At a Glance

  • Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest love stories of all time. True love, reckless passion, and youthful naiveté all conspire to tear Romeo and Juliet apart. Love, though noble and beautiful, ultimately results in tragedy.
  • Shakespeare first introduces the theme of fate in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, where he characterizes the play as a tale of two "star-crossed lovers" whose love is doomed from the start. Fate and chance keep the lovers apart, driving the plot of the play toward its tragic, inevitable conclusion.
  • Imagery of light amid darkness features prominently in the play, reflecting the contrast between love and hatred, hope and despair, life and death. In one famous scene, Romeo opines, "What light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." Light symbolizes the dawning of Romeo and Juliet's love, whereas darkness symbolizes chaos and death.

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Themes

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...

(The entire section is 3,137 words.)