The world is not thy friend (and life is unfair) (5.1.66-74)

APOTHECARY            Such mortal drugs I have, but Mantua’s law

                                    Is death to any he that utters them.

ROMEO                       Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,

                                    And fearest to die? Famine is in thy cheeks,

                                    Need and oppression starveth in thy eyes,

                                    Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;

                                    The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law,

                                    The world affords no law to make thee rich;

                                    Then be not poor, but break it and take this. (5.1.66-74)

Romeo is worldly enough to know that the apothecary is going to take his money and give him the poison whatever, but they still have to have this exchange. Partly – again – it emphasizes how powerful a drug this is, that it would indeed be present death to the vendor, to be found to be selling such things. Romeo is precise and unsparing in his description of the apothecary – so bare and full of wretchedness, famine is in thy cheeks, need and oppression starveth in thy eyes, contempt and beggary hangs on thy back. The man is a death’s head, dressed in rags, and no one is on his side. But Romeo is not offering to be his friend or his advocate; he is simply telling it like it is. It’s not just that the law would punish the apothecary for selling deadly drugs, but that he is already a victim of structural oppression; the law, and all the power structures that it represents, are against him too. The world affords no law to make thee rich; you’re screwed, by the law, by society, whatever you do. The world is unfair. So you might as well take my money, and screw the law; no one’s looking out for you, and actually I don’t even care if you get caught and executed, is the implication. Romeo’s forcefulness is as striking as his desperation: he can still argue, and argue well. And the apothecary is a reflection of his own emotional state – the world is not thy friend!– and also, of course, a personification of Death. It’s got a bit of political bite, actually; it’s not Hamlet yet, but it’s a gesture in that direction. (It’s also not unrelated to the final soliloquy in Richard II, very close to this in date.)

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

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