Romeo and Juliet
Romeo — a Montague; a teenager who falls in love with Juliet
Romeo and Juliet was written early in Shakespeare's career, probably in 1594 or 1595 and was first published in 1597. It is his first nonhistorical tragedy, and despite its poetic naiveté, in many ways it holds the promise of the mature plays Shakespeare would come to write in a few years.
The primary source was a poem titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet written in 1562 by Arthur Brooke. This, in turn, was a translation of a poem by a Frenchman, Pierre Boaistuau, published in 1559. The French poem, it seems, was derived from a 1554 story by an Italian writer named Mateo Bandello, who in turn had gotten it from a version by Luigi Da Porto, published in 1530.
While the story of Romeo and Juliet was often told in the second half of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare's version has marked differences. His version has some of the greatest love poetry ever written in the English language, subtle and original characters (such as Mercutio and Tybalt, who are among some of Shakespeare's most memorable early characters), and a fast pace (the action is compressed into five days).
In Verona, two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, brawl constantly in the streets; the reason for the quarrel is never really made clear. In response to the constant fighting, the prince of Verona issues an edict imposing the death penalty on anyone caught dueling.
Was Romeo and Juliet based on a true story?
Romeo and Juliet was based on the life of two real lovers who both died for each other and lived in Verona, Italy, in 1303. Both the Capulets and Montagues existed in Verona at this time, and Shakespeare is reckoned to have discovered this tragic love story in Arthur Brooke's 1562 poem titled The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet.
Romeo of the house of Montague has been infatuated with Rosaline, a niece of Capulet. He and his friends sneak into a masked ball at Capulet's house so that Romeo can see her. During the ball, Romeo catches sight of Juliet, Capulet's daughter, and quickly forgets about Rosaline.
That same night, Romeo creeps under Juliet's bedroom window and professes his love to Juliet, who is standing on her balcony above him and overhears his sighs of love. She confesses she returns his feelings. With the aid of Friar Laurence, Romeo makes plans with Juliet for them to be married in secret.
Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, discovers that Romeo attended the ball and sets out to teach the young Montague a lesson. He challenges Romeo in the street. Romeo tries to avoid a duel because he is in love with Juliet. However, Romeo's best friend, Mercutio, takes up Tybalt's challenge and is killed by Tybalt. Before he realizes what he is doing, a distraught Romeo draws his sword and kills Tybalt in turn.
As a result of the bloodshed, despite the provocation, the Escalus, the prince of Verona, banishes Romeo. Romeo has time to consummate his marriage to Juliet and bid her goodbye. He hopes that they will soon be reunited.
The phrase “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” is second only to Hamlet's “To be or not to be” as the most famous quotation from Shakespeare. “Wherefore art thou Romeo” does not mean “where” rather, it means “why” are you from a family that feuds with mine.
Juliet's parents, meanwhile, press her to marry Paris. With Friar Laurence's help, Juliet comes up with a desperate plan to avoid her parent's wishes. She obtains a drug that will make her seem dead for forty-two hours. While she is comatose, Friar Laurence will send word to Romeo so that he can rescue her from her family tomb.
Dame Peggy Ashcroft: “There has been a recent fashion in the theatre to define a certain kind of play as a ‘black comedy.' I will define Romeo and Juliet as a ‘golden tragedy.'”
Friar Laurence's letter never gets to Romeo. Instead he hears that Juliet has died. Grief-stricken, Romeo buys some poison with the intention of killing himself. Friar Laurence discovers that Romeo never got his letter, and in horror he rushes to Juliet's tomb.
Too late. At Juliet's tomb, Romeo encounters Paris, who is mourning for his Juliet. In grief for Juliet's loss, the two men fight and Romeo kills Paris. Entering the tomb, Romeo discovers the “dead” Juliet and, swallowing the poison, commits suicide at her side. Friar Laurence arrives at the scene just as Juliet wakes up. She discovers the body of her beloved Romeo beside her, takes Romeo's dagger and stabs herself in the heart.
