The First Night of Romeo & Juliet

A Scientific Reconstruction

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Romeo and Juliet
First official record …………. : version of the play published in 1597
(this play was never entered into the Stationers’ Register)
First published ……………….. : version of the play published in quarto in 1597 as
……………………………………….. An excellent conceited tragedie of Romeo and Juliet
First recorded performance : 1 March 1662 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields
Evidence ……………………….. :      –

Wikipedia ; Chronology of William Shakespeare

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Given the choice between the ‘probably 1594 or 1595’ that is the expert opinion of The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, and the ‘1595 or 1596’ that J. C. Trewin’s Pocket Companion to Shakespeare’s Plays prefers on basis of the same evidence, Wikipedia settles the date at 1595. But it is not only Shakespeare Studies that is concerned with dating this masterpiece ; Shakespeare himself has taken the trouble as well, and the evidence Wikipedia cannot deliver comes with the play itself. From its 1599 second quarto edition (Q2) to be precise, because the equally reliable 1597 Q1 is of suspect origins, and for that reason not generally accepted as a source of authority.

Unfortunately, evidence provided by Shakespeare is, as a rule, not easy to combine to a clear case. The resulting paper is therefore not really accessible. Philosophers may be pleased to be informed that the reading is going to be tough, Shakespeare and his admirers deserve better. Reason why thirty-some A4 pages of building a complicated case have been substituted by a reconstruction of Romeo and Juliet as it may have been performed at its first night on Wednesday 31 July 1594.

Dating according to the Old Style calendar. This is Wednesday 10 August 1594 for our own contemporaries. Somebody in the 2014 celebrations committee should have thought of that : “This year the 26th falls on a Saturday. It was decided many years ago that the formal Birthday Celebrations should be held on the nearest Saturday to the 23rd, so this morning thousands of people will bring their floral tributes to the spot where we know that Shakespeare’s birth was formally celebrated on 26 April 1564, 450 years to the day.”

The information on which this reconstruction is based, is placed behind links. But the real proof is in the eating of the main course. The challenge is, of course, to discover the silver sixpence all by oneself. What comes down on deciding where the information is leading to, before it is pointed out. To which purpose this reconstruction presents in chronological order all the details that make the day special on which Romeo and Juliet first went to stage as an occasional play. A day that is significant to the hidden identity of Romeo as revealed by Shakespeare at the very end of Act One. An identity  that has so far escaped notice, but that is rather obvious to a sixteenth century audience : Shakespeare may habitually baffle his researchers, but never his target customers, as every detail in his works makes sense in the context of the world they live in. No need for cracking riddles then : all one has to do is to adopt Elizabethan London as one’s natural habitat. And to go to The Theatre :

An excellent conceited tragedie of Romeo and Juliet
A New Play by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain His Servants

Please be seated at the stroke of two
Doores open half an hour in advance

It is still early. Just past four. Today’s regular two o’clock show must have been a short one, as the place is deserted. The main entrance is open, but the only people around are the servants who make preparations for the reception of the guests who are about to arrive. I keep watching the hurried activity until the first ladies and gentlemen arrive. When the doorkeeper invites them to wait a minute, I stroll over at leisure to queue up. On showing my invitation a little while later, Valentine and Proteus from the company’s old Verona-play usher me into the central yard, and after a choice of appetizers I enjoy a number of well-composed speeches by the people who had had a say in the events leading up to this special day. Finally, Lord Hunsdon comes forward to deliver his speech in person. Good to see that the Queen’s Chamberlain takes his new responsibility seriously. His Lordship may by now have been in charge for two months, I am told in confidence that he only bothers to see a play when the play comes to Court. And he leaves it to his son  to deal with his theatre affairs. With grim satisfaction I recall the invitation to have mentioned that the festivities will run late. Now the formal transfer of patronage has finally obliged the patron to come to the theatre, the new play is going to be performed. Mark my words.

