SPARKNOTES Romeo and Juliet Study Guide Analysis of Major Characters Romeo The name Romeo, in popular culture, has become nearly synonymous with “lover. ” Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, does indeed experience a love of such purity and passion that he kills himself when he believes that the object of his love, Juliet, has died. The power of Romeo’s love, however, often obscures a clear vision of Romeo’s character, which is far more complex. Even Romeo’s relation to love is not so simple. At the beginning of the play, Romeo pines for Rosaline, proclaiming her the paragon of women and despairing at her indifference toward him.
Taken together, Romeo’s Rosaline-induced histrionics seem rather juvenile. Romeo is a great reader of love poetry, and the portrayal of his love for Rosaline suggests he is trying to re-create the feelings that he has read about. After first kissing Juliet, she tells him “you kiss by th’ book,” meaning that he kisses according to the rules, and implying that while proficient, his kissing lacks originality (1. 5. 107). In reference to Rosaline, it seems, Romeo loves by the book. Rosaline, of course, slips from Romeo’s mind at first sight of Juliet.
But Juliet is no mere replacement. The love she shares with Romeo is far deeper, more authentic and unique than the cliched puppy love Romeo felt for Rosaline. Romeo’s love matures over the course of the play from the shallow desire to be in love to a profound and intense passion. One must ascribe Romeo’s development at least in part to Juliet. Her level-headed observations, such as the one about Romeo’s kissing, seem just the thing to snap Romeo from his superficial idea of love and to inspire him to begin to speak some of the most beautiful and intense love poetry ever written.
Yet Romeo’s deep capacity for love is merely a part of his larger capacity for intense feeling of all kinds. Put another way, it is possible to describe Romeo as lacking the capacity for moderation. Love compels him to sneak into the garden of his enemy’s daughter, risking death simply to catch a glimpse of her. Anger compels him to kill his wife’s cousin in a reckless duel to avenge the death of his friend. Despair compels him to suicide upon hearing of Juliet’s death. Such extreme behavior dominates Romeo’s character throughout the play and contributes to the ultimate tragedy that befalls the lovers.
Had Romeo restrained himself from killing Tybalt, or waited even one day before killing himself after hearing the news of Juliet’s death, matters might have ended happily. Of course, though, had Romeo not had such depths of feeling, the love he shared with Juliet would never have existed in the first place. Among his friends, especially while bantering with Mercutio, Romeo shows glimpses of his social persona. He is intelligent, quick-witted, fond of verbal jousting (particularly about sex), loyal, and unafraid of danger. Juliet
Having not quite reached her fourteenth birthday, Juliet is of an age that stands on the border between immaturity and maturity. At the play’s beginning however she seems merely an obedient, sheltered, naive child. Though many girls her age—including her mother—get married, Juliet has not given the subject any thought. When Lady Capulet mentions Paris’s interest in marrying Juliet, Juliet dutifully responds that she will try to see if she can love him, a response that seems childish in its obedience and in its immature conception of love.
Juliet seems to have no friends her own age, and she is not comfortable talking about sex (as seen in her discomfort when the Nurse goes on and on about a sexual joke at Juliet’s expense in Act 1, scene 3). Juliet gives glimpses of her determination, strength, and sober-mindedness, in her earliest scenes, and offers a preview of the woman she will become during the four-day span of Romeo and Juliet. While Lady Capulet proves unable to quiet the Nurse, Juliet succeeds with one word (also in Act 1, scene 3). In addition, even in Juliet’s dutiful acquiescence to try to love Paris, there is some seed of steely determination.
Juliet promises to consider Paris as a possible husband to the precise degree her mother desires. While an outward show of obedience, such a statement can also be read as a refusal through passivity. Juliet will accede to her mother’s wishes, but she will not go out of her way to fall in love with Paris. Juliet’s first meeting with Romeo propels her full-force toward adulthood. Though profoundly in love with him, Juliet is able to see and criticize Romeo’s rash decisions and his tendency to romanticize things. After Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, Juliet does not follow him blindly.
She makes a logical and heartfelt decision that her loyalty and love for Romeo must be her guiding priorities. Essentially, Juliet cuts herself loose from her prior social moorings—her nurse, her parents, and her social position in Verona—in order to try to reunite with Romeo. When she wakes in the tomb to find Romeo dead, she does not kill herself out of feminine weakness, but rather out of an intensity of love, just as Romeo did. Juliet’s suicide actually requires more nerve than Romeo’s: while he swallows poison, she stabs herself through the heart with a dagger.
Juliet’s development from a wide-eyed girl into a self-assured, loyal, and capable woman is one of Shakespeare’s early triumphs of characterization. It also marks one of his most confident and rounded treatments of a female character. Friar Lawrence Friar Lawrence occupies a strange position in Romeo and Juliet. He is a kindhearted cleric who helps Romeo and Juliet throughout the play. He performs their marriage and gives generally good advice, especially in regard to the need for moderation. He is the sole figure of religion in the play.
But Friar Lawrence is also the most scheming and political of characters in the play: he marries Romeo and Juliet as part of a plan to end the civil strife in Verona; he spirits Romeo into Juliet’s room and then out of Verona; he devises the plan to reunite Romeo and Juliet through the deceptive ruse of a sleeping potion that seems to arise from almost mystic knowledge. This mystical knowledge seems out of place for a Catholic friar; why does he have such knowledge, and what could such knowledge mean? The answers are not clear.
In addition, though Friar Lawrence’s plans all seem well conceived and well intentioned, they serve as the main mechanisms through which the fated tragedy of the play occurs. Readers should recognize that the Friar is not only subject to the fate that dominates the play—in many ways he brings that fate about. Mercutio With a lightning-quick wit and a clever mind, Mercutio is a scene stealer and one of the most memorable characters in all of Shakespeare’s works. Though he constantly puns, jokes, and teases—sometimes in fun, sometimes with bitterness—Mercutio is not a mere jester or prankster.
With his wild words, Mercutio punctures the romantic sentiments and blind self-love that exist within the play. He mocks Romeos self-indulgence just as he ridicules Tybalt’s hauteur and adherence to fashion. The critic Stephen Greenblatt describes Mercutio as a force within the play that functions to deflate the possibility of romantic love and the power of tragic fate. Unlike the other characters who blame their deaths on fate, Mercutio dies cursing all Montagues and Capulets. Mercutio believes that specific people are responsible for his death rather than some external impersonal force.
