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Detailed Summary of Act 1, Scene 2
Enter Capulet, Paris, and Servant:
Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand in marriage. Capulet thinks she's too young, but tells Paris to woo her, and invites him to a feast that night. Capulet sends the servant out to invite other guests to the feast.
Enter Benvolio and Romeo:
Benvolio is still trying to talk Romeo into considering other ladies when they are interrupted by the Capulet servant, who asks Romeo to read something for him. It is a list of guests at Capulet's feast that night. Thus Romeo discovers that Rosaline, his beloved, will be at the feast. Benvolio challenges Romeo to go to the feast and compare Rosaline with other beauties. Romeo says he will go, but only to rejoice that Rosaline is most beautiful of all.
Enter Capulet, Paris, and Servant:
As the scene opens, Capulet is in the middle of a sentence: "But Montague is bound as well as I, / In penalty alike; and 'tis not hard, I think, / For men so old as we to keep the peace (1.2.1-3). It seems that he has just returned from his conference with Prince Escalus, and he's telling Paris about it. Capulet and Montague have been threatened with the same penalties if they disturb the peace, and Capulet is now trying to convince himself that it shouldn't be too hard for two old men to keep peace with each other. Paris makes a polite, neutral comment, then jumps to what is really on his mind -- Juliet.
Paris asks, "But now, my lord, what say you to my suit?" (1.2.6). A "suit" is a request, especially one of great importance. Paris' suit is for Juliet's hand in marriage. The way that Paris says it -- "what say you to my suit?" --makes it clear that this is at least the second time that Paris has made this request. Capulet replies that -- as he's said before -- Juliet is very young, still "a stranger in the world" (1.2.8), and not yet fourteen. He urges Paris to wait two more years before he thinks of marrying her, but Paris says, "Younger than she are happy mothers made" (1.2.12). (Paris is about half-right. We don't know how happy they were about it, but it's true that girls could be married off at a very young age. However, it wasn't the norm. In the England of Shakespeare's time, the average age of women on their wedding day was between nineteen and twenty. Shakespeare himself married when he was eighteen and his bride was twenty-six.) Paris' argument doesn't carry much weight with Capulet, who replies, "And too soon marr'd are those so early made" (1.2.13). Capulet may be thinking about more than the psychological effects of early marriage. Childbirth was dangerous for both the mother and the baby, and Capulet has had some personal experience with such dangers. Later in the play we learn that his wife was about Juliet's age when Juliet was born. Now Capulet says "The earth hath swallow'd all my hopes but she [Juliet]" (1.2.14). It's very likely this means that Capulet's girl-bride lost several other children.
Capulet is in somewhat of a quandary. He wants his daughter to be happy, but he doesn't want to marry her off at such a young age, yet he doesn't want to turn away a perfectly eligible suitor. He solves his problem for the time being by advising Paris to woo Juliet, and saying "My will to her consent is but a part" (1.2.17), which means that even if he agrees to the marriage, Juliet has the final say. (Later in the play he will drastically change his attitude about this.) Capulet then invites Paris to an annual feast he has planned for that night. He tells Paris it will be a very big party, where he will see "Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light" (1.2.25). He means that the ladies will be so beautiful that they will shine like stars come down to earth. Capulet goes on to tell Paris he will feel the kind of delight that young men feel in April, when everything looks and smells wonderful. Among all of these beautiful ladies, Capulet says, Paris should, "hear all, all see, / And like her most whose merit most shall be: / Which on more view of many, mine, being one, / May stand in number, though in reckoning none" (1.2.30-33). In other words, Paris is invited to check out all the beautiful ladies, and when he does, he may find that Juliet is only one more. It could turn out that when she is among a group of ladies ("stand in number") she won't count for much ("in reckoning none"). Is Capulet hoping Paris will find someone else and stop asking about Juliet? Or is he just being modest about his daughter? It's hard to tell.
After inviting Paris to his feast, Capulet gives his servant a list of other guests and tells him to go issue verbal invitations to each of them. Then Capulet and Paris exit, leaving the servant alone on stage. In the "Dramatis Personae" this servant is traditionally labeled "Clown." "Clown" isn't his given name, it's what he is. He's dim-witted and the things he says are often unintentionally funny. Now he stares in puzzlement at the piece of paper he's holding and says,
Find them out whose names are written here! It isThe Clown has everything mixed up. The yard belongs to the tailor and the last to the shoemaker, not the other way around, and it's the fisherman who uses a net and the painter who uses a pencil. As for writing, that's completely beyond him. He will have to ask one of the "learned" what's on the list. Just at that moment he spots two young gentlemen who are likely to know how to read and exclaims, "In good time!" The two young gentlemen are Benvolio and Romeo.
