‘Romeo and Juliet’ was written by William Shakespeare in 1596. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, it was not an original idea. His inspiration came from a well-known poem of the times called, ‘The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet’ which was written in 1562 by Arthur Brooke. In the poem, the events took place over four years, whilst Shakespeare shortened the events within the poem so they took place within three to four days.
This gave the play greater impact as there is no time for Romeo and Juliet to consider the consequences of what they are doing and make the eventual death of the main characters at the end all the more shocking, as a few days before they didn’t even know each other. The character of Mercutio did not exist in the poem; some believe Shakespeare added him to give the play more ‘fun’ as he is quite a wacky character and to make it different from the poem. It is more likely however, that as believed by critics of those times that part was written for a popular actor who’s inclusion in the play would fill more theatre seats as he was believed to be a very popular ‘A-lister’ actor.
Although ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy it contains many more ingredients to fill more theatre seats, Love, comedy, violence and hate are also featured. Throughout the play the atmospheres change, we go from hate to love, love to hate and love to sadness, this changing is a rollercoaster ride for the audience who enjoy the sudden twists and changes in the play. The play contains dramatic irony, Romeo saying he thinks he may die and dreaming that Juliet found him dead adds to the appeal, due to the prologue, the audience know the outcome, yet they don’t know why or how such a tragedy happened. Sexual innuendo is used to great effect to thrill, audiences of those times tended to have a fascination for sex like pre-sixteen teenagers today. Suicide is also used effectively, as is betrayal and the idea of disobedient children.
Shakespeare’s plays are often centred on the rich as the poor were his usual audience. ‘Common’ people of those times loved to hear and see what the rich and famous did in their spare time and used to marvel at their clothes and the extravagant parties they loved to throw and wonder what it would be like to get married for love, not just to share a house. Puritans however didn’t enjoy Shakespeare or his plays. Being devout Christians, they frowned upon drunkenness and sexual innuendo and tried their upmost to campaign against Shakespeare’s plays, a rather fruitless attempt as the queen herself enjoyed watched a Shakespeare performance!
The prologue is very important in the play, for the sole reason that it explains the plot. Without it the audience would not experience a roller-coaster ride, they would not be expecting Romeo and Juliet to die, revealing the plot far from reveals the whole play. The opening line in the Prologue, ‘Two households, both alike in dignity,’ is introducing the Montague’s and the Capulet’s, telling the audience they are both wealthy and of the same status. The line:
‘From ancient grudge break to new mutiny’
informs the audience that these two ‘households’ don’t get on, something happened a long time ago, and the households have not yet made peace.
‘From froth the fatal loins of these two foes,’
refers to the two children of the ‘heads’ of the two families, Romeo and Juliet. The next line:
‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,’
refers to the suicide of Romeo and Juliet and basically tells the audience the ending. ‘Star-crossed’ refers to the idea of ‘fate’, that their ‘destiny’ is already ‘written’ in the stars and it cannot be changed. The line ‘Which but their children’s end nought could remove’ this tells the audience that the death of Romeo and Juliet ends their parents quarrel. The audience now feel like a part of the story, as they watch it unfold, they already know the result.
Act One Scene Five is arguably the pivotal point in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ However what happens prior to this is certainly not unimportant. Act One Scene One establishes the quarrel between the Montague’s and the Capulet’s, and there is a fight. The prince, the one in charge of Verona’s affairs makes a decree, which states:
‘If you ever disturb our streets again,
Your lives will pay the forfeit of the peace.’
This is important as if this decree hadn’t been made, Romeo and Juliet would probably still be thriving at the end of the play, as when Romeo killed Tybalt, he was forced to go into hiding due to this decree and therefore missed Friar Lawrence’s letter which of course, told him that Juliet wasn’t really dead, however he takes his own life, triggering Juliet to take hers. Romeo is also introduced in this first scene and he is in a ‘lovesick’ state, the name of his hearts desire is withheld at this point. Benvolio tells him basically to stop ‘obsessing’ and to ‘look upon other beauties.’ Romeo disagrees however saying none and be as beautiful as the one he ‘loves.’ Act One Scene Two starts with a conversation between Capulet and Paris. Paris wants to marry Capulet’s daughter Juliet:
‘What say you to my suit?’
Yet Capulet isn’t too chuffed with this, he says his daughter is too young to marry. Paris however responds with:
‘Younger than she are happy mothers made.’
