A perennial staple of high school English classes, Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare at a relatively early juncture in his literary career, most probably in 1594 or 1595. During much of the twentieth century, critics tended to disparage this play in comparison to the four great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote in the first decade of the seventeenth century (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello). Appraised next to the Bard's mature works, Romeo and Juliet appears to lack the psychological depth and the structural complexity of Shakespeare's later tragedies. But over the past three decades or so, many scholars have altered this assessment, effectively upgrading its status within Shakespeare's canon. They have done this by discarding comparative evaluation and judging Romeo and Juliet as a work of art in its own right.
Viewed from this fresh perspective, Shakespeare's tragic drama of the "star-crossed" young lovers is seen to be an extraordinary work. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet was an experimental stage piece at the time of its composition, featuring several radical departures from long-standing conventions. These innovative aspects of the play, moreover, reinforce and embellish its principal themes. The latter include the antithesis between love and hate, the correlative use of a light/dark polarity, the handling of time (as both theme and as structural element), and the prominent status accorded to Fortune and its expression in the dreams, omens and forebodings that presage its tragic conclusion.
Summary of the Play
The play opens with the servants of the Montague and Capulet families quarreling and fighting in the streets of Verona, Italy. The two families have been enemies for as long as anyone can remember. Romeo, son of Lord Montague, accidentally finds out about a ball given by Lord Capulet and plans to attend uninvited. Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio put on masks and attend the ball, where Romeo meets the beautiful Juliet and falls instantly in love. Later that night Romeo goes to Juliet’s balcony, and they exchange vows of love. Romeo enlists the help of Friar Laurence, who agrees to marry the young lovers in hopes of ending the long-standing feud between the two families.
Romeo returns from his wedding and finds that his friend Mercutio is engaged in combat with Tybalt, a member of the Capulet family. Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo, enraged over his friend’s death, then slays Tybalt. Romeo immediately realizes that he has murdered his wife’s cousin and flees to Friar Laurence for help. He also learns that the Prince has banned him from the city under penalty of death if he is found within its borders. Friar Laurence arranges for Romeo to spend one last night with Juliet before he flees to Mantua.
In the meantime, Lord Capulet, unaware that Juliet is married to Romeo, has promised her hand in marriage to Paris. When Juliet is told of the arranged marriage, she is desperate and seeks the help of Friar Laurence, who gives her a vial of sleeping potion. The potion will have a death-like but temporary effect. The plan is for Juliet to take the potion, appear to be dead, and be laid out in the family vault. Romeo will come to the vault the next night and be there waiting when she awakens. The couple will then flee to Mantua to live. Friar Laurence sends the important message to Romeo telling him of his plan to help Juliet, but the message never reaches Romeo. Juliet, assured by Friar Laurence that Romeo will be waiting for her when she awakens in the tomb, goes home and drinks the potion.
Hearing that Juliet is dead, Romeo purchases poison from a poor apothecary and rushes to her tomb. Upon his arrival, he finds Paris, also in mourning. Thinking that Romeo has come to rob the tomb, Paris fights with Romeo. Romeo kills Paris, enters into the tomb, and buries Paris there. He then bids farewell to Juliet and takes the poison. Awakening from her death-like sleep, Juliet discovers her dead lover and kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. Friar Laurence arrives too late to save the lovers and tells the Prince the entire story. The Montagues and Capulets promise to end their hostilities, which have caused the deaths of their only children.
Estimated Reading Time
Because of the play form and the language of Shakespeare, an average student should spend about an hour per act in individual reading. Each act may be broken down into two or three scenes at a time to ensure understanding. The language might be difficult at first and will require careful examination of footnotes or help located in the text. After reading each scene, you should answer all study questions in relation to that scene to ensure understanding and comprehension. The essay questions may be used if needed. Since there are five acts in Romeo and Juliet, you should expect to spend approximately five hours divided in segments of eight to ten sessions.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In Verona, Italy, there live two famous families, the Montagues and the Capulets. These two houses are deadly enemies, and their enmity does not stop at harsh words, but extend to bloody duels. Romeo, son of old Montague, thinks himself in love with haughty Rosaline, a beautiful girl who does not return his affection. Hearing that Rosaline is to attend a great feast at the house of Capulet, Romeo and his trusted friend, Mercutio, don masks and enter the great hall of their enemy as guests. Romeo is no sooner in the ballroom than he notices the exquisite Juliet, Capulet’s daughter, and instantly forgets his disdainful Rosaline. Romeo never saw Juliet before, and in asking her name he arouses the suspicion of Tybalt, a fiery member of the Capulet clan. Tybalt draws his sword and faces Romeo. Old Capulet, coming upon the two men, parts them, and with the gentility that comes with age requests that they have no bloodshed at the feast. Tybalt, however, is angered that a Montague should take part in Capulet festivities and afterward nurses a grudge against Romeo.
