret marriage is arranged under the pretense that Juliet will be attending confession with Friar Laurence:

Bid her devise some means to come to shrift this afternoon
And there she shall at Friar Laurence’s cell
Be shrived and married.

Note Romeo does not say that she will be married instead of being shrived (i.e. forgiven); not, she will still be shrived and married.

The same scheme is devised when Juliet later attempts to run away with Romeo to avoid being married off to Paris:

Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much.
Go in and tell my lady I am gone,
Having displeased my father, to Laurence’ cell,
To make confession and to be absolved.

We could find more such instances, but I think we have enough here to see that Shakespeare is consciously associating romantic love and marriage with religious devotion and (to perhaps use an anachronism) sanctification.

But to what end? There are plenty who would read Shakespeare as a chief force in ushering in the modern world, in which the explicitly Christian literature of the Middle Ages is supplanted by the new humanism. So, what we may have in Romeo and Juliet is something like a direct replacement, where the significance of religious devotion in human life is displaced by romantic devotion.

That’s not a reading I’d dismiss out of hand, but I think at the very least it’s not that simple. Rather, I see much the same thing here as I saw in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I referred there to an excellent Ad Fontes piece by Josh Patch on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I said there:

Josh notes a curious scene in which the poem’s hero, the Redcrosse Knight, is nursed back to health in “the House of Holiness,” the home of a noble family. His recovery involves various references to what, by then, would have been regarded as distinctly Roman practices: rosary beads, physical punishment, mandatory good works, and more. Why is all this present in a highly Protestant work? Josh concludes that Spenser is carrying out a subversive exercise in which the spiritual functions previously carried out by monastic communities were, in the Reformation era, relocated to the family home:

To quote Josh’s analysis of the scene from Faerie Queene:

What is most interesting about these details is their context. The House of Holiness is not a monastery, but a private home. Caelia oversees it with the aid of her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa–the theological virtues. Fidelia and Speranza are virgins, though betrothed, but Charissa, the emblem of Christian love, is married with many children (I x 4). We also know that their house employs a porter (5), a groom (17), and an in-house doctor (23). The site of Redcrosse’s spiritual healing is not a monastery or church, but the estate of an aristocratic family. It seems that Spenser inserts conventional ecclesiastical imagery into the scene in order to highlight its distinctly non-ecclesial setting. The sanctifying role formerly assigned to religious orders is taken up by pious laypeople, whose homes become spiritual hospitals.

I wonder if something similar is happening in Romeo and Juliet. Rather than launching some sort of all-out attack on Christian devotion, Shakespeare’s conflation of pilgrimage, prayer, and purification with marriage and romantic love reflects a post-Reformation world in which the vocation of marriage has been reclaimed from its medieval denigration, and is now regarded as a principle site of sanctification.


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