Things are starting to move fast. Very fast. As Juliet returns from Friar Laurence’s Old Capulet is making wedding preparations (“Sirrah, go hire me twenty cunning cooks” (IV.ii.2); there’s still room here for the Capulet servants to provide a spot of comic relief). Her faux-penitent return backfires badly, spurring him to even more urgent action:
Pardon, I beseech you.
Henceforward I am ever rul’d by you.
Send for the County, go tell him of this
I’ll have this knot knit up tomorrow morning.
This is still Tuesday, so the wedding has just been moved up to Wednesday—despite Old Capulet’s former conviction (expressed to Paris the preceding evening, identified as Monday) that it was too soon after Tybalt’s death. (Lady Capulet seems not to have been listening, because immediately afterward, when Juliet asks the Nurse to come to her room “To help me sort such needful ornaments/As you think fit to furnish me tomorrow” (IV.ii.34-35) her mother replies “No, not till Thursday. There is time enough” (II.ii.36).)
But there isn’t. In fact there is no time. Juliet gets her mother and the Nurse out of her room to be alone with the potion. The woman is determined to carry out her plan. The child is terrified. This is a very long speech—over forty lines—but as with several others we’ve seen, Shakespeare doesn’t waste a word and it is difficult to know what to cut. Attend particularly to how he captures the tug of war between Juliet’s resolve and her fear, and to how she conjures spectres even more terrifying than when she implored Friar Laurence to help her:
Farewell. God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins
That almost freezes up the heat of life.
I’ll call them back again to comfort me.
The girl doesn’t really call out, because the woman immediately thinks better of it:
What should she do here?
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
What if this mixture do not work at all?
Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?
Truly a fate worse than death in the woman’s view, and she is ready to cut it off:
No! no! This shall forbid it. Lie thou there.
There is no stage direction in the earliest printed texts, but Samuel Johnson added “She lays down a knife.” Professor Levenson’s Oxford edition notes that the First Quarto line is “Knife, lie thou there,” so the direction is plainly justified, and it sets up the first of several dramatic ironies in this soliloquy:
What if it be a poison which the Friar
Subtly hath minister’d to have me dead,
Lest in this marriage he should be dishonour’d,
Because he married me before to Romeo?
If only Juliet had acted on this acute psychological insight! As you’re probably tired of hearing me repeat, to us Friar Laurence is at best a deeply equivocal figure, one who doesn’t entirely even mean well; but this is the only time in the whole play one of the characters suggests as much. But this would vitiate the plan altogether, so the woman represses the fear with the conventional response:
I fear it is. And yet methinks it should not,
For he hath still been tried a holy man.
Having persuaded herself that Friar Laurence is not out to kill her, from this point on Juliet is nearly overwhelmed by the horrors that could befall her if she doesn’t die from the potion:
How if, when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point!
Shall I not then be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?
This speech is a playground for an accomplished actor, perhaps nowhere more than in the following; notice how Juliet keeps piling on the terrors until she has to interrupt herself and start her thought over again:
Or, if I live, is it not very like,
The horrible conceit of death and night
Together with the terror of the place,
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle
Where for these many hundred years the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d,
Where bloody Tybalt yet but green in earth
Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort—
“Like” means “likely” here, so Juliet is saying “Isn’t it likely that, with all these terrifying things—“
Alack, alack! Is it not like that I
So early waking, what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad—
Again, she’s so scared herself that she loses the point. The mandrake is especially rich in frightening allusion; as Juliet notes, when this root is pulled from the ground it is reputed to emit a shriek that causes madness or death in its hearers; it is also reputed to grow where executed murderers are buried, particularly at crossroads. (I can’t easily find a date of composition of John Donne’s poem that begins “Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root,” so it’s amusing to wonder whether it was circulating in manuscript when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet.) But the worst is yet to come as Juliet finally completes her thought:
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears,
And madly play with my forefather’s joints,
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud,
And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone
As with a club dash out my desperate brains?
O look, methinks I see my cousin’s ghost
Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body
Upon a rapier’s point: stay! Tybalt, stay!
Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink! I drink to thee!
Imagine the force of will by which the woman Juliet masters her fear, in a final triumph of her love for Romeo over her affection and grief for Tybalt. I don’t know of any similar scene of comparable intensity before Brünnhilde.