written, that the shoemaker should meddle with his
yard, and the tailor with his last, the fisher with
his pencil, and the painter with his nets; but I am
sent to find those persons whose names are here
writ, and can never find what names the writing
person hath here writ. I must to the learned.--In good time! (1.2.38-44)
Enter Benvolio and Romeo:
When we last saw Benvolio and Romeo, a few minutes ago, Benvolio was trying to cure Romeo's love-sickness by persuading him to take a look at some other lady. Benvolio is still at it, saying, "Tut, man, one fire burns out another's burning, / One pain is lessen'd by another's anguish; / Turn giddy, and be holp by backward turning" (1.2.47). The "tut" shows that Benvolio is not taking Romeo's problem very seriously; he tells Romeo what everyone knows is true -- you can fight fire with fire, a new pain will make you forget the one you already have, and if you get dizzy by turning around in a circle, just turn around the other way. Perhaps thinking that Romeo is a hopeless romantic, Benevolio tells him that the cure for his current love-sickness is a new love-sickness: "Take thou some new infection to thy eye, / And the rank poison of the old will die" (1.2.49-50).
Answering Benvolio's gentle mockery with mockery, Romeo says, "Your plantain-leaf is excellent for that" (1.2.51). Benvolio asks what the plantain-leaf is excellent for, and Romeo answers, "For your broken shin" (1.2.52). Plantain leaf was the band-aid of Shakespeare's time, good for a cut, a bug bite, or a "broken shin," which is not really broken, just scraped. Romeo is accusing Benvolio of offering about as much help as the doctor who solves all problems by telling his patients to take two aspirin.
Maybe a little exasperated, Benvolio asks Romeo if he's mad. Romeo answers that he's not, but he endures the same suffering: "Shut up in prison, kept without my food, / Whipp'd and tormented" (1.2.54-56). (In that unenlightened age, the insane were indeed imprisoned, starved, and tormented.) All this while, Capulet's servant, carrying his list, has been trying to get Romeo's attention. Finally, after the servant has gotten in his way, Romeo recognizes that he wishes to speak to him and stops ranting about love long enough to say "God-den [good afternoon], good fellow" (1.2.56). The servant asks if he can read, and Romeo replies in high poetic fashion, "Ay, mine own fortune in my misery" (1.2.58). This pun on "read" means that he is sure that he will always be miserable because he is miserable now. The servant makes a dim-witted, but apt, reply: "Perhaps you have learned it without book" (1.2.59). To learn something "without book" is to learn it by heart. The servant means that Romeo could have learned about fortune and misery without being able to read, but his comment reminds us that Romeo has decided that he is dying of love without any real experience. As far as we know, he's never even spoken to Rosaline.
Romeo's comment has pretty much passed over the servant's head, but he still needs someone who can read his guest list, so he clarifies his question by asking Romeo if he can read anything he sees. Romeo makes a joke, saying "Ay, if I know the letters and the language" (1.2.61). The servant doesn't get the joke because to him it's no joke -- he could read, too, if only he knew the letters and the language. Agreeing with Romeo that not knowing the letters and the language is a big problem, the servant says, "Ye say honestly" (1.2.62). Then he says goodbye to Romeo, but Romeo stops him, takes his list, and reads it aloud.
Among those on the guest list is "my fair niece Rosaline" (1.2.68-69). This gets Romeo's attention, and he asks the servant where these guests are supposed to go. The servant explains and generously adds, "if you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush [drink] a cup of wine" (1.2.79-80). Then the servant is gone, and Benvolio returns to what he was saying before. He points out that Rosaline, Romeo's beloved, will be at that feast, and he challenges Romeo to go and compare her with other beauties. He says, "Compare her face with some that I shall show, / And I will make thee think thy swan a crow" (1.2.86-87). Romeo responds with a flight of fancy: "When the devout religion of mine eye / Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires; / And these [Romeo's eyes], who often drown'd could never die, / Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!" (1.2.88-91). Romeo is saying that his eyes religiously worship Rosaline, so that they could not tell the lie that there is a lady more beautiful than Rosaline. If his eyes did tell such a lie, they would be heretics in the religion of love, and as heretics were burned at the stake, his tears (shed for Rosaline) would turn to fires and burn out his eyes. This would be a horrible thought if it weren't so obviously unrealistic.
Romeo goes on to say that the sun has never seen anyone as beautiful as Rosaline, but Benvolio again challenges him to make comparisons. He says that Romeo has compared Rosaline only with herself, and when he compares her with the sight of others at Capulet's feast, he'll change his mind. Romeo accepts the challenge, saying, "I'll go along, no such sight to be shown, / But to rejoice in splendor of mine own" (1.2.100-101). With that, the scene ends.