While Hunsdon captivates his audience, I build my case by pointing out that this new play is an adaptation. And that, when it comes to converting books for the stage at short notice, master Shakespeare, the company’s playwright, hasn’t found his match yet. Hence, the play that happens to be ready for performance at this very day, has been written for this very day. And it’s ready just four months after the position of the company’s patron got vacant with the untimely death of Lord Hunsdon’s son-in-law. But for Hunsdon’s sake, and mine, it should better live up to that bill’s pretensions ; I’ve read Arthur Brooke, and whatever can be said about his epic poem of Romeus and Juliet, it is not excellently conceited. Good theme, but developed without forward movement whatsoever.

At five o’clock, the new liveries finally change hands, and one by one the company’s men and boys disappear backstage to change into the Hunsdon colours. When his Lordship has handed out the last one, he produces a sheet of paper from his pocket, and announces something I do not quite catch from my back row position : one of the smallest boy player reappears under great applause in his new outfit. In reply he takes off his bonnet with a graceful bow. “That’s my boy,” a proud father tells me, ignoring the next small boy’s entrance, “Robert Beeston. Mark his name, he’s not ten yet, and look what a confidence on stage.” While the players enter one by one, my new friend tells me that little Robert will be in tonight’s show. This prevents me from linking any more names to faces, but I manage at least to register that the principal treble boy is Robert’s brother Chris ; a prodigy apparently, and eighth to line up : “He’s going to play Juliet, my lord, master Shakespeare has seen to that. He surely has.” The last boys to be called on stage are Gabriel Spenser and Henry Condell. They are not really juniors any more, and certainly no trebles, but these ‘prentice boys are this season’s leading ladies. Then, still one by one, the senior apprentices enter, followed by the company’s employees and sharers. Old James Burbage enters last. He does not line up, but takes position in front of his company to invite his guests to follow the Lord Chamberlain and his servants to nearby Saint Leonard’s Church for evensong.

So, we all attend the service for the Eve of St. Peter in Chains, after which we follow St. Peter’s example by leaving the chilly building, and pass ‘through one street’ in the company of the Lord Chamberlain. We expect to go a mile further down the road to the Cross Keys in Gracious Street. Which tavern provides both an excellent supper and the company’s regular indoor stage. But instead we are guided back into The Theatre, where the tables in the central yard still offer the same appetizers as before. A nice opportunity, though, to socialize with some VIP’s from the Lord Chamberlain’s circle (or with my new friend, as it turns out), until master Burbage invites us all to take our seats and enjoy the show. We look at each other in amazement ; an outdoor show this late?

By the time we are all seated, the sun barely touches the gallery’s rooftop. Then, at the half hour’s stroke (sunset is today just before half seven), The Prologue enters under a still blue sky. Clad in his new livery, and his distinctively balding head covered by his new bonnet. But nothing can hide his equally distinctive Warwickshire accent :

Corus : …..Two housholds both alike in dignitie,
….. (In faire Verona where we lay our Scene)
….. From auncient grudge, breake to new mutinie,
….. Where ciuill bloud makes ciuill hands vncleane:
….. From forth the fatall loynes of these two foes,
….. A paire of starre-crost louers, take their life:
….. Whose misaduentur’d pittious ouerthrowes,
….. Doth with their death burie their Parents strife.
….. The fearfull passage of their death-markt loue,
….. And the continuance of their Parents rage:
….. Which but their childrens end nought could remoue:
….. Is now the two houres trafficque of our Stage.
……….. The which if you with patient eares attend,
……….. What heare shall misse, our toyle shall striue to mend.

Q2 : as all quotes on this page copied from Internet Shakespeare Editions University of Victoria editor : Roger Apfelbaum. Accessed 29 September 2016

….. Act One ; scene 1 ………………..….. 9 a.m …..…………………………….. three scenes in one …..

Then the servants of both these houses enter the stage, and they are surely alike in dignity. In fact, there is no way to tell them apart bur the red or blue of the feathers on their new livery’s bonnet : and the hilarious audience has no problem in recognizing the freshness of the fuel for their feud. The dialogue too is at times sheer comedy. But Romeo is a surprise. If I am not much mistaken he is Henry Condell, the best leading lady I’ve seen this season. And the company’s third senior boy is on stage as Lady Capulet. I wonder whether Shakespeare may indeed have written Juliet for that ‘prodigy’.

….. Act One ; scene 2 …..…..…..…..….  afternoon …..…..…..…..…..…..….. two scenes in one …..

