Study Guide

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet Essay - Critical Commentary

Critical Commentary

Act I Commentary

Opening Prologue: The first act prologue not only reveals what will happen during the course of the play, but also some of the major dichotomies. The opening line shows us that the Capulet and Montague houses are, although at odds, equal in their aristocratic status. It was considered "fashionable" in the Renaissance for aristocratic families to have feuds, but they were not to engage in public fighting, a taboo which is broken by the Capulets and the Montagues. However, line 4 indicates that these equal families are in an ungoverned situation where no rules will be obeyed, which is why they are able to fight. The Chorus reveals one of the most important themes of the play in line 5-8, which is that Romeo and Juliet are destined not only to love each other, but to die, which will end the feud. The fact that Shakespeare tells us the end of the play before it even begins is intentional—this creates a tension between what we as the audience know must happen, and what could have happened if the characters had acted differently. Thus the theme of fate versus free will emerges: do Romeo and Juliet die because it was their destiny, or do they die because of their actions and the actions of those around them? The third major point that surfaces in the opening prologue is one of extremes. There is extreme hatred between the Capulet and Montague families. The only solution to this situation is, according to line 11, the "end" of Romeo and Juliet. Thus we see a situation in which one extreme, hatred, is ended by its opposite: love.

Scene i: This scene is really a compilation of three mini-scenes. The first mini-scene begins with the fighting between the servants, after some brief comic relief through the jokes of Sampson and Gregory. The fact that the servants from each household are fighting further demonstrates that this feud has gone too far—so far, in fact, that Benvolio, who is a Montague, is prevented from breaking up the servants' fight by Tybalt, who, although Lady Capulet's nephew, is not really a Capulet. Even the Prince has very little control of the situation, which is evident in line 81 when fighting continues despite the fact that he has ordered them to stop. Escalus' weakness as ruler is revealed in his speech, where he notes that this is the third time that public fighting has erupted between the two families. His threat to execute any member of either family in lines 94-95 is fairly meaningless because he has done little to prevent their previous outbreaks, and Escalus does indeed fail to make good on his threat in Act III, scene 1. This lack of order in Verona contributes to the violence that occurs.

In the next section of the scene, we see Montague, Lady Montague, and Benvolio discussing Romeo, whose depression has attracted their attention. The Montagues have asked Romeo why he is so sad, but have gotten no response. This is typical for the Renaissance—as aristocrats, the Montagues are not really expected to have much to do with his upbringing, and therefore do not understand him much. However, the fact that Romeo keeps so much from his parents will lead to his death because he is not accustomed to confiding in the Montagues. Romeo does, however, confide in Benvolio in the third section of the scene. Romeo has been pining away for Rosaline, whose desire to lead a chaste life leads him to associate her with the moon goddess Diana in line 207. This association is important, as he will call Juliet the sun in Act II, scene 2. This comparison illustrates the dichotomy of light and dark that will run throughout the play. We also see one of Romeo's major character traits in this scene through his depression. Romeo is the embodiment of the Renaissance ideal of courtly love—he is fully consumed by love, and is devastated by Rosaline's rejection of it. This leads him to keep to the shadows and avoid the sun (note the light/dark theme at work). Romeo's plethora of oxymorons ("brawling love," "loving hate," "heavy lightness," etc.) are a reflection of his mastery of this concept. Despite this, however, Benvolio (who is no courtly lover) promises to snap Romeo out of his depression, which Benvolio will accomplish by showing Romeo other women. Benvolio's statement at the end of the scene, "I'll pay that doctrine, or else die in debt," is...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)

Act II Commentary

Prologue: This prologue lists the consequences of the newfound passion of Romeo and Juliet. In the first four lines, the Chorus reminds us that although Romeo was once completely enamored of Rosaline, his once-invulnerable attraction has been vanquished by his love for Juliet, which is much more "fair." The prologue goes on to state that there is immense danger in this relationship, even going so far as to compare Juliet to a fish attracted to the bait of a fishing hook. Although Romeo and Juliet cannot conduct their relationship in the typical Renaissance England manner (as Paris attempts to do by approaching Capulet instead of Juliet), the combination of the strength of their love and "good" timing allows them the ability to develop their romance. As we were told in the Act I prologue, the love of Romeo and Juliet will counterbalance the hate of the feud, which is encapsulated in the last line of this prologue.

