Who does not know the story of Romeo and Juliet? And these immortal lines,
"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"
"But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."
"Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow."
The very word "Romeo" has become synonymous with "male lover" in English, and the idea of the doomed romantic lovers, whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families, is famous world-wide. It has been adapted numerous times for stage, film, musical, opera and radio; the latest film went on general release just a few months ago in 2013.
However, Shakespeare did not invent the story of Romeo and Juliet. He reworked a long poem by Arthur Brooks, called "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet", written in 1562. The tradition of tragic romances had been well established in literature - in particular Italian literature - for almost a hundred years, but what may be surprising is that many of the plot elements of Romeo and Juliet were all in Brooks' poem. The first meeting of the lovers at the ball, their secret marriage, Romeo's fight with Tybalt, the sleeping potion, and even the timing of their eventual suicides, are all episodes which we usually attribute to Shakespeare. This is characteristic of the author, who often wrote plays based on earlier works.
Shakespeare's text is believed to have been written between 1591 and 1595, and as such was one of his earliest performed plays, although not published until later. It was an immediate success; so popular that Shakespeare continued to rework and hone the notes from the play's performances. It was then first published in 1597, with later editions improving on it still further. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime, and has remained so, now being the most performed of all his plays alongside "Hamlet." Although the initial idea for Romeo and Juliet came from the earlier text, it is Shakespeare's wonderful play which is credited with having had such a profound influence on subsequent literature.
It starts with a short prologue, in sonnet form, which tells the audience what is to follow. Nobody can be in any doubt that the story is a tragedy about young love, and that it will take their deaths to bring an end to family feuds. We are then straight into the action, which is a masterly piece of writing, full of bawdy references to ensure his audiences' attention, while providing all the background information needed to understand the world of the play. We are immediately told about the long-standing hatred between the two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues, and then immediately find ourselves engaged by an exciting brawl.
Shakespeare cleverly establishes some of the major themes of the play, right at its start. He also portrays all of the layers of Veronese society starting with the servants, right through to Prince Escalus. Many of the secondary characters important to the play are also introduced here; for instance, Romeo's friend, Benvolio, thoughtful, pragmatic and fearful of the law, and Juliet's cousin Tybalt, a hothead, professing a hatred for peace as strong as his hatred for Montagues. A modern audience becomes aware that in the Verona of this play, masculine honour is not restricted to indifference to pain or insult. Tybalt makes it plain that a man must defend his honour at all times, whether the insult is verbal or physical.
Mercutio is established as another friend; one who who can poke friendly fun at Romeo quite mercilessly. Benvolio is not nearly so quick-witted. Mercutio is confident, constantly joking, making puns and laughing. He is a passionate man, but his passions are different from Romeo's love and Tybalt's hate. Their passions are founded respectively upon two ideals of society - love and honour - but Mercutio believes in neither. He comes across as the character with the clearest vision. Just as Mercutio can see through words to other meanings, he can also see through the ideals held by those around him. He understands that often they are not sincerely held, but merely adopted for convenience.
The characters in this play are multi-layered and complex, and Shakespeare is adept in revealing their subtleties by means of the action. Even as Mercutio dies, he utters his wild witticisms, cursing both the Montagues and the Capulets,
"A plague o' both your houses!
They have made worms' meat of me!"
"Ask for me tomorrow, and
You shall find me a grave man."
The character of Romeo develops significantly from the first impression we have of him as a stock callow youth. At first he is melancholy, distracted and lovelorn, as we expect. But surprisingly he is not lovesick over Juliet, but is in love with Rosaline. This love seems to stem almost entirely from the reading of bad love poetry! We understand from this that Romeo's love for Rosaline is an immature love, more a statement that he is ready to be in love than actual love. Perhaps Rosaline, who never appears in the play, exists only to demonstrate Romeo's passionate nature, his love of being in love.
We meet Juliet in scene 3, and learn that in the Verona of this play, her status as a young woman leaves her with no power or choice in any social situation. Juliet at 13 years old is completely subject to parental influence, and is being encouraged to marry her parent's choice of Paris. Lady Capulet observes wryly that that she had already given birth to Juliet herself when she was Juliet's current age, before she was 14.
In this way the forces that determine the fate of Romeo and Juliet are laid in place well before they even meet. Parental influence in the tragedy becomes a tool of fate. Juliet's arranged marriage with Paris, and the longstanding feud between Capulets and Montagues, will eventually contribute to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The reader enjoys the tension, and knowledge that terrible events are about to happen. Events and observations continually reinforce the presence and power of fate.
Juliet's speeches have many different facets, and are capable of many interpretations. She often professes one thing, whilst we know she has an ulterior motive, and another intention. This is particularly evident when she is speaking to her parents, knowing that she intends to make her own decisions, she perversely wants to speak her mind, but deliberately couches her words in double meanings so that the truth will remain hidden.
