Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1865
Act V, Scene 3
The final scene takes place in the churchyard later that night. Paris and his servant enter. Paris commands his servant to keep watch while he scatters flowers on Juliet’s tomb, ordering the servant to whistle if he sees anyone approaching. When his servant whistles, Paris wonders who could be wandering around at night and decides to hide and watch. Romeo and Balthasar appear. Romeo gives Balthasar a letter, ordering him to deliver it to Lord Montague the next morning. Taking a crowbar and a pickax from Balthasar, Romeo says that he intends to enter the tomb to behold Juliet’s face one last time and to retrieve her ring. Romeo orders Balthasar to leave and threatens to kill him should Balthasar follow or interrupt him. Balthasar agrees but then, suspicious of Romeo’s intentions, quietly vows that he will hide nearby.
Romeo begins to use his tools to crack open the tomb. Paris watches Romeo work and recognizes him as Tybalt’s murderer. Believing that Romeo must have some ill intention in disturbing the Capulet graves, Paris emerges and orders him to stop. Paris questions how one could be so evil as to take revenge on the dead (“Can vengeance be pursued further than death?”) and declares that Romeo must die. Romeo agrees that he must die and warns Paris not to interfere with a desperate man, as he does not want to commit another sin. Paris refuses to leave and they begin to fight. Paris’s servant sees the fight and runs to call the watch—just before Paris is killed by Romeo. As he dies, Paris asks Romeo to be merciful and lay his body next to Juliet’s in the tomb. Agreeing, Romeo drags Paris’s body into the tomb where Juliet’s body lays. Seeing his wife’s body, Romeo remarks that she is beautiful even in death. Declaring his intention to spend an eternity with his beloved, Romeo kisses Juliet and then takes the poison, kissing her one last time before he dies.
Above, Friar Laurence appears, carrying several tools. A worried Balthasar approaches and tells Friar Laurence that Romeo has been in the tomb for half an hour. Alone, Friar Laurence ventures into the tomb, fearful of what he might find. Balthasar says that he had an odd dream that Romeo fought and killed another young man. Seeing the blood stains on the entrance to the tomb, the Friar calls out to Romeo. Peering inside, the Friar is shocked to see that both Paris and Romeo lay dead. Just then, Juliet awakens from her sleep and, seeing the Friar, asks where Romeo is. Friar Laurence urges Juliet to leave the tomb immediately, declaring that fate has destroyed their plan. Explaining that both Romeo and Paris are dead, the Friar urges Juliet to quickly come with him and promises to place her in a nunnery. Juliet refuses to leave, and the Friar, aware that the watch is approaching, flees the scene.
Alone, Juliet sees the cup of poison Romeo used and remarks that it was rude of him not to leave any for her. She kisses him in the hope that his lips contain a trace of poison and notes that they are still warm. Hearing Paris’s servant approaching with the watchmen, Juliet grabs a knife and stabs herself. Seeing the blood around the entrance to the tomb, the chief watchman orders his men to search the area and arrest whomever they find. Surveying the three dead bodies before him, the chief watchmen orders that the Prince, the Capulets, and the Montagues all be woken. One of the watchmen returns with Balthasar, and another comes back with Friar Laurence, who is weeping. The Prince and the Capulets appear.
Lady Capulet says that people are calling out Romeo and Juliet’s names in the streets and running toward the tomb. The chief watchman explains that Romeo and Paris now lie dead and that the state of Juliet’s body suggests that she has only recently died. The Prince demands to know how these deaths occurred just as Lord Montague arrives. Lord Montague tells the Prince that Lady Montague died earlier in the night from distress over Romeo’s banishment. The Prince shows Lord Montague his son’s dead body and orders that everyone hold back their questions and outrage until the situation can be clarified. Friar Laurence is brought forward and he relates to all the story of Romeo and Juliet’s secret love. He explains that he performed their secret wedding and gave Juliet a sleeping potion after she came to his cell prepared to kill herself to avoid a marriage to Paris. He reveals how word of the plan never reached Romeo and how he discovered the bodies and then left Juliet alone in the tomb when he heard people approaching.
Admitting that both he and the Nurse knew of the secret relationship, Friar Laurence declares that he should be killed if it is judged that any of this tragedy is his fault. Balthasar is brought forward, and he gives Romeo’s letter to the Prince. After reading the letter, the Prince declares that it confirms the Friar’s story. Turning to Capulet and Montague, the Prince admonishes them for the pain and suffering that has resulted from their hate. Acknowledging that he, too, has lost family members after turning a blind eye to the feud, the Prince declares that all have been punished by the heavens. Capulet turns to Montague and they settle their differences, with each pledging to build a golden statue of the other’s child. The Prince says that they should all leave to further discuss the events that have transpired and declares that never was there a “story of more woe” than the tale of Romeo and Juliet.
