Balthasar, be gone! and, a precious ring (5.3.25-32)

ROMEO           Give me the light. Upon thy life I charge thee,

                        What e’er thou hear’st or seest, stand all aloof,

                        And do not interrupt me in my course.

                        Why I descend into this bed of death

                        Is partly to behold my lady’s face,

                        But chiefly to take thence from her dead finger

                        A precious ring, a ring that I must use

                        In dear employment; therefore hence, be gone. (5.3.25-32)

Romeo’s grown up. The chilly pragmatism of his dealings with the apothecary continues here: he has a plan, he needs a cover story, he’s thought through the possible problems, and now he needs to get rid of Balthasar, giving him orders, reminding him who’s master. (Again a reason why it’s a servant, apparently a page, not a friend who will argue and intervene.) This bed of death of course repeats and reinforces the eroticisation of the tomb as bridal bed; that it’s – logically – beneath, means that he must descend, just as he had to ascend to Juliet’s bed (and then climb down again) only 48 hours or so previously. Surely his voice breaks on my lady’s face… he longs to look at her, but is apprehensive as to what he will see. Will she still be Juliet? The ring is an invention, that is, not in the sources; it’s an excuse for Balthasar, to justify why Romeo’s going in to the tomb, and what the dear employment might be is immaterial. But Romeo is also confronting himself with what he believes to be the truth, coldly, cruelly – her dead finger – as if he has to say it to believe it, she is dead, her dead finger – and he makes us think, first, that he is taking her wedding ring (whether or not that’s actually been staged; the sentiment makes sense to modern sensibilities). But it perhaps also makes us think (again) of two hands touching, one living, one apparently dead, and the gentle, poignant, intimate, terribly final action of carefully removing a ring.

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