Romeo and Juliet Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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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 elements 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.

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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.

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...

(The entire section is 930 words.)