Despite its cultural prominence and my specialization in early modern English drama, I have not worked closely with Romeo and Juliet. I did read it once, but that was when I was a freshman in high school. And by “read” it, I mean that I relied on the modernized parallel text supplied in our edition. However, on day one of my first college-level Shakespeare course, my professor administered a reading exercise to acclimate us to the type of reading we’d be doing all semester. She gave each of us a printout of the following passage from Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, wherein the lovers first meet:

ROMEO, [taking Juliet’s hand] 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.
JULIET 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.
ROMEO Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. / They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. JULIET Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. [He kisses her.] / Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged. (Folger ed., 1.5.104–18)

A newcomer to Shakespeare, I felt confused and not the least bit intimidated after reading this passage silently to myself. I genuinely couldn’t sort the palms from the pilgrims. But once my professor began close reading the passage for us – the first time I’d witnessed such a mode of analysis – I felt my world expand. By tracing syntax and mapping out metaphors, she helped us see that it is Juliet who is both a temple and a saint, Romeo’s lips that are religious pilgrims, and the meeting of palms and prayer that are synonymous with the culminating romantic kiss. While these takeaways seem elementary to me now, they were ground-breaking to my sophomore self. Moreover, it wasn’t just these insights that made me choose this as my humanities moment. Rather, it was the moment when my professor taught us that Romeo and Juliet develop a shared sonnet in this scene. Together, they deliver fourteen, alternately rhyming lines in iambic pentameter – a whole Shakespearean sonnet. Within that sonnet, the initial “-iss” rhyme traverses Romeo’s first quatrain and into Juliet’s, providing a literary manifestation of their bond. Finally, each lover delivers one half of the final heroic couplet, and the close of their sonnet is literally sealed with the meeting of palms: a kiss.

For whatever reason (though it’s not hard to guess), this lesson vastly broadened what I thought language and, more generally, art were capable of. By showing us how to cipher the rich information harbored by this group of words, my professor sparked a drive in me to perform future such analyses and see how their revelations might further enhance the way I viewed the world. Now, I am a PhD student studying early modern English literature with a special interest in drama and poetry. I am still chasing the same feeling I got that day – the one where, as cheesy as it sounds, anything seemed possible through language. Luckily, I am still periodically graced with that sensation because, as all educators know, there is always more to read and learn!

– Morgan Shaw (Ph.D. Student)