Although by modern standards, at thirteen a girl would be far too young to marry, yet back then you were only expected to live till you were thirty, so thirteen was the average age of marriage in Shakespeare’s times. At this point Capulet realises he can’t persuade Paris to stop ‘loving’ Juliet, so he tries a different tack. He announces a party is to be held at his mansion the following day and invites Paris round, seemingly so he can get acquainted with Juliet, yet Capulet’s real intention is to show Paris ‘other beauties.’ After Paris has left the scene, Capulet gives invites for party to a servant to deliver, forgetting that the servant cannot read. So off the servant goes to find someone more equipped with English skills then himself. He of course comes across Romeo and Benvolio and asks them to read the invites. Romeo is only too happy to help and after the servant has left he confides in Benvolio that he wishes to go to this party to see his ‘one true love’ Rosaline. The audience are confused at this point as they have come to see a play they know is called ‘Romeo and Juliet’ not ‘Romeo and Rosaline.’ In Act One Scene Four, Romeo is still intent on attending Capulet’s party, even though he confides in Mercutio that he has had a dream of ‘Some vile forfeit of untimely death’ that happens a result of this party. This is ironic and eerily prophetic; the audience would be catching on at this point and would probably be shouting at the actor who plays Romeo, telling him not to go. Mercutio tells Romeo to take no heed of dreams and starts to launch into a long-winded ‘joke’ about ‘Queen Mab’ a fictious character who gives people dreams. Despite all this, Romeo still decides to attend the party.
Act One Scene Five begins with Capulet’s servants preparing the mansion for the party. Shakespeare includes this to show the start of a new scene, he has to do this because Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio are still on stage from the previous scene, so new people suddenly appearing would tell the audience that this is indeed a new scene. The servants talk about their fellows not pulling their weight:
‘Where’s Potpan that he helps not to take away?’
They also are on about stealing some food from the party so they can have their own party later:
‘ Save me a piece of marchpan.’
The servants are under pressure to complete their work:
‘We cannot be here and there too’
the audience can relate to the ‘stresses of daily servant life as the majority of them would be servants themselves. The servants speak in prose not rhyme, which makes it black and white to the audience that they are servants and therefore less intelligent and less important. This would seem more like reality to the audience, then the rather poetic speeches of Romeo and other characters who speak in rhyme.
After the servants leave, Capulet and the guests enter the stage. This would provoke a huge ‘Ooooh’ from the audience, who would be in awe of the make-up and the clothes that Capulet and the others wear. Capulet is playing host and is very welcoming to all his guests, especially to the women. He tries to get the women to dance by poking fun at them; he says:
‘Ladies that have their toes unplagued with corns will walk a bout with you.’
He means that women who refuse to dance must have corns on their toes. He also appears to be a bit of a flirt:
‘could tell a whispering tale in a fair lady’s ear.’
Or rather, ‘used’ to be a bit of a flirt. This shows his age and also his reluctance to be labelled as ‘old.’ Capulet appeals to the audience as he seems like a nice chap, he seems human, despite his riches, he seems to have a sense of humour and a ‘human touch’, he’s likeable, he tells jokes and welcomes his guests. After this first ‘welcoming’ music is played and the actors dance. The audience would enjoy this too, this musical interlude acts shows them how the rich dance, and how their breathtakingly expensive costumes swish around the room with equal elegance. Capulet then speaks again, asking for more space, he says:
‘the room is grown too hot’
and asks for the fire to be put out. This also shows his age, as only a little bit of dancing makes him feel weary. Capulet then has an ‘OAP’ conversation with his cousin, reminiscing of better days when they were young. Capulet then asks how long it was since they had been in a ‘masque.’ His cousin then responds with:
‘By’r lady, thirty years.’
Of course Capulet responds by basically saying, ‘Oh really? I didn’t think it was that long ago.’ His ‘cousin’ then stands by what he said before:
‘his son is elder, sir, his son is thirty’
and Capulet responds at the end of that particular ‘section’ with ‘His son was but a ward two years ago.’ This conversation clearly shows their age, and Capulet’s reluctance to be ‘old.’ Overall, in this ‘section’ Capulet comes across as a jolly, likeable character who has a good sense of humour.
The first words Romeo speaks in this scene are directed at Juliet. He says:
‘What lady’s that which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?’
