Romeo and Juliet Essay - That Which We Call a Name: The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet

That Which We Call a Name: The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet

David Lucking, University of Lecce

The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet lends itself so gracefully to being read simply as a sustained flight of lyricism, as one of the most poignant and intense love duets to be found in English literature, that it might almost seem an act of ingratitude to attend too closely to its more ominous reverberations. The reverberations however are unmistakably present, as intrinsic to the text as the more appealing melodies for which the scene is celebrated, and in their totality impose themselves as an ironic counterpoint to that music. These darker implications are rendered partially explicit in the apprehension that Juliet confesses to Romeo to feeling despite the rapture induced by her nascent passion: 'Although I joy in thee, / I have no joy of this contract tonight'(II.ii.116-17).1 Juliet accounts for this anxiety at the time by remarking that their love is 'Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say "It lightens'" (II.ii.119-20), and although this might seem to foreshadow Friar Laurence's troubled estimation of their situation, and lend substance to Caroline Spurgeon's view of the play as depicting 'an almost blinding flash of light, suddenly ignited, and as swiftly quenched',2 there would appear to be more to the matter than that. What specifically provokes Juliet's comment is Romeo's persistently repeated endeavour to find words commensurate with the intensity of his feelings, a strenuous effort at linguistic formulation that collapses with each renewal into the threadbare commonplaces of amatory rhetoric. Romeo is defeated by the conventions of the very language he seeks to deploy as a notation of private experience, and the point to be observed in this connection is that this, in a sense, is what happens in the play as a whole. Despite its predominantly lyrical tone, in other words, the scene mirrors within its own reduced compass the tensions operating throughout the entire work, tensions that are already latent in the situations depicted in the opening scenes of the drama, and that ultimately erupt in so momentous a form as to make a tragic conclusion inevitable.

Few readers would be likely to dispute that one of the most important thematic motifs developed in the balcony scene in particular is that of language in its relation to what might variously be described as subjective experience, feeling or, more generally, life itself. Commentators have frequently observed that one of the things the young lovers are doing in this scene is repudiating the language of artificial convention they have formerly spoken in favour of a personal language more consonant with the realms of private experience they are beginning to explore.3 Juliet has just encountered Romeo for the first time, and fallen irretrievably in love with him, only to learn immediately afterwards that he belongs to the detested Montague family and is therefore to be regarded as an enemy. Her initial response to this discovery is one of stunned perplexity at the paradox of her predicament, expressing itself rhetorically in the pointed juxtaposition of contradictory terms which, as has often been pointed out,4 is a particularly prominent feature of this play:

My only love sprung from my only hate.
Too early seen unknown, and known too late.
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.
                                   (I.v. 137-40)

Subsequently, however, as Juliet muses on the situation in what she erroneously supposes to be the privacy of a balcony overlooking the family garden, she recognizes the paradox to be a spurious one. It is spurious because it consists exclusively in the fact that the enmity she is expected to feel for Romeo is rooted not in personal experience but in transmitted codes whose authority over the individual is not in the least self-evident. The words in which she formulates this recognition, though specifically referring to the personal name of a single individual, amount in effect to a denial of the constitutive or regulative authority of language in general:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
                                    (II.ii.38-49)

The temptation to contrast this moment with that of Adam's naming of the beasts in another garden is almost irresistible, whatever associations might reasonably be supposed to have been operating in the playwright's mind.5 Whereas the male compulsion to 'name' is symptomatic of the systematic differentiation of experience that leads ultimately to that estrangement which has its most comprehensive symbol in the Fall,the female gesture of 'unnaming' represents an effacing of divisions and a movement towards the re-establishment of the essential continuum of existence. In a sense the play reflects a struggle between what might therefore conveniently be described as the male and female attitudes with respect to language,6 with the former asserting its inevitability at the same time as the latter vindicates its independent spiritual validity. Although the Capulet garden seems for a while to hold out the possibility of a prelingual unity analogous to that of Eden before the Fall, it turns out that it is a possibility fatally vitiated by the conditions of its own existence.

