Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Pilgrims' hands do touch

  Read an extract from Professor Farah Karim-Cooper’s The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage, exploring the use of touch in Romeo and Juliet

7 minute read

Laurence Perrine noted in 1966 that the internal sonnet Romeo and Juliet compose upon their first meeting is a ‘self-contained episode’ and ‘metaphorically unified by a single extended metaphor, one in which a pilgrim, or palmer, is worshipping at the shrine of a saint’.

Hands are objectified in religious worship as they perform their own fantasies of touch in the name of God. After the Reformation in England, the focus upon saints’ hands in medieval worship and iconography transferred to that of the mistress’s hand in poetry and treatises on beauty. The metaphor takes on greater significance when we think about the role of hands and the sense of touch in medieval and Renaissance practices of worship. Matthew Milner observes of pre-Reformation England that:

[t]ouch was the fulcrum of traditional sacramentality.
Through it Christians were made and passed through the
stages of life; Christ was made present; objects sanctified;
and people healed and protected by relics, sacramentals,
and by the crosses they signed themselves with.

The efficacy of touch was at the core of pre-Reformation religious worship. Shakespeare’s use of religious imagery in this play is not accidental. The parallels he makes between the position of and emphasis upon hands in Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting and the way in which particular religious rituals compelled hands into active devotion are difficult to dismiss.

Romeo and Juliet first meet at the Capulet ball. Photographer: John Haynes.

The ‘internal sonnet’ in this scene invokes the mistress-as-saint motif typical of Elizabethan love poetry but a motif that Shakespeare has been known to mock in his romantic comedies. In this moment, however, Shakespeare invokes the ritualistic practices of the medieval cult of saints: the hands of saints that were routinely kissed, decorated and worshipped in the shrines of Europe. The votive tradition required, at times, body parts, particularly hands fashioned out of wax, alabaster or gold, to be delivered to shrines and left as offerings. No longer practised in England by the time Shakespeare was writing plays, votive offerings were re-imagined into secular and theatrical contexts and playhouses abounded with the imagery and props that gestured back to some of the religious practices that had been outlawed, as we will see in Chapter 6. Imagining hands as saints or religious relics was indeed an Elizabethan poetic and dramatic practice, but the palm touches between Romeo and Juliet have an added significance in that they express a depth of feeling also associated with the extremity of devotional worship and they occur spontaneously, triggering, at an instant, the feeling of love.

The palm touches between Romeo and Juliet have an added significance in that they express a depth of feeling also associated with the extremity of devotional worship and they occur spontaneously, triggering, at an instant, the feeling of love

Romeo immediately fantasies about touching Juliet’s hand. Photographer: Manuel Harlan.

Touch, in this play, is elevated as simultaneously spiritual and corporeal, as is evident from the allusions to a religious tradition that provokes ecstatic feelings of devotion. The performance of this moment would have worried anti-theatrical writers such as John Rainolds, who questioned whether or not the dramatization of love and amorous exchanges could deeply touch or infect the actor with the emotion being played: ‘That an effeminate stage player, while he feigneth love, imprinteth wounds of love?’ Whether or not the actors are infected with love when performing this play, the capacity of the play to touch the spectator and provoke emotion is its enduring quality to this day.

Romeo anticipates the effect Juliet will have on him when he first sees her, but like any lover well-versed in the rituals of courtship he immediately fantasizes about touching her hand: ‘The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand / And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand’ (1.5.49–50). Romeo’s anticipation of Juliet’s touch focuses upon the effects of her hand. He imagines her touch as reformative; if his ‘rude hand’ can be blessed, there is hope for his mind and heart. Referring to his hand as ‘rude’, Romeo aligns himself with a kind of rustic pilgrim, one who might be unpolished in manners and whose hands would be ‘rough’. When the lovers meet, the audience witnesses what critics for centuries have deemed one of the most moving dramatizations of love at first sight. But given that the theatrical encounter in early modern England was underpinned by tactility and that vision, love and its effects were also couched in the language of touch, we must adjust our thinking about this scene for a moment and suggest Shakespeare presents to us what it means to love at first touch.

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.

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.

Have not saints lips and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do—
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
[Kisses her]

Romeo is self-effacing about his hand, and therefore himself, calling it ‘unworthiest’ (perhaps even referring to his left hand) in order to build the case that Juliet as a type of saint has the power to reform him. This memorable exchange purposely draws the attention and gaze of the audience towards the space or threshold between the lovers’ bodies where their hands act as intermediaries, embodying more fully the tactile encounter between their eyes. The encounter is a dramatization of love at first touch through three stages of tactility as we are brought into the circle of their desire: eyes, palms and lips touching. These stages of touching are important when considering the original performances of this play in the amphitheatre and the anti-theatrical anxiety about the capacity of plays to touch spectators too deeply. Romeo and Juliet was probably performed at the Curtain Theatre in 1597. Although we do not know exactly what it looked like, this amphitheatre was probably configured architecturally much like the Globe Theatre, with a thrust stage, three levels of galleries and an open yard where audiences could stand around the stage (although archaeologists have just unearthed evidence the Curtain might have been square). The whole theatre might be charged with a tactile frisson, with groundlings jostling and pressing each other to see the lovers, the language dramatically entering into the ears of the auditors and the actors drawing the eyes of the spectators to their touching hands.

The front of the Globe Theatre with its pointed roof over the stage

The Globe Theatre stage, depicting the heavens, the earth and hell. Photographer: Pete Le May.

Of course, Romeo is ultimately seeking a kiss. But Juliet is bold when she presents her palm, the ‘tender inward’ of her hand, and invites him to touch it with his own. Kissing at court in social contexts on the hands and even on the lips was common practice; however, palm-to-palm touching is a unique gesture, outside of courtly dance, and it is not evident within the books on social decorum/gestures. I am not suggesting that their kiss is not the ultimate goal in this moment, but we might consider that Juliet’s assertive invitation to Romeo to touch her palm – ‘And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss’ – means the threshold of intimacy had already been crossed by the time their lips finally meet. This exchange reminds us of the incorporation of selves that Venus sought so desperately but failed to achieve through the touches of Adonis’s moist palm; when their palms meet, Romeo and Juliet become one. Is it any wonder then that Romeo is, throughout, preoccupied with the hands of his beloved?

The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage is available from Bloomsbury.



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