One of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, Romeo and Juliet is one of two tragedies written between 1590-1595. The play is based on a fourteenth-century Italian short story, or novella, yet Shakespeare’s version of the tale is distinctly different than the source text. As Shakespeare adapted the tale for the Elizabethan stage, he wove elements of Elizabethan drama and a certain level of bawdiness by including older characters that were not present in the original story. The play was well-received in its time. It remained popular through the centuries, and is still a favorite to this day. Romeo and Juliet may well vie for the top spot for Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. For many years, critics tended to see the play in less favor than Shakespeare’s more heavy handed tragedies, but the play has gained critical acceptance and is now a standard in high school curricula.
As much as Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story, it is also a play about hate. The bloody feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is the backdrop for all of the action in the play and it is the catalyst for the tragic suicides of the two lovers. One may idealize the purity of love between Romeo and Juliet, but we must pay as much attention to the hate and anger which fuel the story. Love and hate are equally tragic each in their own way.
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ESCALUS, prince of Verona
PARIS, a young nobleman, kinsman to the prince
Heads of two houses at variance with each other.
An old man, cousin to Capulet
ROMEO, son to Montague
MERCUTIO, kinsman to the prince, and friend to Romeo
BENVOLIO, nephew to Montague, and friend to Romeo
TYBALT, nephew to Lady Capulet
BALTHASAR, servant to Romeo
Servants to Capulet.
PETER, servant to Juliet’s nurse
ABRAHAM, servant to Montague
Page to Paris
LADY MONTAGUE, wife to Montague
LADY CAPULET, wife to Capulet
JULIET, daughter to Capulet
Nurse to Juliet
Citizens of Verona
Servants in Capulet’s house
relations to both houses; Maskers
Guards and Attendants
The Montagues and the Capulets are two noble families in Renaissance Verona, Italy. Locked in a long-standing feud, one that is fought by the nobles of the two families as well as their servants, they have engaged in a series of bloody public battles. In response, the ruler of Verona, Prince Escalus, is forced to intercede and declare that if any member of either family is caught fighting in the future they will be put to death. Thus the feud is ostensibly put on hold.
The Capulets, it turns out, throw a masquerade ball each year. Obviously they do not invite the Montagues. Juliet, daughter of Capulet and Lady Capulet, is 13 and will soon be of marriage age. It is the hope of her parents that she will fall in love with Paris, a wealthy kinsman of Escalus, at the ball. As it happens, three of the Capulets, sixteen year-old Romeo, his cousin Benvolio, and their friend Mercutio sneak into the ball. Romeo has his sights on Rosaline although she has taken a vow of chastity and is unavailable.
As soon as Romeo lays eyes on Juliet he falls in love with her, and Juliet falls in love with him at first sight. They soon find out, to their dismay, that they are from rival families. Nevertheless, Romeo is so in love with Juliet that he climbs over a wall to hide under Juliet’s window. As Juliet emerges from the window and tells the night sky about her love for Romeo, he emerges from hiding and they admit their love to each other. With the help of Friar Laurence and Juliet’s Nurse, who is especially attached to Juliet as her own daughter, the couple are secretly married the next day.
The same day, Benvolio and Mercutio are waiting for Romeo on the street. It is here that Tybalt confronts them and demands the presence of Romeo for a duel to punish him for invading the ball. As Mercutio stalls Tybalt with an eloquent but vague speech, Romeo arrives on the scene. After a period of verbal sparring between Romeo and Tybalt, Mercutio draws his sword to attack Tybalt. Romeo intervenes but Tybalt wounds Mercutio. Tybalt flees the scene only to return after to find that Mercutio has died. Angry over the death of Mercutio, Romeo engages Tybalt and kills him. He decides to flee from the inevitable consequences from Escalus. Later, Escalus arrives, and upon learning the details of the murder, he banishes Romeo from Verona for life. Juliet is heartbroken after finding out about all of this and sends her nurse to give her ring to Romeo.
Later that night, Romeo returns to Juliet. He climbs into her room and their marriage is consummated. As morning approaches, Romeo is forced to leave. He departs for Mantua to await news of Juliet and his banishment.
While Juliet and Romeo spend their night consummating their marriage, Lord Capulet sets about making sure she marries Paris. When Lord and Lady Capulet tell Juliet of their plans for her, she refuses. This sends he father into a rage. Both Lady Capulet and Juliet’s nurse refuse to leave her alone.
Juliet visits Friar Lawrence shortly after this and the two of them hatch a scheme designed to reunite her with Romeo. Friar Laurence is to give her a potion which will make her appear dead for two days. During this time, Romeo will come to the Capulet family vault to meet her. Friar Lawrence makes arrangements to alert Romeo of the plan.
Following the plan, on the day she and Paris are to be married, Juliet drinks the potion. She is found later by her nurse who alerts everyone that she is dead. The family is in mourning over her apparent suicide. So as to expedite the scheme Friar Laurence explains that she should be put in the family vault as soon as possible.
