There’s something about his person that suggests he is waiting to die. Perhaps he is not aware that he is, specifically, waiting; by now, he swims so deeply in his drugged haze that any impending mortality is just a tint, a faint color on the edges of his life, a dark current that seems to move under his feet; it’s rather that the subtle murmurings of his wares occupy his mind, which struggles as it focuses on empty air, all his thoughts turned inward. Does the addling potency of his salves and poisons extend its power beyond the bottles, enseaming the air around him, rerouting his thoughts, tethering him to his trade? Or does his confusion come from another place – that his father, also in the business, was more practiced than him and understood more of the ancient art, bequeathing his knowledge and his books to a less skilled son, who apes and imitates, brewing the old formulas with exactitude, but remaining dimly aware that the deepest he plunges into the mysteries of these potions is shallow indeed? The workings of his mind immure themselves in this labyrinth of discovery. They are hostile to other notions, which are dead ends in the twisted maze of his purpose. He does not think of the future, which is uncertain (if not a fiction).
In a few moments, he will confront an apparition – young and strong, but in despair: another man at an extremity of human life. This one is charismatic and important. He has both a future and a past (a beginning and an end). He can change himself: he was once a lover, but is now just a mourner, which is what every lover becomes eventually. This sometime lover’s writhing, live flesh, contorted by grief, his manic, frenetic desperation, and his compulsion of want all make an alarming vision for the drug peddler, on whom a starving frailness and fragile cargo enforce a grave slowness. The dealer takes care not to disturb the bottles that clink in hidden places on his person. In some pocket of the stained leather apron, or in a vial that hides in his pants hem (scratching his bare feet), or in the left pants pocket, or in the right, or in the folds of his robe, there is the worst poison, the draught that, once drunk, gives the drinker no more time to live than if he’d pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. Indeed, this is precisely what this living spectre, a picture of grief whose name is Romeo, has asked for:
Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.
Marveling, the audience observes what the apothecary in his drug haze has failed to notice: Romeo in his seach for a lethal instrument has neglected completely the knife that hangs at his side. Could there be an easier and more expedient way to loose life from one’s body? Rather than trying to convince this wretch, who stubbornly refuses to commit a capital crime even at the threshold of starvation, Romeo could already be on his way home to the mausoleum where Juliet lies, the instrument of suicide echoing his trembling heart as it jostles in its bonds there strapped against his thigh. Maybe he lacks resolve. After all, taking a drink is casual and completely ordinary, and its mundanity provides an easy mean of death to any one who can forget for an instant the nature of what’s in the bottle. But plunging a blade into your abdomen is forbidden by all kinds of instinctual resistances. Another possibility is that Romeo isn’t carefully considering what that moment will be like in Juliet’s tomb. In fact, most of the plan is improvised from the very start:
Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means – O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, —
In the moment of searching, as Romeo’s brain racks itself for the particular passage that will convey him from life, a multitude of other past events align in his head, and they offer their details and circumstances to his cause. He remembers the countless hours spent alone in his room with the shades drawn, where the deprivation of his senses soothed his ravening desire. He remembers the circuitous walks around the public areas of the city, avoiding the streets where an errant word could ignite some duel of swords and emotions. He remembers Mercutio’s death and the agony of anger and loss. Blasted by grief, orderly thoughts leave Romeo’s brain to the ready improvisation of desperation. More appealing to the wild tumble in Romeo’s head is the promise of death provided by an apothecary’s euthanasia than an instrument of bloody murder. It’s useful to think of that choice as the result of the huge anger that Romeo used to destroy Tybalt, who was the best swordfighter in Verona until two days prior. In the lover’s single experience with fighting, arriving at the death of a dear friend, he learned that the violence of knives is an awful, intense proof of life until (and unless) in a moment of combat the last breath escapes one’s body. Fighting innervates the muscles and quickens one’s heartbeat. It spills blood. In a pattern of tension and relaxation of the body’s instruments, it makes the full electric sensation of life – for Romeo in that instant, chiefly grief – live in every channel of the body. It is the wellspring of thousands of individual sensations, and each one is a compelling witness of the body’s animus. Mercutio, for one, might have been desperate for that confirmation. He turned a manufactured argument into his own youthful, passionate suicide, a sexually-charged climax in dirt and sweat. Tybalt was a one that sought similar things; he came running back from safety to be speared on Romeo’s point (no less sexually than Mercutio, perhaps). The others (Sampson and Abram, Balthasar and Gregory) dare one another to ignite the brawl that they are desperate for but lack the courage to start themselves. The ‘lord’ Capulet’s fingers itch to bruise his wife and his daughter and (we suspect) have already shaken an infant or two to death. Do they long to die? Hard to claim, yet they seem to recognize in deadly violence some concentrated sensation of vitality, a precipice where feet and limbs are dangled continually and ever more precariously to arouse that feeling of bodily awareness that comes from great danger. In this manner, Romeo in his final hours does not seem to want to die at all, but only to be dead.
