Present death – but the shop is closed (5.1.49-56)

ROMEO           Noting this penury, to myself I said,

                        ‘And if a man did need a poison now,

                        Whose sale is present death in Mantua,

                        Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him’.

                        O this same thought did but forerun my need,

                        And this same needy man must sell it me.

                        As I remember, this should be the house.

                        Being holiday, the beggar’s shop is shut. (5.1.49-56)

There’s a further, ironic reason why Romeo is seeking poison for himself in Mantua. In the first part of the scene between Lady Capulet and Juliet, where Juliet was pretending with all her might that she wanted to avenge Tybalt’s death, her mother made clear that she had already thought about how to go about this: I’ll send to one in Mantua, where that same banished runagate doth live, shall give him such an unaccustomed dram, that he shall soon keep Tybalt company. Mantua has already been marked, therefore, as the place where Romeo will encounter poison, an unaccustomed dram (and he will shortly ask the apothecary specifically for a dram of poison). Romeo says that his identification of this apothecary as a likely source for such things, because of his evident poverty, did but forerun my need, but some editors suggest that he’s already contemplated suicide after his arrival in Mantua, because of his banishment. I’m not hugely persuaded; Romeo has been in Mantua barely a day, and he woke up feeling extremely cheerful, after all; this part of the speech seems mostly an amplification of the poverty and desperation, and hence the willingness to break the law, that Romeo sees as crucial to the apothecary selling him the deadly poison. What’s also being set up here, implicitly, is the deadliness of the poison: it can be assumed that the apothecary would be selling other poisons (for vermin, say) and in any case there were plenty of supposed medicines or their ingredients which would be fatal in large doses or particular combinations. What matters for the plot is that the poison that Romeo is seeking will be extremely fast acting. That’s indirectly anticipated here by Romeo suggesting that the sale of the poison is present death in Mantua – that is, selling it would carry a sentence of summary execution for the vendor. It will also cause present death, death more or less immediately, however, in the person who drinks it.

It is Wednesday in Mantua and there is no apparent reason why it’s a holiday – perhaps Wednesday in Mantua is the equivalent of Mondays in Florence, and absolutely everything is closed. It would be splitting realist hairs to suggest that it’s the feast day of St James or St Mary Magdalene, both of which fall in late July… (The patron saint of Mantua is Anselm of Lucca, whose feast is 18 March; none of the major churches in the city has a dedication to a late July saint. To split some realist hairs.) I think there’s a practical reason: having described this shop, full of exotic taxidermy, staging it with any realism, even simply by using the inner stage, would be a distracting nuisance and a nightmare (presumably Juliet’s tomb is already being set up in the inner stage, in preparation for the final scene, too). If the apothecary is called out from within because the shop is closed, then that problem vanishes. And it doesn’t start to look like a city comedy with Romeo going into a shop. And it makes it more urgent, more impulsive – Romeo isn’t saying, oh well, the shop’s shut, I guess I’ll just come back tomorrow – but rather he will call the apothecary out of his house immediately, and not wait a moment longer.

In the UK,  Samaritans, phone 116 123, and, for young men in particular, CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably has some great resources.


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