Romeo and Juliet

by: William Shakespeare

Five Key Questions

5) How does Romeo convince the reluctant Apothecary to sell him poison?

When Romeo knocks on his door and demands “A dram of poison” (V.i.60), the Apothecary resists, explaining that he could be put to death for selling deadly substances. “Such mortal drugs I have,” the Apothecary tells Romeo, “but Mantua’s law / Is death to any he that utters them” (V.i.66–67). Romeo responds by commenting on the Apothecary’s gaunt and desperate appearance, and he asks why the man should fear death or uphold the law when he himself seems so miserable:

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. (V.i.68–73)

Romeo argues that the law against selling poison prevents the Apothecary from making a living. Thus, in order to survive, he should break the law. The wordplay that Romeo uses to convey this suggestion turns on the word “afford,” which means both “able to pay” and “able to offer.” Just as the Apothecary cannot afford to live well, the law does not afford for him to live well. In order to break out of this double bind, the Apothecary must reject the law. Romeo’s reasoning appeals to the Apothecary’s stomach, and he resentfully agrees to take Romeo’s money: “My poverty, but not my will, consents” (V.i.75).