The Theme of Haste in Romeo and Juliet
The haste of youth as a tragic motive of both Romeo and Juliet appears repeatedly in their lines.
The opening scene of the first act of the play establishes the pace at which tragic fate will unfold. In little more a hundred lines the Capulet-Montague feud is introduced with the thumb biting scene. The quality of events hurrying to a decision is expressed by incidental dialogue in the beginning. Sampson’s line “I strike quickly being moved”, and Gregory’s response “But thou art not quickly mov’d to strike” comically introduce the theme of impetuous speed.
The second scene presents haste as a theme governing the betrothal. Capulet declares that Juliet “hath not seen the change of fourteen years” and urges Paris to “let two more summers wither in their pride Eve we may think her ripe to be a bride.” From this is derived the exposition device of tragic irony which points significantly at a misfortune which will come “too soon.”
Paris: Younger than she are happy mothers made.
Capulet: And too soon marr’d are those so early made.
In third scene the headlong quality continues. The question is put to Juliet
“Thus then in brief
The valiant Paris seeks you for his love”
Twenty lines later, the feast is not only shown as imminent but characterized by the haste through which comic characters will express the theme. A servant enters:
“Madam, the guests are come, supper serv’d up, you call’d. my young lady ask’d for, the nurse curs’d in the pantry, and everything in extremity. I must hence to wait ; I beseech von follow straight.”
In the fourth scene we meet Mercutio who points up the quick, mercurial, mood of the play. And now a scene which began with the maskers as a symbol of dispatch ends with a further thematic turn.
Romeo: I fear too early : for my mind misgives
Some consequence, ver hanging in the stars.
Romeo, sensing untimely death, consigns the steerage of his course to God, his sudden final words, “On, lusty gentlemen !” evoke Benvolio‘s command, “Strike, drum.” Choric comment upon speeding fate is thus succeeded instantly by the drum and a quick time march of maskers.
As the fourth scene closes with this expression of the haste theme, the next scene continues it with a comic device servants hastily preparing for the feast.
First Servant: You are look’d for and callid for, ask’d for and sought for, in the great chamber.
Third Servant: We cannot be here and there too. Cheerly, boys; be brisk a while, and the longer lover take all. Action presents haste on the comic plane.
In the next portion of this scene old Capulet and his kinsman supplement the theme with dialogue on the rush of time since their last masking. Plot movement then extends this statement of theme with a quick sequence composed of Romeo’s first glimpse of Juliet. Tybalt’s threat of violence which is restrained by his uncle, and the meeting of the lovers which brings discovery that one is Montague, the other a Capulet.
In the Second Scene of Second Act we witness the balcony scene. It brings a necessary lull in the fast pace, but the exchange between lovers continues the theme of haste. Juliet speaks
“Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight :
It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens”
Romeo and Juliet have closed the scene with lines on morning and the haste it brings.
In the third scene Shakespeare makes the Friar spokesman of the haste theme: his greeting dwells solely upon Romeo’s earliness
“what early tongue so sweet saluteth me?”
Then the Friar speaks of Rosaline who is ‘so soon forsaken’. And here is an outright statement of the haste theme, at the close of the third scene.
Romeo: O, let us hence ; 1 stand on sudden haste.
Friar: Wisely and slow : they stumble that run fast.
The fourth scene presents dialogue between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio, in which the theme of oppressive haste continues. At the end of the exchange of wit Mercutio complains that his wits faint from the quick give and take. We hear Romeo exclaiming ‘Switch and Spurs, switch and spurs’. Then as the scene ends with Romeo urging speed in arranging their lovers’ meeting, we hear the Nurse commanding Peter, ‘Before and apace’.
In the fifth scene Juliet’s soliloquy and the Nurse’s appearance combine to assert the haste theme fully and impressively.
“The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse ,
In half an hour she promisd to return…
O’ she is lame ! Love’s heralds should be thoughts
Which ten times faster glide than the sun’s beams…
Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a hall.”
The Nurse enters out of breath. When Juliet asks her to speak, the replies ‘Jesu, what haste.’
The sixth scene shifts back to the cell of Friar Lawrence who plays a ‘slowing role opposite Romeo. The lovers meet in the cell and their marriage is arranged with the dispatch. The Friar speaks
“Come, come with me, and we will make short work.”
In the first scene of the third act we witness the street fight in which Mercutio is killed, and speed in action is accompanied by lines which express the haste theme. Mercutio’s challenge comes in these terms: ‘Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your cars are it be out.’
And at Mercutio’s death the lament of Romeo points to the rush of events. Romeo then kills Tybalt. At this point citizens enter. One might expect here a speech which would slow the action, but the words of the Prince carry the theme of immediacy and hurry. The Prince speaks
“…And for that, offence
Immediately we do exile him hence…
Let Romeo hence in haste,
Else, when he’s found that hour is his last.”
The second scene also begins on the note of haste Juliet. In aware of the banishment of Romeo, calls for his return with speed and urgency.
In the third scene of Third Act we find Lord Capulet and Paris talking. ‘So little time’ is the note of their talk. Capulet speaks
“Things have fallen out; Sir, so unluckily
That we have had no time to move our daughter,”
“These times of cool afford no times to woo.”
Capulet decides that the marriage will take place on Thursday and then asks Paris
“Will you be ready? Do you like this haste?”
And Paris replies.
“My lord, I would that Thursday were to-morrow.”
The first scene of the Fourth Act takes place in the cell of Friar Laurence. The issue is again the marriage of Paris and Juliet, and haste continues as the explicit theme. Friar Laurence says:
“On Thursday sir, The time is very short.”
And Paris replies
“My father Capulet will have it so.
And I am nothing slow to slack his haste.”
And after a few lines he says
“Now do you know the reason of this haste.”
In the fourth scene of the Fourth Act Capulet has become preoccupied with dispatch. At this stage of the play all characters are stumblers who run fast.
Capulet: Make haste, make haste
Make haste: the bridegroom he is come already
Finally in the third scene of the Fifth Act the tragedy is completed at the Capulet tomb. Here haste comes to the resting point of death. Romeo’s dying words are “Thy drugs are quick”. And then Friar Laurence speaks.
“Saint Francis be my speed ! how oft tonight
Have my old feet stumbled at graves.”
Once mere the note of speed is struck
“They stumble that run fast.”
“Yea, noise? Then I will be brief.”
And the Prince summoned to the scene can speak of tragedy in the context of time:
“What misadventure is so early up…”?
He presently calls for delaying time to intervene between the event and its explanations
“Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while,
Till we can clear these ambiguities.”
It is Friar Laurence who clears them in a summation which s the precipitous tragedy to a stop. Characteristically, if paradoxically, the Friar begins speech on a note of brevity suited to life’s hurried span:
“I will be brief, for my short date of breath
Is not so long as is a tedious tale.”
This we see that the theme of haste is developed throughout the play. The haste theme hastens the tragedy.