Friar Laurence is unfortunately unable to deliver a letter to Romeo in time to let him in on the scheme. Upon his return form Mantua he hears that Juliet is dead. In his grief, he rushes back to Verona. On the way he obtains a poison for the purpose of taking his own life. He also writes a suicide note explaining all the tragic events which led him to kill himself. In the meantime, Friar Laurence finds out that Romeo did not receive the letter. He rushes to the tomb to intercede on behalf of the grief-stricken lover.
As Romeo approaches the Capulet tomb he discovers Paris guarding the vault and mourning the death of his beloved, Juliet, who he believes is truly dead. Paris challenges Romeo and Romeo kills him. As Romeo drags Paris’s body into the tomb, he discovers Juliet and presumes she is dead. He drinks his poison, gives her a last kiss, and he dies.
Friar Laurence arrives soon after this just as Juliet is waking up. He tries to convince her to run away but she refuses. Juliet discovers the body of Romeo and realizes what he has done. She drinks the poison and dies also.
As others arrive on the scene, Lord Capulet and Lord Montague also enter. They learn the truth of the tragic events from Friar Laurence and the suicide letter from Romeo provides proof. The two rival families agree to settle their differences and form an alliance as a result of the tragedy.
At first Romeo is characterized by his self-indulgent melancholy, characteristics which would have signaled a romantic quality as well as a tragic flaw for Elizabethan audiences. As he is smitten by Juliet he becomes more active and assumes his role as a true tragic figure. His fall and death are quintessential tragic modes.
Romeo’s father and a figure and paternal authority. He operates as a tragic type more than a fully developed character. He is the sign of paternal power and the figure-head of a ruling family embroiled in a bitter feud.
Also something of a type rather than a developed character. She is the maternal figure, and embodiment of feminine maturity and grace. She even dies of a broken heart at the loss of her son.
Obviously, as a symbol of the church, Friar Laurence is a representative of peace and reconciliation, although his efforts are clumsy and ineffective. His intention at first is to resolve the feud through the union of Romeo and Juliet. When that fails, he attempts to re-unite them with a scheme which fails. It is ultimately the failed scheme which leads to their deaths and a general reconciliation between the families.
A young noble lady, an image of innocence, Juliet is also willful and rebellious. These latter traits are tragic flaws for an Elizabethan audience. She is forceful and intelligent in her designs, at times more in control of the action that Romeo. Her decision to commit suicide is in many ways evocative of a masculine hero.
Juliet’s father, he is portrayed as an overbearing bully. Though he professes to act on behalf of his daughter’s wishes, his actions betray this as he arranges a marriage between Juliet and Paris. It is Lord Capulet’s tyrannical force which leads directly to the tragic end to the two lovers.
Weak-willed and submissive, Lady Capulet is at the complete bidding of her husband even to the exclusion of her daughter’s best interests. She refuses to intercede on Juliet’s behalf throughout the play. She is the counter to Lady Montague.
Juliet’s cousin. He is hot-headed and rash. His violent tendencies embody and enact the theme of hate and violence which runs along the themes of love. His anger leads to his own death and to the death of Mercutio.
The ruler of Venice, he is the figure of law and state authority. Even as he attempts to control the violence and discord in the play, the human passions of love and hate outstrip his authority and power.
Romeo’s kinsman and friend. Mercutio demonstrates wit and intelligence in the early parts of the play, perhaps to dramatize the power of the mind over the passions. His death in Act II marks the turning point in the play in which the action runs headlong toward tragic ends.
A noble young lord and apparent suitor to Juliet. Paris is the epitome of an arrogant young man, one who assumes his place of privilege. As much as Romeo is driven by love and passion, Paris is driven by pride and selfishness. His arrogance leads to his own death at the hands of Romeo.
Love as a romantic Ideal: Love as a theme plays out as a passionate force that cannot be ignored or controlled. Romeo falls in love with Juliet at first sight and every other consideration, including his own safety or even his own life, is immediately forgotten for the pursuit of romantic love. Juliet’s love is equally unstoppable. She too falls in love at first sight and is single-minded in her love for Romeo. To this extent, love is a wild and uncontrollable passion, one that seems to exist outside of any human agency or control. It operates like a kind of magic which overtakes the characters beyond their control. Love in this theme is romantic and beautiful and it is one of the primary sources for contemporary portrayals of love. This passionate and romantic love captures individuals and pits them against their circumstances, their families, and all of their cultural constraints.
Love as a violent passion: Love in Romeo and Juliet is also the catalyst for much of the violence. As much as love captivates the two lovers, it also fuels the passions which lead to duels and murder. If love is an uncontrollable force which launches two young people toward and inevitable union, it is also a destructive passion which causes discord and violence. The rancor between the Capulets and Montagues is barely under control with the intercession of Escalus. Passionate love is the primary force which breaks that fragile peace.