The Nurse – Juliet’s nurse, the woman who breast-fed Juliet when she was a baby and has cared for Juliet her entire life. A vulgar, long-winded, and sentimental character, the Nurse provides comic relief with her frequently inappropriate remarks and speeches. But, until a disagreement near the play’s end, the Nurse is Juliet’s faithful confidante and loyal intermediary in Juliet’s affair with Romeo. She provides a contrast with Juliet, given that her view of love is earthy and sexual, whereas Juliet is idealistic and intense.
The Nurse believes in love and wants Juliet to have a nice-looking husband, but the idea that Juliet would want to sacrifice herself for love is incomprehensible to her. Tybalt – A Capulet, Juliet’s cousin on her mother’s side. Vain, fashionable, supremely aware of courtesy and the lack of it, he becomes aggressive, violent, and quick to draw his sword when he feels his pride has been injured. Once drawn, his sword is something to be feared. He loathes Montagues. Capulet – The patriarch of the Capulet family, father of Juliet, husband of Lady Capulet, and enemy, for unexplained reasons, of Montague.
He truly loves his daughter, though he is not well acquainted with Juliet’s thoughts or feelings, and seems to think that what is best for her is a “good” match with Paris. Often prudent, he commands respect and propriety, but he is liable to fly into a rage when either is lacking. Lady Capulet – Juliet’s mother, Capulet’s wife. A woman who herself married young (by her own estimation she gave birth to Juliet at close to the age of fourteen), she is eager to see her daughter marry Paris.
She is an ineffectual mother, relying on the Nurse for moral and pragmatic support. Montague – Romeo’s father, the patriarch of the Montague clan and bitter enemy of Capulet. At the beginning of the play, he is chiefly concerned about Romeo’s melancholy. Lady Montague – Romeo’s mother, Montague’s wife. She dies of grief after Romeo is exiled from Verona. Paris – A kinsman of the Prince, and the suitor of Juliet most preferred by Capulet. Once Capulet has promised him he can marry Juliet, he behaves very presumptuous toward her, acting as if they are already married.
Benvolio – Montague’s nephew, Romeo’s cousin and thoughtful friend, he makes a genuine effort to defuse violent scenes in public places, though Mercutio accuses him of having a nasty temper in private. He spends most of the play trying to help Romeo get his mind off Rosaline, even after Romeo has fallen in love with Juliet. Prince Escalus – The Prince of Verona. A kinsman of Mercutio and Paris. As the seat of political power in Verona, he is concerned about maintaining the public peace at all costs.
Friar John – A Franciscan friar charged by Friar Lawrence with taking the news of Juliet’s false death to Romeo in Mantua. Friar John is held up in a quarantined house, and the message never reaches Romeo. Balthasar – Romeo’s dedicated servant, who brings Romeo the news of Juliet’s death, unaware that her death is a ruse. Sampson & Gregory – Two servants of the house of Capulet, who, like their master, hate the Montagues. At the outset of the play, they successfully provoke some Montague men into a fight. Abram – Montague’s servant, who fights with Sampson and Gregory in the first scene of the play.
The Apothecary – An apothecary in Mantua. Had he been wealthier, he might have been able to afford to value his morals more than money, and refused to sell poison to Romeo. Peter – A Capulet servant who invites guests to Capulet’s feast and escorts the Nurse to meet with Romeo. He is illiterate, and a bad singer. Rosaline – The woman with whom Romeo is infatuated at the beginning of the play. Rosaline never appears onstage, but it is said by other characters that she is very beautiful and has sworn to live a life of chastity.
The Chorus – The Chorus is a single character who, as developed in Greek drama, functions as a narrator offering commentary on the play’s plot and themes. Themes, Motifs & Symbols Themes Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. The Forcefulness of Love Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. Love is naturally the play’s dominant and most important theme. The play focuses on romantic love, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between Romeo and Juliet.
In Romeo and Juliet, love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions. In the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their entire social world: families (“Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” Juliet asks, “Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet”); friends (Romeo abandons Mercutio and Benvolio after the feast in order to go to Juliet’s garden); and ruler (Romeo returns to Verona for Juliet’s sake after being exiled by the Prince on pain of death in 2. 1. 76–78).
Love is the overriding theme of the play, but a reader should always remember that Shakespeare is uninterested in portraying a prettied-up, dainty version of the emotion, the kind that bad poets write about, and whose bad poetry Romeo reads while pining for Rosaline. Love in Romeo and Juliet is a brutal, powerful emotion that captures individuals and catapults them against their world, and, at times, against themselves. The powerful nature of love can be seen in the way it is described, or, more accurately, the way descriptions of it so consistently fail to capture its entirety.
At times love is described in the terms of religion, as in the fourteen lines when Romeo and Juliet first meet. At others it is described as a sort of magic: “Alike bewitched by the charm of looks” (2. Prologue. 6). Juliet, perhaps, most perfectly describes her love for Romeo by refusing to describe it: “But my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up some of half my wealth” (3. 1. 33–34). Love, in other words, resists any single metaphor because it is too powerful to be so easily contained or understood.
Romeo and Juliet does not make a specific moral statement about the relationships between love and society, religion, and family; rather, it portrays the chaos and passion of being in love, combining images of love, violence, death, religion, and family in an impressionistic rush leading to the play’s tragic conclusion. Love as a Cause of Violence The themes of death and violence permeate Romeo and Juliet, and they are always connected to passion, whether that passion is love or hate. The connection between hate, violence, and death seems obvious.
But the connection between love and violence requires further investigation. Love, in Romeo and Juliet, is a grand passion, and as such it is blinding; it can overwhelm a person as powerfully and completely as hate can. The passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is linked from the moment of its inception with death: Tybalt notices that Romeo has crashed the feast and determines to kill him just as Romeo catches sight of Juliet and falls instantly in love with her. From that point on, love seems to push the lovers closer to love and violence, not farther from it.
Romeo and Juliet are plagued with thoughts of suicide, and a willingness to experience it: in Act 3, scene 3, Romeo brandishes a knife in Friar Lawrence’s cell and threatens to kill himself after he has been banished from Verona and his love. Juliet also pulls a knife in order to take her own life in Friar Lawrence’s presence just three scenes later. After Capulet decides that Juliet will marry Paris, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3. 5. 242). Finally, each imagines that the other looks dead the morning after their first, and only, sexual experience (“Methinks I see thee,” Juliet says, “. . as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (3. 5. 55–56). This theme continues until its inevitable conclusion: double suicide. This tragic choice is the highest, most potent expression of love that Romeo and Juliet can make. It is only through death that they can preserve their love, and their love is so profound that they are willing to end their lives in its defense. In the play, love emerges as an amoral thing, leading as much to destruction as to happiness. But in its extreme passion, the love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so exquisitely beautiful that few would want, or be able, to resist its power.
