Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1397
Like act I, act II begins with a prologue. This prologue summarizes the events of act I, explaining that Romeo’s desire for Rosaline has now been supplanted by his love for the beautiful Juliet, who loves Romeo in return. The Chorus states that the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets will make it difficult for Romeo and Juliet to meet again; however, the strength of their love will help them to overcome these practical barriers.
Act II, Scene 1
Act II opens outside the wall of Capulet’s orchard, only moments after the end of act I. Romeo enters alone. Deciding that he cannot yet go home, he leaps over the orchard wall to seek out Juliet once more. Benvolio and Mercutio then enter and begin calling out for Romeo, whom they know must be close by. Frustrated that Romeo will not respond to their calls, Mercutio mockingly references Rosaline, but even this does not elicit a response from Romeo. Eventually, the two men give up and decide to return home.
Act II, Scene 2
Romeo is now in the Capulet orchard. Having heard Mercutio’s teasing, Romeo comments that it is easy to poke fun at someone’s pain when you have never felt the same kind of pain yourself. Suddenly, Juliet appears at a window in the house. Looking up at her, Romeo compares her beauty to the radiance of the sun and her eyes to the brightest of stars. He wonders whether he should talk to her, but then Juliet (unaware that Romeo is present) begins to speak, lamenting the fact that Romeo is a Montague. Juliet says she wishes that Romeo would change his name, vowing that she would deny hers if he swore his love to her. Hearing this, Romeo suddenly announces his presence, surprising Juliet.
Romeo claims that love is what led him to Juliet’s window, and when Juliet reminds him that he will be killed if anyone from her house sees him, Romeo responds that he fears her rejection more than their swords. Juliet admits that she is embarrassed that Romeo overheard her declarations of love; she hopes that Romeo will not think she is too easily won or that her love is not serious just because she cannot play coy. Romeo eagerly tries to reassure her by swearing his love, but Juliet interrupts him. Worried that everything is happening so quickly, she suggests that they give their love more time to blossom. Romeo protests, claiming that Juliet is leaving him unsatisfied, and they eventually pledge their love for one another.
The Nurse begins to call for Juliet, prompting her to briefly disappear inside. When she comes back out, Juliet tells Romeo that if his intention is to marry her, then she will send a messenger to him tomorrow to find out where and when he would like to have the wedding. The Nurse starts calling Juliet away again. Before she goes back inside, Juliet warns Romeo that if his intentions are not honorable, then he must leave her to her grief. After a moment, Juliet reappears one more time to find out when she should send her messenger. Romeo tells her to send word at nine the next morning, and the two lovers exchange a few more romantic words before finally saying goodnight. As Juliet retreats back inside, Romeo plans to go visit his friar (priest) to tell him what has happened.
Unlike the prologue at the beginning of act I, the prologue of act II recaps events that have already come to pass. It builds suspense by highlighting the dilemma that Romeo and Juliet face, leaving the audience eager to see how the two young lovers will attempt to overcome these obstacles.
Act II begins right where act I left off: Romeo and his friends are outside the Capulet house, having just left the party. Romeo’s decision to jump over the wall and abandon his friends recalls his antisocial behavior from act I. This time, however, Romeo isolates himself for love rather than out of sorrow. Indeed, the orchard wall becomes a literal representation of Romeo’s increasing distance from his friends—as far as Benvolio and Mercutio know, Romeo is still pining after Rosaline. Romeo’s decision to jump over the wall into Capulet territory not only represents his willingness to jump headfirst into a dangerous romantic relationship with Juliet, but also serves to separate his love for Juliet from the base, physical love that Mercutio bawdily jokes about on the other side of the wall. In an attempt to taunt Romeo into responding, Mercutio mocks the cliched and poetic language Romeo has been using to describe Rosaline, further emphasizing the superficial nature of Romeo’s feelings for her.
Scene 2 contains the famous balcony scene, arguably the most iconic moment of the play. Inspired by the light from Juliet’s window, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun. This metaphor plays into the play’s themes of light and dark, suggesting that Juliet is so radiant that she has the power to vanquish the night. Romeo references Diana, the moon goddess and patron of virgins, saying that Juliet should “kill the envious moon” rather than be her maid. By this, Romeo means that Juliet is more beautiful than a goddess, and he goes on to say that she should cast off her virginity (“vestal livery” is the uniform of Diana’s virgins). Romeo compared Rosaline to Diana in Act I (“she hath Dian’s wit”), which suggests that Romeo’s metaphor here could also be an expression of how much fairer he finds Juliet than Rosaline.
Unaware that Romeo is present, Juliet appears at the window and considers the implications of Romeo’s name (“wherefore art thou, Romeo?”). Juliet famously asks “what’s in a name?” before declaring that, as names do not define the things to which they refer, Romeo’s name should not be of any consequence. Though they are both quick to claim that names are of no consequence, both Juliet and Romeo linger on this topic. Juliet points out that Romeo, being a Montague, will be killed on sight if her kinsmen discover him in the orchard. While Romeo and Juliet’s love can flourish in secrecy and under the cloak of night, these lines serve as a reminder that their families will not be so quick to dismiss the significance of Romeo’s and Juliet’s identities.
While Romeo is eager jump headfirst into the flowery language of love, Juliet shows herself to be more cautious and emotionally mature. Romeo makes a trite attempt to express his love by swearing on the moon, but Juliet interrupts his attempt at romantic flattery, pointing out that a vow made on something so “inconstant” is hardly conducive to a strong and reliable relationship. Juliet pushes Romeo to concentrate on his genuine emotions rather than falling back on romantic cliches (as he used to with Rosaline). In doing so, Juliet helps Romeo develop a sincerity that was never present in his feelings for Rosaline and establishes herself as the more practical of the two lovers. Indeed, despite her inexperience, Juliet is the one who points out that things may be happening too fast, comparing their love to a bud that needs more time to blossom into a mature and beautiful flower.
Although Juliet is more mature than Romeo, it is important to remember that she, too, is infatuated. Her silly repeated attempts to say farewell (only to reappear in her window a moment later) remind us that, like Romeo, Juliet is young and impulsive. In an environment where their love must be kept secret, Romeo and Juliet are left to police their own desires and impulses—a role that would normally be played by their families. While many readers attribute the deaths of these young lovers to their impulsivity, one cannot underestimate the role that uncontrollable external forces play in this tragedy. As she finally manages to say goodbye, Juliet’s famous farewell phrase—“Parting is such sweet sorrow”—perfectly encapsulates the excitement and earnestness of her and Romeo’s young love. However, the audience knows that Romeo and Juliet’s love story will not end happily, and so the oxymoron “sweet sorrow” can also be seen as a reference to the bittersweet combination of love and tragedy that characterizes the play itself.
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