Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
The exact year in which William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet is unknown, but it is definitely one of his earlier works, and one of only two tragedies written in the period from 1590 to 1595. The other tragedy, Titus Andronicus followed the conventions of Seneca and Marlowe, i.e., built around a single heroic figure, but Romeo and Juliet was innovatively different. The plot was based on a fourteenth-century Italian short story, or novella, written by Matteo Bandello, that included elements of history, tradition, romance, and fable. This story had been put into verse form in 1562 by British poet Arthur Brooke. In Shakespeare's hands, fashionable elements of Elizabethan drama were inserted, certain characters were magnified, and sensational scenes were added. In addition, Shakespeare surrounded the innocent lovers with the mature bawdiness of other characters. In truth, the play was experimental for its time, but it was well-received by contemporary audiences and remained popular through the centuries. For a long time, critics tended to downgrade Romeo and Juliet in comparison to Shakespeare's later tragedies. But in the twentieth century the play gained appreciation for its unique merits and became a standard of high school study and was produced in various media.
Romeo and Juliet is as much about hate as love. The play opens with a scene of conflict between the two feuding families and ends with their reconciliation. Nonetheless, the play is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, complicated by the interplay of fate and repeated misfortune in timing. The juxtaposition of light and dark, the injection of comic moments, and the beauty of the language of love further enhance the play and make it a classic for all time.
William Shakespeare was born to John and Mary Arden Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire, England, on April 23, 1564 and died there fifty-two years later on April 23, 1616. This period was remarkable in British history in that it was both the time of the Renaissance and the Elizabethan age (1558–1603). Shakespeare received a good classical education as a child, but he did not go on to university studies. In 1582, at age eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. A daughter, Susanna, was born to them in 1583, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Shakespeare went to London to become an actor and playwright in 1588, the same year that the British navy defeated the Spanish Armada. From 1592 to 1598 he devoted his talents mostly to chronicle histories (tragedies) and comedies, including Romeo and Juliet. In 1594, he had become associated with a successful theatrical troupe called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later, under King James I, the King's Men), and was eventually a prime shareholder and the principal playwright. In 1599, this company built the Globe Theater. However, Shakespeare also gained popularity as a poet for works such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both written about his patron, the Earl of Southampton. A collection of Shakespeare's sonnets was not published until 1609, although his friends had been reading them for years. By 1597, Shakespeare was prosperous enough to buy a large, handsome home in the center of Stratford, and he was soon recognized as England's greatest dramatist. From 1601 to 1609, he wrote his great tragedies and romantic comedies. In 1610, he retired to Stratford-on-Avon, but he continued to write and produced four more plays until his death. In the four hundred years since, his reputation has not diminished. Although there is continued debate about whether he actually wrote all the plays and verse attributed to him, nothing has ever proven otherwise. Consequently, the appreciation of his talent and genius has grown such that he is generally considered the greatest playwright of all time.
Prologue to Act 1
The prologue tells the audience that this story will be about two prominent families of Verona, Italy, whose ancient feud is erupting anew and that a "pair of star-cross'd lovers" from these families will end the violence by ending their own lives.
In scene 1, Capulet servants, Sampson and Gregory, and Montague servants, Abraham and Balthasar, start a street fight that is joined by Benvolio, a Montague relative, and Tybalt a Capulet relative. Escalus, the Prince of Verona, learns about the fight and angrily decrees a death penalty for anyone caught in further feuding. Benvolio finds Romeo and learns that Romeo is forlorn because the girl he loves, Rosaline, will not return his affection because she has chosen to remain chaste. Benvolio advises Romeo to move on with his life and look at other girls. Romeo, however, is quite sure that he cannot forget Rosaline.
Scene 2 opens with Lord Capulet being approached by Count Paris, a relative of Prince Escalus, about marrying Capulet's daughter, Juliet. Capulet thinks Juliet is too young to marry but agrees to let the two meet at a party he is hosting that night. By accident, Romeo and Benvolio find out about the party, and Benvolio encourages Romeo to crash the party with him.
It is in scene 3 that the audience meets the garrulous nurse and learns that Juliet is only 14 years old. Lady Capulet discusses the idea of marriage to Paris with Juliet, who has not yet given marriage any thought, but she obediently agrees to consider the match.
Scene 4 finds Mercutio, another relative of the prince, joining Romeo and Benvolio and other friends on their way to the party. Mercutio teases the lovesick Romeo by scoffing at love. As they reach the party, Romeo expresses a feeling of impending doom.
Scene 5 takes place at the Capulet's party where a disguised Romeo spies Juliet and falls instantly in love. Lady Capulet's nephew Tybalt discovers Romeo's presence but is prevented from attacking Romeo by Lord Capulet who does not want such a disturbance at his party. In a brief encounter with Romeo, Juliet too falls in love. Later, they each learn separately from the nurse the family identity of the other.
Prologue to Act 2
The chorus dramatizes the complications faced by both Romeo and Juliet in their love for one another but predicts that passion will lend them the power needed to be together.
In a very short scene 1, Benvolio and Mercutio try to find Romeo, who has climbed a wall to hide in the Capulet orchard. His friends give up when Romeo will not respond to their calls.
Scene 2 is the famous balcony scene in which, ignoring the danger, Romeo hopes for a glimpse of Juliet outside her window. Romeo overhears Juliet talk about her love for him. He then approaches her, and, after declaring their love, the two decide to marry. Juliet promises to send Romeo a messenger in the morning to make plans for their wedding.
In scene 3, Romeo goes to see Friar Laurence to arrange the wedding. Friar Laurence agrees to marry the two in hopes that their union will end the feud.
In scene 4, Romeo meets his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, who are discussing a challenge sent by Tybalt to Romeo. Juliet's messenger, the nurse, arrives and speaks privately to Romeo. The wedding is set for later that day.
In scene 5, the nurse returns to Juliet and, after much teasing to exasperate the eager Juliet, she reveals her news. Juliet uses the excuse of going to confession to get to Friar Laurence's cell.
A tiny scene 6 accomplishes the wedding of Romeo and Juliet.
In scene 1, later that day, Benvolio and Mercutio encounter Tybalt and are already sparring with words when Romeo arrives. Tybalt attempts to provoke Romeo into a fight, but Romeo will not fight because, although unknown to the others, he and Tybalt are now relatives by marriage. Instead, Mercutio challenges Tybalt and is killed by a deceitful stab from Tybalt when Romeo tries to separate them. Tybalt flees and Mercutio dies. Romeo is so enraged that he tracks down Tybalt and kills him. Benvolio urges Romeo to flee. Just then, Escalus arrives and banishes Romeo from Verona.
In scene 2, the nurse tells Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. Despite her intense grief over Tybalt, Juliet's love for Romeo wins out, and she asks the nurse to find Romeo.
Scene 3 finds Romeo in Friar Laurence's cell. Romeo learns of the banishment order and almost commits suicide when he realizes he may not be able to see Juliet again. However, the nurse's arrival and the friar's confidence that the crisis will blow over if Romeo will just hide out in Mantua for a while encourages Romeo to go see Juliet.
A brief scene 4 finds Capulet deciding that marrying Paris will soothe what Capulet assumes is Juliet's grief over Tybalt's death. Capulet sets the wedding for three days away and instructs his wife to tell Juliet.
Scene 5 takes place at dawn after Romeo and Juliet have spent the night together. Just after their heart-wrenching farewell, Juliet's mother arrives and tells Juliet that she is to marry Paris. Juliet refuses, and a terrible fight with her parents ensues. The nurse counsels Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris. Feeling betrayed by all, Juliet makes another excuse to see Friar Laurence.
Scene 1 is back at Friar Laurence's, where he tells Juliet to take a potion that will cause her to appear dead until Romeo can come to rescue her and take her away with him to Mantua.
In scene 2, Juliet claims that she has repented of her disobedience and agrees to marry Paris. Lord Capulet is so pleased, he moves up the wedding to the next morning.
Scene 3 finds Juliet asking the nurse to leave her alone that night. She then worries about trusting the friar, but she takes the potion anyway.
Scene 4 shows the whole Capulet household working through the night to prepare for the wedding.
In scene 5, the nurse finds Juliet apparently dead. The wedding preparations are changed to those of a funeral.
Scene 1 takes place in Mantua as Romeo's servant Balthasar arrives, bringing the news of Juliet's death. Romeo decides to risk his own life by returning immediately to Verona. He buys poison from an apothecary with the intent of dying beside Juliet.
In scene 2, Friar Laurence learns that his letter to Romeo explaining Juliet's deception was not received. His messenger, Friar John, was confined by quarantine. Friar Laurence sends another letter to Mantua and heads off to the Capulet burial chamber to be there when Juliet awakens.
In the final scene, Paris goes to Juliet's tomb to mourn her but finds Romeo there and assumes that, as a Montague, Romeo is desecrating Juliet's grave. A fight ensues and Paris is killed. Romeo places him beside Juliet, then takes the poison, kisses Juliet, and dies. Friar Laurence finally arrives, but Juliet awakens and sees Romeo. Upon hearing noises, Friar Laurence runs away, but Juliet will not leave. Juliet kisses Romeo, stabs herself, and dies. The arriving guards find the bodies, send for the prince, and discover the friar in hiding. The prince, the Capulets and the Montagues all arrive, and Balthasar, Paris's page, and Friar Laurence explain everything. Escalus confronts the two families with the results of their feud and the two lords reconcile with promises to build gold statues to each other's lost child. The play concludes with the prince's declaration:
For never was there a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
A Montague servant, Abraham and Balthasar are the opponents to Sampson and Gregory in the opening fight scene.
The apothecary's appearance is brief but critical. It is his poverty that forces him to violate the law and his own morals in selling Romeo the poison that he will use in suicide.
Romeo's servant Balthasar brings the mistaken news to Romeo that Juliet is dead. He also witnesses the fight between Paris and Romeo and then Romeo's suicide. It is then Balthasar who verifies Friar Laurence's explanation to the prince.
The daughter of Lord and Lady Capulet, Juliet is in love with Romeo. Just entering her teenage years, she is an innocent girl with a practical nature and remarkable strength who is willing to go to great lengths, even defying her parents and faking her own death, to be with Romeo. Although Juliet is willing to consider Paris's proposal, once she meets Romeo at the Capulet party, her heart is set only for him. Nonetheless, she is wary enough to suspect his intentions since he is a Montague, a family enemy. She thus requires that he marry her to prove his sincerity. Her love for Romeo is strong enough to forgive him for killing her cousin Tybalt and to chance the friar's risky plan to avoid marrying Paris. Juliet also shows a new maturity in being able to recognize the nurse's betrayal and to break their strong bond as well as that with her parents. Although suicide is always a negative choice, for Juliet it is a final demonstration of the strength and commitment of her love for Romeo.
As Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet tries to keep peace in the family by attempting to convince Juliet to marry her father's choice of a husband for her. We learn that she married and gave birth at Juliet's age. However, she is not close to Juliet and relies on the nurse to be a surrogate mother.
Lord Capulet is a paradoxical character who can be the perfect genial host in public but a tyrannical father when he thinks his authority is questioned. He loves his daughter very much but makes the classic parental mistake of trying to force her to do something because he thinks it is best for her. His decision to move up the wedding of Juliet and Paris is the catalyst for the complications that result in his daughter's death.
The chorus is actually a single character functioning as the narrator who reveals the plot to the audience.
As ruler of Verona, Prince Escalus is intent on stopping the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and bringing peace to the streets of his city. He issues a warning that the offense of fighting between members of the two houses will be punished by death, but when Romeo kills Tybalt the prince orders only banishment. When the feud results in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, the prince tells their families that they are to blame, but he also blames himself for being unable to stop the feuding in time.
A servant of the house of Capulet, Gregory and fellow Capulet servant Sampson show that the Montague-Capulet feud extends to the servants when they pick a fight with the opposing family in the opening scene of the play.
