The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to profoundly affect the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Shakespeare did not invent the story of Romeo and Juliet. He did not, in fact, even introduce the story into the English language. A poet named Arthur Brooks first brought the story of Romeus and Juliet to an English-speaking audience in a long and plodding poem that was itself not original, but rather an adaptation of adaptations that stretched across nearly a hundred years and two languages. Many of the details of Shakespeare’s plot are lifted directly from Brooks’s poem, including the meeting of Romeo and Juliet at the ball, their secret marriage, Romeo’s fight with Tybalt, the sleeping potion, and the timing of the lover’s eventual suicides. Such appropriation of other stories is characteristic of Shakespeare, who often wrote plays based on earlier works.
Shakespeare’s use of existing material as fodder for his plays should not, however, be taken as a lack of originality. Instead, readers should note how Shakespeare crafts his sources in new ways while displaying a remarkable understanding of the literary tradition in which he is working. Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet is no exception. The play distinguishes itself from its predecessors in several important aspects: the subtlety and originality of its characterization (Shakespeare almost wholly created Mercutio); the intense pace of its action, which is compressed from nine months into four frenetic days; a powerful enrichment of the story’s thematic aspects; and, above all, an extraordinary use of language.
Shakespeare’s play not only bears a resemblance to the works on which it is based, it is also quite similar in plot, theme, and dramatic ending to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, told by the great Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was well aware of this similarity; he includes a reference to Thisbe in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also includes scenes from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the comically awful play-within-a-play put on by Bottom and his friends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a play Shakespeare wrote around the same time he was composing Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, one can look at the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as parodying the very story that Shakespeare seeks to tell in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in full knowledge that the story he was telling was old, clichéd, and an easy target for parody. In writing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, then, implicitly set himself the task of telling a love story despite the considerable forces he knew were stacked against its success. Through the incomparable intensity of his language Shakespeare succeeded in this effort, writing a play that is universally accepted in Western culture as the preeminent, archetypal love story.
Romeo and Juliet
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.
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.
Romeo and Juliet
Act I, scene i
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.
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 (I.i.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 clichés he spouts about his love for Rosaline: “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health” (I.i.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.
Romeo and Juliet
Act I, scene ii
On another street of Verona, Capulet walks with Paris, a noble kinsman of the Prince. The two discuss Paris’ 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.
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” [I.ii.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.
Romeo and Juliet
Act I, scene iii
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 (I.iii.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.
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” (I.iii.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 (I.iii.70).
Juliet herself is revealed in this scene as a rather naïve 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 mother demands. The phrase can therefore be interpreted as a sort of passive resistance.
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
Romeo and Juliet
Act I, scene iv
O, then I see Queen Mab has been with you, She is the fairies’ midwife . . . 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” (I.v.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 (I.v.112).
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 my steerage of my course,” the audience feels fate take a tighter grasp on him (I.iv.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” (I.iv.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 (I.iv.96). Mercutio agrees, saying that dreams “are the children of an idle brain” (I.iv.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.