This story of star-crossed lovers is one of William Shakespeare’s tenderest dramas. Shakespeare is sympathetic toward Romeo and Juliet, and in attributing their tragedy to fate, rather than to a flaw in their characters, he raises them to heights near perfection, as well as running the risk of creating pathos, not tragedy. They are both sincere, kind, brave, loyal, virtuous, and desperately in love, and their tragedy is greater because of their innocence. The feud between the lovers’ families represents the fate that Romeo and Juliet are powerless to overcome. The lines capture in poetry the youthful and simple passion that characterizes the play. One of the most popular plays of all time, Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s second tragedy (after Titus Andronicus of 1594, a failure). Consequently, the play shows the sometimes artificial lyricism of early comedies such as Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595, pb. 1598) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), while its character development predicts the direction of the playwright’s artistic maturity. In Shakespeare’s usual fashion, he based his story on sources that were well known in his day: Masuccio Salernitano’s Novellino (1475), William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-1567), and, especially, Arthur Brooke’s poetic The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare reduces the time of the action from the months it takes in Brooke’s work to a few compact days.
In addition to following the conventional five-part structure of a tragedy, Shakespeare employs his characteristic alternation, from scene to scene, between taking the action forward and retarding it, often with comic relief, to heighten the dramatic impact. Although in many respects the play’s structure recalls that of the genre of the fall of powerful men, its true prototype is tragedy as employed by Geoffrey Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382)—a fall into unhappiness, on the part of more or less ordinary people, after a fleeting period of happiness. The fall is caused traditionally and in Shakespeare’s play by the workings of fortune. Insofar as Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, it is a tragedy of fate rather than of a tragic flaw. Although the two lovers have weaknesses, it is not their faults, but their unlucky stars, that destroy them. As the friar comments at the end, “A greater power than we can contradict/ Hath thwarted our intents.”
Shakespeare succeeds in having the thematic structure closely parallel the dramatic form of the play. The principal theme is that of the tension between the two houses, and all the other oppositions of the play derive from that central one. Thus, romance is set against revenge, love against hate, day against night, sex against war, youth against age, and “tears to fire.” Juliet’s soliloquy in act 3, scene 2 makes it clear that it is the strife between her family and Romeo’s that has turned Romeo’s love to death. If, at times, Shakespeare seems to forget the family theme in his lyrical fascination with the lovers, that fact only sets off their suffering all the more poignantly against the background of the senseless and arbitrary strife between the Capulets and Montagues. For the families, after all, the story has a classically comic ending; their feud is buried with the lovers—which seems to be the intention of the fate that compels the action.
The lovers never forget their families; their consciousness of the conflict leads to another central theme in the play, that of identity. Romeo questions his identity to Benvolio early in the play, and Juliet asks him, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” At her request he offers to change his name and to be defined only as one star-crossed with her. Juliet, too, questions her identity, when she speaks to the nurse after Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt. Romeo later asks the friar to help him locate the lodging of his name so that he may cast it from his “hateful mansion,” bringing a plague upon his own house in an ironic fulfillment of Mercutio’s dying curse. Only when they are in their graves, together, do the two lovers find peace from the persecution of being Capulet and Montague; they are remembered by their first names only, an ironic proof that their story has the beneficial political influence the Prince, who wants the feud to end, wishes.
Likewise, the style of the play alternates between poetic gymnastics and pure and simple lines of deep emotion. The unrhymed iambic pentameter is filled with conceits, puns, and wordplay, presenting both lovers as very well-spoken youngsters. Their verbal wit, in fact, is not Shakespeare’s rhetorical excess but part of their characters. It fortifies the impression the audience has of their spiritual natures, showing their love as an intellectual appreciation of beauty combined with physical passion. Their first dialogue, for example, is a sonnet divided between them. In no other early play is the imagery as lush and complex, making unforgettable the balcony speech in which Romeo describes Juliet as the sun, Juliet’s nightingale-lark speech, her comparison of Romeo to the “day in night,” which Romeo then develops as he observes, at dawn, “more light and light, more dark and dark our woes.”
