Introduction to the Play

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Last Updated on April 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

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.

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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

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Last Updated on April 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

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

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2053

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 Brooke in 1562 and republished in 1587 as The Tragically Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Brooke, in his turn, drew upon a French version by Pierre Boaistua. It is, however, an Italian poet, Luigi Da Porto, who first set the story of the doomed lovers in Verona and gave them the names Romeo and Guiletta in 1530. Beyond this, the story of a family feud serving as an obstacle to true love dates back to ancient Roman comedies and their Greek antecedents.

The extensive literary lineage of the Romeo and Juliet story may appear to be incongruent with recent approaches to Shakespeare's play that focus on its experimental nature. It is, however, in the radical departures from existing forms that Shakespeare displays his creative brilliance in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was the first to dramatize the "tragicall historye" of the Veronese lovers. This, in itself, required consummate skill to reduce a story that unfolds over months or years to less than a week's duration and to boil the presentation down into "two hours traffic of our stage" (First Prologue, 12). But far more important than this alteration, Shakespeare had the creative audacity to present the story of Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy in the same class as the tragedies of Ancient Greece. For openers, while Romeo and Juliet are scions of noble families, they are not royals. Given the age-long limitation of tragedy to the affairs of kings and queens, the notion that two upper-middle class youths could serve as the protagonist of a tragedy was outlandish to Elizabethan audiences. As the Prince says in the plays concluding couplet: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" (V.iii.309-310). The story is, in fact, sad; but in this, it manifests two further innovations. First, when Elizabethan audiences saw two young lovers on stage in opposition to resistant parents (usually fathers), they customarily assumed that love would triumph in a happy ending. In a sense, love does triumph, and there is a restoration of civil harmony in the play's final scene; but Romeo and Juliet, despite the youth of its title characters, ends badly. At the same time, while both characters have adolescent shortcomings, neither (nor both) of them have a classical tragic flaw. Their demise is the outcome of circumstance and Fortune.

By way of addition, Romeo and Juliet is an experimental play in that it embodies forms and techniques that had not been used by playwrights in the past. The inclusion of two choral sonnets before Act I and Act II and, even more stunningly, of Romeo and Juliet's jointly composed sonnet in Act I, scene v (92-105) is a technical innovation with a supreme purpose. It sets Romeo and Juliet apart from a generally prosaic world, for the language that they exchange between each other possesses a lyrical quality that is noticeable (and deliberately) of a higher order than the rest of the play's text. As will be discussed further under the heading of Time, not only did Shakespeare telescope and compress events, Romeo and Juliet is self-consciously designed with a pace of events that takes on momentum as the lives of the lovers careen toward catastrophe.

In the first two quatrains of the play's opening sonnet, the chorus spells out the story line and establishes its central theme as the antithesis between love and hate.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
(Opening Prologue, 1-8)

There are, to be sure, variants upon the love/hate polarity in terms of youth versus age and, less importantly, good versus evil; but it is the conflict between the love of Romeo and Juliet, on the one hand, and the hate that divides their respective families, on the other, that predominates. Thus, in the play's opening scene, after witnessing the evidence of the first fray between his kinsman and the Capulets, Romeo observes, "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love" (I.i.175); while after learning Romeo's last name, Juliet similarly remarks, "My only love sprung from my only hate!" (I. v.138). At the play's midpoint, Juliet is told that Romeo has killed her cousin, Tybalt; and love and hate (temporarily) assume the qualities of good and evil as she first refers to Romeo as a "dove-feathered raven! wolvish ravening lamb!" and then concludes the diatribe with

A (damned) saint, an honorable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
(III.ii.79-82).

But Juliet then rebukes herself for chiding Romeo in such moralistic terms: this is not a play about good and evil (as Shakespeare's great tragedies all are) but about love versus hate.

In the last scene of Act III, Romeo says to Juliet "More light and light, more dark and dark our woes" (III.v.36). Light and dark figure prominently in the play as both a symbolic cluster and as an element of its stagecraft. It is in Romeo's eyes that the light of Juliet's beauty shines most lyrically. True, part of his description of Rosaline in Act I, scene ii runs, "The all seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun" (92-93). But it is only when he sees Juliet that Romeo's verbal expression of light transcends the hackneyed.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth to dear!
(I.v.44-47).