This is very poetic and says a lot about Romeo. He came to this party to see Rosaline, yet here he is immediately admiring another woman. The word ‘enrich’ makes Juliet sound wonderful, he says basically, that she makes the man she is with look much better. The servant then says he doesn’t know who the ‘lady’ is. This makes the audience consider the idea of fate. If the servant had been a resident servant of the mansion and not a hired one, he would haven been able to say who the ‘lady’ was so Romeo would have the time to think about the consequences and possibly not fall in love with her. Romeo then carries on describing Juliet, saying:
‘O she doth teach the torches to burn bright.’
This makes Juliet seem the brightest light in the room, more brighter then the torches on the wall, so much brighter then the torches that she could give them a ‘lesson’ or two in brightness and it tells us that this play is indeed set in Elizabethan times because in those days they had no electricity. It also suggests Juliet is the only thing important to him, she ‘brightens’ up his life. Shakespeare uses this to tell the audience that the fourteen-year old boy playing Juliet is supposed to be very pretty, infact the most beautiful in the room. He then uses contrast effectively in his description:
‘she hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.’
This could again imply that she ‘stands’ out from the crowd or even that whilst everything is dark and it is ‘night’ she is the only light. The phrase ‘rich jewel’ is interesting. She isn’t an ordinary jewel, she is a rare one, the best jewel, she is more expensive, more precious, more beautiful than any other jewel. Saying she is ‘expensive’ is also very ironic, as in the end, she ‘costs’ him his life. Again this line convinces the audience that Juliet is supposed to be beautiful, even if the actor is not. Romeo then says she is too good to use:
‘Beauty too rich for use.’
Almost like she is ‘too good to be true,’ and he can’t believe he is seeing someone so beautiful. This also links back to the idea that their love costs them their lives, something that the audience is well aware of. Romeo then uses contrasts once again:
‘a snowy dove trooping with crows.’
This line is interesting as it links back to Benvolio’s ‘prediction’ in Act One Scene Two that Romeo would see Rosaline as a ‘crow’ and find another ‘beatuie.’ Romeo is again singling Juliet out, she is better than anyone else in that room. A dove is a symbol of peace, which is again ironic, as their deaths bring peace between their two warring families. The use of contrasts seems to be a big ‘theme’ in this play, there are two ‘opposing’ families, Benvolio and Tybalt are opposites, etc. Romeo closes this ‘part’ of the scene with:
‘For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.’
This again shows how fickle Romeo is, he said earlier how he will never see anyone more beautiful than Rosaline yet now he has.
After this rather sweet declaration of love, the atmosphere changes to the opposite. Tybalt has been seen before in the play as a bold and violent man, here he isn’t much different. The first line he utters is:
‘This by his voice should be a Montague.’
This shows Tybalt is looking for trouble, usually at parties you relax and ‘let your hair down’ yet Tybalt is almost acting like a ‘bouncer’ on the lookout for a fight. He then gives an order:
‘Fetch me my rapier, boy.’
This tells the audience that Tybalt is quite high ranking in the Capulet family; it also tells them straight away that Tybalt wants to kill Romeo. Tybalt then goes on to call Romeo a ‘slave’, a very degrading term considering Romeo is the son of the head of the Montague’s. Tybalt then says:
‘to fleer and scorn at our solemnity?’
which tells the audience that Tybalt thinks Romeo is there to cause trouble, which is again not true. Tybalt seems to assume things, almost as if he wants them to be true. He then talks about ‘honour,’ something that Tybalt seems to be quite passionate about. The audience at this point are quite confused as Romeo hasn’t done anything deserving of death, yet Tybalt then says:
‘To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.’
Tybalt really does think it is justified to kill Romeo just for gate crashing a party. The audience at this point feel sorry for Romeo and quickly learn to fear Tybalt. Capulet then says to Tybalt:
‘Why how now, kinsman, wherefore storm you so?’
Capulet seems to understand Tybalt, he know something is wrong with him. The word ‘storm’ compares Tybalt’s mood to the weather, he is saying Tybalt’s anger is like thunder, loud and unrelenting, that it is gloomy, grey even like the clouds. Tybalt then insults Romeo again by calling him a ‘villain.’ Such a word would usually be applied to one who has committed serious crimes such as murder, yet all Romeo has done is trespass the party. Capulet the responds with:
‘Young Romeo is it?’
