Romeo and Juliet

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Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 181-256).

Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (189-95, the nature of the tragedy;  squabbling of Samson / Gregory and Abraham, Tybalt and Benvolio; Romeo’s whereabouts and lovesickness)

It has sometimes been said that Romeo and Juliet is not much of a tragedy because unfortunate accidents seem to be responsible for most of the bad things that happen.  There is no prideful individual, no Oedipus the King in this play, who brings about his own downfall.  Following the Prologue, we may choose to distribute this function broadly and say it’s the corporate property of the scions and lesser members of both houses, but such an arrangement doesn’t seem as convincing or intense as individual error, and of course the emphasis of the play is squarely on Romeo and Juliet themselves.  

In any case, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows a unitary model of tragedy—he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one set of materials to the next.  A notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.  What, then, is the stuff of tragedy in this play?  We are dealing with a primal tragedy of youthful expectations and middle-aged fears, of existential rawness and fear of irretrievable loss.  Losing anyone we care about is difficult, but it’s hard to imagine a more wrenching loss than the loss of a child by a parent—it seems unnatural and undercuts our sense for the orderly progression of life: parents, we think, are supposed to precede their children in passing, not the other way around.  But that’s exactly the loss that both the Montagues and the Capulets suffer.  As for Romeo and Juliet, they are open to the intensities and extremes of passion that come with first love.  Romeo in particular idealizes love and fidelity to an extent that cannot help but be perilous.  He hasn’t had the experience to do otherwise.  There is a medieval quality to this play so full of turnabouts and sudden emotional passages from mirth to despair.

The Prologue announces that Romeo and Juliet will be a tragedy not only of two lovers but also of two extended families, the Montagues and the Capulets.  Antipathy has become habitual with them, and they have therefore embroiled the entire city of Verona in civil strife.  The quibbling servants of the first scene show how trivial the feud has become, and Samson’s obscene innuendos about Montague maidens suggests that the family feud is easily made to serve selfish purposes, base appetites.  Says Samson, “I will push Mon- / tague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall” (190, 1.1.15-16).  There is no nobility in such factional strife.  Tybalt and Benvolio are as absurd in prosecuting the quarrel as the low-born servants, with their melodramatic pronouncements: “Turn thee, Benvolio.  Look upon thy death” (191, 1.1.60).  The Prince breaks up the current fighting, but from his mention of “Three civil brawls bred of an airy word” (192, 1.1.82), we may gather that he has dealt too leniently with such disorders in the past.  As in Measure for Measure, the ruler has allowed his subjects’ petty desires to wreak havoc in his realm.

We first hear of Romeo when Lady Montague asks Benvolio where the young man has been hiding himself.  He shuns company, and as Benvolio explains to Lady Montague, he came upon Romeo “an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the east” (192, 1.1.111-12) standing under a grove of melancholy sycamore trees, and the root of his troubles isn’t yet clear.  But Benvolio soon learns from him that love is the cause; the young man says that he is “Out of her favour where I am in love” (193, 1.1.161).  The “her” in question is Rosaline, though she isn’t named until the following scene.  Romeo speaks with considerable wit, but his words are also full of Petrarchan extremes: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms …” (194, 1.1.171-72) and so forth.  Benvolio, a somewhat less inexperienced young man, advises Romeo to look around him and compare as many beautiful women as possible with the one who seems to be giving him the trouble: the solution to lovesickness, he advises, is “giving liberty unto thine eyes” (195, 1.1.220).

Act 1, Scene 2 (195-97, Capulet invites Paris to a feast where Juliet will be present; Benvolio urges Romeo to crash the party, and he reluctantly agrees)

Capulet is very pleased with the prospect of the Prince Escalus’ kinsman Paris marrying his daughter Juliet, with the proviso that he must be successful in winning Juliet’s love: “My will to her consent is but a part …” (195, 1.2.15).  Capulet invites the young man to a public feast that also presents Romeo with the opportunity Benvolio is pushing on him: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye …” (196, 1.2.47) to drive out the old one, he urges a dubious Romeo.  The latter prefers to maintain his distant Rosaline’s matchless quality, but Benvolio being the charming fellow he is, it’s hard to resist his pleas, and Romeo finally consents: “I’ll go along, no such sight to be shown, / But to rejoice in splendor of mine own” (197, 1.2.100-01).

