(Shakespearean Criticism)

Romeo and Juliet

One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet centers on the ill-fated love between the adolescent offspring of two leading, but warring, families of medieval Verona. Because of the feud between the families and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choice, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage is destined to bring tragedy both to the couple and to their families. Although critics disagree over the nature of the young couple's love for each other, most concur that themes of love and sexuality are central to the play's meaning. Scholars have focused on issues such as the nature and extent of Romeo and Juliet's love for each other, the social dictates and consequences of sexuality in medieval times, and the passage of the title characters from childhood to adulthood.

Many commentators have examined the nature of Romeo and Juliet's love for one another, concentrating on its brevity and the extent to which it was lustful. Ronald B. Bond states that Romeo's love for Juliet is ocular and is based only on satisfying his senses. Bond claims that even in death their love is "devoted to the flesh" and that the play is about "the intensity of youthful love." However, Marjorie Kolb Cox distinguishes between the Nurse's interpretation of the romance in terms of lust and Juliet's stress on abiding love, maintaining that Romeo and Juliet's love does not fit the Elizabethan Courtly Love model because it is realistic, normal, and attainable. Conversely, Leonora Leet Brodwin develops the argument that Shakespeare did indeed create a Courtly Love Tragedy.

Critics have also questioned whether the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues can be considered the primary cause of the disasters that befall the young couple. Many scholars have suggested that the feud is not the cause of their deaths but rather a symptom of larger problems within society that contribute to the young lovers' tragedy. Michael Rustin argues that the play is about the modern emotion of romantic sexual love and the inability of medieval society to deal with this emotion. Rustin also notes that medieval society in both Verona and England was based on patriarchal authority, and that both Romeo and Juliet were at odds with this structure. A. K. Nardo reminds the reader that violence and sex were linked in this society and that such an atmosphere certainly "does not nurture innocent lovers." Coppélia Kahn develops this theme, observing that Romeo's friends expect him to prove his manhood through violence and that the feud between the Capulets and Montagues gives him the opportunity to prove his loyalty to his father by killing members of the Capulet household. That he is divided between these two factions through his marriage to Juliet is the irresolvable problem which drives both of the lovers to their deaths.

The role of adolescence in Romeo and Juliet is another theme that has prompted significant debate among critics. Rustin attributes the play's continued popularity to Shakespeare's success at evoking the emotional turbulence of such a universal experience as adolescence. Adolescence is the transitional phase between childhood and adulthood when children break their attachment to their parents and form new bonds. Although medieval society did not recognize adolescence as a part of the life course, several commentators have agreed that it is Romeo and Juliet's attempt to pass through adolescence and the failure of their families to accept this effort that leads to their demise. Romeo and Juliet are both attempting to reach adulthood, but their actions are limited by the social conventions of the time. According to Kahn, Romeo becomes a man both through his defense of his family and through his sexual liaison with Juliet. Juliet, however, has no freedom of choice. Her role is reproductive, to produce an heir, and she must marry whomever her fathers chooses. Kahn contends that Juliet therefore has less freedom to experiment with new roles. But unlike her mother and her Nurse, Juliet acknowledges and expresses her sexuality apart from its reproductive aspects. Cox claims that neither Juliet's mother nor the Nurse are fully adult—a station in life which Juliet reaches through her relationship with Romeo—because they were denied the adolescence through which Juliet passes.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

G. Blakemore Evans (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: An introduction to Romeo and Juliet, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 1-48.

[In the following excerpt, Evans provides an overview of the play's sources, structure, style, characters, and tragic qualities with an emphasis on the theme of love.]


The general type of story represented by Romeo and Juliet has its roots in folklore and mythology. Best described as a separation-romance, it shows obvious analogies with the stories of Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Isolde, and with later medieval works like Floris and Blanchefleur and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.1 Chaucer's poem leaves its mark strongly on Shakespeare's principal source for the play, Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, and, independently perhaps, on Shakespeare's play itself.

The earlier history of the Romeo and Juliet story has been treated in detail by a number of critics,2 but since there is no persuasive evidence that Shakespeare knew the Italian or French versions at first hand,3 we may limit our discussion to the two English versions:4 Arthur Brooke's long poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562); and William Painter's 'Rhomeo and Julietta' included in volume II (1567) of his widely known Palace of Pleasure, a collection of prose translations from classical sources and from Italian and French novelle.5 Both Brooke and Painter used a French version of the story by Pierre Boaistuau, published in volume I of Francois de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1559),6 which in turn was based primarily on Matteo Bandello's 'Romeo e Giulietta' (1554) and, in some details, on Luigi da Porto's Giuletta e Romeo (about 1530), the immediate source of Bandello's version and the first to lay the action in Verona and to give the names Romeo and Juliet to the protagonists.7