- An audiocassette of Romeo and Juliet was made by Caedmon Audio in 1996 and features Claire Bloom and Albert Finney.
- A film version of Romeo and Juliet (1936) was released in black and white, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard and directed by George Cukor. It is available on VHS from Warner Studios.
- A color film version of Romeo and Juliet (1956) starring Lawrence Harvey was made available on video in 1997 by Hallmark Entertainment. It was also released on video by MGM/UA in 2000.
- Kultur Video released a 1966 filming of Prokofiev's ballet version as performed by Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and the Royal Ballet. It is available on both VHS and DVD.
- The 1968 blockbuster version directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting is available on video from Paramount Studios.
- A BBC and Time-Life Film production of Romeo and Juliet was part of a BBC series on The Shakespeare Plays in 1978. Digitally remastered for DVD in 2001, it is distributed by Ambrose Video Publishing.
- A 1996 film version, using Shakespeare's language in a modern update and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, is available on video from Fox Home Entertainment.
A minor character, Friar John is the messenger who gets quarantined and thus fails to get the message to Romeo from Friar Laurence that Juliet is only asleep and not dead.
A well-meaning priest and expert in herbal medicines, Friar Laurence is Romeo and Juliet's confidant. His role is to be the advocate of moderation and the problem-solver. He marries Romeo and Juliet in hopes of ending the feud between their families through their love. However, it is his plan to help Juliet escape to be with Romeo in exile that backfires and leads to the deaths of the young pair. He confesses his guilt to the prince at the end of the play and is forgiven for his participation in the tragedy.
Another kinsman of Prince Escalus, Mercutio is Romeo's intensely witty, satirical, and imaginative friend. It is Mercutio who gives the famous speech about Queen Mab and who teases Romeo relentlessly. He is a scene-stealing character whose puns, such as "ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man" in reference to his own death, are memorable. He is mortally wounded in a swordfight with Tybalt but does not die until he has called for a plague on the houses of Montague and Capulet. For those who see the action of this play as determined by fate, this curse is the determining factor. It is in revenge for Mercutio's death that Romeo kills Tybalt and is thus forced to leave Verona and Juliet.
Benvolio is Romeo's cousin and good friend. His calm, thoughtful demeanor is a foil to the character of Romeo's other good friend, Mercutio. Benvolio's role, though relatively small, has some key moments. It is Benvolio who discovers the reason for Romeo's melancholy and then encourages him to go to the Capulet party where Romeo meets Juliet. It is Benvolio who tells Romeo that Mercutio is dead and then urges Romeo to run away after Romeo has killed Tybalt.
Lady Montague appears only at the beginning of the play to express worry about Romeo's melancholy and later is reported to have died of grief when her son is banished from Verona.
Romeo's father, Lord Montague, makes only slight appearances in the play, but it is evident that he has loving concern for his only son. At the end, he and Lord Capulet end their feud and pledge to build gold statues to each other's dead child.
Romeo's relationship with Juliet, the daughter of a rival family, is the center of the drama. The teenage son of Lord and Lady Montague, Romeo seems an overly sensitive lovesick boy at first. His behavior vacillates between extremes of joy and despair, love and hatred. The speed with which he forgets his infatuation with Rosaline and falls in love with Juliet may seem fickle, but it may also indicate a maturing from a silly crush to a commitment in true love. Romeo's soliloquy beneath Juliet's balcony is one of the most often quoted lines from a play:
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
The depth and fluctuation of his feelings is evident in his resolve not to fight with Juliet's cousin Tybalt, out of love for her, and his rage that leads him to kill Tybalt, out of loyalty and affection for his friend Mercutio. Romeo marries Juliet to prove the sincerity of his love, but he must leave her when he is banished for killing Tybalt. He almost takes his life in despair over being separated from Juliet but is convinced by his good friend, Friar Laurence, to let time heal their problem. However, time is an enemy to the couple throughout the play, and when Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, he once again determines to take his own life. In trying to reach Juliet's tomb to commit this act, he encounters and is forced to kill Paris. In his rush of passion, Romeo dies before he can be told that Juliet is still alive. His death then causes Juliet to commit suicide also. Although their deaths are tragic, they have the effect of ending the feud between their families.
The nurse is a comic and vulgar figure in the play whose lewd remarks and long-winded speeches provide a break in the tension of the tragedy. More of a mother to Juliet than Juliet's mother, the nurse has reared Juliet and loves her to the point of being willing to do anything to make Juliet happy. Consequently, she is willing to be the go-between for Romeo and Juliet and to help them get married and have a wedding night. However, her more physical than emotional interest in love leaves her unable to understand Juliet's willingness to endanger herself for Romeo. To the nurse, it is better for Juliet to drop a relationship that is difficult to maintain and marry into a soft life with Paris. This advice seems a betrayal to Juliet and forces her to seek out a desperate plan to escape rather than confide in her closest advocate. Like everyone else at the end of the play, the nurse must face failure and grief.
A kinsman of Prince Escalus, Paris is Juliet's suitor. Lord Capulet approves of and promotes the match. Paris is a true gentleman who loves Juliet and has no idea that he is in the middle of two lovers. On a visit to Juliet's tomb, he mistakes Romeo for someone who is trying to desecrate her grave. In the ensuing fight, Paris is killed by Romeo who grants Paris's last wish to be buried next to Juliet.
Peter is the nurse's servant who carries messages and run errands.
Although Rosaline does not actually appear in the play, she is the reason for Romeo's initial lovesickness. Further, it is only because he hopes to see Rosaline that Romeo agrees to go to the Capulet party where the pivotal moment occurs when he meets Juliet.
A Capulet servant, it is Sampson and his fellow servant Gregory who open the play by picking a fight with some servants of the Montague family.
A nephew of Lady Capulet, Tybalt is Juliet's hot-tempered cousin who is the most hateful towards the Montagues. When he spies Romeo at the Capulet party, only Lord Capulet's stern restraint prevents Tybalt from attacking Romeo. Later, still feeling insulted but unable to goad Romeo into fighting, Tybalt provokes Mercutio and kills him. Then, in rage of revenge, Romeo forgets that Tybalt has become a relative by marriage and kills him. It is Juliet's grief apparently over Tybalt's death that gives her father the excuse to bring joy to the house with a wedding for Juliet and Paris. This turn of events precipitates the tragic plan of faked death that leads to the suicides of both Romeo and Juliet.
The Power and Passion of Love
Although Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the world's greatest love stories, it can be argued that the love story is only a vehicle for the resolution of the story about hate, that is, the feud between the two families. After all, the story starts with a street fight between Montague and Capulet servants and ends with a peace agreement between the two lords. The power of hate is illustrated in the first scene by the exhibition of enmity between servants of the two families. The extent of the hatred has grown from the family itself to its servants. The power of love is seen, of course, in the determination of Romeo and Juliet to defy their families and be together. They love their parents, but the hate between the families causes the young couple to hate those who would keep them apart. The passion of Tybalt's hate is seen in his inability to forget about the party crashing. Even though his uncle talks him out of a fight that night, the next morning he sends a challenge to Romeo's house. Romeo's love for Juliet prevents him from quarrelling with Tybalt because he does not want to fight with his beloved's cousin, who has become his cousin by marriage. But his love for his friend Mercutio is powerful enough to turn into a rage of hateful revenge, so Romeo attacks Tybalt for killing Mercutio. For Juliet, the death of her cousin is a test of her love for Romeo. Which is stronger: her love for her family or for Romeo? As it turns out, her love for Romeo is strong enough to allow her to forgive him for his terrible deed, to choose her family by marriage, her husband, over her blood family. Juliet's love is further tested when she has to overcome her doubts about the trustworthiness of Friar Laurence and her fear of taking the potion. Again, her love is strong enough to risk everything. Romeo's love is strong enough to risk the Prince's punishment to get to Juliet's tomb. Both have love strong enough to be willing to die for the other, and they do. Thus, the whole play is a clash of passionate love and passionate hate, each strong enough to cause tragedy.
The Individual versus Society
A standard type of plot conflict, the individual against society, applies in Romeo and Juliet because the young couple is pitted against social and public institutions that are barriers to their relationship. First, of course, is the barrier of family, not only because Romeo and Juliet are from feuding houses, but also because Juliet's father has decreed that she will marry someone else. In Juliet's society, the father, as head of the household, has absolute power. Disobeying him means not only a breach within her family, but a breach of the social fabric that guides family structure in the culture. In fear of dire consequences, Romeo and Juliet have to marry in secret. They have to keep that secret from family and friends. Except for Friar Laurence, they have no one to rely on but each other. Even Juliet's devoted nurse turns on her and leaves her to make the biggest decisions of her life on her own. Finally, after Romeo is banished by the prince, even the local government is involved in keeping the pair apart.
The Problem of Time
While lousy timing fits into the theme of the action being determined by twists of fate, it is not just rotten luck that affects time in Romeo and Juliet. The chronology of the play is a rush of time. Romeo and Juliet are married the day after they meet. Romeo kills Juliet's cousin the same day and is banished from Verona only a day after the prince has first announced his intent to severely punish anyone caught fighting because of the Capulet/Montague feud. The couple has only one night of honeymoon before Romeo must run away, as Friar Laurence says,
till we can find a time
to blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back.
When Friar Laurence devises his plan to rescue Juliet, he needs time to get a message to Romeo, but that time is taken away when Lord Capulet moves up the date for Juliet's wedding to Paris. That change might not have been ruinous if Friar John had not been delayed on his way to find Romeo. There is so little time that the Capulet household stays up all night to prepare for the wedding that turns out to be Juliet's funeral. If only Friar Laurence had made it to the tomb in time, he might have been able to prevent Romeo from killing Paris and/or himself, which would have prevented Juliet from killing herself. But time is against them.
- Romeo and Juliet is a story that ends with the suicides of the two teenage lovers. Research the extent of the problem with teenage suicide in the early 2000s and provide a list of resources for those seeking help.
- Juliet's parents try to arrange a marriage for her. What cultures in the 2000s still follow the practice of arranged marriages?
- An important element in the story of Romeo and Juliet is the sword fights. In the early 2000s, sword fighting is known as the sport of fencing and is an Olympic event. Find out more about this sport and report on its modern practice and events.
- Could the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet have been prevented? Cite some instances where a different action or turn of events might have saved the young couple. What would you have done in their place?
- Compare the tragedies of ancient Greek theater to those of Shakespeare. What are the differences and similarities? Specifically, what was new about Romeo and Juliet for a tragedy in its time period?
- Compare West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet. Match up the characters and the story lines. Comment on how Shakespeare's story has translated into a modern setting and conflict.
Fate and Forebodings
Elizabethans expected a tragedy to rest upon a twist of fate. Although Shakespeare made Romeo and Juliet more complicated than that, there are certainly numerous references to fate in the play, perhaps as a concession to the audience's expectations. The play opens with a reference to "star-crossed lovers" as if their fates are predetermined by their astrological signs. On the way to the Capulet party, Romeo has a sense that something will happen at the ball that will lead to doom. Later, with his dying breath, Mercutio calls a curse upon the feuding families: "A plague on both your houses!" Then Romeo says, after killing Tybalt, that he is "fortune's fool." When Romeo thinks that Juliet is dead, he tells the stars that he will defy them, as if he knows that fate wants to keep them apart, so he will win by joining Juliet in death. All the accidents of timing in the play seem to be fate working against the young lovers for the Elizabethan audience did not see these incidents as coincidences but rather as the hand of fate directing the action.