Which is quite unexpected, as in earlier scenes, Capulet couldn’t wait to wade in with his ‘longsword’ and slay Montagues, yet now he seems to be indifferent. It could also suggests he is slightly ‘drunk’ or ‘tipsy.’ Tybalt confirms this, finding another space to call Romeo a ‘villain.’ Capulet then tells Tybalt to ‘let him alone’ and starts to praise Romeo saying that ‘Verona brags of him’ and calling him a ‘well-governed youth.’ This links back to earlier as both men’s attitudes are contrasting, Tybalt is insulting Romeo whereas Capulet is praising him. It is quite surprising enough to the audience that Capulet doesn’t want Tybalt to hurt Romeo yet here he is saying how wonderful he is! Romeo must be very popular if his ‘arch enemy’ is singing his praises, the audience at this point would be breathing a sigh of relief as they would believe Romeo to be safe from Tybalt if Capulet likes him. Capulet tells Tybalt to ‘take no note of him’ and to basically look like you’re enjoying yourself. He also starts to turn on his authority, when he says:
‘It is my will, which if thou respect.’
He is basically saying if you don’t obey me, you disrespect me. Tybalt is then quite bold, telling his uncle Capulet that:
‘I’ll not endure him’
this is directly going against Capulet’s will and Capulet isn’t too chuffed by it. Capulet then says, ‘he shall be endured’ and calls Tybalt a ‘boy.’ This is quite an insult to Tybalt who earlier was talking about honour, something that a boy wouldn’t do, as Tybalt is quite proud, such an insult would probably ‘hurt.’ Capulet then says:
‘Am I the master here or you?’
Which again is him forcing his authority on Tybalt and making it clear that despite Tybalt’s disobedient attitude, Capulet is still ‘the boss.’ Capulet then repeats what Tybalt said,
‘You’ll not endure him!’
For effect and then states how Tybalt would cause a disturbance. Tybalt then, rather cheekily, remarks that it is a ‘shame’ that he has to miss such a golden opportunity to get rid of a Montague. Capulet then continues to ‘enforce’ his authority, he says:
‘This trick may chance to scathe you’
which is quite interesting as ‘scathe’ means to harm, do damage and it is quite prophetic of Capulet to say this, because Tybalt’s hate of Romeo in the end does kill him. Capulet then talks to the audience whilst ‘threatening’ Tybalt, saying ‘Be quite or I’ll make you quiet.’ This again makes it clear to the audience that despite Tybalt’s defiant attitude, Capulet is still above him in status. This can be interpreted differently, Capulet could just be talking about ending Tybalt away, yet he could also be threatening to kill Tybalt. Despite this threat, Tybalt still has to have the last word, he says:
‘makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.’
Tybalt’s hate for Romeo and the Montague’s isn’t just mental it is physical, he is shaking in anger. His last line in this scene is possibly the most important in the entire play as it is very prophetic. He says:
‘this intrusion shall, now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall.’
This line of course becomes true, as even though Romeo and Juliet meeting and falling in love seems sweet, it does literally turn to ‘bitter gall’, gall meaning poison as Romeo takes poison to kill himself, thus resulting in Juliet’s death. Tybalt then exits the scene.
Romeo speaks gain, seemingly unaware of Tybalt’s desire to kill him and this time he actually speaks to Juliet, not about her. He says:
‘If I profane with my unworthiest hand.’
Here he is calling himself ‘unworthy’, he isn’t deserving of Juliet’s time or company. He mentions in his next line that Juliet is a ‘shrine.’ A shrine is usually a place or a statue of some kind that is believed to be holy; if it is a statuette it would usually resemble a deity in some way or a saint. Here he is comparing Juliet to a shrine, place of worship. He then goes on to say:
‘ My lips, two blushing pilgrims,’
he is here comparing his lips to ‘pilgrims.’ Pilgrims are people who go on a religious journey, sometimes to a famous shrine, or to a place that is of religious importance. This is fitting as it implies that he will kill her, as pilgrims usually touch shrines as they believe their prayers will be answered if they do so. Juliet then replies and it becomes a sonnet shared between them. The fact that as soon as they seem each other, they perform a sonnet could imply that they are destined to be together. Juliet then carries on the religious theme yet she ‘turns’ what he says. She says:
‘For saints have hands that pilgrim’s hands do touch,’
She is saying that he should be praying to her if she is a shrine. Romeo then asks if they have lips, to which Juliet replies:
‘Ay pilgrim, lips that they must use is prayer.’