Shakespeare worked directly with Brooke's Romeus, for verbal echoes resound throughout the play; that he knew Painter's prose version is highly probable, but, except for four or five suggestive and scattered details,8 Painter's influence remains shadowy, though we may surmise that at least Shakespeare's use of Romeo' (instead of Brooke's 'Romeus') was due to Painter's title.9 It is not surprising that Shakespeare concentrated his attention on Brooke. Painter's translation of Boaistuau's version is close and generally accurate, but Brooke's much longer verse narrative, 3020 lines in poulter's measure,10 gives essentially everything in Boaistuau (and hence in Painter), and makes substantial additions and slighter alterations that considerably enhance the dramatic potentialities of the story.11 The more important additions are the Nurse's interview with Romeo following the lovers' first meeting (631-73), the consequent report to Juliet of the Nurse's arrangements for the marriage (674-704), Romeo's long and highly emotional interview with the Friar after Tybalt's death (1257-1510), the account of Romeo's sorrow in exile in Mantua (1740-80), and the Nurse's crass advice urging Juliet to marry Paris while she maintains a liaison with Romeo (2295-2312). In all of these additions, except the description of Romeo's sorrow in exile, Shakespeare found viable dramatic material, which he put to memorable use in parts of 2.4, 2.5, 3.3 and 3.5. Brooke also sometimes converts narrative statement in Boaistuau into direct speech, expands speeches already present, or adds extra bits of short dialogue (apart from the larger additions already noticed), which give the poem more life and movement. Finally, Brooke occasionally showed some flair for inventing new detail in description and character, particularly in his presentation of the Nurse, who under his hand emerges as the only character Shakespeare inherited from the source story that offered more than a romance stereotype. Despite Brooke's virtues, however, the poem is pedestrian, long-winded, overdecorated with 'poetic' commonplaces, and written in a lumbering pseudo-high style. The miracle is what Shakespeare was able to make from it.

Shakespeare's treatment of Brooke's poem has been discussed many times.12 To convert it into a play, Brooke's leisurely narrative required tightening, focusing, and restructuring. The story as it existed in Brooke and in Painter already offered both a public and a private dimension: the blood-feud with its larger social implications in the life of a city state and the intimate, private love of two young people tragically caught in the web of a world inimical to their private vision. But unlike Brooke, Shakespeare establishes this important underlying duality in the first scene, opening with the cautious sparring of the Capulet and Montague servants—a comic beginning that quickly turns serious as they are jointed first by Benvolio (a Montague), then by Tybalt (a Capulet), followed immediately by Officers of the Watch, Capulet and his wife, Montague and his wife, and finally by the Prince as the voice of authority. The play, then, begins on a note of threat and public discord, resolved for the moment by an imposed and uneasy truce. In contrast, Brooke, though mentioning the Capulet-Montague feud early in the poem (25-50) and suggesting that it is still smouldering, only allows it to erupt in violence after Romeus and Juliet's marriage (955-1034), thus losing the immediate potential conflict which Shakespeare sets up between the public and private worlds of the play.

The formal, almost mechanical patterning of the first scene (through line 94)13 is essentially repeated twice more, at the crisis (3.1) and at the end (5.3), both scenes more formally patterned and concentrated than in Brooke (959-1046; 2809-3020), in each of which the outer world of the feud impinges on the inner world of Romeo and Juliet. This formality may be seen as Shakespeare's mode of distinguishing and distancing the public from the private voice, the characters here speaking less as individuals and more as spokesmen for the contending parties and the arbitration of law, a role from which the Prince never escapes. With the exit of the Prince in 1.1, however, the tone changes and we begin to hear the voice of personal involvement and concern in Romeo's parents and his friend Benvolio, as, ironically, they worry over the problem of Romeo's apparently anti-social behaviour. At this point the play moves onto a different level, one that sounds the note of personal emotion and establishes the emergence of individual character, catching us up into the smaller, more intimate and intense sphere of human relations. These dual modes, the public and the private, interrelated but carefully distinguished, set up the larger dimensions of the play, in which the concerns of individual lives (their love and hate, joy and grief) will be played out against the muted but inescapable demands of convention and society—'Here's much to do with hate, but more with love' (1.1.166).

Other structural departures from Brooke's narrative are equally significant. Tybalt and Paris appear in Brooke only when events demand them. Tybalt is unheard of until he is needed as the ringleader of the Capulet faction in the street brawl, which breaks out some months after Romeus and Juliet have been secretly married (955-1034), and he no sooner appears than he is slain by Romeus. Shakespeare, however, introduces Tybalt in the first scene in his self-appointed role as leader of the younger Capulets and then underscores this by showing him as a troublemaker at the Capulet feast (1.5), a further foreshadowing of Tybalt's later decisive function that finds no place in Brooke. Shakespeare can thus draw on an already sharply defined character at the moment of crisis in 3.1, creating a sense of Tybalt's apparently strong personal hostility to Romeo and achieving a dramatically effective causeand-effect relationship. In the same way, Shakespeare introduces Paris in 1.2, even before Romeo first meets Juliet, in order to suggest the potential conflict of a rival suitor and to lay the grounds for Capulet's later ill-advised, if well-intentioned, insistence on Juliet's immediate marriage with him. Brooke again delays any mention of Paris (1881 ff.) until the plot demands an eligible husband for Juliet to cure her seeming grief over Tybalt's death. As the final block in this expository structure Shakespeare also shows us Juliet with her mother and the Nurse in 1.3, when the marriage with Paris is first broached, a scene that again advances Brooke's narrative scheme, in which we learn nothing of any of these characters until after the beginning of the Capulet feast. With the opening of 1.4 and the sudden and unprepared appearance of Mercutio as one of the masking party, all the major characters, except Friar Lawrence, have been introduced and the lines of possible tension and future conflict suggested.

