Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 4
From Romeo and Juliet. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.
*Line numbers have been adjusted.
Stage Direction. Maskers, men wearing masks and prepared to take part in a masquerade, i.e. an assembly of maskers or
buffoons, not the same as masque.
1. this speech, which they had prepared; see note on 1. 3.
2. Or shall we on, or shall we go forward, on to the house.
3. The date ... prolixity. "In Henry VIII, when the king introduces himself to the entertainment given by Wolsey, he appears, like Romeo and his companions, in a mask, and sends a messenger before him to make an apology for his intrusion.
This was a custom observed by those who came uninvited, with
a desire to conceal themselves for the sake of intrigue, or to
enjoy the greater freedom of conversation. Their entry on these occasions was always prefaced by some speech in praise of the
beauty of the ladies or the generosity of the entertainer; and to
the prolixity of such introductions allusion is here made. So, in
Histriomastix, 1610, a man wonders why the maskers enter without any compliment: 'What come they in so blunt, without
device? Of the same kind of masquerading, see a specimen in
Timon [i. 2. 121, et seqq.], where Cupid precedes a troop of ladies
with a speech" (Steevens).
4. hoodwinked with a scarf, with his eyes blinded with a scarf; to 'hoodwink' is to blind the eyes by covering the head
with a hood, as hawks were blinded, until the moment arrived for flying them at their prey, by a hood drawn over their eyes;
the word is used figuratively in Macb. iv. 3. 72, "the time you may so hoodwink"; and Cymb. v. 2. 16, Temp. iv. 1. 206. The
object here is of course to symbolize Cupid's blindness.
5. Bearing ... lath. "The Tartarian bows, as well as most of
those used by the Asiatic nations, resembled in their form the old
Roman or Cupid's bow, such as we see on medals and bas-reliefs.
Shakespeare used the epithet to distinguish it from the English
bow, whose shape [when bent] is the segment of a circle" (Douce);
painted ... lath, not a real bow made of yew, but a painted imitation made of a slip of such wood as is used for toys.
6. like a crow-keeper, as a crow-keeper scares crows; a crow-
keeper is a boy employed to scare birds from the crops, of
which crows are supposed to be the greatest enemies; but the
word is also used of a stuffed figure, made of sticks with an old
coat covering it, and sometimes armed with a bow; in this passage, as Nares points out, such a figure is clearly meant.
7, 8. Nor no ... entrance, nor any halting prologue, indistinctly
delivered as the actor follows the prompter reading from the
book at the wings of the stage, to gain admission for us. For
the emphatic double negative, see Abb. § 406. Ulrici supposes a
without-book prologue to be a prologue not in the book — that is,
not composed by the poet; but this seems a forced meaning, and
probably nothing more is meant than a contrast between prologues read out from the book and those delivered from memory:
entrance, a trisyllable ent(e)rance; see Abb. § 477.
9. But let them ... will, but, let them judge of us as they
please, take our measure by whatever standard they choose.
10. We'll measure ... gone, we will just go through a dance
with them and then depart; a measure, though used for dancing
to music generally, was especially applied to a slow, stately,
dance resembling the later minuet: them, for them, for their
behalf, but probably used here to correspond with measure us in
the previous line. On what is commonly called the ethical
dative, see Abb. § 220.
11. Give me a torch, let me play the part of torch-bearer: I
am not for, I am not inclined for, do not care to take part in: ambling, used contemptuously of an affected manner of movement; cp. Haml. iii. 1. 151, "you jig, you amble, and you lisp ... and make your wantonness your ignorance."
12. Being ... light, the same pun as in i. 1. 164.
13. we must ... dance, we shall not be contented unless you
15. nimble, light, and so enabling the wearers to be nimble,
active: soul, of course with the sorry pun which Shakespeare
has again in M. V. iv. 1. 123, J. C. i. 1. 15.
16. So stakes me, ... move, which so pins me down that I
cannot move; for the omission of the relative, see Abb. § 244.
18. above ... bound, to a height to which without them you
could not leap.
19. enpierced, pierced in my heart; see Abb. § 440.
