FRIAR Mean time I writ to Romeo
That he should hither come as this dire night
To help to take her from her borrowed grave,
Before the time the potion’s force should cease.
But he which bore my letter, Friar John,
Was stayed by accident, and yesternight
Returned my letter back. Then all alone,
At the prefixèd hour of her waking,
Came I to take her from her kindred’s vault,
Meaning to keep her closely at my cell,
Till I conveniently could send to Romeo. (5.3.246-256)
The Friar has been so careful and methodical in setting out the story so far, and in particular its time-scheme – and this bit describes where it all started to go wrong, the carefully, if hastily planned sequence of events beginning to break down. So there’s a whole series of terms to do with time: this dire night, the time the potion’s force should cease (and Juliet wake), the prefixèd hour of her waking – these are all expectable markers in the plan that the Friar has set up, with contingencies that he could mostly control and anticipate. But alongside these, reminders that time can be less manageable or predictable: mean time (a very contingent term), till conveniently, which suggests a period of time with an uncertain, conditional limit; the Friar didn’t know exactly how long it would take for him to be able to contact Romeo). But in the middle of it all: accident. The thing that seemed straightforward, even mundane – sending the letter to Romeo – that perhaps seemed least likely to go wrong (the potion might not have worked at all, for instance, or the dose could have been miscalculated) has been the accident that’s blown everything apart. But still the Friar thought that he could salvage things, by coming to the tomb regardless, sticking to the original plan – all alone strikes a poignant note – he had already anticipated that this was going to be difficult, Juliet waking without Romeo there to greet her – and he’d already started to think through what next: take her to his cell and keep her close, secret, for just as long as it might take to send to Romeo.
Part of what’s going on in this long speech, this almost mechanical, quite neutral setting out of the play’s events, is to reinforce just how random and unlucky it’s all been: all those words to do with time, and order, and timeliness, and planning. All out-weighed by accident, by chance, bad luck, misadventure. Everything would have been fine, until the letter wasn’t delivered. And everything still seemed recoverable, even then…