Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
Act V, Scene 1
In Mantua, Romeo says that he senses joyful news coming his way and describes a dream in which Juliet brings him back to life with a kiss. Romeo’s servant Balthasar enters, and Romeo asks if there is news from Verona, explaining that he is especially eager to know if Juliet is well. Apologizing for being the bearer of bad news, Balthasar reveals that Juliet has died and now “sleeps in Capels' monument.” Romeo curses the stars and orders Balthasar to prepare the horses so that he may leave for Verona. Balthasar hesitates, claiming that Romeo looks wild, but Romeo says that he is mistaken and urges him once again to prepare the horses.
With Balthasar gone, Romeo vows that he will lie with Juliet later that night. Romeo recalls that an impoverished apothecary lives nearby. He hopes that this man might be desperate enough to give him some poison—the sale of which is punishable by death in Mantua. After walking over to the Apothecary's house, Romeo asks him whether he has any poisons that will cause a sure and immediate death. The Apothecary replies that he does possess such things but reminds Romeo that the sale of them is forbidden. After Romeo insists that the Apothecary is too poor to refuse his money, the Apothecary reluctantly gives in and sells Romeo a small vial of poison. Having obtained his poison, Romeo declares that he now intends to travel to Juliet’s tomb and kill himself.
Act V, Scene 2
Friar Laurence is greeted by Friar John (the man who was supposed to take the letter explaining the plan to Romeo). Friar Laurence asks how Romeo responded, and Friar John explains that before he left Verona, he went to see another friar who was visiting a house of the sick. The city suspected that the house might be infected with the plague and quarantined it, refusing to let any of the occupants (including Friar John) leave. Unable to deliver the letter himself, Friar John tried to give it to a messenger, but none would take it for fear that they might spread the disease. Friar John gives the letter back to Friar Laurence, who frustratedly explains that Friar John’s failure to deliver the letter may have resulted in great harm. He orders Friar John to immediately go fetch an iron crowbar. After Friar John departs, Friar Laurence says that he must now go to the tomb by himself. He suspects Juliet will be angry when she realizes that Romeo is not there, but the Friar reasons that he can send another letter to Romeo and simply hide Juliet in his cell until Romeo can come fetch her.
Fate and chance come together to shape the tragic final act of the play. The feeling that the two lovers are fated to die is reinforced by the multiple ways in which the Friar’s well-laid plan goes utterly wrong. By chance, Friar John is detained and unable to deliver the letter. By chance, Romeo’s servant Balthasar hears of Juliet’s death and delivers the news to Romeo before Romeo learns of the Friar’s plan. By chance, Romeo lives near an apothecary whose dire financial situation will persuade him to break the law and sell Romeo poison. While it may be tempting to note all the ways the plan went awry and assign blame accordingly, the point of this series of missteps and miscommunications is that no one individual is to blame. Life is unpredictable, and the play’s tragedy is the result of a unique and complex combination of factors.
These scenes also remind us that the characters’ fates are shaped by the society in which they live. The “infectious pestilence” that Friar John describes is the Black Plague, an infectious disease that ravaged Europe and Asia and is believed to have killed over half of Europe’s population. At the time, it was thought that the best way to prevent the spread of plague was to quarantine suspected sick or contaminated individuals—this is why the city temporarily prevents Friar John from leaving the infected house. The Apothecary is another minor character whose hand is forced by the society in which he lives. Though the Apothecary does not wish to break the law or to allow Romeo to harm himself, his poverty leaves him unable to refuse. Romeo even points out the Apothecary’s paradoxical position in wanting to obey the laws of the very society that forces him to be poor: “The world is not thy friend, nor the world's law; / The world affords no law to make thee rich.” Thus we see that the actions of Friar John and the Apothecary—like those of Romeo and Juliet—are governed and constrained by external forces in their society, over which they have little control.
Romeo himself seems to sense that fate is driving events in these final scenes, defiantly shouting, “then I defy you, stars!” when he hears that Juliet has died. Unfortunately, Romeo believes that his fate is to be separated from Juliet, and in attempting to defy that fate by killing himself to “lie with” Juliet forever, he tragically ensures his own demise. The irony that Romeo actually seals his fate by trying to avoid it speaks to the inescapable power of destiny, a force that operates on multiple levels throughout the play. The audience knows that Romeo is fated to die, but the events that befall him often seem directly related to his own behavior and choices rather than fate. These two perspectives can be reconciled by thinking of Romeo’s personality as another form of fate—a thing beyond his control.
Though all the characters in the play are able to make their own decisions, these decisions are still guided by the inherent nature of the character. For instance, Tybalt’s aggressive nature pushes him to quarrel and fight, while Mercutio’s facetious nature leads him to unwisely taunt Tybalt. While Romeo can decide whether or not to commit suicide, it is his fate to be impulsive and emotional—traits that make him hasten back to Verona rather than wait and think things through. It is easy to lament Romeo’s impulsivity in this particular moment, but this trait is also what allows him to fall in love with Juliet in the first place. Thus, Romeo and Juliet’s “star-cross’d” love story is not merely an abstract fate that has been bestowed on them, but the inevitable result of their inherent qualities.
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