Juliet is ‘playfully’ dodging his advances; she is putting him down gently by using her wit and skill with words. Romeo eventually wins this ‘battle’ of religious terms and kisses Juliet, saying:
‘Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged’
meaning that his sins have become hers. After all this kissing, Juliet says:
‘ you kiss by the book’
this is quite an interesting line, as it could mean she thinks Romeo is an ‘expert’ on kissing or that their kiss is how a perfect kiss should be. This line also highlights her youth and inexperience, as a young girl she would have read romance novels and read parts where lovers kiss and she is saying that their kiss is everything she expected it to be and is just as wonderful as it sounded in her books. In this part Romeo is very forward and stubborn whilst Juliet is shown to be witty and clever/
After Romeo and Juliet’s sonnet, the audience and indeed the two lovers are brought back to earth by the appearance of the Nurse. Juliet is whisked away by her mother, while Romeo remains with the Nurse. Romeo asks the Nurse who Juliet’s mother is and the Nurse of course informs Romeo that Juliet’s mother is:
‘the lady of the house’
also known as Lady Capulet. Having learned of Juliet’s identity, Romeo then asks:
‘Is she a Capulet?’
Even though he has just been told that she is, he doesn’t want to believe it is true and wishes to hear a different answer. He then says:
‘My life is my foes debt,’
his life is in the hands of his enemy Juliet, he has fallen so much in love that he can’t back out. Benvolio then tells Romeo to come with him. Juliet then appears with her Nurse and points to various men and asks who they are. Of course, she isn’t interested in them; she just wants to make it look like she isn’t interested in Romeo. When she finally asks about Romeo the nurse doesn’t know who he is and Juliet asks her to go and find out, saying:
‘If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed,’
Meaning if she can’t be with him she might as well be dead, this is quite prophetic as her grave is her wedding bed at the end of the play. The Nurse then ‘drops the bombshell’ that Romeo is a Montague and Juliet’s next line ‘tugs at the audience’s heart-strings.’
‘My only love sprung from my only hate’
meaning that her first experience of love is with an enemy. This line again highlights her youth and inexperience and impacts quite strongly on the audience, as they feel sorry for Juliet. She then says:
‘Too early seen unknown, and known too late’
meaning that now she has fallen in love, she can’t go back and change that. The word ‘prodigious’ is used in the next line and again points to the theme of fate and evil. The Nurse then asks what Juliet is on about and Juliet lies, before being called away. This leaves the audience feeling sad and they wonder if Romeo and Juliet will meet again.
The themes featured in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are certainly relevant to today. Love of course is relevant as it ever was; violence is still rife as is tragedy, hate and comedy. Remakes are still being made of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, some obviously directly linked to Shakespeare’s version, like the 1968 Zeffreli film and the 1996 Luhrman film, both very different. The Zeffreli take on the story is set in Elizabethan times, with Elizabethan clothes and music etc, whilst in Luhrman’s version, set in modern times at ‘Verona Beach’ where Romeo wears flowery shirts is very different.
Other remakes are no so obvious, the story of two lover doomed from the start is present in modern day literature and media. The feud between the Montague’s and the Capulet’s is echoed in today’s society by gang warfare, which Luhrman highlights successfully in his film. Family feuds still happen today, usually over someone’s will, or even over nothing at all. ‘Forbidden’ love still happens today, Muslim women falling in love with Christian men is a common example.
Honour killings still occur today, murder committed to preserve the honour of a family, usually in religious families. Interestingly women can be murdered for refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, Juliet of course, argues with her father regarding her marriage to Paris. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the characters of the same name fall in love at ‘first sight.’ Many people argue that you cannot fall in love with a person when you just see them for a few seconds, yet others believe in ‘soul mates’ people ‘destined’ to be together, Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet seems to imply that they are ‘soul mates.’ In Elizabethan times, children were supposed to obey their parents, nowadays of course, it is often the parents obeying the children.
Suicide still happens today, yet not usually in such a ‘complex’ way. Overall I believe ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is most certainly relevant to today’s audience, after all, if it wasn’t such a ‘captivating’ story, then it wouldn’t be replicated on such a grand scale and after all, most people, when asked to name a Shakespeare play, the most named one would surely be ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
I personally enjoyed ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I enjoyed watching it rather than reading it, and out of the two films we watched, I preferred the Baz Luhrman version by far. Probably because it was so ‘over the top’ and cheesy and I thought it was very skilful of Baz Luhrman to modernise it so well. I found the Zefferlli version a bit dull and ‘tame’ whether that be because of my age I don’t know. I seemed to be able to understand the words Shakespeare used easier than the last year I did Shakespeare; however I think watching the Luhrman version before reading the play did help. Overall I found ‘Romeo and Juliet’ an enjoyable experience, despite my doubts at the start of the course that it would be ‘boring’ and not as gory as ‘Macbeth.’