Romeo and Juliet

“Until the masses are educated into some sense of moral responsibility, someone must declare from the pulpit ‘Thou shalt not.’”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

As an eight year old girl I cultivated an intense fascination for Romeo and Juliet. I pity my childhood best friend (a passive, pretty girl) whom I would drag into the musty school library upon my whim. Excitedly pulling down the large yellow volume of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, I forced her to read Romeo’s lines in the garden scene (from her unhappy stance on the ground) while I passionately quoted Juliet’s part (from my appropriate stance on top of the table.) In my more dramatic moods, we read the famous suicide scene; in my more benign moods we took turns reading sonnets. My friend never showed open resentment, but I remember confusedly wondering why she never seemed to enjoy Shakespeare as I did.

When I finally watched the 1960s Romeo and Juliet movie, I struggled to understand the first lines Romeo and Juliet murmured to each other:

Romeo: My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrim’s hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim. Lips that they must use in prayer.(i.v.97-104)

My older sister, always appreciating opportunities to prove her superior intellect, explained to me the meaning of these lines:

“Romeo wants to kiss Juliet, but she is so innocent she thinks only proper kissing should be done palm to palm (the position of prayer), and that lips should be used only in prayer, not in kissing. Romeo kisses her anyways.”

I struggled to wrap my undeveloped mind around this concept. Why would Juliet think kissing should be done with praying hands? Juliet was older than I was, and even I knew that lovers kissed with their lips, not hands. And did Juliet really want to pray more than she wanted to kiss? This was all very confusing.

I found it simple, however, to return to comparatively lighter thoughts, and put Shakespeare’s deep analytical contradictions far from my eight year old mind. This passage did not return to my immediate consciousness for a good decade, after my quiet passage through the stages of adolescence. In college I studied “The Hollow Men“ by T. S. Eliot, and grew troubled by a particular couplet:

“Lips that would kiss

Form prayers to broken stone.”

The words sounded in me a deep resonance, as if something long buried in my soul suddenly resurfaced. I turned the words over in my mind until I heard my professor’s interpretation of them:

“These lines indirectly reference one of Shakespeare’s themes in Romeo and Juliet. Eliot contrasts modern man’s position with that of Juliet’s. Juliet would rather pray with her lips, but instead uses them to kiss Romeo. Modern man would rather kiss with his lips, but instead uses them to form empty, methodical and meaningless prayers.”

I heard nothing else my professor said during his lecture. How sufficiently Eliot summarized my generation. I attended a religious university, which mandated daily chapel and required constant church attendance. How often I would sit in the ornate auditorium and watched my fellow camarades, all spotless and impeccable, listlessly listening to the speaker deliver a (sometimes) well-developed message? How often I sensed their mental inattention, their inaudible annoyance, their silent sighs. As I sat in the loge I would look down on the masses in all their quiet emptiness and see their affluent clothes, their quiet materialism, their thoughts ever more bent on themselves than on their Maker. I would watch the couples, their arms touching as they verbatim quoted the Lord’s prayer. And I smiled quietly, and often thought to myself,

“Lips that would kiss

Form prayers to broken stone.”



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3 responses to “Romeo and Juliet

  1. vickie

    passive and pretty huh? lol

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