In Romeo and Juliet, when Sampson says he will not "carry coals" in act 1, scene 1, what does he mean? What literary technique is being used in this silly exchange between Sampson and Gregory?

In Romeo and Juliet, to "carry coals" is a proverbial expression for being humiliated or performing a humiliating task. This exchange is a series of puns on the words "coals," "collier," "choler" and "collar."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Romeo and Juliet contains more comedy than any other Shakespearean tragedy. The first scene begins with a comic exchange in which the initial four lines include four related words which are used to create a chain of puns: coals, collier, choler, and collar.

When Sampson says "we'll not carry...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Romeo and Juliet contains more comedy than any other Shakespearean tragedy. The first scene begins with a comic exchange in which the initial four lines include four related words which are used to create a chain of puns: coals, collier, choler, and collar.

When Sampson says "we'll not carry coals," he is using an old proverbial expression, meaning "to perform humiliating tasks" or "to be humiliated." Carrying coal was one of the dirtiest and most menial forms of work and, though Sampson and Gregory are servants, they consider themselves above this sort of activity. It is worth noting that there were many grades of servants, and the higher-ranking ones, such as the Nurse, had servants themselves. Sampson also includes Gregory in his refusal to bear humiliation, and perhaps all the other members of the House of Capulet, masters and servants, when he uses the plural pronoun.

A collier is really a coal miner, though presumably miners must transport the coal somehow after they have mined it. Choler was a common term for anger in the Renaissance, and was the "humor" responsible for this emotion in medieval medicine. To "draw your neck out of your collar" is obviously close to the expression "to stick your neck out," a phrase still in use, meaning to act or speak boldly. These puns give a foretaste of what is to come, since Shakespeare uses puns frequently in Romeo and Juliet, particularly in the speeches of Mercutio.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of “carry coals” in Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet was “to do degrading or menial work; to submit to humiliating or insulting treatment.” Therefore, in Act I, Scene I, when Sampson says to Gregory, “Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals,” he is saying that they will not do degrading work or submit to humiliating treatment. Sampson and Gregory work for the Capulets and therefore hate the Montagues. In response to Sampson, Gregory states, “No, for then we should be colliers,” to which Sampson replies “I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.” The literary technique in these first three lines are a play on words, otherwise known as a pun.

Shakespeare is known for using puns throughout his plays and does so in comedic ways. Shakespeare continues with the puns throughout the interaction between Sampson and Gregory, as explained by Dr. Elrayah Eltahir Adam Khatir in the article “Towards Understanding Some Selected Puns from Shakespeare's Dramas.”

In this opening speech, Sampson and Gregory use the words colliers, collar, choler, and carry coals to point out the different meaning of the same word. Therefore these two are using puns in their conversation. Carry coals means to submit insults, colliers are workers in coal, in choler means to be angry, and a collar is a hangman's noose. Also, a pun is made with maidenheads, which is used as the heads of maidens and virginity. Naked weapon refers to an unsheathed sword and a male reproductive organ. To the wall refers to a sexual term as well its literal meaning. In this way Gregory and Sampson say the same word multiple times, but are using it in different contexts and with different meanings. (Khatir 1488)

Shakespeare doesn’t stop with a pun after one line but rather extends them over many lines and further increases their comedic relief.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“To carry coals” is an old English idiom meaning to be insulted, or to be the butt of jokes.  This stems from the status of coal carriers – or colliers, as Gregory makes mention of in the next line – in society.   It was a dirty and undesirable job, and so was deemed unfit for the better members of society.  For this reason colliers were looked down upon and often insulted, and hence the phrase.  So, when Samson says “Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals,” he means that they will not stand to be treated like the basest members of society, i.e. insulted.  We can assume from this that from the very beginning the Capulets were roaming the streets gunning for a fight with the Montagues. 

The silly turns of phrase that Samson and Gregory bandy with relation to coal are good examples of puns, a type of wordplay that Shakespeare utilizes to great effect in his plays.  Here, Samson is using “to carry coals” in a figurative sense, and yet Gregory responds with the literal meaning of the phrase – if they were to carry coals, well then they would be colliers.  Samson then spins off the word collier, stating that “I mean, an we be in choler, we’ll draw.”  Here he plays off the similarity between the words collier and choler.  And Gregory then makes good use of the fact that choler and collar are homophones, and uses again Samson’s word draw when he says “Ay, while you live, draw your neck out o’ the collar.” 

The irony here of course is that Gregory offhandedly insults Samson throughout their entire exchange, even though the latter swore at the beginning that he would not tolerate it.  This further goes to show that their beef is purely with the Montagues; or at the very least that Samson is not very bright.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Act 1, Scene 1, as Sampson and Gregory are talking about the house of Montague, Sampson asserts that he will not "carry coals."  This expression essentially means that he will not be humiliated or made fun of.  Sampson and Gregory then take the word "coals" and do some wordplay or puns with the lines that follow.  First, Gregory says they would not be "colliers," which are essentially the equivalent of modern-day trash men.  Sampson takes it one step further by changing colliers to "choler" in his line, a word that literally means a type of bile in the body.  In Shakespeare's time, choler meant anger.  Shakespeare, thus, begins this scene with puns and other word play to arouse the interest of his audience.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team