This love story, though familiar even to those who have never read or seen a Shakespearean play, reveals fresh depths and nuances when experienced directly because of the beauty and precision of Shakespeare’s language and his brilliant perception of character.
The brawl that opens the play reveals at once the violence that racks Verona. The enmity between the city’s two leading families, the Capulets and the Montagues, is laid to rest only in the final scene, when Capulet and Montague reach reconciliation through the tragic death of their children.
Romeo, a Montague, moping for the love of Rosaline at the beginning of the play, falls in love with Juliet at a ball give by Capulet, her father. That Juliet feels the same about him he discovers by eavesdropping as she talks to herself on the balcony overlooking the Capulets’ garden. This balcony scene offers some of the most memorable love poetry ever written, with an abundance of phrases and images that have become a permanent part of our cultural heritage.
The chain of unhappy events that follow constitutes a tragedy of errors, as the antagonism between the two families leads to the death of Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, slain by Romeo himself.
Yet the mood of the play is not heavy. Shakespeare includes much comic byplay between Romeo and his friends and between Juliet and her Nurse, thus enriching the texture of the play as its characters appear in diverse lights.
It is incredible that Romeo and Juliet are actually on stage together for only about twelve minutes, for these two adolescents have become the Western world’s most memorable lovers.
Battenhouse, Roy W. Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Argues that in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows a mistrust of carnal love, which leads the protagonists to suicide and damnation; the suicides in the tomb at the end of the play are an inversion of the Easter story.
Cartwright, Kent. Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Examines how audiences respond to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shows how an audience of Romeo and Juliet usually identifies strongly with the lovers, although the play compels detachment.
Evans, Robert. The Osier Cage; Rhetorical Devices in “Romeo and Juliet.” Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966. Explores the style of Romeo and Juliet, particularly Shakespeare’s use of opposites such as love and violence, darkness and light, and appearance and reality.
Watts, Cedric. Romeo and Juliet. Boston: Twayne, 1991. One of the best starting places. Contains information on the history of the play and discusses its themes, sources, and characters.
Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. All studies of Shakespeare should begin with this book. Includes excellent chapters on the poet’s life, the beliefs of Elizabethan England, and reviews of scholarship in the field.