We’ve reached it. Act 5 Scene 3. The End.
So much happens in this scene, it’s going to be a double bill over this week and the next!
Romeo’s Arrival and Death
Oh, Romeo. Poor, melodramatic Romeo. He’s spent Act 5 Scene 1 screaming “I defy you, stars!” and finding a poison to kill himself with, and now he’s made it to the Capulet tomb to visit Juliet one last time.
The contrast between Romeo here compared to Romeo of Act 1 Scene 1 is worth noting, too. Romeo in A1S1 was moping, dramatic, melancholy. And Romeo in A5S3 is… well, he’s moping, dramatic, and melancholy. Really, Romeo is a more heightened and passionate version of his same self from the start of the play – but still his same self.
At the point in the play where we would expect to be reaping the benefits of five acts’ worth of character development, why is Romeo so similar; stagnant, almost?
Because Romeo and Juliet isn’t a tragedy like King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello. It’s not one where the hero goes on a long metaphorical journey to their doom. This play has two protagonists, not one; it is largely based on the action of others inflicting doom on our hero and heroine, rather than vice versa. It is, essentially, a tragic example of where good intentions are destroyed.
So why would Romeo change? He’s not learnt anything he didn’t already know at the start of the play – apart from possibly the fact that trusting in the postal system was a stupid idea, what with the plague and all – and he’s about to act in the exact same Petrarchan-lover way as he was at the start when he was moping over Rosaline. (Rosaline! Remember her? Probably not.)
Except this scene comes with a little extra melodrama.
Romeo has arrived with his friend Balthasar (what happened to Benvolio? We will never know…) who he threatens to “tear thee joint by joint / And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs” if Balthasar tries to stop Romeo from his ‘fated course’. What happened to the pretty words of the boy in Act 1 Scene 1?
Then Romeo meets Paris in the tomb, telling him to “tempt not a desperate man… A mad man’s mercy bid thee run away”. Here we still see that same Romeo who tried to evade fighting Tybalt in Act 3 Scene 1, saying “And so, good Capulet, which name I tender / as dearly as mine own, be satisfied”. There is that pre-emptive ‘I don’t want a fight’ statement from Romeo – but of course, we know that this is a tragedy. So Romeo fights and kills Paris, who hasn’t listened to Romeo’s desperate pleading.
Romeo then has two pages of speech with which to end his time on stage. This makes for an interesting contrast with Juliet – one I’ll get to later! – as he reflects on all that has happened over the course of the last five acts. We see Romeo underselling himself, which one could harshly describe as playing victim, describing Paris as being buried in a “triumphant grave”; he then sees Juliet and returns to his eloquent language on her beauty, which “makes / This vault a feasting presence, full of light”; then, finally he reflects on death and what awaits him.
So ends Romeo, with “a righteous kiss / A dateless bargain to engrossing Death / …Here’s to my love!”. He toasts his love, and departs – a passive death for a passive character, one might argue. After all, poison would hardly have been considered a ‘manly’ or ‘honourable’ death – and as we know from Mercutio, as he cried “O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!” when Romeo first tried to not go all macho and stab Tybalt in the fight scene.
Perhaps Shakespeare did it to show how young and naïve Romeo is. Perhaps he did it to show how dramatic Romeo can be, in his capacity as a Petrarchan lover. Perhaps he did it to contrast with Juliet’s death…
… But more on that next week!