James Burbage may be the obvious Old Capulet, his would-be son-in-law Paris is the choice for a market farce : a mere boy. But what a difference to Brooke ! the story develops at such a pace that the opening scene envelops this one.

….. Act One ; scene 3 …..…..…..…..….. evening …..…… just over a fortnight until Lammas …..

To my growing concern young master Spenser enters the stage as Juliet’s old nurse rather than as the play’s heroin. This indeed leaves Juliet to the star treble, who – to my satisfaction – turns out to look somewhat younger and smaller than the prodigy. The boy skillfully ‘sings’ his few lines with a fine treble, but Paris is definitely the better actor. Master Shakespeare has seen to that, my dear friend Beeston, he surely has : Juliet’s action is for most of the time a duetto between Lady Capulet and the Nurse. And every cloud has its silver lining, now Juliet really looks like her ‘fourteen at Lammas Eve’. Come to think of it : that is tonight !

….. Act One ; scene 4 …..…..…..…..….. after dark …..….….. R presages his untimely death …..

….. Act One ; scene 5 …..…..…..…..….. bed-time …..…..…..…..…..….…..….. R & J first meet …..

(8 p.m) The stage is growing pretty dark, and I expect a short intermission any moment now, but what really happens is that Romeo and his two friends lead a detachment of torch-bearers into the central yard. They are all masked for tonight’s party and judged by the size of the poles to which the torches are attached, the play’s hero is leading a company of uniformed lancers (Montague livery) towards the Capulet high ground… visors closed. Little Robert Beeston has his moment of glory, when he, as Romeo’s page, hands Romeo his torch. They now indeed start marching, leaving their torches in their trail on firmly planted high poles all around the central yard. In the process this army encircles the red-feathered Capulet servants, who have entered the yard to provide the tables with napkins for the guests. Only when Romeo after a couple of rounds diverts his company (now disarmed) towards the audience’s exit, they have a chance to clear the space from appetizers. Following the servants their exit, both stage and central yard get crowded with masked guests. This makes it difficult to keep focused on Romeo, who has arrived just in time on stage to witness the exit of his lancers at the other side. But he stays at the centre of the action for most of the time. Which of course is a most tactical position, that keeps him close to the prompter’s cabin from which young Condell’s voice now comes. What makes the focusing difficult, by the way, is that the guests just in front of me are the Montague lancers, and they are preparing the tables for supper ; bringing in dishes rather than enjoying them.

But look ! Romeo has kissed Juliet full on the mouth ! the impertinence ! kissing the heroin’s beloved hand is one thing, but don’t go for her lips. For God’s sake, he is a boy ! And the worst of it is that Juliet complied as if he really liked it. And the lovebirds do it again ! on which cue Lady Capulet urgently sends for Juliet to discuss her behaviour in private (whispers) : I know exactly how she feels. And old Capulet calls it a day :

Nay gentlemen prepare not to be gone,
We haue a trifling foolish banquet towards:
(A kinsman whispers into his ear, and points at the audience)
Is it ene so? why then I thanke you all.
I thanke you honest gentlemen, good night:
More torches here, come on, then lets to bed.
Ah sirrah, by my faie it waxes late,
Ile to my rest.

A good listener needs but half a word ; within a minute the untouched banquet lies abandoned under the darkening sky. And more torches are brought in. And benches : we are going to have supper after all.

(8 ; 15 pm) Taking my time to leave my seat in the gallery (I wait until my limpit friend’s table is fully occupied), I lean back and smile in admiration : ‘Whats he that follows here that would not dance?’ What a way of revealing that he is exactly what Brooke and the Prologue told what he is ! This is a play for St. Peter in chains, no question about it : master Shakespeare may have taken his time to show his hand, but Juliet’s question has revealed whose face is hiding behind Romeo’s mask. And I now know exactly for what happy occasion master Shakespeare has this show really staged.

