Romeo has fled the scene of the crime after murdering Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. We discover him hiding out in Friar Lawrence’s cell where the friar has learnt the extent of the punishment that has befallen Romeo.
Friar Lawrence informs Romeo that he is henceforth banished from Verona, never to return, on pain of death. This is considered by the friar to be a great mercy shown by Prince Escalus as the prince had previously decreed that any disturbance caused in Verona streets by either side of the two warring families would carry the penalty of death.
To understand why Romeo leaps into his speech, let’s take a look at the lead in line from Friar Lawrence.
O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness!
Thy fault our law calls death, but the kind prince,
Taking thy part, hath rushed aside the law,
And turned that black word ‘death’ to ‘banishment’.
This is dear mercy, and thou see’st it not.
Essentially, the line means:
You are being ungrateful,
The law says you should be killed but the prince
Has brushed the law aside,
Turning ‘death’ to ‘banishment’
You can see that this is mercy.
And then Romeo responds…
Thought & Language Breakdown
Let’s take a look at the language to see if anything pops out immediately to give us clues for performance.
Keep in mind that we are leaping into this discussion mid argument, so when Romeo begins speaking, he is already highly charged with emotion. Immediately, I’m struck by the second word, ‘torture’. To me this is an indication of Romeo’s state of mind – purgatory. So instantly, we get a sense of the given circumstances and emotional stakes.
Romeo uses juxtaposing imagery to compare himself with ‘unworthy’ creatures such as rotting-flesh-eating flies, which he then beautifully compares with ‘the white wonder of Juliet’s hand’. So time spent on working the differentiation between images would be time well spent on this piece.
Lastly, the repetition of the word ‘Banished’. I can’t stress this enough – when Shakespeare repeats a word this often in his text, he’s asking something of the actor but it’s up to you to decide exactly what that choice is. To me it suggests perhaps that this word is the torture that he is going through.
Beat Change: Space
Thought Change: /
Feminine Ending: (F)
‘Tis torture, and not mercy: / heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; / and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing, /
Live here in heaven and may look on her; /
But Romeo may not. /
More honourable state, more courtship lives
In carrion-flies than Romeo: / they may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand
And steal immortal blessing from her lips, /
Who even in pure and vestal modesty, /
Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin; /
But Romeo may not; he is banished. /
Flies may do this, but I from this must fly: /
They are free men, but I am banished. /
And say’st thou yet that exile is not death? /
Hadst thou no poison mix’d, no sharp-ground knife, /
No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean, /
But ‘banished’ to kill me? / ‘Banished’? /
O friar, the damned use that word in hell; /
Howlings attend it: / how hast thou the heart, /
Being a divine, a ghostly confessor,
A sin-absolver, and my friend profess’d,
To mangle me with that word ‘banished’? /
This is torture, and not mercy. Heaven is in Verona
Where Juliet lives and every cat and dog,
And tiny mouse, every unworthy thing,
Gets to live here, in heaven and look at her,
But I may not.
There’s more worthiness,
More honour, more romance
In corpse-infesting flies than me: They can touch
The pale beauty of dear Juliet’ s hand
And steal divine kisses from her lips
That, (even though they are pure and virginal)
Look red, believing that when they touch one another, it is sin;
But I cannot. I am banished.
Flies can kiss her, but from her I have to run away.
The flies are free men, but I am banished.
And you tell me that exile isn’t death?
Did you not have any poison, or a sharp knife,
No quick way to end my suffering, nothing so disgraceful
Except “banished” to kill me? “Banished”?
Oh Friar, the condemned use the word banished in hell,
Tormented, they howl it: How do you have the heart,
Being a clergyman, a priestly confessor,
A sin-forgiver and one who calls me their friend
To mutilate me with that word ‘banished’?
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Honourable State: Honourable condition. Honour.
Courtship: Wooing as in those who woo at court. Romance.
Carrion-flies: Flies that eat rotting flesh, in other words: a corpse.
Vestal: Virgin, virginal.
Their own kisses: One person’s mouth closed means that their own two lips are touching like a kiss.
From this must fly: In this context it means to escape or run away.
Sharp-ground: Sharpened by grinding of a whetstone.
Mean: Means or method.
Mean: Low and base or disgraceful.
Divine: clergyman or minister. A priest.
Ghostly confessor: The priest that one might confess their sins that they may be absolved.
Occurring at act three, scene three – this is the climax of the story. Romeo sees no escape from his doom – spending a life without his newly married wife, with whom he is desperately in love. This is a kid on the edge who wishes to kill himself then and there. And this speech, taken from a much longer scene is about the justification of that wish. I would usually use this ‘Conclusion’ section to talk about the context of the piece in general, but for this one I’m going to write about performance.
Yes, this is a child in grief but playing grief alone, I would find it boring to watch. Whilst remembering the given circumstances, it’s the job of the actor to stay on track and tell the story. The point I want to make is: don’t simply wallow in self pity. It can be quite a challenge to balance the given circumstances of grief and the story telling, so get clear: what does Romeo want? Find something for Romeo to fight for in the scene rather than let the grief overwhelm the speech. My idea would be this…
Turn it back on the Friar. Explain to him what it means to be that love because clearly, the Friar doesn’t understand. In fact, Romeo will go on to say later in the scene: “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel” implying exactly that. It is a heartbreaking line that lets the audience know why Romeo will not accept the council of the Friar. Romeo believes the Friar doesn’t understand and therefore cannot speak about the situation because he lacks the experience. This may indeed be the case. Whether Friar Lawrence has ever loved in the same manner as Romeo is not made clear in the play but what is clear is that Romeo certainly believes the friar has never been in love like him (what a classic angsty teen/parent relationship!).
So, if you wish, perhaps this is a useful starting point for an actor: Romeo must fight through the grief to help the friar understand just what the heIl he’s going through. Good luck!