Romeo goes to Juliet, speaks in urgent courtliness to her, and asks if he might kiss her hand. She gives her permission, much impressed by this unknown gentleman whose affection for her is so evident. Romeo then begs to kiss her lips, and when she has no breath to object, he presses her to him. They are interrupted by Juliet’s nurse, who sends the young girl off to her mother. When she goes, Romeo learns from the nurse that Juliet is a Capulet. He is stunned, for he is certain that this fact will mean his death. He can never give her up. Juliet, who fell instantly in love with Romeo, discovers that he is a Montague, the son of a hated house.
That night Romeo, too much in love to go home to sleep, steals to Juliet’s house and stands in the orchard beneath a balcony that leads to her room. To his surprise, he sees Juliet leaning over the railing above him. Thinking herself alone, she begins to talk of Romeo and wishes aloud that he were not a Montague. Hearing her words, Romeo can contain himself no longer, but speaks to her. She is frightened at first, and when she sees who it is she is confused and ashamed that he overheard her confession. It is too late to pretend reluctance. Juliet freely admits her passion, and the two exchange vows of love. Juliet tells Romeo that she will marry him and will send him word by nine o’clock the next morning to arrange for their wedding.
Romeo then goes off to the monastery cell of Friar Lawrence to enlist his help in the ceremony. The good friar is much impressed with Romeo’s devotion. Thinking that the union of a Montague and a Capulet will dissolve the enmity between the two houses, he promises to marry Romeo and Juliet.
Early the next morning, while he is in company with his two friends, Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo receives Juliet’s message, brought by her nurse. He tells the old woman of his arrangement with Friar Lawrence and bids her carry the word back to Juliet. The nurse gives her mistress the message. When Juliet appears at the friar’s cell at the appointed time, she and Romeo are married. Time is short, however, and Juliet has to hurry home. Before she leaves, Romeo promises that he will meet her in the orchard underneath the balcony after dark that night.
That same day, Romeo’s friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, are loitering in the streets when Tybalt comes by with some other members of the Capulet house. Tybalt, still holding his grudge against Romeo, accuses Mercutio of keeping company with the hateful and villainous young Montague. Mercutio, proud of his friendship with Romeo, cannot take insult lightly, for he is as...
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Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Sampson: a servant in the Capulet household
Gregory: a servant in the Capulet household
Benvolio: a peace-loving friend to Romeo and the Montague family
Tybalt: a fiery-tempered member of the Capulet family
Lord Capulet: the head of the Capulet household
Lady Capulet: the wife of Lord Capulet and mother of Juliet
Lord Montague: the head of the Montague household
Lady Montague: the wife of Lord Montague and the mother of Romeo
Prince Escalus: the Prince of Verona whose job is to keep the peace
Romeo: the tragic hero of the play who falls in love with the enemy’s daughter,...
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Act I, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Nurse: Juliet’s nurse who has taken care of her since her infancy
Susan: the Nurse’s daughter who was born on the same day as Juliet but died. She is not in the scene but is alluded to by the Nurse
Mercutio: a friend to Romeo who loves words
In Scene 3 Lady Capulet informs Juliet that it is time for her to think of marriage. At first Lady Capulet sends the Nurse away, but then calls her back, remembering that she knows all their secrets anyway. The Nurse and Lady Capulet discuss Juliet’s age; and the Nurse recalls exactly the hour of Juliet’s birth because she was born on Lammas Eve, the same day as Susan, her daughter who died.
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Act II, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Act II begins with another Prologue in the form of a sonnet which provides the audience with a preview of what is to come. It states that the shallow love that Romeo had for Rosaline has been replaced with love for Juliet. “Alike bewitched by the charm of looks” expresses that both Romeo and Juliet are mutually attracted to one another. His feelings are returned and “passion lends them power.”
Scene 1 takes place outside the walls of Lord Capulet’s house. Romeo feels that he cannot leave because his heart remains where Juliet lives, and he climbs over the wall into the orchard. Romeo’s friends, who do not know of Romeo’s new love, call for him and try to entreat him to come...
(The entire section is 883 words.)
Act II, Scenes 3 and 4: Summary and Analysis
Friar Laurence: a Franciscan friar who is a priest and a specialist in herbs and medicines. He hopes that the marriage will end the feud between the two families.
Peter: the Nurse’s servant
As Scene 3 begins, the reader finds Friar Laurence carrying a wicker basket and selecting herbs, flowers, and plants to use in making medicine. It is daybreak on Monday, the second day in the lives of the lovers. Friar Laurence tells how plants contain both poisonous and healing powers. If a plant’s use is abused, the result is harmful. “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified.” He applies this same lesson to man, who...
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Act II, Scenes 5 and 6: Summary and Analysis
Scene 5 takes place within the Capulet orchard where Juliet is anxiously waiting for the Nurse to return with news from Romeo. The Nurse left at nine o’clock and it is now twelve. Juliet wishes that the Nurse were as in love as she is so that she would be faster in her return, for the waiting is torture for Juliet. The Nurse finally arrives, and Juliet says, “O Lord, why lookest thou sad? / Though news be sad, yet tell them merrily; / If good, thou shamest the music of sweet news / By playing it to me with so sour a face.” The Nurse replies that her bones ache and asks that Juliet leave her alone for awhile. Juliet says, “I would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news.” The Nurse banters with Juliet,...