Act 1, Scene 3 (197-200, the nurse gives us her perspective on Juliet’s life as a whole to her upcoming fourteenth birthday; Lady Capulet broaches the possibility of a union with Count Paris)

The nurse apparently has been with Juliet from infancy onwards to the present, with her fourteenth birthday coming up on Lammas Eve, which is August 1st, a festival day for the wheat harvest (198, 1.3.19).  She sees the girl’s life as a whole.  The bawdy joke made by her husband years ago, here repeated, implies that the nurse has been preparing Juliet for this time from her childhood.  It seems little Juliet took a tumble, and the nurse’s husband said, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit …” (198, 1.3.44).  The nurse’s words are poignant in that they remind us just how short is the time between carefree childhood and the consequential time of adulthood.  Juliet is intrigued about her aristocratic suitor when Lady Capulet informs her that she is to “Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face, / And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen” (199, 1.3.82-83).  But she is no more than intrigued since Paris is as yet only a name to her: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move …” (199, 1.3.99) says Juliet, and as for marriage, she tells her old nurse in formal tone, “It is an honour that I dream not of” (199, 1.3.68).

Act 1, Scene 4 (200-02, on the way to Capulet’s feast, Mercutio recounts his dream about Queen Mab; Romeo expresses an impending dread of bitter consequence)

On the way to their uninvited attendance at Capulet’s feast, worldly Mercutio parries wits with Romeo the idealist.  Mercutio ends up getting a bit carried away and turns to recounting the legend of Queen Mab to Romeo and others present: this “fairies’ midwife,” says Mercutio, is insanely busy stirring up mortals’ emotions: most pointedly, “she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love …” (201, 1.4.55, 71-72), but she also stuffs with fantasies the brains of courtiers, lawyers, parsons, and soldiers.  The substance of the speech is that this midwife to fairies inspires all sorts to follow their own particular desires.  By implication, we don’t have a great deal of control when it comes to our emotions and desires.  All of this wild talk is meant to deflate Romeo’s dream, but the deeper significance of Mercutio’s speech is to put everyone in the same condition as Romeo: a follower of idle dreams.  At the end of the conversation, Romeo is not in so light a mood after all.  He fears that some star-poised “consequence … / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels” (202, 1.4.107-09).

Act 1, Scene 5 (202-06, At Capulet’s feast, Romeo and Juliet meet: love at first sight; Tybalt’s wrath chastened for the moment by Uncle Capulet)

Benvolio’s plan doesn’t go quite as he had intended since Romeo, upon seeing Juliet, becomes just as smitten with her as he was with his former love: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” (203, 1.5.41).  The phrase is wonderfully appropriate—who hasn’t felt that strange “singling out” effect Romeo’s words evoke, when we first meet someone deeply attractive to us?  Old Montague and Capulet are willing to keep the peace, but the younger generation is always spoiling for trouble.  Romeo’s forebodings are fulfilled when Tybalt conceives a hatred for him at the very moment when he falls in love with Juliet.  Tybalt’s “I’ll not endure him” (204, 1.5.173) earns only Uncle Capulet’s annoyance, but it’s no less intense for that.  

The first meeting between Romeo and Juliet is a fine moment in Shakespeare’s canon.  Together the two speak an English sonnet (rhyming abab cdcd efef gg), with the ending “gg” couplet running, “[Juliet:] Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. / [Romeo:] Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take” (205, 1.5.102-03).  Romeo takes the lead and kisser Juliet, while she is passionate and poised throughout.  At the end of the scene, both are dispossessed of any notion that there is a clear path forwards for them: Romeo realizes Juliet is a Capulet, and she realizes he belongs to the Montagues (205-06, 1.5.114-15, 136).

Act 2, Prologue and Scene 1 (206-11, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about Romeo’s idealism; Romeo idealizes Juliet as “the sun” and Juliet muses about the power of words; the two lovers converse about vows and begin to plan their secret marriage)

Ever the realist, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about the supposed otherworldliness of Romeo’s new affection.  Mercutio stands for the view that any “idealizing of eroticism” is downright silly and perhaps disingenuous, since raw sexuality is always at the bottom of any romantic pose a lover may strike up: of Juliet he can only say, “O that she were / An open-arse, thou a popp’rin’ pear” (207, 2.1.39-40).  He says this to Benvolio, however, and not to Romeo.  Mercutio is frenetic and open-hearted in his way, but he’s not inclined to lie around in a chilly “field-bed” (207, 2.1.40) to keep watch over the passions of Romeo. 