20. and so bound, and with that restraint, pinned down as I
am by his shafts; of course for the sake of the quibble. Steevens
quotes a similar quibble in Paradise Lost iv. 18, though there
the substantive means boundary, limit.
21. bound a pitch above, soar above. Taken in connection
with the previous line, pitch is probably used in the technical
sense of the height to which a falcon towers; for that sense used
figuratively, as here, cp. R. II. i. 1. 109, "How high a pitch his
resolution soars"; J. C. i. 1. 78, "Will make him fly an ordinary pitch"; dull, heavy, laden.
29. a case, a mask.
30, 1. A visor ... deformities, a fig for masks! I care nothing
what prying eye examines the blemishes of my face, notes the
plainness of my face. A visor for a visor! apparently means, I
care not a jot, not the value of a mask, for the concealment of my
plainness which a visor affords: quote, cp. T. C. iv. 5. 233, "I
have with exact view perused thee, Hector, And quoted every
joint"; Haml. ii. 1. 112, "I am sorry that with better heed and
judgement I had not quoted him."
32. Here are ... me, if anything is to blush for me, it shall be these beetle-brows of mine, i.e. I'll face them all without being
in the least ashamed of myself: beetle-brows, probably heavy
and shaggy, bushy, brows: the etymology is doubtful, but "it is
probable ... that the comparison is to the short tufted antennae of
some species of beetles, projecting at right angles to the head,
which might have been called 'eyebrows' in Eng. as well as in
Fr.; for the expression sourcils de hanneton 'cockchafers' eyebrows' is the name given to a species of fringe made in
imitation to the antennae of these insects" (Murray, Eng. Dict.).
33, 4. and no sooner ... legs, and let us all, as soon as we
enter, engage in the dance; i. e. so as more easily to escape
36. Tickle ... heels, caper about in the dance; senseless, without feeling, which may be tickled without objecting to it, but
also with an allusion to the empty-headedness of the wantons
themselves. In the days before carpets, it was customary to
strew the floors with rushes.
37. For I am ... phrase, for I am fortified against such
frivolities by an old-world proverb which suits my frame of mind. The
grandsire phrase is apparently that of the following line, of
which Steevens gives an illustration from Ray's Proverbs, "A
good candle-holder," i.e. spectator, "proves a good gamester."
Some commentators include the next line also, while Malone
refers the phrase to that line alone. Milton uses "proverbed"
as = 'made a byword of,' S. A. 203, "Am I not sung and proverbed for a fool In every street."
39. The game ... done. Malone says the proverb "Our sport
is at the best" (see below i. 5. 117) meant 'we have had enough
of it'; Ritson that the allusion is to "a proverbial saying which
advises to give over when the game is at the best"; though how
this would apply to Romeo's state of mind, it is not easy to see.
Possibly the meaning is 'The game (i.e. dancing) was never one
I much cared for, and I am not going to argue the point further.'
40. Tut, dun's the mouse ... word, nonsense! what have you to
do with the word dun (done)? It comes very well from the lips
of a constable in his favourite phrase, but not from a fine fellow
like you. What precise meaning the phrase had has not been
discovered, though there is of course a reference to the colour of
the mouse, and the same quibble with done is found in many old
writers. Nor is it clearer why the monopoly should belong to
the constable. Malone, indeed, supposes it to have meant
"Peace, be still!" but the passage he quotes seems to prove
41. 2. If thou art dun ... love. "Dun is in the mire is a Christmas gambol, at which I have often played. A log of wood is
brought into the midst of the room : this is Dun (the cart-horse),
and a cry is raised that he is stuck in the mire. Two of the company advance, either with or without ropes, to draw him out.
After repeated attempts, they find themsehes unable to do it,
and call for more assistance. The game continues till all the
company take part in it, when Dun is extricated of course; and
the merriment arises from the awkward and affected efforts of the
rustics to lift the log, and from sundry arch contrivances to let
the ends of it fall on one another's toes. This will not be thought
a very exquisite amusement; and yet I have seen much honest
mirth at it" (Gifford). The saying, which was also the name of
a tune, was a very old one, and Douce quotes it from the
Manciple's prologue in Chaucer, 1. 4: this sir-reverence love, this
dung-heap, love. The term sir-reverence is a corruption of 'save
reverence,' Lat. salva reverentia, an apologetical expression for the
use of anything indelicate, and later on "in one instance became
the substitute for the word which it originally introduced; as 'I
trod in a sa reverence' — dropping the real name of the thing" (Nares).
