Oh,When I Shall *Die*! Now I Get It!

Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare Wars continues to be the most serendipitous book I’ve ever read.  By that I mean that I’m never quite sure when I’ll turn the page into a new chapter and he’ll be talking about something I was just talking about two days ago. In this case it’s the “When I shall die” line (as opposed to “When he shall die”) that we talked about last month.  Certainly it’s supposed to be “Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die, cut him out in little stars….” rather than the version Luhrman gives us, “When I shall die, cut him out in little stars….” After all, if he’s not dead, why are you cutting him up?  Oddly, though, my googling showed that most Shakespeare versions do in fact have it as I, not he. Rosenbaum gets to this near the end of his book, speaking of a trip to Bermuda. He even points out that most editors do indeed go with the “he” version (which is apparently Fourth Quarto) because the “I” version makes no sense. And what Rosenbaum offers (not his own hypothesis, but rather one he heard, though I do not have the book handy to quote the original author) immediately makes sense to me, I’m just not sure if I love or hate it.  He goes back to the more bawdy version of “die”, namely “orgasm”.  He says that Juliet, a mere 13 yrs old and not married, is to put it bluntly thinking about wedding sex, and how good it’s going to be.  You have to admit, if you make that little word translation, it still fits.  Now you’ve got an anxious young girl, in love but also certainly in lust, waiting for that big moment when … ummm….hmm, how can we say this and keep it clean?  Shall we say, when she gets to consummate her marriage?  It’s going to be so good, she tells herself, that all she’ll see are stars, and her Romeo.  (I’m not sure when all the rest of the world comes into it, though?) I love it because it works, pretty much.  It’s somewhat crude, it’s the sort of thing you don’t talk about when you talk about the story like it’s the greatest love story ever told, but sex is certainly a part of that type of love, and it’s certainly believable that a virginal bride-to-be is contemplating what it will be like.  (Now that I’ve seen that interpretation, other parts begin to fall into place –  “I have bought the mansion of a love, but not possessed it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed”???) I hate it because it destroys what I consider to be one of the most romantic lines in the entire play.  It’s an opportunity for Juliet to explain how much Romeo means to her.  Normally it’s the guy spouting all the poetry and the “You’re my world” stuff.  Sometimes it’s nice to hear it back the other way.  What would Juliet do without Romeo?  She would repaint the heavens in his image, and the rest of world would say, “Wow, yeah, we like that better.  Who is that guy?”  🙂   Thoughts?  Nobody mentioned the sex interpretation the first time we discussed that line, so I’m curious if it is a popular interpretation.

13 thoughts on “Oh,When I Shall *Die*! Now I Get It!

  1. Man, that line really gets to you, doesn’t it? I guess you can make the bawdy reading work, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch. There’s a lot of locker-room talk in Romeo, but it’s usually closer to the surface than that. I still prefer to emend “I” to “he”–or possibly, “a,” which might have made it an even easier mistake for a compositor to make (when a shall die–like Hamlet’s “a was a man, take him for all in all”).

    1. i understand that Shakespeare did not say Romeo’s age, and that is a question that has been often asked.. but to you all, what would be the age that you’d say that he has ?? i have always been in love with the idea of R&J true love, but by the comments that u all have been righting, I am confused, i understand that romeo was older than juliet because of he fact that in that time couples would marry at a very young age, but whats R&J had was it really true love ??? lets be realistic, yes at the time girls/women were very much mature than now a days, but can a 13 year old really find what i like to say “true love” ??? I love romance and i love R&J , but in the other hand they were just kids really they had theyre hole life ahead to find the true love.and if romeo is on his 20’s its just weird cause of differnce of age .

      but back to my question … to you all what would be the exact age that you’d say romeo has ??????????

  2. I could take it either way, I suppose–there are so many various versions of lines that at this point I find it more important to choose the one that fits your production choice rather than the “right” one (since we’ll never really know that).

    However, while “die” certainly did mean “orgasm,” in my experience of that usage in poetry (mostly John Donne’s & some Shakespeare) it referred exclusively to the MALE orgasm. Female orgasm wasn’t really known about at this point in time, or talked about. I don’t know how much the book you’re reading goes into this, but here’s what I know: each time a man orgasmed he spent “spirit” (aka seed, the life to be passed on to make the child–women didn’t make life, they just carried it; nobody knew about eggs yet). So each bit of spirit that he spent meant a little less life in him. So it was called “the little death.”
    Women didn’t get a little death, since they didn’t have any life to spend during intercourse.

    Given this, I would read Juliet’s line as he, or as craig mentioned, “a” which is easy to emend to I if you don’t know what pronoun it refers to.

    On the other hand, absolutely yes to the sexual reference in “though I am sold, not yet enjoyed.” That’s definite. I do think Juliet has poetry in her, by all means, but honestly she’s the more practical of the two–Romeo’s language is consistently flowery while hers is more problem-solving (it’s why I love her! :))

    (In reference to die as sexual, take a look at Mercutio’s lines…I know it’s in there all over, just can’t recall off the top of my head.)

  3. Well, like I said, it was more a coincidental thing. I spotted what I thought was a mistake, we talked about it, then a few weeks later I’m reading in a book about exactly that issue and possible interpretations. We spoke of Chimes At Midnight in a similar way. But Rosenbaum also did a lengthy section on Pacino’s Merchant which you probably never heard me speak of, because I have no real vested interest in that one.

    My dictionary tells me that “emend” clearly means “to improve by editing”, right? So you’re taking the position that the I interpretation is a plain old typo?

  4. “Women didn’t get a little death…”

    …and sometimes still don’t.

    Oh come on, somebody had to say it!


  5. Rosenbaum is quoting Alexander Legatt, but the idea that Juliet’s “die” refers to an orgasm is given by Brian Gibbons in the Arden edition of 1980 (25 years before Rosenbaum’s Bermuda trip). Excellent argument by Ren girl that this is a bit of a stretch and that the Fourth Quarto emendation to “hee” is a reasonable one.

  6. Ermmm – the ‘romantic’ 19th Century version fighting back?
    Romeo and Juliet is one of the ‘dirtiest’ of Shakespeare’s plays – intentionally so, I’d guess.
    The constant ‘lust vs love’ issue starts with the ‘death’ of the neck in a collar in the first lines.
    Our ‘isn’t the suicide beautiful’ interpretation is way out of sink with the ‘going to hell’ for self abuse of the Elizabethan audience (and the debate about it Shakespeare is provoking).
    Greer, (bbke)I’m sure, would have something to say about male scholarship’s suppression of the female sexual drives that Elizabethan England was less coy about.
    And Juliet was played by a male!

  7. Ha, Duane, I guess it had to be said (reminds me of my friends, who have a “that’s what SHE said” quote wall in their apartment).

    I agree, Alan– R&J is sometimes ridiculously bawdy. Actually mostly very bawdy. (Just look at that opening scene–everything refers to sex!)

    Honestly, I kind of like it that way–obviously there’s some gorgeous love poetry, and some of the moments between the two are just pure beauty; but I’d wager that most gorgeous love poetry was written to get into someone’s pants (has anyone else read John Donne? He’s a great example). Also I like the fact that it’s unabashedly lustful, because of course that’s going to be a huge part of this play–it’s young lovers discovering this heady attraction, and a good deal of that is based in the physical. It doesn’t make it any less amazing or wonderful or beautiful…unless you’re in the Victorian era. 🙂

  8. Great points Alan K. Farrar…took the words right 'outta my mouth. I find it interesting that there are so many who defend the work as if the blatant sexuality takes away from the majestic poetry that it is. It is all there, bawdy and beautiful….and there lies the genius.

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