The Individual vs Society Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers’ struggles against public and social institutions that either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love. Such structures range from the concrete to the abstract: families and the placement of familial power in the father; law and the desire for public order; religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These institutions often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example, time and again results in brawls that disturb the public peace.
Though they do not always work in concert, each of these societal institutions in some way present obstacles for Romeo and Juliet. The enmity between their families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine to create a profound conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their heritages. Further, the patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance families, wherein the father controls the action of all other family members, particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position.
Her heart, in her family’s mind, is not hers to give. The law and the emphasis on social civility demands terms of conduct with which the blind passion of love cannot comply. Religion similarly demands priorities that Romeo and Juliet cannot abide by because of the intensity of their love. Though in most situations the lovers uphold the traditions of Christianity (they wait to marry before consummating their love), their love is so powerful that they begin to think of each other in blasphemous terms.
For example, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry,” elevating Romeo to level of God (2. 1. 156). The couple’s final act of suicide is likewise un-Christian. The maintenance of masculine honor forces Romeo to commit actions he would prefer to avoid. But the social emphasis placed on masculine honor is so profound that Romeo cannot simply ignore them. It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private desires of the individual.
Romeo and Juliet’s appreciation of night, with its darkness and privacy, and their renunciation of their names, with its attendant loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of the world will not let him. The lovers’ suicides can be understood as the ultimate night, the ultimate privacy. The Inevitability of Fate
In its first address to the audience, the Chorus states that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed”—that is to say that fate (a power often vested in the movements of the stars) controls them (Prologue. 6). This sense of fate permeates the play, and not just for the audience. The characters also are quite aware of it: Romeo and Juliet constantly see omens. When Romeo believes that Juliet is dead, he cries out, “Then I defy you, stars,” completing the idea that the love between Romeo and Juliet is in opposition to the decrees of destiny (5. 1. 24).
Of course, Romeo’s defiance itself plays into the hands of fate, and his determination to spend eternity with Juliet results in their deaths. The mechanism of fate works in all of the events surrounding the lovers: the feud between their families (it is worth noting that this hatred is never explained; rather, the reader must accept it as an undeniable aspect of the world of the play); the horrible series of accidents that ruin Friar Lawrence’s seemingly well-intentioned plans at the end of the play; and the tragic timing of Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s awakening.
These events are not mere coincidences, but rather manifestations of fate that help bring about the unavoidable outcome of the young lovers’ deaths. The concept of fate described above is the most commonly accepted interpretation. There are other possible readings of fate in the play: as a force determined by the powerful social institutions that influence Romeo and Juliet’s choices, as well as fate as a force that emerges from Romeo and Juliet’s very personalities. Motifs Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. Light/Dark Imagery
One of the play’s most consistent visual motifs is the contrast between light and dark, often in terms of night/day imagery. This contrast is not given a particular metaphoric meaning—light is not always good, and dark is not always evil. On the contrary, light and dark are generally used to provide a sensory contrast and to hint at opposed alternatives. One of the more important instances of this motif is Romeo’s lengthy meditation on the sun and the moon during the balcony scene, in which Juliet, metaphorically described as the sun, is seen as banishing the “envious moon” and transforming the night into day (2. . 46). A similar blurring of night and day occurs in the early morning hours after the lovers’ only night together. Romeo, forced to leave for exile in the morning, and Juliet, not wanting him to leave her room, both try to pretend that it is still night, and that the light is actually darkness: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3. 5. 36). Opposite Points of View Shakespeare includes numerous speeches and scenes in Romeo and Juliet that hint at alternative ways to evaluate the play. Shakespeare uses two main devices in this regard: Mercutio and servants.
Mercutio consistently skewers the viewpoints of all the other characters in play: he sees Romeo’s devotion to love as a sort of blindness that robs Romeo from himself; similarly, he sees Tybalt’s devotion to honor as blind and stupid. His punning and the Queen Mab speech can be interpreted as undercutting virtually every passion evident in the play. Mercutio serves as a critic of the delusions of righteousness and grandeur held by the characters around him. Where Mercutio is a nobleman who openly criticizes other nobles, the views offered by servants in the play are less explicit.
There is the Nurse who lost her baby and husband, the servant Peter who cannot read, the musicians who care about their lost wages and their lunches, and the Apothecary who cannot afford to make the moral choice, the lower classes present a second tragic world to counter that of the nobility. The nobles’ world is full of grand tragic gestures. The servants’ world, in contrast, is characterized by simple needs, and early deaths brought about by disease and poverty rather than dueling and grand passions.
Where the nobility almost seem to revel in their capacity for drama, the servants’ lives are such that they cannot afford tragedy of the epic kind. Symbols Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Poison In his first appearance, in Act 2, scene 2, Friar Lawrence remarks that every plant, herb, and stone has its own special properties, and that nothing exists in nature that cannot be put to both good and bad uses. Thus, poison is not intrinsically evil, but is instead a natural substance made lethal by human hands.
Friar Lawrence’s words prove true over the course of the play. The sleeping potion he gives Juliet is concocted to cause the appearance of death, not death itself, but through circumstances beyond the Friar’s control, the potion does bring about a fatal result: Romeo’s suicide. As this example shows, human beings tend to cause death even without intending to. Similarly, Romeo suggests that society is to blame for the apothecary’s criminal selling of poison, because while there are laws prohiting the Apothecary from selling poison, there are no laws that would help the apothecary make money.
Poison symbolizes human society’s tendency to poison good things and make them fatal, just as the pointless Capulet-Montague feud turns Romeo and Juliet’s love to poison. After all, unlike many of the other tragedies, this play does not have an evil villain, but rather people whose good qualities are turned to poison by the world in which they live. Thumb-biting In Act 1, scene 1, the buffoonish Samson begins a brawl between the Montagues and Capulets by flicking his thumbnail from behind his upper teeth, an insulting gesture known as biting the thumb.
