Saturday, July 7, 2018

Elizabethan Osculation Etiquette




If we saw all the partners kissing at the close of the dance we should understand at once that Romeo’s kiss is not “unmannerly,” as it certainly now appears to us. It may be objected that a modern audience would be shocked by such an unlimited and promiscuous quantity of kissing. But I do not think that it would be the case if the business were properly managed.


More Freedom of Manners Than is Now Tolerated
(Earl Lytton in Nineteenth Century)

In one of the letters written by him from England in the reign of Henry VIII, Erasmus dwells with immense relish on the English custom of kissing ladies at first meeting them, and describes the custom as delightful, because maidens as well as matrons kissed all visitors, both when they came and went. One of the courtesies appertaining to this usage was that partners kissed at the close of a dance. Thus the King in Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” (act I, scene iv,) when he sees Annie Bullon for the first time and dances with her, says to the lady as soon as the dance is over:

“It were unmannerly to take you out 
And not to kiss you.” (kisses her.)

Manifestly, this custom familiar to an Elizabethan audience, is assumed, though not expressly indicated, in the dancing scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” If we saw all the partners kissing at the close of the dance we should understand at once that Romeo’s kiss is not “unmannerly,” as it certainly now appears to us. It may be objected that a modern audience would be shocked by such an unlimited and promiscuous quantity of kissing. But I do not think that it would be the case if the business were properly managed. The dancing is of a more or less stately character. The general salute at the end of it would be equally ceremonious. The special character of Romeo’s action would then be felt in its right relation to all that is going on around him. 

For he has no express title to kiss Juliet, since he is not a recognized visitor, but an intruder and an enemy. Neither can he claim the privilege of a partner, for he has not danced with her. But under the cover of a prevailing usage, and the general kissing that is going on all round him, he approaches Juliet with the devout reverence appropriate to her assumed character, and craves permission to pay a holy palmer’s homage to the shrine of his devotion. This is demanded by the true spirit of the scene, which, under these conditions (but these only) becomes graceful and poetic. The kissing between all the partners at the end of the dance leads naturally up to the kissing between Romeo and Juliet; and, instead of Romeo's first greeting of Juliet being marked by a vulgar familiarity, it takes the character of a peculiarly deferential homage. – Daily Alta, 1885

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