Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 181-256).
1. What does the Prologue announce as the subject of this tragedy? What moral lesson does the Prologue promise the play will deliver?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, in what light does the bantering and quarreling amongst the servants and higher-status characters from the two houses cast the “civil strife” that has been going on in Verona? What seems to underlie their dissension?
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, what has the Prince apparently been doing about the problem between the Montagues and Capulets? What does he do about it now — what sentence does he pronounce, and how effective does it seem?
4. In Act 1, Scene 1, we first hear about and then meet Romeo when he talks with Benvolio. What state of mind does Romeo seem to be in, and why? What is characteristic of his speech? What advice does Benvolio offer Romeo, and how does the latter respond?
5. In Act 1, Scene 2, what is father Capulet’s plan for Juliet? What opportunity does this plan create for Romeo, who at this point has never seen Juliet?
6. In Act 1, Scene 3, Juliet’s nurse (Angelica) is included in the family discussion — what has been the nurse’s relationship with Juliet? What is her perspective on the current plan to marry her to Paris, the Prince’s worthy kinsman? To what extent does the nurse seem wise or authoritative in her pronouncements?
7. In Act 1, Scene 4, Mercutio recounts the legend of Queen Mab. What is this legend, and what seems to be the point of Mercutio’s mentioning it at this point? How does Romeo react to Mercutio’s speech about Mab?
8. In Act 1, Scene 5, the Capulet festivities are the scene of Romeo’s first meeting with Juliet. What happens during this encounter — how does Shakespeare represent the process of “falling in love” as we discover it in the looks, actions, and words of Romeo and Juliet? On the negative side, how does Tybalt remind us of the obstacles the two new lovers will face?
9. In Act 2, Scene 1, what view of romantic love does Mercutio offer by way of deflating Romeo’s naive, wholehearted outlook? What are Mercutio’s strengths and limitations as a source of perspective in this play?
10. In Act 2, Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet meet again. Both are idealistic in their way, but what differences may be found between them in the degree and quality of their idealism regarding love and courtship? What concerns does Juliet show heightened awareness of that do not seem of immediate concern to Romeo?
11. In Act 2, Scene 3, Friar Lawrence goes along with Romeo’s plan to wed Juliet secretly. What assumptions does the Friar make about the situation? Lawrence is surely a sympathetic figure, but why is his conduct in this scene a portent of misfortunes to come?
12. In Act 2, Scene 4, Mercutio indirectly mocks Tybalt, the young man who will soon kill him in a fight. In what way is Mercutio both a participant in the hostilities between the Capulets and Montagues and yet capable of seeing beyond them? How does he treat Juliet’s nurse when she comes calling? How does he match wits with Romeo, and regarding what subject?
13. In Act 2, Scene 5, Nurse Angelica again offers advice and support to Juliet. In his lecture on Romeo and Juliet, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is also a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse. How is that apparent in this scene?
14. In Act 3, Scene 1, Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio. How does this deed unfold — what part does Romeo play in Mercutio’s death? What parting wisdom does Mercutio offer as he dies? Also, how does the Prince deal with this latest outbreak of factional violence in Verona? Does his sentence seem wise, or unwise? Explain your rationale.
15. In Act 3, Scene 2, what is Juliet doing when she gets the bad news about the death of Tybalt (her kinsman) and Romeo’s part in the fighting as well as his banishment from Verona. How does she react to this news? What dilemma does she face, and how does she bear up in light of it?
16. In Act 3, Scene 3, what advice does Friar Lawrence give Romeo to overcome his difficulties as a banished member of a warring house? What limitations does the Friar betray in this scene — how does Romeo himself characterize the Friar’s understanding of romantic love?
17. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in dangerous circumstances. What traditional poetic genre do they invoke at first light? How do they view their situation and their prospects at this point?
18. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, what expectations do Juliet’s parents (her father in particular) have for her? What might account for her father’s harsh words and threats, both in the most obvious sense and at a deeper psychological level?
19. In Act 4, Scenes 1-4, what is Friar Lawrence’s scheme to bring Juliet through her difficulties? How does Juliet receive this plan? What are her fears and resolutions as she puts it into action? Does she seem to have matured by this point in the play? Explain your rationale for responding as you do.
20. In Act 4, Scene 5, the Capulet parents believe they have suffered an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear: the loss of a beloved only child. Describe this scene as a whole in terms of its mixture of lamentation, grotesque description, and comedy.
21. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, what course of action does Romeo determine now that (so far as he knows) Juliet is dead? What discomfiting news does Friar Lawrence receive about the progress of his plan for Romeo and Juliet?
22. In Act 5, Scene 3, Romeo makes his way to the Capulets’ tomb. What is his intention, and what actually happens in the tomb? What mistaken assumptions and accidents help make this scene as tragic as it is?
23. At the play’s end, Friar Lawrence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven for his role in the sad events. It has been said that Romeo and Juliet is not tragic because accidents are mostly responsible for the disastrous outcome. Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not? If you see Romeo and Juliet as genuinely tragic, what is the tragic quality or dimension in the play?
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake