Critical Context

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Romeo and Juliet is a perennial high school text, popular because of its young lovers—Juliet at fourteen is the age of a high school freshman, and Romeo is only slightly older—and its themes of love and youthful rebellion against parents. Critics, on the other hand, have never placed this work among William Shakespeare’s great tragedies. One reason is the apparently deterministic nature of the action, a factor that may appeal to young readers who feel overwhelmed by a world not of their making. Yet, the lovers make decisions that determine their fate. Romeo chooses to avenge the death of Mercutio and later poisons himself because he thinks that Juliet has died. Similarly, Juliet chooses death over life without Romeo.

Another objection is the apparent shift in tone between the first two acts, which seem comic, and the tragic three acts that follow. As critic Frank Kermode has noted, however, the comic tone of the early scenes is more apparent than real. The opening scene establishes a mood of violence and bawdry that threatens the love of the protagonists. Such comedy as exists in these first two acts suggests that the lovers have a chance to succeed even in strife-torn Verona. The darker aspects of these scenes indicate how difficult their struggle will be.

Critics also have objected that the play is more poetic than dramatic. Thus, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in act 1, scene 4, is beautiful but seems to retard the action as Romeo is about to meet Juliet for the first time. In fact, these lines reveal Mercutio’s character; he is a man of excellent fancy, but he cannot understand Romeo’s love because Mercutio is a materialist. His Queen Mab brings lawyers dreams of fees, parsons dreams of benefices, and maids dreams of sex. Shakespeare was a dramatist before he was a poet, and any good production of this play will demonstrate its stageworthiness. In Romeo and Juliet, as in his other works for the stage, language always serves Shakespeare’s purpose. Students may find that language strange and dense, but the words will reward their study.

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Critical Evaluation