43. we burn daylight, we are wasting time; originally used of
burning candles by daylight, as Mercutio explains in answer to
Romeo's literal acceptation of the words.
46. light lights. The quartos, except the first, give "lights
lights by day." I have followed Daniel in adopting Nicholson's
easy and most satisfactory emendation.
47, 8. Take our good meaning ... wits, take our words as they
were meant, for it is in that meaning that our good sense show itself much oftener
than in the use of our five wits; if our words
are strictly taken, they are often misunderstood. The five wits
were common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation (i.e. judgment), and memory; though the phrase was sometimes used as
an equivalent to the five senses.
49. mask, masquerade, masked ball; not a masked entertainment such as that in the Tempest, iv. 1, or Milton's Comus.
57. Queen Mab. The origin of the name Mab is uncertain, and
Shakespeare, according to Thoms, is apparently the earliest
writer to give her the title of queen. He mentions that Beaufort,
in his Antient Topography of Ireland, speaks of Mabh as the
chief of the Irish fairies, and adds that the word Mab is Celtic,
meaning both in Welsh, and in the kindred dialects of Brittany,
a child or infant, "and it would be difficult to find an epithet
that better befits Shakespeare's description of the dwarf-like
sovereign." If Shakespeare was the first to apply the designation of Fairy Queen to Mab, that designation seems to have been
a well-recognized one, for Jonson in his Satyr, written in 1603,
speaks of "a bevy of Fairies, attending on Mab their queen."
[Please click here for more on Queen Mab.]
58. the fairies' midwife, the fairy whose "department it was to
deliver the fancies of sleeping men of their dreams, those children
of an idle brain" (Steevens); see 1. 94, below.
59. In shape ... agate-stone, in size no bigger than the small
figures engraved, or cut in relief, on agate stones set in rings.
Shakespeare again refers to these figures as symbols of diminutiveness, in M. A. iii. 1. 65, where Beatrice is said to compare a tall
man to "a lance ill-headed" and a short one to "an agate vilely
cut"; while in ii. H. IV. i. 2. 19, Falstaff, speaking of his page,
says "I was never manned with an agate till now."
60. On the ... alderman. In the first quarto for alderman we
have burgomaster, the Dutch equivalent of our mayor, and
Steevens points out that in the old pictures of these dignitaries
the ring is generally placed on the fore-finger, whereas in England
it appears to have been more commonly worn on the thumb.
61. atomies, only another form of atoms, the Lat. pl. of
atomus, atomi, being treated as an English singular; literally
something so small as to be incapable of division; cp. A. Y. L.
iii. 2. 245, "It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover."
63. long-spinners' legs, what children call a 'daddy-long-legs,'
but different from the common spider; cp. M. N. D. ii. 2. 21,
"Hence, you long-legged spinners, hence!"
64. cover, awning, hood.
65. traces, that by which the vehicle is drawn.
68. grey-coated gnat, what Milton, Lycidas, 28, calls the
"gray-fly," either the trumpet-fly, or possibly the cricket.
70. Prick'd ... maid, taken out with a needle from the finger of a
lazy maid. It was of old popularly believed that small parasites
were sometimes harboured in the flesh of the fingers of lazy persons. Nares quotes Beaumont and Fletcher, The Woman Hater,
iii. 1. 111, 2, "Keep thy hands in thy muff and warm the idle
Worms in thy fingers' ends."
71-3. Her chariot ... coachmakers. Lettsom would place these
lines after 1. 58, as "it is preposterous to speak of the parts of a
chariot before mentioning the chariot itself": joiner, carpenter,
grub, worm; the squirrel and the grub, because the former is
fond of cracking nuts, and the latter of boring its way through
the shell, both eating the kernel and so hollowing out the shell
which thereby becomes fitted for a coach for fairies.
