Act Five, Scene One
Romeo wanders the streets of Mantua, mulling over a dream he had the night before where Juliet was dead. Then, Balthasar arrives from Verona with the news of Juliet's apparent suicide.
Romeo immediately orders Balthasar to prepare a horse so he can rush to Verona and see Juliet's body. Meanwhile, he writes a letter for Balthasar to give to Lord Montague, explaining the situation. Finally, before he leaves Mantua, Romeo buys some poison from a poor Apothecary.
Act Five, Scene Two
Back in Verona, Friar John, who was supposed to deliver the letter to Romeo telling him about the plan, apologizes to Friar Laurence for his inability to complete the task. Apparently, during his journey, some people believed that Friar John carried the pestilence (the plague) and locked him in a house.
Friar Laurence realizes that this new wrinkle derails his plan, so he immediately orders a crowbar so that he can rescue Juliet from the Capulet tomb.
Act Five, Scene Three
Mournful Paris and his Page stand guard at Juliet’s tomb so that no one will rob the vault. Romeo and Balthasar arrive, and Paris tries to restrain Romeo, who is focused on breaking into the tomb. Paris recognizes Romeo as the man who killed Tybalt, and believes that he has come to desecrate Juliet's corpse. Their argument escalates into a sword fight, and Romeo kills Paris. Paris' Page rushes away to fetch the City Watchmen.
Romeo opens the tomb and finds Juliet's body. Understandably devastated, he sits next to his beloved and drinks the Apothecary’s poison, kisses Juliet, and then dies. Meanwhile, Friar Laurence arrives at the Capulet tomb to find Paris’s body outside the door.
As planned, the potion wears off and Juliet awakens in the tomb, finding Romeo's dead body beside her. When she sees the poison, she realizes what has happened. She kisses Romeo in hopes that the poison will kill her as well, but it doesn't work. From outside the tomb, Friar Laurence begs Juliet to exit the vault and flee, but she chooses to kill herself with Romeo’s dagger.
Soon thereafter, Prince Escalus arrives, accompanied by the City Watchmen and the patriarchs of the feuding families. Lord Montague announces that Lady Montague has died from a broken heart as a result of Romeo's banishment. Friar Laurence then explains what has happened to Romeo and Juliet, and Balthasar gives the Prince the letter from Romeo, which confirms the Friar's tale.
To make amends for Juliet's death, Lord Montague promises to erect a golden statue of her for all of Verona to admire. Not to be outdone, Capulet promises to do the same for Romeo. The Prince ends the play by celebrating the end of the feud, but lamenting the deaths of the young lovers, claiming, "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" (5.3.308-9).
As the plot of Romeo and Juliet spirals to its mournful end, it is easy to forget that the story takes place over a few days. Regardless, Romeo and Juliet are so certain of their love that they choose to accept death rather than being separated. As noted in the Analysis for Act 3, Romeo and Juliet mature considerably over the course of the play, and learn to accept the tragic edge of life more fully than their parents can.
Death is the most prominent theme in Act 5, although Shakespeare has foreshadowed the tragic turn of events throughout the play. However, Shakespeare ultimately frames death as a heroic choice. For example, Romeo’s eventually commits suicide because of his unwavering devotion to Juliet, which is a contrast to the cowardly motivations for his suicide attempt in Act 3. When Romeo hears of Juliet's death, he makes an active choice, ordering Balthasar to prepare a horse immediately. Despite the desperate circumstances, Romeo shows that he has learned from Juliet's forward planning by purchasing the poison before going to Verona. He wants to embrace death as Juliet has, and plans to take his life in a show of solidarity with his beloved.
