Thursday 23 November 2017

Test Question: How Did Romeo Respond When He Was Told He Will Be Having Sex with Juliet?

The Plan for Romeo and Juliet to consummate their marriage

When the Nurse explained the plan—a rope ladder, “the cords,” would be placed from Juliet’s bedroom, “the highway to her bed,” so that Romeo and Juliet could have sex and thereby consummate their marriage—Romeo responded by saying “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

What does "to chide" mean?

I’ve never been fully confident that I understood this line.  What does “to chide” mean in this context?  Why should Juliet “prepare to chide”?

I’ve never seen the line analyzed or glossed, but it is the pivotal moment in the drama. Up to this point, alternatives are possible.  The marriage has not been consummated and can be easily annulled.  Juliet still could marry Paris, and Romeo find another Rosalind or Juliet. Or Romeo and Juliet could announce that they have married and accept the ire of their families and banishment.  Their marriage might, as Friar Lawrence planned all along, put an end to the enmity between their families and soften the Prince against banishment.  This is the point of no return—a secret marriage followed by a clandestine consummation and a cloak-and-dagger plan for resurrection and return—and this is the line which marks the point of no return:  “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

The dictionary definition of "to chide"

The dictionary definition of “to chide” is “to scold or rebuke” and the word is used elsewhere in the play with this meaning, but what could Romeo possibly mean by saying “Juliet should prepare to scold or rebuke”?  From the context of the dialogue, we would expect Romeo to say something like “Juliet should prepare to be my lover” or some more poetic Shakespearian equivalent.  Basically, in the simplest of terms, he must be saying “tell her to prepare to have sex.”  But why does he say it this way or, more to the point, why does Shakespeare have him say it this way?  

Shakespeare's pun on chide/chafe

I have long suspected that “to chide” was, in this context, a pun suggesting “to chafe.”  Finding this web page which compares “to chide” and “to chafe” <>, my suspicions were confirmed, my prophecy fulfilled.   The verb “to chafe” means “to excite heat by friction; to rub in order to stimulate and make warm.”  More telling for our purposes, Shakespeare uses “to chafe” and “to chide” in ways that bring their meanings close together.  For example, compare:

“the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores”  from Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar


As doth a rock against the chiding flood” from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

Disambiguating the Shakespeare pun

When we disambiguate Shakespeare’s pun, what we get is Romeo saying “tell Juliet to prepare to chafe and chide”—or, in a modern vernacular, something equivalent to “tell her to get ready to grind and moan.”  It is also worthwhile to consider to whom Romeo is addressing himself, the Nurse who introduces herself in the play with the opening line “by my maidenhead at twelve years old,” the personification of all things earthy.  Since Juliet is a virgin we know that she is about to lose her maidenhead and will consequently experience some pain—giving her reason to “chide” in the sense of complaint. 

Romeo revealed

At this moment we would expect Romeo to say something tender and poetic, but instead he now reminds us of Samson and Gregory, the two young men bragging and joking about their sexual intentions—deflowering virgins—and prowess at the beginning of the play. Shakespeare uses this moment to signal the raw and vulgar intentions underlying Romeo’s endless professions of love. To put it brusquely in a contemporary vernacular, the line signals that Romeo is a horny teenager declaring “tell Juliet to prepare to be humped.”

Comic Romeo and tragic Juliet

The scene is almost comic in that Romeo, who has been literally lying on the floor moaning and groaning in despair, suddenly recovers himself at the announcement that he will be having sex with Juliet.  It is a common observation that the tragedy starts out as if it were a comedy.  The film Shakespeare in Love explains this incongruity by having Shakespeare’s financial backer insisting that he wants a comedy.  In fact, Shakespeare did write the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at about the same time he was writing Romeo and Juliet, and both plays are based on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Renaissance tragedy is usually about masculinity

The play is also anomalous as a tragedy because the central tragic figure is a woman, more extraordinary still, a teenage girl.  Juliet is the individual who faces a profound, no-win, double-bind dilemma which is the mark of all the touchstones of tragedy. Elizabethan and early Jacobean tragedy is almost invariably about masculinity, about men proving that they are men and the dilemmas that process provokes.  Modern interpretations and productions of Romeo and Juliet tend to focus so narrowly on the love story of the balcony scene, notice is barely taken of Romeo’s transition from boyhood to manhood which runs parallel to the tragedy of Juliet’s dilemma and suicide.  By tradition, there are but two distinctly masculine values—bravery and virility—which we might translate into the modern vernacular as fighting and fucking.  The initiation process in which a boy becomes a man by encountering death and his first sexual experience can be found throughout tribal ritual and the history of literature in English.  

Who killed Paris?

Another test question:  Who killed Paris?  Answer:  Romeo.  This scene is sometimes omitted in modern versions of the play, but for Elizabethan audiences this scene was confirmation that Romeo was no longer a boy.  In the few short days of the play’s duration, he had become a man.  When Romeo meets Paris at the opening of the mausoleum where Juliet  lies unconscious, he calls Paris “a boy” and tells him to stand aside.  When Paris refuses, Romeo kills him with a perfunctory stab of his dagger (the same dagger Juliet will later use to kill herself).  Only as an afterthought does Romeo stop to wonder who the boy was that he had just killed.  That Romeo is no longer a boy and now a man cannot be questioned.

The author as father of a 13-year-old changes the interpretation

Interpretations of the play as singularly a celebration of love can only survive by ignoring much of what is in the text, so much of which can be read as Shakespeare's playing to the expectations of his audience, on one hand, and on the other, as a warning from Shakespeare to his own thirteen-year-old daughter about the lure and the danger of passionate young love.


  1. I am really enjoying these deep explorations of Romeo and Juliet. It makes me want to read the play again.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment Michelle. I have a long collection of thoughts that I would like to express about your weekly chronicles but there is no where to put them. I wonder how your decision to give up complaining for lent jibs with my thoughts on The Art of Complaining. I loved your account of past travels, especially to Costa Rica. Your change of byline to "From the Heart" really works for me. In part because one of my favourite articles was about your mother-in-law leaving your home for full-time care. All great reading!

  3. Maybe this is also a pun. If we accept that "chide" is a term for the lovemaking Romeo and Juliet are about to engage in, then "chide" could have a literal meaning, too. Juliet will literally chide--or scold--Romeo for his killing of Tybalt. She should be angry with him because his rash decision to kill her cousin has put their love in jeopardy. Romeo expects to get an earful from her for the crime he committed.

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