BALTHASAR I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault,
And presently took post to tell it you.
O pardon me for bringing these ill news,
Since you did leave it for my office, sir.
ROMEO Is it e’en so? then I defy you, stars!
Thou knowest my lodging, get me ink and paper,
And hire post-horses; I will hence tonight. (5.1.20-26)
Having drawn the contrast already between Juliet’s body, in the tomb, and her soul in heaven, Balthasar returns to earth: I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault. That down-up-down, earth-heaven-earth movement is a familiar one in the play – not least in the balcony scene – and it’s going to be central to the tomb scene. But first, confirmation that Balthasar did indeed ride for Mantua, presently, as soon as he found out. The implication is that he learns of Juliet’s death by seeing her funeral (rather than it being common knowledge on the streets of Verona) and this is something that’s picked up and amplified by both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann: in both films, Balthasar is very young, and is shown witnessing the funeral procession or part of the ceremony and, it’s implied, making straight for Mantua without consulting anyone else.
And Romeo too acts immediately, impulsively, just as he did in avenging Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, just as he and Juliet did in marrying so quickly. Balthasar is asked, again, to hire the fastest post-horses, that they’ll be able to pick up at inns in relays along the road (rather than riding their own horses all the way). In the midst of this whirl of instruction, temporarily anaesthetizing agony with action, setting in motion the only thing he can think of – getting to his beloved Juliet – there’s that howl of rage and grief: then I defy you, stars! Defy here is less go against than rail against, insult, protest: Fate, I hate you. (There’s actually a textual variant here: many early editions have deny, in the sense, then I refuse to accept this. So the possibilities of defy and deny overlap a bit, and the main sense is clear: I’m not going to stick around here, I’m in agony, I have to do something, and even if this is what heaven has ordained (I am fortune’s fool!) I’m not going to accept it, I’m going to take matters into my own hands.
Historically, it was common to stage Juliet’s funeral: the actor David Garrick’s version, printed in 1750, added an entire scene, ‘In the inside of a Church. Enter the funeral procession of Juliet, in which the following Dirge is sung’. There’s quite a lot of it, including the repeated chorus ‘Rise, rise! | Heart-breaking sighs | The woe-fraught bosom swell; | For sighs alone, | And dismal moan, | Should echo Juliet ‘s knell’. (Garrick – who played Romeo – also cut all mentions of Rosaline, because ‘it was generally thought, that the sudden Change of Romeo’s Love from Rosaline to Juliet was a Blemish in his Character’. And he messed around considerably with the death scene…)