Act Three, Scene Five of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet represents the culmination of a mounting disconnect between Juliet and her family, with three key parental figures in her life forsaking her at a vulnerable time when she implores them for help. A scene that begins with love and a trace of hope, as Romeo departs from Juliet’s bedroom at dawn, ends in bitterness and despair, as her father, Capulet, demands Juliet marry Paris or leave home. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, enters the scene misinterpreting the source of Juliet’s sadness and fails to console her in the face of her father’s threats. The nurse, a motherly figure to whom Juliet has most confided, makes a faint attempt to defend her, and ultimately exits by providing trite advice that moves Juliet closer towards her breaking point. Physical distance between characters, the absence of eye contact, and a series of sharp contrasts – her father’s violence against a peaceful backdrop, Juliet’s desperation against the nonchalance of her mother, and her nurse’s dismissive insincerities in response to Juliet’s dismissive coldness in response to Juliet’s genuine pleas – characterize the scene, symbolizing the deep disconnect between Juliet and the family figures on whom she is dependent.
The beginning of Act Three, Scene Five establishes that Juliet’s parents enter unaware of preceding events, setting the stage for a pattern of disconnection. The scene commences with Romeo and Juliet embracing for a final time at her bedroom balcony, with the rising sun shining briefly through the window onto Juliet, conveying love’s fleeting hope. The sunlight quickly vanishes as the nurse interrupts the emotional parting. Making eye contact with Romeo rather than Juliet, the nurse cautions Juliet to “be wary” of approaching family members with a hint of urgency in her voice (3.5.40). The nurse opens the balcony doors and Juliet lets Romeo out with the ominous words, “Let day in and let life out” (3.5.41). The nurse’s early entrance, while Romeo remains present, underscores her importance to Juliet and her unique position to provide support in the impending confrontation between Juliet and her parents.
Lady Capulet enters to see Juliet staring off the edge of the stage where Romeo just left, and proceeds to speak from a distance to Juliet’s back, reflecting her shallow and stunted attempts to connect with her daughter. Lady Capulet first hears Juliet utter, “send him back,” wistfully towards the audience (3.5.64). Juliet’s depression stems from Romeo’s departure, yet Lady Capulet misinterprets the source of her sadness to be from Tybalt’s demise, asking “Evermore weeping for your cousin’s death?”(3.5.71). Lady Capulet further demonstrates a stunning lack of sensitivity by her remark that “But much of grief shows still some want of wit,” essentially telling Juliet that her level of sorrow borders on pathetic (3.5.76). With Juliet’s back still to her, Lady Capulet dutifully makes the bed in which Romeo and Juliet spent the night, stopping to place Juliet’s childhood teddy bear on top. The childhood imagery represented by the teddy bear contrasts ironically with the reality of Romeo and Juliet sharing the bed the prior night and amplifies Lady Capulet’s overall detachment from the situation. Meanwhile Juliet, still focused on Romeo, mutters to herself “Let me weep for such a feeling loss”(3.5.77). To magnify the miscommunication, Lady Capulet immediately reaches the conclusion that the “same villain Romeo” incenses Juliet by still living (3.5.85). Realizing the futility of any attempt to connect with her mother, Juliet concedes all efforts and states in a mocking tone: “I never shall be satisfied with Romeo till I behold him – dead” (3.5.99). This part of Act Three, Scene Five involves no eye contact between Juliet and her mother, leaving the impression that Juliet directs the conversation herself, with her mother entirely disengaged, setting the stage for the even sharper divide to come.
Juliet only becomes fully engaged with her mother when Lady Capulet attempts to ameliorate Juliet’s mood. In response to Lady Capulet’s statement, “But now I’ll tell thee joyful tidings,” Juliet turns finally to face her mother, desperate for pleasant news, only to receive the opposite (3.5.109). After misinterpreting her daughter’s source of unhappiness, Lady Capulet now gravely misreads what would bring her joy. Lady Capulet breaks the news of Juliet’s impending marriage with a smile that starkly contrasts with Juliet’s pained facial expression. Shaking her mother’s body and begging for a reaction that reflects an ounce of understanding, Juliet exclaims, “I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam, I will not marry yet” (3.5.125-126). Her mother’s face shifts from cheerful to neutral, remaining that way throughout Juliet’s dialogue. Juliet attempts to explain “It shall be Romeo,” but reminds in a frustrating tone “whom you know I hate,” recognizing that her mother’s lack of comprehension makes it impossible for her to provide help (3.5.127). Lady Capulet responds dismissingly, “Here comes your father. Tell him so yourself,” representing a surprising casual indifference to her daughter’s distress that can only stem from a deeper detachment (3.5.129).
