Then I defy you, stars.
On Wednesday morning, on a street in Mantua, a cheerful Romeo describes a wonderful dream he had the night before: Juliet found him lying dead, but she kissed him, and breathed new life into his body. Just then, Balthasar enters, and Romeo greets him happily, saying that Balthasar must have come from Verona with news of Juliet and his father. Romeo comments that nothing can be ill in the world if Juliet is well. Balthasar replies that nothing can be ill, then, for Juliet is well: she is in heaven, found dead that morning at her home. Thunderstruck, Romeo cries out “Then I defy you, stars” (5.1.24).
He tells Balthasar to get him pen and paper (with which he writes a letter for Balthasar to give to Montague) and to hire horses, and says that he will return to Verona that night. Balthasar says that Romeo seems so distraught that he is afraid to leave him, but Romeo insists. Romeo suddenly stops and asks if Balthasar is carrying a letter from Friar Lawrence. Balthasar says he is not, and Romeo sends his servant on his way. Once Balthasar is gone, Romeo says that he will lie with Juliet that night. He goes to find an apothecary, a seller of drugs. After telling the man in the shop that he looks poor, Romeo offers to pay him well for a vial of poison. The Apothecary says that he has just such a thing, but that selling poison in Mantua carries the death sentence. Romeo replies that the Apothecary is too poor to refuse the sale. The Apothecary finally relents and sells Romeo the poison. Once alone, Romeo speaks to the vial, declaring that he will go to Juliet’s tomb and kill himself.Read a translation of Act 5, scene 1 →
At his cell, Friar Lawrence speaks with Friar John, whom he had earlier sent to Mantua with a letter for Romeo. He asks John how Romeo responded to his letter (which described the plan involving Juliet’s false death). Friar John replies that he was unable to deliver the letter because he was shut up in a quarantined house due to an outbreak of plague. Friar Lawrence becomes upset, realizing that if Romeo does not know about Juliet’s false death, there will be no one to retrieve her from the tomb when she awakes. (He does not know that Romeo has learned of Juliet’s death and believes it to be real.) Sending for a crowbar, Friar Lawrence declares that he will have to rescue Juliet from the tomb on his own. He sends another letter to Romeo to warn him about what has happened, and plans to keep Juliet in his cell until Romeo arrives.Read a translation of Act 5, scene 2 →
The sequence of near misses in this section reveals the inescapable work of fate. There is no reason for the friar’s plan to go wrong. But an outbreak of plague forces Friar John into quarantine and prevents him from delivering Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo, while Balthasar seeks out Romeo with news of Juliet’s death. Just as the audience senses an inviolable fate descending on Romeo, so too does Romeo feel himself trapped by fate. But the fate the audience recognizes and the fate Romeo sees as surrounding him are very different. The audience knows that both Romeo and Juliet are bound to die; Romeo knows only that fate has somehow tried to separate him from Juliet. When Romeo screams “Then I defy you, stars” he is screaming against the fate that he believes is thwarting his desires (5.1.24). He attempts to defy that fate by killing himself and spending eternity with Juliet: “Well, Juliet,” he says, “I will lie with thee tonight” (5.1.34). Tragically, it is Romeo’s very decision to avoid his destiny that actually brings fate about. In killing himself over the sleeping Juliet he ensures their ultimate double suicide.
Through the irony of Romeo’s defiance rebounding upon himself, Shakespeare demonstrates the extreme power of fate: nothing can stand in its way. All factors swing in its favor: the outbreak of the plague, Balthasar’s transmission of the message of Juliet’s death, and Capulet’s decision to move Juliet’s wedding date. But fate is also something attached to the social institutions of the world in which Romeo and Juliet live. This destiny, brought about by the interplay of societal norms from which Romeo and Juliet cannot escape, seems equally powerful, though less divine. It is a fate created by man, and man’s inability to see through the absurdity of the world he has created. Now, in this scene, we see Romeo as agent of his own fate. The fortune that befalls Romeo and Juliet is internal rather than external. It is determined by the natures and choices of its two protagonists. Were Romeo not so rash and emotional, so quick to fall into melancholy, the double suicide would not have occurred. Had Juliet felt it possible to explain the truth to her parents, the double suicide might not have occurred. But to wish someone were not as they were is to wish for the impossible. The love between Romeo and Juliet exists precisely because they are who they are. The destructive, suicidal nature of their love is just as much an aspect of their natures, as individuals and couple.
In the character of the Apothecary, once again, Shakespeare provides a secondary example of the paradoxical and pressing social forces at work in the play. The Apothecary does not wish to sell poison because it is illegal, banned by society. But it is the same society that makes him poor, and which insists on validity of the differences between rich and poor. The Apothecary is pushed to sell the poison by external forces that he, like Romeo, feels completely unable to control.