The Poison Aria: Diving into the Shakespeare

In this post, I will analyze and compare Juliet’s soliloquy in the Shakespeare: “Farewell, God knows when we shall meet again” and the Poison aria in Gounod’s opera. I recently saw a friend and colleague sing this aria in a competition, and it really inspired me to get more acquainted with the drama and poetry of the piece. The challenging and somewhat frenetic music combined with the pressure of a dramatic performance really makes this aria difficult to perform and I really want to dig back in and reshape how I’m performing this aria. 

I found this amazing YouTube channel called “Shakespeare with Sarah” where Sarah covers everything Shakespeare from analyses of monologues and plays to auditioning and acting tips. I watched Sarah’s “An Actor’s Guide to “Farewell, God knows when we shall meet again”, which brought a lot of understanding of this monologue, the aria, and Juliette as a character in this specific scene, and as a whole. 

The first thing that Sarah discusses is having the appropriate approach to a monologue of this enormous size.  She describes this monologue as a “snowball speech” where it just keeps growing and growing and growing. But instead of an out of control mess, one must figure out the exact moments that it builds to each next step and why. How many steps total throughout the monologue (or aria)? It’s helpful to approach the aria with this in mind because it is long, dramatic, and vocally challenging. It’s crucial to sustain the voice, drama, and energy throughout the aria and scene. 

Sarah goes through the monologue breaking apart each dramatic moment and defining those “steps”. After having a deeper understanding of the monologue, I can translate some of these dramatic moments directly to the aria. 

“Farewell, God knows when we shall meet again” 

At the beginning of the aria, we don’t have this “farewell” moment, but I can insert that same feeling of farewell during the instrumental introduction. She may not be saying goodbye to anyone literally, but she is getting ready to make that fateful decision. In the aria, Juliette does refer to God “Dieu!” – which is different grammatically than the monologue but there are so many ways to interpret this word. Is it exclamatory or reactionary? Or more religious, pleading to God himself? 

Another point from Sarah: “How do you feel about what you’re saying?” When does it change between intimate and introspective and more outward?

“I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,

That almost freezes up the heat of life”

This phrase is presented almost word for word in the aria! According to Sarah, this is the next step where Juliet turns more inward than the outward “Dieu!” It’s already a very quick change in emotion and action. Sarah clarifies that the word “thrills” is a verb here, not a noun, so it is important to feel the “cold fear”.  It’s almost as if Juliet is experiencing the effects of the potion before she’s even taken it. 

There are quite a few lines of the monologue that are not included in the libretto, such as “I’ll call them back again to comfort me. Nurse! What should she do here?” Although this aspect isn’t in the aria, I can still play with the idea that she is going back and forth between wanting to risk everything and take the potion, yet also being afraid and wanting comfort and relief. This idea shows Juliet’s uncertainty and fear, while the next line depicts her maturity and understanding of her fate: “My dismal scene I needs must act alone.”

“Come, vial” 

This moment is quite easily linked to the aria’s “Viens! Viens!” which leads into the arioso section. According to Sarah this is a huge decision-making moment for Juliet. There is literal space in the text which implies that there is a moment for action to take place. In this scene, it’s when Juliet grabs the potion. This idea of taking action led me to question: “When does Juliette get the vial?” When LOT staged it, the Friar left it by her side and she didn’t grab it until the end of the arioso section right before “O Romeo! Je bois a toi/O Romeo, I drink to you!” I would like to play with the idea of Juliette taking the potion at the very beginning of the aria before “Dieu!” Another option could be after “quel frisson court dans mes veines/what cold thrills through my veins, si ce breuvage était sans pouvoir?/what if this potion does not work?” Having the vial in hand right at the beginning of the scene could create more space to depict the back and forth and conflict in both Juliette’s mind and physical action. On the other hand, it may create more tension or pull towards the potion if she doesn’t pick it up right away. It’s really amazing to see how many different stories and emotions you can depict just by placing one physical action in a different place. This is definitely something I need to physically play with and see what really makes sense.

The next stanza again shows Juliette’s inner conflict as well as her immaturity and desperation which clouds her judgment:

What if this mixture do not work at all?

Shall I be married then to-morrow morning?

No, no: this shall forbid it: lie thou there.

[Laying down her dagger]

Sarah brings up a good point about Juliet’s anxiety regarding getting married. She is already married to Romeo and to get married twice is a mortal sin, and would send her to hell. I kind of always just pictured her not liking Paris and wanting to be with Romeo. But there is a deeper religious and sacred belief fueling Juliet’s thoughts and decisions here. Although she is young and may seem immature, she is also deeply spiritual and wise in her faith. Her answer to avoid being married twice is to kill herself with the dagger. This shows how her judgment is clearly clouded by her love for Romeo; suicide is also a mortal sin and would send her to hell.

Another tip from Sarah: It’s really important to “drop” the character after study, rehearsal, etc. Juliet is a very dramatic character and she really goes into the depths of the mind, especially in this scene. Investigating feelings of desperation and suicide can take a toll on the actor/singer so it’s important to find a way to leave that character and story on the stage as to not take on those feelings as your own. 

I definitely ran into this problem last summer. It was hard working in almost complete isolation, learning the music, studying the libretto, plot and characters. I am a very empathetic and emotional person, which I think contributes to my joy and ability in performing, but it also can make it difficult to distinguish my emotions and thoughts from others sometimes. This is such a helpful and important reminder to find ways to take care of yourself and find stability in self while learning a psychologically challenging and dark role.

Okay– back to the monologue. 🙂  So far, here are the dramatic steps Sarah has laid out. 

  1. “Ah, oh my gosh, I’m freaking out!”
  2. “Wait, what if this mixture doesn’t work at all?”