After 1.4, with a firmly established series of expository scenes behind him, Shakespeare essentially follows Brooke's narrative order, with one significant exception. Whereas Brooke describes first the consummation of Romeo and Juliet's marriage (827-918), followed by the killing of Tybalt a month or two later, with the resulting sentence of banishment (949-1046), and then the lovers' last night together (1527-1728), Shakespeare telescopes these meetings, reducing the lovers' period of happiness to a single night after the fateful killing of Tybalt. Not only does this heighten the sense of the overwhelming pressure of events and increase the emotional tension by forcing the lovers to consummate their marriage under the shadow of immediate separation,14 but, as Mark Rose notes,15 it enables Shakespeare structurally to balance 'the two lovers' scenes [2.2 and 3.5] one on either side of the centerpiece [3.1]'. Even in this single example, we can glimpse how Shakespeare, by a slight rearrangement of Brooke, concentrates the time-scheme, establishes firmly the relations of the key points in the play's structure, and achieves a more powerful emotional impact.

This brings us to a consideration of the larger implications of Shakespeare's use of time in the play. Brooke's story develops slowly over a period of at least nine months.16 After Romeus first meets Juliet at Capulet's Christmas feast, 'a weeke or two' (461) passes before he is able to speak to her again, and, after their secret marriage, they continue to meet clandestinely each night for 'a month or twayne' (949) before the fight with Tybalt.17 But for Shakespeare time does not 'amble withal'. He turns it into a powerful dramatic instrument. Instead of Brooke's months, Shakespeare, setting the season around the middle of July, two weeks before Lammas-tide (1.3.15-16), packs the dramatic action into four days and nights (Sunday through Wednesday), ending early on the morning of the fifth day (Thursday):

Day I Sunday: 1.1-2.2 (from shortly before 9
a.m. to just before dawn of Monday)
Day II Monday: 2.3-3.4 (from dawn to
Day III Tuesday: 3.5-4.3 (from dawn to after
Day IV Wednesday: 4.4-5.2 (from early
morning to very late Wednesday evening)
Day V Thursday: 5.3 (from very late
Wednesday night to early Thursday

An intense and driving tension is thus set up that results in our heightened understanding of and sympathy for the headlong actions of the lovers. The audience, like Romeo and Juliet, is swept along by the apparently overwhelming rush and pressure of events, even though some of those events are, in fact, not beyond the lovers' rational control. Shakespeare achieves part of this effect not by ignoring actual (or clock) time, but by stressing it. The play is unusually full, perhaps more so than any other Shakespearean play, of words like time, day, night, today, tomorrow, years, hours, minutes and specific days of the week, giving us a sense of events moving steadily and inexorably in a tight temporal framework. But Shakespeare can also, when he wishes, concentrate and speed the action by annihilating time in favour of what Granville-Barker calls 'tempo'. Thus in 4.2, though Juliet has only just returned from her morning shrift at Friar Lawrence's cell, we are told a few lines later by Lady Capulet that 'It is now near night', so late in fact that they cannot be prepared for the wedding feast now suddenly arranged for the next day (Wednesday).19 The device here serves, by abridging a period of 'dead' time, to advance the immediate movement toward the moment, earlier prepared for in 4.1, when Juliet must drink the Friar's potion.

Apart from Brooke (and perhaps Painter) a number of other, comparatively minor influences on Romeo and Juliet have been pointed out: …, Samuel Daniel's Complaint of Rosamond (1592), John Eliot's Orthoepia Gallica (1593), Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (1591), several works by Thomas Nashe, notably Have with You to Sqffron-Walden (1596), and Bartholomew Yong's translation of Montemayor's Diana and Gil Polo's Enamoured Diana (1598, but available to Shakespeare in manuscript several years earlier). There are also links with other Shakespearean plays, particularly Two Gentlemen, Love's Labour's Lost, and Midsummer Night's Dream. Except for Daniel, and possibly Sidney and Nashe, none of these minor nonShakespearean sources did more than contribute a passing phrase or image, but one aspect of the play, its debt to the sonnet tradition and to Shakespeare's own Sonnets, warrants further comment.20

Coleridge, forgetting or not knowing Brooke's Romeus, particularly praises Shakespeare for opening the play with Brooke, with a Romeo who is already 'love-bewildered'.21 Brooke, of course, also devotes a number of lines (53-100) to Romeus's unrequited love for an unnamed lady: 'In sighs, in teares, in plainte, in care, in sorow and unrest, / He mones the daye, he wakes the long and wery night' (92-3). But Coleridge is quite correct in one important respect. Even though Brooke may have furnished the hint, the development of the idea is very much Shakespeare's own. It is Shakespeare, not Brooke, who first introduces us to a Romeo who is undergoing all the delicious pangs and enjoyed agonies of a young man fashionably 'in love' or, as Coleridge puts it, 'in love only with his own idea'.22 To present this kind of bloodless figment of the mind, Shakespeare turns to the conventional language of earlier courtly love as it had developed in the sonnet tradition from Petrarch and other continental practitioners to Wyatt, Surrey, Watson, Sidney and Spenser. As practised by most sonnet writers (Watson is the perfect example) it is a language compounded of hyperbole, more or less witty conceits, word-play, oxymorons and endless repetition, usually focused on the versifier's unrequited love (real or imagined) for a disdainful or otherwise unattainable mistress. A Sidney, Spenser or Shakespeare (in his own sonnets) could, and usually did, rise above the conventional techniques of the sonnet tradition, but they were conscious of its dangers and limitations, and Shakespeare, before he wrote Romeo, had already exposed its hollowness in Love's Labour's Lost, where the four would-be lovers are finally forced to abjure

