The Capulet - Montague Feud
In the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the Chorus tells us of an "ancient grudge" between two households of equal dignity that has broken out into a "new mutiny" that will cause blood to flow in the streets of Verona and will ultimately result in the deaths of the "star-cross'd lovers." The Chorus points to the heads of these two families as the source of the strife at hand, the rage of their parents causing the deaths of their children. We soon learn the surnames of the warring clans, Capulet and Montague, and both patriarchs (as well as their respective ladies) appear in the flesh in the play's first scene. Although Tybalt of the Capulets is the most aggressive character on the stage, Mercutio's twice-spoken curse, "a plague a' both houses!" (III, i. ll.91, 106), makes it plain that the sides are equally to blame for his death, and by extension, for the tragedy that befalls the lovers. Beyond this, however, we are never told what the original cause of the war between the Capulets and Montagues was. The inference here is that the conflict is an archaic rivalry based upon the very equality of the families' social standing that has been driven forward by a long skein of injuries and slights. Not only has the issue at odds been lost to time and the overlay of fresh events, there is no effective mechanism to resolve it at hand. While the parental figures of the play, most notably Old Capulet, act as tyrants, civil authority is wanting in Verona. That being so, the cause of the ongoing mutiny that is played out before us does not stem solely from strong parental domination but also from the weak authority of the state as embodied in Prince Escalus.
The play moves directly from the Prologue to a lower case example of the mutiny as a confrontation unfolds between servants of the Capulet and Montague households. As Sampson and Gregory square off against Abram and Balthasar, the vulgar obscenities and gestures which they exchange undercut any sense of real danger. The interplay among these underlings is stylized and restrained; before any threshold is crossed, Samson checks with Gregory about whether the law is on their side if they assent to an implied challenge. The foot soldiers in the war between the families are far less serious than the Prologue forebodes. The comic aspect of the feud is reinforced when Old Capulet arrives in person in his gown, calls to his wife for a "long sword" and is punctured roundly when she tells him that a crutch is all that he can handle at his advanced age. Montague arrives, mimics the mindless behavior of the servants and is duly restrained by his wife. This is not the stuff of menace or of chivalry, and the humor woven into this first display of mutiny in Verona mutes any sense of...
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Fate and Free Will in Romeo and Juliet
One of the most important issues in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that of choice. Do the characters have the ability to choose what they want to do, or are they simply destined to participate in death and destruction? There is ample evidence of both fate and free will in the play, and the presence of both greatly affects the interpretation of the plot and the characters.
Fate as a dominating force is evident from the very beginning of the play. The Chorus introduces the power of fortune in the opening prologue when we are told that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed” (destined for bad luck) and “death-marked,” and that their death will end their parents’ feud. Fate and fortune are closely related in the play, as they both concern events that are out of human control. By telling us that Romeo and Juliet are destined to die because of their bad luck, Shakespeare gives us the climax of the play before it even begins. This strategy, which seems odd considering the end has been spoiled for the audience, serves two purposes: it allows the introduction of the power of fate and fortune over people’s lives by declaring the fate of Romeo and Juliet at the very beginning, and it also creates tension throughout the play because they very nearly succeed despite this terrible declaration. Thus the opening prologue sets up the fate/free will problem.
The characters themselves all believe that their lives are controlled by destiny and luck, and Romeo is a prime example of this. When Romeo and his friends journey to the Capulet’s ball in Act I, scene iv, Romeo hesitates to go because he has had a bad dream:
...[M]y mind misgivesSome consequence, yet hanging in the stars,Shall bitterly begin his fearful dateWith this night’s revels and expire the termOf a despised life, closed in my breast,By some vile forfeit of untimely death (I, iv. 106-111).
Romeo not only acknowledges the power of the stars, which tell what fate has in store through astrology, but he also believes that his destiny is to die. Romeo’s belief in fate also affects his interpretation of events. When Romeo kills Tybalt in Act III, scene i, he claims that he is “fortune’s fool” by having contributed to his own downfall. In Act V, scene i, Romeo demonstrates his belief in the power of dreams to foretell the future once again when he believes that he will be reunited with Juliet on the basis of another dream. However, when Balthasar informs him that Juliet is dead, Romeo once again rails against the power of fate: “Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars! / Thou knowest my lodging” (V, i. 24). Romeo finally tries to escape from his destiny at the end of the play by committing suicide to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars,” ironically fulfilling the destiny declared by the Chorus in the opening prologue.
