By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although it was first performed in the 1590s, the first documented performance of Romeo and Juliet is from 1662. The diarist Samuel Pepys was in the audience, and recorded that he ‘saw “Romeo and Juliet,” the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do.’
Despite Pepys’ dislike, the play is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and most famous, and the story of Romeo and Juliet is well known. However, the play has become so embedded in the popular psyche that Shakespeare’s considerably more complex play has been reduced to a few key aspects: ‘star-cross’d lovers’, a teenage love story, and the suicide of the two protagonists.
In the summary and analysis that follow, we realise that Romeo and Juliet is much more than a tragic love story.
Romeo and Juliet: brief summary
After the Prologue has set the scene – we have two feuding households, Montagues and Capulets, in the city-state of Verona; and young Romeo is a Montague while Juliet, with whom Romeo is destined to fall in love, is from the Capulet family, sworn enemies of the Montagues – the play proper begins with servants of the two feuding households taunting each other in the street.
When Benvolio, a member of house Montague, arrives and clashes with Tybalt of house Capulet, a scuffle breaks out, and it is only when Capulet himself and his wife, Lady Capulet, appear that the fighting stops. Old Montague and his wife then show up, and the Prince of Verona, Escalus, arrives and chastises the people for fighting. Everyone leaves except Old Montague, his wife, and Benvolio, Montague’s nephew. Benvolio tells them that Romeo has locked himself away, but he doesn’t know why.
Romeo appears and Benvolio asks his cousin what is wrong, and Romeo starts speaking in paradoxes, a sure sign that he’s in love. He claims he loves Rosaline, but will not return any man’s love. A servant appears with a note, and Romeo and Benvolio learn that the Capulets are holding a masked ball.
Benvolio tells Romeo he should attend, even though he is a Montague, as he will find more beautiful women than Rosaline to fall in love with. Meanwhile, Lady Capulet asks her daughter Juliet whether she has given any thought to marriage, and tells Juliet that a man named Paris would make an excellent husband for her.
Romeo attends the Capulets’ masked ball, with his friend Mercutio. Mercutio tells Romeo about a fairy named Queen Mab who enters young men’s minds as they dream, and makes them dream of love and romance. At the masked ball, Romeo spies Juliet and instantly falls in love with her; she also falls for him.
They kiss, but then Tybalt, Juliet’s kinsman, spots Romeo and recognising him as a Montague, plans to confront him. Old Capulet tells him not to do so, and Tybalt reluctantly agrees. When Juliet enquires after who Romeo is, she is distraught to learn that he is a Montague and thus a member of the family that is her family’s sworn enemies.
Romeo breaks into the gardens of Juliet’s parents’ house and speaks to her at her bedroom window. The two of them pledge their love for each other, and arrange to be secretly married the following night. Romeo goes to see a churchman, Friar Laurence, who agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet.
After the wedding, the feud between the two families becomes violent again: Tybalt kills Mercutio in a fight, and Romeo kills Tybalt in retaliation. The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona for his crime.
Juliet is told by her father that she will marry Paris, so Juliet goes to seek Friar Laurence’s help in getting out of it. He tells her to take a sleeping potion which will make her appear to be dead for two nights; she will be laid to rest in the family vault, and Romeo (who will be informed of the plan) can secretly come to her there.
However, although that part of the plan goes fine, the message to Romeo doesn’t arrive; instead, he hears that Juliet has actually died. He secretly visits her at the family vault, but his grieving is interrupted by the arrival of Paris, who is there to lay flowers. The two of them fight, and Romeo kills him.
Convinced that Juliet is really dead, Romeo drinks poison in order to join Juliet in death. Juliet wakes from her slumber induced by the sleeping draught to find Romeo dead at her side. She stabs herself.
The play ends with Friar Laurence telling the story to the two feuding families. The Prince tells them to put their rivalry behind them and live in peace.
Romeo and Juliet: analysis
How should we analyse Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most famous and frequently studied, performed, and adapted plays? Is Romeo and Juliet the great love story that it’s often interpreted as, and what does it say about the play – if it is a celebration of young love – that it ends with the deaths of both romantic leads?