He engages in this juvenile and vulgar display because he wants to get into a fight with the Montagues but doesn’t want to be accused of starting the fight by making an explicit insult. Because of his timidity, he settles for being annoying rather than challenging. The thumb-biting, as an essentially meaningless gesture, represents the foolishness of the entire Capulet/Montague feud and the stupidity of violence in general. Queen Mab In Act 1, scene 4, Mercutio delivers a dazzling speech about the fairy Queen Mab, who rides through the night on her tiny wagon bringing dreams to sleepers.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Queen Mab’s ride is that the dreams she brings generally do not bring out the best sides of the dreamers, but instead serve to confirm them in whatever vices they are addicted to—for example, greed, violence, or lust. Another important aspect of Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab is that it is complete nonsense, albeit vivid and highly colorful. Nobody believes in a fairy pulled about by “a small grey-coated gnat” whipped with a cricket’s bone (1. 4. 65).
Finally, it is worth noting that the description of Mab and her carriage goes to extravagant lengths to emphasize how tiny and insubstantial she and her accoutrements are. Queen Mab and her carriage do not merely symbolize the dreams of sleepers, they also symbolize the power of waking fantasies, daydreams, and desires. Through the Queen Mab imagery, Mercutio suggests that all desires and fantasies are as nonsensical and fragile as Mab, and that they are basically corrupting. This point of view contrasts starkly with that of Romeo and Juliet, who see their love as real and ennobling.
Prologue Summary From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. . . . As a prologue to the play, the Chorus enters. In a fourteen-line sonnet, the Chorus describes two noble households (called “houses”) in the city of Verona. The houses hold an “ancient grudge” (Prologue. 2) against each other that remains a source of violent and bloody conflict. The Chorus states that from these two houses, two “star-crossed” (Prologue. 6) lovers will appear. These lovers will mend the quarrel between their families by dying.
The story of these two lovers, and of the terrible strife between their families, will be the topic of this play. Analysis This opening speech by the Chorus serves as an introduction to Romeo and Juliet. We are provided with information about where the play takes place, and given some background information about its principal characters. The obvious function of the Prologue as introduction to the Verona of Romeo and Juliet can obscure its deeper, more important function. The Prologue does not merely set the scene of Romeo and Juliet, it tells the audience exactly what is going to happen in the play.
The Prologue refers to an ill-fated couple with its use of the word “star-crossed,” which means, literally, against the stars. Stars were thought to control people’s destinies. But the Prologue itself creates this sense of fate by providing the audience with the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet will die even before the play has begun. The audience therefore watches the play with the expectation that it must fulfill the terms set in the Prologue. The structure of the play itself is the fate from which Romeo and Juliet cannot escape. Act 1, scene 1
Summary Sampson and Gregory, two servants of the house of Capulet, stroll through the streets of Verona. With bawdy banter, Sampson vents his hatred of the house of Montague. The two exchange punning remarks about physically conquering Montague men and sexually conquering Montague women. Gregory sees two Montague servants approaching, and discusses with Sampson the best way to provoke them into a fight without breaking the law. Sampson bites his thumb at the Montagues—a highly insulting gesture. A verbal confrontation quickly escalates into a fight.
Benvolio, a kinsman to Montague, enters and draws his sword in an attempt to stop the confrontation. Tybalt, a kinsman to Capulet, sees Benvolio’s drawn sword and draws his own. Benvolio explains that he is merely trying to keep the peace, but Tybalt professes a hatred for peace as strong as his hatred for Montagues, and attacks. The brawl spreads. A group of citizens bearing clubs attempts to restore the peace by beating down the combatants. Montague and Capulet enter, and only their wives prevent them from attacking one another.
Prince Escalus arrives and commands the fighting stop on penalty of torture. The Capulets and Montagues throw down their weapons. The Prince declares the violence between the two families has gone on for too long, and proclaims a death sentence upon anyone who disturbs the civil peace again. He says that he will speak to Capulet and Montague more directly on this matter; Capulet exits with him, the brawlers disperse, and Benvolio is left alone with his uncle and aunt, Montague and Lady Montague. Benvolio describes to Montague how the brawl started.
Lady Montague asks whether Benvolio has seen her son, Romeo. Benvolio replies that he earlier saw Romeo pacing through a grove of sycamores outside the city; since Romeo seemed troubled, Benvolio did not speak to him. Concerned about their son, the Montagues tell Benvolio that Romeo has often been seen melancholy, walking alone among the sycamores. They add that they have tried to discover what troubles him, but have had no success. Benvolio sees Romeo approaching, and promises to find out the reason for his melancholy.
The Montagues quickly depart. Benvolio approaches his cousin. With a touch of sadness, Romeo tells Benvolio that he is in love with Rosaline, but that she does not return his feelings and has in fact sworn to live a life of chastity. Benvolio counsels Romeo to forget her by gazing on other beauties, but Romeo contends that the woman he loves is the most beautiful of all. Romeo departs, assuring Benvolio that he cannot teach him to forget his love. Benvolio resolves to do just that. Analysis
In an opening full of rousing action that is sure to capture the audience’s attention (and designed partly for that purpose), Shakespeare provides all the background information needed to understand the world of the play. In the brawl, he portrays all of the layers of Veronese society, from those lowest in power, the servants, to the Prince who occupies the political and social pinnacle. He further provides excellent characterization of Benvolio as thoughtful and fearful of the law, Tybalt as a hothead, and Romeo as distracted and lovelorn, while showing the deep and long-standing hatred between the Montagues and Capulets.
At the same time, Shakespeare establishes some of the major themes of the play. The opening of Romeo and Juliet is a marvel of economy, descriptive power, and excitement. The origin of the brawl, rife as it is with sexual and physical bravado, introduces the important theme of masculine honor. Masculine honor does not function in the play as some sort of stoic indifference to pain or insult. In Verona, a man must defend his honor whenever it is transgressed against, whether verbally or physically. This concept of masculine honor exists through every layer of society in Verona, from the servants on up to the noblemen.
It animates Samson and Gregory as much as it does Tybalt. It is significant that the fight between the Montagues and Capulets erupts first among the servants. Readers of the play generally focus on the two great noble families, as they should. But do not overlook Shakespeare’s inclusion of servants in the story: the perspectives of servants in Romeo and Juliet are often used to comment on the actions of their masters, and therefore, society. When servants appear in the play, don’t just dismiss them as props meant to make the world of Romeo and Juliet look realistic.
The things servants say often change the way we can look at the play, showing that while the Montagues and Capulets are gloriously tragic, they are also supremely privileged and stupid, since only the stupid would bring death upon themselves when there is no need for it. The prosaic cares of the lower classes display the difficulty of their lives; a difficulty that the Capulets and Montagues would not have to face were they not so blinded by honor and hatred. In the figures of the civil watch and the Prince, the brawl introduces the audience to a different aspect of the social world of Verona that exists beyond the Montagues and Capulets.
