Date: 14th century
1 : of, relating to, or born under the planet Mercury
2 : having qualities of eloquence, ingenuity, or thievishness attributed to the god Mercury or to the influence of the planet Mercury
3 : characterized by rapid and unpredictable changeableness of mood <a mercurial temper>
4 : of, relating to, containing, or caused by mercury
Source: Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary (my emphasis added)
Here’s what I’m really fascinated by as I read Romeo and Juliet: the quick switcharoo. The plot moves forward due to sudden, capricious changes. Let’s talk about some of them.
One minute it’s Rosaline. SHING! Next it’s Juliet. The chorus catches the quick switch:
Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groaned for and would die,
With tender Juliet matched, is now not fair.
It’s a bit mind-boggling. Friar Laurence can’t believe his ears the next morning. He cracks me up. He’s pretty hard on Romeo about it (II.3.65-88). At least he explains here that Rosaline didn’t return Romeo’s affection because she was smart enough to see through him.
O, she knew well
Thy love did read by rote, that could not spell.
The note in my edition says this means “like a child, who cannot read, pretending to read by learning by heart.” This is how Laurence says Rosaline saw Romeo’s tru luv! Oh well, we’ll never know if he was more sincere about Juliet or if Juliet was just not as savvy as Rosaline.
Oh dear. Now we see the good Friar do the quick switcharoo right before our eyes. One second he is chiding Romeo for this foolishness. SHING! The next he’s offering to marry Romeo and Juliet. Remember, this is probably less than 12 hours after R&J met at the feast. He’s offering the equivalent of the Las Vegas chapel for these two lovebirds. At least he has an ulterior motive:
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households’ rancor to pure love.
So, Friar Laurence thinks maybe if he marries these two youngins it will end the feud between the families. This is the reason for his quick switcharoo, but it’s still a bit crazy. He’s been Romeo’s mentor, chiding him often for his immature doting on Rosaline, yet he quickly decides the end justifies the means here if the marriage brings peace.
As I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post (by the way, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this comment… they really get me thinking in different directions, and this is what I hope for with this blog!), I’m intrigued by the sudden change in Juliet’s father.
When he first meets with Paris, he is in no hurry to marry Juliet off. She’s too young (not yet 14!). He doesn’t know if she wants to be married yet. He doesn’t know how she likes Paris. He tells Paris to woo her and to wait a few years. He says his own opinion is only part of the deal—Juliet needs to want the marriage.
SHING! Fast forward (a day?) to their next meeting, and Capulet is handing his dear daughter off to Paris with no delay! Take her tomorrow! No, maybe that’s too soon, make it Thursday!
More than that, the sudden change of mind occurs literally on stage. We witness it. Act III, Scene 4 opens with Capulet telling Paris he’s had no time to talk to Juliet about marriage and has no idea how she feels, and what’s more he’s tired and would have gone to bed an hour before if Paris hadn’t been there (how rude!). He and Lady Capulet are literally shuffling Paris out the door.
SHING! And then Capulet calls him back:
Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender
Of my child’s love. I think she will be ruled
In all respects by me; nay more, I doubt it not.
Really? Cuz Juliet has never given any inkling that this would be the case. This switch confuses me more than the first two I mentioned. After all, Romeo is Romeo, and Rosaline wasn’t answering. So… on to #2! And Friar Laurence thinks he sees a way to end the strife in Verona.
But what’s in it for Capulet making this switch? Can anyone help me understand? I don’t get it.
I’ll put out my little theory I’ve been hatching. Let me know what you think. Capulet seems to really be sure of himself. He seems genuinely amazed at Juliet not going along with his plan to marry her off to Paris in a couple days. He’s incredibly angry and shows a very ugly side, telling Juliet she’s a spoiled brat and will basically be disowned if she doesn’t do as she’s told and marry Paris (III.5.142-197).
In the comment I linked to above, I noted this feeling I have that Capulet is a man who cares very much about outward appearances. I see this in his worrying over the preparations for the feast and wedding and in how he threatens Tybalt at the feast when Tybalt wants to fight Romeo for crashing it (I.5.77-89). Capulet seems very, very concerned with being a good host and leaving a good impression.
And I wonder if this somehow leads him to the quick switch with Paris. Because uncharacteristically, Capulet is actually being short and a bit rude with Paris at this meeting. When does a host tell a guest that he’d have been in bed an hour before if not for the meeting!
It’s like SHING! Capulet realizes he’s been rude to an important person and that he has to make up for it right then and there. In a Big Way. Paris is a count and a relative of the Prince, and really Capulet has been a bit cavalier with him to that point. He convinces himself that Juliet will be proud of the match! He’s doing her a favor!
Anyone agree with my ideas here?
Juliet has two sudden switcharoos that I can think of. One is on the balcony. It’s hormones. She goes from ‘this is crazy and we should take it slower’ to SHING! I’ll marry you tomorrow and follow you all the days of my life. Here she’s saying let’s take it a little slower.
Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.” Sweet, good night!
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flow’r when next we meet.
So, within a couple dozen lines, her love goes from a “bud” to SHING! call me in the morning and tell me where to go to get married!
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.
Wowza! Romeo never had luck like that with Rosaline! He must be shocked!
Thanks to blog reader Jamie who commented below about the Nurse’s huge switcharoo. It’s true, and I didn’t give her switch the full credit it deserves, so I’m fixing it now and giving her her own section here. The Nurse’s switch is really pivotal to the plot.
Juliet’s nurse is Romeo’s biggest cheerleader and the prime enabler of Juliet’s relationship with him. Then SHING! she switches on a dime and tells Juliet she’ll be better off with Paris. She’s being pragmatic. Romeo is banished and as good as dead to Juliet. Capulet has threatened to disown Juliet if she doesn’t marry the county. Paris is a good catch! See Jamie’s comment below for more detail on this huge switcharoo.
Juliet, Part II
Juliet’s second switcharoo is sad. It stems from the deep betrayal she feels when the Nurse switches from Romeo’s cheerleader to being all about Paris. Juliet does not take this switcharoo well. She feels it is the ultimate betrayal. She trusted her nurse with all her heart, and when she sees how it is, her switcharoo is signaled with a single word. “Amen!” (III.5.230).
She’s acting like she’s agreeing with the nurse, and will marry Paris, when really she’s made up her mind to go to Friar Laurence’s cell to find a (maybe the ultimate) way out. (In the discussion in the comments linked above, blog reader Ted notes this is a climax in the play, as opposed to the more obvious climax when Romeo kills Tybalt. It’s this moment that leads directly to the tragic ending.)
Well, I would love to hear your comments about any or all of these ideas. I find it interesting that Mercutio is one of the least mercurial of the characters in the play. I have a feeling his name is more about meaning #2 in the definition: eloquence and ingenuity. I plan to blog about Mercutio soon.
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