Let’s look at a monologue from the heart of the famous ‘balcony scene’ in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We’ve already had two of Shakespeare’s most famous lines said in this scene, from Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” to Juliet’s “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo”.
The Balcony Scene
It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes. Two star crossed lovers have met and instantly fallen madly in love with each other. Later that night, Romeo climbs the walls of the Capulet mansion to try to be close to Juliet. The two are from warring families whose conflict spans countless generations. Romeo spy’s on Juliet as she confesses her love to him, Romeo springs out on her and they share an exchange of love and vows.
Hold on hold on. Not so fast. Juliet may be young, (13, in fact…) but she is far from unwise. She’s an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful character, and this speech we’re looking at today reflects the conflict between the feelings she’s experiencing and what her rational mind is telling her. Let’s look at the text.
Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke; but farewell, compliment .
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’,
And I will take thy word; yet, if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs . O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully,
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo, but else not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my haviour light.
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess,
But that thou overheard’st, ere I was ware,
My true-love passion. Therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered.
Mask of night: Darkness
Bepaint: Her cheeks would be painted red with her blushing
Fain: Compelled, willing under the circumstances
Perjuries: “the offence of wilfully telling an untruth or making a misrepresentation under oath.”
Jove: Roman God of Thunder, equivalent of Zeus in Greek Myth.
Perverse: Playing hard to get, “showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable.”
Montague: Romeo is of the house ‘Montague’, Juliet is a Capulet
Impute: “represent (something, especially something undesirable) as being done or possessed by someone; attribute.”
You know my face is covered in darkness,
Otherwise you’d see me blushing for the things I’ve said out loud tonight.
I’d happily deny what I’ve said and use good manners, but forget manners.
Do you love me? I know you will say “yes” and I will believe you
But if you promise me of it, you might be lying.
The Gods laugh when lovers tell lies.
Oh gentle Romeo, if you do truly love me, say it honestly.
Or if you think I’m being too rash,
I’ll play hard to get and tell you ‘no’ so you have to work a little harder!
But nothing else could make me act that way.
Truthfully, handsome Montague, I like you too much, so you might think my behaviour is lacking in substance.
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove to be more honest than the cunning girls who play hard to get.
I should have been more aloof! But you heard me talking about my love while I didn’t know you were even there.
So please forgive me, and don’t assume that because I love so quickly that it is not honest and serious.
In my other monologue unpacked for this scene, I spoke of the importance of honouring the stakes of the scene, and the importance of Juliet clearly playing to her targets around her. Those rules still apply for this monologue, but there are a few other factors to consider also.
There is SO much going on for Juliet at this moment. She has been caught in a private moment – an already mortifying prospect for her, but not only that she has been caught by the person she was talking about! It’s making me blush just thinking about it! What is crucial for the actor playing Juliet is to not end-gain. Juliet hasn’t read the play, though you may have. She doesn’t know how the story ends, let alone what is going to happen in the next few moments. There is a temptation for the actor to rush through this dialogue or act with the knowledge that these two will go on to get married the next day, but the actor must do everything to allow every possible outcome to be an option in this moment.
For example, the line, “Dost thou love me?” for Juliet, COULD be the last line (or second last line of the play). Romeo could say “no”. (It’d be a terrible play, but still…) All too often I see actors end-gaining this line by rushing to the next line, “I know thou wilt say ‘ay’”. It’s a far more interesting choice to NOT know Romeo will say yes. Juliet goes on to tell Romeo how worried she is that he will think her declaration of love is too rash- for all she knows, she has turned Romeo off!
Play this scene moment by moment, assume nothing. Create a clear objective for Juliet to pursue, and go after it like a racing dog. Place your attention on Romeo, too. If you’re doing this monologue out of the context of the play, say for an audition, I’d highly recommend you work with another actor to be a ‘warm body’ for you. In rehearsal, go through the text slowly, and allow all the intricacies of the other actor’s expressions to inform your delivery of the next line. This monologue NEEDS to be present and in this moment. If we preplan everything, we ruin the wonderful spontaneity of it all for the audience.
Give your still-beating heart to this scene! It requires it. Enjoy this love, passion and fear filled monologue from one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. Juliet is incredibly smart and well read, and she knows all too well the cruelty of fate when it comes to lovers who are too hasty. She is not naive. She knows and understands the stakes and reality of the situation, but she cannot act any other way than how she does. Her feelings are too real, too immense. As an actor you must access and understand the significance of these feelings so you have no other option but to tread in Juliet’s footsteps, too.