Light and Dark Polarity Motif
A motif is a recurring element such as an incident, formulaic structure, or device that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes. A visual motif used in Romeo and Juliet is the contrast of light and dark, but in a sensory way, rather than in the sense of good and evil. For example, Romeo's balcony speech depicts Juliet as the sun that banishes the envious moon and turns night into day. In like manner, the morning after their wedding, they both try to delay Romeo's departure by pretending that it is still night, knowing that "More light and light, more dark and dark our woes." Ultimately, because the light of their love is not allowed to burn brightly, they both choose the darkness of death.
A Greek tragedy has one central heroic, but flawed, figure. Romeo and Juliet had two central characters, and neither is presented as having the characteristics of a classical hero. Prior to Shakespeare, Elizabethans used a twist of fate as the single causative factor for the tragic ending. Shakespeare, however, devised more complicated causes stemming from character traits and motives. Another difference between the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies is the use of irony. In a Greek play, the audience is aware of the irony that the hero does not see. The chorus exists to advise the audience about what to expect. For example, the audience knows the secret of the parentage of Oedipus, but Oedipus does not and proceeds to marry his mother. Although Shakespeare uses a chorus in Romeo and Juliet, only the basic plot and ending were revealed, not how the drama is to unfold. Shakespeare allows the audience to discover the irony for themselves.
Use of a Chorus
Acts 1 and 2 only are introduced by the chorus, a lone actor who serves as a narrator for the play. The speech of the chorus is written in the form of a sonnet with an ending couplet. Shakespeare's prologue to Romeo and Juliet follows the Greek pattern of letting the audience know from the start how things are going to end. Otherwise, Shakespeare deviates from the Greek model by not revealing any of the irony or complexity of the tragedy, instead leaving that to the audience's own interpretation. The prologue of the second act assures the audience that Romeo's old feelings for Rosaline are gone and that he and Juliet now love each other. The chorus points out that although the couple has little opportunity to interact, their passion gives them the power and the ingenuity to get together. In other words, where there's a will there's a way if powered by love.
The normal form of speech in Shakespearean drama is blank, or unrhymed, verse. This form of verse works well for all scenes and persons whose appeal is mainly to the emotions of the spectator or reader. Each unrhymed line has five stresses; however, Shakespeare subtly varied the stresses, as well as rhythms, pauses, and tones in order to convey different moods and even the personal peculiarities of a character.
In the early plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used quite a bit of rhymed verse in five-stress lines, usually in couplets. The prologues to Acts 1 and 2 end in a couplet, as does the play itself. Couplets also often come at the end of a scene or episode to signal changes to those behind the stage. In the process, the couplet achieves an aesthetic end to the dialogue and signals a change in action to the audience even before the actors leave the stage (e.g., act 1, scene 2, Romeo says, "I'll go along, no such sight to be shown, But to rejoice in splendour of mine own"). After a passage of blank verse or prose, rhymed verse could also have the effect of stiffening the dialogue and heightening the emotion. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their dialogue becomes a sonnet, thus emphasizing the rise of their emotions. Shakespeare cleverly used rhymed verse for another effect—that of contrast—by having one character talk in blank verse while another uses rhymed verse.
The use of prose in a play that is mainly in verse has the effect of lowering the emotional level and quickening the pace of the play. Prose speech works best for passages of comedy and as the speech of the lower or more comic characters (e.g., the opening dialogue between Sampson and Gregory).
Both the story of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare's life take place during the Renaissance, a period that begins in the fourteenth century and extends into the seventeenth century. The term renaissance means rebirth and refers to the revival of an interest in the classical cultures of Greece and Rome. However, there are many social, political, and intellectual transformations that comprised the Renaissance. As the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire waned with their inability to maintain stability and unity among the Europeans, the feudal structure broke up and the power shifted to nations that were developing their own monarchies and language. Also of great importance were city-states (e.g., Florence, Italy, as controlled by the infamous Medici family and perhaps fictional Verona as ruled by Prince Escalus). Many details in Romeo and Juliet connect it to Italian Literature with which Shakespeare was familiar. One parallel is Pyramus and Thisbe (Ovid). More immediate, Shakespeare probably based his play on the Italian version by Luigi da Porto who sets the tale of Romeo and Juliet in Verona (1530).
During the sixteenth century, ancient Greek and Roman literature was rediscovered, translated, and then widely read. The classical writers focused on the human condition; they explored human nature and asserted some valuable insights about what causes human suffering and what works to establish social order. These ideas, along with many others, converged as a philosophy called humanism. It was in the broadest sense a focus on human beings as opposed to a focus on the supernatural. Renaissance writers such as Shakespeare were well-read in classical literature and were influenced by it. In one sense, Romeo and Juliet dramatizes how an inherited feud coupled with impetuosity can disrupt the state and ruin good people's lives. The play shows that passion can be disruptive, dangerous, and destructive, and yet ironically it also expresses love and grief. Through the loss of these two young lovers, the feuding familes find reconciliation, and order in the community is reestablished. This examination of the human scene is an example of humanism with clear connections to classical handling of tragedy, as in Oedipus by Sophocles and Pyramus and Thisbe by Ovid.
Elizabethan and Jacobean Literature
By the time Shakespeare was born, Elizabeth I was already on the throne. Her long and influential reign from 1558 to 1603 defined the era. As a playwright, Shakespeare was fortunate to write in a time when the arts were supported by patrons and his English contemporaries included Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Southwell, Thomas Campion, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, John Lyly, and Michael Drayton, all important writers, critics, and celebrities of the Elizabethan Age whose reputations have lasted into modern times. There are numerous and diverse distinguishing characteristics of Elizabethan literature. This name is strictly a time division in honor of one of England's greatest rulers. However, it is a time in which the poetry of the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse were very popular. It is unquestionably a golden age for drama. In the area of prose, this era produced historical chronicles, pamphlets, and literary criticism as the first novels began to appear. The tone of literature seemed more darkly questioning during the reign of James I as writers explored the problem of evil. This was the time in which Shakespeare produced his greatest tragedies. His theatre company enjoyed a cordial relationship with the court where the popularity of the masque, an extravagant courtly entertainment, returned. Also during Jacobean times (Jacobean is the name of the period in which James I reigned in England), Jonson influenced comedy with an acid satire and poetry with a lucid and graceful style that was copied by a group of writers known as the Cavalier poets. Meantime, Francis Bacon and Robert Burton were making a name in prose literature with a tougher yet more flexible style. Jacobean literature was undoubtedly an important contribution to the arts, but perhaps the greatest achievement of the age was the production of the King James version of the Bible in 1611.
- 1300s: Chaucer receives great acclaim in his own lifetime (1343–1400) from both the British public and the royal court for writing the Canterbury Tales and other poetic works.
1590s: Shakespeare starts his career in the London theaters and enjoys popular success from the beginning, even garnering the favor of Queen Elizabeth I.
Today: Both Chaucer and Shakespeare are still considered to be geniuses of literature by people around the world, and their works are studied as part of the standard curriculum in most schools.
- 1300s: The papacy leaves Rome and is located in Avignon, France from 1309 to 1377 because of political pressures from the French. The first rumblings of the Reformation are heard in England from John Wycliffe.
1590s: The Reformation is in full swing. The conflicts between Protestants and Catholics are often violent, and European countries align according to Protestant or Catholic affiliation.
Today: The world still struggles with religious conflicts. Protestants and Catholics have reached accord in many areas, except for some tension yet in Northern Ireland. However, Muslim extremists wage a holy war in many areas of the world, and some governments forbid religion entirely.
- 1300s: In 1346, the Black Death kills almost a third of the people of Europe and Asia.
1590s: Plague closes the theaters in 1593, and other such diseases pose a deadly threat. Elizabeth I barely survives small pox, and Shakespeare later succumbs to a mysterious fever.
Today: The plague and small pox are virtually eliminated around the world. Other new contagious diseases such as the ebola virus and AIDS have arisen, but where modern medicine is available, the potential for an epidemic is minimized.
- 1300s: Important innovations are the blast furnace, the standardization of shoe sizes in England, and, at the end of the century, the Dutch use of windmills.
1590s: The first knitting machine is invented as well as the first flush toilet. Coal mining begins in Germany, and scientists begin to investigate magnetism and electricity.
Today: Technology and computers are universal, and technology witnesses advances occurring so quickly that some equipment is outdated within months of installation.
Even after four hundred years, literary criticism of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and critical reviews of its productions are still being written. Nonetheless, the critical essays written through the centuries remained valid and illustrate how interpretation is affected by various literary movements. Oddly enough, Shakespeare's contemporaries did not review the plays, and other writers barely mentioned him well into the seventeenth century. At that time, Ben Jonson (1572–1637) was held in higher regard as a playwright. Also esteemed as a critic, Jonson considered Shakespeare a talented, but undisciplined writer, according to Augustus E. Ralli in his book on Shakespearean criticism. John Dryden, a seventeenth-century writer, was the first great Shakespearan critic. In his "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy," Dryden compares Shakespeare and Jonson, saying that he admires Jonson but loves Shakespeare because "when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too." Even though he praised Shakespeare, Dryden also found he was "many times flat, insipid, his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast."
Critics into the eighteenth century continued this view that Shakespeare had more natural ability than educated refinement. They discussed his artistic faults rather than his merits, unless they were pulling out those soliloquies and other passages that they thought could stand on their own out of context. In 1775, Elizabeth Griffin commented on the ample selection of "poetical beauties" in Romeo and Juliet. However, she found little for moral evaluation except the foolishness of a young couple embarking on plans of their own without the consent of their parents. Thus, Griffin was the first critic to lay the blame for the tragedy not on fate but on Romeo and Juliet.
Even more than Shakespeare, the eighteenth-century neoclassicists believed strictly in the unities of place, action, and time, which Aristotle explained in his Poetics. Thus, these critics thought the story of a play should take place in one setting; have a causally connected plot, each event causing the next one in line; and that all of these events should occur within one twenty-four hour day. Samuel Johnson, a moderate neoclassicist and the prime literary figure of his time, excused Shakespeare from these three unities. He found Romeo and Juliet to be one of Shakespeare's most pleasing dramas and found the plot varied, believable, and touching. He also thought Shakespeare correct to mix tragedy and comedy because real life is a mixture. Still, Johnson was one of those critics who felt that Shakespeare's work lacked sufficient moral emphasis. Ralli reports that Alexander Pope, another leading eighteenth-century writer and critic, theorized that Shakespeare's genius was dragged down by his involvement with actual theater production, implying that Shakespeare wrote to please the audiences instead of according to the structures of classical rhetoric.
Meanwhile, in Germany, August von Schlegel and others were finding Romeo and Juliet to be nearly perfect artistically. Schlegel said of this play: "It was reserved for Shakespeare to unite purity of heart and the glow of imagination, sweetness and dignity of manners and passionate violence, in one ideal picture." Back in England, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, considered a great nineteenth-century Shakespearean critic, began to share the German view. Coleridge suspected that Shakespeare's irregularities were actually evidence of psychological and philosophical genius. William Hazlitt, another Shakespearean critic of the English Romantic movement, was also an admirer of Schlegel. Hazlitt attributed more depth to the love of Romeo and Juliet than previous critics who found their love shallow and sentimental. Following Hazlitt's lead, by the end of the eighteenth century, Shakespearean scholarship began examining the playwright's techniques of characterization.
In the nineteenth century, criticism associated Shakespeare's genius with many intellectual movements and religious theories. Suddenly, Shakespeare no longer had faults but presented intriguing problems for the astute scholar to explain. In the twentieth century, New Critical scholars searched for something new to say, focusing on minute textual details in order to come up with new theories or interpretations. It is to the credit of the Romantics, however, that they returned to a discussion of the sheer enjoyment of the plays that audiences experienced. In the early 2000s, Shakespeare's works continued to be read, performed, and critiqued by scholars around the world. After all this time, criticism had become a blend of schools of thought and argued interpretations based on new information found by researchers or new approaches connected to advancing theoretical understanding. Generally speaking, though, it is safe to say that Shakespeare is considered the greatest playwright of all time.