Individual versus Society: As the primary characters are put in action, each takes on a role which is in direct tension with their role as members of a social strata. Romeo is the son of a nobleman; his duty is to adhere to the patriarchal line and assume the role of a leader. His functions in society are prescribed by this role. As he is overtaken by his love for Juliet, he abandons this role and follows his individual inclinations and passions. The resulting discord is as much a result of this tension between the individual and the demands of society as it is passionate love. Likewise, Juliet, as a lady, is entirely bound to duty to her father and to the good of social peace. That she follows her passions is also an expression of individual will against social dictates. She also creates the discord which leads to tragedy. All of other primary character take their turns following their individual inclinations rather than the prescribed social roles. It can be argues that these expression of individual will over the greater good of the social body are the real causes of the tragic end.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.” (2.1.44–64)
Spoken by Romeo outside Juliet’s window, these are some of the most familiar lines in all of Shakespeare. This quotation contains the themes of light and dark in all of their complexity. Romeo’s unbounded love compels him to view Juliet as one who exceeds the stars and the heavens. The theme of passionate love is dramatized through this quotation. And the confusion of night and day, so crucial to the themes of the play, are fully articulated in the final line.
“O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” (2.1.74–78)
Again, one of the most well-known quotations in Shakespeare’s plays. These lines are spoken by Juliet during the balcony scene. In these lines we witness Juliet weighing her duty to her father and her family against her love of Romeo. This quotation dramatizes the themes of individual versus society, the individual against their own duty, and passionate love. All of these themes are the catalysts for romance and conflict.
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. . . ”
Spoken by the chorus in the Prologue to the play, these lines describe the tension between fate and individual will. How much of the action is due to the personal agency of the characters, and how much is purely written in the stars?
Light and Dark
As with so much of Shakespeare, the symbolism is always complex. Romeo and Juliet continually refer to each other in terms of light. They are “star-cross’d lovers” from the start. Romeo sees Juliet lit by a light in the darkness. Yet, throughout the play they are forced to cover their actions in darkness. They must hide in order to keep others in the dark. Though light is commonly associated with the good and dark associated with the bad, the darkness facilitates the love between Romeo and Juliet and light is the evil which exposes their tragic end.
Along with light and dark, the night plays a crucial role in the play. Night is often associated with evil and even old age. Yet, in Romeo and Juliet, the night facilitates the marriage between the two lovers. Night is the cover for all of their meetings and time together, including their covert marriage. But night is also the cover for plots and schemes. The two lovers also commit suicide in the night and morning brings the final reconciliation between the feuding families.
This two plays a double role in the play. It is the metaphor of the hatred between the Capulets and the Montagues. It is the sleeping potion designed to bring Romeo and Juliet together at last. And poison is the method of suicide. Poison in Romeo and Juliet is both a medicine and a toxin.
Full title: The Most Excellent Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
First published in 1597. Published by Thomas Creede in The First Folio Edition.
The play is based on a fourteenth-century novella.
One of the most quoted plays in history. The famous “balcony” scene had get its name long after Shakespeare’s death. The word “balcony” did not exist in his time.
Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon to William and Mary Shakespeare. His father was a successful businessman though not of noble birth. Shakespeare married at 18 to Anne Hathaway. They had three children although their only son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. Little is known about Shakespeare’s life prior to coming to the stage during the reign of Elizabeth I. The author of 38 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest playwright in English literary history and his sonnets are regarded as a form of sonnet unto himself. Shakespeare died in 1616.
Titus Andronicus first performed in 1594 (printed in 1594),
Romeo and Juliet 1594-95 (1597),
Hamlet 1600-01 (1603),
Julius Caesar 1600-01 (1623),
Othello 1604-05 (1622),
Antony and Cleopatra 1606-07 (1623),
King Lear 1606 (1608),
Coriolanus 1607-08 (1623), derived from Plutarch
Timon of Athens 1607-08 (1623), and
Macbeth 1611-1612 (1623).
King Henry VI Part 1 1592 (printed in 1594);
King Henry VI Part 2 1592-93 (1594);
King Henry VI Part 3 1592-93 (1623);
King John 1596-97 (1623);
King Henry IV Part 1 1597-98 (1598);
King Henry IV Part 2 1597-98 (1600);
King Henry V 1598-99 (1600);
Richard II 1600-01 (1597);
Richard III 1601 (1597); and
King Henry VIII 1612-13 (1623)
Taming of the Shrew first performed 1593-94 (1623),
Comedy of Errors 1594 (1623),
Two Gentlemen of Verona 1594-95 (1623),
Love’s Labour’s Lost 1594-95 (1598),
Midsummer Night’s Dream 1595-96 (1600),
Merchant of Venice 1596-1597 (1600),
Much Ado About Nothing 1598-1599 (1600),
As You Like It 1599-00 (1623),
Merry Wives of Windsor 1600-01 (1602),
Troilus and Cressida 1602 (1609),
Twelfth Night 1602 (1623),
All’s Well That Ends Well 1602-03 (1623),
Measure for Measure 1604 (1623),
Pericles, Prince of Tyre 1608-09 (1609),
Cymbeline 1611-12 (1623),
Winter’s Tale 1611-12 (1623).