This story of star-crossed lovers is one of William Shakespeare’s tenderest dramas. Shakespeare is sympathetic toward Romeo and Juliet, and in attributing their tragedy to fate, rather than to a flaw in their characters, he raises them to heights near perfection, as well as running the risk of creating pathos, not tragedy. They are both sincere, kind, brave, loyal, virtuous, and desperately in love, and their tragedy is greater because of their innocence. The feud between the lovers’ families represents the fate that Romeo and Juliet are powerless to overcome. The lines capture in poetry the youthful and simple passion that characterizes the play. One of the most popular plays of all time, Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s second tragedy (after Titus Andronicus of 1594, a failure). Consequently, the play shows the sometimes artificial lyricism of early comedies such as Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595, pb. 1598) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), while its character development predicts the direction of the playwright’s artistic maturity. In Shakespeare’s usual fashion, he based his story on sources that were well known in his day: Masuccio Salernitano’s Novellino (1475), William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-1567), and, especially, Arthur Brooke’s poetic The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare reduces the time of the action from the months it takes in Brooke’s work to a few compact days.
In addition to following the conventional five-part structure of a tragedy, Shakespeare employs his characteristic alternation, from scene to scene, between taking the action forward and retarding it, often with comic relief, to heighten the dramatic impact. Although in many respects the play’s structure recalls that of the genre of the fall of powerful men, its true prototype is tragedy as employed by Geoffrey Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382)—a fall into unhappiness, on the part of more or less ordinary people, after a fleeting period of happiness. The fall is caused traditionally and in Shakespeare’s play by the workings of fortune. Insofar as Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, it is a tragedy of fate rather than of a tragic flaw. Although the two lovers have weaknesses, it is not their faults, but their unlucky stars, that destroy them. As the friar comments at the end, “A greater power than we can contradict/ Hath thwarted our intents.”
Shakespeare succeeds in having the thematic structure closely parallel the dramatic form of the play. The principal theme is that of the tension between the two houses, and all the other oppositions of the play derive from that central one. Thus, romance is set against revenge, love against hate, day against night, sex against war, youth against age, and “tears to fire.” Juliet’s soliloquy in act 3, scene 2 makes it clear that it is the strife between her family and Romeo’s that has turned Romeo’s love to death. If, at times, Shakespeare seems to forget the family theme in his lyrical fascination with the lovers, that fact only sets off their suffering all the more poignantly against the background of the senseless and arbitrary strife between the Capulets and Montagues. For the families, after all, the story has a classically comic ending; their feud is buried with the lovers—which seems to be the intention of the fate that compels the action.
The lovers never forget their families; their consciousness of the conflict leads to another central theme in the play, that of identity. Romeo questions his identity to Benvolio early in the play, and Juliet asks him, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” At her request he offers to change his name and to be defined only as one star-crossed with her. Juliet, too, questions her identity, when she speaks to the nurse after Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt. Romeo later asks the friar to help him locate the lodging of his name so that he may cast it from his “hateful mansion,” bringing a plague...
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