Taffata phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-pil'd hyperboles, spruce affection,
Figures pedantical …

and express their wooing minds 'In russet yeas and honest kersey noes' (5.2.406-13). When, therefore, Romeo appears in 1.1, lamenting the cruel day and longing for night and darkness, he is unconsciously 'playing' the conventional role. His first substantial speech puts the authentic verbal seal on this role:

Here's much to do with hate, but more with
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O any thing of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

As Mercurio later says (2.4.34-5), Romeo is 'for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in'. Thus Shakespeare employs Romeo's role as the lover in love with love (hence largely with himself) as a clearly realised foil to set off the new Romeo who begins to emerge after he meets Juliet and who loses his heart in a real love, the kind of love that is beyond the posturing of what may be expressed through the facile medium of mere sonnetese. But Shakespeare goes beyond this simple contrast, using Romeo's verbal acrobatics to foreshadow one of the central themes of the play—the ambiguous and frighteningly fragile nature of love itself, 'A choking gall, and a preserving sweet' (185).23 Shakespeare's preoccupation with the ambiguous and unseizable qualities of love may be traced too in the constant, almost frenetic word-play and punning—both serious and comic—that characterises this play, and in Friar Lawrence's remarks on the ambivalence of good and evil:

For nought so vile, that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor ought so good but, strained from that fair
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.

Nor is it accidental that sonnet form, tone and situation seem so strongly marked and dominant in the first part of the play. The sonnet choruses to Act 1 preside over a structure that seems to reflect a typical sonnet situation (a cold-hearted lady rejects her suitor; a family feud separates two lovers). Thus it is fitting that Romeo and Juliet first address each other in a highly patterned and figurative sonnet in antiphonal form. But after the balcony scene, in which Romeo still from time to time speaks in sonnet clichés, the impact and operation of the sonnet tradition fade,24 replaced by sterner realities, symbolised in part by Friar Lawrence; mere talk (the essence of the sonnet tradition) becomes action, and life, with its attendant death, takes over from literature.

Finally, we may notice Shakespeare's debt to Chaucer, which, in Romeo and Juliet, may be considered large or small25 depending on the extent to which we are willing to allow direct influence from Troilus and Criseyde. The evidence for such influence remains suggestive rather than substantive and is complicated by Brooke's own considerable borrowings from Chaucer's poem in his Romeus, a debt that tends to confuse the actual genesis of points in common between Chaucer and Shakespeare, and by the lack of identifiable verbal echoes of Chaucer's Troilus.26 Nevertheless, recent critics,27 recognising that Shakespeare had already shown some knowledge of Chaucer's works before he composed Romeo,28 feel that the two stories naturally invited comparison (as Brooke had recognised) and call attention to certain thematic, psychological and tonal affinities, lacking in Brooke's treatment, that seem to link Shakespeare's play with Chaucer's great poem. Among these we may note the interplay (not always clearly realised) of Fate (or Fortune) and free will (a tension in Romeo that will have to be considered in some detail later); the infusion of comedy which enables both writers 'to maintain a comic or affirmative tone much of the time', allowing us to forget for the moment the tragic outcome announced at the beginning of Troilus and by the opening Chorus in Shakespeare; and the presentation of Criseyde and Juliet as psychologically mature compared with Troilus and Romeo.29


Critical opinion of Romeo and Juliet has ranged from simple adulation to measured disapproval, raising a number of interrelated and vexing questions. Two may be considered here. Is Romeo and Juliet in the usually accepted sense a successful tragedy or an experiment that fails to come off? Is the play a tragedy of Fate or a tragedy of character? Or is it both? That is, does Shakespeare succeed here in creating the paradox that has long been felt to lie at the heart of great tragedy, the mysterious interaction and fusion of Fate and free will?

Some critics, of whom the most influential is H. B. Charlton,30 admit the powerfully moving quality of the love story, but find the play a failed tragedy, an experiment which does not quite succeed, or which, so far as it succeeds at all, does so, in Charlton's words, 'by a trick'. He considers the feud as 'a bribe' used by Shakespeare 'to exonerate himself from all complicity in their [the lovers'] murder … disown[ing] responsibility and throw[ing] it on Destiny, Fate … the feud [being] the means by which Fate acts' (p. 52). But neither Fate nor feud, he finds, is strongly enough handled by Shakespeare to carry the weight of the tragedy, and Shakespeare's 'achievement is due to the magic of [his] poetic genius and to the intermittent force of his dramatic power rather than to his grasp of the foundations of tragedy' (p. 62).