What is ultimately at issue, of course, is not only personal names as such, or even the language of which names comprise a crucial element, but the entire network of codes through which experience is mediated and the individual's vision of reality constituted. As Harry Levin argues in his brilliantly concise discussion of the play, Juliet's speech 'calls into question not merely Romeo's name but—by implication—all names, forms, conventions, sophistications, and arbitrary dictates of society, as opposed to the appeal of instinct directly conveyed in the odor of a rose'.7 The more philosophically farsighted members of Shakespeare's original audience might well have perceived even more radically subversive overtones attaching to Juliet's meditations, pointing the way as they potentially do to an indictment of Authority in its social and political as well as in its purely linguistic aspects. In her classic analysis of Shakespeare's wordplay and its relation to the philosophy of language that was current in his epoch, M. M. Mahood points out that 'to doubt the real relationship between name and nominee, between a word and the thing it signified, was to shake the whole structure of Elizabethan thought and society'.8 It is the menacing spectre of precisely such a doubt as this that Juliet, however naively and with however little regard for practical implications, is raising in her speech.

At first sight, it might seem that the play is tacitly endorsing Juliet's critique, for the social reality it depicts is one almost petrified in its own formalisms. Not even private experience would seem to escape this general process of schematization, for one of the dominant veins of imagery in the play is that constituted by recurrent allusions to literary codes, allusions suggestive of the reduction of life to aesthetic moulds, the sort of bookish pedantry that is parodied so richly in Love's Labour's Lost and elsewhere. This reaches the absurd point that human beings themselves are likened to books, as occurs for instance when Lady Capulet expatiates in an extended and rather laboured conceit on Paris's suitability as a prospective husband for Juliet:

Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face
And find delight writ there with beauty's pen.
Examine every married lineament
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscur'd in this fair volume lies,
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound
  lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea; and 'tis much pride
For fair without the fair within to hide.
That book in many's eyes doth share the glory
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
                                           (I.iii.81-92)

Even Juliet is not wholly immune to employing imagery of this sort, although it is to be observed that she does so in one of her least characteristic speeches, that in which she briefly inveighs against the absent Romeo after learning of his responsibility for Tybalt's death: 'Was ever book containing such vile matter / So fairly bound?' (III.ii.83-4). When Romeo uses a related image, towards the end of the play, it assumes a very different connotation. His description of the dead Paris as 'One writ with me in sour misfortune's book' (V.iii.82) transforms the individual from a self-contained volume in himself to the contents of more comprehensive text in which other human beings and their vicissitudes are also inscribed, which is another matter altogether.

This transformation only occurs at the conclusion of the play, after Romeo's own perceptions have been enlarged through personal tribulation. In the scenes of the drama that precede his fateful encounter with Juliet, however, Romeo is himself dominated by what is quite obviously meant to be apprehended as a 'literary' vision of reality. Romeo's conception of love, it is frequently observed, is directly derived from the Petrarchan tradition, and involves all the conventions and devices associated with that tradition.9 In his studied passion for the apparently unattainable Rosaline he is self-consciously assimilating himself to a stereotyped role, albeit with a touch of saving irony which has prompted Mahood among others to conjecture that he is merely 'posing at posing'.10 Not only is Romeo's infatuation no more than the function of a literary convention, but he frequently expresses his sentiments in terms that make explicit reference to reading and writing, as when he remarks for instance 'Show me a mistress that is passing fair; / What doth her beauty serve but as a note / Where I may read who pass'd that passing fair?' (I.i.232-4). Friar Laurence is ruefully aware of Romeo's literary bias, and suggests that the reason Rosaline did not requite the passion he professed so ardently was that she too recognized its artificial nature, perceiving that 'Thy love did read by rote that could not spell'(II.iii.84). It is in consequence of this tendency that the first exchange between Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet feast assumes the form of anelaborately contrived sonnet in the composition of which both characters participate on equal terms (I.v.92-105). What occurs subsequently might almost be regarded as an anticipation of the conflict between opposed conceptions of language that develops later. A second sonnet is commenced, but is aborted after the initial quatrain by the interruption of the Nurse, who hints at the existence of other linguistic realities by informing Juliet that 'your mother craves a word with you' (I.v.ll0). Even before this intervention, however, Juliet, in a manner which we later learn is wholly characteristic of her, makes an apparent effort to shatter the literary spell to which Romeo has succumbed by completing a couplet with the wry observation 'You kiss by th'book' (I.v.109).