Mercutio’s exit is unfortunate because it makes him miss one of Shakespeare’s most renowned passages.  Romeo says, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (207-08, 2.1.44-45).  And Juliet, believing she’s alone, puts her famous question about Romeo’s name: “O Romeo, Romeo, / wherefore art thou Romeo?” followed not long after by “That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (208, 2.1.74-75, 85-86).  It’s a fine sentiment, but most readers will see the difficulty with it: names, and words generally, are saturated with history and significance that isn’t in the control of those who claim an intimate relationship with them.  Romeo is a Montague, and he doesn’t have much say in what that proper name means in Verona.  A real-life Juliet would be very right to call us to agreement that what we call a rose ought to smell as sweet as it would if it were called a mugwort blossom or a “stinking Montague.”  Still, I’m only about 82½% sure it would get the same olfactory attention—such is the power of “words, words, words.”  They may be as powerful and determinative in our experience of the world as our senses: what are you going to believe—words or your own solitary nose?

But seriously, while Romeo’s romantic idealism is nearly absolute up to this point, Juliet’s idealism, though strong, shows more regard for the narrow dynastic concerns that hem in the two lovers.  In the lines I just quoted about names and roses, Juliet captures the dilemma of lovers right up to Shakespeare’s time: love is a universal passion and as such it ought to generate community, but this same passion is hindered by a host of social demands and expectations that are anything but charitable, so that it often creates rifts between individuals and the larger group, which we call society.

Juliet reveals her passion fully since at first she doesn’t know Romeo is listening, which spares both of them the awkward task of dissembling their love, the need for which is clear enough from her self-reproach when she finally becomes aware that Romeo is near, “I am too fond …” (209, 2.1.140).  Juliet’s language is tinged with realistic (if unfounded) concerns when she actually speaks to Romeo—in particular, she fears that his propensity to swear by the moon may indicate rashness rather than constancy (210, 2.1.  151), and she insists, “I have no joy of this contract tonight. / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden …” (210, 2.1.160).  But she is steadfast in her eagerness to marry Romeo, whatever the obstacles.  The language of falconry marks Juliet’s desire: “O, for a falconer’s voice,” she says, “To lure this tassel-gentle back again!” (211, 2.1.203-04)  There is recognition in such language that desire is a wild thing, not something safe and tame.  We can find the same insight, though in a darker vein, in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and other Tudor poets preceding Shakespeare.  In his sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt,” Wyatt makes King Henry VIII’s mistress and then wife Anne Boleyn described herself as, “wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”  Romeo’s plan seems mannerly enough, however, since he plans a present trip to Friar Laurence’s cell (211, 2.1.233-34).

Act 2, Scene 2 (212-13, Friar Laurence agrees to Romeo’s proposal to marry him secretly to Juliet)

Friar Laurence’s pronouncement near the beginning of this scene is instructive: “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).  The Friar is collecting a basket with “baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers” (212, 2.2.8) that will turn out to be useful—and harmful—in a way he doesn’t yet imagine.  Surprised by Romeo’s sudden transference of his attentions from Rosaline to Juliet, he nonetheless agrees to perform the secret marriage rite Romeo wants, in hopes of ending Verona’s unrest.  The Friar seems to think that the Montagues and Capulets will be charitable and reasonable once they realize two of their own have chosen to marry: “For this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households’ rancour to pure love” (213, 2.2.91-92).  The Friar is a good man, but perhaps a bit naïve to deserve as much faith in his practical acumen as Romeo and Juliet place in him.

