Letter from Sidney to Shakespeare: A Comparison of Two Sonnets

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Letter from Sidney to Shakespeare: A Comparison of Two Sonnets

My Dearest William,

I have just returned from seeing your marvelous new tragedy Romeo and Juliet, and I wish to offer my sincere congratulations on another stupendous success! One particular passage from the play has stuck in my mind. In the first act, scene five, Romeo and Juliet exchange a dialogue about a kiss which is in the form of a sonnet. This reminded me of one of my own sonnets: Sonnet #81 of Astrophil and Stella. Your views on the subject of kissing are very interesting, and in many ways parallel my own. For instance, you compare kissing to a holy and prayer-like act, where as I compare it to a union of souls. There was one aspect of your sonnet that reminded me very much of my own. Your Juliet is very clever and quick-witted in speaking to the lovesick Romeo in the same way that my Stella is in her response to Astrophil.

In your poem, Romeo believes he is being very clever, but Juliet consistently turns his quick-witted statements around on him. Romeo tries to flatter Juliet by calling her hand a “holy shrine” which he hesitates to “profane with [his] unworthiest hand” (Shakespeare, I.v.95-6). Juliet later insisted that he does not give himself enough credit: “you do wrong your hand too much” (I.v.99).

Romeo compares his lips to “two blushing pilgrims” with which he offers to remedy his rough touch by giving her a kiss. This begins an extended metaphor of the relationship between saints, their supplicants, and in a roundabout way, God.

As Juliet explains, pilgrims show their devotion when they appeal to saints in prayer. A “holy palmer’s kiss,” is a prayer, “palm to palm,” to the saint (I.v.102). In much the same way, Romeo places his hand together with Juliet’s hand in a sort of prayer.

Romeo tries to use this analogy to his advantage by asking, “Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?” (I.v.103). However Juliet replies to his apparent cleverness by explaining that both saints and pilgrims use their lips in prayer, not in simple kissing as Romeo is suggesting.

Romeo then makes a last effort to obtain the kiss he desires. He calls her a saint, implying that he intends to be her pilgrim.

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