Romeo and Juliet: "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks...."

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But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

Romeo begins in straightforward iambic pentameter, with stresses regularly punctuating every other syllable. As light appears at Juliet's window above, Romeo begins his metaphoric comparison of Juliet to the sunrise. The line also shows how a slight shift in the syntactic order, shifting the word "breaks" to the end of the phrase rather than directly following the subject of "light," is used to make the line better fit the meter. "But soft! what light breaks through yonder window" would have a decidedly different rhythm.

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It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

The second line is more eccentric in its meter. It begins with a pyrrhic, which isn't such an oddity in itself, but the scansion following the mid-line caesura causes some consternation unless A) Shakespeare intended Juliet to be pronounced more like "JOOL-yet" instead of "JOOL-i-ET," or B) "is the sun" is intended as an anapest to end the line. Anyway, Romeo romantically compares the window to the eastern horizon at dawn; he hasn't seen Juliet appear yet (at least in most interpretations of the script), but, like the dim light appearing before sunrise, the light heralds her arrival.

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Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Like the line before, this one also contains 11 total syllables and is arguably ended by an anapest. Romeo asks Juliet to appear ("Arise, fair sun") at her window. The reference to the "envious moon" is a double entendre. First, of course the rising sun of day signifies the end of night, "killing" the moon. Second, the reference begins an extended—and occasionally risqué—metaphor that plays upon the association of the moon goddess, Diana, (or Artemis, if you prefer), with virginity. You may draw your own conclusions, therefore, as to what Romeo means by "kill the envious moon."

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Who is already sick and pale with grief,

After beginning with a pyrrhic, this line starts a stretch of regular iambic pentameter. Romeo here continues the moon metaphor by alluding to the normally wan appearance of the moon in the sky and imbuing the moon (as the goddess Diana) with sadness as the reason for its pallor.

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That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

Romeo employs a double entendre on the word "maid" in this line. Maid alludes to Juliet's virginity both in its traditional denotation as a young, unmarried woman and as a servant of the moon (implying that Juliet is in the service of Diana, which would reinforce the concept). The reason that the moon is sad is that Juliet's beauty outshines hers, much as the sun's light outshines the moon. The interwoven imagery and subtext of this passage is quite remarkable under close examination.

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Be not her maid, since she is envious;

Much like "kill the envious moon" above, Romeo again calls Juliet to action. This time, he reasons that Juliet need not serve the moon goddess since the moon goddess is jealous of her. It's interesting here, too, in using classic mythology as the underpinning of his metaphor, that Romeo speaks of the "envious" moon. Anyone who's ever read anything about Greek and Roman mythology knows that one didn't trifle with the vanity of goddesses. Just ask the Trojans.

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Her vestal livery is but sick and green

Metrically, this 11-syllable line would probably scan better if written as "liv'ry." In both quarto editions and the First Folio, however, the word is spelled as if the three syllables are to be pronounced. Unless you want to stress "is" unnaturally, the most logical scansion seems to be iamb/iamb/pyrrhic/anapest/iamb. "Vestal livery" here refers to Juliet's virginity by referring to the garments of the Vestal virgins; Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, had temples staffed by women who were bound by 30-year vows of chastity. Romeo's mention of sick and green in this line owes to the Renaissance belief that women who protractedly maintained their virginity were subject to green-sickness, so named because of a form of anemia that could affect young women (known medically as chlorosis, in which the skin actually takes on a greenish cast due to a significant hemoglobin deficiency). Although the condition had virtually nothing to do with virginity, the "cure" was, of course, the healthy lovemaking a woman could expect within the bonds of matrimony. Obviously, medical theory of the day was dominated by men.

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And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Romeo concludes his musings upon Juliet's chastity with a line that echoes his earlier call for Juliet to "kill the envious moon." However, here Shakespeare creates a parallelism that makes the metaphor more graphic. On the more literal level, Romeo is saying that Juliet needs to cast off her "vestal livery," which we can take as a fairly blunt wish that Juliet should doff her frock. On the figurative level, "vestal livery" represents Juliet's virginity; Romeo has designs on her doffing that as well—all in the name of preventive health, of course, as mentioned above. All this goes to prove that you can get away with saying nearly anything as long as it sounds poetic enough.

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It is my lady, O, it is my love!

This line, as syrupy as it may seem, signifies an important turn in the soliloquy. Keep in mind that Romeo, until this point, has merely been addressing a light in a window. This is the point in the speech at which Juliet actually enters the scene. Romeo is both surprised and besotted when young Juliet appears. Rhetorically, Shakespeare is using parallel repetition and alliteration to reinforce Romeo's emotion.

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O, that she knew she were!

