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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 11, 2007

News stories from Mantua, near Verona and not far from the scene of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," report that archaeologists have discovered two skeletons, male and female, apparently quite young -- and they are embracing. The scholar leading the excavation expresses her wonderment: "We have found plenty of women embracing children but never a couple. Much less a couple hugging -- and they really are hugging."

Shakespeare's play involves much mockery of love and lovers, some of it bitter and some playful. Sonnets, too, were mocked in Shakespeare's time: Sir John Davies wrote a series of quite funny "Gulling Sonnets," parodying the form's excessive ornament and exaggerated, posing sentiments. Shakespeare, in some of his sonnets, appears to mock the form he also uses so well -- having his cake and icing it, with a grin. He writes a sonnet into Act I, scene v of the play. Its lines are shared by the foolish, ardent teenagers. They each speak one line of the final, clinching couplet:

ROMEO [ to JULIET, touching her hand]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this.

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake

ROMEO

Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.

[He kisses her]

The elaborate banter about saints and palmers and prayers is a kind of flirtatious, lightly blasphemous mutual testing. Like the formal structure, that witty teasing suggests both the silliness of love and its tremendous power.

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(Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" is published by Norton. Copyright 1997 by Norton)

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