This social world stands in constant contrast to the passions inherent in the Capulets and Montagues. The give-and-take between the demands of the social world and individuals’ private passions is another powerful theme in the play. For example, look at how the servants try to attain their desire while remaining on the right side of the law. Note how careful Samson is to ask, “Is the law on our side, if I say ‘Ay,’” before insulting the Montagues (1. 1. 42). After the Prince institutes the death penalty for any who disturb the peace again, the stakes for letting private passions overwhelm public sobriety are raised to a new level.
Finally, this first scene also introduces us to Romeo the lover. But that introduction comes with a bit of a shock. In a play called Romeo and Juliet we would expect the forlorn Romeo to be lovesick over Juliet. But instead he is in love with Rosaline. Who is Rosaline? The question lingers through the play. She never appears onstage, but many of Romeo’s friends, unaware that he has fallen in love with and married Juliet, believe he is in love with Rosaline for the entirety of the play. And Friar Lawrence, for one, expresses shock that Romeo’s affections could shift so quickly from Rosaline to Juliet.
In this way, Rosaline haunts Romeo and Juliet. One can argue that Rosaline exists in the play only to demonstrate Romeo’s passionate nature, his love of love. For example, in the cliches he spouts about his love for Rosaline: “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health” (1. 1. 173). It seems that Romeo’s love for chaste Rosaline stems almost entirely from the reading of bad love poetry. Romeo’s love for Rosaline, then, seems an immature love, more a statement that he is ready to be in love than actual love.
An alternative argument holds that Romeo’s love for Rosaline shows him to be desirous of love with anyone who is beautiful and willing to share his feelings, thereby sullying our understanding of Romeo’s love with Juliet. Over the course of the play, the purity and power of Romeo’s love for Juliet seems to outweigh any concerns about the origin of that love, and therefore any concerns about Rosaline, but the question of Rosaline’s role in the play does offer an important point for consideration. Act 1, scene 2 Summary
On another street of Verona, Capulet walks with Paris, a noble kinsman of the Prince. The two discuss Paris’s desire to marry Capulet’s daughter, Juliet. Capulet is overjoyed, but also states that Juliet—not yet fourteen—is too young to get married. He asks Paris to wait two years. He assures Paris that he favors him as a suitor, and invites Paris to the traditional masquerade feast he is holding that very night so that Paris might begin to woo Juliet and win her heart. Capulet dispatches a servant, Peter, to invite a list of people to the feast.
As Capulet and Paris walk away, Peter laments that he cannot read and will therefore have difficulty accomplishing his task. Romeo and Benvolio happen by, still arguing about whether Romeo will be able to forget his love. Peter asks Romeo to read the list to him; Rosaline’s name is one of those on the list. Before departing, Peter invites Romeo and Benvolio to the party—assuming, he says, that they are not Montagues. Benvolio tells Romeo that the feast will be the perfect opportunity to compare Rosaline with the other beautiful women of Verona.
Romeo agrees to go with him, but only because Rosaline herself will be there. Analysis This scene introduces Paris as Capulet’s pick for Juliet’s husband and also sets into motion Romeo and Juliet’s eventual meeting at the feast. In the process, the scene establishes how Juliet is subject to parental influence. Romeo might be forced into fights because of his father’s enmity with the Capulets, but Juliet is far more constrained. Regardless of any inter-family strife, Juliet’s father can force her to marry whomever he wants.
Such is the difference between being a man and woman in Verona. It might seem a worse thing to be caught up in the violence of a brawl, but Juliet’s status as a young woman leaves her with no power or choice in any social situation. Like any other female in this culture, she will be passed from the control of one man to another. In this scene, Capulet appears to be a kind-hearted man. He defers to Juliet’s ability to choose for herself (“My will to her consent is but a part” [1. 2. 15]). But his power to force her into a marriage if he feels it necessary is implicitly present.
Thus parental influence in this tragedy becomes a tool of fate: Juliet’s arranged marriage with Paris, and the traditional feud between Capulets and Montagues, will eventually contribute to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The forces that determine their fate are laid in place well before Romeo and Juliet even meet. The specter of parental influence evident in this scene should itself be understood as an aspect of the force wielded over individuals by social structures such as family, religion, and politics. All of these massive social structures will, in time, throw obstacles in the path of Romeo and Juliet’s love.
Peter, who cannot read, offers a touch of humor to this scene, especially in the way his illiteracy leads him to invite two Montagues to the party while expressly stating that no Montagues are invited. But Peter’s poor education is also part of the entrenched social structures. Juliet has no power because she is a woman. Peter has no power because he is a lowly servant and therefore cannot read. Romeo, of course, is still lovelorn for Rosaline; but the audience can tell at this point that Romeo will meet Juliet at the feast, and expectations begin to rise.
Through Shakespeare’s ingenious manipulation of the plot, the audience starts to feel the rustlings of approaching fate. Act 1, scene 3 Summary In Capulet’s house, just before the feast is to begin, Lady Capulet calls to the Nurse, needing help to find her daughter. Juliet enters, and Lady Capulet dismisses the Nurse so that she might speak with her daughter alone. She immediately changes her mind, however, and asks the Nurse to remain and add her counsel. Before Lady Capulet can begin to speak, the Nurse launches into a long story about how, as a child, an uncomprehending Juliet became an innocent accomplice to a sexual joke.
Lady Capulet tries unsuccessfully to stop the wildly amused Nurse. An embarrassed Juliet forcefully commands that the Nurse stop. Lady Capulet asks Juliet what she thinks about getting married. Juliet replies that she has not given it any thought. Lady Capulet observes that she gave birth to Juliet when she was almost Juliet’s current age. She excitedly continues that Juliet must begin to think about marriage because the “valiant Paris” has expressed an interest in her (1. 3. 76). Juliet dutifully replies that she will look upon Paris at the feast to see if she might love him.
A servingman enters to announce the beginning of the feast. Analysis Three scenes into the play, the audience finally meets the second title character. Thematically, this scene continues to develop the issue of parental influence, particularly the strength of that influence over girls. Lady Capulet, herself a woman who married at a young age, offers complete support for her husband’s plan for their daughter, and puts pressure on Juliet to think about Paris as a husband before Juliet has begun to think about marriage at all.