Kerschen is a freelance writer and adjunct college English instructor. In this essay, Kerschen considers whether fate, the personal characteristics of Romeo and Juliet, or the demands of justice determine the outcome of the story.
Whenever a tragedy occurs, people want to know what went wrong. They look for the causes, the reasons for the end result. With Romeo and Juliet, the opinions have varied as literary criticism has taken different viewpoints through the years. Since William Shakespeare named the play for the two central characters, the immediate reaction is to look at them for fault. However, Shakespeare is never that simple, so a deeper analysis is warranted.
The great German Shakespearean critic, August von Schlagel, blamed fate for the tragedy, but in the sense that the cruel world is too terrible a place for a love as tender as that of Romeo and Juliet. Instruction books such as Kelley Griffith's Writing Essays about Literature very matter-of-factly blame fate as well by telling students that "if the plot is only part of a larger or ongoing story, then the characters are more likely to seem at the mercy of forces beyond their control." Therefore, since the plot of Romeo and Juliet is actually only one episode of a long feud, the young couple, according to Griffith, "cannot escape the undertow of their families' history." Even the powerful prince cannot prevent the tragedy, although he tries, because Romeo and Juliet are identified by fate as "star-crossed" and "death-marked."
It must be noted that the family feud is the reason that Romeo and Juliet's relationship is a "forbidden love." It should also be noted that the play begins with a fight scene between servants of the two families and ends with a peace agreement between Lords Montague and Capulet. The family feud could then be seen as a bookend structure around the lovers' story. Shakespeare did not create the story—he inherited it. The feud is part of the previous versions that he draws upon, in which the the feud serves as a complicating device that keeps the lovers apart. However, placing the feud first and last in the play, that is, in the most attention-getting spots for the audience, indicates that the feud is the most important facet of the story. Although this play is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, viewed from another angle, it may be that it is a story about hate; a story that is the final episode of a long-running saga. The love affair of Romeo and Juliet may be only a device to bring about an end to the feud and show how terrible the consequences can be of such violent and vindictive behavior. As a result, the blame according to this theory can be placed with the demands of justice.
Further support for this interpretation is the realization that violence runs throughout the story, linking each event. Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet party but his presence there fuels Tybalt's challenge to him the next day. That challenge leads to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. That violence is the reason that Romeo is banished. His banishment leads to the risky ruse of Juliet's death, which leads to Romeo coming to Juliet's family tomb. There, the family feud causes Paris to assume that Romeo has evil intent and the resultant fight costs Paris his life. The entrapment and despair that the feud has precipitated next results in the death of both Romeo and Juliet. With these events in mind, it would be easy to see this play as being about the feud, not the lovers. After all, Juliet says, "My only love sprung from my only hate!"
Many studies of the play remark on the relationship of love and hate. Could Juliet's love spring from hate because they are both intense passions? A nineteenth-century German scholar, Hermann Ulrici, said that the love of Romeo and Juliet had an ideal beauty but was condemned from the beginning because of its "overpowering and reckless" passion that disturbs "the internal harmony of the moral powers." Ulrici concluded that Shakespeare brings balance back to the situation through the deaths of the couple and the end of the feud. Following this interpretation, Denton Snider, an American scholar, later agreed that Romeo and Juliet are destroyed by their own love. He said that, just as with the passion of hate, the intensity of love's passion blots out reason and self-control and leads to destructive behavior. Snider also thought that there was a moral justice involved in that the fire of love that consumes Romeo and Juliet is the fire of sacrifice that is rewarded with peace between their families. Snider writes, "The lovers, Romeo and Juliet, die, but their death has in it for the living a redemption."
So, the argument comes back to the idea of justice. In 1905, American scholar Stopford Brooke wrote that the feud is the central event and cause of the tragedy and that the accord reached at the end was the goal of justice. Brooke counsels that discussions of fate as a determinant in the story would be more correct if the name "Justice" were given to fate.
DO I READ
- For those wanting an affordable, unabridged edition of all 37 plays and the sonnets, a good choice is William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, published by the Library of Literary Classics in 1990.
- The Essential Shakespeare has updated language for Shakespeare's greatest plays and a narrative guide. It was published in 2001 by Xlibris Corporation as part of its Essential Library series for the modern reader.
- Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was also an outstanding playwright and the author of Tamburlane and Dr. Faustus. A Preface to Marlowe is an examination of his plays and poetry. Written by Stevie Simkin, it was published by Longman in 2000.
- A modern-day musical version of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Norris Houghton published a book with Laure Leaf in 1965 that compares the two hugely successful versions of the story.
- Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was a reworking of the poem "Romeus and Juliet" by British poet Arthur Brooke. In February of 2005, AMS Press was expected to publish a copy of this poem in Brooke's "Romeus and Juliet": Being the Original of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," thus making this work newly available for comparison.
While Brooke and others reject the mere happenstance of fate for the more intentioned aim of justice, the conclusion is still that outside forces bring Romeo and Juliet to their doom. Another slight turn of the viewpoint sees justice as a moral lesson. In this light, there is the unsympathetic view that Romeo and Juliet are foolish children who are inevitably headed toward ruin because they do not consult or gain the approval of their parents for their marriage. Once again, the sentiment is that passion leads to head-strong, reckless behavior such as a refusal to obey constituted authority (one's parents, one's ruler). This results in a disruption of hierarchical order, and the tragedy works to reestablish that order through loss and grief. One's attention is drawn to the two central figures, and a quite natural reaction is that Romeo and Juliet are impetuous kids. In that case, this story can be interpreted as having a more universal message about young love and not just about the two young lovers in the play. Undoubtedly, it is the universality of Shakespeare's dramas that has made them classics, so perhaps Shakespeare's intent was not just to tell a story, but to give an example. If the theme were not timeless, then Leonard Bernstein might not have taken the story and transformed it into West Side Story. There are foolish teenagers in every generation, and there is senseless feuding in every culture.
Although it has been suggested that the love of Romeo and Juliet was too ideal to survive in this imperfect world, it would seem a shame to think of true, passionate love inevitably leading to a bad result. Perhaps the problem is not with the intensity of the emotion, but the inability to control and direct that emotion in a positive way. If that is the case, then Romeo and Juliet are doomed, not by the fates, not by the judgment of justice, but by their own character flaws. Shakespeare may have altered the classic form of the Greek tragedy, but that does not mean that he totally ignored the Greek formula for the tragically flawed hero.
It can be said that part of Romeo's character flaw is that he believes in the fates and therefore feels powerless to help himself. He has a bad feeling that going to the party may lead to eventual doom, but he goes anyway. He surrenders himself to the guidance of the gods not just out of piety but perhaps because he shirks responsibility. Killing Tybalt is a rash act that needed not have happened if Romeo had been better able to control himself. Instead, Romeo succumbs to an irrational and violent reaction and then feels sorry for himself as "fortune's fool" who has been pushed by fate into committing the terrible deed.
Juliet's nature is more practical and cautious, but her innocence and the intensity of her love are her downfall. Moverover, she lives in a family where her father does not know how to express his love except to make decisions for Juliet that he thinks are in her best interest. Her mother is too cold and distant to give her good advice, and her nurse, though she loves Juliet, is too crude to understand the delicacies and dangers of first love. Consequently, Juliet is not chastised by the critics as much as Romeo for being rash. As a young girl practically restricted to her house by the social customs of her time, she has very little control over anything anyway. Romeo, however, is older and has slightly more autonomy.
Is it fate, a need for justice, or the characters themselves who bring a tragic end to Romeo and Juliet ? Can it be a combination of all these factors? They seem to be inextricably mixed, despite the efforts of the critics to separate them. Ben Jonson and many others have admitted to Shakespeare's genius, even though they found other faults in his work. Scholars have commented on the depth of Shakespeare's understanding of human nature and the psychological aspects of his plays. Is it not possible, then, the Shakespeare was smart enough and sensitive enough to have picked up on all the nuances of a human situation and been able to incorporate highly complex emotions and interactions in Romeo and Juliet ? Shakespeare was aware of the conventions of his time and the expectations of his audience for certain elements of tragedy. But he was also innovative enough to blend some of the traditional aspects of tragedy with a much more intricate and multi-faceted dramatic structure that included an amazing depth of characterization. There is a reason that Shakespeare is considered the greatest dramatist of all time, and that reason may be that he was able, better than anyone else, to fill his plays with a richness that, four hundred years later, had scholars still mining its depths.
Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Romeo and Juliet, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on Shakespeare. In this essay, Aubrey discusses two film versions of the play.
Romeo and Juliet has always been one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. However, since the late 1960s, many more people have become familiar with the play through movie versions than through live performances in a theater. Franco Zeffirelli's lush Romeo and Juliet (1968) has proved enduringly popular. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann's frenetic William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was a big box-office hit for the Australian director.
The challenges faced by a director who wants to make a film of a Shakespeare play are immense. Not too long ago, Shakespearean purists rejected the very idea of filming Shakespeare. Shakespeare appeals to the ear, they said, whereas the cinema appeals to the eye, so there is a natural antipathy between the two forms. Film favors action, whereas in a Shakespeare play characters often give long speeches. These "talking heads" can be effective on stage, but filmgoers, conditioned by the conventions of the medium, become impatient or bored with them. The film director must therefore cut the original text considerably. Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, for example, contains only a third of the original text, and Zeffirelli was roundly criticized by some Shakespeare scholars for the drastic nature of the cuts, as well as for shifting lines within scenes and occasionally adding a line or half-line of dialogue. The critics complained that Shakespeare was not a hack screenwriter whose work could be chopped up and rearranged at will. But others noted that Zeffirelli had shown himself to be a master of his craft because he was able to compensate for the omitted text by recreating it visually.
Zeffirelli's stated intention was to popularize Romeo and Juliet by bringing it to a mass audience. With this goal in mind he decided to cast two young and unknown actors in the title roles. This was a break with tradition since Shakespeare's lovers were usually played by more experienced actors. In a 1936 film version, Norma Shearer, who was 36 years old, played Juliet, and Leslie Howard, 46 years old, played Romeo. In the play, Juliet is barely fourteen years old, and Romeo not much older. So, Zeffirelli chose Olivia Hussey, age fifteen, to play Juliet and Leonard Whiting, age seventeen, to play Romeo. Although older, more experienced actors might have been better able to deliver the lines, they would have found it hard to convey the extreme youth and innocence of the protagonists, which is central to the play and its repeated contrasts of youth and age.
Zeffirelli's film begins with a sober off-screen reading of the prologue by Sir Laurence Olivier as the camera pans across Verona as seen from high above. (Zeffirelli was a great admirer of Olivier's work and this was a deliberate reference to the opening of Olivier's 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V. ) The film then cuts to a busy, noisy, market square, and a wealth of visual detail piles up as the camera pans. It is clear from the beginning that this will be a spectacular film, one in which the setting itself becomes—as Zeffirelli believed it should—like a character in the action.
Although Zeffirelli was forced to cut much of the text, he succeeded in creating visual images that effectively convey Shakespeare's verbal images and themes. This can be seen from two examples, the first of which comes right at the beginning of the film. When the two Capulet servants enter, the camera shows only their legs, clad in tights, and their crotches, which display prominent codpieces. This image replaces the aggressive sexual talk in this scene in the play. After the initial sword fight, the sword-wearing Tybalt enters in a similar codpiece-emphasizing shot. The audience is being invited to identify male sexual energy and pride with the violence that pervades the play.
Interestingly, Zeffirelli does not present Romeo in this way. Faithful to Shakespeare's text, his Romeo is more contemplative, even dreamy, and unwilling to fight until his friend Mercutio is killed. Then, he gets dragged into the cycle of violence. Feminist readings of Romeo and Juliet often emphasize this point, arguing that the tragedy results not from the workings of fate, which is the traditional view of the play, but because of the rigidity of the male-dominated social order that Romeo at first resists but that eventually overwhelms him.