Juliet is a strong character in the play, particularly fascinating to a modern reader as she seems almost contemporary. She repeatedly goes against what is expected of women of her time and place, and takes action. The best example of this is when she drinks the sleeping potion. She comes up with many reasons why it might cause her harm, and recognises that drinking the potion might lead her to madness or even death. Yet she chooses to drink it anyway. This demonstrates a willingness to take her life into her own hands - and also hints at future events. There is never just one side to, or interpretation of, any event in this play. It is a portent. Juliet drinks the potion just as Romeo will later drink the apothecary's poison.
Another instance of ominous foreshadowing is when the Nurse teases Juliet by saying that she is too tired to tell her what happened when she first met Romeo. This delay in telling Juliet the news is mirrored in a future scene, when the Nurse's anguish prevents her from relating news to Juliet and thereby causing terrible confusion. Another example of delicious dramatic irony is when Romeo is proclaiming his love to be the most powerful force in the world. Friar Laurence advises caution, saying,
"These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triump die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume".
The reader knows that the play is a tragedy, and that Romeo and Juliet will die. Shakespeare ingeniously manipulates the plot, so that we feel the impending doom, and are swept up in the inevitability of it all. Even the characters themselves are sometimes aware that they are pawns. Romeo cries,
"O, I am fortune's fool!"
when he realises he has killed Tybalt. He knows that by killing his new wife's cousin, he will be banished from Verona, and feels the inevitability of the situation. This emphasises the sense of fate - or fortune - that hangs over the play.
Juliet also indicates in her speeches the power of fate and predestination. In her final scene with Romeo, the last moment they spend alive together, she says that he appears pale, as if he were dead. She looks out of her window and cries,
"O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb."
This vision blatantly foreshadows the end of the play. The next time she sees Romeo, he will be dead.
Friar Laurence is a pivotal character in the play. When we first see him he is collecting herbs and flowers for medicinal purposes, demonstrating a deep knowledge of the properties of the plants he collects, and alerting the reader to what may be to come. He meditates on the duality of good and evil that exists in all things; another clearly portentous speech. Referring to the plants, Friar Laurence says that, although everything in nature has a useful purpose, it can also lead to misfortune if used improperly,
"For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometime's by action dignified".
Friar Laurence ruminates on how good may be perverted to evil and evil may be purified by good. By making plans to marry Romeo and Juliet, he hopes that the good of their love will reverse the evil of the hatred between the feuding families. Shakespeare portrays him as a benign, wise philosopher. But his schemes also serve as tools of fate; secretly marrying the two lovers, sending Romeo to Mantua, and staging Juliet's apparent death. The tragic failure of his plans are outside his responsibility, and due to chance.
The structure of the play is carefully controlled; it would be interesting at this distance to read the earlier versions. Different poetic forms are used by different characters, and sometimes the form changes as the character develops. There are many instances of the sonnet, as the reader would expect, because it is a perfect, idealised poetic form often used to write about love. The play starts with a Prologue in sonnet form, a masterly precis of the story. As it describes Romeo and Juliet’s eventual death, it also helps to create the sense of fate that permeates the entire play.
Romeo himself, develops his expertise in the sonnet over the course of the play. When Romeo and Juliet meet they speak just fourteen lines before their first kiss. These fourteen lines make up a shared sonnet, which creates a link between their love and their tragic destiny, as told in the introductory prologue.
There are numerous instances of such tightly written formal structure, which is remarkable in such an early play. Even the dramatic action of the play has a tight schedule, spanning just 4 days. Perhaps this is why many of the most important scenes, such as the balcony scene, take place either very late at night or very early in the morning.
Shakespeare makes great use of effects such as switching between comedy and tragedy to heighten the tension, and bringing minor characters into the foreground to increase depth and interest. His additional use of sub-plots to enrich the story, is often cited as an early sign of his dramatic skill.
This play has everything; love, beauty, and romance, but also sudden, fatal violence early on. Viciousness and danger are continually present, yet just at the point when they threaten to overcome the reader, the action will be tempered by wit, comedy and humour. We are in a masculine world in which notions of honour, pride, and status are prone to erupt in a fury of conflict, but there is a strong female who defies her confined expectations. Rashness, vengeance, passion, grief; they are all here. The motif of fate continues to the very end of the play. Romeo proclaims,
"Then I defy you, stars" and
"I will lie with thee tonight" in a last desperate attempt to control his own destiny by spending eternity with Juliet.
Yet in this ultimate example of tragic irony, this defiant act seals both his fate, and their double suicide. Shakespeare tells his audience that nothing can withstand the power of fate. The neat twists of the ending are supremely ironic, devastating and heart-wrenching. Here is Romeo, in despair,
"O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die."
And on waking, Juliet,
"I will kiss thy lips;
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make die with a restorative...
O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath...
There rust and let me die!"
It is said that the best way to appreciate Shakespeare is to go to a live performance of a play. Of course in one sense this is true of any play; the live action is how the play was intended to be experienced. But there is a lot to be said for reading Shakespeare on the page. The structure and poetry of the language is so much more evident. The puns and in-jokes are so much clearer. The reader can give pause to properly interpret the manifold meanings of both the exciting events and the rousing speeches. And above all we can marvel at the mastery of a writer who can still speak to us with relevance, move us with poetry and story, and entertain his audience well over 400 years later.
"For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."