Juliet admits just how powerful the influence of her parents is when she says of Paris: “I’ll look to like, looking liking move; / But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make it fly” (1. 3. 100–101). In effect, Juliet is saying that she will follow her mother’s advice exactly in thinking about Paris. While providing a humorous moment, the Nurse’s silly anecdote about Juliet as a baby also helps to portray the inevitability of Juliet’s situation. The Nurse’s husband’s comment about Juliet falling on her back when she comes of age is a reference to Juliet one day engaging in the act of sex.
His comment, therefore, shows that Juliet has been viewed as a potential object of sexuality and marriage since she was a toddler. In broad terms, Juliet’s fate to someday be given away in marriage has been set since birth. Beyond thematic development, this scene provides magnificent insight into the three main female characters. Lady Capulet is a flighty, ineffectual mother: she dismisses the Nurse, seeking to speak alone with her daughter, but as soon as the Nurse begins to depart, Lady Capulet becomes nervous and calls the Nurse back.
The Nurse, in her hilarious inability to stop telling the story about her husband’s innuendo about Juliet’s sexual development, shows a vulgar streak, but also a familiarity with Juliet that implies that it was she, and not Lady Capulet, who raised the girl. Indeed, it was the Nurse, and not Lady Capulet, who suckled Juliet as a baby (1. 3. 70). Juliet herself is revealed in this scene as a rather naive young girl who is obedient to her mother and the Nurse. But there are glimpses of a strength and intelligence in Juliet that are wholly absent in her mother.
Where Lady Capulet cannot get the Nurse to cease with her story, Juliet stops it with a word. We noted already that Juliet’s phrase “But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make it fly” seems to imply a complete acquiescence to her mother’s control. But the phrase can also be interpreted as illustrating an effort on Juliet’s part to use vague language as a means of asserting some control over her situation. In this phrase, while agreeing to see if she might be able to love Paris, she is at the same time saying that she will put no more enthusiasm into this effort than her other demands. The phrase can therefore be interpreted as a sort of passive resistance. In this scene once again a direct comparison is drawn between servants and masters. In the course of the Nurse’s story it becomes clear that her own daughter, who would be Juliet’s age, died long ago. The Nurse’s husband also has died. These deaths might simply be coincidental, but it seems just as likely that they correspond to the Nurse’s lower station in life. Act 1, scene 4 Summary O, then I see Queen Mab has been with you. . . . She is the fairies’ midwife. . . . (See Important Quotations Explained)
Romeo, Benvolio, and their friend Mercutio, all wearing masks, have gathered with a group of mask-wearing guests on their way to the Capulets’ feast. Still melancholy, Romeo wonders how they will get into the Capulets’ feast, since they are Montagues. When that concern is brushed aside, he states that he will not dance at the feast. Mercutio begins to gently mock Romeo, transforming all of Romeo’s statements about love into blatantly sexual metaphors. Romeo refuses to engage in this banter, explaining that in a dream he learned that going to the feast was a bad idea.
Mercutio responds with a long speech about Queen Mab of the fairies, who visits people’s dreams. The speech begins as a flight of fancy, but Mercutio becomes almost entranced by it, and a bitter, fervent strain creeps in. Romeo steps in to stop the speech and calm Mercutio down. Mercutio admits that he has been talking of nothing, noting that dreams are but “the children of an idle brain” (1. 4. 97). Benvolio refocuses their attention on actually getting to the feast. Romeo voices one last concern: he has a feeling that the night’s activities will set in motion the action of fate, resulting in untimely death.
But, putting himself in the hands of “he who hath the steerage of my course,” Romeo’s spirits rise, and he continues with his friends toward the feast (1. 4. 112). Analysis This scene might seem unnecessary. As an audience, we already know that Romeo and his friends are headed to the feast. We already know that Romeo is melancholy and Benvolio more pragmatic. The inclusion of this scene does not directly offer plot exposition or plot progression. However, the scene does augment the general sense of fate through Romeo’s statement of belief that the night’s events will lead to untimely death.
The audience, of course, knows that he will suffer an untimely death. When Romeo gives himself up to “he that hath the steerage of my course,” the audience feels fate take a tighter grasp on him (1. 4. 112). This scene also serves as introduction to the clever, whirling, entrancing Mercutio. Spinning wild puns left and right, seeming to speak them as freely as others breathe, Mercutio is established as a friend who can, gently or not, mock Romeo as no one else can. Though thoughtful, Benvolio does not have the quick wit for such behavior. With his wild speech and laughter, Mercutio is a man of excess.
But his passions are of another sort than those that move Romeo to love and Tybalt to hate. Romeo’s and Tybalt’s passions are founded upon the acceptance of two different ideals trumpeted by society: the poetic tradition of love and the importance of honor. Mercutio believes in neither. In fact, Mercutio stands in contrast to all of the other characters in Romeo and Juliet because he is able to see through the blindness caused by wholehearted acceptance of the ideals sanctioned by society: he pokes holes in Romeo’s rapturous adoption of the rhetoric of love just as he mocks Tybalt’s fastidious adherence to the fashions of the day.
It is no accident that Mercutio is the master punner in this play. A pun represents slippage, or twist, in the meaning of a word. That word, which previously meant one thing, now suddenly is revealed to have additional interpretations, and therefore becomes ambiguous. Just as Mercutio can see through words to other, usually debased meanings, he can also understand that the ideals held by those around him originate from less high-minded desires than anyone would care to admit. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is one of the most famous in the play.
Queen Mab, who brings dreams to sleeping people, seems to be loosely based on figures in the pagan Celtic mythology that predated Christianity’s arrival in England. Yet the name holds a deeper meaning. The words “quean” and “mab” were references to whores in Elizabethan England. In Queen Mab, then, Mercutio creates a sort of conceptual pun: he alludes to a mythological tradition peopled with fairies and attaches it to a reference to prostitutes. He yokes the childish fun of fairies to a much darker vision of humanity. The speech itself reveals this dichotomy.
A child would love Mercutio’s description of a world of fairies replete with walnut carriages and insect steeds, its stories of a fairy bringing dreams to sleeping people. But take a closer look at those dreams. Queen Mab brings dreams suited to each individual, and each dream she brings seems to descend into deeper depravity and brutality: lovers dream of love; lawyers dream of law cases and making money; soldiers dream of “cutting foreign throats” (1. 4. 83). By the end of the speech, Queen Mab is the “hag” who teaches maidens to have sex.
