Orgasm: The Little Death in Romeo and Juliet

When you were reading Shakespeare in high school you may not have enjoyed it to the fullest extent if your teacher didn’t explain the Bard’s sexual wordplay. It seems that many people find Shakespeare to be dull, but his writing is edgy and sexual in a subtle way that rewards deeper examination.

La petite morte is French for “the little death”, and the phrase has been a common idiom for orgasm and sexual ecstasy since at least the early 17th century. To “die” is to climax, and understanding this single metaphor leads to a new level of appreciation for Shakespeare’s highly sexual scenes. Let’s look at a few examples from Romeo and Juliet — this is by no means exhaustive… the whole play is full of sexual wordplay.

Juliet in Act III, Scene II, waiting in eagerly for Romeo’s arrival that night:

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Romeo in Act III, Scene V, insisting that he must leave Juliet because the sun is rising:

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

“Stay and die” both literally — discovered by Capulet — and figuratively.

Capulet in Act IV, Scene V, upon discovering his daughter Juliet’s body on the morning of her wedding to her fiance Paris:

FRIAR LAURENCE
Come, is the bride ready to go to church?

CAPULET
Ready to go, but never to return.
O son! the night before thy wedding-day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded: I will die,
And leave him all; life, living, all is Death’s.

Again, death has taken Juliet, both literally and figuratively. (Though at this point Juliet is only unconscious from a sleeping potion.)

Finally, the climactic scene in which Romeo and Juliet take their own lives, each believing the other to be already dead. Romeo drinks poison from a chalice (a symbol of female sexuality) and Juliet stabs herself with Romeo’s knife (a symbol of male sexuality). Act V, Scene III, Romeo kisses the chalice:

Here’s to my love!
Drinks

O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
Dies

And Juliet, upon discovering Romeo’s body:

O happy dagger!
Snatching ROMEO’s dagger

This is thy sheath;
Stabs herself

there rust, and let me die.
Falls on ROMEO’s body, and dies

It sure beats sparkly vampires. Do you have any sexual literature to share?

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