At the beginning of the play Benvolio describes Romeo as a “love-struck swain” in the typical pastoral fashion. He is, as the cliché has it, in love with love (Rosaline’s name is not even mentioned until much later). He is youthful energy seeking an outlet, sensitive appreciation seeking a beautiful object. Mercutio and the friar comment on his fickleness. The sight of Juliet immediately transforms Romeo’s immature and erotic infatuation to true and constant love. He matures more quickly than anyone around him realizes; only the audience understands the process, since Shakespeare makes Romeo introspective and articulate in his monologues. Even in love, however, Romeo does not reject his former romantic ideals. When Juliet comments, “You kiss by th’ book,” she is being astutely perceptive; Romeo’s death is the death of an idealist, not of a foolhardy youth. He knows what he is doing, his awareness growing from his comment after slaying Tybalt, “O, I am Fortune’s fool.”
Juliet is equally quick-witted and also has early premonitions of their sudden love’s end. She is made uniquely charming by her combination of girlish innocence with a winsome foresight that is “wise” when compared to the superficial feelings expressed by her father, mother, and Count Paris. Juliet, moreover, is realistic as well as romantic. She knows how to exploit her womanly softness, making the audience feel both poignancy and irony when the friar remarks, at her arrival in the wedding chapel, “O, so light a foot/ Will ne’er wear out the everlasting flint!” It takes a strong person to carry out the friar’s stratagem, after all; Juliet succeeds in the ruse partly because everyone else considers her weak in body and in will. She is a subtle actor, telling the audience after dismissing her mother and the nurse, “My dismal scene I needs must act alone.” Her quiet intelligence makes the audience’s tragic pity all the stronger when her “scene” becomes reality.
Shakespeare provides his lovers with effective dramatic foils in the characters of Mercutio, the nurse, and the friar. The play, nevertheless, remains forever that of “Juliet and her Romeo.”
All this is to be found in the beautiful story which was told long before Shakespeare's day, and which, however simply told, will always excite a tender sympathy; but it was reserved for Shakespeare to join in one ideal picture purity of heart with warmth of imagination; sweetness and dignity of manners with passionate intensity of feeling. Under his handling, it has become a glorious song of praise on that inexpressible feeling which ennobles the soul and gives to it its highest sublimity, and which elevates even the senses into soul, while at the same time it is a melancholy elegy on its inherent and imparted frailty; it is at once the apotheosis and the obsequies of love. It appears here a heavenly spark that, as it descends to earth, is converted into the lightning flash, which almost in the same moment sets on fire and consumes the mortal being on whom it lights. All that is most intoxicating in the odor of a southern spring, all that is languishing in the song of the nightingale or voluptuous in the first opening of the rose, all alike breathe forth from this poem. But even more rapidly than the earliest blossoms of youth and beauty decay does it, from the first timidly bold declaration and modest return of love, hurry on to unlimited passion, to an irrevocable union; and then hasten, amid alternating storms of rapture and despair, to the fate of the two lovers, who yet appear enviable in their hard lot, for their love survives them, and by their death they have obtained an endless triumph over every separating power. The sweetest and the bitterest love and hatred, festive rejoicings and dark forebodings, tender embraces and sepulchral horrors, the fullness of life and self-annihilation, are here all brought close to each other; and yet these contrasts are so blended into a unity of impression, that the echo which the whole leaves in the mind resembles a single but endless sigh.
The first scenes of nearly every play of Shakespeare are remarkable for the skill with which they prepare the mind for all the after scenes. We do not see the succession of scenes; the catastrophe unrevealed; but we look into a dim and distant prospect, and by what is in the foreground we can form a general notion of the landscape that will be presented to us, as the clouds roll away and the sun lights up its wild mountains or its fertile valleys. When Sampson and Gregory enter "armed with swords and bucklers"--when we hear "a dog of the house of Montague moves me"--we know that these are not common servants, and live not in common times; with them the excitement of party spirit does not rise into strong passion--it presents its ludicrous side. They quarrel like angry curs, who snarl, yet are afraid to bite. But the "furious Tybalt" in a moment shows us that these hasty quarrels cannot have peaceful endings. The strong arm of authority suspends the affray, but the spirit of enmity is not put down. The movement of this scene is as rapid as the quarrel itself. It produces the effect upon the mind of something which startles; but the calm immediately succeeds. Benvolio's speech--
- Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
- Peer'd forth the golden window of the east ...
