Two and forty hours—that’s how long it is that Juliet, after taking the position she acquired from Friar Laurence, will borrow the “likeness of” death. Two and forty hours—that’s how long Juliet is to appear as dead in order to escape her marriage with Paris and find her Romeo, who will be (should be) there in the tomb waiting for her with the knowledge that she (his Juliet) is alive and just pretending.
“And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk deathThou shalt continue two and forty hours,And then awake as from a pleasant sleep.”
Act 4, Scene 1, lines 104-106, Romeo and Juliet
The Friar says.
How Long is Two and Forty Hours?
Two and forty hours is 42 hours. Simple enough. That means, that Juliet had the potion and was to wake up 42 hours from when she took it. She is took appear as dead just short of two days.
The structure of the sentence is following that of other languages, such as German, which is “zweiundvierzig,” which transliterated is two and forty hours.
The time was meant to be enough time for Romeo to make his way to the tomb, after getting the letter sent from the Friar. He was to be there and get Juliet out the tomb.
Romeo and Juliet: Six and Twenty Hours
In the 2013 movie Romeo & Juliet, adapted by Julian Fellowes, there is a scene in which Friar Lawrence tells Juliet how to escape the clutches of marrying County Paris so she can be with her banished husband, Romeo.
In the scene, the Friar (played by Paul Giamatti) is skilled with the “knowledge to concoct a mix that will unlock’” Juliet from her present predicament.
The scene is very different to how this particular moment works in other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet such as Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1968 rendition. It also breaks free of the two and forty hours theme. For some reason, Fellow’s felt that two and forty hours was much too long and shortened the time to six and twenty hours.
The question: why shorten the time?
The answer: to speed up the story. Though the story itself does not change—nor does the time for the audience—perhaps Fellow’s just wanted to give the impression of time moving more swiftly, giving even more credence to how fast and passionate these lover’s actions are.
During the scene with Friar Laurence, the film begins to visually depict what would happen once Juliet took this potion; the Friar relates to her the events of his plan to save Juliet from an unwanted marriage:
Then go home, be merry . . . and agree to marry Paris. Oh, I am in earnest, Juliet. For I have knowledge to concoct a mix that will unlock you from your present cell. If you but find the nerve to swallow it. Tomorrow’s Thursday. Now tonight, make sure you sleep alone.
And send your prying nurse out of the room. Lie down upon your bed, then take this phial . . . and drink the clouded juice to the last drop. Soon, soft drowsiness will close your eyes. Your pulse will cease, and there will be no sign of life within you. Neither warmth, nor breath, nor roses in your cheeks nor on your lips, but stiff and stark and every sign of death. And in this borrowed likeness of a corpse, you will continue for six and twenty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant dream.
So Paris, on his wedding morn, will come to find his bride is dead and ripe for burial in the great vault where Capulets do lie. While I will write with news to Romeo. He and I will be there when he will wake you with a kiss. And he will carry you to some far distant place, where all your anguish shall become pure joy
“Romeo and Juliet” 01:16:48-19:23
A montage of images fills the screen as this monologue progresses from scene to scene:
“Now tonight, make sure you sleep alone. And send your prying nurse out of the room.”
Juliet is with her nurse. Her nurse kisses her on the cheek, and Juliet shows the nurse out of her room.
“Lie down upon your bed, then take this phial . . . and drink the clouded juice to the last drop.”
Juliet reached for the phial in a small chest near her bedside. She takes the potion and falls upon her bed.
“Soon, soft drowsiness will close your eyes . . .”
Juliet’s nurse finds her lying in what appears a deep slumber, only to find that Juliet looks dead; Juliet’s mother and father come into the room, stricken with horror, tears run down their eyes as they find her appearing dead.
“And in this borrowed likeness of a corpse, you will continue for six and 20 hours, and then awake as from a pleasant dream.”
Juliet is covered with a veil and buried in the tomb of the Capulets with a sad, crying nurse watching the processional in the foreground.
“While I will write with news to Romeo”
Romeo is alive, and well and we see him receive the letter that the Friar has sent him, telling Romeo of the plan that will end the separation between him and his wife, Juliet. He smiles as he reads the letter.
“He and I will be there when he will wake you with a kiss.”
Romeo lifts the veil off Juliet and kisses her, and she awakens to find her husbands. Standing in the foreground is the smiling Friar.
“And he will carry you to some far distant place, where all your anguish shall become pure joy.”
And Juliet and her Romeo ride off together into the sunset, silhouettes set against a dulling hue of light.
“Give me the phial and talk no more of fear,” Juliet says, being sold on this hopeful story.
As viewers of the film, you are sold on this illusion, wanting Juliet to drink the phial, and wanting Romeo and Juliet to end in a different, more hopeful way.
The intention of the filmmakers when showing these images is to elicit hope in an otherwise hopeless story; the audience knows very well that there is no hope in a Romeo and Juliet film.
This scene is the first time and only time the audience sees what ‘could have been’ if the two ‘star-crossed lovers did not take their lives if the Friar was able to get the message to the banished Romeo in time to save him from going to the ‘true’ apothecary.
This is the only time audiences get to see Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. These visuals are stunning and still are the only saving grace for a poor rendition of Shakespeare’s most well-loved plays.
Two and Forty Hours In Short
In those short but important two and forty hours, Romeo and Juliet’s whole plan has fallen apart and their they are a product of their own misfortune and of their parent’s strife.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Act 5, Scene 3, lines 320-321, Romeo and Juliet