An older and more popular view, most recently supported by Bertrand Evans,31 treats the play as a pure tragedy of Fate, in which not only every action of Romeo and Juliet themselves but every action of all the other characters is dictated by the Prologue's reference to 'star-crossed lovers' and 'death-marked love'. If this seems simplistic, it is no more so than the opposite extreme embraced by, among others, Franklin M. Dickey and W. H. Auden.32 Essentially sidestepping the Prologue and later suggestions of Fate (or Fortune) in the play, or subsuming Fate under Divine Providence, they find Romeo and Juliet basically free agents, who, in pursuing their love blindly and recklessly, become moral exempla of excessive passion (they die 'For doting, not for loving') and are condignly punished (Auden declares both Romeo and Juliet to be damned) for trespassing beyond the temperate married love sanctioned by church and state.

More recently, John Lawlor33 has examined Romeo and Juliet in the light of medieval conceptions of tragedy (which he distinguishes by the spelling tragedie), of which, of course, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is the supreme example in English. 'Its central truth is that Fortune knows nothing of human deserving. But her activities are not, in the end, inscrutable; for those who are minded to learn, a greater good is in prospect' (p. 124); and 'Where such tragedy [i.e. the Greek form, found in Shakespeare's later tragedies] returns us to the real world, tragedie takes us beyond it' (p. 125), where 'Death has no final power over the lovers' (p. 127). Lawlor thus sees the play as one which 'does not minimize, much less cancel, Fortune's power, but which denies her an entire victory' (p. 127). Choosing to die for their love, Romeo and Juliet may be seen as shaking off the yoke of inauspicious stars in an assertion of personal will and sealing a triumphant and dateless bargain to eternity.

Another medieval concept, that 'sexual love is a manifestation of the all-pervading love of God, through which the universe is governed', has been brought to bear on the play by Paul Siegel.34 In this view, the love of Romeo and Juliet serves Divine Providence as part of the cosmic love through which the universe is nurtured by God, and their death converts the evil and hate of the world into the social harmony of love in the 'death' of the feud (pp. 383-92). Like Lawlor, Siegel finds the lovers entering triumphantly upon a new and better existence, adding, however, specific reference to the medieval and Renaissance conception of the 'paradise of lovers' (pp. 384-6), a commonplace of courtly love literature, given contemporary expression in Spenser's garden of the Temple of Venus (Faerie Queene, x).

Finally, T. J. Cribb has sought to find the 'ordering principle' in Romeo and Juliet by suggesting that we should see the play as a dramatic expression of the neo-Platonic concept of love as it was interpreted by Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Leone Ebreo, a revaluation in which passional love, 'love of another, not for another, eros not caritas', is a new key element.35 He believes, for example, that the sense of 'awe and amazement' in Romeo's 'sun' and 'angel' images in his opening soliloquy in 2.2 are intelligible only in the context of neo-Platonic thought, and he sees the death of the lovers, in these somewhat intellectualised terms, as a triumphant affirmation of love achieved through a victory over hate, the opposing principle, represented for Cribb in the centrally important role of Tybalt. Tybalt thus becomes 'an agent not merely of the stars, but of the metaphysical paradoxes which present the lovers both as star-crossed by "misadventur'd pittious overthrowes" (Prologue, 7) and as heroes of love who triumph over the stars through love itself'. His argument, therefore, views the play 'at a poetic level' and he is refreshingly honest in admitting that such a reading 'may not be fully appreciable on the stage' and that 'in this play poet and playwright are not perfectly united'.

These are, in brief, the principal more recent approaches to Romeo and Juliet. That any of them solves all the problems of the play may be doubted. They are after all simply ways of looking at (or ignoring) some of these problems in an attempt to explain the one incontrovertible fact—the universal appeal which the play has exercised on generations of readers and theatre-goers. One of the principal stumbling blocks to seeing the play as an organic whole is, as we have already noted, the confusion which many critics see in Shakespeare's treatment of the concepts of Fate and free will. Virgil Whitaker's statement may be taken as typical:

The metaphysics of the play is not particularly sophisticated, and it is nowhere clear whether the stars symbolize blind fate or chance or whether they indicate, as in Julius Caesar and other later plays, the operation of natural forces which may be resisted or modified by human will.36

The comment is a fair one, but what is not generally asked is what the effect on the play would have been if Shakespeare had decided to concentrate on only one or the other (as some critics, in fact, believe he essentially did). May it not perhaps be argued that his handling of these two paradoxically opposed concepts, confused though it may be, is nevertheless an effective cause of Romeo and Juliet's success as a tragedy? By thus playing, occasionally a bit fast and loose perhaps, with the dual ideas of Fate and free will, does he not achieve an otherwise unobtainable effect in the final impact? Emphasising at strategic moments the overshadowing of Fate (or Fortune or Chance), he softens the moral implications of the headlong and self-willed career of the lovers so that we are not in danger of applying a simple moral yardstick to their actions, of measuring them, in fact, by the harshly Protestant tone of Brooke's address 'To the Reader':

And to this ende (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a coople of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principali counsels with dronken gossyppes, and superstitious friers … attemptyng all adventures of peryll, for thattaynyng of their wished lust … abusyng the honorable name of lawefull mariage, to cloke the shame of stolne contractes, finallye, by all meanes of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappye deathe.