In view of Romeo's exaggerated literary proclivities, the tendency to live his own life as a projection of the written word which betrays itself among other things in the Petrarchan idiom he habitually employs, it is significant that the event initiating the action of the drama should be his reading a communication not addressed to himself. It is made perfectly clear in the play that it is Romeo's literacy, and not only chance or destiny, that occasions this incident. Capulet, organizing a feast at his house in accordance with an ancient family custom, has supplied his servant with a list of invited guests, but the servant 'can never find what names the writing person hath here writ. I must to the learned' (I.ii.43-4). When the servant encounters Romeo immediately afterwards the following conversation takes place:

Servant: God gi' good e'en; I pray, sir, can you
read? Romeo: Ay, mine own fortune in my misery.
Servant: Perhaps you have learned it without book.
But I pray can you read anything you see?
Romeo: Ay, if I know the letters and the language.
Servant: Ye say honestly; rest you merry.
Romeo: Stay, fellow, I can read.
                                            (I.ii.57-63)

Romeo examines the invitation list, learns that Rosaline will be present at the feast, and allows himself to be persuaded by Benvolio to put in an appearance himself. This is only the first of a number of written communications alluded to in the play, and the point that is perhaps worth noting is that there is not a single instance of one of these missives arriving directly at its intended destination.11 On a later occasion, for instance, Tybalt sends Romeo a letter challenging him to a duel, a gesture that sparks off the following exchange between Mercutio and Benvolio:

Benvolio: Tybalt, the kinsman to old Capulet, hath
sent a letter to his father's house.
Mercutio: A challenge, on my life.
Benvolio: Romeo will answer it.
Mercutio: Any man that can write may answer a
letter.
Benvolio: Nay, he will answer the letter's master,
how he dares, being dared.
                                           (II.iv.6-12)

In the following encounter between Romeo and Tybalt, however, Romeo does not mention receiving the letter, and it is to be wondered whether he would have shown himself abroad, and run the risk of being embroiled in a quarrel on his wedding day, had he in fact done so. There is proleptic irony in Mercutio's comment that 'any man that can write may answer a letter', for Romeo's conspicuous literacy does not enable him to receive the letter that Friar Laurence sends to inform him of the design he has put into operation to assist the two lovers, and it is this failure to read a letter addressed to himself that annihilates once and for all any possibility of a comic resolution to the play. The symmetry between the letter from Capulet that Romeo reads by chance, and the letter from Friar Laurence that he does not read by chance, is emphasized by the close conjunction of Capulet's instruction to a servant 'So many guests invite as here are writ' (IV.ii.l), which recalls his earlier invitation, and Laurence's promise to Juliet that he will 'send a friar with speed / To Mantua with my letters to thy lord' (IV.ii.l23-4). It would perhaps not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest then that it is the miscarriage of letters that both initiates what appears to be the comic trajectory of the play and precipitates its tragic conclusion, and that Romeo's fate therefore lies at the mercy of a world of 'letters' that, for good or ill, manifestly fail to achieve their proposed object. Even the explanatory letter that Romeo himself writes to his father before taking his own life—and it is perhaps significant that one of his first impulses after having taken this drastic decision is to procure ink and paper (V.i.25)—is read by the Prince before arriving at its true destination.

