But what about the letter?! (5.2.13-20)

FRIAR LAWRENCE     Who bare my letter then to Romeo?

FRIAR JOHN               I could not send it – here it is again –

                                    Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,

                                    So fearful were they of infection.

FRIAR LAWRENCE     Unhappy fortune! By my brotherhood,

                                    The letter was not nice but full of charge,

                                    Of dear import, and the neglecting it

                                    May do much danger. (5.2.13-20)

Friar Lawrence can’t quite believe it, that this simple, apparently straightforward, entirely ordinary thing has gone wrong. The production of the actual letter – here it is again– is a brilliant touch – because everything hinges on this single document, this piece of paper, this thing. All eyes must be on it. We might need a reminder of what the letter actually says: it’s Friar Lawrence telling Romeo about the plan for Juliet to feign death and asking him to return in secret to Verona, so that he can be there when she wakes up in the tomb, allowing them to travel back to Mantua together where they can live quietly until the time is right for their marriage to be made publicly known. It wasn’t nice, trivial, a bread-and-butter letter, but very important indeed – but of course Friar John wasn’t to know that – he hasn’t been let in on the secret. His producing the letter is pathetic for the character as much as the plot: look, I’ve brought it back safe, I haven’t read it; I tried my best, honest.

The audacity of the way in which these scenes are ordered is breath-taking. In terms of the plot, this scene and the one which precedes it – Romeo hearing of Juliet’s ‘death’ – could well be reversed – and in some ways it would be more logical, for Romeo to hear the ‘bad’ news after the Friar realises that the ‘good’ news of the plan for Juliet’s safe avoidance of marriage to Paris hasn’t got through. But the sequence here – Balthasar managing to get to Mantua in person, straight after seeing the funeral, Romeo apparently already having decided to kill himself even before the Friar knows that the plan’s gone wrong – ramps up the tension, and turns it into a desperate race against time. We don’t know how far Romeo’s got; we know that he was planning to leave Mantua immediately, on a fast horse. Who is going to get to Juliet first?


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