It’s worth bearing in mind that Romeo and Juliet do not kill themselves specifically because they are forbidden to be together, but rather because a chain of events (of which their families’ ongoing feud with each other is but one) and a message that never arrives lead to a misunderstanding which results in their suicides.
Romeo and Juliet is often read as both a tragedy and a great celebration of romantic love, but it clearly throws out some difficult questions about the nature of love, questions which are rendered even more pressing when we consider the headlong nature of the play’s action and the fact that Romeo and Juliet meet, marry, and die all within the space of a few days.
Below, we offer some notes towards an analysis of this classic Shakespeare play and explore some of the play’s most salient themes.
It’s worth starting with a consideration of just what Shakespeare did with his source material. Interestingly, two families known as the Montagues and Capulets appear to have actually existed in medieval Italy: the first reference to ‘Montagues and Capulets’ is, curiously, in the poetry of Dante (1265-1321), not Shakespeare.
In Dante’s early fourteenth-century epic poem, the Divine Comedy, he makes reference to two warring Italian families: ‘Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi / One lot already grieving, the other in fear’ (Purgatorio, canto VI). Precisely why the families are in a feud with one another is never revealed in Shakespeare’s play, so we are encouraged to take this at face value.
The play’s most famous line references the feud between the two families, which means Romeo and Juliet cannot be together. And the line, when we stop and consider it, is more than a little baffling. The line is spoken by Juliet: ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Of course, ‘wherefore’ doesn’t mean ‘where’ – it means ‘why’.
But that doesn’t exactly clear up the whys and the wherefores. The question still doesn’t appear to make any sense: Romeo’s problem isn’t his first name, but his family name, Montague. Surely, since she fancies him, Juliet is quite pleased with ‘Romeo’ as he is – it’s his family that are the problem. Solutions have been proposed to this conundrum, but none is completely satisfying.
There are a number of notable things Shakespeare did with his source material. The Italian story ‘Mariotto and Gianozza’, printed in 1476, contained many of the plot elements of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s source for the play’s story was Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), an English verse translation of this Italian tale.
The moral of Brooke’s tale is that young love ends in disaster for their elders, and is best reined in; Shakespeare changed that. In Romeo and Juliet, the headlong passion and excitement of young love is celebrated, even though confusion leads to the deaths of the young lovers. But through their deaths, and the example their love set for their parents, the two families vow to be reconciled to each other.
Shakespeare also makes Juliet a thirteen-year-old girl in his play, which is odd for a number of reasons. We know that Romeo and Juliet is about young love – the ‘pair of star-cross’d lovers’, who belong to rival families in Verona – but what is odd about Shakespeare’s play is how young he makes Juliet.
In Brooke’s verse rendition of the story, Juliet is sixteen. But when Shakespeare dramatised the story, he made Juliet several years younger, with Romeo’s age unspecified. As Lady Capulet reveals, Juliet is ‘not [yet] fourteen’, and this point is made to us several times, as if Shakespeare wishes to draw attention to it and make sure we don’t forget it.
This makes sense in so far as Juliet represents young love, but what makes it unsettling – particularly for modern audiences – is the fact that this makes Juliet a girl of thirteen when she enjoys her night of wedded bliss with Romeo. As John Sutherland puts it in his (and Cedric Watts’) engaging Oxford World’s Classics: Henry V, War Criminal?: and Other Shakespeare Puzzles, ‘In a contemporary court of law [Romeo] would receive a longer sentence for what he does to Juliet than for what he does to Tybalt.’
There appears to be no satisfactory answer to this question, but one possible explanation lies in one of the play’s recurring themes: bawdiness and sexual familiarity. Perhaps surprisingly given the youthfulness of its tragic heroine, Romeo and Juliet is shot through with bawdy jokes, double entendres, and allusions to sex, made by a number of the characters.
These references to physical love serve to make Juliet’s innocence, and subsequent passionate romance with Romeo, even more noticeable: the journey both Romeo and Juliet undertake is one from innocence (Romeo pointlessly and naively pursuing Rosaline; Juliet unversed in the ways of love) to experience.
In the last analysis, Romeo and Juliet is a classic depiction of forbidden love, but it is also far more sexually aware, more ‘adult’, than many people realise.