Romeo's subjugation to the world of language, in all its manifestations, is thus a fundamental datum of the play, yet it is precisely this servitude that Juliet calls into question at the beginning of the balcony scene. Names, she reasons, are extraneous to the individual, and it is therefore folly to allow one's response to a human being to be determined by his name. And what is true of names in particular is also applicable to language at large, which encodes and enforces patterns of perception and conduct that, however deeply embedded in the corporate consciousness of the community, are not automatically binding on the individual. But Juliet, it ironically turns out, is no less inextricably immersed in the world of language than Romeo himself. Juliet's endeavour to resolve one paradox, that of loving an enemy, immediately plunges her into another, one hinted at already in her apostrophe to Romeo: 'Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?' (II.ii.33). In thisquestion, and throughout the meditations that follow, the name Romeo functions in two distinct referential capacities: as a sign for the flesh-and-blood human being with whom Juliet has fallen in love, and as the designation of his position within a social order riven by enmity. As Jacques Derrida points out in his suggestive discussion of the balcony scene, Juliet's injunction to Romeo to 'Deny thy father and refuse thy name' (II.ii.34), brings these two significations into effective contraposition inasmuch as 'it is in his name that she continues to call him, and that she calls on him not to call himself Romeo any longer, and that she asks him, Romeo, to renounce his name'.12 The irony that derives from this bifurcation of referential function is intensified by the fact that although Juliet believes her meditations to be private, and that her reflections on language take place in isolation from any communicative context, in fact she is being overheard by Romeo himself. The words she speaks are therefore discharging a function within a linguistic community after all, although it is precisely the sovereignty of that community she is implicitly impugning when she muses upon the irrelevance of names to the person.

Carried away by his own feelings, Romeo is at first only too willing to submit to Juliet's decree, permitting her in effect to be the arbiter of language and its meanings. To her invitation to 'doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself' (II.ii.47-9), he replies with a significant play on words:

 I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptis'd:
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
                                            (II.ii.49-51)

It is perhaps symptomatic of their different attitudes towards language that whereas Juliet wants to divest Romeo of a name that for her is charged with problematic connotations, Romeo himself immediately stakes his claim to a new name appropriate to what he deems to be his new reality. But the futility of the attempt on the part of both characters to dispense with publicly sanctioned names becomes ironically manifest a moment later, when Juliet realizes she is being overheard, and the problem arises of how Romeo is to identify himself if not through his name:

Juliet: What man art thou that thus bescreen'd in
night
So stumblest on my counsel?
Romeo: By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am
                                     (II.ii.52-4)

Although Romeo, taking his cue from Juliet's remarks, refrains from directly pronouncing his own name, the anxious circumlocutions to which he resorts serve nonetheless to identify him in relation to that name, if only in a negative respect:

Romeo: My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I it written, I would tear the word.
Juliet: My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue's uttering, yet I know the sound.
Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?
Romeo: Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike.
                                             (II.ii.55-61)

Things go from bad to worse, for in order to communicate their love the two young people are obliged to fall back on the very language whose authority they have effectively denied. At this point Juliet is confronted with the not inconsiderable difficulty of how much she is to believe Romeo in his protestations of passion, and once again the problem resolves into that of whether, and in what sense, one can take another's word for anything:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say
 'Ay',
And I will take thy word. Yet, if thou
 swear'st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs.
                                            (II.ii.90-93)

Furthermore, she acknowledges candidly enough that there are circumstances in which she too would be capable of distorting words for her own purposes, and thus of widening still further the rift between verbal statement and subjective truth:

Or, if thou think'st I am too quickly won,
I'll frown and be perverse and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo …
                                              (II.ii.95-7)

And that this is no empty threat is indicated in the fact that Juliet will later demonstrate herself to be an accomplished prevaricator in her dealings with her family, employing language as an instrument of dissimulation in order to be true to her own emotional world.

The language that the lovers have both, in their different ways, sought to exclude from the garden therefore enters again at their tacit instigation, attended with all the fallibilities, hazards and deceptions inherent in the public use of language. Not only is the language that the lovers themselves use potentially mendacious, but it also imposes its own conventions and its own perverse rules. This becomes ironically apparent when Romeo strives to find adequate expression for his feelings, and notwithstanding what we must suppose to be the sincerity of his sentiments allows himself to be carried away on the flood of his own rhetoric, lettinglanguage and its stereotypes assume control once more: 'Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow, / That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—' (II.ii.107-8). When Juliet interrupts him with the injunction not to swear by the moon, depriving him suddenly of the literary coordinates which are all he has to orientate himself by, he is left completely at a loss, and rather pathetically inquires: 'What shall I swear by?' (II.ii.112). Juliet admonishes him not to swear at all, or, at most, to 'swear by thy gracious self' (II.ii.113). But when Romeo attempts to oblige her, he lapses once more into a conventional formula ('If my heart's dear love—' [II.ii.115]), until Juliet brusquely cuts him short once again with 'Well, do not swear' (II.ii.116). Later it looks suspiciously as if Romeo is about to embark on another of his fights when he exclaims 'So thrive my soul—' (II.ii.153), but Juliet puts an end to his verbal fiounderings with her terse 'A thousand times good night' (II.ii.154). Not only does the language which Juliet has sought to banish refuse to be banished, but it dominates the proceedings to the point of parodying itself.

