Here is Shakespeare. Juliet’s balcony is as instantly recognisable as Shakespearean as is Hamlet’s skull and dagger. It’s the greatest love story ever told – two feuding families, two young people determined to be together no matter what, an unhappy ending. Unlike Shakespeare in Love would have you believe, Shakespeare didn’t actually invent this tale. In fact, he didn’t even invent the title; he got it from a novella written by an Italian author Matteo Bandella, whose stories he also used for Cymbeline, Much Ado and The Twelfth Night. The tale of forbidden love is probably as old as humanity itself though – cannot you just imagine a Neanderthal tribe sitting down around campfire and telling a tale about that one girl who met a boy from the neighbouring tribe and it all ended in tragedy…? Yet, he took this timeless story and made it inherently his. Mention forbidden love, and this is what we all instantly think of.
In Verona, two noble families – Montagues and Capulets – are feuding. This feud is so violent that even a chance meeting of their respective servants out on the street starts a riot. The Veronese are kind of done with this though, and their prince tells both paterfamilias to come and talk to him in his father’s palace.
Montague’s son Romeo is in love with Rosaline, while Paris hopes to marry Juliet, Capulet’s daughter. She’s thirteen, so her father is reluctant, telling him he can court her but that she shouldn’t marry until she’s sixteen.
Capulet is throwing a masque that night, and when Romeo and Benvolio find out, they decide to gatecrash (also on the guest list, Mercutio and Rosaline, the girl Romeo is in love with). In the party Romeo sees Juliet on the dance floor, and instantly falls in love with her (poor, invisible Rosaline). They discover to be of rivaling families, but that only strengthens their passion. She goes to her room, and Romeo hides in the garden, listening to her daydream about him.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
With Juliet on the balcony of her room, and Romeo on the ground, they profess their love for each other again. Romeo goes to meet Friar Laurence, his mentor and fe facto parent, and persuades him to marry them; the Friar agrees thinking that the love between these two might finally bring an end to the Capulet-Montague feud. Romeo then persuades the nurse to tell Juliet to come to the Friar’s cell to be married.
Out on the street, Romeo’s friends Mercutio and Benvolio meet Tybalt, nephew of Capulet. The meeting escalates into a sword fight, and Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo, angered, fights and kills Tybalt. An alarm is raised, and Benvolio pleads Romeo’s case to the prince – he begged for the fighting to stop, and only grabbed a sword after Tybalt had killed Mercutio. Lady Capulet pleads to the Prince to condemn Romeo to death, but he sees that enough blood has been spilled, and instead banishes Romeo from Verona. Juliet, upon hearing the news that Romeo has killed Tybalt, is upset and not sure if she knows him; she is willing to give him the benefit of doubt though and prepares to be married. Romeo doesn’t take the news that he has been banished kindly, for that means leaving Juliet behind.
‘Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not
Unaware that Juliet is already married to Romeo (and with the Friar and the nurse’s help, spending the night with her husband as they speak), Capulet agrees to Paris’ pleading; they shall be married come Thursday.
Romeo and Juliet have consummated their love; their playful squabble over the light of dawn is cut short by the nurse, coming to tell them that Lady Capulet is looking for her daughter. Romeo leaves, and the lovers look at each other one last time, with a sudden, dreadful sense of forebearing:
Your lady mother is coming to your chamber:
The day is broke; be wary, look about.
Then, window, let day in, and let life out.
Farewell, farewell! one kiss, and I’ll descend.
Art thou gone so? love, lord, ay, husband, friend!
I must hear from thee every day in the hour,
For in a minute there are many days:
O, by this count I shall be much in years
Ere I again behold my Romeo!
I will omit no opportunity
That may convey my greetings, love, to thee.
O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.
O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art below,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb:
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale.
And trust me, love, in my eye so do you:
Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu!
As Romeo goes, Lady Capulet comes and tells Juliet that she is to marry Paris. She refuses. That does not go down well with either parent – Capulet tells Juliet that he will disown her if she refuses to marry Paris, and Lady C is too weak to resist her husband. Juliet then turns to the nurse, who advises her to forget Romeo and marry Paris. Desperate, Juliet decided to seek counsel in the Friar. Paris has beaten her to it, and the two finally meet. Paris, who is a little bit daft, refuses to believe that Juliet will not marry him. As he leaves, Juliet and the Friar come up with a plan – she will agree to marry Paris, but on the eve of the wedding take a potion that will put her to deep sleep, making her family think that she’s dead. The Friar will then bring her to the family vault, where Romeo will be waiting for her when she wakes up.
