Romeo and Juliet Summary

Romeo and Juliet is a tragic play by William Shakespeare about two ill-fated teenagers who fall in love despite the bloody feud between their families, the Montagues and the Capulets. 

  • Romeo meets Juliet at a ball. Initially unaware that they are from rival families, the two fall in love instantly and are married in secret by Friar Laurence.
  • After Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, he is banished from Verona.
  • To join Romeo and escape an arranged marriage to her suitor, Paris, Juliet plans to fake her own death with the help of Friar Laurence. Their plan goes awry, setting off a chain of events that ultimately leads to Romeo and Juliet's tragic demise.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1575

Act 1

The play opens on the streets of Verona, Italy, as a fight breaks out between the servants of two powerful rival families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Benvolio Montague attempts to break up the fight but is thwarted by the hotheaded Tybalt Capulet, who attacks Benvolio. Finally, Prince Escalus appears and breaks up the brawl, condemning the families for allowing their long-standing feud to incite violence yet again. The Prince warns that if anyone from either family disturbs the peace again, they will be killed.

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In the next scene, the head of the Capulet household discusses marriage with Paris, who desires his daughter. Juliet’s father invites him to a masquerade ball, where Paris will have the opportunity to romance her. A Capulet servant comes across Romeo and Benvolio and invites them to the ball, not realizing that they are Montagues. Romeo only agrees to attend the ball because he knows Rosaline will be there. In a separate scene, Lady Capulet discusses the potential for Juliet to marry Paris. Juliet has no choice but to consider the option, as her mother assures her it is an ideal match and reminds her that she must marry eventually.

Romeo and Benvolio attend the masquerade ball with their lively friend Mercutio. Romeo’s melancholy persists, and he refuses to dance. He claims to have had an ominous dream about death, but Mercutio ridicules him. At the ball, Romeo meets Juliet Capulet, and unaware that they belong to rival families, they immediately fall in love. Tybalt recognizes Romeo’s voice and is prepared to fight him in front of the party guests. Lord Capulet forbids this, claiming it would ruin the party, and Tybalt exits angrily. Romeo and Juliet flirt, and she permits him to kiss her. Juliet leaves, and Romeo learns that she is a Capulet. Juliet similarly learns he is a Montague, and both are dismayed to learn that they are enemies.

Act 2

Romeo exits the Capulet house, yearning for Juliet. He is incapable of leaving without seeing her again and approaches her house again. Mercutio and Benvolio believe he is pursuing Rosaline and joke about this as they leave. Romeo hangs around the house, just wanting to be near Juliet. He looks up to see her emerge from her upstairs balcony. Juliet thinks she is alone and expresses her love for Romeo and deep sadness over his family name. He makes himself known and they exchange promises of love and devotion. Juliet is called inside by her nurse, but before she leaves, Romeo promises to come up with a plan so that they can be married.

Romeo visits Friar Laurence and confides in him about Juliet and their intention to defy their families and marry. The Friar expresses concern over his young friend’s abrupt change of heart, as Romeo had been lovestruck over Rosaline only days before. Romeo persuades Friar Laurence of his love for Juliet, and though the Friar has misgivings, he agrees to perform a secret wedding ceremony in the hope that their marriage may bring about the end of the feud. In the next scene, Mercutio and Benvolio learn that Tybalt has left a note for Romeo at the Montague house, challenging him to a duel for his earlier trespass at the Capulet ball. Romeo meets his friends with elevated spirits, buoyed by his excitement about Juliet. They come upon Juliet’s nurse, and she and Romeo have a private conversation. Romeo urges the Nurse to tell Juliet of the plan he has devised for their secret union. The Nurse agrees, and Romeo instructs her to tell Juliet that he will leave a rope ladder at her window to enable her to sneak out of her home.

Later that night, Romeo and Friar Laurence wait for Juliet to arrive. The Friar, quite pointlessly, cautions Romeo against reckless love, but then Juliet arrives and the wedding is conducted.

Act 3

Mercutio and Benvolio are wandering the streets of Verona. Benvolio has a bad feeling and wishes to return home, but Mercutio scorns him for being a coward. Tybalt appears and brushes aside Mercutio’s attempts at confrontation. Romeo appears and refuses to respond to Tybalt's challenge, knowing that their families are now united by marriage. Neither Mercutio nor Tybalt know about the marriage, however, and Mercutio, interpreting Romeo’s reluctance to fight as a sign of cowardice, steps in and begins to fight Tybalt in Romeo’s place. Romeo unsuccessfully attempts to break up the fight, and Tybalt kills Mercutio. Enraged by the death of his friend, Romeo turns on Tybalt and kills him. Realizing what he has done, Romeo runs to Friar Laurence for help. The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona for his part in the fighting and declares that Romeo will be killed if he is found within the city. 