(9 : 30 pm) This new play has so far been a comedy under the darkening sky (of impending tragedy), but it was night by the time we had our supper. And now we return to our seats for the second half, tragedy will certainly unfold at a pace that leaves Arthur Brooke gasping for breath. And indeed, most torches are extinguished, and in the resulting gloom of death I can barely make out the shape of the Prologue :

Chorus :….. Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie,
….. And young affection gapes to be his heire,
….. That faire for which loue gronde for and would die,
….. With tender Iuliet match, is now not faire.
….. Now Romeo is beloued, and loues againe,
….. Alike bewitched by the charme of lookes:
….. But to his foe supposd he must complaine,
….. And she steale loues sweete bait from fearful hookes:
….. Being held a foe, he may not haue accesse
….. To breathe such vowes as louers vse to sweare,
….. And she as much in loue, her meanes much lesse,
….. To meete her new beloued any where:
……….. But passion lends them power, time meanes to meete,
……….. Tempring extremities with extreeme sweete.

….. Act Two ; scene 1 …..…..…..…..….. night …..…..…..…..…..…...….….. prelude to balc. sc. …..

….. Act Two ; scene 2 …..…..…..…..….. night …..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..….. balcony scene …..

When Romeo climbs from the yard onto the stage, he is a shadow amongst shadows, and Juliet is a mere silhouette against the lighted entrance to her balcony. The boy therefore has no problem in playing unawareness of Romeo’s presence. Or pretending him invisible when Romeo vows true love by ‘yonder blessed moon’.

A stage prop, because not even Shakespeare has the moon at his bidding when planning a nocturnal outdoor performance : it is in its final quarter to begin with, and won’t appear over the rooftops for some time to come. The moon rises tonight at 10 : 55 pm.

And judged by his natural and fluent ‘singing’ (he is almost out of the prompter’s reach) this must be the star treble. It seems that master Shakespeare has indeed seen to the prodigy’s assignment to Juliet. But not for long, though, because Juliet leaves the balcony for a moment, only to reappear with a less able voice. So unskilled in fact, that this Juliet is within seconds called back in again. The third Juliet to appear is as good as the first one, but his voice has clearly known better days :

Enter Iuliet againe.
Juliet :….. Hist Romeo hist, ô for a falkners voyce,
….. To lure this Tassel gentle back againe,
….. Bondage is hoarse, and may not speake aloude,
….. Else would I teare the Caue where Eccho lies,
….. And make her ayrie tongue more hoarse, then
….. With repetition of my Romeo.
Romeo :….. It is my soule that calls vpon my name.
….. How siluer sweete, sound louers tongues by night,
….. Like softest musicke to attending eares.

Superb ! never heard a treble voice to break just for the fun of it, and it sounds great : it takes some time for the laughter to peter out, and the scene is allowed to proceed towards it end. As a result I nearly fail to notice the Brooke-parody in the next scene.

Brooke’s lines 565 – 570 in particular, but the entire scene maintains the hollow posy from The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet‘s up to line 616.

In the remainder of the second part, time cannot proceed fast enough to keep pace with the action. From the gradual increasing light of dawn (torches being brought in during two subsequent scenes) until Juliet’s swift (relay-)run from home all the way towards the final scene of her wedding at noon, events follow in quick succession. And yet, too slow for lovers who keep watching the clock in eager anticipation of the happy end. Which in no long in waiting, as the second part is rather short, and it comes with another festive gathering in the central yard. We have a few drinks on the happy couple, on the performers, and some more on the Lord Chamberlain. Then time has come to find my way home, it is well past ten, and James Burbage calls it a day :

Nay gentlemen prepare not to be gone,
We haue a trifling foolish night towards:

A player whispers into his ear, and points towards the stage.

Is it ene so? I hear there’s tragedy to come
our happy comedy is done, I’ll bet.
But he who from our play now parts,
is brought home… and straight to bed !

(10 : 25 pm) I should have known ! having recognized Romeo for what he really is, it’s obvious that the announced tragedy is designed for this very eve, and I had better taken my leave when I still had the opportunity. Some of the youngest boy players now depart in the company of mothers and children. And the other guests return to their seats in the gallery. The example to follow, as my dignity does not agree with the suggestion of leaving because it’s bed-time for little children. There is nothing for it, but to bide my time until a better opportunity presents itself.

….. Act Three ; sc. 1 (see 1 ; 1a/b) …... 1 hr. after wedding …..…..…..…..…..….. R banished …..