The second example of how visual imagery can present verbal themes occurs at the Capulet ball, as Jack Jorgens notes in his book Shakespeare on Film. At first, the dancers form two separate circles. After Romeo has set eyes on Juliet and joined the dance, the dancers form two concentric circles, with Romeo in the outer circle and Juliet in the inner one. This might seem on the surface to be an image of harmony, but it should be noted that the circles are moving in opposite directions—a clear allusion to the theme in the play of the inextricable linking of the opposites of love and hate, unity and separation.
Another highlight of Zeffirelli's film, and an example of how he makes up for textual cuts with visual treats, is the long duel sequence between Mercutio and Tybalt. This not only makes gripping cinema but also gives the director a chance to further characterize Mercutio and Tybalt. Killing Mercutio seems to have been the last thing on Tybalt's mind, and Mercutio's death is made even more poignant by the fact that right up to the end, his friends think it is just one more of his jokes.
The purists may have groaned at some of Zeffirelli's methods, but he was certainly vindicated at the box-office. The film became a worldwide success. It has been called a film for the 1960s, and indeed it did succeed in capturing the zeitgeist of those turbulent times of "flower power," sexual freedom, and anti-Vietnam war protests. The brief shot of the lovers nude anchors the film in that uninhibited sixties era, as does the very first shot of Romeo walking toward the camera carrying not a sword but a flower. "Make love not war," one of the slogans of the sixties counter-culture, is the subtext here.
If Zeffirelli's was a film for the sixties, Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was squarely aimed at the youth culture of the 1990s. The film begins (and also ends) with a shot of a small television in the middle of the darkened screen. On the television, a female news anchor reads the prologue as if it were a news item. This is a very different world than that revealed in the stately prologue read by Olivier in Zeffirelli's film. An off-screen male voice then repeats the prologue as a montage shows the main characters, and some of the words even appear on screen as well, as headlines in newspapers. The director clearly wants to ensure that the audience understands every word of the Shakespearean verse.
The film then leaps into the hot, combustible world of Verona Beach, with its feuding families and family-loyal gangs. Both the Capulets and Montagues appear to be gangland bosses dealing in real estate or construction, and their gun-toting minions, pumped up with testosterone, drive around town in convertibles, looking for trouble. The guns bear the brand name "Sword," thus neatly making sense of the Shakespearean text when the mayhem breaks out.
The opening sequence sets the pace, the camera keeps moving, and it hardly lets up throughout the film. Nor does the soundtrack, a mix of pop and classical, in which hip-hop bands such as Garbage and Radiohead rub shoulders with Mozart and Wagner.
As a director, Luhrmann is inventive and willing to take risks, which give the film an admirable freshness. He certainly has some fun with the Capulets' ball, creating it as a fancy dress extravaganza in which Mercutio is a high-stepping drag queen, Lady Capulet a comic turn, and poor Juliet a winged beauty stuck with the eager but inane suitor Paris, whose picture is shown, in a nice touch of directorial wit, on the front cover of Time magazine as "Bachelor of the Year." When Juliet escapes for a moment, she and Romeo gaze at each other through a fish tank.
Leonardo DiCaprio, selected for his appeal to teenagers, is an adequate, even charming Romeo who speaks the verse reasonably well, but it is Claire Danes's Juliet who leaves the deeper impression. She is a more mature, expressive and articulate Juliet than Olivia Hussey in the 1968 film. Her face registers a range of emotions with impressive subtlety. Danes conveys Juliet's practical nature, and she seems older than Romeo, even though this is not the case. DiCaprio's Romeo is a romantic and a dreamer. In both cases, this is quite true to Shakespeare's play.
Luhrmann also exercises his creativity in the traditional balcony scene, in which Romeo and Juliet first pledge their love. This Romeo, like every other Romeo for four hundred years, spies a light at the window and thinks he sees Juliet, but then who should poke her head out of the window but the disapproving Nurse. Meanwhile, Juliet just happens to be taking the elevator downstairs, and when the two finally meet face to face outside, she is so surprised she falls backwards into the swimming pool, taking Romeo with her. The scene that follows has all the innocent appeal that the text demands.
Like Zeffirelli, Luhrmann manages to convey Shakespeare's themes through some startling visual effects. In this all-action, quick-cutting movie, which was aimed at the supposedly short attention spans of teens, there are nonetheless two moments of utter stillness. The first is when the lovers are shown lying asleep together, and this foreshadows the moment they lie together in death at the end. The position of their bodies, with Juliet's right arm draped over Romeo's midriff, and both heads turned to the right, is almost exactly the same in both shots. As in the Shakespearean text, love and death are intimately, tragically, linked.
In the death scene, Luhrmann makes a dramatically effective innovation. Juliet shows signs of life several times as Romeo prepares to take the poison. He is looking elsewhere and fails to see her. Then, just as he downs the fatal mixture, Juliet wakes up fully, smiles and touches him on the cheek. It is too late, but Juliet utters her last speech, beginning "What's here?" while Romeo still lives, and he is still alive as she kisses him, hoping that some drop of poison is left on his lips that will dispatch her too. Romeo's final line, "Thus with a kiss I die," is spoken to a conscious, anguished Juliet, about a kiss initiated by her, not, as in the text, by Romeo on the lips of a Juliet he believes to be dead.
In the cutting of the text, Luhrmann makes different decisions than Zeffirelli. Luhrmann gives more insight into Romeo's state of mind at the beginning of the film. As in Shakespeare's play, Romeo is stuck in love-sick melancholy, pining for a woman named Rosaline who apparently scorns him. This is omitted in Zeffirelli's film, with the result that some of Romeo's lines after he has met Juliet are deprived of their full meaning. Luhrmann includes the scene in which Romeo buys poison from an old apothecary (omitted in the Zeffirelli film, which does not explain how Romeo acquired the poison). Both films omit the incident at the end of the play where Romeo kills Paris, presumably because neither director wanted the hero to have too much blood on his hands. Neither filmmaker fully brings out the reconciliation of the families at the end, although this is clearly announced in the prologue.
But carping over inevitable textual cuts should not obscure the fact that both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann brought a freshness of vision to a four-hundred-year-old play, translated it into a new medium, and in each case won for Shakespeare's tragic story a new generation of enthusiastic admirers.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Romeo and Juliet, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Dupler is a writer and has taught college English courses. In this essay, Dupler examines the concept of romantic love as it appears in one of the greatest love stories of all time.
The main characters of Romeo and Juliet are young "star-crossed" lovers who experience a love that lifts them into ecstatic extremes of emotions for a few days and then leads them to a tragic ending. The idea of love that appears in this play, that a certain type of romantic love can make people willing and able to transcend boundaries and constraints, has lived in Western literature for many centuries. The power of this idea of love has fueled the imaginations of readers and theater audiences for generations. For Romeo and Juliet, this type of love pits them against their parents and against their society, against their friends and confidants, and creates conflict with their religious leader. Their love ultimately brings them the possibility of exile and then helps to bring about their death. At the same time, their experience of love gives each of them the strength and desire to pursue their love against the odds and makes them willing to die for love. Although the play happens in the span of less than one week, both main characters undergo much change. In the end, the death of the young couple heals a longstanding rift between their families. In this play, romantic love is portrayed in a way that reveals its power and complexity; this love is at once invigorating, destructive, transformative, and redemptive.
In the beginning of the play, Romeo is heart-broken over a young lady, Rosaline, who does not return his affection. He is gloomy and withdrawn and claims that he is sinking "under love's heavy burden." Romeo at first describes love as a "madness" and as a "smoke raised from the fume of sighs." Romeo's friends, who wish to see him lifted above his melancholy, urge him to stop philosophizing about his lost love and to seek another young lady as a new object of his affections. Benvolio urges Romeo to heal himself of love's despair by "giving liberty unto thine eyes." Mercutio does the same when he tells Romeo to lessen his sensitivity and to "be rough with love." When Romeo meets Juliet, his vision of love changes profoundly. Later, Friar Laurence acknowledges this change when he remarks to Romeo that his feelings about Rosaline were for "doting, not for loving."
At the same time Romeo is dejected about unfulfilled love, Juliet, not quite fourteen years of age, is being urged by her nurse and her mother to consider marrying Count Paris. For both of these older women in Juliet's life, what matters most is a socially advantageous marriage, and this marriage is being arranged before Juliet has even seen her suitor. Juliet, however, seems to intuit that this type of pairing will not sustain her; she promises her guardians that she will view, but may not like, her arranged suitor. Already, for both Romeo and Juliet, there is a sense that there is a type of love that goes beyond the common, that is special and worth patience and suffering.
Then comes the scene in which Romeo sees Juliet for the first time. He is instantly enamored and entranced, and his melancholy and despair are quickly transformed. Not long before, Romeo had been speaking of Rosaline's charms but upon seeing Juliet, he claims he "ne'er saw true beauty till this night." From the beginning, there is also something ephemeral and impractical about this love. Romeo sees a "beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear." For Juliet, this sudden love is complicated as well, and she exclaims, "My only love, sprung from my only hate."
The romantic love between Romeo and Juliet occurs with a glance and enters them through their eyes. This is rich symbolism. First, romantic love in this way becomes individualized and has nothing to do with cultural constraints or the advice of mentors. This love seizes the couple with a recognition that seems to go beyond them. This "passion lends a power" that awakens each of them and energizes them. For Romeo, this awakening increases his sense of beauty and his feelings for the world as evidenced in his poetic declarations to Juliet. Romeo's language overflows with a sudden awareness of the beauty of the world and the new importance that has been added to his life. Romeo resolves that even "stony limits cannot hold love out." In addition to the enticements of the attraction, each lover feels a danger in this type of loving. Romeo later states to Juliet that "there lies more peril in thine eye" than twenty swords, while Juliet worries that their love is "too rash, too unadvised, too sudden."
For Juliet, this new feeling strengthens her against the cultural forces that would deny her love and freedom. She pledges that she would "no longer be a Capulet" if such denial would be necessary to sustain her love. Juliet's new feelings of love awaken her to the difficulties of her situation as a young woman in her culture. It is a rough and male-dominated culture. From the beginning, minor characters bicker and threaten violence, with one serving man declaring that women are the "weaker vessels" and another one bragging about "cruelty to the maids." It is a world of long-standing feuds and quick aggression. The friar, or the religious authority, at one point refers to fear as "womanish" and tells Romeo that his tears, or his emotional feelings, are "womanish," implying a disrespect for both the feminine and for Romeo's romantic feelings. Theirs is a world where Juliet's kind of strength is not honored, as when Friar Laurence tells Romeo, "women may fall when there's no strength in men."
Juliet struggles to honor her feelings of love for Romeo. Her closest friend in the play, the nurse, argues against Juliet's love for Romeo and tries to convince her to consider the arranged marriage with Paris. The nurse tells Juliet, "you know not how to choose a man," capitulating to the demands of male authority rather than to the demands of the feminine heart. Juliet also faces tremendous pressure from her parents, who will not allow her individuality and freedom when it comes to considering marriage. Her father uses despicable and shaming language when trying to force her to marry Paris. He threatens to exile her to the streets, calling her "unworthy," "a curse," and a "disobedient wretch." In keeping with the patriarchal arrangment of power, Juliet's father treats Paris with respect and deference. Later, Capulet denigrates Juliet's freedom of choice by referring to it as a "peevish self-willed harlotry." Knowing her place in this society, Juliet's mother refuses to make a stand for her daughter's freedom, pressuring her to accept her father's demands. Juliet despairs over this outward pressure, wondering why fate was so hard on "so soft a subject" as herself. Finally, the force of love prevails within Juliet. Although outwardly she denies her truth and agrees to marry Paris, inwardly she knows that her love for Romeo has given her intense resolve, or the "power to die" if necessary.