Other characters in the play believe in the power of fate as well. Juliet appeals to fortune when Romeo escapes to Mantua in Act III, scene v:
“O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with himThat is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,For then I hope thou wilt not keep him longBut send him back” (III, v. 60-64).
Juliet demonstrates here that she not only believes in the power of luck and fate over her own situation, but that Romeo himself has faith in those concepts. Friar Laurence also shows his belief in the power of destiny over people. When Romeo runs to his cell after killing Tybalt, Friar Laurence acknowledges that Romeo does indeed have bad luck: “Affliction is enamored of thy parts, / And thou art wedded to calamity” (III, iii. ll.2-3). As a priest, Friar Laurence naturally believes that destiny exists, as God has planned out all events. However, the friar will also become a victim of fate by the end of the play. His letter to Romeo, which details Friar Laurence’s plan for Romeo to pick up Juliet at the Capulet tomb after she has awakened from the effects of the potion, could not be delivered because of the “unfortunate” quarantine of Friar John. Friar Laurence then has the misfortune of accidentally tripping over gravestones while running to meet Juliet, which delays his arrival until after Romeo has committed suicide. Friar Laurence recognizes the power of fate to overrule his good intentions when Juliet awakens: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (V, iii. ll.153-154). The fact that Friar Laurence, Juliet, Romeo, and the other characters in the play believe so strongly in fate and fortune is not surprising, given...
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Light and Dark in Romeo and Juliet
Light and darkness usually have very definitive meanings in human psychology. Traditionally, light is considered “good” because it allows us to perceive the world around us and to work within it. Conversely, dark is usually viewed as “evil” due to our inability to see and the fear that such a state brings. Thus day and night, which are distinguished by the amount of light available, have similar connotations. However, while typical notions of light and dark do appear in Romeo and Juliet, day and night are reversed. Night becomes good because it aids Romeo and Juliet, and day becomes evil because it brings death and destruction.
Light and dark are linked with the protagonists early in the play. When Romeo first...
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Mercutio's Queen Mab Speech
Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab in Act I, scene iv, seems to have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet whatsoever. In fact, some Shakespearean scholars have argued that it was added to the script during the printing of the Second Quarto and was not, therefore, a part of the play as it was originally written. Other scholars argue that even if the speech was in the original script, it contradicts what we know of Mercutio: a hot-tempered and lusty youth who has no patience for the dreams and visions discussed in the Queen Mab speech. The Queen Mab speech, however, does hold consistent with Mercutio’s character in some ways, and it also points to some important aspects of the play in general.
Let’s begin with a...
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The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet
Act II, scene ii of Romeo and Juliet is commonly known as the "balcony scene," and although this designation may be inaccurate (Shakespeare's stage directions call for Juliet to appear at a "window," not on a balcony), this scene has been quoted from, played, and misplayed more than any other in all of the Bard's works. It is proceeded by some astoundingly beautiful verse in Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech of Act I, scene iv., and by the individual and joint speeches of Romeo and Juliet at the banquet which concludes the first act and includes a wonderful exchange in which the lovers author a sonnet together. But the balcony scene rises even above these brilliant flashes and is indelibly etched in our memories. Here Shakespeare's...
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Why does Friar Laurence's plan fail?
Friar Laurence's dramatic function as a "helping" character who will assist the star-cross'd lovers of Romeo and Juliet is established even before we see the Franciscan brother at work in his garden. At the conclusion of the balcony scene (Act II, scene ii), Romeo's mind turns from the reverie of repeated farewells with Juliet to the practical issue of how they can overcome parental opposition to the lovers' union and tells us that he will hie to his spiritual father for direction. Thereafter, we see Friar Laurence gathering herbs and are kindly disposed toward him. His initial banter with Romeo about the youth's abandonment of Rosaline is both jocular and sensible, and his quick agreement to preside at the marriage of his...