….. Act Three ; sc. 2 (1 ; 2b) …..…….... 2 hrs. later …..…..…..….. J arranges wedding night …..

….. Act Three ; sc. 3 (1 ; 1c/2b) …..….. evening …..…..…..……….…..….. R to wedding night …..

….. Act Three ; scene 4 (1 ; 2a) …..….. 1 hr. past bed-time …….…..….. J promised to Paris …..

The wedding party has barely ended, or the corpses begin to pile up in rapid succession. At such a pace even that Romeo has between killings only a few seconds to remind us that just one hour ago the same stage had featured the happy end of a comedy. I come to realize that this comedy’s opening scene has returned to spell out tragedy in blood. Its second scene returns as well, now to settle the date of the marriage for Wednesday (today), and during negotiations Juliet’s wedding night is indeed in full progress. A notion that makes all the difference for our perception of Old Capulet’s ‘well wendsday is too soone, A thursday let it be, a thursday tell her She shall be married to this noble Earle:’

Tuesday 30 July 1594
….. Act Three ; scene 5a (2 ; 2) ………. dawn …..……….…..….. R parts after wedding night …..

….. Act Three ; scene 5b (1 ; 3) …..….. dawn ……….….. J ordered to marry next Thursday …..

The balcony scene is repeated as well, now with both lovers upsteairs. But this time they part without the prospect of reunion. And Juliet at the instant – which actually is a fortnight later, because the Capulets already have a watch on Romeo in Mantua – has reason to regret her breaking of the solemn vow to stay with her husband in good times and bad. Brooke should have thought of that ! And the icing on the cake is the choice for St. Peter’s as the wedding location : St. Peter in Chains… that is exactly the experience Juliet is going to celebrate.

….. Act Four ; scene 1 …..…..…..…..……….……………….. J advised to elope by faking death …..

(11 : 20 pm) Poor Paris… he does his courting as well as one can expect from a boy of his thirteen years, but he handles the situation by the book. He should deal with her tears as a lover, instead of assuming the pose of her lawful husband. Poor… poor Paris…

….. Act Four ; scene 2 …..…..…..…..…. evening ……………. marriage rescheduled for dawn …..

Well done, master Shakespeare! she still has her wedding on Wednesday. This Wednesday, as the attentive listener will have perceived from the scene in which she was first asked to consider the prospect of marriage :

…on Lammas Eue at night
shall she be fourteene, that shall shee marrie.

….. Act Four ; scene 3 …..…..…..…..…. midnight …..…..……………….….. ‘come heavy sleep’ …..

Wednesday 31 July 1594
….. Act Four ; scene 4 …..…..…..…..…. 3. a.m …..………………… Old Capulet prepares feast …..

In great haste. Come to think of it ; how much time would Old Burbage himself have had between the departure of the evening show’s audience, and the arrival of the first invited guests ?

….. Act Four ; scene 5 …..…..…..…..…. dawn …..……………….…..….. a bride in the morning …..

What a difference with Brooke ! Master Shakespeare now brings friar Lawrence on stage to confront him with the full impact of his cunning plan. And all he can do to make amends, is to offer the worn platitudes of pious consolement. Which the old hypocrite does rather well, I must give him that. He even convinces the mourners that Juliet has the better marriage now, and gets them so far as to accompany her to church anyway. The day now proceeds almost exactly as planned : Master Kempe performs the happy occasion’s traditional fooling, and the musicians stay for dinner. Life goes on.

….. Act Five ; scene 1 …..…..…..…..….. Enter Romeo ….….….….………………………………………….

Romeo :….. If I may trust the flattering truth of sleepe,
….. My dreames presage some ioyfull newes at hand.

(11 ; 45 pm) The story is now rapidly closing in on real time. Romeo seems to have an early day, but the news from Verona is that of Juliet’s interment. With all the bells and smells according to custom, and therefore buried after noon. Romeo indeed needs to ‘hire post horses’ if he ‘will hence tonight’.

….. Act Five ; scene 2 …..…..…..….. 3 hours before Juliet’s revival ….….….….….….….….…..
=   Wednesday 31 July …..…..…..…... ca. 9 p.m. …..………... 21 hours after taking the drug …..

