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ACT V, SCENE II
From Mantua, we return to Friar Lawrence's cell, where his fellow monk, Friar John, has hurried in to see him. This scene has three purposes:
• To tell us why Romeo didn't get the letter. Lawrence had given the letter about
Juliet's pretended death to Friar John, who was going to Mantua. John had gone to find another monk to travel with him, but the other monk had been working with plague victims and the authorities quarantined both of them. This explanation might seem unlikely to us, but in Shakespeare's day, the plague was an ever-present threat and quarantines weren't unusual.
• To give us the feeling that fate (or Providence) was working against the lovers.
Look at the string of coincidences. The letter would have arrived safely: if Friar Lawrence had asked someone else to deliver it; if John hadn't decided to ask his friend to travel with him; if his friend hadn't been tending the sick; if the authorities hadn't arrived just as the monks were leaving; if the marriage hadn't been moved ahead by a day.
• To show us that time is closing in. There are only three hours left until Juliet will awake.
Some readers find some internal inconsistencies in this play. For example, earlier, Juliet tells the Nurse she's praised Romeo thousands of times, when she's only known him a day.
Here, the Friar worries that Juliet will be angry with him because Romeo doesn't know yet of their plans. Even if the letter had gotten through, they say, the marriage had originally been planned for a later day, and Romeo wouldn't have known to come yet.
Other readers assume that Friar Lawrence simply means that Juliet will be upset that Romeo hasn't heard about anything that's happened. He runs to be there when she wakes up, so he can hide her in his cell until Romeo comes.