The scene’s tone shifts sharply when Capulet storms through the door, causing Juliet, Lady Capulet, and the nurse to jump in shock, and unmistakably establishing himself as the dominant figure. Unlike Lady Capulet, he begins in a haughty manner, “Have you delivered to her our decree?” (3.5.143). Capulet’s shift towards vehemence proceeds quickly and the force of his personality moves the mood of the scene. Capulet exclaims slowly with increasing volume “How, how, how, how?” in response to Juliet’s protests to marriage (3.5.154). With every word Capulet’s body shakes and his scowl grows. Set against the backdrop of Juliet’s serene bedroom, its décor highlighted by a teddy bear resting on pink floral bedding and soft white pillows, roses painted on her wall, and a portrait of Juliet as a toddler, Capulet’s increasingly violent outburst harshly contrasts with the childhood sanctuary into which he is an intruded, and amplifies the severed relationship between him and Juliet. He barges towards Juliet with the line, “I will drag thee on a hurdle thiter out…you baggage!” causing her to back down into a sitting position on the bed, and crawl backwards while turning her head away in fear (3.5.160-161). Lady Capulet and the nurse remain on the opposite side of the bed, even while witnessing Capulet bear down on Juliet. Lady Capulet feebly attempts to calm her husband, asking “What, are you mad?” but is readily disregarded (3.5.163). She remains uninvolved, with a stoic impression on her face, revealing the lack of responsibility she takes for Juliet. When Capulet escalates matters, forewarning “Oh my fingers itch” in a threat to strike his daughter, the nurse intervenes in a slightly more assertive manner than Lady Capulet (3.5.170). Upon being silenced by Capulet, the nurse rejoins, “May not one speak?” but ultimately retreats back to stand slouched beside Lady Capulet (3.5.182). Capulet storms out in fury, exclaiming to Juliet that if not wed on Thursday she may “Hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, For, by my soul, I’ll neer acknowledge thee” (2.5.204-205). In uncontrollable tears, Juliet darts to the far side of the bed and, on her knees begs her mother, “Is there no pity sitting in the clouds that sees into the bottom of my grief?” (3.5.208-209). Apparently unmoved, Lady Capulet’s expression remains resigned. She swiftly turns her back to her daughter, mumbling, “Talk not to me” while abruptly exiting (3.5.214).
Left threatened and abandoned by her parents, Juliet turns to the nurse who, so far, has been her primary source of comfort. Yet, she too remains aloof at this critical juncture. Juliet, still on her knees, begs “O God! O nurse, how shall this be prevented…..Some comfort, nurse,” referring to the marriage she hopes to avoid (3.5.216,224). Rising and beginning to pace, the nurse contemplates the appropriate counsel. Finally, facing the audience rather than Juliet, she says with timid uncertainty, “I think it best you married with the County”(3.5.230). Then, with more confidence she avows “O, he’s a lovely gentleman! Romeo’s a dishclout to him” (3.5.230-232). Juliet, speaking to the nurse’s back, places her hand on the nurse’s shoulder, asking “Speak’st thou from thy heart?” (3.5.239). The nurse pauses for several seconds, nervously fidgeting her fingers, and eventually moves away from Juliet towards the door declaring in a dismissive fashion “And from my soul too, else beshrew them both” (3.5.240). As she exits, the nurse hears Juliet quietly say “Amen” (3.5.241). With a troubled look, the nurse says to herself “What?” demonstrating her shock at Juliet seeming acceptance of her tidings (3.5.242). Unlike Juliet’s parents, the nurse recognizes that her words are not the message Juliet seeks, but finds herself at a loss for other advice. Her departure leaves Juliet utterly deserted.
Upon the nurse’s exit, Juliet breaks into a fury, seizing the dagger from a corner of her room and dashing towards the door where the nurse just left, screaming “O most wicked fiend! Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn or to dispraise my lord with the same tongue which she hath praised him with above compare so many thousand times?” (3.5.248-252). After moments of pause, Juliet backs away from the door and turns the dagger on herself, but rather than finish the deed, stops and declares, “I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy” (3.5.254). Her retreat from the brink of despair comes upon the realization that another person remains who could help her. Juliet places the dagger under her pillow, telling herself “If all else fail, myself have power to die,” foreshadowing her ultimate end (3.5.255).
Act Three, Scene 5 constitutes a turning point in the play. After a night of unsurpassed bliss, Juliet confronts a despairing future with Romeo’s departure into banishment. Inconsolably depressed, she has only her family to turn to for support. Yet, the three parental figures in her life not only prove themselves to be disconnected from her, but also turn on her, each in his or her own unique manner. Capulet overwhelms Juliet with his violence and threats, devastating her to a point where she is forced to seek her mother’s help. Lady Capulet displays a stunning lack of motherly affection, coldly turning her back on her daughter. It is the nurse’s insincere words, however, that push Juliet to the brink. Aware of Juliet’s true circumstances and having been her most trusted confidant, the nurse is uniquely poised to protect her, but her dismissive platitudes bring Juliet to the height of isolation. Juliet’s immediate turn to a dagger reflects the extent of despair. The scene marks the first in a pattern of suicidal threats that ends with Juliet taking her life with that instrument.