Enter Frier Iohn.
Iohn :….  VVhat Frier Laurence, Brother, ho?
Laur. :….  This same should be the voyce of Frier Iohn.
….  VVhat newes from Mantua, what will Romeo come?
Iohn :….  Going to seeke a barefoote Brother out,
….  One of our order to associate mee,
….  Here in this Cittie visiting the sick,
….  VVhereas the infectious pestilence remaind:
….  And being by the Searchers of the Towne
….  Found and examinde, we were both shut vp.
Laur. :….  VVho bare my letters then to Romeo?
Iohn :….  I haue them still, and here they are.
Laur. :….  Now by my holy Order,
….  The letters were not nice, but of great weight.
….  Goe get thee hence, and get me presently
….  A spade and a mattocke.
Iohn :….  Well I will presently go fetch thee them. Exit.
Laur. :….  Now must I to the Monument alone,
….  Least that the Ladie should before I come
….  Be wakde from sleepe. I will hye
….  To free her from that Tombe of miserie. ….  ….  ….  Exit. (Q1)

I have told you about the real occasion for this performance, haven’t I? Well, here it is in plain view : at the eve of St. Peter in Chains, Master Shakespeare presents friar Lawrence as the angel to set Juliet free. And her tombe of misery is identical to a sealed house : Lammas is the first thanksgiving day after we have seen the last of that.

….. Act Five ; scene 3 …..…..…..……… covered by darkness ……………. three scenes in one …..

Brilliant ! exactly twenty-four hours after taking the drug, Juliet revives at St. Leonhard’s distant stroke of twelve. And everything finds its place when Romeo lays Paris at rest at the side of his beloved Juliet. The pleasant youth who even charmed Old Capulet into tolerating him at his table, has unmasked himself as a grim murderer. And in his final gesture of mercy to his young rival in love, he happens to arrange bride and groom a wedding night in which Juliet finds herself involved in a situation that sounds familiar :

I was in contract with a young lad,
therefore will have me with him Death.

the myth of Persephone

In the museum of Bern is a collection of 17th century gouaches by a certain Albrecht Kauw, that combines to a faithful copy of the Berner Totentanz. Between its completion in 1519 and destruction in 1660 the original painting by master painter Niklaus Manuel (named) Deutsch on a grave-yard’s wall was one of the continent’s finest samples of the Death Dance : the traditional artist impression of the Black Death. According to a minority of my sources, Albrecht Kauw also copied some of the verses that comment on each of the dance’s sections, and if the Dutch musician and scholar Louis Peter Grijp is a reliable source (essay De Dood en het Meisje – from De Dodendans in de Kunsten, Utrecht 1989), the writing on the wall that condemns The Maiden, shows her in an enforced bride’s obligate acceptance of The Last Lover’s rather intimate embrace :

Ich war einem jungen Burschen versprochen,
so wird mich der Tod mit ihm haben.

Within context, the translation runs : “I was promised to a young lad / therefore Death will have me with him.” The parallel with Juliet’s fate is obvious. However, Juliet is no maiden anymore when the promise is made. The verse therefore can’t refer to her. It nevertheless is quite chilling to observe that Shakespeare follows the literal translation to the letter when he has Romeo to bury Paris alongside his promised bride : Juliet is contracted to a young boy, and therefore Death will have them both.

Romeo not just equals death to an engaged couple. Above all, he is Juliet’s lover. Her last lover even. Which is suggestive. And, fortunately, there is in science no such thing as a guaranteed reliable source. As it happens, a chance hit on google produced the same verse within its original context as ‘The daughter replies’ :

Der tod spricht zuo der dochter …………….. Death speaks to the daughter
Dochter jetz ist schon hie din Stund ……………… Daughter now already is the hour,
Bleych wirt werden din Rodter Mund .…………. Pale will turn your red mouth,
Din Lyb, din angsicht, din Har, vnnd Brüst ….. Your body, face, your hair, and breast
muos alles werden Ein fuler mist …………………. must all turn to foul pest.