In the balcony scene (Act II, scene ii), Romeo outdoes even this elegance in the famous speech:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
(II.ii.2-6).

Both Juliet and Romeo's love for her are brilliant, incandescent. But this illumination is overcome by the shades of death, and Shakespeare reinforces the thematic with the visual by setting the final scene of his play at night in a sealed tomb illuminated only by torches that fall by the wayside.

Time is of urgent concern in Romeo and Juliet. Doting upon Rosaline, the "sad hours seem long" (I.i.162) to Romeo when we first meet him. Before Romeo and Mercutio reach the banquet scene that concludes the opening act, Mercutio complains about wasted time. But the most prominent example of Time in both the text and the actual pace of Romeo and Juliet appears in Act III, scene ii, as Juliet (innocent of Romeo's crime) urges the Sun to move more rapidly across the sky so that night falls and her lover arrives.

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Toward Phoebus' lodging; such a waggoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
(III.ii.1-4).

Now Romeo's "three-hours wife" (III.ii.99) tries to speed time along just as she and Romeo tried to slow it down at the end of the balcony scene (Act II, scene ii). It is, in the end, haste that triumphs. Following the duel scene that opens Act III, events move with greater and greater momentum, and we gain the decided sense that the lives of the lovers are running headlong and out of control. This is especially true of the play's anchoring character, the wise Friar Laurence. Friar Laurence repeatedly speaks of moving slowly; and since the effects of the potion are limited to forty-two hours, the plan that he concocts with Juliet depends upon timing. But Friar Laurence himself acts in haste under the pressure of circumstance. He agrees to marry the lovers on the quickly-formed hunch that this will put generations of feuding to an end; the sleeping potion scheme occurs to Friar Laurence as a brilliant flash suggested by Juliet's statement that she will kill herself; he then trips in haste on gravestones trying to get the message to Romeo after the mission of his intended messenger, Friar John, is inadvertently delayed.

One facet of Brooke's Historie that Shakespeare amplified was his source's emphasis upon the Elizabethan concept of Fortune or Fate. Upon learning of Mercutio's death, Romeo exclaims, "This day's black fate on more days doth depend, / This but begins the woe others must end" (III.i.119-120). In Act III, scene v, Juliet addresses Fortune and implores Its aid.

O Fortune, Fortune, all men call thee fickle;
If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him
That is renown'd for faith? Be fickle, Fortune:
For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long,
But send him back.
(ll.60-64).

Fortune is fickle: it is improbable that so perfectly matched a couple should be barred by a senseless family conflict (the cause of which is never mentioned and cannot be recalled); it is only through mischance that Romeo takes his own life in the mistaken belief that his love is dead, causing her to follow suit.

Accompanying Fortune in Romeo and Juliet are dreams and forebodings. There is, to begin, Romeo's off-hand reference to having dreamed and Mercutio's rejoiner that his dream was that dreamers lie. This is followed by one of the most renowned set piece of the play, Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech about the flights of fancy that take place in dreams under the aegis of Queen Mab and her entourage. Then, in the first lines of Act V, Romeo speaks of dreams that "presage some joyful news at hand." Ironically, such news (Friar Laurence's letter about the death potion ruse) is on the way, but it fails to reach Romeo in Time.

In Act II, scene vi, Friar Laurence says to the lovers that "These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die" (9-10). This seeming homily is prescient: the play ends violently; the love of Romeo and Juliet triumphs only after they are dead. From the start of their romance, the lovers intuitively sense that their doom is ordained along with their passion. In the scene before he first meets Juliet, Romeo says to his friends:

I fear, too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos'd in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
(I.iv.106-111).

An affected youth given to dramatic posing, the speech is consistent with the pre-Juliet Romeo in its self-absorption; whatever its well-spring, it is uncannily accurate. Juliet takes this premonition a step further toward the conclusion of the balcony scene.

Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight,
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens
(II.ii.116-120).

Romeo's vague premonition in the play's first act is particularized by Juliet in the second act, for she projects that haste will be a determinative factor in the outcome of her romance with Romeo and that their lives will be utterly extinguished after shining brightly like a bolt of lightening. In Act III, Juliet's powers of divination grow even stronger as she sees Romeo "As one dead in the bottom of a tomb" (III.v.56). This, of course, is precisely accurate: Romeo will, in fact, die in the Capulet mausoleum, and Juliet will, in fact, see him there.

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