The paradox hovering in the background of this scene is not only that the name by which an individual is known belongs to the community rather than himself, but that his personal identity is also, in a more profound sense than can safely be ignored, the possession of that community. Juliet's desire to create a world innocent of names, a private realm of pure essences in which it is the individual alone who can legitimately serve as a sign of himself, implies the abandonment of the world of codified responses which she recognizes to be arbitrary, destructive and inimical to the positive values of life. For his own part, Romeo wants to take Juliet at her word, and assume the name that she is to designate for him at his behest, thus creating in effect the germ of a private language. But, as Coriolanus also learns to his cost, names can never be appropriated by the individual, however acutely conscious he might be of the hazards attendant on the public use of words. Even if language is corrupt and alienating, and in the divisions it encodes potentially destructive, it can neither be dispensed with nor dissociated from the community which is its matrix. As Romeo seems to acknowledge later—'One writ with me in sour misfortune's book' (V.iii.82)—the individual's being is indelibly inscribed in realities that lie beyond his control and as often as not beyond his comprehension. It is the continuing existence of such realities that, at least in their social aspect, makes itself felt towards the end of the balcony scene in the offstage voice of the Nurse summoning Juliet in from the garden: 'I hear some noise within' (II.ii.136). Juliet's physical oscillation between the house interior and the garden, between the promptings of the Nurse's voice and those of Romeo's, is vividly suggestive of the tension between the worlds of public and private identity that have come into collision in this play, a tension which, at least at the overt level of material events, is destined to be resolved in favour of the former.13

In view of what I have been saying, there is a considerable irony in the fact that the name whose referential authority Juliet has begun by questioning should be rehabilitated before the scene concludes, though in what at the time might appear to be transfigured form:

Juliet: Hist! Romeo, hist! O for a falconer's voice
To lure this tassel-gentle back again.
Bondage is hoarse and may not speak aloud,
Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine
With repetition of my Romeo's name.
Romeo: It is my soul that calls upon my name.
How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears.
                                   (II.ii.158-66)

Not only have names been reinstated in all their former potency, but both Romeo and Juliet have deferred, without further protest on the part of either of them, to the sovereignty of other codes as well. In alluding to the story of Echo and Narcissus Juliet is drawing on the Ovidian repertory of mythological precedents which was part of the standard stock-in-trade of Renaissance literature, while the essentially conventional character of the synaesthetic trope that Romeo employs will later be exposed by Peter when he mockingly interrogates a group of musicians as to the significance of the phrase 'music with her silver sound' (IV.v.125-38). In its immediate context such an appeal to traditional formulas might seem innocuous enough, but what is ultimately implied by this unqualified acceptance of names and poetic conventions is the lovers' progressive reincorporation within that structure of conventions which also comprehends, among other things, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. To invoke once again one of the more suggestive metaphors of the play, it signifies a gradual return to a world of 'letters' that includes Tybalt's invitation to a duel.

It is the contradiction between the two worlds in which they simultaneously participate, and their incapacity to commit themselves unreservedly to either one or the other, that destroys the lovers in the end. The intermediate stance that Juliet adopts when she stands on a balcony situated on the boundary between the house and the garden, and between the conflicting worlds of value these represent, cannot be sustained. If in chiding Romeo for kissing 'by th'book' (I.v.109) at the time of their initial encounter, and in denying the personal relevance of his name later, Juliet has in effect been contesting the primacy of the word in human affairs, her own practical subjugation to the tyranny of language becomes ironically manifest towards the endof the balcony scene when she urges Romeo to 'send me word tomorrow' in order to clarify his intentions (II.ii.144). No less ironically from this point of view, it is by demanding 'a word with one of you' that Tybalt provokes a confrontation with Romeo's friends (III.i.38), while Romeo's subsequent effort to revaluate public names in the light of private experience by addressing his antagonist as 'good Capulet, which name I tender / As dearly as mine own' (III.i.70-1) is precisely the gesture which Mercutio uncomprehendingly construes as a 'vile submission' (III.i.72), and which triggers the fatal quarrel. After Mercutio's death at the hands of a man who 'fights by the book of arithmetic' (III.i.103-4), and who might be regarded in this respect as the embodiment of the destructive formalism of his society. Romeo himself consciously surrenders to the public codes in which his name is implicated, censuring his own earlier acquiescence before an 'effeminate' vision of reality and deliberately complying with the dictates of a masculine value system based on honour and reputation:

