These Violent Delights have Violent Ends:
The Sword and the Instant of Time in Romeo and Juliet
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’
The early moderns’ fascination with the nature of time was particularly acute when it came to its smallest divisions, the so-called instant of time or change, when one action or situation ends and another begins. On the one hand, natural philosophy, beginning with Zeno and Aristotle, had long wrestled with the paradoxical implications of time’s divisibility into discrete instants. On the other hand, the most important human experiences, such as dying or falling in love, were understood to occur in a moment of time so small as to be inaccessible to human understanding. Certain disciplines and practices were particularly concerned with understanding, and sometimes theorizing, precise timing, disciplines such as the theatre, music, dance, and above all, fencing. Early modern dueling masters devoted considerable attention to the concept of tempo, described alternately as the instant between two actions or the action between two instants. In appearance, a good swordsman’s movements might seem smoothly continuous, but the discipline was based on the separation of action into discrete moments separated by instants in which one movement ends and another has yet to begin. Theorists sought to define the “true time,” in which an attack should take place. In a fight, failure could produce a mortal wound in an instant. It is no accident that a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is so concerned with the instant of change (in love and death) and in which tragedy results from a failure of timing, is also a play in which dueling plays a significant dramatic role. Drawing on early modern natural philosophy and on fencing manuals by Fabris, Capoferro, Silver, and others, I argue that the instant of time was inherently freighted with a sense of loss and inaccessibility and that this emerging temporal concept drives the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.