Scene i: Scene 1 begins where Act 1 leaves off—with the guests leaving the party. Romeo, being the devoted lover that he is, cannot leave Juliet, and climbs the wall to the Capulet orchard. However, he is still close enough to hear his friends calling for him. Mercutio, in one of his many displays of wit, decides to cast a spell and "conjure" Romeo by reciting all of what he thinks to be important to Romeo—love and Rosaline. While commenting that this sort of speech will anger Romeo, Benvolio tells Mercutio that "Blind is his love and best befits the dark" (l. 32). With this statement, the light/dark theme resurfaces. This will become critical in the next scene.

Scene ii: Once his friends leave, Romeo turns his attention to Juliet, who has just come out to the balcony for one of the most famous scenes in all of literature, despite its relatively minor status to the play itself. Upon seeing Juliet, Romeo compares her to the sun. This brings the light/dark dichotomy to the foreground. Juliet is associated with the sun, which overpowers the moon (Rosaline) through her light. However, it is the darkness of the night that allows Juliet to symbolize the sun, which she cannot do during the day because the real sun dominates the sky. Because of this, and because Romeo and Juliet cannot be together in the daytime for fear of their parents' rage, night is their time. Day, which is usually associated with good, turns to evil because of the destruction of the feud and the separation of Romeo and Juliet. This reversal of the significance of day and night is continued throughout the play.

When Juliet speaks, she reveals a great deal about her character. Although she is in love with Romeo, her first reflection is on the problems their love provokes. She asks why (wherefore) Romeo has to be a Montague, and reflects upon the irrelevance of names, which should not matter when people are in love. When Romeo interrupts her thoughts, Juliet's reaction is logical rather than emotional; instead of rejoicing in her lover's presence immediately, she questions him about who he is, how he got to the orchard, and reminds him that he will be killed if her family discovers him. Even when Romeo is swearing his love, Juliet reminds him of the fickleness of love and the difficulties of their situation. Even though Juliet is a sheltered young girl, she realizes that there is more to a successful...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)

Act III Commentary

Scene i: Like the first scene of Act I, this scene has three major parts. The first part begins with Benvolio and Mercutio discussing the heat, which stirs the "mad blood." Benvolio, who tries once again to avert a fight, suggests that they go inside, but Mercutio claims that Benvolio is more likely to cause trouble than he is. This is mere projection—Mercutio is obviously talking about himself when he refers to Benvolio's quick temper. Mercutio is so accurate in these opening lines of the scene that he even predicts his own death when he declares that if there were two of the people he is describing, "we should have/none shortly, for one would kill the other." We do indeed have two hot-headed individuals in this...

(The entire section is 1534 words.)

Act IV Commentary

Scene i: Friar Laurence and Juliet both display their wit and their emotions in this subtext-filled scene. While Paris arranges for the marriage and Friar Laurence tries to keep what he knows quiet, Juliet comes to the cell hoping to elicit the friar's wisdom. While Paris attempts to get some sign of affection from Juliet, Juliet manages to dodge his questions with quick retorts and avoidance. When Paris leaves, Juliet cries to the friar for help, and threatens to stab herself to death if he does not come up with a solution for her problem. Although her grief is a strong as Romeo's was in Act III, the difference here is that Juliet is willing to allow the friar to share his wisdom with her. Romeo did not listen to the friar...

(The entire section is 858 words.)

Act V Commentary

Scene i: Romeo, who has fled to Mantua, opens this scene talking of the wonderful dream he has just experienced. Romeo, who professes a great belief in dreams and fate throughout the play, dreams that Juliet came to him and woke him up from death. Ironically, this is the reverse of what Friar Laurence and Juliet planned, as Romeo is supposed to take Juliet, who is "dead," and lead her from the tomb to their new life together. If Romeo truly believes that dreams can predict the future, then he should follow his first inclination to believe that all will be well. However, Romeo's faith in dreams and fortune is shallow, and he will only believe what his emotions tell him to. When Balthasar brings news of Juliet's funeral, which...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)