Act 2, Scene 3 (214-18, Mercutio mocks the feuding; rattles Juliet’s nurse; Romeo explains to Nurse Angelica his secret plans to visit Juliet on their wedding night)

Mercutio shows his awareness of how silly the feuding amongst the two houses is: he takes on the persona of a grandsire to denounce “fashionmongers” like Tybalt (214, 2.3.29).  Mercutio is in on the hostilities, but he isn’t entirely circumscribed or defined by them.  Given the opportunity, he engages with Romeo in a battle of wits, and then takes bawdy aim at Juliet’s Nurse, who has come as the girl’s emissary: when she says good morning, Mercutio says, “the bawdy hand of the dial / is now upon the prick of noon” (216, 2.3.99-100).  Nurse Angelica (she is addressed by name in Act 4.4), is not amused.  Romeo promises he will arrive in good time to spend the night with Juliet after they are married – his servant will bring a rope ladder that must be Romeo’s “convoy in the secret night” (218, 2.3.172; see 169-72).  The scene closes on a note of wordplay with Romeo’s name.  The Nurse informs the young man that Juliet has “the pret- / tiest sententious of it, of you and rosemary …” (218, 2.3.193-94).

Act 2, Scene 4 (218-20, Nurse Angelica passes along Romeo’s marriage plan to Juliet)

In his lectures on Shakespeare, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is at the same time a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse.*  It’s easy to see that quality in her here—beset by the impatient Juliet, the Nurse holds her ground for a while, but finally gives the girl the information she wants: she is to go to Friar Laurence’s cell to marry Romeo (220, 2.4.67-68).  Angelica’s circumstances and pace are not the same as Juliet’s: “I am the drudge, and toil in your delight; / But you shall bear the burthen soon at night” (220, 2.4.74-75).  She is fond of Juliet almost to a fault, and certainly favorable to her pledge to Romeo, but always aware that the young girl is surrounded by a potentially hostile world of causes and effects, of limitations and consequences.  Pleasure and idealism are not free.

*Coleridge quotation: The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakspeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age…. ( )

Act 2, Scene 5 (220-21, Friar Laurence prepares Romeo and Juliet for their marriage ceremony)

Friar Laurence leads Romeo and Juliet off for the performance of the marriage ceremony.  Romeo is in the mood for absolutes: the marriage once completed, he says, let “love-devouring death do what he dare …” (220, 2.5.7).  The Friar’s advice to Romeo to “love moderately” (220. 2.5.14) is strangely ineffectual, given his willingness to facilitate such a hasty, secret wedding, even though Laurence insists on maintaining the propriety of the affair: he tells the two, “you shall not stay alone / Till Holy Church incorporate two in one” (221, 2.5.36-37).

Act 3, Scene 1 (221-25, Mercutio and Benvolio jest about violence; Tybalt and Mercutio quarrel and the latter is mortally wounded when Romeo interrupts; Romeo kills Tybalt; the prince banishes Romeo)

The scene begins with Mercutio ribbing Benvolio about his readiness to involve himself in trouble: “Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat …” (221, 3.1.21).  But soon events take a more serious turn.  Tybalt is determined to fight some Montagues, and Romeo’s attempt to get between Tybalt and Mercutio results in a mortal injury to the latter, who greets his fate with the bitter condemnation, “A plague o’ both your houses” (223, 3.1.86).  Romeo is honor-bound to avenge his kinsman, and having duly slain Tybalt, he laments that he is now “fortune’s fool” (224, 3.1.131).  The prince steps in and dispenses his characteristically tempered style of justice, banishing Romeo on pain of death (225, 3.1.188-89).  This decree is mild since, after all, Paris is the prince’s own kinsman, and Capulet’s wife has demanded Romeo’s execution (225, 3.1.174-75).

Act 3, Scene 2 (225-28, Juliet envisions Romeo in the stars; the nurse informs her that Tybalt is slain and Romeo is banished; Juliet despairs, but the nurse tells her Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence)

Juliet is indulging herself in a little romantic idealism around the time of the deadly quarrel: she imagines her Romeo patterned in the stars, whereupon “ … he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night” (226, 3.2.23-24; see 21-25).  But the Nurse soon brings her the bad news about Tybalt’s death (over which Juliet is genuinely aggrieved since he was her kinsman) and Romeo’s guilty flight, along with the bitter asseveration that men are “All perjured, all forsworn, all aught, dissemblers all” (227, 3.2.86-87).  Juliet’s own understanding flows from a medieval sense for the grotesque: “I’ll to my wedding bed, / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead” (228, 3.2.136-37).  In the end, Angelica provides hope, for she knows Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence (228, 3.2.140-41).

