ROMEO What ho, apothecary!
APOTHECARY Who calls so loud?
ROMEO Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor.
Hold, there is forty ducats; let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins,
That the life-weary taker may fall dead,
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb. (5.1.57-65)
Romeo demonstrates his sophistication, and his cynicism (or realism) from the very beginning of his encounter with the apothecary: I see that thou art poor. Incontrovertible, and making the outcome of their meeting inevitable. Here is some money – a lot of money, actually – I’m not asking how much you want, I’m giving you such a large sum that whatever I ask for, you’re not going to refuse. (A ducat is worth about 10 shillings, so in old money Romeo is offering the apothecary around £20: by way of comparison, when Shakespeare bought New Place – a very substantial property – in Stratford in 1597, he paid around £120. A labourer might earn around 6d. (six pence) a day and there are 12d. in a shilling – so a single ducat was getting on for 4 weeks’ wages for the sort of person who might, once in a while, pay a penny to stand in the yard at the theatre. Some of them might have a sense of the magnitude of the sum that Romeo is offering.) And what Romeo asks for is something not only deadly but quick, soon-speeding gear; his comparison of the drug’s imagined speed with the flashing violence of powder recalls the Friar’s warning, in the wedding scene: These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume. There are at least two particularly bitter details here, I think. One is the brutal image of the trunk discharged of breath – the body dehumanized, reduced to its torso, already corpse-like (and cannon-shaped) – no hands, no lips, no life. And the second is that compound adjective, life-weary. Romeo is weary of life; he doesn’t ‘just’ want to die, he cannot conceive of living any longer, as he thinks, without Juliet. Here again we see why he started the scene on such a high, fizzing with energy and life – to set up the awful, stark contrast with this moment. I’m so tired, so empty. Make it end now.
A very niche angle, but some people reading this may still remember the great RSC adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, which was first staged in 1980 and subsequently filmed for television in 1982. David Edgar, the principal writer, has the Crummles theatre company perform a cod-Victorian pastiche of Romeo and Juliet, starring Nicholas as Romeo. Smike, his faithful companion, the disabled lost boy so unimaginably damaged by neglect and cruelty, plays the apothecary, and there is a scene in which Nicholas rehearses him in his lines. In Smike’s subsequent death-scene, he calls out to Nicholas in the apothecary’s words: ‘Who calls, who calls so loud?’ and I can never read or hear those lines without being reminded of one of my very earliest theatrical memories, seeing it on television in NZ, and watching my father weep. So, thank you David Threlfall, forever Smike (although currently Don Quixote) and the late, great Roger Rees.