When one thinks of Romeo & Juliet, one usually thinks of a tragic love story. Although it is true that love is a predominant theme in the play, perhaps Shakespeare was trying to tell the reader something else. One lesson can be revealed in the form of poison.
Poison is a major factor in this play; in fact, it is what directly causes the deaths of Romeo and Juliet themselves. The first time poison is even mentioned in the play is in the beginning of Act 2 Scene 3. Before Romeo talks to Friar Lawrence about his affair with Juliet, Friar Lawrence is tending his herbs, musing about the badness and goodness of plants. He says that in some “plants, herbs, and stones… to the earth some special good doth give.” For instance, many herbs can be used as medicines, to cure diseases, which was especially rampant in Shakespeare’s times. However, “if strained from that fair use, revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.” In other words, despite herbs’ medicinal uses, it can if used improperly be a lethal thing, such as drugs and in this case, poison. So, to sum it up, plants are naturally good things, but if mishandled, they can do harm instead of good.
However, that is not the key point. The key point comes later when the Friar states “in man as well as herbs- grace and rude will; and where the worser is predominant.” Here, we see the Friar comparing man to herbs. So all that was stated in the previous paragraph can also be applied to man. Man, according to Friar Lawrence, is naturally good, but if mishandled, they can do bad. And since “the worser is predominant,” usually there are more of bad men than good men.
All of this then leads to a big question. You know by now that if mishandled, men can become bad. But the problem is- mishandled by who? Or what, in this matter? To answer this question, let’s look at the few places where poison is mentioned in the play. One mention is when upon Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, Lady Capulet tells Juliet she will “send to one in Mantua, where [Romeo] doth live, shall give such an unaccustomed dram that he shall soon keep Tybalt company.” To paraphrase it: Lady Capulet will send a person to Mantua, Romeo’s place of banishment, and have him kill Romeo through the use of poison. Now, what causes Lady Capulet to have this kind of motive? Obviously, it is the death of Tybalt, which results in anger. But more specifically, the underlying cause is her anger at the Montagues.
Another mention of poison is the poison Romeo buys from the apothecary in Act 5 Scene 1. The apothecary knew fully well that the poison Romeo wanted to buy was illegal to sell. He knew this morally, and this again can be referred to as Friar’s belief that all plants are naturally good. However, in the end, the apothecary ends up selling this poison, because Romeo pays “thy poverty and not thy will.” In other words, the drug dealer ends up accepting the money due to his poorness. One can see here of the “mishandling” of the plant of the apothecary. One can say that the apothecary is being “mishandled” by his own poverty, but in fact, he is being mishandled by something much larger, something in which I will reveal soon.
The last mention of poison is Juliet’s sleeping potion. Although it is technically not poison, it does give the effect of a poison, which is death. Now, what was Juliet’s primary reason to have this potion? First of all, it was so she couldn’t marry Paris. One can translate that into so that she can defy her parents’ wishes. So let’s put that as the primary motive.
Looking back at the mentions of poison that I have written about, one should be able to see a pattern. In the first mention (by Lady Capulet), the motive was hatred of the Montagues, or in essence the Montague-Capulet feud. The second mention (by apothecary) was motivated by poverty. The last mention (the paragraph above) was motivated by Juliet’s desire to defy her parents’ wishes. Notice that all of this is pointing to society, in general. The feud between the two families was in a sense societal, poverty is in a sense caused by society, and Juliet’s defiance is a result of the societal value in which daughters had to marry whoever their parents wanted them to marry to. Overall, you can say that society itself is the cause of these poisons.
And when I say “poisons,” I mean it literally, as in the three poisons that I have mentioned, and figuratively. Because, if you think about it, society was the cause of the eventual ultimate poison- the poison which killed the love between Romeo and Juliet. What was a sweet, naturally good love between Romeo and Juliet was eventually poisoned by society- the feud, the apothecary’s poverty, etc.
So, back to the beginning. What was Shakespeare trying to tell the audience through poison? Perhaps it is to illustrate the theme of society’s hold on the individual. That the individual cannot be free and do what he wants freely. That society is in a sense a poison to the individual, causing each and every one to go bad, and thus, in this case, resulting in a tragedy. Referring to what the Friar said about plants, we the individuals are like the plants, naturally good. But because of the constraints of society, we are being mishandled by it, and thus, we all turn into “poison.” I believe that this was what Shakespeare was trying to show.