Romeo is in a frenzy, banging on the set, stomping his feet, and calling out for this peddler he needs: “What ho! a-po-the-car-eeeeee!” Often enough the performance is a bit showy, if only because this theater is small and we know the apothecary is right there, watching just out of sight behind the curtain. However, one sometimes-underappreciated geometry of acting is that when someone onstage is calling for someone offstage, the unseen actor has the power to wait as long as he wants before entering. Sometimes when cues are forgotten and these kinds of mistakes happen by accident, which isn’t so rare in fringe theaters, the audience is treated to a moment of somewhat barer truth than any of the planned scenes elsewhere in the play. Especially when it comes right after this display of extreme want, some voice (if not the audience) silently asks the stranded performer: “That’s great. What else have you got?” In response, Romeo will often demur and just keep calling, louder and louder, pleading for his scene partner to come on, afraid to derail from the track on which all his actions run. Occasionally, however, in this interstice, a present and alive actor will find himself dangling off the same precipice that Romeo and the other Verona youth do when they fight, hanging with completely embodied life, the immediate moment totally unplanned. The actor looks around, waiting for the next beat (of the play, of his heart), and he sees a theater, expectant faces, the audience. All present hear his heavy breaths. The audience looks back at him. They share his fear and they relish it, and as long as Romeo stays Romeo, scared and alone in the dark, and does not become an embarrassed actor, the audience doesn’t become embarrassed either. The rapt audience is dangled too, and they notice their aliveness. In this performance, as a spot-lit actor and Romeo simultaneously in one body peer into the darkness, a gaunt and dirty face materializes in the light’s margin, and speaks.
Who calls so loud?
“Who is it making all this noise?” but also, “What sort of person can cry with such strength in the world of silence?” We hear the second question in the first because by waiting, the apothecary has isolated and distilled Romeo’s vitality; he has bottled it inside the transparent walls of the stage, like one of the distillments on his person. By asserting a structural power in the flow of this performance, which is the absolute power of advancing the story, he defines all qualities of the scene moving forward: place, time, the air, the properties of the univese. Time does not pass except through his inevitable entrance. The apothecary appears as a rasping voice and a thin face all, a stooped figure with sunken eyes and trembling hands, a skin sack half-full of bones animated only by the convulsions of sickness and cancer. His abominable health cannot be over-emphasized in his manner and features, because the more deathly a companion it is to Romeo’s easy vigor, the more stark and isolated will Romeo’s pulsating body be. The audience is exhilarated when Romeo astonishes at the contempt and beggary that hangeth upon his back, the need and oppression that starveth in his eyes. They shares Romeo’s revulsion and his fear. It’s the same fear that causes us to distance ourselves from the decrepit and deformed in our daily lives. By asking for a poison that will instantly relieve him from life and its attendant sensations, Romeo actually asks to bypass the inevitable bodily decay that is the fate of all who die of age or sickness, and which the young cannot imagine suffering. The possibility of feeling even briefly these specific sensations of wasting and ebbing, as for example in one bleeding to death, are intolerable to Romeo. If the romance of the young lovers is marked by immaturity, it is the immaturity of being unable to accept pain.
Romeo and Juliet was first published in the first quarto of 1597, and was therefore likely performed for the first time in the years just prior; Shakespeare was known to be in London by 1592, and the theaters were closed for plague from 1592-1593, ending a run of Henry IV. A quarter of London’s population had been lost to plague some thirty years earlier, and it recurred periodically until the Great Plague of London in the next century. 10,675 deaths were recorded in the 1592 outbreak, in a city of some 200,000. Everyone in attendance at a performance of Romeo and Juliet knew someone who had died from the disease. The play conjures repeated vigorous lives cut short by violence to manifest in only moments the destruction of families that the plague brought; in this way, its performance in Elizabethan times constituted a bringing to light and collective witnessing of an omnipresent grief.
Business is slow. When his father was alive, there was always a customer being served in the shop, plus one or two others waiting among drying herbs, disembowelled creatures, and colored powders. Ten years ago, the time when his dad finally became the memory of a funeral rather than the memory of a man, the stream of customers had slowed to a trickle, with at most two or three per day. Now, customers are even less frequent. Eight in a month is very good business, one or two is bad. How did he find himself here? The concoctions seem as powerful. Has general interest in these arcane tools waned? Has he specialized too far, too concerned with poisons and with mind-alteration? He could still cure a headache or a case of boils, he thinks. If he were to be asked.