Romeo also struggles with the harshness of the world around him. When Romeo is at his most vulnerable and emotional, his friends urge him to quickly move out of his moodiness into the world of action. For Mercutio, love is nothing more than a "fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh." Even Romeo doubts his new feelings of peace and reconciliation that his love for Juliet has brought to him. After Romeo's failed attempt to make peace with Tybalt, Mercutio is slain, and Romeo is unable to remain in his peaceful state. Referring to Juliet, he shouts, "Thy beauty hath made me effeminate." This failure to respect the "effeminate" feelings he experiences with Juliet is Romeo's undoing; when he slays Tybalt in an uncontrolled rage, he sets into motion the tragic ending of the story.
Romeo is not the only character who cannot fully transform or overcome the side of his nature that betrays or fails to support the noble qualities of romantic love. Several characters in the play add their parts to the tragic ending. Mercutio, despite Romeo's peaceful influence, stirs up the fight scene in which he is slain and leads to Romeo's banishment. Juliet's parents, rather than respecting her free will and her true feelings, work against her and force her into what she believes is a hopeless situation. Juliet, constrained by her society, is unable to stand up for her love of Romeo; she lies when she accepts her parents' demands to marry Paris. In a sense, society fails when the letter from the friar to Romeo is not delivered, which would inform Romeo of the ploy to save the young couple. Friar Laurence plays an integral and yet morally ambiguous role in the play. The friar respects and acknowledges the love between Romeo and Juliet when he agrees to secretly marry them. However, by doing this in secret, he subverts the established secular order. In the end, rather than mediating from his position of religious authority, the friar devises a secretive plan that goes wrong and leads to the death of the young lovers.
Love is so powerful for Romeo and Juliet because it takes on spiritual dimensions. Romeo mentions that he will be "new baptized" by their meeting and claims that his love for Juliet is actually "my soul that calls upon my name." Juliet acknowledges the "infinite" qualities inherent in her feelings. Love, or the "religion of mine eye," as Romeo has called it earlier, creates powerful forces in each. Juliet acknowledges that "God joined my heart and Romeo's." When Romeo is banished from the city for killing Tybalt, he claims to the friar that banishment is worse than death because it would be banishment away from Juliet. Again, Romeo seems to be mixing religious feelings with his feelings of love for Juliet. He states that his banishment would be "purgatory, torture, hell itself" and that "Heaven is here, where Juliet lives." In the Biblical sense, hell is the absence of God, while for Romeo, hell now becomes the absence of love as he has mixed his spiritual longings with his romantic ones. The death of the lovers occurs in a vault, and although the lovers themselves fail to resurrect, as was the friar's plan, a new peace is brought with the reconciliation of the warring families.
Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on Romeo and Juliet, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following excerpt, Lennox argues that Shakespeare did not base Romeo and Juliet on Bandello's Ninth Novel —what she calls the original Italian story—but worked from an English translation or from Pierre Boaistuau's French version.
On the Incidents in the [Ninth Novel of Bandello], Shakespear has formed the fable of his Romeo and Juliet, one of the most regular of all his Tragedies.… [Yet] I think it will not be difficult to prove, or at least to make it appear highly probable, that he never saw, and did not understand the Original, but copied from a French Translation extant in his Time; or, what is equally probable, from an English Translation of that French one, both very bad, in some Places rather paraphrased than translated; in others, the Author's Sense absolutely mistaken, many Circumstances injudiciously added, and many more altered for the worse, or wholly omitted. The Story of Romeo and Juliet may be found translated in a Book, entitled Histoires Tragiques extraictes des Oeuvres de Bandel [by Pierre Boaistuau].… A literal Translation of this Story, from the French, is in the second Tome of the Palace of Pleasure …, translated into English by William Painter, from several Greek, Latin, Spanish and Italian Authors.… (pp. 89–90)
Had Shakespear ever seen the original Novel in Bandello, he would have been sensible that the Translation of it is extremely bad: That he did not see it, must be owing to nothing else than his not understanding Italian; for can it be supposed, that having resolved to write a Tragedy upon the Subject of an Italian Story, he would rather chuse to copy from a bad Translation of that Story, than follow the Original.
This Supposition would be as absurd as to imagine a Man would slake his Thirst with the muddy Waters of a polluted Stream, when the clear Spring, from whence it issues, is within his Reach. That Shakespear consulted the Translator, appears from his having followed him in all the Alterations he has made in the Original; some few of which I shall take notice of, and shew that in some Places he has not only taken Circumstances from the Translator, but also made Use of his Thoughts and Expressions. (p. 90)
The Translator makes Juliet, upon hearing that her Cousin is slain by Romeo, break into Complaints and Reproaches against her Husband, and after she has for some Time given a Loose to her Resentment, her returning Tenderness for Romeo forces her to repent of the injurious Words which, in the first Emotions of her Grief and Rage, she had uttered against him; she condemns herself for her too hasty Censure, and begs Pardon of the absent Romeo for her unkind Reproaches.
There is not the least Foundation for all this in the Original. Bandello every where shews Juliet so much engrossed by her extreme Passion for Romeo, that all other Affections, all Tyes of Consanguinity, all filial Duty and Obedience is swallowed up in the Immensity of her Love; and therefore when the News of Tibbald's Death and Romeo's Banishment is brought to her at the same Time, she does not weep for the Death of her Cousin, but for the Banishment of her Husband. (p. 91)
[Juliet's] superior Affecion for Romeo is also painted by Shakespear in that Speech wherein she laments his Banishment, and acknowledges it is a greater Misfortune to her than the Death of all her Relations would be; but both these Circumstances the Translator has in common with Bandello: He differs from him in making Juliet complain of her Husband's Cruelty in killing her Cousin, and Shakespear has exactly followed that Hint. (p. 92)
In Bandello, the Friar, who is sent with the Letters to Romeo, is detained at a Monastery in Mantua: The Translator makes him be stopped at his own Convent in Verona; which last is followed by Shakespear.
There is no Mention made in the Original of the Apothecary, of whom Romeo buys the Poison; there we are only told that he had mortal Drugs in his Possession, which was given him by a Spoletto Mountebank in Mantua, long before.
The Translator makes him walk through the Streets in Mantua in order to find a Person that would sell him such a Composition, and accordingly he goes into the Shop of an Apothecary, whose Poverty is observable from the miserable Furniture of it; and he for a Bribe of fifty Ducats furnishes him with a strong Poison.
Shakespear has not only copied this Circumstance from the Translator, but also borrowed some Hints from him in his celebrated Description of the miserable Shop.
These few Instances are sufficient to prove that Shakespear took the Incidents on which he has founded his Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet from the Translation; and consequently that he did not peruse, because he did not understand, the original Italian.
His Management of the Tomb Scene, and the Death of the two Lovers, is entirely copied from the Translator, who differs greatly from the Original in those Circumstances. The plain and simple Narration of that melancholy Event in Bandello is more natural, more pathetic, and fitter to excite the Passions of Pity and Terror, than the Catastrophe of the Tragedy, as managed by Shakespear, who has kept close by the Translator.
In Bandello, when Pietro informs his Master of Juliet's Death, Astonishment and Grief for some Moments deprive him of Speech; recovering a little, he breaks into Complaints and Self-Reproaches; then, wild with Despair, he flies to his Sword, and endeavours to kill himself, but being prevented by his Servant, he sinks into an Excess of silent Sorrow, and, while he weeps, calmly deliberates on the Means he should use to die in the Monument with Juliet.
The Translator makes Romeo, upon receiveing the fatal News, resolve immediately to poison himself; and for that Purpose Romeo dissembles his Affliction, and tells his Servant he will go and walk about the Streets of Mantua to divert himself; but his real Design is to procure some Poison, which having purchased of a poor Apothecary, he goes immediately to Verona.
Shakespear has here copied the Translator exactly, and makes Romeo in the Midst of his Affliction for the Death of his Wife, and while the horrible Design of killing himself was forming in his Mind, give a ludicrous Detail of the miserable Furniture of a poor Apothecary's Shop; a Description, however beautiful in itself, is here so ill timed, and so inconsistent with the Condition and Circumstances of the Speaker, that we cannot help being shocked at the Absurdity, though we admire the Beauty of the Imagination.
There appears so much Contrivance and Method in Romeo's Design of buying Poison, and going to Verona to drink it in the Monument of his Wife, that he might expire near her, that we can hardly suppose it to be the spontaneous Effect of a sudden and furious Transport of Grief. In the Original therefore we see him not taking this Resolution till the first violent Sallies of his Sorrow are abated; till after, in a sudden Transport of Despair, he had ineffectually endeavoured to fall upon his Sword; but while he forms that fatally regulated Design, he is dissolved in Tears, and plunged in a calm and silent Excess of Sorrow. (pp. 93–5)
Romeo, in the French and English Translations, dies before Juliet awakes, and the Friar and Peter enter the monument the same Moment that he expires; then Juliet awaking, they press her to leave the Monument, but she refusing, and they both being alarmed at the Approach of some Soldiers, cowardly run away, and Juliet, left alone, stabs herself with a Dagger.
Shakespear has copied all these Circumstances from the Translator. Romeo dies in the Play before Juliet awakes; the Friar fearing to be discovered by the Watch, as he calls it, but there is no such Establishment in any of the cities of Italy, presses her to leave the monument; she refuses; he runs away; and she stabs herself with Romeo's Dagger.
In Bandello, while the dying Husband is holding her lifeless Body, as he supposes, in his Arms, and shedding his last Tears for her Death, she awakes; she opens her Eyes, gazes on him, and entreats him to carry her out of the Monument.
Romeo is for some Moments lost in a Transport of Surprize and Joy to see her alive, but reflecting that he is poisoned, that he must shortly die and leave her, his Agonies return with double Force: How pathetically does he complain of his miserable Destiny! With what tender Extasy does he congratulate her Return to Life! With what affecting Sorrow lament his approaching Death, which must tear him from her! nor is the Astonishment, the Grief, and wild Despair of the wretched Juliet less beautifully imagined. (pp. 97–8)
Had Shakespear ever seen the Italian Author, these striking Beauties would not have escaped him; and, if by copying the Translation only, he has given us a very affecting Tragedy, what might we not have expected, had he drawn his Hints from the beautiful Original. (p. 99)
There is not one Incident of Shakespear's Invention in his Play of Romeo and Juliet, except the Death of Paris by Romeo: This Character might have been very well spared in the Drama; his Appearance is of little Use, and his Death of still less, except to divert our Compassion from the two principal Persons in the Play, whose Deaths make up the Catastrophe of the Tragedy.
Paris seems only introduced to fall by the Hands of Romeo; and why must our Compassion of the unfortunate Romeo be suspended by the undeserved Fate of Paris? What Necessity is there for making Romeo, who is all along represented as an amiable and virtuous Character, imbrue his Hands in the Blood of an innocent Youth, (whose Death is of no Consequence) just before he expires?
This Incident, however, is the only one of the Poet's Invention throughout the Play: The Fable and all the Characters, except Mercutio, were formed to his Hands. (pp. 99–100)
Charlotte Lennox, "Observations on the Use Shakespear Has Made of the Foregoing Novel in His Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," in Shakespear Illustrated; or, the Novels and Histories, on Which the Plays of Shakespear Are Founded, Vol. I, AMS Press, 1973, pp. 89–100.
Stopford A. Brooke
In the following excerpt, Brooke argues that the feud between the families is the central event in Romeo and Juliet, stating that the play depicts the process by which "Justice" achieves harmony and reconciliation through the sacrifice of the innocent lovers.