The child’s fairy tale has spun into something much, much darker, though this dark vision is an accurate portrayal of society. Mercutio, as entertaining as he is, can be seen as offering an alternative vision of the grand tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet. “Thou talk’st of nothing,” Romeo says to Mercutio in order to force Mercutio to end the Queen Mab speech (1. 4. 96). Mercutio agrees, saying that dreams “are the children of an idle brain” (1. 4. 98). But don’t Romeo’s visions of love qualify as dreams? Don’t Tybalt’s fantasies of perfect proprietary and social standing count as dreams?
And what about Friar Lawrence’s dreams of bringing peace to Verona? In Mercutio’s assessment, all of these desires “are the children of an idle brain. ” All are delusions. Mercutio’s comment can be seen as a single pinprick in the grand idealistic passions of love and family loyalty that animate the play. The Queen Mab speech by no means deflates the great tragedy and romantic ideals of Romeo and Juliet, but it adds to them the subtext of a pun, that dark flipside which offers an alternative view of reality. Act 1, scene 5 Summary In the great hall of the Capulets, all is a-bustle.
The servants work feverishly to make sure all runs smoothly, and set aside some food to make sure they have some enjoyment of the feast as well. Capulet makes his rounds through groups of guests, joking with them and encouraging all to dance. From across the room, Romeo sees Juliet, and asks a servingman who she is. The servingman does not know. Romeo is transfixed; Rosaline vanishes from his mind and he declares that he has never been in love until this moment. Moving through the crowd, Tybalt hears and recognizes Romeo’s voice. Realizing that there is a Montague present, Tybalt sends a servant to fetch his rapier.
Capulet overhears Tybalt and reprimands him, telling him that Romeo is well regarded in Verona, and that he will not have the youth harmed at his feast. Tybalt protests, but Capulet scolds him until he agrees to keep the peace. As Capulet moves on, Tybalt vows that he will not let this indignity pass. Meanwhile, Romeo has approached Juliet and touched her hand. In a dialogue laced with religious metaphors that figure Juliet as a saint and Romeo as a pilgrim who wishes to erase his sin, he tries to convince her to kiss him, since it is only through her kiss that he might be absolved. Juliet agrees to remain still as Romeo kisses her.
Thus, in the terms of their conversation, she takes his sin from him. Juliet then makes the logical leap that if she has taken Romeo’s sin from him, his sin must now reside in her lips, and so they must kiss again. Just as their second kiss ends, the Nurse arrives and tells Juliet that her mother wants to speak with her. Romeo asks the Nurse who Juliet’s mother is. The Nurse replies that Lady Capulet is her mother. Romeo is devastated. As the crowd begins to disperse, Benvolio shows up and leads Romeo from the feast. Juliet is just as struck with the mysterious man she has kissed as Romeo is with her.
She comments to herself that if he is already married, she feels she will die (1. 5. 131). In order to find out Romeo’s identity without raising any suspicions, she asks the Nurse to identify a series of young men. The Nurse goes off and returns with the news that the man’s name is Romeo, and that he is a Montague. Overcome with anguish that she loves a Montague, Juliet follows her nurse from the hall. Analysis This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Romeo sees Juliet and forgets Rosaline entirely; Juliet meets Romeo and falls just as deeply in love.
The meeting of Romeo and Juliet dominates the scene, and, with extraordinary language that captures both the excitement and wonder that the two protagonists feel, Shakespeare proves equal to the expectations he has set up by delaying the meeting for an entire act. The first conversation between Romeo and Juliet is an extended Christian metaphor. Using this metaphor, Romeo ingeniously manages to convince Juliet to let him kiss her. But the metaphor holds many further functions. The religious overtones of the conversation clearly imply that their love can be described only through the vocabulary of religion, that pure association with God.
In this way, their love becomes associated with the purity and passion of the divine. But there is another side to this association of personal love and religion. In using religious language to describe their burgeoning feelings for each other, Romeo and Juliet tiptoe on the edge of blasphemy. Romeo compares Juliet to an image of a saint that should be worshiped, a role that Juliet is willing to play. Whereas the Catholic church held that the worship of saint’s images was acceptable, the Anglican church of Elizabethan times saw it as blasphemy, a kind of idol worship. Romeo’s statements about Juliet border on the heretical.
Juliet commits an even more profound blasphemy in the next scene when she calls Romeo the “god of her idolatry,” effectively installing Romeo in God’s place in her personal religion (2. 1. 156). We have discussed already how Romeo and Juliet’s love seems always to be opposed by the social structures of family, honor, and the civil desire for order. Here it is also shown to have some conflict, at least theologically, with religion. When Romeo and Juliet meet they speak just fourteen lines before their first kiss. These fourteen lines make up a shared sonnet, with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg.
A sonnet is a perfect, idealized poetic form often used to write about love. Encapsulating the moment of origin of Romeo and Juliet’s love within a sonnet therefore creates a perfect match between literary content and formal style. The use of the sonnet, however, also serves a second, darker purpose. The play’s Prologue also is a single sonnet of the same rhyme scheme as Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet. If you remember, the Prologue sonnet introduces the play, and, through its description of Romeo and Juliet’s eventual death, also helps to create the sense of fate that permeates Romeo and Juliet.
The shared sonnet between Romeo and Juliet therefore creates a formal link between their love and their destiny. With a single sonnet, Shakespeare finds a means of expressing perfect love and linking it to a tragic fate. That fate begins to assert itself in the instant when Romeo and Juliet first meet: Tybalt recognizes Romeo’s voice when Romeo first exclaims at Juliet’s beauty. Capulet, acting cautiously, stops Tybalt from taking immediate action, but Tybalt’s rage is set, creating the circumstances that will eventually banish Romeo from Verona. In the meeting between Romeo and Juliet lie the seeds of their shared tragedy.
The first conversation between Romeo and Juliet also provides a glimpse of the roles that each will play in their relationship. In this scene, Romeo is clearly the aggressor. He uses all the skill at his disposal to win over a struck, but timid, Juliet. Note that Juliet does not move during their first kiss; she simply lets Romeo kiss her. She is still a young girl, and though already in her dialogue with Romeo has proved herself intelligent, she is not ready to throw herself into action. But Juliet is the aggressor in the second kiss. It is her logic that forces Romeo to kiss her again and take back the sin he has placed upon her lips.
In a single conversation, Juliet transforms from a proper, timid young girl to one more mature, who understands what she desires and is quick-witted enough to procure it. Juliet’s subsequent comment to Romeo, “You kiss by th’ book,” can be taken in two ways (1. 5. 107). First, it can be seen as emphasizing Juliet’s lack of experience. Many productions of Romeo and Juliet have Juliet say this line with a degree of wonder, so that the words mean “you are an incredible kisser, Romeo. ” But it is possible to see a bit of wry observation in this line.