This gentlemen, the prince's near ally,
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf—my reputation stain'd
With Tybalt's slander—Tybalt that an hour
Hath been my cousin. O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper soften'd valour's steel.
                                         (III.i.111-17)

For a few critical minutes, for as long as it takes for his fortunes to reverse themselves irretrievably, Romeo's being 'Romeo, and a Montague' takes precedence over all other considerations, and he allows his conduct to be determined not by his personal inclination but by what the conventions of his society require of him.

After this dramatic confirmation that personal identity is inevitably a function of a public code, and that one's own name can therefore be the most insidious enemy of the self, the play that has until this moment continued to draw attention to its own comic potentialities gathers inexorable tragic momentum as both protagonists are compelled to contemplate the destructive power of words. Upon being informed of Tybalt's death at Romeo's hands Juliet delivers herself of a distracted tirade against her husband, only to reproach herself a moment later with the reflection 'Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name / When I thy threehours wife have mangled it?' (III.ii.98-9). If she has attempted in her garden to forge what is in effect a private language safe from the onslaughts of a hostile world, it is made apparent to her now that public language cannot long be kept at bay:

Some word there was, worser than Tybalt's
  death,
That murder'd me. I would forget it fain,
But O, it presses to my memory
Like damned guilty deeds to sinners' minds.
Tybalt is dead and Romeo—banished.
That 'banished', that one word 'banished',
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts …
                                                       (III.ii.108-14)

Not only does Juliet discover that 'There is no end, no limit, measure, bound, / In that word's death', but she also realizes that 'No words can that woe sound' (III.ii.125-6). The implication would seem to be that language is intractably alien to the realm of interior experience, provoking pain without even affording the consolation of making possible the expression of that pain. Romeo voices a similar consciousness of the power of public words to defeat private meanings when he responds to the Friar's news of his banishment with the question of how he can be so heartless as 'To mangle me with that word "banished"?' (III.iii.51), a term which he insists on equating with death even though the Friar reminds him that the Prince has 'turn'd that black word "death" to banishment' (III.iii.27). Subsequently he expresses the fear that even his own name might have transformed itself into a weapon capable of inflicting harm upon Juliet:

 As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her, as that name's cursed hand
Murder'd her kinsman. O, tell me, Friar, tell
 me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me that I may sack
The hateful mansion.
                                 (III.iii.101-7)

It is intensely ironic that Romeo should here be reverting to the sense of Juliet's remark in the garden that a name is 'nor hand nor foot / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man' (II.ii.40-42), words that at the time were meant to affirm the fundamental irrelevance of names to the individual. Now words are conceived as being endowed with greater reality than the entities to which they are assigned, invested with the power to mangle and to murder without being themselves in the least subject to human discipline. The phrase 'that name's cursed hand' reverses the relation between the name and its referent as this is customarily envisaged. Not only do names not belong to the individual, but the profoundly disturbing possibility opens up that in a sense it is the individual who belongs to his name.

