Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
Romeo and Juliet is a play crowded with lewd puns. Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo toy with bawdy innuendoes; Gregory, Peter and Sampson delight in the proximity of maidenheads and their own naked weapons; the Nurse both puns and is punned about. The play’s lyricism contends with language intoxicated by carnality. Even Juliet, the romantic centre of the play, quibbles with erotic meaning, most notably in her epithalamium of 3.2. Juliet is chaste and desirous, a unique combination in plays of the early 1590s. This essay argues that Juliet’s erotic fluency had a marked influence on the shaping of comic heroines in the four to five years after the play’s first performances. I look first at Juliet’s language, and then at two parodic versions of Shakespeare’s heroine, written between 1598 and 1607. Romeo and Juliet was often imitated; what interests me are those balcony scenes in which pseudo-Juliet express erotic desire in clever puns. These imitative plays are among the very few extant Renaissance comedies portraying virginal heroines who make self-referential bawdy jokes. It seems that the act of parodying the enormously popular Shakespeare play created an odd sub-genre, that of romantic comedies whose heroines display a ribald humour.