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Act III, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Scene 1 takes place on the streets of Verona. It is Monday afternoon on day two, about an hour after the wedding between Romeo and Juliet. Benvolio and Mercutio are walking down one of the streets when Benvolio suggests that they retire. The day is extremely hot, and if they meet with the Capulets, tempers will flare and there is bound to be a fight. Mercutio is ready for a fight and hopes to have one. The Capulets enter led by Tybalt, who inquires about Romeo. Tybalt had challenged Romeo to a duel to get revenge for his uninvited appearance at the Capulet ball. At this time, Romeo, who is returning from Friar Laurence’s chapel, approaches the group of men.
Tybalt insults Romeo by calling him a...
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Act III, Scenes 3 and 4: Summary and Analysis
Scene 3 takes place on Monday night inside Friar Laurence’s cell. When Romeo fled the streets of Verona after the killings, he went there to hide. As the Friar approaches, the distraught Romeo asks what the Prince has decreed as his punishment.
The Friar says, “Not body’s death, but body’s banishment.” To this, Romeo cries that banishment is worse than death because “There is no world without Verona walls.” Friar Laurence attempts to make Romeo realize that he could have been sentenced to death, that the decree of banishment means that at least he will live. Romeo claims that not being able to see and touch Juliet is the same punishment as death. Romeo will not be consoled and throws...
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Act III, Scene 5: Summary and Analysis
Scene 5 takes place very early Tuesday morning on day three. Romeo and Juliet have been together for the night and are discussing whether they hear the nightingale or the lark. The nightingale sings at night, and the lark sings in early morning. The child in Juliet insists that it is the nightingale, while Romeo insists that it is the lark, and he must hurry from the city. Juliet persuades him that it is the nightingale, and Romeo decides that he will stay longer, risking capture and even death. At this point, the more mature and fearful Juliet says that it is indeed the lark, and he must flee. They bid farewell, and Juliet has a vision that the next time that they see one another, he will be dead in a tomb....
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Act IV, Scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis
As scene 1 opens, Paris is found at Friar Laurence’s cell consulting with him about his wedding plans. The friar, who knows why this marriage can never take place, says that it is rushing to have the marriage on Thursday. Paris tells Friar Laurence that they have decided to go ahead and marry because Juliet has been weeping uncontrollably, and her father is worried about her. Lord Capulet, not knowing that she weeps for Romeo, believes that the marriage will help her get over Tybalt’s death more quickly. Juliet arrives and Paris greets her as his wife. She responds coolly but cordially. After Paris tells her that he will come for her early Thursday morning, he departs. Juliet entreats the Friar to “come...
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Act IV, Scenes 4 and 5: Summary and Analysis
Scene 4 takes place in a hall of the Capulet’s house. Lord and Lady Capulet, the Nurse, and numerous servants are busily preparing for the wedding. The Capulets and their servants are making jokes, not realizing that Juliet is in a deathlike trance in her room. She has risked her life in order to avoid what her family is celebrating. The curfew bell has just chimed three o’clock on Wednesday morning. Lord Capulet hears the music made by Paris and his company as they come for Juliet, and sends the Nurse to awaken and prepare her for the wedding.
Scene 5 is within Juliet’s chamber. The Nurse comes into her room calling for her to get up because Paris is arriving. She calls her a “slugabed,”...
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Act V, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Balthasar: a servant to Romeo
Apothecary: a druggist in Mantua who is extremely poor
Friar John: a Franciscan friar who is a friend to Friar Laurence
Romeo is waiting for Balthasar to arrive with news from Verona. He is in Mantua and it is Thursday. He has had a dream that Juliet finds him dead, and she brings him back to life as an emperor with her kisses. Balthasar arrives telling Romeo that he saw Juliet buried in the Capulet tomb. Romeo says, “Then I defy you, stars!” and makes a hasty plan. He orders Balthasar to hire some fast horses and bring him ink and paper. Romeo inquires if there is a letter from the friar, and when the servant...
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Act V, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Page: a servant to Paris
Scene 3 takes place in the churchyard where the Capulet monument is located. Paris and the Page are outside the tomb of Juliet. Paris instructs the page to put out the torch and stand guard while he enters the tomb. The Page is to whistle if anyone approaches. As Paris begins to enter the tomb the Page whistles, indicating that someone is near. Paris watches as Romeo and Balthasar approach. Romeo instructs Balthasar to give a letter to his father the next morning and not to intervene with his purpose. Romeo tells Balthasar that the reason he is at the tomb is to look upon Juliet’s face and to remove a ring from her finger. Balthasar is then...
(The entire section is 1647 words.)