ROMEO Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here’s to my love! [Drinks.] O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die. [Dies.] (5.3.116-120)
Does it seem trivial, or inappropriate, or just postponing the inevitable, to wonder about the practicalities of staging here? What’s Romeo drinking out of? Later in the scene Juliet will refer to a cup in his hand; when the apothecary gave him the poison, he instructed Romeo to put this in any liquid thing you will. In performance, he drinks out of a small bottle (or at least I’ve never seen it done any other way), and editors suggest that Juliet’s cup simply means a thing for drinking out of, which could mean a small bottle, after all. We are also used to seeing medicines (and poison) come in small bottles. And I am entirely happy (as it were) with continuing to see Romeo drink the poison, in one gulp, out of a small bottle. But the apothecary’s instruction gives pause, perhaps: does Romeo have to mix the poison (a powder?) with liquid in order to drink? (Which would make it more calculated, more deliberate, more drawn-out.) These final lines are like the ones that precede them, in that what appear to be regular, even smooth lines have to be broken up for actions, which disrupt the flow of the metre. (The language and the verse are beautiful, but that beauty has to be in a kind of counterpoint to the terrible actions which accompany them and which, again, have to take up time. In performance, therefore, this must be less rhythmic and harmonious than it appears on the page.) It’s most likely that bitter conduct and unsavoury guide both refer to the poison, but also just possible that the poison is the bitter conduct, and that it is being mixed with something – wine? – that will therefore become the unsavoury guide. But we won’t notice any inconsistency if he simply produces a small bottle from a pocket, a bag, and drinks from that. (He could, after all, have mixed it in advance.) Romeo, his own free will, his own volition, is the desperate pilot (desperate again, that crucial word, despair), the captain steering his own ship, here his body, the seasick weary bark (so, so tired; too tired to go on) on to the dashing rocks. The image of running the ship onto the dashing rocks is more violent, and more penetrative, than we might immediately grasp – because it’s poison, not a dagger, after all. This ship is not simply going to run aground, but to be wrecked, utterly destroyed.
And then he pledges Juliet: here’s to my love. (Just as she did, taking the potion: I drink to thee. We knew that that one was only a powerful sleeping potion. We know that this one is fatal.) He must look at her, as he drinks, imagining that she is steadfastly meeting his gaze. And it’s quick – O true apothecary! And it’s the last kiss, as he sleeps, as he drowns, as he dies. With Juliet. With a kiss.