Act 3, Scene 3 (228-32, Romeo despairs at the pain he has caused Juliet and offers to stab himself; Laurence reproaches Romeo’s wild grief and advises him to go to Mantua)

Banished Romeo is unable to imagine a “world without Verona walls” (228, 3.3.17), and when the Friar tries to show him the sunny side of the whole affair, Romeo says, perhaps with some justice, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel” (229, 3.3.64).  Romeo’s willingness to kill himself if it will assuage Juliet’s grief over Tybalt shows the depth of affection that the Friar, as a holy man, supposedly lacks: “ … tell me, / In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge?” (230, 3.3.104-06), offering to cut it out with his knife.  Friar Laurence rebukes the young man’s “wild acts” (230, 3.3.109) and tells him to make his way to Mantua.

Act 3, Scenes 4-5 (232-38, Capulet plans Juliet’s marriage to Paris; newlyweds Romeo and Juliet spend the night together in Capulet territory and argue with the dawn; Juliet spurns her father’s demand that she marry Paris, and the old man becomes enraged; the nurse angers Juliet by advising her to give in; Juliet decides to seek help from Friar Laurence)

In the fourth scene, old Capulet tells his wife that Juliet should be married to impatient Paris on Thursday rather than on the Monday date he has requested (232, 3.4.20). 

In the fifth scene, Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in the Capulet stronghold, and engage in a traditional “argument with the dawn” of European troubadour lineage: Juliet begins the dialogue, “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day” (233, 3.5.1) but she is also the partner who finally admits that the day is upon them: “O, now be gone! More light and light it grows” (233, 3.5.35).  These dawn songs were called aubades in French, and a variant albas in Occitan poetic tradition.  Juliet is filled with dread, and tells Romeo, “Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (234, 3.5.55-56). 

When Lady Capulet professes her desire to poison Romeo in Mantua (235, 3.5.87-92), Juliet pretends to share the same wish, but she can’t bring herself to pretend any joy in the prospect of marrying Count Paris, to whom her father has decided she should be wed “early next Thursday” (235, 3.5.112).  Old Capulet’s rebuke of Juliet for her refusal is immediate and harsh: either she will marry Paris or he will disown her.  He is baffled by her obstinacy, complaining, “still my care hath been / To have her matched …” (236, 3.5.177-78).  Juliet is the Capulets’ only child, and in her stubbornness the father of the household sees his hopes of dynastic immortality frustrated.  When Nurse Angelica professes that it would be best to give in to father Capulet’s wishes and marry Paris, Juliet swears to herself she will have nothing more to do with the old woman: “Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain” (238, 3.5.240).  Off Juliet goes to be advised by Friar Laurence.

Act 4, Scene 1 (238-40, Friar Laurence outlines a plan that calls for Juliet to mimic death, be carried to the Capulet vault, and then escape with Romeo to Mantua)

Friar Laurence sees that Juliet’s situation is desperate, and offers an equally desperate remedy: she will pretend to agree to the match with Paris and take a drug that induces death-like symptoms for forty-two hours, and then Romeo will come to the tomb of the Capulets and take her away with him to Mantua (240, 4.1.89-117).  This is a common motif in literature: cheating the Grim Reaper, or at least attempting to negotiate a better deal with him.  Film students may recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval man plays a game of chess with Death in hopes of gaining more earthly time.  The Friar, for a holy man, has a flair for quick-thinking deception, and is able to put his earlier sententia about virtue and vice to good use: he had said, “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).

Act 4, Scenes 2-4 (240-47, Juliet goes through with her plan, and the Capulet household is distraught; but not the hired musicians, to whom a wedding or a funeral brings pay and dinner)

In the second scene, Juliet executes her pretense of agreement to marry Paris, and in the third scene, she rehearses her anxieties about the part of the plan that calls for her to feign death.  What if she should  “wake before the time that Romeo / Come …” (242, 4.3.30-31)?  Such fears are the very stuff of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic fiction, for which Shakespeare no doubt provided some inspiration.  Juliet shows remarkable courage and does not shrink from swallowing her potion, even when she conjures the ghost of Tybalt “Seeking out Romeo that did spit his body / Upon a rapier’s point” (243, 4.3.55-56).