Die Dochter gibt Antwort ……………………….. The daughter replies
O tod wie grüwlich griffst mich an ……………….. O Death how horrid your attack,
mir wyl min Hertz Jm Lyb zergan ……………….. My heart will stop now in its track,
Jch was verpflicht Einem Jungen knaben …….. I was in contract with a young lad,
So wyl mich der tod mit Jm haben ……………….. therefore will have me with him Death.
…………………………………………………………………………….. . (

The two lines that Albrecht Kauw copied from the original painting, conclude a text that reflects the tragic events within the Capulet tomb in every grisly detail. And now the girl appears to be a daughter instead of a maiden, we are facing a text about a supposedly virgin pawn on what might very well be the Capulet chessboard of wedding diplomacy. And the verse’s literal interpretation is the doom of Paris, being the only way to make sure that no one takes Romeo for the young lad that Death embraces together with his promised bride. Paris is in consequence young enough to make Romeo look almost like an adult : Shakespeare takes no chances.

Supposed to be a virgin, ‘The Daughter’ from the Berner Totentanz is preceded by an abbess. A stronger suggestion of virginity is hard to imagine. And the daughter herself is based on ‘The Maiden’ from the nearby Basler Totentanz. The one that also was a source of inspiration for Hans Holbein the Younger :

Death to the Maiden ………………………….. The Maiden
Ah Maiden know your mouth’s red shine      Oh woe how  gruesome I’m taken
Will now turn pale this hour of mine              From all strength and joy forsaken:
With young lads you liked to  jump, I see      I’ve lost the taste to dance for goo(d),
You must have a dance as lead with me         I’m going hence, adieu, adieu.
…………………………………………………………………………….. . (

The preceding abbess does suggest that the daughter is ambushed on her way to the nunnery : contracted to be the bride of Jesus (usually depicted as a young boy). Alas ! Death does not really take her for a maiden. And that in a time when many a parent used the nunnery as a place of  permanent refuge for an unmarried, yet pregnant daughter. And the words that Niklaus Manuel Deutsch wrote on the abbess herself do nothing to refute such a theory :

The death speaks to the abbess ………………. The abbess answers
Dear lady abbess it toils loudly ………………………. To sing and to read all day and night
You must around with me jump gaily …………….. Left me and many more near deaf alright
Have you preserved maidenhood perchance …… And didn’t understand a word of theology
The good God will rule the dance …………………… The death is far to soon at hand for me
Thus said the Dance Master. And because the portrait is based on its counterpart in the Basler Totentanz, the abbess is in her death indeed entitled to some mockery. In Basel the slender dancer is biting his finger :

Death to The Abbess ……………………………….. The Abbess
Dear lady Abbess pure virgin-like, …………………. I have read from the Psalter,
How come your belly this little alike? …………….. In the choir before the Lord’s altar.
But I won’t hold it against you, ……………………… Now no praying will avail me,
I’d rather bite my finger. ………………………………. I too, Death, must step after thee.

Shakespeare habitually baffles his researchers, but never his target customers, as every detail in his works makes sense in the context of the world they live in. No need for cracking riddles then : all one has to do, is to adopt Elizabethan London as one’s natural habitat. And to wonder why Shakespeare would have taken for granted that his audience is familiar with a verse from the Death Dance from Bern : there is no evidence that a copy of this text ever reached London. Still, the audience can do without, because after connecting Juliet’s bridal bed to the plague by the play’s penultimate scene, the verse is just an additional confirmation of Juliet’s suggestion that Romeo would not dance, because he follows.

Building a strong case now depends on a plausible explanation of Shakespeare’s own familiarity with a text that apparently never reached London (suggestions to that effect are most welcome). Pending this break-through, there is only one explanation that covers all the facts. But it is not really a satisfying one : mere chance may have drawn this parallel. And, as a matter of fact, when two unrelated pieces of art are based on the same myth, parallels are to be expected. To a rather large extend even :

Juliet :….. Whats he that followes there that would not dance?
Nurse :…. I know not.
Juliet :….. Goe learne his name, if he be maried,
….. My grave is like to be my wedding bed. ………… (in both Q’s her 13th line)

The one who won’t dance if not leading the entire line, is not formally married, but he has a consort by name of Persephone. Homer describes her as the formidable, venerable majestic queen of the shades, who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead (Wikipedia). Romeo is not married either, but he has in the shadowy Rosaline a fictional lover’s obligate Unattainable Lady. Whether she really disdains him, or just plays hard to get is one the great mysteries of Love(-stories). Persephone, for instance, only gave in to her wooer’s advances when she could no longer resist them. But the question is : did he conquer her heart, did she accept the unavoidable, or did she subtly lure him into her nets?