73. Time out o' mind, from time immemorial.
74. in this state, with this pomp and splendour.
76. court'sies, bowing and cringing in the presence of those
whose favour they seek to win.
76. straight, straightway, immediately.
80. Because ... are, allusions to the sweatmeats eaten by ladies
to sweeten the breath are very common in the old dramatists,
and one of the names given to them was "kissing-comfits," as in
M. W. v. 5. 22.
82. smelling out a suit, scenting out some appointment, office,
etc., for which he might become a suitor to the king, or to those
high in his favour. As courtiers have already been mentioned,
it has been proposed to substitute 'counsellor's' here.
83. tithe-pig, a pig given to a priest in payment of tithes, or
tenth parts of the parishioner's annual income.
85. another benefice, i.e. an increase to his income by his being
presented with a richer living, better church preferment, or
perhaps a living in addition to that already held by him, it
being common in those days for priests to hold more than one
living at a time.
88. Spanish blades. The toledo, a sword made at Toledo, in
Spain, was in high favour formerly, the steel of the blade being
of great excellence and finely tempered.
89. Of healths ... deep,... of cups
which no thirst could drain dry; the pledges drunk to the health
of friends, mistresses, etc., are put for the cup from which they
90. Drums in his ears, he dreams that the signal for battle has
been sounded by the drums, and he must up and arm.
91. swears a prayer or two, his vocabulary is so largely made
up of oaths that even when in his alarm he tries to remember a
prayer, he cannot do so without an admixture of blasphemy; cp.
A. Y. L. ii. 7. 150, "Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and
bearded like the pard."
92. And sleeps again. Cp. Macb. ii. 2. 22-5, where, during the
murder of Duncan, the sleeping chamberlains start up in their
sleep, "There's one did laugh in's sleep, and one cried 'Murder': I stood and heard them; But they did say their prayers,
and address'd them Again to sleep."
93. That plats ... night. "It was believed that certain malignant spirits ... assumed occasionally the likeness of women clothed
in white; that in this character they sometimes haunted stables
in the night-time, carrying in their hands tapers of wax, which
they dropped on the horses' manes, thereby plaiting them in
inextricable knots" ... (Douce).
94. And bakes ... hairs, and causes the hair of those who are
uncleanly in person to become caked in elf knots; the reference
is said to be to a horrid disease called plica polonica, in which the
hair became injected with blood, an infliction superstitiously
attributed to the malice of wicked elves. See next note, and cp.
Lear, ii. 3. 10, "my face I'll grime with filth; Blanket my
loins; and elf my hair in knots." For baked = caked, clotted,
cp. Haml. ii. 2. 481, "horridly trick'd With blood of fathers,
mothers, daughters, sons, Baked and impasted with the parching
streets." Queen Mab's hatred of sluttishness is again referred
to in M. W. V. 5. 50, "Elves, list your names; silence, you airy
boys. Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap: Where fires
thou find'st unraked and hearths unswept, There pinch the maids
as blue as bilberry: Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery";
a passage which Jouson has imitated in his Satyr, 34-7, where,
speaking of "Mab, the mistress Fairy," he says, "She that
pinches country wenches, If they rub not clean their benches,
And with sharper nails remembers When they rake not up their
95. Which once ... bodes, the disentangling of which forebodes,
etc. The nominative to bodes is the adjectival clause Which
untangled; so the noun clause in Haml. iii. 1. 182, "Whereon
his brains still beating puts him thus From fashion of himself,"
i.e. the beating of his brains puts; A. C. i. 2. 115, "our ills told
us Is as our earing," i.e. the telling of our ills is, etc. Why the
disentanglement should have this effect is not clear, unless it is
that it would further provoke the malice of Mab at seeing her
work undone. On this subject of "elf-locks" and the "entangling" or the "untangling" there has in recent years been
much controversy. Daniel, in the revised edition of our play,
published by the New Shakspere Society, prefers "entangled,"
believing the entanglement, not the disentanglement, to be inauspicious.
