Poverty and will, gold, poison, and cordial (5.1.75-86)

APOTHECARY            My poverty, but not my will, consents.

ROMEO                       I pay thy poverty and not thy will.

APOTHECARY            Put this in any liquid thing you will

                                    And drink it off, and if you had the strength

                                    Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

ROMEO                       There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,

                                    Doing more murder in this loathsome world,

                                    Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.

                                    I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.

                                    Farewell, buy food, and get thyself in flesh.

                                                                                    [Exit Apothecary]

                                    Come, cordial and not poison, go with me

                                    To Juliet’s grave, for there must I use thee.

                                                                                     Exit. (5.1.75-86)

The terms in which the Apothecary finally agrees to sell the drug, after his fairly nominal resistance, are striking. He is perhaps trying to stay on what in Twelfth Night will be referred to as ‘the windy side of the law’, but he is also asserting that, desperately poor as he is, he still has capacity, volition, and some residual dignity. There’s a strange parallel, perhaps, in the recruiting scene in 2 Henry IV (a few years later than Romeo and Juliet), in which Francis Feeble the woman’s tailor, being pressed into the army by Falstaff, cannot afford to buy his way out, but still promises that he ‘will do my good will’ and reasons with some dignity that ‘A man can die but once. We owe God a death’. It’s easy to dismiss Feeble as part of a gallery of grotesques, and the Apothecary too, but the dignity of the poor, and especially the poor working man, is something that Shakespeare seems interested in. (We might add the gardeners in Richard II, and the workers in Midsummer Night’s Dream– not simply ‘rude mechanicals’ – to this equation.)

Musings on human dignity aside, the Apothecary confirms that vital detail that the poison is both immensely powerful and very fast-acting. A final moralizing commonplace from Romeo – that gold is far more dangerous than poison, doing more murder in this loathsome world, and the aphorism might be a reminder, again, of the Friar, and that the Apothecary is like a terrible parody of the Friar in his knowledge of drugs, and his facilitation of death rather than life and love. (The Friar is about to appear.) And then a couplet – there hasn’t been one of those for a while – poignantly rhyming thee and me, as Romeo makes his plan explicit, that he indeed going to Juliet’s tomb to kill himself, with the poison that is not poison but rather cordial, medicine, which its name suggests will specifically heal the heart.

Another very niche thought. Romeo’s final words to the Apothecary – get thyself in flesh – emphasise his thinness. I wonder if the part might have been played by John Sincklo, an actor who is always described as ‘notoriously thin’. He was in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and its predecessors, throughout this period (there are rogue speech prefixes giving his name in stage directions in a couple of quartos) and a number of characters associated with him are described as thin and cadaverous within the plays. He may have played Feeble (or Shadow) in 2 Henry IV. If he were in the company playing the Apothecary – seeing as I am on a niche roll – then that might explain why the Montague serving man who appears in 1.1 is identified in the speech prefixes as Abram (although not in the first Quarto) even though he’s never called by name: beggars who feigned madness (like Poor Tom in King Lear) were known as Abram-men or Abraham men; this could be a company in-joke. Thinking about doubling is interesting in these scenes, as there are a number of bit parts (Balthasar, Friar John, the Apothecary) none of which can be played by the same actor, as well as relatively major characters (Mercutio, Tybalt, even Benvolio) who have now disappeared from the action.

In the UK,  Samaritans, phone 116 123, jo@samaritans.org and, for young men in particular, CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (for resources rather than crisis support).

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