Romeo and Juliet: Key Quotes Explained

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most perennially popular and widely studied plays. Its story of ‘star-cross’d lovers’, whose love for each other is doomed from the start because they belong to rival families in the Italian city of Verona, is one of the most famous love stories in world literature.

Below, we introduce some of the best, most famous, and most illustrative quotations from Romeo and Juliet which help to explain why the plain remains so popular with readers and theatregoers.

‘Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene’.

In the famous opening lines to Romeo and Juliet, the Prologue tells us the setting of the play: we are to be transported to the beautiful (‘fair’) Italian city of Verona, where the ensuing action takes place. There, a long-standing feud between two well-respected households or families, a grudge which goes way back, will violently break out again.

‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers’.

The Prologue’s description of Romeo and Juliet as ‘star-cross’d lovers’ has become one of the most emblematic phrases from the whole play, neatly encapsulating the doomed nature of their love affair from the outset:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Two doomed children from these feuding families fall in love with each other and take their own lives. They are ‘star-cross’d’ because it is destined by the stars that their love for each other will be thwarted. There are many astrological references in Romeo and Juliet to the idea that the stars govern human fate: Romeo will later defy the stars, and elsewhere he will observe that ‘my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars’.

‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’

This is the opening line of a famous speech spoken by Romeo in Act 1 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

Romeo is at the Capulets’ masked ball, with his friend Mercutio. Mercutio has just told 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. ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright’ is Romeo’s first response to clapping eyes on Juliet.

‘But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?’

This is a speech made by Romeo at the beginning of Act 2 Scene 2. The whole of the speech beginning with these words represents the consolidation and confirmation of Romeo’s love for Juliet, as he echoes his initial paean to her beauty (from Act 1 Scene 5), but the intensity of his feeling is seen to develop:

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 …

‘Soft!’ here is an exclamation of surprise, popular in Shakespeare’s day.

‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’

One of the most frequently misunderstood quotations from Romeo and Juliet is Juliet’s question to her lover, in Act 2 Scene 2: not where are you Romeo, but why are you Romeo (i.e., a Montague, a member of an enemy family)?

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.


Of course, disavowing one’s family and one’s name is not as easily done as Juliet suggests here, in her naivety, but her speech conveys the passion she feels for him: she is prepared to forgo the love and support of her family in order to be with Romeo.

‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet’.

This is one of the most famous couplets spoken by Juliet, from the same scene as her ‘wherefore art thou, Romeo’ speech. Her point is that names are arbitrary, and can easily be cast aside without our losing anything that makes us who we are.

Juliet, of course, wants Romeo to jettison his family name, Montague, because then he would not belong to the family that is her family’s sworn enemy.

‘O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon’.

This is another one of the most famous lines to appear in the ‘balcony scene’, Act 2 Scene 2. Romeo begins swearing by the moon that he loves Juliet, but she replies:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Romeo asks what he should swear on, if he shouldn’t swear by the moon. Juliet bids him not to engage in such performative rhapsodising at all, unless he swears on himself.

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow.’

Juliet’s parting words to Romeo at the end of the balcony scene, Act 2 Scene 2, form part of a couplet:

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

The oxymoron ‘sweet sorrow’ neatly encapsulates the bittersweet feelings lovers feel when they part: they are sad to go their separate ways, but the sooner they part at night, the sooner morning will come, and they can be reunited.

‘These violent delights have violent ends’.

From Act 2 Scene 6, these lines are spoken by Friar Lawrence:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume …

‘A plague o’ both your houses!’

This line is spoken by Mercutio, Romeo’s trusty friend, in Act 3 Scene 1, after he has been fatally wounded by Tybalt, Juliet’s kinsman. He points out with his dying breath that the enmity between the two families is absurd and threatens to destroy them both.

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