Romeo and Juliet Critical Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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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...

(The entire section is 6,585 words.)