Romeo and Juliet Analysis

  • The original story of Romeo and Juliet predates Shakespeare, though he can certainly be credited with introducing this story to a wider audience. Before Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe was arguably the most famous classic tale of tragic love.
  • Romeo and Juliet is often considered a "love tragedy," as it weaves together classic elements of Aristotelian tragedy with features that are more commonly found in Shakespeare's comedies.
  • The condensed timeframe of the play heightens the passion and perfection of Romeo and Juliet's relationship, and their timeless love story is often considered the very epitome of romance.

Analysis

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Last Updated on December 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the best-known of Shakespeare’s early works, written around 1595, at about the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is some dispute over which of the two was written first. A Midsummer Night’s Dream frequently references the story of Pyramus and Thisbe which, at the time, was the most famous tale of two star-crossed lovers from feuding families. While Pyramus and Thisbe appear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, the story of Romeo and Juliet has no such illustrious sources. The earliest extant version of their story dates from a collection of fifty didactic tales called Il Novellino, written by an Italian named Masuccio Salernitano and published in 1476. This story was adapted into a novel by Luigi Da Porto in around 1524 and first appears in English in Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Other versions were published in both Italian and French, but the story was not particularly well-known in English and would not necessarily have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience.

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Shakespeare, however, ensures that his audience will have no doubt about how the story will end, opening the play with a prologue in sonnet form that announces,

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

The scholar David Crystal points out that the original pronunciation of the late sixteenth century would make “loins” a homonym for “lines” (genealogical lines, as well as lines of verse), offering a triple pun that is lost in modern English. Shakespeare leaves no room for suspense in Romeo and Juliet, making it clear from the outset that by the play’s end, the lines of Montague and Capulet will be extinct and the star-crossed lovers will be dead.

Romeo and Juliet is often grouped with Antony and Cleopatra, written over a decade later, as a “love tragedy.” Although it is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet differs markedly from his other great tragedies; Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, all of which are more faithful to the model of tragedy laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics. One difference is obvious from the titles: the great tragedies are stories about the downfall of a single man, while in the love tragedies, the female character is just as important as the male. Indeed, though her name takes second place, Juliet is arguably more fully developed and eloquent than Romeo. There is no clear tragic flaw in either Romeo or Juliet. Despite their youth and impetuousness, their deaths can be largely attributed to a malignant fate, rather than being their own fault. There is also much more comic relief in the love tragedies than in other Shakespearean tragedies: Romeo and Juliet begins with a long series of puns, and wordplay is a major feature of the play, as is rhyming verse, which is more common in the comedies than in the tragedies. Two major characters, Mercutio and the Nurse, are primarily comic, and Mercutio dominates his scenes with Romeo so thoroughly until his death, that his part has often been more coveted by leading actors than that of Romeo.

A subtle effect of making one of these two comic characters the closest friends of each of the two protagonists is to emphasize how alone Romeo and Juliet are until they find one another. Romeo’s relationship with Mercutio is based on flippant banter, and he never confides in his friend about his relationship with Juliet. Admittedly, Mercutio is killed before he has much time to prove otherwise, but there can be little doubt that Mercutio would be unable to resist treating Romeo’s expressions of love for Juliet with the same coarse humor he displays when speaking of his friend’s infatuation with Rosaline. In contrast, Juliet does confide in the Nurse, but with disappointing results. Indeed, the Nurse is so frivolous that she advises Juliet to marry Paris as soon as Juliet’s relationship with Romeo goes awry, an impossibility even if Juliet were prepared to consider it, since Juliet is already married to Romeo in the sight of both God and the Church.

This solitude within their own families and circles of friends—both Romeo and Juliet are closer to Friar Laurence than to any Montague or Capulet—is one of many factors which combine to make Romeo and Juliet what it is: the perfect archetype of the romantic love story. The brevity of the two lovers’ lives clearly intensifies the romance and even allows it to be perfect, a bloom that has no time to wither. Romeo and Juliet are never able to become accustomed to one another, let alone even to begin to fall out of love. Everything about their relationship is too intense and passionate to last long.

At the end of the play, Montague pledges to commission a golden statue in commemoration of “true and faithful Juliet,” while Capulet says that he will place a similar statue of Romeo by her side. The two families will, therefore, end their feud with a symbol of love appropriate to the end of the play. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet LV, however, his own “powerful rhyme” was written to outlast any “gilded monument.” The statues promised within the play are a feeble substitute for the play itself, the greatest memorial to love ever created, in which the very names of the protagonists have become synonymous with romance.

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