Confession time, friends: I greatly disliked Romeo & Juliet when I first read it as a teenager. With a passion. I thought the main characters were whiny brats and that everyone overreacted in such a dramatic fashion that it was ridiculous. I’ve also always been uncomfortable with star-crossed lovers stories (Tristan and Isolde, West Side Story, and the like), but that’s my own issue. The point is, I’ve made it to 33 disliking this play with a passion.
(Mind you, I was always fully aware that this is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous work. It has some of the most beautiful lines and iconic phrases in the whole of English literature. Seriously, it’s gorgeous. I just hated the plot.)
That being said, I went into this play with an open mind. I rethought my love of The Taming of the Shrew, after all, so perhaps my adolescent mind couldn’t (or just didn’t) pick up on the deeper aspects of the story.
I may have been…a bit short-sighted. Perhaps I’ve grown up a bit, or perhaps it’s because I read the unabridged version of the play which seems to concentrate on the family feud, or perhaps it’s because nothing could be worse than the ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Regardless, I have to say that I appreciated this play far more than I ever thought I could. The lines are iconic, the language beautiful, and the characters have a lot of depth. I may…actually like it. My world has been turned upside down.
And so, without further ado, let’s get into the play!
Once more we find ourselves in fair Verona. The Montagues and the Capulets are two high houses (though not nobility) with a bitter feud, though we never find out what caused this feud (and I doubt anyone remembers; such is the way of ancient feuds). Two of Montague’s men start a fight with two of Capulet’s. Benvolio, a Montague, rushes in to break up the fight when Tybalt comes in and fights with Benvolio. The fight escalates with more men on each side joining the fray. The townsfolk apparently rush in with clubs, probably sick to death of this malarkey. Finally, the Prince arrives and breaks up the fight. He states that this feud has caused civil unrest three times already (this year? this day? We never find out) and he proclaims that the next person to start a fight will pay with his life. (Much like an exasperated mother telling her kids, “If you don’t knock it off I swear to God I’ll turn this car around”.)
Later, Montague and Benvolio talk about how sullen Romeo’s become. Neither knows the cause and Benvolio vows to find out. When he speaks with Romeo he discovers that Romeo is in love with the lady Rosaline, one of Capulet’s nieces. In another scene we learn that Count Paris wants to marry Juliet, who’s nearly fourteen, but Capulet thinks she’s a bit too young yet and asks Paris to wait two years. Still, Capulet invites him to a shindig he’s having that evening. Lady Capulet then tries to convince her daughter to look favorably upon Paris.
Benvolio and Romeo discover that Capulet is holding a ball that evening and Rosaline will be there. Benvolio convinces Romeo to crash the party with him and Mercutio and suggests Romeo find another lady to love to take his mind off Rosaline. Romeo agrees.
At the ball Romeo sees Juliet and falls in love instantly, as does she with him. Tybalt, meanwhile, recognizes Romeo and wants to confront him. Capulet stops him, angered that Tybalt would fight someone under his own roof. Capulet states that Romeo is to remain unmolested and even remarks upon what a good man he hears Romeo is.
After the ball Romeo jumps the wall to the Capulet estate and encounters Juliet on her balcony in what is probably The Most Famous Scene in All of Theater. (There, I said it.) Juliet confesses her love for Romeo and Romeo pipes up from below, affirming his own affection for Juliet. The two decide to correspond the next day and, hopefully, wed. Romeo convinces Father Laurence to marry them (Father Laurence hopes this will mend the feud between the two families) and Juliet’s nurse acts as a go-between. The two are secretly married that afternoon.
Tybalt, still seeking vengeance on Romeo for crashing the party the night before, confronts Romeo as he stands with Benvolio and Mercutio. Romeo is cognizant that Tybalt is now his cousin and refuses to rise to Tybalt’s bait and fight with him. Mercutio is offended by both Tybalt’s jibes and Romeo’s submission to the insults. So, Tybalt and Mercutio duel and Tybalt kills Mercutio when Romeo tries to break up the fight. Romeo, aghast at his friend’s death and his own role in it, confronts and kills Tybalt. Romeo then flees.
The Prince is left with a conundrum. Tybalt killed Mercutio, who was his kinsmen, so Tybalt’s life was forfeit when Romeo slew him. Lady Capulet calls for Romeo’s death in answer to Tybalt’s. Instead, the Prince banishes Romeo.
Romeo and Juliet are at least able to spend their wedding night together, though in secret. In the morning, Romeo leaves and Juliet’s parents inform her that they’ve promised her hand to Paris; she’s to be wed in two days. Juliet refuses, making various excuses, and her father proceeds to give her an ultimatum: either marry Paris or be disowned. Juliet’s mother likewise ignores her pleas and Juliet’s nurse councils her to marry Paris, since Romeo’s as good as dead with his banishment.