The fourth scene leaps from joy to despair in a heartbeat, a characteristic pattern in this play.  The Capulet parents suffer (or rather think they suffer) an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear.  There is a strong medieval quality to the grotesque imagery here and elsewhere in the play: old Capulet says to Paris, “O son, the night before thy wedding-day / Hath death lain with thy wife” (244, 4.4.62-63), and to Friar Laurence he laments, “All things that we ordainèd festival / Turn from their office to black funeral” (245, 4.4.111-12). 

The scene ends with a comic exchange between some musicians who had been summoned earlier by the Capulets and the servant Peter.  Together, they introduce a devil-may-care, self-interested attitude into the midst of unspeakable woe.  These musicians have little to do with the goings-on of great houses.  They are just working-class stiffs, as we would say, and they seek their own security and comfort, when the latter is to be had.  The second musician speaks for them all when he says, “Come, we’ll in here, tarry / for the mourners, and stay dinner” (247, 4.4.165-66).  The scene doesn’t reach the synthesized profundity and silliness of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, but it’s effective.

Act 5, Scene 1 (247-48, Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, and he determines to lie in death by her side; Romeo buys poison from an apothecary, who protests but is forced to comply thanks to poverty)

Romeo hears from Balthasar that Juliet’s body lies in the tomb of the Capulets (247, 5.1.17-23), and, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, he determines “with wings / As swift as meditation or the thoughts of love” (Norton Tragedies 352, 1.5.29-30) to purchase a dram of deadly stuff from a poor apothecary (druggist), and die next to Juliet.  The apothecary becomes a common-born casualty of this noble tragedy, protesting, “My poverty but not my will consents” (248, 5.1.75).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (249-56, Friar Laurence learns that his letter couldn’t be delivered to Romeo; Romeo goes to the Capulets’ tomb and confronts death; Romeo kills Paris, swallows poison and dies; Juliet awakens and frightened Laurence won’t stay in the tomb; Juliet sees Romeo’s body and falls on his sword; Laurence and Balthasar give their accounts; the prince says both houses are punished by their losses)

Friar Laurence learns to his discomfiture that Friar John was detained by townsmen concerned about the plague, so he wasn’t able to deliver his friend’s letter to Romeo (249, 5.2.5-12).

Romeo boldly confronts death and all its accoutrements: imagining death as a “detestable maw,” he defies it: “… in despite I’ll cram thee with more food” (250, 5.3.45, 48; see 45-48).  The death-imagery in this play is quite ugly, and throughout, it has underlain the graceful words and actions of the young hero and heroine like the grotesque underside of a fair medieval decorative panel or casket.  Romeo also confronts the hapless Paris, who has come to the Capulets’ tomb to do his obsequies to his intended bride, and kills him, only to die after one last look at Juliet’s body: “Here, here will I remain / With worms that are thy chambermaids” (251-52, 5.3.108-09; see 91-120), he addresses Juliet, and promptly swallows the apothecary’s poison.  The “ensign” of Juliet’s beauty is still visible (251, 5.3.94), but the already aggrieved Romeo isn’t able to process this fact in anything but an ultra-romantic way, so surrounded is she by the architecture and trappings of death.

When Juliet awakens, her only comfort is Friar Laurence, and Romeo’s words in 3.3 about the Friar’s inability to enter into the deep passions of the two lovers ring true: at the critical moment, Laurence is frightened away from the scene when he hears the watch coming, and leaves Juliet alone.  The conventional fate he had imagined for her—delivery to “a sisterhood of holy nuns” (253, 5.3.157) is not for Juliet, who kisses Romeo’s poison-tinged lips, then embraces his dagger and dies, in stage versions often falling directly on his body (253, 5.3.164-69). 

Friar Laurence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven his less than wise or heroic interventions (255-56, 5.3.228-68).  As the Prologue promised, the “strife” of the Montagues and Capulets is “buried” by the death of their beloved son and daughter.  This family that has dealt in hatred, says the prince, is justly punished: “heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (256. 5.3.292), but neither does he exempt himself from blame since he has been guilty of “winking” (256, 5.3.293) at the chaos the two families have long visited upon Verona.  Love has indeed brought the warring houses together, but the price is the death of what they held most dear.

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

Romeo and Juliet

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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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