CAPTAIN OF THE WATCH [Within] Lead, boy, which way?
JULIET Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger,
[Taking Romeo’s dagger.]
This is thy sheath;
there rust, and let me die.
[Falls on Romeo’s body and dies.] (5.3.168-170)
(The stage directions are editorial in their placement. I think I’d combine the second and third, and place it after die.) Whereas Romeo had a beautiful aria of farewell, his swansong, his longest speech in the play as he talked to Juliet’s (as he thought) lifeless body and prepared to take the poison, Juliet is brief. This might surprise us: she’s always had the best speeches (or at least some of them), and plenty to say. But she is also the practical one. She knows that there are people just outside, unfamiliar voices, not the Friar, and that she has just seconds to act, if she is to retain any kind of agency; the play’s action (and above all, her intended wedding to Paris) has shown all too starkly how little power she has. So, retrospectively, her own great aria earlier in the play, Gallop apace, becomes a threnody, a death song, as well as an epithalamium, a wedding song. (Liebestod, literally ‘love’s death’, is used to mean an aria or duet on the point of the death of lovers, above all in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, when it’s sung by Isolde. Baz Lurhmann brilliantly cuts it in in the final moments of his film. It’s a useful shorthand for an eroticised, lyrical death speech or scene.)
In Gallop apace, Juliet longed for night, and for Romeo, and imagined both sex and death as a kind of transcendent, metamorphic ecstasy, true union. Juliet’s last words here, like her earlier speech (and in some ways the play in general) are animated by the sexual sense of die: despite its brevity, this is a frankly erotic speech, and Juliet’s death is a version of the consummation of the lovers’ marriage, Romeo’s dagger sheathed in Juliet’s body. The dagger is happy because it’s luckily there, right at hand, and it’s also fortunate because it’s the means whereby (as Juliet thinks) the lovers will achieve that ecstatic union in death. And there is also perhaps the sense that the dagger will penetrate Juliet’s body as easily, as rightly as it has slipped into the scabbard that was made for it. A perfect fit. (Which might make us squirm a bit, but I think it’s part of how this works; this has never been a play, or a character, that has shied away from bodies, or from sex.) Rust is a much-contested textual variant; Q1 has rest, which of course echoes Romeo setting up his everlasting rest. But the two words have more or less the same effect: this is about permanence and finality, a full-stop. Even in the balcony scene, when Juliet has forgotten why she’s called Romeo back, he says that he’ll stay until she remembers, forgetting any other home but this. So there is a sense of things fitting together beautifully, rightly, so that no other way would be imaginable, let alone possible – two hands, so many kisses; a jointly-crafted sonnet; couplet after couplet; conceits of birds and light and sea and stars tossed back and forward with unerring joy; two bodies, two lives – that’s how they die. In each other’s arms, forgetting any other home but this, and echoing each other’s final words in death: Thus with a kiss I die. There rust, and let me die.