On the other hand, by employing Friar Lawrence as the voice of Christian morality, a kind of muted but sufficiently stated undersong counselling temperance and reason, which the lovers generally choose to ignore, Shakespeare significantly humanises the situation and escapes from presenting the unbearable spectacle of two young people, helpless puppets, driven to an early death as sacrifices to the President of the Immortals for his 'sport', mere means to an end, however laudable in one sense (the resolving of the feud) that end may be.

By thus juxtaposing the concepts of Fate and free will, and by the intermittent but powerful play of irony that results, Shakespeare may be seen as attempting to ensure a humanely tempered reaction to his story of young and tragic love. That he juxtaposes these concepts instead of fusing them, as he is able to do in his later major tragedies, may indeed be recognised as a sign of immaturity and inexperience, but it should also be admitted that the play succeeds because of, not despite, what critics have described as Shakespeare's 'confusion'.


Language, style and imagery in Romeo and Juliet interact on many levels. We have earlier commented on the public and private voices established in the first scene, but the private voice, particularly, has a variety of tones of its own: the 'low' bawdy word-play of the servants set against the 'high' bawdy wit games of Mercutio and Benvolio (into which Romeo is briefly drawn); the oxymoron and hyperbole of sonnet love counterpointed and balanced by the obscenely physical extremes of Mercutio and the Nurse; the conventionally mannered language of adult society in Capulet and Lady Capulet played off against the earthy amoral prattle of the Nurse and complemented by the gravitas of Friar Lawrence's moral pronouncements; all these are brilliantly set off by the free and natural outpouring of feeling that, in intimate moments, pulses in the language (and imagery) of Romeo and Juliet. Except for this last, which expresses the private world of the lovers, language in the play shows many faces: intentionally ambiguous and quibbling, broodingly foreshadowing, brutally threatening, sexually suggestive; it is often the language of rhetorical artifice and role-playing, of social convention and moral statement, of wit and some wisdom.

Stylistically, Romeo and Juliet comes at a point in Shakespeare's development when he is beginning to break away from the conventional and rhetorically bound use of language and figure,37 of images 'used for their own sakes', of the overextended conceit with its 'vain pleasure taken in painting every detail',38 and is discovering, fitfully, a dramatic language which, though it continues to use the figures, uses them directly and integrally, so that language and imagery not only describe character but through organic metaphor become the expression of character itself.

Among the all too frequent examples of the early conventional style,39 we may notice Lady Capulet's praise of Paris (1.3.81-95), Capulet's description of Juliet in tears (3.5.126-37), Juliet's reaction first to what she interprets as news of Romeo's death (3.2.43-51) and then to the discovery that Tybalt, not Romeo, is dead (3.2.73-85). Each of these passages shows self-indulgence, embroidering and spinning out the central conceit to a point where it becomes an ornamental setpiece calculated to display the writer's wit rather than a character's feeling. It has been suggested that this style is properly characteristic of Juliet's parents,40 but the same saving argument can scarcely be made for Juliet's outbursts in 3.2,41 which are separated by only a few lines from one of the most famous speeches in the play ('Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds'), Juliet's personal epithalamium, a speech in which Shakespeare writes with an immediacy of feeling and a perfect projection of the dramatic moment. Art here becomes nature, and what Juliet says realises essentially what she is. This is the new style, and we find it most notably in the earlier window scene (2.2), particularly when Juliet speaks; later, in the dawn parting of the lovers (3.5); and finally, in Romeo's last speech in 5.3.42

Where the new style emerges most successfully, Shakespeare is writing with little or no direct dependence on Brooke, and this tends to be especially true when he is concerned with the lovers either singly or when alone together. Usually at these moments Shakespeare translates the love theme into a poetic world totally out of Brooke's sphere and far beyond the emotional bounds of the traditional story. At one of these moments, however, Shakespeare remains Brooke's prisoner: Juliet's dramatically important soliloquy before drinking the sleeping potion (4.3). The speech is a pastiche of bits and pieces rearranged from lines 2337-2400 of Brooke's poem, and, although Shakespeare concentrates the material and makes some incidental additions (the dagger, the passing suspicion of the Friar's motives, the substitution of 'spirits' for Brooke's 'serpentes odious, / And other beastes and wormes', the fear of madness and of dashing out her brains with a kinsman's bone), neither the additional material nor the speech as a whole rises imaginatively or emotionally much beyond Brooke's merely competent level. Somehow the moment failed to involve Shakespeare creatively.

Shakespeare's use of imagery in Romeo and Juliet has received considerable attention, especially, of course, since Caroline Spurgeon's pioneer study in 1936.43 As usual in Shakespeare, images from nature and animals are among the most frequent, but his use of personification is unusually high (perhaps in part under the influence of Brooke, who often uses the figure). Particularly important are the fire/light images:

There can be no question, I think, that Shakespeare saw the story, in its swift and tragic beauty, as an almost blinding flash of light, suddenly ignited, and as swiftly quenched.44

As Friar Lawrence warns (2.6.9-11):

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.

