‘For in a minute there are many days’: Elastic Time in Romeo and Juliet
How long is Romeo and Juliet? If we can trust the prologue we are told that the play occupies ‘the two hours’ traffic of our stage’. That may be the running time of the play, but how long does it take from Romeo and Juliet’s perspective? Incredibly, the entire action takes place in less than four days. We meet the lovesick Romeo on a Sunday morning, pining over Rosaline. By that evening he has fallen for Juliet at the Capulets’ feast, they are married on Monday afternoon (which is fast even by Vegas standards) and both lovers are dead by dawn on Thursday morning. In Shakespeare’s source material the relationship develops over months, but here the frenetic pace of the action carries the play towards its inevitable conclusion. So I think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare’s play is fairly fast-paced.
And Shakespeare is keen to remind his audience that time is slipping by. Characters are constantly telling each other what time it is: Benvolio informs Romeo that it is ‘but new struck nine’, Juliet complains of her nurse’s delay, ‘In half an hour she promised to return’, and Mercutio uses the time as an excuse for a rude pun on ‘the prick of noon’. The quick pace of the action is intimately linked with the youth and vigour of the main characters. After all, ‘quick’ in Shakespeare’s time meant both ‘fast’ and ‘lively’. Time is crucial to the plotting of Romeo and Juliet: for example, the length Juliet will remain under the effects of Friar Laurence’s potion (‘two-and-forty hours’), and the timing of the letter the friar sends to Romeo. The whole play is wound so tight, like an alarm clock waiting to go off. So look out for how often time is mentioned by characters, and what they have to say about it.
But time does not obey the laws of physics in Shakespeare’s play. When Romeo tells Juliet to send him word by the hour of nine, Juliet replies, ‘’Tis twenty years til then’. Young love is impatient and impetuous, and the pair cannot wait for their future, like Juliet on her wedding night saying, ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’. But when the two have to part, after Romeo has been banished to Mantua, time takes on a very different appearance. It becomes sluggish and slowed-down in the absence of the beloved: ‘For in a minute there are many days’. This alternating between fast and slow makes time incredibly elastic in this play.
Ultimately, the young lovers are overtaken by the circumstances around them, as here too time has a key role to play. Think about how close we come in that final scene to a happy ending: Juliet is due to wake up at any moment, and then she can stop Romeo from taking his own life. And what are the words Romeo uses to describe taking the poison? ‘O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick’. As Romeo dies on a kiss, Friar Laurence arrives on the scene moments too late to stop him. It’s as if Shakespeare is toying with his audience at this point. Friar Laurence even insists that it’s all down to a lack of timing: ‘But when I came, some minute ere the time of her awakening, here untimely lay the noble Paris and true Romeo dead’. Shakespeare knew a lot about pace and timing through his own time in the theatre, with different time-scales being used for comedy and tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare almost appears to be saying that a lack of comic timing can turn to tragedy. In what other ways is this play a tragedy that flirts with comedy?