Philip Weller caricature
Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:


In the opening scene of the play, Sampson, a Capulet servant, says to Gregory, another Capulet servant, "I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague's" (1.1.9-10). The side of the street next to the wall, the farthest away from the horse droppings and open sewers, was the favored place. Inferiors were supposed to yield the wall to superiors, and therefore to "take the wall" of someone was to show disrespect to that person. Gregory contradicts Sampson by using a proverb, "the weakest goes to the wall," which means that the weak must always yield to the strong. Therefore if Sampson takes the wall , "That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall" (1.1.11-12). Gregory's joke only gives Sampson an opportunity to make even bigger boasts. He says, "True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall" (1.1.13-17). Sampson is going to be the man who will frighten all the Montague men and screw all the Montague women.

Sorry for the crude language, but Sampson is a crude character, and he gets worse. Gregory points out that the feud is between the Capulet and Montague men, not the women, but that makes no difference to Sampson. He declares he will fight the men and then politely cut off the heads of the women. Or their maidenheads, "take it in what sense thou wilt (1.1.25-26). Gregory responds with another pun, a fairly feeble one: "They must take it in sense that feel it" (1.1.27). Gregory has turned the phrase "take it in what sense" into the phrase "take it in sense," which means "to feel with the physical senses," and he means it's the Montague maids who are going to "take it in sense." This joke pleases Sampson, because he's sure he's the stud who can give what the maids are going to "take in sense." He says, "Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh" (1.1.28-29). Earlier Sampson used the word "stand" in the sense of "stand and fight"; now he's referring to the sturdiness of his male member. This brings another joke from Gregory: "'Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been poor-John" (1.1.30-31). "Poor-John" was the cheapest kind of dried fish. Dried fish were commonly sold whole -- head, tail, and all -- and they were so thoroughly dried that they were as hard as wood. Thus a dried fish could be compared to a man's erection, and Gregory's joke is that Sampson's "pretty piece of flesh" is pretty ugly.

At this point, the enemy appears, but even that doesn't stop the sex jokes. Gregory says, "Draw thy tool! here comes two of the house of the Montagues" (1.1.31-32), and Sampson answers, "My naked weapon is out" (1.1.33-34). [Scene Summary]

Hurriedly, Lady Capulet says to the Nurse, "Nurse, where's my daughter? call her forth to me" (1.3.1), and the Nurse answers, "Now, by my maidenhead at twelve year old, / I bade her come." (1.3.2-3). She is swearing that she already told Juliet to come. (Another person might swear by her faith or honor, but the Nurse swears by the purity of her maidenhead at the age of twelve, the last time it was intact.)

A little later as the Nurse is reminiscing about Juliet, she tells a story about the day before Juliet was weaned. Juliet had fallen and bruised her forehead, and the Nurse's husband had picked her up and made a joke which three-year-old Juliet made even better:

"Yea," quoth he, "dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?" and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said "Ay."
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it: "Wilt thou not, Jule?" quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said "Ay."   (1.3.41-48)
A woman would "fall backward" to have sex, but of course little Juliet doesn't know that, so when she says "Ay" it's hilarious in a truth-out-of-the-mouths-of-babes kind of way. The Nurse thinks the story is so funny she tells it twice, laughing and probably imitating the cute, innocent way the child said "Ay." Juliet is present (and blushing?) as this story is being told, and then her mother urges her to marry Paris. [Scene Summary]

In an attempt to kid Romeo out of his love-melancholy, Mercutio uses some bawdy jokes. Romeo has just said that he is sinking under the burden of love, so Mercutio replies that Romeo would "sink in it, should you burden love -- / Too great oppression for a tender thing" (1.4.24). This means that if Romeo is going to blame ("burden") love for his state of mind, he will only sink further into love. It also means that if Romeo gets what he wants (sex, in Mercutio's opinion) he will sink into the woman and be a burden to her. Mercutio's general point is that Romeo is taking himself way too seriously, but Romeo is not convinced. He says love is not a "tender thing" at all, but rough and "pricks like thorn" (1.4.26), which gives Mercutio an opening for the best pun of the scene: "Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down" (1.4.28). In Mercutio's view, Romeo's love-sickness is caused by a lack of sex; if he's just have some, he'd get over thinking that he needs to be in love.