Shakespeare may have found some suggestion for his fire imagery in Brooke,45 who, as Miss Spurgeon notes, describes the feud, in well-worn metaphor, as a 'little sparke' flashing into 'flame' (35-6, 49-50, 956-8, 978) and the love of Romeus and Juliet as 'quick sparks and glowing furious gleade', which 'set on fyre, eche feling parte' (303-5). We may, indeed, compare one of Brooke's comments (209-10) with Shakespeare's lines above:

This sodain kindled fyre [of love] in time is
wox so great:
That onely death, and both theyr blouds might
quench the fiery heate.

The light image, in its associations with fire and its opposite, darkness, is further extended by the frequent references to sun, moon, stars, day, night, heaven and lightning, a running series of iterative images which emphasises both the intensity and glory of love and its terrible brevity—'So quick bright things come to confusion' (MND 1.1.149). Night and darkness as sympathetic to love, and day and light as inimical to it, are foreshadowed in the first scene when we are told how Romeo steals 'Away from light', 'locks fair daylight out' and 'makes himself an artificial night' (128-31). At the same time, the lover's view is contrasted with conventional praise of day and light by Benvolio's reference to 'the worshipped sun' (109), by Montague's 'all-cheering sun' (125), and by his ill-fated hope that Romeo might 'dedicate his beauty to the sun' (144). Like much else in this opening scene (an important measure of Shakespeare's mastery), Romeo's histrionics and conventional attitude to day/light and night/darkness set up the terms in which, ironically, something of the truth of real love, once it strikes Romeo, will be played out—'then turn tears to fires' (1.2.89).

When Romeo first sees Juliet, she appears to him 'As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear', a brilliance that 'teach[es] the torches to burn bright' (1.5.43-5). It is through this special quality of light in darkness that we now, through Romeo's eyes, experience Juliet. In the garden scene (2.2) Romeo's first two speeches are suffused with Juliet as light: she is the 'fair sun' that in the dark of night makes the pale moon envious; 'Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven' court her eyes, which 'stream so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night' (15-22); she is one of those 'Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light' described by Capulet earlier (1.2.25), and a 'bright angel' 'glorious to this night' (26-7), this 'blessèd, blessèd night' (139) as it is perceived by Romeo, while word-play on 'good night, good night' runs like a refrain through the last third of the scene. The following scenes, through 3.1, are daylight scenes and the light/dark imagery does not appear again until the opening of 3.2 (Juliet's epithalamium), where the sun ('Phoebus') is banished and 'love-performing', 'gentle', 'loving' night summoned to comfort and conceal the lovers, who can 'see to do their amorous rites / By [the light of] their own beauties' (8-9). The light imagery now embraces Romeo, who becomes, first, Juliet's 'day in night' shining like 'new snow upon a raven's back' (17-19), then, a constellation of 'little stars' that puts 'the garish sun' to shame (21-5). This sense of night and darkness as the ally of love is further developed in the dawn-parting scene (3.5). It is the invasion of day (light) with its 'envious streaks … in yonder east' (7-8) that parts the lovers:

ROMEO More light and light, more dark and
dark our woe! …
JULIET Then, window, let day in, and let life
(36, 41)47

Indeed, Shakespeare seems to reverse our normal expectations. Night and darkness, usually associated with evil and death, take on the qualities of light and life, while day, usually identified with light and life, assumes the aspect of darkness and death. Thus, even though he plays continually on the conventional association of night and death ('The horrible conceit of death and night' as Juliet terms it, 4.3.37), linked closely with the concept of the stars as the supposed arbiters of Fate48 (as in the 'star-crossed lovers' and 'death-marked love' of the Prologue and in Romeo's premonition of 'untimely death' 'yet hanging in the stars' 1.4.111,107), yet at the end we are made to feel that the lovers defy Fate ('Is it e'en so? then I defy you, stars!', 5.1.24) and, 'shak[ing] the yoke of inauspicious stars' (5.3.111), usurp death's role 'in a triumphant grave', 'a feasting presence full of light' (5.3.83,86).

The most powerful evocation of death (often personified) is, of course, as Juliet's surrogate husband. The image begins in 1.5.133-4 when Juliet says, 'If he be marrièd, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed' ; it is repeated by Juliet in 3.2.136-7, 'I'll to my wedding bed, / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!'; echoed by Lady Capulet, 'I would the fool were married to her grave'(3.5.140); stated as the theme of Capulet's lament at the discovery of Juliet's 'death' (4.5.38-9), 'Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir, / My daughter he hath wedded'; and it finally becomes, with powerful dramatic irony, the central driving image in Romeo's soliloquy over the supposedly dead Juliet in 5.3.88-120. This speech, in its intimate evocation of powerful feeling, in the effortless way it brings to a final focus all the leading images and themes in the play (light in darkness, the stars (as Fate), the sea/ wreck, womb-tomb, and life-as-journey49 images, night, death, life, and love, the 'love in death' of 4.5.58), and in its mature denial of hate and triumphant affirmation of love—a love that embraces not Juliet alone, but Paris and Tybalt50—crystallises the tragic moment with a strength and emotional immediacy new in Shakespeare.


