Romeo and Juliet Key Ideas and Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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Introduction to the Play

A perennial staple of high school English classes, Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare at a relatively early juncture in his literary career, most probably in 1594 or 1595. During much of the twentieth century, critics tended to disparage this play in comparison to the four great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote in the first decade of the seventeenth century (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello). Appraised next to the Bard's mature works, Romeo and Juliet appears to lack the psychological depth and the structural complexity of Shakespeare's later tragedies. But over the past three decades or so, many scholars have altered this assessment, effectively upgrading its status within Shakespeare's canon. They have done this by discarding comparative evaluation and judging Romeo and Juliet as a work of art in its own right.

Viewed from this fresh perspective, Shakespeare's tragic drama of the "star-crossed" young lovers is seen to be an extraordinary work. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet was an experimental stage piece at the time of its composition, featuring several radical departures from long-standing conventions. These innovative aspects of the play, moreover, reinforce and embellish its principal themes. The latter include the antithesis between love and hate, the correlative use of a light/dark polarity, the handling of time (as both theme and as structural element), and the prominent status accorded to Fortune and its expression in the dreams, omens and forebodings that presage its tragic conclusion.

Essential Facts

Full Title:

The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Author:

William Shakespeare

Date of Composition:

Mid-1590s

Setting:

Verona and Mantua, Italy, during the fourteenth or fifteenth century

Main Characters:

Romeo Montague, Juliet Capulet, Friar Laurence, Juliet’s nurse, Lord and Lady Capulet

Main Symbols:

  • Flowers. One of the most famous lines in literature comes from Romeo and Juliet: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (2.2.45-46). Here, flowers symbolize both beauty and love.
  • Stars. Romeo and Juliet are the “star-cross’d lovers.” Stars in this play are symbols of fate. The fact that the lovers are “cross’d” bespeaks the tragedy that is to come.
  • Darkness and Light. At the beginning of the play, Romeo is alone and depressed. His father says that his personal darkness is like “adding clouds to more clouds” (1.1.129). But later, his depression lifts when Romeo compares Juliet’s beauty to light, the ethereal quality that defines her: “But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun” (2.2.2-3).
  • Poison. Friar Laurence concocts a “poison” that will make Romeo appear dead. His plan backfires and the young lovers commit suicide. Poison is a symbol of the way good people can make bad choices

Main Themes:

  • Love. Romantic love is the dominant theme in the play. The powerfulness and blindness of love is paramount to all concerned, and that is especially true for Romeo and Juliet.
  • Us vs. Them. The young lovers’ refusal to conform is the other dominant theme. Although society presents many obstacles and reasons why Romeo and Juliet cannot be together, the pair pursues their own happiness.
  • Fate. We know from the beginning that the lovers are doomed. As much as they may try to thwart fate, their destinies are predetermined.

Thematic Discussion

It is often said that Shakespeare never blotted a line, but it is also true that he borrowed a few. As in most of his plays, the Bard drew upon existing literary sources in composing Romeo and Juliet. Thus, for example, Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech (I.iv.53-95) bears a close resemblance to a verse passage from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles written two centuries before Shakespeare's age. As for the central story of Romeo and Juliet , the direct source of Shakespeare's plot was a 3,000 line verse drama written by the English poet Arthur...

(The entire section is 2,587 words.)