Later in the same scene, at the end of his "Queen Mab" speech, Mercutio says Queen Mab is a mischief-maker who tangles the manes of horses and the hair of people. She also introduces virgins (presumably through their dreams) to sex: "This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, / That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage" (1.4.92-94). "Good carriage" is good deportment, but as Mercutio uses it, it's the ability to carry the weight of a man. [Scene Summary]

After Romeo and Juliet meet and kiss, the Nurse appears with the news that Juliet's mother is calling for her. Romeo asks who Juliet's mother is, and the Nurse informs him that Juliet's mother is the lady of the house, and that she herself is Juliet's nurse, and that "he that can lay hold of her / Shall have the chinks" (1.5.116-117). "The chinks" are coins that make a chinking sound, so the Nurse means that the husband of Juliet, only heir to a rich man, will make her husband rich. In addition, to "have the chinks" is to be in that state of wheezing and gasping that comes when you are laughing so hard you need to stop, but can't, so the Nurse, in her bawdy way, may also be suggesting that Juliet's husband will have a really good time with her in bed. [Scene Summary]

After Romeo has jumped over a wall and into Capulet's garden, Mercutio bawdily mocks Romeo's love for Rosaline. He conjures Romeo, "By her fine foot, straight leg and quivering thigh / And the demesnes that there adjacent lie, / That in thy likeness thou appear to us!" (2.1.19-21). "Demesnes" are estates, or domains, where a lord has the rights to hunt and plow, and such domains were commonly used as metaphors in the erotic poetry of the time, including Shakespeare's own "Venus and Adonis," in which Venus invites Adonis to range freely over her "Sweet bottom grass and high delightful plain, / Round rising hillocks, brakes [thickets] obscure and rough." The "demesnes" adjacent to Rosaline's "quivering thigh" would be the regions of bottom grass and brakes.

Benvolio, who understands that Romeo is being accused of being in lust, tells Mercutio that he's likely to make Romeo angry. Mercutio replies that "This cannot anger him: 'twould anger him / To raise a spirit in his mistress' circle / Of some strange nature, letting it there stand / Till she had laid it and conjured it down" (2.1.23-26). Folk-lore had it that a conjurer could draw a circle on the ground and raise a spirit within that circle. Typically, the spirit would be a devil looking to drive a good bargain for the conjurer's soul, but "spirit" was also slang for semen or the male member, and of course "circle," "stand," and "laid" are all related double-entendres. Describing the spirit as "of some strange nature" is Mercutio's way of making the point that Romeo would get angry only if some stranger had sex with Rosaline before he did.

Mercutio goes on to say that he's not trying to anger Romeo, only make him appear, but Benvolio is ready to give up. He says Romeo has surely hidden himself among the trees "To be consorted with [keep company with] the humorous [moody] night: / Blind is his love and best befits the dark" (2.1.31-32). Mercutio jokes, "If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark" (2.1.33), and then makes clear exactly what kind of "mark" he's thinking of by saying of Romeo, "Now will he sit under a medlar tree, / And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit / As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone" (2.1.34-36). Maids mention the medlar only when they "laugh alone" (i.e., with each other) because it is such a sexy fruit. It's small, brown-skinned, and round, but has a cleft like an apricot and a deep cup-shaped depression at the stem end. Also, it's only edible when it's half-rotten and starting to split open. Mercutio is saying that Romeo will sit under a medlar tree and wish that Rosaline would open up like a medlar. Just in case Romeo hasn't been paying attention, Mercutio calls out, "O, Romeo, that she were, O, that she were / An open et caetera, thou a pop'rin pear!" (2.1.37-38). A "pop'rin pear" is a Flemish fruit that looks like it would fit nicely in the medlar's cup-shaped depression. To make everything obvious, editors often substitute "open-arse" for "open et caetera"; "open-arse" was an actual slang name for the fruit of the medlar, but Mercutio is being witty, not gross. [Scene Summary]

