The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.415 Friday, 9 December 2016
Date: December 8, 2016 at 4:24:37 PM EST
Subject: R&J Time Travels
There is a relaxed confusion in the commentaries on R&J about the timing of the events in the play. For Park Honan (Shakespeare: A Life) the events unfold over four days but, insofar as the commentators actually commit themselves, five days, from Sunday through to Thursday early morning, is more frequent. I have come to believe that is not quite right.
The final scene outside the tomb in which Tybalt’s body has been laid and where Juliet is ‘sleeping’ is so exciting - the darkness penetrated here and there by flaming torches, figures moving silently, a silence broken only by whispered instructions, the sudden outburst and clash of swords between Romeo and Paris, the opening of the tomb - that only the most pedestrian of spectators or readers, an economist perhaps, would be counting the hours.
When Fr. Lawrence gives Juliet the ‘distilling liquor’ that is to plunge her into the ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, he is specific about the length of time that the effects of the liquor will last. He needs to be, because he and Romeo must be in the tomb when Juliet wakes. The liquor, he tells Juliet, ‘shalt continue two and forty hours’ (4.1.105, NCS). She is to take the liquor ‘being then in bed’ on Wednesday evening, and she will ‘sleep’ through Thursday, during which time she will be laid in the tomb next to Tybalt and where Romeo and Fr. Lawrence will find her on Friday.
Those datelines change dramatically when Capulet suddenly changes the wedding day from Thursday to Wednesday. Juliet is unable to inform Fr. Lawrence of this change unless we assume she is able to send a messenger, but Fr. Lawrence is presumably able to work out what has happened when he is called to officiate at the wedding on Wednesday. When he hears of Juliet’s ‘death’, he will guess that she took the liquor on Tuesday evening, a day earlier than planned, and he will understand that he and Romeo need to go to the tomb a day early.
So Juliet drank the liquor on Tuesday night. When did she do this? I presume a 13 year-old girl, even a marriageable 13 year-old girl, would not be allowed to stay up for the Late Night Talk shows, nor would she fall into bed until she had watched Jeopardy. Suppose she goes to bed and drinks the liquor at 10p.m. If it works as hoped, she will wake up 42 hours later, i.e., at 4p.m. on Thursday. It is improbable that darkness prevails in midsummer Verona at 4p.m. Perhaps only an economist would be unwilling to suspend her disbelief. Juliet’s bedtime hour can be changed to 8p.m. or midnight, and the conclusion is unchanged. When she wakes in the darkness of the tomb, it is broad daylight in Verona. Flaming torches would be otiose.
Two other points. I have no way, really, of knowing whether WS had the story of Adam and Eve in mind when he was thinking of Romeo and Juliet. It seems a brilliant bit of a stretch, but a bit of a stretch just the same; almost all of us have it somewhere in mind. What I do not accept is that Juliet is being sarcastic when she says to Romeo, ‘you kiss by th’book.’ The OED definition of sarcasm is, ‘A bitter or wounding expression or remark, a taunt,’ and I cannot see that that is in any way applicable to Juliet’s words.
The second point relates to Mercutio’s ‘accidental’ death (= Tybalt’s ‘accidental’ stabbing). No one has really addressed the question of whether the accidental nature, if that is what it is, of Mercutio’s death is relevant to Romeo’s response.