Juliette begins this scene in an already very stressed state. Then all the “what ifs?” start to come into play. Juliette is imagining all the horrible things that could go wrong and trying to figure out how to deal with them. Sarah makes an amazing point about Juliet and how this trajectory of thought shows how practical-minded she is! She is constantly trying to figure out solutions to her problems. 

Another “what if..?”

“What if it be a poison, which the friar

Subtly hath minister’d to have me dead

Lest in this marriage he should be dishonour’d,

Because he married me before to Romeo?”

This idea that Juliet thinks the friar may be trying to poison Juliet is not in the opera, but it can still inform how Juliette feels and acts in this aria. During LOT’s production I definitely tried to portray Juliette’s skepticism and fear of the friar’s plans in his enticing aria before the poison aria. 

Again she shows her yo-yoing thoughts in the next line: 

I fear it is: and yet, methinks, it should not,

For he hath still been tried a holy man.” 

She fears that it is poison, but she also knows that the friar is a holy man. Sarah suggests that this phrase is also a big action moment. She asks “What is she doing here? About to take it? Pushing it away?” I imagine that the line “I fear it is” could be her pushing the vial away, and then “for he hath… holy man” could be her being pulled back into it again. This quick-paced tension and back and forth helps to build the compounding tension/snowball effect.

“How if, when I am laid into the tomb,

I wake before the time that Romeo

Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point!

Shall I not, then, be stifled in the vault,

To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,

And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?

In this line, Juliet begins the “what ifs” again. This statement is almost hard to decipher, but Sarah helpfully explains that Juliet is nervous about waking before Romeo comes and suffocating to death, because the tomb is sealed. It seems like every road leads to… death. This is yet another idea in the monologue that is not present in the aria, but it helps to imagine the physical scene that Juliet is imagining and informs how she may be feeling. It’s interesting that she’s just imagining this scene… for a long time I kind of imagined her singing this aria in the actual tomb– but that is not the case. She’s in her bedroom, it’s an intimate and quiet night, and the chaotic storm and fearful scene is in her mind and body. 

This is definitely a very important discovery in analyzing this monologue and comparing it to Gounod’s aria. There are so many specific thoughts in the monologue that fuel how Juliet is feeling; in the aria, the text is missing some of those specific ideas but Gounod’s music seems to almost fill those gaps. 

Regarding the drama within the music, this can be tricky as a singer. In my studies and practice, I have found that I can carry some of the emotion and drama in my voice. It seems like that would be super smart and intuitive, right? Of course it’s important to have the emotion in mind and connect the physical body to those emotions, but it can also hinder or strain the voice. 

So dramatic step number 2 in this monologue is Juliet’s “what if’s?” This next stanza presents us with the next dramatic level or step: 

Or, if I live, is it not very like,

The horrible conceit of death and night,

Together with the terror of the place,

As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,

Where, for these many hundred years, the bones

Of all my buried ancestors are packed:

Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,

Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,

At some hours in the night spirits resort;

Right off the bat, the poetic phrase is stretched over more time and contributes to the growing intensity and tension. At the end of the stanza Juliet refers to “spirits.” Here, Sarah makes a very important contextual and critical point about societal beliefs, spirits and the supernatural. People of the Renaissance believed in spirits and took supernatural experiences as very serious and scary. I think this is important to consider in the aria as the word “fantomes!/spirits!” is a turning point from the chaotic recitative section back into the arioso section. Maybe the phantoms or spirits Juliet is envisioning brings some sort of comfort or clarity to her thought process. 

This next section of the monologue gets a little muddy with Shakespearean language, and Sarah really breaks it down well. Sarah makes clear that “Alack” should be exclaimed much like a swear word and “O” should be guttural and be a massive, deep sound coming from the core, not just a poetic simple “O!” Mandrakes are weird creatures that when torn from the earth they scream horribly (apparently they’re a thing in Harry Potter too — sorry I don’t know HP very well). 

The second half of this stanza begins to get more descriptive and we experience Juliet’s growing distress through the gruesome images coming to her mind. She really thinks that she is on the verge of losing it. The line “As with a club, dash out my desperate brains?” is clearly the climax of the scene when Juliet finally commits to the thought of possible suicide. 

​​ Alack, alack, is it not like that I,

So early waking, what with loathsome smells,

And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,

That living mortals, hearing them, run mad:.

O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,

Environed with all these hideous fears?

And madly play with my forefather’s joints?  

And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud?

And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,

As with a club, dash out my desperate brains? 

So at this point in the monologue, basically everything is horrible and Juliet is distraught. No matter what the problem and the possible solution, her death and pain is inevitable. The potion might not work, what if the friar is trying to poison her? What if it works but she wakes before Romeo comes and dies from suffocation or loses her mind and dies by suicide? I wonder if somehow she knows that her destiny is to die… ? (Ironic juxtaposition from her Act I aria, “Je veux vivre!/I want to live!”)

O, look! methinks I see my cousin’s ghost

Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body

Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!

Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee.

In this final stanza, Juliet is hallucinating and sees Tybalt’s ghost chasing after Romeo. She cries for Tybalt to “stay” which Sarah explains is actually “stop”. I love this next point that Sarah makes: at the word “stay” Juliet realizes that she is starting to lose it, and she comes to terms with what she must do. It’s almost as if the image of Tybalt chasing Romeo is enough to push her completely mad and ride that wave of abandonment to take the potion. This really makes me more curious about Juliet’s relationship with Tybalt and the weight and effect of his presence on Juliet’s psyche and emotions.

The aria and monologue end in the same exact way: “Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee.” This is the perfect ending phrase as it elicits specific action of  finally taking the potion after an intense journey of inner conflict, questioning, and courage.

One thought on “The Poison Aria: Diving into the Shakespeare

Leave a Comment