The morning after Capulet's feast, Mercutio and Romeo exchange witty insults. After a while Mercutio says that if Romeo is going to lead a wild goose-chase of wit, he can't follow because Romeo is much more of a goose than he is. He finishes off by asking, "Was I with you there for the goose?" (2.4.74), meaning, "Am I right about you being a goose?" Romeo retorts, "Thou wast never with me for any thing when thou wast not there for the goose" (2.4.75-76), meaning, "You never go anywhere with me without looking for a prostitute." Mercutio mockingly complains about Romeo's sharp wit, and Romeo finds new ways to call Mercutio a "goose" until Mercutio exclaims:

Why, is not this better now than groaning
for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou
Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well
as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great
natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his
bauble in a hole.   (2.4.88-93)
Mercutio is happy because he believes he has brought back the real Romeo, the one who is sociable and has "art" -- that is, intelligence and wit. The other Romeo lived only for love. And what is love? A "natural," a drooling fool. That fool love carries a fool's "bauble" (a stick), and looks for a hole to stick his stick into. Of course the bit about the bauble and the hole is a sexual double-entendre, so Benvolio cries out in mock shock, "Stop there, stop there" (2.4.94), but Mercutio is on a roll. Punning on "tale" and "tail," then adding double entendres on "large," "short," "depth," and "occupy," Mercutio declares that he was about to stop anyway. Romeo, thoroughly enjoying the whole performance, cries "Here's goodly gear!" (2.4.101). "Gear" means "stuff," but in the spirit of the occasion, Romeo is probably also using "gear" in its slang meaning -- sexual organs.

A little later in the same scene the Nurse shows up, looking for Romeo. Being as dignified as she knows how, the Nurse says, "God ye [God (give) you] good morrow [morning], gentlemen" (2.4.109). Mercutio corrects her, saying, "God ye good den [afternoon], fair gentlewoman" (2.4.110), and when she expresses surprise that it is afternoon, Mercutio assaults her dignity with an off-color joke: "'Tis no less, I tell you, for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" (2.4.112-113).

Trying to ignore Mercutio, the Nurse says to Romeo, "If you be he [Romeo], sir, I desire some confidence with you" (2.4.127-128). "Confidence" is not quite the word the Nurse should have used; she means that she wants a private conference with Romeo. Benvolio understands what she means, and mocks both her meaning and her misuse of words. He says, "She will indite him to some supper" (2.4.129). Benvolio is deliberately misusing "indite," which means "dictate" or " indict," for "invite"; thus he makes fun of her misuse of the word "confidence." Also, by saying that she is inviting Romeo to supper, Benvolio is clearly implying that the Nurse is a prostitute, as a virtuous woman wouldn't ask a man to supper. The idea that the Nurse is a prostitute tickles Mercutio, and he runs with it. He cries out, "A bawd, a bawd, a bawd! So ho!" (2.4.130). "Bawd" means "prostitute" and is also hunter's slang for "hare." "So ho" is a hunter's cry upon spotting the quarry. Romeo asks him what he has spotted, and Mercutio answers with a string of double-entendres: "No hare, sir; unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie, that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent" (2.4.132-133). A "lenten pie" is one to be eaten during Lent, when you weren't supposed to eat meat; "hare" is slang for "prostitute"; "hoar" sounds the same as "whore" and means "moldy"; "stale" is another slang word for "prostitute"; "spent" means "finished." The non-bawdy meaning of what Mercutio has just said is "Not a hare, unless it's the kind of hare that someone might slip into a lenten pie, in which case it would be stale and moldy before it was eaten." The bawdy meaning is "Not a hare, unless it's the kind of whore who is only good enough when you can't get someone better, in which case she would be so whorishly stale and moldy that you'd be disgusted before you were finished with her." Mercutio is so pleased with his own wit that he then breaks into a ditty which says the same thing over again, using the same double-entendres.