What could possibly go wrong?
Left alone with her vial of potion, Juliet is terrified – she is terrified of the potion not working, of the potion being poison, of waking up in a charnel house, of never seeing her mother again. Still, she takes the potion and the following morning, the nurse finds her “dead” in her bed.
Romeo is brought news – Juliet is dead. He buys poison from a poor apothecary and travels to Verona; there we learn that Friar Laurence sent him a letter explaining the ruse, but the plague has closed the gates of Verona, and Friar John, who was tasked with the delivery, has not been able to get to Romeo. Friar Laurence rushes away to reach Juliet in time, but Romeo and Paris have both beaten him to it. Paris confronts Romeo, who kills him. He then finds Juliet, presumes her dead and takes his poison, kissing her before he dies.
The Friar arrives, too late. He urges Juliet to leave with him, but she refuses – taking Romeo’s dagger, she kills herself.
The Capulets and Montague – whose wife had died of grief following Romeo’s banishment – arrive to lament the scene. The Friar reveals the whole story to them; the Prince says that this is punishment for the feuding families.
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.
This is a whopper of a play. For a simple story, it is full of psychological drama and has many layers. Especially modern audiences will keep asking questions. Aren’t Romeo and Juliet a bit too young to love so seriously? Does Romeo love seriously? – he is shown as a young man who is in love with the idea of being in love, devoted to Rosaline until the first glimpse of Juliet banishes her from his mind? Does he grow to love seriously? And what about Juliet? Is she, as Ellen Terry thought, a bit of silly goose, or is she wise beyond her 13 years, having been forced to bring herself up in a triangle of overbearing father, indifferent mother and the rather stupid, coarse nurse? We don’t see Mercutio and Romeo together for more than a moment, but is Mercutio’s jealous pursuit of his friend – who has once again run after a girl – a sign that he is in love with Romeo? The two lovers are, in modern eyes, mere children – where are their parents? Capulet is happy enough to abandon any doubt he has and marry his daughter off to a man she neither knows nor loves. Romeo, who is probably no older than 16, is half feral – his parents are almost entirely absent from the play. The role of the real parents has been taken up by the Friar and the nurse respectively; these are the two people Romeo and Juliet go for comfort and advice. Yet the nurse betrays Juliet, telling her to give up on Romeo and just marry Paris. The absent mother pours her grief and affection on Tybalt – how much exactly does she love him? Shakespeare doesn’t answer any of these questions, leaving us to read what he has written and guess.
This is Shakespeare’s first play about serious love. There are no games, no doubts, between Romeo and Juliet. They are devoted to one another from the moment they meet, their love as pure and perfect as it passionate. They part at the end of Act 3, and never meet again – it’s almost as if they are aware that their story cannot have a happy ending, and so they say their goodbyes knowing that they are doomed.
What say thou?
We owe many expressions – star-crossed lovers, wild goose chase, fortune’s fool, the very pink of courtesy – to this play. Thanks to Romeo and Juliet, we also ask What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet and wish the plague to both of your houses! The play is also surprisingly full of rather filthy references to sex – it’s not the first thing that comes to mind about Romeo and Juliet, but listen to the secondary characters (and the nurse) and be amazed.
Of all the speeches, my favourite is Juliet’s soliloquy before her wedding night. She may yet be a virgin, but not of the innocent, blushing kind:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them. O, here comes my nurse,
And she brings news; and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence.
I like (sorry) Juliet better than Romeo, but the Friar Laurence the best – he’s kind and wise and resourceful, and the only one who really takes the two lovers seriously, even if he has reservations about the whole situation.
Shakespeare’s Globe production from 2010, with Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo and Ellie Kendrick as Juliet. It’s really quite good.
The title painting and the scene of the reconciliation between Capulets and Montagues are by Lord Frederick Leighton. The first balcony scene is by Ford Madox Brown and the second by Frank Dicksee. The 1930s postcard was painted by Jennie Harbour.