What Exactly Is A Collier?

When I speak of the opening to Romeo and Juliet I tend to jump right into the entrance of the Montagues, and the subsequent thumb biting.  The opening lines to me have always been simple word play intended to do little more than calm the audience down and let them know the play’s starting.  I get that they are punning off of each other, and if it’s a competition, it seems like Gregory wins (the person who goes second in such a contest usually does).  So, what is “carry coals” supposed to mean, and why is it important for Sampson to say it?  It sounds roughly like “We’re nobody’s bitches”, pardon my language.  But that’s what it sounds like, like some young kid strutting around with nobody to bully so he tells his friend “Hey, we don’t take no crap from no one,” like his friend needs to be told that. Well, then we’d be colliers – but what’s that mean? “If we be in choler we’ll draw” seems straightforward enough — piss me off (choler==anger), and I’ll draw my sword. “Draw your neck out of the collar” — keep out of trouble, stay out of the hangman’s noose / guillotine?  Would such a reference be accurate for Shakespeare, or is that a miss? “I strike quickly, being moved.”  – Sampson gives up on the punning there, apparently, and starts over with more of the “I don’t take crap from nobody” stuff. Gregory plays up on the passive voice – “But thou art not quickly moved to strike” sounds suspiciously like “You’re too chicken to take the first swing.” “A dog of the house of Montague moves me” — (thanks for the Montague reference!) “To move is to stir, to be valiant is to stand, therefore if thou art moved, thou runn’st away”  – does anybody else get the feeling that Gregory is not evenly matched in this battle of wits? … and then it gets into the whole “maidenhead” discussion.  I could keep going but there seems a good place to break.  I’m mostly curious about those first two lines (and, well, whether I’ve grossly misinterpreted any of the others).

16 thoughts on “What Exactly Is A Collier?

  1. Brian Gibbons explains (The Arden Shakespeare) that “to carry coals” was “A current expression which meant ‘to submit to insult or humiliation'” and that “colliers” was “Proverbial not only for grime but for dishonesty.”
    Sampson is the straight man here and Gregory is the punster. Gregory keeps playing with the words and twisting the meanings and Sampson is doing the best he an to keep up. This is typical Shakespearean comedy, with one character outsmarting the other with words, although here it is a sort of “gentle raillery.” It seems to me you have caught the sense quite right.

  2. Where’s the sex?

    Pretty good as far as it goes – but don’t forget one of the beauties of the opening is the sexual innuendo – and there are a couple of points in what you’ve mentioned where one of the characters is suggesting ‘something’ the other doesn’t get (but the audience would – irony – which happens again latter in the play with Romeo: The scene also mirrors Mercutio and Romeo going to the party – which also results in a fight with Tybalt).

    There is nothing gentle in the exchange by the way – it is vicious and thuggish: Shakespeare is preparing the way for civil dispute, murder and suicide: There are pointers in the direction of what is love compared to lust – and the reference to colliers with its legal questioning hints (very slightly) at questions of the rule of law.

    Far from ‘settling down’ the audience, Shakespeare is preparing them – a satyr play in reverse (satyr plays were performed in Greek theatre at the end of the trilogy making crude sexual innuendo out of the major themes of the tragedy just performed).

  3. Alan, now you sound like one of those critics Duane was complaining about a few posts ago, seeing deep allusions in a simple opening exchange. I prefer to see a contast between this light, comical exchange and the viciousness that follows. I like Duane’s idea of setlling down the audience. As here, Shakespeare often opens a play in the middle af a dialog between two characters. It has the effect of catching the audience’s (or reader’s) attention.–Carl

  4. I don’t know, Carl, I think maybe I see Alan’s point to a degree. Taken to its extreme, the play has basically opened with somebody saying, for no real reason, “I’m looking for somebody’s ass to kick.” That’ll serve as both an attention getter and a harbinger of the violence to come (it comes in just a few lines, no less). Gregory meanwhile is ridiculing his friend, taking the wind of his sails at every line, and basically showing him to be a thug. Even when the Montagues arrive and Samson shows himself a coward (telling Gregory to go start trouble, and he’ll back him up), Gregory offers little more than “I will frown at them” – it is Samson who steps up to bite some thumb.

    That interpretation alone, though, could have made Gregory a Benvolio-like peacekeeper for the Capulets. But Gregory screws it all up when he says “Say better, here comes one of my master’s kinsmen”, which translates pretty directly to “There’s more of us now, so it’s ok to start something because we’ll win.” They both end up cowards.

  5. I agree completely with your analysis of what goes on, but I don’t think that changes the character of the opening exchange. Don’t put more into the words than is there. If I were to direct the scene, I would make Sampson petulant (not thuggish) and Gregory teasing (not vicious). They are both cowards, of course, but if you play the opening scene too seriously you lose the sense of their childishness as well. R&J is all about adults acting like children and the tragic consequences that result.

  6. Fair enough, we’ll make it a directorial choice. Does anybody know (or remember) where and how Luhrman starts the scene? I don’t have the movie handy. Seems like if anybody was going to go over the top on the violent aspects, it’d be that one.

    Saw a Hamlet once where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were basically portrayed as skinheads. During the “Where’s Polonius” interrogation, and I use that word on purpose, they’re beating the hell out of Hamlet at Claudius’ direction. Was a lot more violent than I’d ever seen them played. I distinctly remember them sticking his head in a bucket of water.