--at once shows us that we are entering the region of high poetry. Coleridge remarks that the succeeding speech of old Montague exhibits the poetical aspect of the play even more strikingly:
- Many a morning hath he here been seen,
- With tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew.
It is remarkable that the speech thus commencing, which contains twenty lines as highly wrought as anything in Shakespeare, is not in the first copy of this play. The experience of the artist taught him where to lay on the poetical coloring brighter and brighter. How beautifully these lines prepare us for the appearance of Romeo--the now musing, abstracted Romeo--the Romeo, who, like the lover of Chaucer,
- Solitary was ever alone,
- And walking all the night, making moan.
The love of Romeo was unrequited love. It was a sentiment rather than a passion--a love that solaced itself in antithetical conceits upon its own misery, and would draw consolation from melancholy associations. It was love without the "true Promethean fire," but it was a fir preparation for what was to follow. The dialogue between Capulet and Paris prepares us for Juliet--the "hopeful lady of his earth," who
Hath not seen the change of fourteen years.
The old man does not think her "ripe to be a bride;" but we are immediately reminded of the precocity of nature under a southern sun, by another magical touch of poetry, which tells us of youth and freshness--of summer in "April"--of "fresh female buds" breathing the fragrance of opening flowers. Juliet at length comes. We see the submissive and gentle girl; but the garrulity of the nurse carries us back even to the
Prettiest babe that e'er I nursed.
Neither Juliet nor Romeo had rightly read their own hearts. He was sighing for a shadow--she fancied that she could subject her feelings to the will of others:
- But no more deep will I endart mine eye,
- Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.
The preparation for their first interview goes forward; Benvolio has persuaded Romeo to go to the Capulet's feast. There is a slight pause in the action, but how gracefully it is filled up! Mercutio comes upon the scene, and is placed by the side of Romeo, to contrast with him, but also to harmonize. The poetry of Mercutio is that of fancy; the poetry of Romeo is that of imagination. The wit of Mercutio is the overflow of animal spirits, occasionally polluted, like a spring pure from the well-head, by the soil over which it passes; the wit of Romeo is somewhat artificial, and scarcely self-sustained--it is the unaccustomed play of the intellect when the passions "have come to the clenching point," but it is under control, it has no exuberance which, like the wit of Mercutio, admits the coloring of the sensual and the sarcastic.
The very first words of Romeo show the change that has come o'er him. He went into that "hall of Capulet's house" fearing
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.
He had "a soul of lead"--he would be "a candle-holder and look on." But he has seen Juliet; and with what gorgeous images has that sight filled his imagination!
- Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
- Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night
- As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear.
We have now the poetry of passion bursting upon us in its purple light.
The lovers show the intensity of their abandonment to an overmastering will. "They see only themselves in the universe." That is the true moral of their fate. But, even under the direst calamity, they catch at the one joy which is left--the short meeting before the parting. And what a parting it is! Here again comes the triumph of the beautiful over the merely tragic. They are once more calm. There love again breathes of all the sweet sights and sounds in a world of beauty. They are parting, but the almost happy Juliet says:
- It is not yet near day--
- Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
Romeo, who sees the danger of delay, is not deceived:
It was the lark, the herald of the morn.
Then what a burst of poetry follows!--
- Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
- Stands tiptoe on the misty mountains' tops.
Note the exquisite display of womanly tenderness in Juliet, which hurries from the forgetfulness of joy in her husband's presence to apprehension for his safety. After this scene we are almost content to think, as Romeo fancied he thought:
- Come what sorrow can,
- It cannot countervail the exchange of joy.
The sorrow does come upon poor Juliet with redoubled force. The absolute father, the unyielding mother, the treacherous nurse--all hurrying her into a loathed marriage--might drive one less resolved to the verge of madness. But from this moment her love has become heroism. She sees
No pity sitting in the clouds--
She rejects her nurse--she resolves to deceive her parents. This scene brings out her character in its strongest and most beautiful relief.
The final catastrophe comes. They have paid the penalty of the fierce hatreds that were engendered around them, and of their own precipitancy; but their misfortunes and their loves have healed the enmities of which they were the victims.
Purchase Romeo and Juliet
Purchase ROMEO AND JULIET on DVD or VHS
Search eBay!for ROMEO AND JULIET collectibles