Introductory Lecture and Objectives
One of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies, even to those who have never read his works, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet continues to ignite the imagination and the heart in its exploration of the passionate nexus of love and death and the ironies of fate. Of all the Bard’s plays, none has proved to be so accessible and inspiring to so many different audiences. One famous contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story, both a Broadway hit and a popular film; in this modern version of Shakespeare’s story, the Montagues and the Capulets of Verona are represented by the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs pitted against each other in New York City. Also, music stars, such as Taylor Swift, have alluded to the play in song. In our vernacular, to be a “Romeo” is to be both a true romantic and a passionate lover. The definition reflects Shakespeare’s very clear message in the drama: Romantic love and passion are essentially intertwined.
Although Romeo and Juliet has become synonymous with tragic romance and “star-crossed” lovers, the play is, in fact, very bawdy; clever and risqué double entendres appear throughout. While modern readers may fix on the chaste “balcony scene” in which the lovers adore each other from a distance, it is to this same window that a rope ladder is affixed, so that Romeo can reach Juliet’s bed chamber and consummate their marriage. Characters such as the nurse and Mercutio, especially the latter, serve to gently lampoon the Petrarchan model of courtly love that held up a saintly and untouchable lady as the idealized object of pure devotion. For Romeo and Juliet, love is not metaphorical; it is spiritual and carnal, passionate and all-consuming.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, which is based on an Italian novella, around 1593, following a hiatus when the London theaters were closed because of plague. During the time he was not writing for the stage, Shakespeare explored the subject of erotic desire through his poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, each based on work by the Roman poet, Ovid. Shortly after the theaters reopened, he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then Romeo and Juliet. Some scholars feel these two plays—a comedy darkened by serious themes and a tragedy marked by flashes of deliberate comic relief—portray two sides of the same coin: the complexities and sometimes disastrous consequences of falling in love.
Set in Verona, Italy, Romeo and Juliet opens with an argument between the servants of two prominent and long-feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo, a Montague, and two friends decide to attend a ball hosted by Lord Capulet. Wearing masks to disguise themselves, Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio attend the ball, where Romeo meets the beautiful Juliet and falls instantly in love. Later that night Romeo goes to Juliet’s window, and they exchange vows of devotion. Romeo enlists the help of Friar Laurence, who agrees to marry the young lovers in hopes of ending the long-standing feud between their two families. Passion abounds in Verona, however, fueling the impetuous desires of the young lovers and spilling blood in the streets; a series of fated events results, culminating in Romeo’s and Juliet’s suicides. As love dies, so too does hatred; the warring families promise to end their hostilities, which have cost them their only children.
As in other Shakespearean plays, the language and the cultural conventions in Romeo and Juliet may seem foreign or dated, but the themes remain as true and as relevant to modern readers as they were to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences. While modern teens might question the hastily arranged wedding between Juliet and Paris, they find believable the pure and passionate love-at first-sight experienced by Juliet and Romeo. Rebellious teens seeking advice and assistance from adults other than their parents, just as Romeo and Juliet turn to Friar Laurence and the nurse, are found in everyday life as frequently as in literature. The teens in this tragedy are not singled out as the only characters making bad decisions; in fact, Romeo and Juliet might be excused from their impulsive actions, considering the overarching power assigned to destiny in the play. When their ill-fated romance ends in the tomb, Romeo and Juliet leave their parents, as well as the prince who dismissed the tragedy inherent in their rancor, to come to terms with the duality found in human existence: light and darkness, violence and desire, and love and death.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes in Romeo and Juliet.
2. Explain the common roots of love and hate and of sex and violence, and discuss how these are developed thematically in the play.
3. Determine and define those elements that make Romeo and Juliet one of the most classic love stories of all time.
4. Explain examples of fate and destiny in the play.
5. Identify examples of the motifs of light and darkness, and discuss their significance.
6. Explain through which characters and in what way comic relief is employed in the tragedy.
7. Discuss the literary devices and language techniques employed by Shakespeare.