The prince and the parents arrive, and Friar Laurence explains what has happened. Faced with the awful price their feud has cost them, the Montagues and Capulets swear to end the bitterness between the two families.
This is an early play (1594), written by a young poet with amazing literary talent. Despite its story, it is really quite optimistic, especially when compared to the latter tragedies and dark comedies. In modern times, critics have tended to disparage the play in favor of Shakespeare's great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello). Certainly, when compared to these plays, Romeo and Juliet lacks psychological depth and structural complexity.
More recently, scholars have reconsidered their opinion, opting to judge Romeo and Juliet in its own right. Viewed in this light, the tragedy of the star-crossed couple is an extraordinary experimental play, featuring radical departures from long-standing conventions.
In Juliet, Romeo finds that rare gift, a soul mate — a lover of such purity and passion that when he learns she has died, he cannot endure life without her. At first blush this may seem an immature reaction. In fact, it can also be seen as a tragic sign of maturity. Romeo is the romantic in this couple. He grows up through “the love of a good woman,” grounding his romantic notions, but it is Juliet who is the levelheaded one of the pair.
The ardor and romantic intensity of Romeo and Juliet, as well as its theme of young lovers struggling against the oppressive values of their parents, make it an extremely youthful play. It represents a young playwright's first gropings toward the profound philosophical tragedies of Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello.
At the beginning of the play, Romeo pines for Rosaline, proclaiming her the paragon of women and despairing of her indifference toward him. His histrionics seem frankly juvenile, and he gets the teasing he deserves from his friends and relatives. Sure enough, Rosaline evaporates from Romeo's thoughts when he first sees Juliet. But Juliet is not just another infatuation.
As Romeo's love matures from shallow desire to a profound passion, he also matures as a person. Against great provocation, he tries his best to avoid fighting with Tybalt, and only when Tybalt manages to include him in the death of his best friend, Mercutio, does Romeo “lose it.” If only Romeo had restrained himself from killing Tybalt, or waited even a few hours before killing himself after seeing Juliet lying in her tomb, matters might have ended happily. But the same passions that made his love for Juliet so powerful condemned him to respond as he does in both cases.
Juliet is a fascinating character. While Romeo is the romantic, Juliet is determined, strong, and down-to-earth. Her growing love for Romeo propels her toward adulthood with the velocity of a rocket. She learns how to manage the adults on their own terms. She promises her mother, for example, that she will consider Paris as a possible husband with an outward show of obedience that is clearly meant to handle her mother.
Romeo and Juliet has been interpreted and adapted thousands of times in opera, ballet, novels, on the stage, screen, and television. Even so, the passage of time and changing cultural context does not seem to have diminished the play's innate innocence, youthful rebelliousness, or capacity to shock, delight, and move audiences.
Though profoundly in love with Romeo, Juliet is able to see and criticize Romeo's impetuosity and his tendency to romanticize things. After Romeo is banished, she does not follow him blindly to Mantua, but calmly and rationally decides what the course of action should be for the two of them. She then cuts herself loose from her Nurse and her parents in order to reunite with her husband.
When she wakes up in the tomb to find Romeo dead beside her, she decides to kill herself out of the same intensity of love that overwhelmed Romeo. Juliet's suicide actually requires more nerve, as befits her character: While he swallows poison, she stabs herself through the heart with a dagger. Juliet's development from a wide-eyed teenager to a self-assured, loyal, and capable woman is one of Shakespeare's triumphs of characterization. Juliet is one of his most believable female characters.
“The weakest goes to the wall” (Act I, Scene I).
“He that is strucken blind cannot forget
“True, I talk of dreams,
“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
“See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Act II, Scene II).
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
“This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
“Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
“These violent delights have violent ends” (Act II, Scene VI).
“Taking the measure of an unmade grave” (Act III, Scene III).
“Not stepping o'er the bounds of modesty” (Act IV, Scene II).
“Eyes, look your last!
“Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (Act II, Scene VI).
“A plague o' both your houses!” (Act III, Scene I).