Juliet’s comment that Romeo kisses by the book is akin to noting that he kisses as if he has learned how to kiss from a manual and followed those instructions exactly. In other words, he is proficient, but unoriginal (note that Romeo’s love for Rosaline is described in exactly these terms, as learned from reading books of romantic poetry). Juliet is clearly smitten with Romeo, but it is possible to see her as the more incisive of the two, and as nudging Romeo to a more genuine level of love through her observation of his tendency to get caught up in the forms of love rather than love itself.
Act 2, prologue–scene 1 Summary: Act 2, prologue The Chorus delivers another short sonnet describing the new love between Romeo and Juliet: the hatred between the lovers’ families makes it difficult for them to find the time or place to meet and let their passion grow; but the prospect of their love gives each of them the power and determination to elude the obstacles placed in their path. Summary: Act 2, scene 1 But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (See Important Quotations Explained) Having left the feast, Romeo decides that he cannot go home.
He must instead try to find Juliet. He climbs a wall bordering the Capulet property and leaps down into the Capulet orchard. Benvolio and Mercutio enter, calling out for Romeo. They are sure he is nearby, but Romeo does not answer. Exasperated and amused, Mercutio mocks Romeo’s feelings for Rosaline in an obscene speech. Mercutio and Benvolio exit under the assumption that Romeo does not want to be found. In the orchard, Romeo hears Mercutio’s teasing. He says to himself, “He jests at scars that never felt a wound” (2. 1. 43). Juliet suddenly appears at a window above the spot where Romeo is standing.
Romeo compares her to the morning sun, far more beautiful than the moon it banishes. He nearly speaks to her, but thinks better of it. Juliet, musing to herself and unaware that Romeo is in her garden, asks why Romeo must be Romeo—a Montague, and therefore an enemy to her family. She says that if he would refuse his Montague name, she would give herself to him; or if he would simply swear that he loved her, she would refuse her Capulet name. Romeo responds to her plea, surprising Juliet, since she thought she was alone. She wonders how he found her and he tells her that love led him to her.
Juliet worries that Romeo will be murdered if he is found in the garden, but Romeo refuses to budge, claiming that Juliet’s love would make him immune to his enemies. Juliet admits she feels as strongly about Romeo as he professes he loves her, but she worries that perhaps Romeo will prove inconstant or false, or will think Juliet too easily won. Romeo begins to swear to her, but she stops him, concerned that everything is happening too quickly. He reassures her, and the two confess their love again. The Nurse calls for Juliet, and Juliet goes inside for a moment.
When she reappears, she tells Romeo that she will send someone to him the next day to see if his love is honorable and if he intends to wed her. The Nurse calls again, and again Juliet withdraws. She appears at the window once more to set a time when her emissary should call on him: they settle on nine in the morning. They exult in their love for another moment before saying good night. Juliet goes back inside her chamber, and Romeo departs in search of a monk to aid him in his cause. O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? (See Important Quotations Explained) Analysis: Act 2, prologue–scene 1
The prologue to the second act reinforces themes that have already appeared. One love has been replaced by another through the enchanting power of the “charm of looks,” and the force of parental influence stands in the way of the lovers’ happiness. This prologue functions less as the voice of fate than the first one does. Instead it builds suspense by laying out the problem of the two lovers and hinting that there may be some way to overcome it: “But passion lends them power, time means, to meet, / Temp’ring extremities with extreme sweet” (2. Prologue. 13–14). Act 2 is the happiest and least tragic act in the play.
In it, Shakespeare devotes himself to exploring the positive, joyful, and romantic aspects of young love. Scene 1, the balcony scene (so called because it is often staged with Juliet on a balcony, though the stage directions suggest only that she is at a window above Romeo), is one of the most famous scenes in all of theater, owing to its beautiful and evocative poetry. Shakespeare plumbs the depths of the young lovers’ characters, and captures the subtleties of their interaction, as in Juliet’s struggle between the need for caution and an overpowering desire to be with Romeo.
Many of the most important scenes in Romeo and Juliet, such as the balcony scene, take place either very late at night or very early in the morning, since Shakespeare must use the full length of each day in order to compress the action of the play into just four days. Shakespeare exploits the transition between day and night with a recurring light/dark motif, sometimes drawing a sharp distinction between night and day, at other times blurring the boundaries between them. Romeo’s long, impassioned description of Juliet in the balcony scene is an example of this theme.
Romeo imagines that Juliet is the sun, rising from the east to banish the night; in effect, he says that she is transforming night into day. Romeo is of course speaking metaphorically here; Juliet is not the sun, and it is still night in the orchard. But Romeo states the comparison with such devotion that it should be clear to the audience that, for him, it is no simple metaphor. For Romeo, Juliet is the sun, and it is no longer night. Here is an example of the power of language to briefly transform the world, in the service of love. And yet, in the same speech, Romeo and Juliet also question the power of language.
Wishing that Romeo were not the son of her father’s enemy, Juliet says: ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy. Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet. (2. 1. 80–86) Here Juliet questions why Romeo must be her enemy. She refuses to believe that Romeo is defined by being a Montague, and therefore implies that the two of them can love each other without fear of the social repercussions.
But language as an expression of social institutions such as family, politics, or religion cannot be dismissed so easily because no other character in the play is willing to dismiss them. Juliet loves Romeo because he is Romeo, but the power of her love cannot remove from him his last name of Montague or all that it stands for. In the privacy of the garden the language of love is triumphant. But in the social world, the language of society holds sway. This battle of language, in which Romeo and Juliet try to remake the world so that it would allow for their love, is one to keep an eye on.
Act 2, scenes 2–3 Summary: Act 2, scene 2 In the early morning, Friar Lawrence enters, holding a basket. He fills the basket with various weeds, herbs, and flowers. While musing on the beneficence of the Earth, he demonstrates a deep knowledge of the properties of the plants he collects. Romeo enters and Friar Lawrence intuits that Romeo has not slept the night before. The friar fears that Romeo may have slept in sin with Rosaline. Romeo assures him that did not happen, and describes his new love for Juliet, his intent to marry her, and his desire that the friar consent to marry them that very day.
Friar Lawrence is shocked at this sudden shift from Rosaline to Juliet. He comments on the fickleness of young love, Romeo’s in particular. Romeo defends himself, noting that Juliet returns his love while Rosaline did not. In response, the friar comments that Rosaline could see that Romeo’s love for her “did read by