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Character Analysis of the Nurse
In Act II, scene v, after returning from her first mission to Romeo, Juliet's Nurse tells her impatient mistress, "I am the drudge, and toil in your delight" (II, v. l.75). At this juncture, we are inclined to take the Nurse at her word. When we first encounter her in Act I, scene iii, the Nurse of Romeo and Juliet appears to be a comic figure given to bawdy humor and innuendo, but this coarse character is sofened by her fondness for Juliet. Thereafter, she proves a reliable go-between, taking a message to Romeo in Act II, scene iv, and then apprising first Juliet and then Romeo of events in the wake of Act III's dueling scene. But in Act III, our perception of the Nurse as a "helping" figure undergoes a sharp reversal as...
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The Growth of Shakespeare's Tragic Technique in Romeo and Juliet
Although Romeo and Juliet appears early in the sequence of Shakespeare's tragedies, it represents a considerable improvement over his very first attempts at tragedy, the historical Tragedy of Richard III and Titus Andronicus. These two works follow in the tradition of a crude, though powerful, form of revenge drama perfected by Marlowe and Kyd in the 1580's. Richard III and Titus Andronicus contain the typical conventions of this form: ruthless Machiavellian villains, bloody spectacle, and long speeches debating the nature of villainous ambition and revenge.
The content of Romeo and Juliet differs greatly from that of Shakespeare's early revenge tragedies. No character in...
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The Character of Mercutio Analyzed
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of his earliest dramatic plays. Most critics believe that it was written in 1595 although there is some debate over the exact date. The plot is a simple one which revolves around the story of two families who are engaged in pursuing an ancient and senseless family feud. While the two main characters in the play are clearly Romeo and Juliet, others contribute to the action and are important in bringing out the characters of the other players as well as making a statement in their own right. Romeo's friend, Mercutio, is one such character. After a brief explanation of the plot which will place the play's events in context, we will examine the character of Mercutio to determine what kind of...
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Romeo and Juliet: An Analysis of the Main Characters and Their Views on Love
Romeo and Juliet, the tragic play by William Shakespeare, centers around the love story between Romeo, the young heir of the Montagues, and Juliet, the daughter of the house of Capulet. Because of an on-going feud between the two families, Romeo and Juliet are forced to keep their love a secret, marry in secret and, due to ill-fated consequences, they die together in the tomb of the Capulets.
As the story unfolds, a great variety of moral assumptions and explanations as to the value of love are explored. Romeo is first presented as a lover creating poetical phrases in honor of his present love, the chaste and unattainable Rosaline. As he states to his friend, Benvolio, "She'll not be hit / With Cupid's arrow. She...
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Darkness in Romeo and Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare uses darkness to perform a variety of functions. Darkness sets the tone of the play as the tragedy proceeds with a dark and inexorable determinism. Many of the scenes in the work are set in darkness, with the alternation of day and night serving to propel the drama's narrative line. Darkness is employed, moreover, as a reflection of mood and character in the figures of Romeo, Juliet and Mercutio. The dark acts as a foil in images in which light represents the illumination of romantic love. Finally, the contrast between light and dark allows Shakespeare to elevate the dimensions of the tragedy to cosmic proportions.
Romeo and Juliet is, of course, a tragedy, and images of...
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Evolution of Love in Romeo and Juliet
There is a great deal written about the nature of the love relationships involving Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. In analyzing the relationship which opens the play, namely, Romeo and Rosaline, with the one which quickly replaces it, Romeo and Juliet, we see a progression in the characters from innocence to maturity, from love-sickness to the authentic experience of love.
The change from one relationship to another is a forced change from childhood innocence to adult awareness. Hence, Northrop Frye refers to Romeo and Juliet as a play whose theme is love, bound up with and part of, violent death.1
As the lovers meet and find themselves bound by love, they are surrounded by the intruding...
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Common Themes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra
Shakespeare’s plays Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra share some common themes and attitudes, among them love, war, and the notion that love between two people can conquer even death. In Romeo and Juliet we find families at war, their children victims of an argument which is meaningless and irrelevant in the face of a mutual attraction. In Antony and Cleopatra the wars of nations and political intrigue trap the lovers in a net from which death is the only escape. Both pairs of lovers are dead at the end of each play; yet the nature and quality of the love which they shared while alive is different.
That the love between Juliet and Romeo "is no mere infatuation, but love indeed in...
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