I was fourteen, bespectacled and bookish, when I experienced my first kiss at the crosswalk outside my parish church, after attending the annual spring fair. To be truthful, I was caught by surprise.
Looking back on my teen years I remember feeling, quite often, as if the puzzle pieces of ‘Barbara Marie’ were not yet forming the coherent portrait. One of the pieces I found most puzzling was the whole “feminine wiles” thing. In a word, I was inept. Yes, compared to the girls I’d see very morning before the mirror in the ladies’ at my high school, girls who knew just what to do with mascara, blush, lipgloss, and a twist of the wrist with a curling iron, I was hopelessly inept.
Too, the chasm between fourteen and seventeen was wholly daunting to me.
Given that, while I certainly hoped some day a guy might find me interesting enough to date, I felt slim hope. I realized, however, that intellectual pursuits had a shelf life of forever and were in no way confusing to me. I indulged them, trusting that in time the other things would make more sense. So, yes, I was surprised when this very nice young man gave me a kiss – a lovely, artless kiss. It did not resolve my confusion, but I did find a morsel of clarity and that was enough.
This is not the case for what seems to have been the first kiss for a certain fourteen-year-old Veronese girl of the 15th century, one Juliet Capulet, also bookish. It is tempting to say that Will Shakespeare’s art implies that with just one kiss Romeo and Juliet, he and his Dark Lady, were transported into their life-changing passion.
The truth for the playwright and his Dark Lady, his Juliet, is more subtle and he hints at it in the first exchange of words between the lovers: “mannerly devotion.” I have previously theorized that the Dark Lady was of a higher social stratum than the playwright and, quite possibly, often seen at court. In such a case the only way a man could approach her would be through observance of courtly, “proper form.” Make a bow. Take her hand. Kiss the hand. Profess one’s regard through formulaic language.
Bend low, perhaps fix your gaze on your kneecap, and rely on rote recitation of courtly address: “If I profane with my unworthiest hand/This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:/My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand/To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” (I.v.104-107)
‘Ah,’ she thinks, her Celtic intellect piqued, ‘this one is different, very different.’ With her Celtic audacity she nudges the edges of this proper form just a bit: “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,/Which mannerly devotion shows in this;/For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,/And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” (I.v.108-111)
She appears to have given him leave for a palm-to-palm touch, no mere quick brush of the fingertips, but she has not responded to his reference to lips. So, what will he say? “Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?” (I.v.112) He stands his ground.
“Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.” (I.v.113) She’s Celtic and she, too, stands her ground, perhaps simply to discern the nature of his interest in her kiss.
“O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do./ They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.” (I.v.114-115) With those two lines he briefs her on the depth of his devotion and loyalty, couched in that word ‘faith.’
“Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.” (I.v.116) She is willing, but the next move is his. He does not hesitate.
I believe that for the purposes of his art Will Shakespeare collapsed into fewer than twenty lines a protracted dance at court between this glover’s son and high-born lady. The kiss, when it came, was, I think, explosive, inspiring Father Lawrence’s lines, “… like fire and powder,/Which, as they kiss, consume.” (II.vi.10-11)
Diane Ackerman writes in her fascinating work “A Natural History of the Senses” that the touch sensations in our lips “are represented by a large part of the brain,” so if Will Shakespeare is painting the kiss as explosive, just imagine what was happening in the brains of these two intellectuals!
Ms. Ackerman also describes kissing as opening “the sealed fortress of our body to our lover.” Most poignantly, given the character of the Nurse in the play, Ms. Ackerman writes that when we kiss “we nurse on each other.”
I have noted elsewhere that Juliet’s suicide can be considered a symbolic death, a choice she made as a young girl to die to what she knew of her life and take her life in her own hands. This exemplifies a paradox found in two gospels, Mark 8:35-37 and Luke 9:24-25 and 17:33, which teach that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.
With that explosive kiss, however, I surmise that something deep in the ‘fortress’ of William Shakespeare was unlocked and he died to what he had known of himself. “I dreamt my lady came and found me dead …… And breathed such life with kisses in my lips/That I revived and was an emperor.” (V.i.6, 9-10)
She brought him to life. He nursed on her wisdom, her compassion, her courage. We see this in the perfectly elegant lines Romeo speaks the morning after their wedding night: “Come death and welcome. Juliet wills it so./ How is ‘t, my soul?” (III.v.24-25) Note the inclusion of ‘Juliet’ and ‘wills’ and ‘soul’ in those lines. Juliet, Will’s soul.
In closing I will point to Mark 8:36: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”
Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012
[[Bibliography: Ackerman, Diane. “A Natural History of the Senses.” New York: Vintage Books, c. 1990; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, c. 1992]]