Re-reading Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

(1) When Romeo is looking to buy some poison in Mantua, he knows just where to go. Earlier he had seen a very desperate looking apothecary in a “needy shop,” presumably in a low-rent neighbourhood.

Noting this penury, to myself I said
‘An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.’

He knocks on the wretch’s door and is told that selling drugs is a dangerous business. The apothecary is aware that it’s a capital offence (and indeed in Shakespeare’s source for the story he is later executed for selling Romeo the drug). But Romeo is able to reason with him:

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine 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.

So much for the war on drugs. “The world affords no law to make thee rich.” That is: You have no legitimate way to make a living. But this nice rich kid from Verona will help you out.

(2) Gazing on Juliet’s comatose body, Romeo thinks he sees signs of life and attributes this to a bit of folk wisdom:

How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death.

Apparently this was proverbial, but why? Does it have any basis in reality? You’d think it must have been a widely observed phenomenon to have got a name attached to it, but I wonder. Or perhaps we just die differently today.

(3) What are we to think of poor Paris? When Shakespeare wants us to hate a character he can do it in a line. But Paris here seems a fairly sympathetic guy, if a bit eager to start dynasty building (“Younger than she are happy mothers made”). Structurally, he’s Juliet’s Rosaline, a potential lover to be tossed aside at the first sign of something better. But Rosaline is still out there at the end, presumably oblivious to her silent role in this tale of woe. Meanwhile, Paris is a neglected corpse. Nobody’s going to build any monuments to him! This is the real cruelty of love.

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