In the first four scenes [of Romeo and Juliet], so long and careful is [Shakespeare's] preparation, all the elements of a coming doom are contained and shaped—the ancient feud, deepening in hatred from generation to generation, the fiery Youth-in-arms of whom Tybalt is the concentration; the intense desire of loving in Romeo, which thinks it has found its true goal in Rosaline but has not, and which, therefore, leaps into it when it is found in Juliet; the innocence of Juliet whom Love has never touched, but who is all trembling for his coming; the statesman's anger of the Prince with the quarrel of the houses; and finally, the boredom of the people, whose quiet is disturbed, with the continual interruption of their business by the rioters—
Clubs, bills, and partizans! Strike! beat them down!
Down with the Capulets, down with the Montagues!
[I. i. 73–4]
a cry which seems to ring through the whole play. It is impossible this should continue. Justice will settle it, or the common judgment of mankind will clear the way.
The quarrel of the houses is the cause of the tragedy, and Shakespeare develops it immediately. It begins with the servants in the street; it swells into a roar when the masters join in, when Tybalt adds to it his violent fury, when the citizens push in—till we see the whole street in multitudinous turmoil, and the old men as hot as the young.… Then, when the Prince enters, his stern blame of both parties fixes into clear form the main theme of the play. He collects together, in his indignant reproaches, the evils of the feud and the certainty of its punishment. We are again forced to feel that the overruling Justice which develops states will intervene. (pp. 35–6)
[By the end of Romeo and Juliet, Justice] has done her work. She has passed through a lake of innocent blood to her end. Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris, Romeo, Juliet, Lady Montague, have all died that she might punish the hate between the houses. Men recognize at last that a Power beyond them has been at work. 'A greater power,' cries the Friar to Juliet, 'than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents' [V. iii. 153–54]. The Friar explains the work of Justice to the Prince; the Prince applies the punishment to the guilty—
Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love;
And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace of kinsmen; all are punish'd.
[V. iii. 291–95]
The reconciliation follows. That is the aim of Justice. The long sore of the state is healed. But at what a price? We ask, was it just or needful to slay so many for this end? Could it not have been otherwise done? And Shakespeare, deeply convinced, even in his youth, of the irony of life, deeply affected by it as all his tragedies prove, has left us with that problem to solve, in this, the first of his tragedies; and has surrounded the problem with infinite pity and love, so that, if we are troubled, it may be angry, with the deeds of the gods, we are soothed and uplifted by our reverent admiration for humanity.
Shakespeare could not tell, nor can we, how otherwise it might have been shaped; but to be ignorant is not to be content. We are left by the problem in irritation. If the result the gods have brought about be good, the means they used seem clumsy, even cruel, and we do not understand. This is a problem which incessantly recurs in human life, and as Shakespeare represented human life, it passes like a questioning spirit through several of his plays. I do not believe that he began any play with the intention of placing it before us, much less of trying to solve it. But as he wrote on, the problem emerged under his hand, and he became aware of it. He must have thought about it and there are passages in Romeo and Juliet which suggest such thinking, and such passages are more frequent in the after tragedies. But with that strange apartness of his from any personal share in human trouble, which is like that of a spirit outside humanity—all the more strange because he represented that trouble so vividly ann felt for it so deeply—he does not attempt to solve or explain the problem. He contents himself with stating the course of events which constitute it, and with representing how human nature, specialised in distinct characters, feels when entangled in it.
This is his general way of creating, and it is the way of the great artist who sets forth things as they are, but neither analyses nor moralises them. But this does not prevent any dominant idea of the artist, such as might arise in his imagination from contemplation of his subject, pervading the whole of his work, even unconsciously arranging it and knitting it into unity. Such an idea seems to rule this play. It seems from the way the events are put by Shakespeare and their results worked out, that he conceived a Power behind the master-event who caused it and meant the conclusion to which it was brought. This Power might be called Destiny or Nemesis—terms continually used by writers on Shakespeare, but which seem to me to assume in his knowledge modes of thought of which he was unaware. What he does seem to think is; That, in the affairs of men, long-continued evil, such as the hatreds of the Montagues and Capulets or the Civil Wars in England, was certain to be tragically broken up by the suffering it caused, and to be dissolved in a reconciliation which should confess the evil and establish its opposite good; and that this was the work of a divine Justice which, through the course of affairs, made known that all hatreds—as in this case and in the Civil Wars—were against the Universe. We may call this Power Fate or Destiny. It is better to call it, as the Greek did, Justice. This is the idea which Shakespeare makes preside over Romeo and Juliet, and over the series of plays which culminates in Richard III. (pp. 63–5)
[In] Romeo and Juliet the work of Justice is done through the sorrow and death of the innocent, and the evil Justice attacks is destroyed through the sacrifice of the guiltless. Justice as Shakespeare saw her, moving to issues which concern the whole, takes little note of the sufferings of individuals save to use them, if they are good and loving, for her great purposes, as if that were enough to make them not only acquiescent but happy. Romeo and Juliet, who are quite guiltless of the hatreds of their clans and who embody the loving-kindness which would do away with them, are condemned to mortal pain and sorrow of death. Shakespeare accepted this apparent injustice as the work of Justice; and the impression made at the end upon us, which impression does not arise from the story itself, but steals into us from the whole work of Shakespeare on the story, is that Justice may have done right, though we do not understand her ways. The tender love of the two lovers and its beauty, seen in their suffering, awaken so much pity and love that the guilty are turned away from their evil hatreds, and the evil itself is destroyed. And with regard to the sufferers themselves, there is that—we feel with Shakespeare—in their pain and death which not only redeems and blesses the world they have left, but which also lifts them into that high region of the soul where suffering and death seem changed into joy and life. (pp. 67–8)
Stopford A. Brooke, "Romeo and Juliet," in On Ten Plays of Shakespeare, Constable, 1925, pp. 35–70.
Richard G. Moulton
In the following excerpt, Moulton argues that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare was not concerned with depicting the processes of moral retribution, as he had done in other plays, but was composing a tragedy of accident as well as destiny.
I believe that no mistake has done more to distort Shakespeare criticism than the assumption on the part of so many commentators that retribution is an invariable principle. Their favourite maxims are that the deed returns upon the doer, that character determines fate. But these specious principles need careful examination. If the meaning be merely this, that the deed often returns upon the doer, that character is one of the forces determining fate, then these are profound truths. But if, as is usually the case, there is the suggestion that such maxims embody invariable laws—that the deed always returns upon the doer, that character and nothing but character determines the fate of individuals—then the principles are false; false alike to life itself and to the reflection of life in poetry. (p. 46)
[One] of the principles underlying the exceptions to the universality of retribution, one of the forces that will be found to come between individual character and individual fate, is that which is expressed by the term Accident. I know that to many of my readers this word will be a stumbling-block; those especially who are new to ethical studies are apt to consider that their philosophical reputation will be compromised if they consent to recognise the possibility of accidents. But such a feeling rests upon a confusion between physics and morals. In the physical world, which is founded upon universality and the sum of things, we make it a preliminary axiom that every event has a cause, known or yet to be discovered. But in the world of morals, where individual responsibility comes in, it is obvious that events must happen to individuals the causes of which are outside individual control. (pp. 49–50)
The moral system of Shakespeare gives full recognition to accident as well as retribution; the interest of plot at one point is the moral satisfaction of nemesis, where we watch the sinner found out by his sin; it changes at another point to the not less moral sensation of pathos, our sympathy going out to the suffering which is independent of wrong doing. A notable illustration of the latter is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. In this play Shakespeare engages our sympathies for two young and attractive lives, and proceeds to bring down upon them wave after wave of calamity, which come upon them not as the result of what Romeo and Juliet have done, but from accident and circumstances not within their control. Instead of wrong and retribution, we have in this case innocence and pathos. Here however a misconception must be avoided. To say that Romeo and Juliet are innocent is not the same thing as to say that they are perfect. No one cares to discuss whether these young souls had not their full share of original sin; nor is it relevant to inquire whether two different persons in their situation might or might not have acted differently. The essential point is that in the providential dispensations of Shakespeare's story, the tragedy overwhelming the lovers is brought about, not by error on their part, but by circumstances outside their control, by what is to them external accident. (pp. 50–1)
In the dim background of the story, for those who care to look for it, may be seen a providence of retribution: evil has brought forth evil, where the feud of the parents has caused the death of the children. This retribution is seen balanced by its opposite, for the heroism of Juliet is a good that but brings forth evil. But in the foreground, at every turn of the movement, we see emphasised the strange work of providence by which accident mocks the best concerted schemes of man; pity, not terror, is the emotion of the poem. It is accident which has brought Romeo and Juliet together, and they have loved without sin; accident has converted Romeo's self-restraint into the entanglement of exile from his bride; the smallest of accidents has been sufficient to turn deep wisdom and devoted heroism into a tragedy that engulfs three innocent lives [Romeo, Juliet, and Paris].
There are certain passages of the play into which have been read suggestions of folly and its penalty, but which in truth are entirely in tune with the prevailing impression of irresistible circumstance. When Juliet says—
I have no joy of this contract to-night;
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, 'It lightens';—
[II. ii. 117–20]
and Romeo answers—
I am afeard,
Being in night, all this is but a dream,
Too flattering-sweet to be substantial;—
[II. ii. 139–41]
the two are not making confession of faulty rashness: it is only the common thought of new-born love, that it is too good to be true. Similarly, when the Friar says to Romeo—
These violent delights have violent ends …
Therefore love moderatety;—
[II. v. 9, 14]
he is not blaming, but fearing: his own action shows that this is the sense. The Friar justly rebukes the desperate fury of Romeo at the sentence of banishment; but this fault of Romeo does not affect the movement of events, for he does not act upon his fury, but on the contrary lays it aside, and submits to the counsel of his spiritual adviser—the counsel which eventually turns to his ruin.
On the other hand, it may be said that in this more than in any other play Shakespeare comes near to being a commentator on himself and to giving us his own authority for the true interpretation. In the prologue it is the author who speaks: this opening of the plot exhibits, not sin and its consequences, but a suggestion of entangling circumstance; when he speaks of the "fatal loins" of the parents, the "starcross'd lovers," and their "misadventured piteous overthrows" [Prologue, 5, 6, 7], Shakespeare is using the language of destiny and pathos. For what is spoken in the scenes the speakers alone are responsible; yet a succession of striking passages has the effect of carrying on the suggestion of the prologue—dramatic foreshadowings, unconscious finger-pointings to the final tragedy, just like the shocks of omen that in ancient drama brought out the irony of fate.…
[In these passages] Destiny itself seems to be speaking through the lips of the dramatis persona. In their more ordinary speech the personages of the play reiterate the one idea of fortune and fate. Romeo after the fall of Tybalt feels that he is "fortune's fool" [III. i. 136]. The Friar takes the same view:
Romeo, come forth; come forth, thou fearful man:
Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts,
And thou art wedded to calamity;
[III. iii. 1–3]
he sees in the banished husband a prodigy of ill luck, misfortune has fallen in love with him. Juliet feels the same burden of hostile fate:
Alack, alack, that heaven should practice stratagems
Upon so soft a subject as myself!
[III. v. 209–10]
Romeo recognises the slain Paris as "one writ with me in sour misfortune's book" [V. iii. 82]; his last fatal act is a struggle "to shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh" [V. iii. 111–12]. The wisdom of the Friar receives the detention of the messenger as "unhappy fortune" [V. ii. 17]; in the final issue of events he tremblingly feels how "an unkind hour is guilty of this lamentable chance," how "a greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents" [V. iii. 145–46, 153–54]. The note struck by the prologue rings in the final couplet of the poem: no moral lesson is read, but the word pathos is found in its simple English equivalent—
For never was a story of more WOE
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
[V. iii. 309–10]
Richard G. Moulton, "Innocence and Pathos: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," in The Moral System of Shakespeare: A Popular Illustration of Fiction as the Experimental Side of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1903, pp. 46–64.
