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Detailed Summary of Act 5, Scene 1

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Enter Romeo:
In Mantua, Romeo is happy because he is in love, and he expects more happiness. He says, "If I may trust the flattering [gratifying] truth of sleep, / My dreams presage [foretell] some joyful news at hand: / My bosom's lord sits lightly in his throne; / And all this day an unaccustom'd spirit / Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts" (5.1.1-4). Love is his "bosom's lord" which sits lightly in the "throne" of his heart and makes him feel as if he's walking on air. Then he recounts the dream, in which he was dead (but strangely enough could still think), until Juliet's kiss revived him and made him an emperor. He luxuriates in the pleasure of love, saying, "Ah me! how sweet is love itself possess'd, / When but [i.e., nothing but] love's shadows are so rich in joy!" (5.1.10-11). "Love's shadows" are his dreams and happy thoughts of Juliet. He couldn't be happier and hasn't a clue that everything he has just said is a foreshadowing of the cruel fate that is about to descend upon him. He is about to receive some news, but it won't be joyful; he will soon be dead, but Juliet's kiss won't revive him.

Romeo's joyful reverie is interrupted by the sudden appearance of his servant, Balthasar, who usually enters wearing boots, as a way of indicating that he has just dismounted from his horse after the ride from Verona. Seeing Balthasar, Romeo asks -- without giving Balthasar a chance to answer -- if he brings letters from the Friar, how Juliet is doing, and how his father is doing. Then again he asks, "How fares my Juliet? that I ask again; / For nothing can be ill, if she be well" (5.1.15-16).

Balthasar swiftly delivers the blow to Romeo's happiness: "Then she is well, and nothing can be ill: / Her body sleeps in Capel's monument, / And her immortal part with angels lives" (5.1.17-19). Balthasar goes on to say that he saw Juliet laid into the tomb, and then apologizes for bringing such bad news. Romeo's response is as swift and simple as the bad news: "Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!" (5.1.24).

On the instant Romeo has decided that he will go and commit suicide at Juliet's side, and the rest of the scene shows him making the arrangements. He orders Balthasar to fetch him ink and paper, and to hire horses for the return journey to Verona, which he will make that very night. (The ink and paper, as it turns out, is for a letter to Romeo's father, telling all. Romeo will make sure that letter is delivered only when it is too late for Montague to do anything to stop him.) Balthasar protests that Romeo's looks are "pale and wild, and do import / Some misadventure" (5.1.28-29), but Romeo brushes him off, and asks again if there aren't any letters from Friar Laurence. Balthasar says there aren't. (As a matter of fact there is a letter from the Friar, one which could save Romeo's life, but Balthasar knows nothing of it; in the next scene we'll learn what happened to the letter.) Romeo dismisses Balthasar, saying, "No matter: get thee gone, / And hire those horses; I'll be with thee straight" (5.1.32-33).

Alone, Romeo's mind moves swiftly from what he is going to do to how he is going to do it. He says to himself, "Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night. / Let's see for means: O mischief, thou art swift / To enter in the thoughts of desperate men! / I do remember an apothecary,--" (5.1.34-37). Romeo then describes the apothecary (druggist) and his shop, and remembers how he thought, when he first saw them, that this would be a place to buy poison. He knows that in Mantua death is the penalty for selling poison, but he thinks the desperately poor apothecary would take the risk.

Romeo's descriptions are very vivid, and they provide a sense of his own desperate disregard of everything except his desire to join Juliet in death, for the apothecary is an outcast and his shop is filled with grotesqueries and the remnants of broken dreams. He saw the man "In tatter'd weeds [clothes], with overwhelming brows, / Culling of simples [medicinal herbs]" (5.1.40-41). The "overwhelming brows"(the same kind of "beetle brows" that were on the the ugly mask that Mercutio wore to Capulet's feast) together with the picture of him picking over ("culling") the medicinal herbs, suggest he is the sort of character which we stereotype as the "mad scientist." "Sharp misery had worn him to the bones" (5.1.41), and in the shop of this shell of a man "a tortoise hung, / An alligator stuff'd, and other skins / Of ill-shaped fishes" (5.1.42-44). The shop has, or used to have, displays to entice customers, but the apothecary has all but given up on the possibility of enticing anyone, for on his shelves "A beggarly account [assortment] of empty boxes, / Green [crude, unfired] earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds, / Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses, / Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show" (5.1.45-48). "Cakes of roses" are rose petals pressed into cake form, used to sweeten clothes lying in chests, but the petals need to be fresh, and these "old cakes of roses" will never be sold.

Romeo calls the apothecary out of his shop, shows him forty gold coins (a lot of money, even for someone who isn't so poor), and demands poison. The poison which Romeo demands has to be strong, so strong "that the trunk may be discharged of breath / As violently as hasty powder fired / Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb" (5.1.63-65). This violent imagery gives the sense that Romeo, rather than leaving life, is going to war against it. The apothecary says he has such poisons, but the punishment for dispensing them is death. Romeo responds, "Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness, / And fear'st to die?" (5.1.68-69). Romeo's point is that the apothecary is already worse than dead, and he goes on to tell him that "The world is not thy friend nor the world's law" (5.1.72). Therefore, the apothecary should take the money, be rich, and defy his fate (as Romeo is defying his).

The apothecary assents, gives Romeo the poison, and takes the gold. Romeo boasts that the gold is worse poison to men's souls than the drugs the apothecary is forbidden to sell. In a triumphant mood, he sends the apothecary away with some advice: "Farewell: buy food, and get thyself in flesh" (5.1.84). Romeo seems happy that he himself will never again have to worry about such earthly cares as food and the money to buy it. As he leaves he looks at the packet of poison and says, "Come, cordial and not poison, go with me / To Juliet's grave; for there must I use thee" (5.1.85-86). A "cordial" is a healing medicine, it restores life. Romeo believes that the poison will restore him to his true life with Juliet.