According to scene 2 ; 3, Rosaline is a ‘pale, hard-hearted wench’. And if she is described in the very words to describe Persephone, she certainly deserves the honour by making Romeo suffer ; an unanswered love truly is the curse of men. “Still so cruel?” Orsino asks his ‘marble breasted’ (= pale, hard-hearted) goddess (Olivia) after a complete Twelfth-Night of rejection. And just a minute later he takes Viola for his bride. Romeo is in an equally bad state when he first meets Juliet. All the difference with comedy is therefore in the timing, because Romeo’s marriage at short notice leaves the remaining acts available for further developments. And a tomb will be their bridal bed. Considering Juliet’s thirteenth line in the context of her twelfth, that is a fate in which Rosaline is perhaps not as unattainable to Romeo as perceived. The same for Twelfth-Night, where Orsino should have realized what it means to be the only suitor who is allowed to come close enough to Olivia to suffer her unattainability.

When two unrelated pieces of art are based on the same myth, parallels are to be expected. But when drawn this far, it gets difficult to maintain that Romeo and Juliet is not related to Twelfth-Night. And there is more to come : Romeo’s murderous mood in the final scene is matched by Orsino’s. Critical comments as a rule play the Duke’s violent nature down by pointing at his noble mind, but 16th century Italian princes, even the more charming ones, are easily antagonized. And they make dangerous enemies. Romeo and Tybalt both prove that point (at the cost of the play’s two kinsmen of Prince Escalus), and Orsino is no exception. In his case the counterpart of Paris only survives because Twelfth-Night is a comedy. As far as that classification goes for a play that includes some very nasty details concerning Viola’s married life expectancy…

Nurse :…. His name is Romeo and a Mountague, the onely
….. sonne of your great enemie.
Juliet :….  My onely Loue sprung from my onely hate,

In the end there is only one to hate, and only Love has the strength to deny him victory (Song of Solomon 8 ; 6). But even love can be taken by surprise when engaged by an enemy who is very well capable of approaching in full view without being noticed :

….. Too early seene vnknowne, and knowne too late:
….. Prodigious birth of loue is this to me,
….. That I should loue a loathed enemie.

The Berner Totentanz shows her surprised from the rear when the enemy grabs her bosom, and may to all intends and purposes be depicting Persephone’s abduction. A pendant drawing by the same artist of the same scene, shows her in eager surrender to the caresses of her lover. He is in a disgusting state of decay, which from the point of view of the wall painting’s skeleton is of course something like feeling young and handsome again. It also is a way of depicting Death’s natural physical reaction in an artist impression of Persephone’s transition from victim to loving consort.

When tragedy unfolds at a pace that leaves Brooke gasping for breath, transition is a waste of time. And while Juliet and loathed enemy are enacting the sketch by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Old Capulet seals a supposed virgin’s fate in her capacity of being the pendant painting’s Daughter : Juliet is the victim because she is the loving consort. That is what the Berner Totentanz reveals. It also is the inevitable result of Juliet’s desperate attempt to break her contract with Paris : she is a loving consort indeed, when she is prepared to join the dead, if there is no other way to have Romeo instead. But the literal interpretation of a verse from the Berner Totentanz provides her with both, and transforms a sole maiden’s Last Lover into a Grim Reaper who applies his scythe indiscriminately. Are these really unrelated pieces of art?

In this disaster, Juliet is of course as much Romeo’s angel of death as he is hers. But the real killer in a Death Dance is the plague. And it is the plague’s interference with communications in scene 5 ; 2, that turns the lovers into each other’s angels of death in the first place. And in Shakespeare’s version of the Death Dance, this Grim Reaper mows his victims down at the day that celebrates the end of the epidemia …

A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The Sun for sorrow will not shew his head:
Go hence to haue more talke of these sad things,
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished.
For neuer was a Storie of more wo,
Then this of Iuliet and her Romeo.