OK, let’s take on a major concept of the play. When asked what Romeo and Juliet is about, most will say love, or young love, or youth, or fate, or hate. Ask me, and I’ll say: it’s about two hours long
Look, it’s right there in the prologue: “two hours’ traffic of our stage” (1Chorus, 12). Now, I might sound a little facetious here, but it’s to put forth a serious point. I would go so far as to say that this play is about TIME, and what happens when we rush, when we don’t have enough time to think.
References to time, both in the abstract (“ancient” and “new” in the third line of the Chorus) and in the specific (the aforementioned “two hours”), fill the play. Nowhere else in the Canon, at least the Canon as I’ve read it thus far, does Shakespeare take so much care to delineate the time of days throughout the course of the play (not even in those plays that use what some consider to be Aristotle’s Unity of Time: The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest).
In the opening scene of action, Benvolio tells Romeo that it is “new struck nine” (I.i.160) in the morning. Now at this point, we don’t know what day it is, but we’ll be able to work that out before the end of the play. The rest of Act One–Capulet’s discussion of Paris’ proposal of marriage to Juliet (and remember, he’s opposed to the marriage because of Juliet’s age, 13… TIME), to Romeo and Benvolio’s decision to crash the Capulet party, to Juliet’s reaction to the proposal, through Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, to the end of the Capulet party, including the meeting of Romeo and Juliet–all of this occurs before the end of that first day.
The second day of the play takes us from the late night/early morning balcony scene (Act Two, Scene Two) through the marriage, the deaths, the banishment, and the Friar’s plan to send Romeo to Mantua, all the way to Paris’ renewed–and now accepted–proposal of marriage in Act Three, Scene Four (Capulet says of the time, “‘Tis very late” [III.iv.6]). It is in this scene that we learn the current day: “Monday” (III.iv.18). So we now know the play begins around 9am on Sunday.
As I noted last week in my discussion of the Nurse , the next scene (the parting of the lovers) begins near daybreak of (we now know) Tuesday. The threat of Capulet to disown Juliet, her visit to Friar Laurence (and his discussion of the potion… and more on that in a minute), and her return home, all take place on Tuesday; at this point, it is “now near night” (IV.ii.39), and Capulet decides to move the wedding up a day to “tomorrow morning” (IV.ii.24), Wednesday morning. As some point between this “near night” and “three o’clock” (IV.iv.4) Wednesday morning, Juliet takes the potion.
Now, the text (and note my use of “text” and not “the Friar”) tells us that the potion will last “two and forty hours” (IV.i.105), but I’m going to make a supposition. Our texts come not from the hand of the playwright, but rather, the recollections of actors and stage managers. And as we know from the “Bad” Quarto (which tells us that Benvolio dies in the play), these recollections are guesses. Well, let’s say this guessed recollection of the Friar’s line is incorrect, and it is not “two and forty” but rather “four and twenty” hours. The line change doesn’t affect the scansion. The concept of 24 hours fits better into the time motif of the play (it is, after all, a unit of time all by its self: a day). But there’s another reason for the switch: “two and forty” just doesn’t work.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Juliet takes the potion sometime between 7pm on Tuesday and 2am on Wednesday, as our “near night”/”three o’clock” timeframe allows. If that’s the case, here’s what the wake-up times for a forty-two hour potion would be:
|Take Potion||Wake Up|
If Juliet awakens at some short time before “this morning” (V.iii.305), then none of these times work. If, however, we use twenty-four hours for the potion’s duration, then we get these times:
|Take Potion||Wake Up|
As we can see, a 2am potion-taking would result in a 2am wake-up, perfectly in line with the events at the end of the play.
though we do have the pesky use of the Chief Watchman’s statement that Juliet “hath lain this two days buried” (V.iii.177)… though those two days could be yesterday and today, I suppose…
So if we go by my Jack Bauer supposition (24, get it?), we have the ending of the play taking place early Thursday morning, less than 100 hours after the start of our play.
It’s fundamental to the play. Think of all the actions affected by (good or) bad timing:
- Romeo barely misses the fray at the beginning of the play
- Romeo and Benvolio run into the Capulet servant with the invitation list
- Tybalt happens to be next to Romeo when he first sees Juliet at the party
- Romeo sees Juliet at the party
- Romeo meets Benvolio and Mercutio just as Tybalt is arriving
- Capulet’s decision to marry Juliet to Paris on Thursday prompts the Friar’s potion plan
- Friar John seeks help from another friar just as the plague police are searching the house (negating his ability to deliver the note to Romeo)
- Balthasar just happens to see Juliet’s body laid into the Capulet tomb
- Paris is at the tomb when Romeo arrives
- Romeo arrives too early … Juliet is waking (she no longer looks dead, as there “is crimson in [her] lips, and in [her] cheeks” [V.iii.95]), but she is not yet awake
- Romeo takes the poison just before Friar Laurence can arrive and stop him (Friar Laurence himself says that he has taken longer than usual to get there: “how oft tonight // Have my old feet stumbled at graves?” [V.iii.121-122])
- Juliet awakes after Romeo is dead, thus prompting her suicide
If the play wasn’t about time, then these would all seem contrived, as overly written coincidences. But with time as our overall guiding principle, these now seem inevitable, as fated, as “star-crossed” (1Chorus, 6).