In Romeo and Juliet names, like letters, belong to a world of language which operates according to its own unfathomable logic, a logic which has nothing to do with human reality except insofar as it is capable of fashioning that reality in its own likeness. Letters donot arrive at the destinations that have been designated for them, and names do not mean what the individuals who bear them or pronounce them intend them to mean. Words cannot be excluded from the human domain because humanity realizes itself through language, but words, once admitted, proceed to impose their own laws in defiance of man's private exigencies. Human beings can never be the authors of their own destinies, but are all, as Romeo says, 'writ with me in sour misfortune's book' (V.iii.82), condemned to serve more or less passively as the vehicles of a meaning beyond their comprehension. The one moment in the play in which individuals seem to seize momentary control of the world of words that speaks itself through them is that rendered in the balcony scene. But, as I have been arguing, in this scene epitomizing the lovers' effort to create a private realm for themselves in which only their own dialect has currency they already come up against the contradictions inherent in their enterprise, contradictions that eventually actualize themselves more tangibly, and more destructively, in the external world of material action. In the charmed seclusion of their garden Romeo and Juliet, recognizing the impossibility of dispensing with words altogether, have tried to regenerate language by transforming it into a medium of personal sentiment. If they have failed it is not through any want of emotional sincerity on their own part but because the language they have been obliged to use simply does not lend itself to regeneration in human terms, because in the final analysis that which we call a name, however earnest and even heroic the effort at reformulation might be, by any other name would still be a name.

Notes

1 All references to Romeo and Juliet are to the Arden Edition edited by Brian Gibbons (1980; rpt. London: Methuen, 1983).

2 Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us(1935; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965), p. 312.

3 A representative statement of this view is to be found in Brian Gibbons's Introduction to the Arden Edition of Romeo and Juliet, in which it is argued that 'the play progressively distinguishes between characters who contentedly express themselves through received verbal and rhetorical conventions, and the hero and heroine who learn that greater maturity and fulfilment require language true to their own particular selves' (ed. cit., p. 48).

4 For a discussion of the figure of oxymoron in particular see Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage: Rhetorical Devices in Romeo and Juliet(Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1966), especially pp. 18-41.

5Barbara L. Estrin suggests that 'in her garden Juliet becomes a kind of Adam in reverse, unnaming the universe, decomposing—in order to recompose—the world'. 'Romeo and Juliet and the Art of Naming Love', Ariel 12:2 (April 1981), 31-49 (this quotation p. 37).

6 The difference between the modes of expression employed by Romeo and Juliet respectively is the subject of an intensive analysis by Edward A. Snow. 'Language and Sexual Difference in Romeo and Juliet', in Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (eds.), Shakespeare's 'Rough Magic'(Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 168-92. Snow argues that while Romeo's metaphors 'assemble reality "out there", and provide access to it through perspectives that tend to make him an onlooker rather than a participant' (p. 170), Juliet's "imaginative universe … is generated by all the senses, and by a unity of feeling that is more than just the sum of their parts' (p. 173).

7 Harry Levin, 'Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960), 3-11 (this quotation p. 4).

8 M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay(1957; rpt. London: Routledge, 1988), p. 73.

9 Petrarch is explicitly mentioned by Mercutio in II.iv.40. For discussions of the Petrarchan elements in this play, see Joseph S. M. J. Chang, 'The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967), 22-42, and Jill L. Levenson, 'The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982), 21-36.

10 Mahood, op. cit., p. 61. Mahood points out that Romeo's inquiry to Belvolio as to where they are to dine is 'a most unlover-like question which gives the show away'(p. 61).

11 In more general terms, Gibbons observes that 'Shakespeare makes the plot depend crucially on messages', and that in certain scenes he 'stresses … the ease with which messages can go wrong' (ed. cit., p. 41).

12 Jacques Derrida, 'Aphorism Countertime' (trans. Nicholas Royle), in Derek Attridge, ed., Acts of Literature(New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 416-33 (this quotation p. 425).

13 The paradox inherent in proper names that I am examining here is somewhat differently formulated by Derrida in his essay cited above: 'detachable and dissociable, aphoristic though it be, his [Romeo's] name is his essence. Inseparable from his being. And in asking him to abandon his name, she [Juliet] is no doubt asking him to live at last, and to live his love … but she is just as much asking him to die, since his life is his name. He exists in his name … Romeo is Romeo, andRomeo is not Romeo. He is himself only in abandoning his name, he is himself only in his name'. Ibid., pp. 426-7.

Source: "That Which We Call a Name: The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet," in English, Vol. 44, No. 178, Spring, 1995, pp. 1-16.