Romeo and Juliet–Never Was a Story of More Woe (1 of 2)

We’re here. Act V. Two short establishing scenes and it’s over.

First, Romeo in Mantua. A dream has given him a nebulous optimism:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breath’d such life with kisses in my lips
That I reviv’d, and was an emperor.

To us, four centuries after the world premiere, this is one of the most bitter ironies in the whole play; we know that in almost no time Juliet will find him dead and try to revive him with a kiss but will not succeed. We might also note that this is our first real encounter with one of the most pervasive devices in all of Shakespeare, the dream. Dreams in Shakespeare can offer treacherous, illusionary prophecies, like this one, or genuine ones, as in Richard III, where they also realistically depict the inner workings of a tormented mind. One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays is all about interlocking dreams, and Hamlet’s second most famous line is undoubtedly “To sleep, perchance to dream.”

I said first “real” encounter. Do you remember Romeo’s other dream? Neither do I, because before he could tell it Mercutio launched into the Queen Mab speech. But you—and Shakespeare’s first audience—will remember that the first thing Mercutio says about Mab’s doings is that “she gallops night by night/Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love” (I.iv.70-71). And that he concludes:

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind . . .

The original audience might not have had hindsight, but they would have remembered these lines, a tipoff that this dream is not to be trusted.

And then Romeo’s nascent optimism is shattered by the arrival of his man Balthasar.

Wait, Romeo has a servant? How come we haven’t seen him before?

We may have done; there’s a nonspeaking character named “Balthasar” who walks on during the Sampson/Gregory melee at the beginning, but we have no idea whether this is the same character. A servant would have been convenient for Romeo at various points in the play—and he does have a more active servant in earlier versions—but with typical economy Shakespeare needs and uses Balthasar only now, to bring Romeo the disastrously mistaken news:

Her body sleeps in Capels’ monument,
And her immortal part with angels lives.
I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault,
And presently took post to tell it you.

This is all the excuse Romeo, impulsive to the end, needs to return to Verona “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars!” [24]), despite Balthasar’s sensible counsel (“I do beseech you sir, have patience” [27]). Can he do anything for the supposedly dead Juliet? No. Would it not be more sensible to wait for confirmation from Friar Laurence?

. . .
Hast thou no letters from the Friar?

No, my good lord.

                        No matter. Get thee gone.

So much for that idea. But I really shouldn’t be so hard on Romeo. He is, as we have seen and will see, as much of a hothead as Tybalt, and if Juliet really is dead what does he have to live for? We should not be surprised to see him riding pell-mell into the jaws of death.

But first he has to buy the poison with which he will kill himself. Which requires the enigmatic little sequence with the Apothecary, a man with a severely inadequate business model. Selling poison in Mantua carries the death penalty, so it’s little wonder he is starving. This is what Romeo’s come to. This scene is often cut, for example by Zefferelli, but it is one of the many little touches with which Shakespeare deepens his themes. It’s not hard to see that the Apothecary is a distorted version of Friar Laurence. The one sells poison to Romeo; the other gives a facsimile of poison to Juliet. This vignette is cunningly placed: looking back, it all but forces us to question once again whether Friar Laurence’s role s quite as benign as he thinks; looking forward, it is another sign presaging tragedy. Note also Romeo’s parting words:

There is thy gold—worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.

Keep them in mind when we get to the very end.

Meanwhile back in Verona, another brief establishing scene, in which we learn that Friar John, whom Friar Laurence sent to Mantua, never made it with that letter for Romeo; he managed to get himself quarantined in a plague house. You’re excused if you’re thinking “Idiot! Why didn’t you give the letter to Balthasar?”—as Romeo half expected. (No doubt one reason Shakespeare withheld Balthasar until Act V was to forestall that question.) He decides to do the only thing he can, really; go to the tomb, wait for Juliet to awake, and intercept Romeo. Shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

All the pieces are in place, then. Who should be first to arrive at the tomb but the County Paris? He’s taken it into his head to leave flowers at Juliet’s tomb—in the middle of the night. It’s a private moment, so he sends his page away to stand guard. His verse hasn’t improved any:

. . .
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Romeo and Balthasar appear at this point. Like Paris, Romeo sends his man away, though Paris managed it without frenzied threats like this:

But if thou jealous dost return to pry
In what I farther shall intend to do,
By heaven I will tear thee joint by joint,
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

Romeo breaks open the tomb with a crowbar, addressing it in lurid imagery:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food.

Paris, damn fool that he is, picks precisely this moment to show his face:

This is that banish’d haughty Montague
That murder’d my love’s cousin . . .
Stop thy unhallow’d toil, vile Montague.
. . .
Condemned villain, I do apprehend thee.
Obey, and go with me, for thou must die.

For a man in a frenzy, Romeo is incredibly forbearing, giving Paris one last chance:

I must indeed; and therefore came I hither.
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
Fly hence, and leave me: think upon these gone;
Let them affright thee. . . .
. . .
Stay not, be gone; live, and hereafter say,
A madman’s mercy bade thee run away.

Never one to heed good advice, Paris stands, fights, and dies, while his page sneaks out to summon the authorities.

The action is moving too quickly for us to reflect on it, but this must make Romeo officially the best swordsman in Verona. He has now killed both Tybalt and Paris. In truth, he is what Tybalt only seemed to be; the baddest dude in town. (Yes, I really did just write that.) In fact, isn’t it mildly shocking to realize that Romeo is responsible, one way or another, for every single death in the whole play?

In any case, time has run out for Romeo. His final speech of some fifty lines is a mad scene, even though we may not think of it as one, compared with the better-known examples such as those in Hamlet and King Lear. He seems fixated on Juliet’s lack of physical decay:

O my love! my wife!
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
. . .
Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

This is hardly an unreasonable question to ask in a crypt full of rotting corpses (including Tybalt’s), but one has to think that Shakespeare is also laying on an extra brushstroke of characterization. If Romeo were not so frenzied, so bent on his own destruction that he can’t see anything else, might he at least have wondered whether Juliet is actually dead? That would be the last chance to avert tragedy, but it slips away:

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
. . .
Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.

And he does.

(To be continued . . .)

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