ROMEO Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means. O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary,
And hereabouts ’a dwells, which late I noted
In tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples… (5.1.34-40)
The starkness of that statement of intent: Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight. Its flickering possibility of hope – that lie with means sleep with, even just lie beside, and also make love with – is dashed even as it’s kindled, because we remember that Juliet is lying in a tomb, and Romeo believes that she is dead. He is calmly (now that Balthasar has gone) stating his intention to kill himself, his seriousness given emphasis by his addressing of this statement to Juliet, whom he names. And he wouldn’t ever lie to her, so lie, neatly, has a third sense, and here confirms that he is telling the truth, just as well bitterly picks up Balthasar’s anxious quibble on well as meaning dead. He will lie with her, and they will both, therefore, be well.
How will he do it, by what means? Romeo clearly knows that what he is intending is a terrible sin, a desperate act, an act occasioned by despair, a loss of faith in God, and that the readiness with which he can think of how to accomplish his desperate plan is part of that sinfulness, its apparent ease a further temptation to despair. He doesn’t care. Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight. That he thinks of poison is mostly because that’s what happens in Brooke, Shakespeare’s main source, which Shakespeare follows quite closely in the detailed account of the apothecary (and his shop) which will come next. The apothecary is also a version of Friar Lawrence, who has apparently failed Romeo so catastrophically; Romeo remembers seeing the apothecary culling of simples, gathering plants from which to make drugs, just as Friar Lawrence first appeared in the play. But he is also a figure of death, in his person as much as in what he is prepared to supply; his clothes are ragged, tattered weeds, and his facial features downcast and brooding, with overwhelming brows.
(Now that I have temporarily imagined that the apothecary is simply blessed with prodigious eyebrows and in urgent need of tweezers, I’m afraid that I cannot unsee that possibility. You’re welcome. More seriously, the description of the apothecary is not unlike that of Despaire in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, printed in 1590: ‘his raw-bone cheeks through penurie and pine | Were shronke into his jaws as he did neuer dine. | His garment nought but many ragged clouts, | With thornes together pind and patched was…’, 1.9.35-6. Hmmm.)
It goes without saying that many of the posts from now on are going to mention suicide and suicidal ideation. In the UK, Samaritans, phone 116 123, firstname.lastname@example.org and, for young men in particular, CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably I’ll keep posting these links when appropriate.