  7. I don’t have it handy either, but as I recall, Baz got the temperature right – he went for the Comedy. Romeo and Juliet is a Comedy that goes awry – first it makes you laugh, then it pulls the rug out from under you. So he starts the show with sex and violence (“push Montague’s men from the walland thrust his maids to the wall!” – yes, Alan, it’s mostly about sex). And seriously, these are young Italian men on a hot summer Sunday, they’re carrying swords in public – who isn’t expecting a scuffle?
    The fact that this is the third of the recent brawls and no one has died yet shows that this is more about posturing and showing off than true venom. These guys aren’t looking for a fight – they’re looking to show off, and paint themselves into a corner where they have to fight. Really, the cause is ridiculous, and they know it.
    As far as colliers, unless they’re literally carrying coals, it’s best to give them some menial job for their master to resent, or else put them in some laughable position that irks their pride. It’s the intent more than the literal meaning that spurs them on. (And I am a huge fan of literal meanings).

  8. The play starts with a prologue (no need to settle the audience after that): The prologue introduces the idea of death and destruction (no gentle comedy there): Then two ‘comic’ servants come on – there is certainly comedy, but it is not gentle.
    They are in the middle of a conversation – Sampson seems to be continuing a discussion about ‘what if we meet the Capulets … hence his line which clearly means we will not put up with any insults (although the only evidence I’ve found that that is the meaning is circular – it is the usage in this play that makes it mean that).
    The word coals could well have other conertations – and does not necessarily mean the black substance (it could be the coals at left after the fire has burnt down – all the grey dust, and hot ashes) – although it is quickly turned in to that by the reference to collier – clearly the person who delivers the black substance and gets covered in coal dust.
    So far we have fighting and dirt – then we get hanging (and a hand gesture – suggesting something thin in the neck of something – death and sex: The ‘end of sex’ was frequently compared to death – he says while you live you draw your neck out of a collar – pull out at the end!).
    The speed of ideas and swiftness of images is violent – and just the sort of humour we assume the groundlings love …
    It also means the ‘strike quickly’ unwittingly suggests premature ejaculation.
    The not being quickly moved suggests sexual as well as physical cowardice and the word ‘dog’ was used in Shakespeare’s time as both an insult and reference to women (much as ‘bitch’ is).

    You certainly could ‘take out’ the double meaning and make this gentle – or never let the kids you teach it to note it’s there (seen far too much of that in my time) – but Shakespeare is making a point about the carnal, physical nature of sex, its connection to violence in contrast to ‘love’ and giving the crowd the sort of dirty joke loved in all testosterone driven male groups (decline to comment on the female version).

    Last time I directed it I started the prologue with Elizabethan music – gentle lute, etc – then went for Queen’s ‘We will Rock you’ .. kicking my can all over the place … it worked nicely (pre-Luhman by the way – who makes the servants more like friends of Romeo than servants, puts them in a car, and has them ‘cruising’ for girls and trouble).

    Comical yes; gentle ? – not the way I see it.

    (Rant over)

  9. Also keep forgetting to mention – origin of collier is in ‘charcoal’ – and charcoal making rather than the modern stuff we call coal – Shakespeare would have known charcoal ‘colliers’ in the woods and forests around his home in Stratford.
    It is a very dirty job.

  10. The reference the Arden gives to carrying coals meaning “to submit to insults” is not circular, it is to Nashe’s “Have With You.” Good point though, Alan, about the Prolog opening the play. I agree, of course, about the double entendres (Shakespeare loved them), but still respectfully disagree about the violence of the opening. Editorial choice, as Duane says.

  11. The only trouble with the Nashe is it is after Romeo and Juliet – and if you’ve ever read it is suspiciously similar in a couple of places – fig references too.

  12. Check out Tilley’s “Proverbs”–there are earlier ones. And even later references are not irrelevent–they still show that the phrase was “current.’

  13. This is really unhelpful, it doesn’t actually tell us what a collier is, it just describes/translates the opening of Romeo and Juliet.

  14. Actually, Anonymous, Catkins defines collier twice in his first two posts:

    “..and that “colliers” was “Proverbial not only for grime but for dishonesty.”


    “By the way, of course, the common sense of collier is “one who digs for or sells coals.”

    1. Collier=not just grimy but N-word!!!!

      Poor People who dig and carry and deliver coals get black with coal dust sure, but it’s double meaning class and race slam by relatively privileged valets/squires of highly privileged noble dudebros.

      Hence thus is exhibit 7 zillion of the steaming shitpile that is No Fear Shakespeare—Spark Notes “Modern English translation”.

      Which mostly just turns the eloquent hilarious double and triple meaning poetry into the most awkward and boring machine like English with one meaning that is usually a weak option and often catastrophically wrong.

      But rarely get uber excited when they think they have figured out a sole meaning metaphor and can turn it into hey man slang or clever pun that isn’t just grating to the ear but even more wrong.

      In this case “We won’t take out their trash—then we’d be garbage men.” Hardy har har.

      Or a zillion times worse.

      Like their utter fail on Shakespeare’s version of “Two can keep a secret —if one of them is dead”:

      Nurse to Romeo, after sending his servant Peter off to start the “Help Juliet sneak out for secret marriage” plan—

      “Is your man secret? Have you ne’er heard say: Two may keep counsel, putting one away.”

      Illiterate idiot version:

      “Can your man keep a secret? Haven’t you ever heard the saying: Two can conspire to put one away.”

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