At the Capulet house, Juliet is informed of Tybalt’s death and feels betrayed by her new husband. Her anger quickly fades, as she knows that if Tybalt had won, Romeo would have died. Knowing that Romeo is banished and she cannot live without him, Juliet prepares to commit suicide. Juliet’s nurse prevents this by promising to find Romeo. Meanwhile, Romeo, hiding out in Friar Laurence’s cell, learns that he is banished. Romeo laments that banishment might as well be a death sentence, as it is death to be away from Juliet. Juliet's nurse arrives and tells Romeo that he may visit her one final time to consummate their marriage. Romeo and Juliet spend the night together, and he climbs out the window as day breaks. Unaware that his daughter has secretly married the son of his rival, Lord Capulet makes arrangements for Juliet to marry Paris. When Juliet tries to refuse the match, Lord Capulet threatens to disown her. Juliet’s nurse urges her to forget about Romeo and marry Paris instead. Feeling betrayed, Juliet pretends to be regretful for her behavior and claims that she will visit Friar Laurence to confess her sinful disobedience.

Act 4

Friar Laurence and Paris discuss Paris’s forthcoming marriage to Juliet, though the Friar is careful not to reveal that Juliet is already married. Juliet arrives and fakes pleasantries with Paris. As soon as he leaves, however, Juliet turns to Friar Laurence for advice, vowing that she would rather kill herself than marry another man while her husband lives. Friar Laurence concocts an elaborate scheme to fake Juliet’s death: He gives Juliet a potion that will make her appear dead for forty-two hours. When the Capulets find Juliet’s (apparently) dead body, they will place her open casket in the family tomb. The Friar will send word to Romeo of their plan, and then he and Romeo will wait in the tomb for Juliet to awaken. When she does, Romeo will take her back to Mantua with him.

While Lord and Lady Capulet plan their daughter’s wedding, Juliet prepares to take the potion. She expresses fear over whether it is real poison, as she thinks the Friar may wish to punish her for marrying Romeo in secret. She concludes that this is impossible, as the men are good friends, yet she shudders at having to lie in the vault next to Tybalt’s decaying body. Before drinking the potion, Juliet sees the ghost of Tybalt. The next morning, Juliet’s nurse discovers what she believes to be the dead body of Juliet; Paris, the Nurse, and the Capulets all grieve her death.

Act 5

Friar Laurence learns, too late, that Friar John—the man he had commissioned with delivering the letter containing the plan to Romeo—never reached him, having been quarantined due to a plague. In Mantua, Romeo hears from a servant that Juliet has died, and determined to join her in death, he purchases poison and travels back to Verona. When he arrives at Juliet’s tomb, Romeo runs into Paris, who is mourning Juliet. Unaware of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, Paris assumes that Romeo is merely a Montague trying to defile the Capulet graves. Paris challenges Romeo to a duel, and Romeo reluctantly fights and kills him. Entering the tomb, Romeo sees Juliet, who is still in her death-like sleep. He kisses her one last time before drinking the poison and dying. The Friar arrives after realizing that his letter never reached Romeo, and he is shocked to see the bodies of Paris and Romeo in the tomb. Just then, Juliet wakes up from her sleep. Knowing that the city watchmen are on their way, the Friar urges Juliet to flee the scene. Juliet refuses to leave and the Friar runs from the tomb. Alone, Juliet kisses Romeo in the hopes that the poison he drank will kill her too. When that fails, she grabs a dagger and stabs herself just before the watchmen enter the tomb. 

The chief watchman summons Prince Escalus, the Montagues, and the Capulets to the tomb. Friar Laurence explains the story of Romeo and Juliet’s secret love to all present. The Prince declares that this tragedy is heaven’s way of punishing the two families for their hatred. The Prince adds that he, too, has been punished for allowing the feud to continue—now, his kinsmen Mercutio and Paris lay dead. Devastated by the loss of their respective children, the Capulets and the Montagues reconcile their differences and end the feud once and for all. 

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