Shakespeare’s Comic And Tragic “Amen Amen”

In the brief sixth scene of the second act of Romeo and Juliet, while Romeo and Friar Laurence await the arrival of Juliet, Friar Laurence offers offers up this orison, expressive of a certain anxiety about the clandestine nature of the marriage ceremony:

“So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after hours with sorrow chide us not!”

Romeo responds with an emphatic double “Amen”:

Amen, amen! but come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight:
Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what he dare;
It is enough I may but call her mine.

In Act Two Scene Two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia says to Lysander:

Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!

Lysander replies with the emphatic doubled “amen”, but how different the tone from that of Romeo:

Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I;
And then end life when I end loyalty!
Here is my bed: sleep give thee all his rest!

Lysander‘s “Amen, amen” is expressive of an emphatic agreement; he entirely concurs with Hermia‘s “fair prayer” and goes on to complement it with a thought that commences with “And…”.

Romeo‘s “Amen, amen”, is of an entirely different order. It is expressive of his impulsive spirit, of an impatience for the friar’s more cautious hopes and fears. “Amen, amen” is not followed by any further expression of concord, as with Lysander‘s “sweet prayer”, and instead of a soft “and…” we are brought up sharply by a hard “but…”

Lysander offers a pledge of loyalty with all personal irony and the foolish bravado of the absolute lover; but it is essentially a life-affirming bravado that loyalty and life shall end together, since there is no doubt in Lysander‘s mind that he shall always be loyal, as indeed, when he is in his own mind, he is.

Romeo‘s bravado is darker in tone. Whereas Lysander speaks gaily of ending his “life” without any expectation of such an circumstance arising. Romeo sets up a connection between “love” and “death” that reoccurs throughout the play and leads him headlong to disaster.

Whatever critics might write about how the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is flawed because it depends on a contrivance of the plot (the mislaid letter), it is Romeo‘s tragic flaw of character which undoes him; his precipitous folly, his courtship of death, death which fascinates his “misgiving” mind as much as the dream of Queen Mab captivates Mercutio‘s.

The two plays are connected, of course. In both plays a pair of lovers struggle against parental authority. “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” may be seen as a farcical version of Romeo and Juliet. C. L. Barber comments in his penetrating study, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy,

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play in the spirit of Mercutio: the dreaming in it includes the knowledge “that dreamers often lie.” The comedy and tragedy are companion pieces: the one moves away from sadness as the other moves away from mirth.”

The doubled “amen” occurs six times in Shakespeare‘s plays. Apart from Coriolanus, in which it appears twice, “Amen amen” occurs once in each of the following plays:

Two Gentlemen of Verona
A Midsummer-Night’s Dream
Romeo and Juliet
King John

David Hurley