Shakespeare inherited from Brooke not only his story, but all his principal characters apart from Mercutio; by way of Brooke, he was drawing on Italian romance as seen by French eyes.51 The inhabitants of this romance world are rarely more than stock figures on which to hang stories of love intrigue and attendant cuckoldry, double dealing, witty escapes, disguising and mistaken identity—what Painter calls 'the thousand thousand slippery sleightes of Love's gallantise'.52 Usually such tales end happily, if not exactly morally (love as a topic being considered essentially the proper province of comedy), but occasionally, as in the stories of Tancred and Gismunda or the Duchess of Malfi, the love sport turns deadly serious and tragedy results. Even so, the characters involved remain largely flat, conventional figures, constitutionally given to argumentative, motive-probing discussions and long-winded complaints.

Such—with the partial exception of the Nurse—are the generic types Shakespeare encountered in Brooke or Painter. In the case of some of the supporting characters Shakespeare was content simply to sharpen the stereotype. Neither the Prince nor the Montague and Capulet parents emerge as much more. In Capulet, for example, both the considerate and loving father of 1.2 and the tyrannical autocrat of 3.5 are already fully sketched by Brooke; only Capulet's reminiscences of vanished youth (1.5) and the occasional comic moment really distinguish Shakespeare's portrait. In the same way, Tybalt and Paris remain as they are in Brooke: Tybalt as the agent provocateur, a figure of inherited hate with a mistaken sense of honour, Paris as the young gallant, well-born, rich and honourably in love, who finds himself cast through no fault of his own as Romeo's rival—though Shakespeare extends these roles by introducing them early and inventing the death of Paris in the final scene. There Shakespeare bestows a pathetic integrity on Paris and allows him a noble gesture as he dies protecting, as he believes, his lady's body from desecration at the hands of a marauding enemy. The slaying of Paris has raised some critical questions, but there is a mysterious rightness in it that validates Paris's love and allows him, in company with Romeo, to be joined with Juliet in the silent communion and consummation of death.

Apart from this sudden illumination of Paris's character, Shakespeare's imaginative involvement with the minor supporting characters is fitful. Even Capulet, Lady Capulet and Benvolio, all of whom have comparatively large roles (50, 45, and 63 speeches), are little more than conventional sketches of well-meaning but self-centred parents and the male confidant and friend, who, after 1.1, surprisingly ceases to share Romeo's confidences and becomes merely a reporter of action and a sounding-board for Mercutio's wit, disappearing suddenly from the play in 3.1.53 But on the three principal supporting characters, Mercutio, the Nurse and Friar Lawrence, Shakespeare has lavished memorable...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Leonora Leet Brodwin (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Classic Pattern of Courtly Love Tragedy," in Elizabethan Love Tragedy: 1587-1625, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 39-64.

[In the following excerpt, Brodwin discusses Shakespeare 's presentation of Courtly Love in the play and speculates on the allegorical meaning of the love between Romeo and Juliet as they "embrace the love-death. "]

Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece of Courtly Love was written in 1595,1 when the vogue of courtly sonneteering was at its height. In considering "the fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,"2 critics like E. E. Stoll have been at...

(The entire section is 13569 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marjorie Kolb Cox (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 379-92.

[In the following essay, Cox argues that Romeo and Juliet is "a story of the impact of adolescence, a process which each of the principal and secondary characters must deal with in himself or in those close to him," rather than a story of star-crossed lovers ruled by fate.]

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is commonly considered to be the story of two lovers caught in circumstances beyond their control: the feuding of their two houses. The play has been criticized as not...

(The entire section is 18801 words.)

Language And Imagery

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Philip Edwards (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Declaration of Love," in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 39-50.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards examines the inadequacy of words to express love and the central characters' distrust of language.]

Romeo. Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heaped like mine, and that thy skill be
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air, and let rich music's
Unfold the imagined happiness that...

(The entire section is 16710 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Robert Carl Johnson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Four Young Men," in The University Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, December, 1969, pp. 141-47.

[In the essay below, Johnson analyzes Benvolio, Tybalt, Paris, and Mercutio, focusing on their characterization, their roles in precipitating the tragedy, and their perception of events in the play.]

The cornerstone of A. C. Bradley's theory of tragedy is that "the calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men, and that the main source of these deeds is character."1 A problem with Romeo and Juliet that critics often raise is that it is too much a tragedy of fate, that the...

(The entire section is 14234 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Bergeron, David M. "Sickness in Romeo and Juliet." CLA Journal XX, No. 3 (March 1977): 356-64.

Argues that the numerous images of unmitigated sickness in Romeo and Juliet form a pattern that reinforces the definition of the play as a tragedy.

Berman, Ronald. "The Two Orders of Romeo and Juliet." Moderna Sprak LXIV, No. 3 (1970): 244-52.

Argues that Romeo and Juliet is not a Christian play but an existential tragedy.

Carroll, William C. '"We Were Born to Die': Romeo and Juliet." Comparative Drama 15, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 54-71.

Remarks on the persistent association between birth, death, and love...

(The entire section is 997 words.)