In the following excerpt, Hazlitt claims that in its mixture of young and old, its conflicting views of love and sexual relationships, Romeo and Juliet "presents a beautiful coup-d'oeil of the progress of human life.
It has been said of Romeo and Juliet by a great critic, that "whatever is most intoxicating in the odour of a southern spring, languishing in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous in the first opening of the rose, is to be found in this poem." The description is true; and yet it does not answer to our idea of the play. For if it has the sweetness of the rose, it has its freshness too; if it has the languor of the nightingale's song, it has also its giddy transport; if it has the softness of a southern spring, it is as glowing and as bright. There is nothing of a sickly and sentimental cast. Romeo and Juliet are in love, but they are not love-sick. Every thing speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high and healthy pulse of the passions: the heart beats, the blood circulates and mantles throughout. Their courtship is not an insipid interchange of sentiments lip-deep, learnt at secondhand from poems and plays,—made up of beauties of the most shadowy kind …, of evanescent smiles, and sighs that breathe not, of delicacy that shrinks from the touch, and feebleness that scarce supports itself, an elaborate vacuity of thought, and an artificial dearth of sense, spirit, truth, and nature! It is the reverse of all this. It is Shakespear all over, and Shakespear when he was young.
We have heard it objected to Romeo and Juliet, that it is founded on an idle passion between a boy and a girl, who have scarcely seen and can have but little sympathy or rational esteem for one another, who have had no experience of the good or ills of life, and whose raptures or despair must be therefore equally groundless and fantastical. Whoever objects to the youth of the parties in this play as "to unripe and crude" to pluck the sweets of love, and wishes to see a first-love carried on into a good old age, and the passions taken at the rebound, when their force is spent, may find all this done in the Stranger and in other German plays, where they do things by contraries, and transpose nature to inspire sentiment and create philosophy. Shakespeare proceeded in a more straight-forward, and, we think, effectual way. He did not endeavour to extract beauty from wrinkles, or the wild throb of passion from the last expiring sigh of indifference.… It was not his way. But he has given a picture of human life, such as it is in the order of nature. He has founded the passion of the two lovers not on the pleasures they had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had not experienced. All that was to come of life was theirs. At that untried source of promised happiness they slaked their thirst, and the first eager draught made them drunk with love and joy. They were in full possession of their senses and their affections. Their hopes were of air, their desires of fire. Youth is the season of love, because the heart is then first melted in tenderness from the touch of novelty, and kindled to rapture, for it knows no end of its enjoyments or its wishes. Desire has no limit but itself. Passion, the love and expectation of pleasure, is infinite, extravagant, inexhaustible, till experience comes to check and kill it. Juliet exclaims on her first interview with Romeo—
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep.
[II. ii. 133–34]
And why should it not? What was to hinder the thrilling tide of pleasure, which had just gushed from her heart, from flowing on without stint or measure, but experience which she was yet without? What was to abate the transport of the first sweet sense of pleasure, which her heart and her senses had just tasted, but indifference which she was yet a stranger to? What was there to check the ardour of hope, of faith, of constancy, just rising in her breast, but disappointment which she had not yet felt? As are the desires and the hopes of youthful passion, such is the keenness of its disappointments, and their baleful effect. Such is the transition in this play from the highest bliss to the lowest despair, from the nuptial couch to an untimely grave. The only evil that even in apprehension befalls the two lovers is the loss of the greatest possible felicity; yet this loss is fatal to both, for they had rather part with life than bear the thought of surviving all that had made life dear to them. In all this, Shakespear has but followed nature, which existed in his time, as well as now. The modern philosophy, which reduces the whole theory of the mind to habitual impressions, and leaves the natural impulses of passion and imagination out of the account, had not then been discovered; or if it had, would have been little calculated for the uses of poetry. (pp. 83–5) This play presents a beautiful coup-d'oeil of the progress of human life. In thought it occupies years, and embraces the circle of the affections from childhood to old age. Juliet has become a great girl, a young woman since we first remember her a little thing in the idle prattle of the nurse. Lady Capulet was about her age when she became a mother, and old Capulet somewhat impatiently tells his younger visitors,
I've seen the day,
That I have worn a visor, and could tell
A whispering tale in a fair lady's ear,
Such as would please: 'tis gone, 'tis gone, 'tis gone.
[I. v. 21–4]
Thus one period of life makes way for the following, and one generation pushes another off the stage. One of the most striking passages to shew the intense feeling of youth in this play is Capulet's invitation to Paris to visit his entertainment.
At my poor house, look to behold this night
Earth-treading stars that make dark heav'n light;
Such comfort as do lusty young men feel
When well-apparel'd April on the heel
Of limping winter treads, even such delight
Among fresh female-buds shall you this night
Inherit at my house.
[I. ii. 24–30]
The feelings of youth and of the spring are here blended together like the breath of opening flowers. Images of vernal beauty appear to have floated before the author's mind, in writing this poem, in profusion. Here is another of exquisite beauty, brought in more by accident than by necessity. Montague declares of his son smit with a hopeless passion, which he will not reveal—
But he, his own affection's counsellor,
Is to himself so secret and so close,
So far from sounding and discovery,
As is the bud bit with an envious worm,
Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,
Or dedicate his beauty to the sun.
[I. i. 147–53]
This casual description is as full of passionate beauty as when Romeo dwells in frantic fondness on "the white wonder of his Juliet's hand." The reader may, if he pleases, contrast the exquisite pastoral simplicity of the above lines with the gorgeous description of Juliet when Romeo first sees her at her father's house, surrounded by company and artificial splendour.
What lady's that which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright;
Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Æthiop's ear.
[I. v. 41–6]
Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, [Schlegel] says, "It was reserved for Shakespeare to unite purity of heart and the glow of imagination, sweetness and dignity of manners and passionate violence, in one ideal picture." The character [of Juliet] is indeed one of perfect truth and sweetness. It has nothing forward, nothing coy, nothing affected or coquettish about it;—it is a pure effusion of nature. It is as frank as it is modest, for it has no thought that it wishes to conceal. It reposes in conscious innocence on the strength of its affections. Its delicacy does not consist in coldness and reserve, but in combining warmth of imagination and tenderness of heart with the most voluptuous sensibility. Love is a gentle flame that rarifies and expands her whole being. (pp. 89–90)
The tragic part of this character is of a piece with the rest. It is the heroic founded on tenderness and delicacy. Of this kind are her resolution to follow the Friar's advice, and the conflict in her bosom between apprehension and love when she comes to take the sleeping poison.…
Romeo is Hamlet in love. There is the same rich exuberance of passion and sentiment in the one, that there is of thought and sentiment in the other. Both are absent and self-involved, both live out of themselves in a world of imagination. Hamlet is abstracted from every thing; Romeo is abstracted from every thing but his love, and lost in it.… He is himself only in his Juliet; she is his only reality, his heart's true home and idol. The rest of the world is to him a passing dream. (p. 90)
Romeo's passion for Juliet is not a first love: it succeeds and drives out his passion for another mistress, Rosaline, as the sun hides the stars. This is perhaps an artifice (not absolutely necessary) to give us a higher opinion of the lady, while the first absolute surrender of her heart to him enhances the richness of the prize. The commencement, progress, and ending of his second passion are however complete in themselves, not injured if they are not bettered by the first. The outline of the play is taken from an Italian novel; but the dramatic arrangement of the different scenes between the lovers, the more than dramatic interest in the progress of the story, the development of the characters with time and circumstances, just according to the degree and kind of interest excited, are not inferior to the expression of passion and nature.… Of the passionate scenes in this tragedy, that between the Friar and Romeo when he is told of his sentence of banishment, that between Juliet and the Nurse when she hears of it, and of the death of her cousin Tybalt (which bear no proportion in her mind, when passion after the first shock of surprise throws its weight into the scale of her affections) and the last scene at the tomb, are among the most natural and overpowering. In all of these it is not merely the force of any one passion that is given, but the slightest and most unlooked-for transitions from one to another, the mingling currents of every different feeling rising up and prevailing in turn, swayed by the mastermind of the poet, as the waives undulate beneath the gliding storm. (pp. 91–2)
The lines in [Romeo's] speech, describing the loveliness of Juliet, who is supposed to be dead [V. iii. 91–120], have been compared to those in which it is said of Cleopatra after her death, that she looked "as she would take another Antony in her strong toil of grace" [Antony and Cleopatra, V. ii. 347–48]; and a question has been stated which is the finest, that we do not pretend to decide. We can more easily decide between Shakespear and any other author, than between him and himself.—Shall we quote any more passages to shew his genius or the beauty of Romeo and Juliet? At that rate, we might quote the whole. (pp. 93–4)
William Hazlitt, "Characters of Shakespeare's Plays: Romeo and Juliet," in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays & Lectures on the English Poets, Macmillan, 1903, pp. 83–94.
Abrams, M. H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., Vol. 1, Norton, 1986, pp. 1845–47.
Brooke, Stopford A., On Ten Plays of Shakespeare, Constable, 1925, pp. 35–70.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Shakespearean Criticism, 2d ed., Vol. 1, edited by Thomas Middleton Raysor, Dutton, 1960, pp. 4–11.
Dryden, John, "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., Vol. 1, edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1986, pp. 1845–47.
Griffin, Elizabeth, The Morality of Shakespeare's Drama Illustrated, reprint, Frank Cass, 1971, pp. 495–99.
Griffith, Kelley, Jr., Writing Essays about Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, p. 72.
Hazlitt, William, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays and Lectures on the English Poets, Macmillan, 1903, pp. 83–94.
Jorgens, Jack J., Shakespeare on Film, Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 85.
Ralli, Augustus E., A History of Shakespearian Criticism, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 21–22.
Snider, Denton J., The Shakespearian Drama, a Commentary: The Tragedies, Sigma Publishing, 1887, p. 78.
Ulrici, Hermann, Shakespeare's Dramatic Art: History and Character of Shakspeare's Plays, translated by L. Dora Schmitz, Vol. 1, George Bell and Sons, 1876, pp. 381–97.
von Schlegel, August Wilhelm, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809–11), translated by John Black, Henry G. Bohn Publishers, 1846, pp. 400–01.
Witherspoon, Alexander M., and Frank J. Warnke, eds., Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2d ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963, pp. 118–19.
Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, reissue ed., Gramercy, 2003.
Well-known scientist Asimov clarifies the complexities of Shakespeare with explanations, synopses, and information about the mythological, historical, and geographical backgrounds of Shakespeare's works.
Bloom, Harold, Bloom's Notes: William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Harold Bloom, an authority on Shakespeare, provides very brief but excellent "notes" with biographical and bibliographical information, character and structural analysis, and excerpts from some of the best criticism through the years on Romeo and Juliet.
Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 2001.
This book covers biographical information, literary criticism, historical and cultural information, and much more about Shakespeare and his works. The plays are given scene-by-scene explanations as well as other notes.
Gervinus, G. G., Shakespeare Commentaries, translated by F. E. Bunnett, rev. ed., 1877, reprint, AMS Press, 1971, pp. 204–29.
Gervinus, a well-known German Shakespearean critic of his time, looks at the poetry of Romeo and Juliet as well as what he considers the central theme of passion. Gervinus thinks Friar Laurence is Shakespeare's mouthpiece in the play.
Goddard, Harold Clarke, The Meaning of Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Goddard writes essays about Shakespeare's plays that are insightful and opinionated and full of ideas to provoke thoughtful consideration of Shakespeare's genius.
Guizot, M., Shakespeare and His Times, Harper and Brothers, 1852, pp. 161–73.
Guizot criticizes the contrast between the innocent and ideal feelings that Shakespeare shows in Romeo and Juliet and the unnatural, ill-fitting language that Guizot thinks are used to express them.
Kermode, Frank, The Age of Shakespeare, Modern Library, 2004.
This book is a good overview of the life of Shakespeare, the influences of the age in which he lived, and the practices of the theater at the time.