In the final scene of the play, Friar Laurence’s warning that “these violent delights have violent ends” proves literally true as Paris, Romeo, and Juliet all meet their tragic ends. The scene opens as Paris scatters flowers on Juliet’s grave, an act that suggests his feelings for Juliet were genuine. When Romeo begins to break into Juliet’s tomb, it never occurs to Paris that Romeo may have had some sort of relationship with Juliet. This serves as a reminder that while Romeo and Juliet’s love story has dominated the play, nearly all of the characters in the play remain totally unaware of it. Paris’s misunderstanding of Romeo’s intentions allows the audience to sympathize with him—even as he thwarts our protagonist. While Paris is in some ways Romeo’s romantic rival, this misunderstanding shows that both young men are ultimately victims of fate rather than personal animosity. Romeo acknowledges this unfortunate reality after reluctantly dueling and killing Paris: “O, give me thy hand, / One writ with me in sour misfortune's book!”
In the dark tomb, Romeo uses the contrast between light and dark to describe Juliet’s beauty: “For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light.” His metaphor here echoes the language of the night they first met, though Romeo’s compliments are now spoken with regret and sorrow rather than optimism and excitement. Romeo remarks that death has not yet affected Juliet’s appearance; her lips and cheeks are still crimson, and her skin has not yet taken on the pale hue of death. While his wife’s radiance makes Romeo all the more determined to follow through with his plan to join her in death, this is a moment of terrible dramatic irony for the audience, who know that Juliet’s lifelike appearance is due to the fact that she’s actually still alive.
Romeo’s final words (“Thus with a kiss I die”) both rhetorically and literally conflate love and death, as Romeo drinks poison and kisses Juliet. Likewise, when Juliet realizes that Romeo has killed himself with poison, she kisses him in the hopes that this physical gesture of love will kill her. Some scholars argue that the suicides of the lovers have an erotic element: Romeo drinks poison from a cup (representing female genitalia) while Juliet stabs herself with a phallic “happy dagger.” Indeed, in Shakespeare’s time, the term “death” could refer to the sexual act (in addition to literal death). Interpreting the scene this way, one can read the suicides as an expression of Romeo and Juliet’s desire to be both sexually and spiritually reunited.
Both Romeo and Juliet describe death as a curative, with Romeo calling his poison a “cordial” (a pleasant medicine) and Juliet referring to it a “restorative” (a drink that restores health). That both lovers frame their suicide as a remedy speaks to their frame of mind; only death can cure their grief. Notably, their death does act as a remedy for the feud, curing Capulets and the Montagues of their destructive hatred.
After the bodies of Paris, Romeo, and Juliet are discovered, the rest of the characters gather on the stage in shock and grief. When Lord Montague arrives at the churchyard, we learn that his wife (Romeo’s mother) has just died. Though this extra death might initially seem somewhat random given that Lady Montague never reappeared after act I, her death equalizes the losses from the feud. The Prince has lost Mercutio and Paris, the Capulets have lost Tybalt and Juliet, and now the Montagues have lost Romeo and Lady Montague. This symmetry demonstrates that no party to the feud has come out ahead, further highlighting the senselessness of the violence.
With all parties having lost two beloved family members, the stage is finally set for reconciliation. The Prince describes the loss of his own family members as a punishment for his own inaction: “And I, for winking at your discords too, / Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.” This declaration that all have been equally punished brings us back the question of blame. After explaining what has happened, the Friar brings up the possibility of his own responsibility for the tragedy:
And if aught in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed some hour before his time
Unto the rigor of severest law.
Notably, the Prince seems reluctant to lay blame on the Friar—“We still have known thee for a holy man”—or the individuals who have actually acted violently. Rather, the Prince condemns the hatred that has created such a hostile environment in the first place: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.” The Prince’s analysis of the situation speaks to the complex ways in which destiny and personal choice commingle within the play: all of the characters are both agents of tragedy and victims to the uncontrollable forces of fate. This delicate tension between fate and free will explains the enduring popularity of Romeo and Juliet. The fact that Romeo and Juliet are fated to die makes their story tragic, but it is their choice to pursue love at any cost that has resonated with audiences throughout the ages.
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