With no other friends or allies, Juliet heads to Friar Laurence. She threatens to kill herself out of despair at her situation and Laurence instead offers her a potion that will make her appear dead for 42 hours. Laurence also tells her that he’ll send a message to Romeo so he’ll know of the plan and will be there at the tomb when she wakes. So, on the night before her wedding, Juliet takes the potion and is discovered the next morning by her nurse, mother, and father. Everyone mourns her death.
However, the letter Friar Laurence sent to Romeo never got to him; the friar he sent with it got quarantined in a house instead. So, Romeo hears that Juliet has died and doesn’t know the truth. He buys a poison from an apothecary and heads to Juliet’s tomb. There, Romeo meets up with Paris, who’s come to mourn at the tomb alone. Paris, thinking Romeo has come to vandalize the tomb, makes to arrest Romeo. They fight and Romeo kills Paris.
Romeo enters the tomb with Paris’s body and drinks his poison. Friar Laurence arrives minutes too late, just as Juliet awakens. Juliet, seeing Romeo dead and the poison in his hand, realizes what’s happened. She kisses Romeo’s lips to try to drink some of his poison herself, but to no avail. Instead, she takes Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself.
The watch, alerted by Paris’s page, arrive and find the three dead bodies on the scene and quickly discover Friar Laurence and Romeo’s man, Balthazar, nearby. They rouse the Prince, Capulets, and Montagues. We find out that Romeo’s mother died that night from grief at her son’s banishment. Friar Laurence then tells his tale: how he married Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s grief over Romeo’s banishment, her intent to kill herself if Laurence didn’t help her, and the plot they hatched to reunite her with her husband.
The families reconcile after the tragedy and the Prince utters another brace of famous lines:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
And that, as they say, is that. I’m off to watch Amelie so I can feel better about life. Stay tuned next week when we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
This play marks the time when Shakespeare really started to come into his own with his stories. We read some of the plays out of order in the very beginning. For a moment, forget about Richard II to Henry V; Shakespeare really started with Henry VI, which was a bit flat in comparison to the first four plays we read. From Henry VI on to this play the stories have been…good, but not to the level of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, or even Richard II (which, in hindsight, I absolutely adore). You can really see a growth in Shakespeare’s writing if you look at his plays chronologically. We haven’t yet gotten a character with as much depth as Falstaff, but the nurse apparently comes close (or so I read; honestly, both the nurse and Falstaff annoy me greatly).
There seems to be a bit of a disagreement over the themes in Romeo and Juliet. Some critics think there is no unifying theme; others seem to bring up a bunch of different ones. I’ll go into a few possibilities below, but this is one of those situations where I’m terrified that someone will think me an expert and cite me in a high school essay or some-such. We’ll call this section “educated speculation” (which, I suppose, is really just another term for “literary criticism”).
First, there’s the theme of love. Romantic love, love of family (brought out by the feud), purity of love, etc. The play would have no plot without love; it’s the driving force behind pretty much everyone’s actions. Romeo and Juliet’s love, while passionate, is also pure; it transcends their familial love and loyalty and isn’t based on sexual attraction alone. Their love inspires them to speak poetically with metaphors and heavy religious allusions (pilgrims, palmers, and angels) and these expressions of passion are part of the play’s greatness. Would Romeo and Juliet be as good a play without the beautiful language? I doubt it.
Romeo and Juliet’s world is removed from everyone else’s, which brings us to the light and dark imagery used throughout the play. Romeo and Juliet constantly talk about the other being the light or the sun, brighter than the torches, specifically at night; they talk about how dark the day becomes when the sun rises. Their time together is the inverse of the day; they get to be together at night but must separate in the morning. Their love is the light in a world full of the darkness of hate and feuding. And it is through the extinguishing of their own lights (lives) that the darkness of hate is finally lifted from their families.
Then there’s the theme of violence, and not just the violence of fighting and the violent deaths of characters. Romeo and Juliet’s love itself is rather violent; their feelings are so strong so very quickly that they’re very actions become extreme (both threaten to kill themselves at different points to Friar Laurence). And the action of the play happens in a mere four days; time itself takes on a violent swiftness.
I won’t go into what makes a play a tragedy here; that’s another disputed topic. What makes something tragic? Do tragic happenings make a story a tragedy? By my own estimation and definition this play is a tragedy because it does not end happily. What makes it even more tragic is the fact that this play had all the makings of a comedy: young love, plot advancement through accidents and happenstance, the bourgeois setting. But instead of mistaken identities and funny coincidences these fateful accidents move the plot in a very negative direction.
Shakespeare is the bee’s knees, and as such people have been adapting his stories for centuries. Below are just a few modern adaptations of Romeo and Juliet that I can think of off the top of my head. Feel free to add more in the comments, and I’ll try to create a section on the resources page where I keep an ongoing list of adaptations for various plays.
Gnomeo & Juliet
Romeo Must Die
West Side Story
And in closing, I’ll leave you with this disturbing bit of trivia: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet staring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio came out in 1996. Twenty. Years. Ago. Let that sink in.