This is a strange line on many levels. In all early editions (except the First Quarto, in which the line and "It is my lady..." are omitted entirely), "It is my lady..." and this line are written together. It makes a certain amount of sense to split the line, as most editors have done, from the obvious pentameter of its predecessor, but that leaves it as a six-syllable, dangling bit of verse. As noted in the Macbeth analysis, Shakespeare doesn't generally break the pentameter in mid-speech like this, so that leaves us wondering if something happened in the transcription. An interesting hypothesis is that perhaps Shakespeare originally had Juliet complete the line as if to herself, which might have prompted Romeo to speak his next line.

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She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?

Obviously something is prompting Romeo to make the comment. Whether Juliet is talking to herself or perhaps responding silently to the Nurse inside the room is a minor choice at the discretion of the director. What is germane to the scene is that Romeo supposes (or talks himself into believing for the moment) Juliet might have caught sight of him and could be attempting a conversation.

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Her eye discourses; I will answer it.

You can almost feel Romeo taking a couple of steps toward the balcony at the end of this line. Although he can't hear her, he's certain that she's seen him. Discourses is a fancy way of saying "speaks" (from the Middle English discours, meaning "process of reasoning" via the Medieval Latin discursus, which means "a running about"). Romeo intends to make his presence known to Juliet.

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I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:

And just as quickly, Romeo realizes that Juliet is neither aware of nor speaking to him. The trochee/spondee pattern before the caesura is rhythmically heavy, which reinforces Romeo putting on the brakes, so to speak. Instead of revealing himself, Romeo will wax romantic in an extended metaphor that gets back to the initial light imagery.

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Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,

This line features a couple of Shakespeare favorites: the trochaic inversion at the beginning of the line and the feminine ending. Romeo will compare Juliet's eyes to the stars, a familiar trope that has been passed off ever since as original by teen boys the world over.

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Having some business, do entreat her eyes

This line scans as straight iambic pentameter with a trochaic inversion in the first foot. Entreat here denotes "to beseech or plead." It derives from Middle English via Anglo-French en treter ("to treat"); treter derives from the Latin verb tractare, which means "to drag about, handle, or deal with."

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To twinkle in their spheres till they return.

The second foot could also easily scan as an iamb; it's fairly subjective. Spheres refers in this instance to "the orbits in which stars move." Romeo poetically says over the course of three lines that the two most beautiful stars above should ask Juliet's eyes to fill in for them if they need to be elsewhere.

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What if her eyes were there, they in her head?

Shakespeare varies the rhythm of this line with two trochees, one as the initial foot and one following the caesura. Both, as discussed in other readings, are common variants that Shakespeare used. The syntax and pronoun ambiguity can make this line seem a little more complicated than it is. All Romeo is asking, essentially, is what if her eyes traded places with those "two fairest stars" mentioned above? The comparison continues.

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The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,

...and if Juliet's eyes traded places with the stars, Romeo reasons, then her cheek would still outshine the stars. You may have noticed by now that light imagery is a recurring theme in this speech. It's no accident; Shakespeare strikes that metaphoric note throughout Romeo and Juliet like a hammer striking a nail.

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As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven

This line is straight iambic pentameter with the extra unstressed syllable of a feminine ending. The comparative analogy of daylight and a lamp—especially given the candlepower of lamps in Shakespeare's day—remains a powerful and accessible image to the contemporary audience. Meanwhile, lest we forget poor Juliet's eyes....

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Would through the airy region stream so bright

...while the stars are being dimmed by Juliet's cheeks, her eyes would be radiating a light throughout the heavens (airy region being a highly fanciful term for "sky").

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That birds would sing and think it were not night.

In fact, in case you didn't get the daylight reference the first time, Romeo waxes further poetic on the subject. Juliet's eyes, were they to swap places with the stars, would turn the night into day, stirring the birds to sing. When you read the whole play, note how Romeo is subject to emotional fits of hyperbole. Then, think about your average modern teenager. Did you know that teen in Shakespeare's day was a word synonymous with vexation and misery? Perhaps the term shouldn't be considered such an archaism after all.

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See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!

One can imagine Romeo coming a bit back down to earth (no pun intended) as he besottedly gazes up at Juliet posing in the moonlight. The funniest gauge of love is the rapt fascination the lovestruck have with the utterly mundane. Here we have a perfect example.

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O, that I were a glove upon that hand,

Shakespeare uses a pair of trochees to stress the long vowels that start the line. The first that basically means "if only," just as it does in "O, that she knew she were!" above (Shakespeare is abridging the common Elizabethan phrase "would that" to preserve the meter).

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That I might touch that cheek!

And here is a perfect example of Shakespeare using two characters to complete a line of iambic pentameter. Although the end of Romeo's soliloquy is only six syllables, Juliet interrupts with her sigh "Ah me!" followed by Romeo's "She speaks!" Put together, the three fragments form one full line; it's usually a cue written into the text that quickens the pace and is called, unsurprisingly, a shared line. Thus begins the turn of the scene; Juliet will reveal her heart within the next few lines, and their fates will be sealed.

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