When Romeo buys his poison, Shakespeare describes the scene as if Romeo were purchasing the poison from Death himself - most notably in his description of the Apothecary: "Meagre were his looks. / Sharp misery had worn him to the bones" (5.1.40-1). Symbolically, Romeo is actively seeking out death. Shakespeare shows that death will not come upon Romeo unawares, but is willing to work in service of the heartbroken young man. In this way, Shakespeare aligns Romeo with the classical archetype of the tragic hero who accepts his terrible fate head on. Much in the way that the characters in Richard III dream about their fates in the final act of that play, Romeo also has a dream which foretells his fate. He says, "I dreamt my lady came and found me dead" (5.1.6). The dream both foreshadows the ending and suggests that greater forces – perhaps the “plague” that Mercutio tried to bring forth – have come together to ensure a tragic ending.
The events of Act 5 do not provide a clear answer to the question of whether Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of fate. Instead, one could continue to argue that the tragic ending is the result of individual decisions - most notably, Friar Laurence's complicated plan. The success of this plan is highly contingent on timing and circumstance. What if Friar John had not been waylaid? What if Romeo had arrived at the Capulet tomb two hours later, or if Friar Laurence had arrived one hour earlier? Fate is not typically so contingent on human actions, which suggests that the most powerful force at work in Romeo and Juliet is actually the psychology of the characters. The uncertainty in these final scenes makes the play less classically tragic and yet more unique for not being fully aligned any one form.
Friar Laurence continues to advocate for moderation in the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare meant for his audience to take away the message that a lack of moderation is the reason for Romeo and Juliet's demise. Some believe that Romeo and Juliet acted too quickly and intensely on their youthful passion, and allowed it to consume them. However, this moral reading feels like an oversimplification, and ignores the complexities of their love. Instead, the idea of caution is arguably more applicable to Romeo and Juliet's families, who have allowed their feud to get out of control.
Shakespeare also uses the recurring motif of gold and silver to criticize the childishness of the feuding adults. Gold continues to represent wealth and jealousy, the vices that keep Romeo and Juliet apart. When Romeo pays the Apothecary in gold, he remarks, "There is thy gold - worse poison to men's souls" (5.1.79). Gold, as a symbol, underlies the family feuding. Even after Romeo and Juliet are dead and their families supposedly agree to peace, they still try to outdo one another by creating commemorative gold statues. Romeo recognizes the power of gold and yet repudiates it, allowing Shakespeare to create a distinction between the kinds of people who value money and those who value true love.
Though death is paramount in Act 5, love is still a major theme as well. In particular, Shakespeare employs erotic symbolism, especially in the death scene. Romeo drinks from a chalice, a cup shaped like a woman’s torso. Meanwhile Juliet says, "O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die" (5.3.169). The dagger she speaks of is Romeo's, thus highlighting the sexual overtones of her proclamation. Additionally, Shakespeare uses the word "die" ambiguously. In Shakespeare's time, "To die" could either refer to real death or sexual intercourse. Thus, even at the very end of the play, the audience could interpret Juliet's final statement as her intention to commit suicide or her desire to engage with Romeo sexually. The sexual nature of their relationship stands in stark contrast to Juliet's arranged marriage to Paris, which is based on politics and greed, not love.
It is important to note that in Romeo and Juliet, the moral conventions of marriage, religion, and family are all stained by human folly. The purity of Romeo and Juliet's love has no place in a world filled with moral corruption. Shakespeare frames Romeo and Juliet's 'tale of woe' as a tragic lesson to their their families, which makes an impact on the audience as well. The Montagues and Capulets reconcile over a shared sense of loss, rather than moral or societal pressure. The audience comes away from the play hoping that these families have learned from the tragic events.
However, one analysis of Friar Laurence suggests the issue is a bit more complicated. As noted previously, the Friar is more of a shrewd politician than a pious clergyman. He manipulates a love-and-death situation for the sake of political peace. He does this by creating a potion that has remarkable powers - as if he is playing God. By giving Juliet the potion, Friar Laurence puts her in a Christ-like position (since they both ‘died’ and then were resurrected from a tomb). Friar Laurence's failure could be read as a criticism of hubris, as well as punishment for an earthly man trying to enact divine power - thus reinforcing the secular nature of the play.