Ask anyone who has ever played Lord or Lady Capulet, and especially any Nurse, to name their least favorite scene, and they’ll tell you it’s the Weeping and Wailing scene.
(Aside – actors almost always use short-hand when referring to a scene. R&J has the Opening Brawl, the Boys, First Juliet, Mab, the Party, Post-Party, Balcony, Friar, the Street Scene, Return of the Nurse, the Wedding, Mercutio-Tybalt, Romeo-Tybalt, the Quartet, the Engagement, the Morning After scene, Family Dysfunction, the Cell, the Potion, Weeping and Wailing, Mantua, and the Vault. I think there are only four or five scenes that don’t merit their own title)
The Weeping and Wailing scene is where Juliet’s drunk the potion, and everyone loses their minds, thinking she's dead.
I’ve long had a pet peeve about this scene, but it was my wife who really figured it out. Both of us come at it from the same place, and it’s the same thing that drives us both crazy. Most directors miss this. They forget one simple, true fact:
She’s not dead yet.
At the moment that her family discovers her, Juliet is in fact alive and well. Everything is going according to plan. Again, it’s the same plan from Much Ado – we’ll pretend she’s dead and everything will be all right.
So the family’s grief seems utterly out of place. The Friar knows she’s not dead. The audience knows she’s not dead. So why do we have to go through the motions of grief.
It was Jan who noted how badly written the grief in this scene is. Don’t get me wrong, Shakespeare can write grief:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Or even later in R&J, Lady Capulet says:
O me! this sight of death is as a bell,
That warns my old age to a sepulchre.
Shakespeare’s grief is often like this – brief. As if the speaker lacks the words. Whereas the grief in the Weeping and Wailing scene is hardly brief:
Come, is the bride ready to go to church?
Ready to go, but never to return.
O son! the night before thy wedding-day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded: I will die,
And leave him all; life, living, all is Death’s.
Have I thought long to see this morning’s face,
And doth it give me such a sight as this?
Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day!
Most miserable hour that e’er time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage!
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catch’d it from my sight!
O woe! O woful, woful, woful day!
Most lamentable day, most woful day,
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woful day, O woful day!
Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain!
Most detestable death, by thee beguil’d,
By cruel cruel thee quite overthrown!
O love! O life! not life, but love in death!
Despised, distressed, hated, martyr’d, kill’d!
Uncomfortable Time, why camest thou now
To murder, murder our solemnity?
O child! O child! my soul, and not my child!
Dead art thou! Alack! my child is dead;
And with my child my joys are buried.
Look at those exclamation points. Look at those ecphonetic Os. This is not subtle grief. These are not the heart-breaking words that rend the soul of the hearer. Rather, this is Italian opera.
Instead of giving each speech time to unfold, take all those speeches and overlap them. Let the characters embrace their Italianness. And suddenly the audience is laughing. As they should be! Because at the moment, everything is working.
This was my wife’s idea, playing off of my love for the end of the scene. Because it’s the end that convinces me the whole thing is supposed to be funny. How do I know that? Thanks to the musicians who enter with Paris.
(Second aside – I feel really bad for Paris. He’d be the hero of any other play. He’s a good guy, and his story arc is just awful – fall for girl, ask girl’s dad to marry her, dance with girl, get permission from dad, see girl at church, go to marry her and find her dead, take flowers to her tomb and get killed. There is nothing wrong with Paris. Hell, in an earlier version of the story Juliet is turned off by him because he has cold hands when they dance. Jilted for poor circulation. Just like everybody else, he’d simply star-cross’d)
Back to the end of the scene. Everybody leaves, except for the Nurse, the servant Peter, and the two musicians, who have the following exchange:
Faith, we may put up our pipes, and be gone.
Honest goodfellows, ah, put up, put up; for, well you know, this is a pitiful case.
Ay, by my troth, the case may be amended.
Musicians, O, musicians, ‘Heart’s ease, Heart’s ease:’ O, an you will have me live, play ‘Heart’s ease.’
Why ‘Heart’s ease?’
O, musicians, because my heart itself plays ‘My heart is full of woe:’ O, play me some merry dump, to comfort me.
Not a dump we; ‘tis no time to play now.
You will not, then?
I will then give it you soundly.
What will you give us?
No money, on my faith, but the gleek; I will give you the minstrel.
Then I will give you the serving-creature.
Then will I lay the serving-creature’s dagger on your pate. I will carry no crotchets: I’ll re you, I’ll fa you; do you note me?
An you re us and fa us, you note us.
Pray you, put up your dagger, and put out your wit.
Then have at you with my wit! I will dry-beat you with an iron wit, and put up my iron dagger. Answer me like men: ‘When griping grief the heart doth wound, And doleful dumps the mind oppress, Then music with her silver sound’-- why ‘silver sound’? why ‘music with her silver sound’? What say you, Simon Catling?
Marry, sir, because silver hath a sweet sound.
Pretty! What say you, Hugh Rebeck?
I say ‘silver sound,’ because musicians sound for silver.
Pretty too! What say you, James Soundpost?
Faith, I know not what to say.
O, I cry you mercy; you are the singer: I will say for you. It is ‘music with her silver sound,’ because musicians have no gold for sounding: ‘Then music with her silver sound with speedy help doth lend redress.’
What a pestilent knave is this same!
Hang him, Jack! Come, we’ll in here; tarry for the mourners, and stay dinner.
They're joking! They're making light, as servants are wont to, of Tragedy. Only the audience knows this is no Tragedy, because she's not dead. If all goes according to plan, she'll awaken in Romeo's arms. And she does, which is where the real Tragedy lies. If we spend all our grief and passion here, then what is the end of the play about? No, this isn't about real grief, but displays of grief. Because we still have honest grief to come.
Shakespeare wanted us laughing at the end of this scene. And I tend to trust his instincts.