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Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, medicine


Near the midpoint of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence formulates an authoritative-sounding concept which seemingly lends itself to interpreting tragedy. Gathering "baleful weeds" and "precious juiced flowers," the Friar states that everything earthly has a virtuous use and a potential abuse:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies

In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.

For naught so vile that on the earth doth live

But too the earth some special good doth give;

Nor aught so good but, strain'd from that fair use,

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.

Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,

And vice sometime's by action dignified.

Enter Romeo.

Within the infant rind of this weak flower

Poison hath residence, and medicine power:

For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;

Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.

Two such opposed kings encamp them still

In man as well as herbs: grace and rude will;

And where the worser is predominant

Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

(II. iii. 11-26)

According to the Friar, the specific application of any object releases either the potential good or evil dwelling within it. A flower smelled is medicinal; tasted, it is poisonous. Nothing is good or evil, in the Friar's opinion, but use makes it so. The speech comments indirectly upon the human will as well as upon the properties inherent in things. The use to which the will puts objects determines mankind's redemption or damnation; the truth of this observation appears repeatedly throughout this early tragedy. For example, the gold by which the despairing Romeo later procures poison from the Apothecary can also obtain food for the starving druggist. Its right use involves health and life; misused, however, the gold becomes lethal. Romeo draws the moral:

There is they gold – worse poison to men's souls,

Doing more murder in this loathsome world

Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.

I sell the poison, thou has sold me none.

Farewell, buy food, and get thyself in flesh. (V. i. 80-84)