A stuffed alligator – but why? (why indeed?) (5.1.40-48)

ROMEO                                   … meagre were his looks,

                        Sharp misery had worn him to the bones;

                        And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,

                        An alligator stuffed, and other skins

                        Of ill-shaped fishes, and about his shelves

                        A beggarly account of empty boxes,

                        Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,

                        Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses

                        Were thinly scattered, to make up a show. (5.1.40-48)

Just when we think it’s going to be a headlong dash to the play’s final catastrophe, we encounter a stuffed alligator. What on earth is going on here? (It’s an easy cut.) The description of the poverty-stricken apothecary is there partly because it’s in Brooke, the source, but Shakespeare embellishes it. It’s a vivid description of such a shop, made even more vivid in its manifest inadequacies. What work does this description do? It emphasises Romeo’s desperation, but also his (perhaps unexpected) sophistication. He is determined to procure a poison so strong that it is probably illegal, and reasons that an apothecary who is so clearly unprosperous will be more likely to look the other way, and bend the rules. The material poverty of the shop, and its owner, parallel Romeo’s emotional state, his desperation, his loss of hope. This shop, even if it did not promise deadly poison, would still be lifeless, empty, full of death – dead animals, empty boxes, remnants; the old cakes of roses, dried petals pressed together to be used in cosmetics or other remedies, have surely faded, lost their sweetness and their scent. That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet. No longer. But the precision of the description, like Queen Mab, compels our attentiveness and our focus. Its very strangeness makes us listen closely and imagine. (I certainly don’t want to see a stuffed alligator; they are inherently comic, as the RSC’s 2016 production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist demonstrated; their stuffed alligator even made a brief appearance in the online trailer.) There is also something about that strangeness which adds to the sense of Romeo as possessed with a kind of madness: all this weird stuff he remembers seeing, its smell. His speech also, oddly, shows his compassion, and his moral sense. Romeo, so far as we can gather, is a rich boy. Here he has quickly grasped that a starving human being is responsible for this pathetic show – and yet, in his despair, he is still prepared to exploit that poverty. The apothecary, death’s head though he seems, apparently still has a kind of hope that his pathetic stocks will be bought and enable him to live a little longer. Romeo has lost even such a faint will to live.


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