After Mercutio and Benvolio have left to go to lunch, the Nurse is so upset at Mercutio's bawdy witticisms that she asks Romeo, "I pray you, sir, what saucy merchant was this, that was so full of his ropery [knavery]?" (2.4.145-146). Romeo explains that Mercutio is just a guy who likes to hear himself talk, and who doesn't mean most of what he says. The Nurse is not really mollified by this. She declares that if Mercutio "speak any thing against me, I'll take him down" (2.4.150-151). She is also scolds Peter for not defending her, saying "And thou must stand by too, and suffer [allow] every knave to use me at his pleasure!" (2.4.155-156). These outbursts probably draw a chuckle from the audience because the Nurse, in her resentment against Mercutio's bawdy jests, unintentionally uses phrases which could also be taken the "wrong" way. By "take him down" she means "take him down a notch," but the phrase could also be interpreted to mean "have sex with." Similarly, in complaining that Peter allowed "every knave to use me at his pleasure" the Nurse means that Peter allowed the men to make fun of her, but "use me at his pleasure" also has a sexual meaning. The double-entendres continue in the next exchange. Peter says, "I saw no man use you at his pleasure; if I had, my weapon should quickly have been out, I warrant you" (2.4.157-158), and the Nurse says to Romeo, "Now, afore God, I am so vexed, that every part about me quivers" (2.4.161-162). Peter may intend to give "weapon" and "out" a sexual meaning, but the Nurse "quivers" only because she is angry, so we laugh not only because of the bawdy meaning of what she says, but also because she doesn't know what she's saying. [Scene Summary]

After much teasing delay, the Nurse gives Juliet the joyful news that Romeo will marry her at Friar Laurence's cell. Therefore, she says, Juliet should go to church, while she goes to fetch the rope ladder, "by the which your love / Must climb a bird's nest soon when it is dark" (2.5.73-74). "Bird's nest" is the Nurse's metaphor for Juliet's bedroom, but it also probably refers to an intimate part of Juliet's body. The Nurse adds that she must do a lot of work for Juliet's pleasure, but it is Juliet who "shall bear the burden soon at night" (2.5.76). "Bear the burden" means "do the work," with an obvious sexual meaning. [Scene Summary]

When Romeo and Juliet meet at Friar Laurence's cell to be married, the tell each other how much they love each other and kiss. They could probably spend a lot of time kissing and trying to find words for their love which is beyond words, but the Friar Laurence leads them off, saying, "Come, come with me, and we will make short work; / For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone / Till holy church incorporate two in one" (2.6.35-37). Friar Laurence is probably not trying to be funny, but we may chuckle at his underlying thought that it's not safe to leave them alone together before they're married. Friar Laurence knows what kissing can lead to. [Scene Summary]

Capulet stays up all night making preparations for the wedding between Juliet and Paris, and the Nurse tells him that if doesn't get some sleep he'll be sick the next day. Capulet answers, "No, not a whit. What! I have watch'd [stayed up] ere now / All night for lesser cause, and ne'er been sick" (4.4.9-10) . At this, Lady Capulet teasingly says, "Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time; / But I will watch you from such watching now" (4.4.11-12). A "mouse-hunt" is a woman-chaser, and Lady Capulet means that chasing women was her husband's "lesser cause." But now she's going to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't do it again. Capulet takes the teasing well. As his wife and the Nurse hurry off to do their errands, he says "A jealous hood, a jealous hood!" (4.4.13). Literally a "hood" is a hood, a covering for the head, but putting "jealous" and "hood" together has the the same effect as putting together "mad" and "cap" to make "madcap." Capulet is saying his wife is jealous, but it kind of tickles him. [Scene Summary]

On the morning Juliet is supposed to marry Paris, the Nurse comes in to wake her up. As the Nurse approaches Juliet's bed, she calls Juliet affectionate nicknames and makes a pun about what's going to happen the next time she goes to bed: "You take your pennyworths [of sleep] now; / Sleep for a week; for the next night, I warrant, / The County Paris hath set up his rest, / That you shall rest but little" (4.5.4-7). "Set up his rest," a term from a card game, means "staked a claim," and Juliet will "rest but little" because her new husband will claim her time for something other than sleeping. [Scene Summary]