He hears the knocking first. Someone hammers on his door, then yells out for him by the name of his trade, then claps repeatedly and loudly. The stranger knocks again. The noise cracks fissures in the apothecary’s mind and blows his thoughts into a rough chaos, a house of cards defeated completely by a draft. As the calls of this unnamed person build, so does the intensity of the apothecary’s vision of him. The caller’s eyes, yet unseen, already bore past his frail walls. In a suffusion of terror and anger, the apothecary appears and demands the identity of the hidden roars. For the first time in many years, he is scrutinized. Romeo finds in this man’s obvious poverty the means to argue for what he wants, which is to trade his earthly wealth for that most precious distillment:
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.
The drug peddler steps away to retrieve the poison, but he doesn’t look on the shelves or in the medicine chest. He is looting his person for bottles: an amber one in the left pocket of his leather apron, a black flask wrapped in tattered papers in the right. A thin jar of clear glass with a dark sludge inside leans out of the pocket of his shirt. They are all wrong. He finds a vial with a tiny cork in the hem of his pants, but returns it to its place after peering at it closely for a long moment. He “finds” the amber bottle again and moves it to a different hiding place. He knows what he is looking for. He remembers the black day when he precipitated it and could not find the courage to throw it away. Finally he senses an unseen weight in one of the hidden folds of his rags, and pulls out a small, chipped flacon stoppered with wood and wax. He holds it to the light. The powder inside has dusted the interior, and it filters the stage light like a dusty window does a sunbeam. He already knows it is the right one.
Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.
Each actor in a play has not only complete knowledge of how a story will end, but also a detailed knowledge of both the events for which his character is not a witness and the mechanisms by which they are staged. Unfortunately for actors, theater thrives when it is suffused with possibility: the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, or how events will thereafter unfold. Executing a compelling performance is in large part a process of un-knowing what is known; of emptying the mind of all preparation and expectation so that when a line is said or a sword is swung, one must look to one’s brain for a reaction the way a person does in ordinary life, and then choose the correct one because rehearsal has identified and made specific that possibility among the many changing and less-defined other ones that some scenario might generate. When the apothecary takes out his vial of poison, his desire to tell Romeo of its terrible power manifests spontaneously in Shakespeare’s lines even as he sells it. But the actor, too, remembers a line he heard earlier in the play, as he wandered backstage, a line cried out in grief, reaching out unwittingly toward Romeo:
Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.
Romeo alone killed the most precise and practiced swordsmen of Verona’s street brawls. Tybalt was known to a pitiless fighter with perfect form, who spent at least as much time refining his swordsmanship as Romeo did wandering forlornly in the streets after dark. How did he lose to Romeo? Does some extreme quantity of fury and grief compensate for a lack of skill? Does intensity of passion and depth of feeling matter most? Or was Tybalt’s ability overblown, just part of Mercutio’s elaborate mockery of him? The actor playing the apothecary wonders these things. When he speaks, he sees a wild lover already unravelled by sorrow, and his actor’s outside vantage point furnishes him with an additional, supernatural knowledge of Tybalt’s killer, which the apothecary only knows as the frail boy before him. He speaks of the overwhelming power of his drugs using an idle phrase – don’t worry, you could be twenty times greater than you are and this would still kill you instantly – that acquires a double meaning through this rememberance of overhearing Lady’s Capulet’s line. The repeated words are both mundane, and they simultaneously conjure, deride, and deny the possibility that Romeo’s strength, his vitality, is in any way extraordinary – that although we might allow the protagonist to cheat death for narrative convenience once or a thousand times, or that he might fake it masterfully at Juliet’s tomb so that he can then be revived to tell his story several times a week for a month-long run, what is inside the bottle cannot be evaded by anyone. Of this the apothecary is certain.
The never-ending cycle of time and wordly events is instead for him a spiral. Last week (or was it a month ago?) when he met Romeo, his starvation wasn’t so advanced that the feasts of bread, meat, and fruit he buys with his newfound wealth should have failed to revive his body, and yet. And yet. Some invisible barrier exists between his blood and the very real nourishment that he consumes. The food tastes rich, it gives him energy, but still his life-force (a soul?) is tugged gently and persistently away from his body, rank disease having already made his organs too weak a vessel to carry health. He does think of the future now, which manifests as a seemingly-perpetual cloudiness of the sky, where tendrils of distant storms or wide, slate-gray plains are drawn into an abyssal gyre above his head. This central eye he does not look at, although he knows that it is a private vision of the blackness that he will encounter, soon, and hug in his arms.
(These are the thoughts that occur to me, night after night, as I wait in the wings, about to meet the lover Romeo who seeks the poison that will end his life.)