Dominick M. Grace (Algoma University College)
Early Theatre, 1.1 (1998): 27-38 (paper). Article 3
Romeo and Juliet 5.1, the apothecary scene, makes at best a minimal contribution to the forward action of the play. If the apothecary’s function is to be a plot device to provide Romeo with poison, why devote so much space to him? If we consider the scene as a whole, as a dramatic unit enhancing the structure of the play and clarifying Romeo’s character development; if we consider the thematic links between the action here and elsewhere; and if we consider the casting of the apothecary, we can discover the importance of the scene. A key point is that the apothecary is linked to Friar Lawrence. The two characters function as foils and as thematic contrasts, serving to clarify our understanding of Romeo’s actions.
In Romeo and Juliet, act 5 scene 1, Romeo devotes sixteen lines to describing a minor character, the apothecary, who appears only in this scene. Why? For that matter, why did Shakespeare write this scene at all? Its contribution to the forward action of the play is minimal. Furthermore, Romeo’s behaviour here is, on the face of it, inappropriate. He just learned Juliet is dead; we would not expect him to muse over the condition of a poor apothecary at such a critical moment. And if the apothecary’s sole role in the play is to provide Romero with poison, why devote such effort to describing him, especially since a short explanatory speech from Romeo in scene three could explain much more economically how he acquired the poison.