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

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6,279 words.)