One key to William Shakespeare’s play lies in its poetry. The play begins with a sonnet as prologue, a clue that the work to follow will trace the moods of a sonnet sequence. Thomas Nashe described Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), the best and most popular of the sonnet sequences of the 1590’s, as “the tragicomedy of love . . . performed by starlight,” an apt synopsis of Romeo and Juliet. Specific episodes in the play, such as the lovers’ nighttime meeting while the household sleeps (act 2, scene 2), seem copied from Sidney’s work. Like Astrophel, Romeo develops a more mature and tragic sense of love in the course of the play. In truncated sonnets of a quatrain and couplet, Benvolio urges Romeo to find another love to replace Rosaline, and Romeo swears eternal loyalty to her (act 1, scene 2). In act 1, scene 5, after seeing Juliet, Romeo and his new love compose a sonnet together, revealing their mutual love. When they begin a second sonnet, the nurse interrupts, foreshadowing how their love and their lives will be cut short.
Romeo’s language is derived from the sonnet, especially the Petrarchan conceits that Shakespeare parodied in sonnet 130, written about the same time as this play. In act 1, scene 5, Juliet accuses Romeo of kissing “by the book”; he certainly speaks by the book, like Astrophel studying “inventions fine, her wits to entertain” (Sidney’s sonnet 1). Later in the sequence, Astrophel recognizes, “My Muse may well grudge at my heav’nly joy,/ If still I force her in sad rhymes to creep,” and so too Romeo’s speeches shift from quatrains and couplets to the more dignified and mature blank verse.
Yet, Romeo is still given to conventional expressions of love in act 2, scenes 2 and 6. Juliet, although younger, is the more mature in love; she must recall him from his flights of fancy, reminding him, for example, that “Conceit more rich in matter than in words/ Brags of his substance, not of ornament./ They are but beggars that can count their worth.” By the end of the play, Romeo has developed his own idiom, at once beautiful and powerful, indicating how much he has grown during his five days of love.
Shakespeare presents the ideal love of Romeo and Juliet against a background of violence, hate, and sexual innuendo. This most romantic of Shakespeare’s tragedies contains six deaths and much bawdry to show the odds against which the lovers must struggle. Moreover, the lovers are never alone for an entire scene; some representative of the work-a-day world invariably intrudes upon them. Only in death can they remain together undisturbed.
Time, too, conspires against the lovers. Their alienation from the world of Verona is nowhere more evident than in their treatment of time. For Juliet “ ’tis twenty years” between dawn and nine o’clock; she would have the nurse travel at ten times the speed of light. For Romeo, a minute with Juliet equals a lifetime. The lovers are hasty, but they must be so because their world gives them no time. Shakespeare condensed the action of his main source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), from nine months to five days. Only at the end of the play, too late, does time stop for the lovers: In act 5, scene 3, the sun refuses to rise.