W. G. Black, in Notes and Queries, 5th Series, xi.
22, quotes a passage from Sir T. Overburie's Vision, 1616, which
perhaps bears out Daniel's contention; and W. G. Stone, in the
same journal, xi. 205, quotes from Turner's Remarkable Providence, 1697, a further passage in support of the same view.
"'Pride of Hair was punished,' saith Dr. Bolton, 'at first with an ugly Intanglement, sometime in the form of a great Snake,
sometime of many little ones, full of Nastiness, Vermin, and
noisome Smell; and that which is most to be admired, and never
Age saw before, pricked with a Needle, they yielded bloody
drops. This first began in Poland, afterwards entered into
Germany; and all that then cut off his horrible snaky Hair,
either lost their Eyes, or the Humour falling down upon other
Parts tortured them extremely '..." Brinsley Nicholson remarks
that "while a felting or inextricable interlacing of the hair — a
result of neglect and want of cleanliness — was doubtless known in England (a state called by Dr. Copland 'false plica'), there is
not, so far as I am aware, any recorded instance of the occurrence
of the true plica polonica in England so early as Shakespeare's
time." J. W. Legg says that if there is an allusion here to the
plica polonica, "it is absolutely necessary to accept the early
reading 'untangled.' If we accept 'entangled' as the reading,
then we must reject any allusion under the name of 'elf-locks'
to the plica: for the entanglement of the plica boded no misfortune; it was a piece of great good fortune, which lasted for ever
if the hair did not become untangled."
101. Thou talk'st of nothing, your talk is all nonsense.
104. fantasy, fancy; of which it is the older form.
105. of substance, as regards substance; in the matter of substance.
106. wooes, with the hope of softening it.
107, 8. Even now ... And, at one moment ... and at the next.
109. dew-dropping south, so Cymb. iv. 2. 34-9, "the spongy
south"; and of the south wind, A. Y. L. iii. 5. 50, "Like foggy
south puffing with wind and rain."
110. This wind ... ourselves, this inconstancy, in which we
resemble the wind, diverts us from our purpose, is hindering us
from joining the festivities.
112. misgives, forebodes; more commonly with the reflexive
113. yet ... stars, as yet impending in the stars that govern
our fates, not yet fallen, but threatening to do so.
114. shall bitterly ... date, is surely about to start on that
cruel course which shall end so fatally. Cp. below, ii. 2. 117.
115. expire, for other instances of intransitive verbs used
transitively see Abb. § 291.
116, 7. Of a despised ... death, of my unfortunate life prematurely paying the penalty of an undeserved death; despised,
held of no account by the powers above; not thought worthy of
being allowed the ordinary span.
119. lusty gentlemen, my brave fellows.
120. strike, drum, said to the attendant bearing the drum,
which gives the signal for resuming the march of the procession.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeo_1_4.html >.
Cotter, Henry James. Shakespeare's Art. London: Robert Clarke Co., 1902.
"Mercutio never forgot that "man is the only animal that laughs." "Laugh, and the world
laughs with you," wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a line that she can not better in its truth; and so Romeo and Benvolio ever enjoyed the wit that was unlike most wit, unkind to none but self, -- bright as the sword of Tybalt, without its sharpness or its cruelty. He is the Cervantes of the Drama, aiming his bright shafts at the ridiculous character of duelling and its causes, for his honor "will quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but be
cause he has hazel eyes." Mercutio's heart, ever sensitive to the concerns of his friends, would, by underrating, fain undo their cares. He becomes a "grave man" when Romeo's life no longer had a summer sky wherein his wit
might sparkle." (James Henry Cotter. Shakespeare's Art. p. 86)
Notes on Queen Mab... Mercutio jests with Romeo, musing that Mab, the bringer of dreams, has visited his lovesick friend. At the beginning of Mercutio's speech Mab seems a whimsical creation, much like the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But we soon realize that Mercutio's Queen Mab is a malevolent hag. Please click here to learn more about Queen Mab and read a paraphrase of Mercutio's speech in plain English.
An Example of Tragic Irony... The audience watching Romeo and Juliet knows from the Prologue that the lovers will die, but neither character is aware of his or her fate. This makes the passing references to death spoken by the lovers all the more shocking to the audience. Read on...