Shakespeare, more than any other author, has instructed the West in the catastrophes of sexuality, and has invented the formula that the sexual becomes the erotic when crossed by the shadow of death. There had to be one high song of the erotic by Shakespeare, one lyrical and tragi-comical paean celebrating an unmixed love and lamenting its inevitable destruction. Romeo and Juliet is unmatched, in Shakespeare and in the world’s literature, as a vision of an uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity.
—Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
Romeo and Juliet, regarded by many as William Shakespeare’s first great play, is generally thought to have been written around 1595. Shakespeare was then 31 years old, married for 12 years and the father of three children. He had been acting and writing in London for five years. His stage credits included mainly histories—the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III—and comedies—The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Shakespeare’s first tragedy, modeled on Seneca, Titus Andronicus, was written around 1592. From that year through 1595 Shakespeare had also composed 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems in the erotic tradition—Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Both his dramatic and nondramatic writing show Shakespeare mastering Elizabethan literary conventions. Then, around 1595, Shakespeare composed three extraordinary plays—Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet—in three different genres—history, comedy, and tragedy—signalling a new mastery, originality, and excellence. With these three plays Shakespeare emerged from the shadows of his influences and initiated a period of unexcelled accomplishment. The two parts of Henry IV and Julius Caesar would follow, along with the romantic comedies The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night and the great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. The three plays of 1595, therefore, serve as an important bridge between Shakespeare’s apprenticeship and his mature achievements. Romeo and Juliet, in particular, is a crucial play in the evolution of Shakespeare’s tragic vision, in his integration of poetry and drama, and in his initial exploration of the connection between love and tragedy that he would continue in Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra. Romeo and Juliet is not only one of the greatest love stories in all literature, considering its stage history and the musicals, opera, music, ballet, literary works, and films that it has inspired; it is quite possibly the most popular play of all time. There is simply no more famous pair of lovers than Romeo and Juliet, and their story has become an inescapable central myth in our understanding of romantic love.
Despite the play’s persistence, cultural saturation, and popular appeal, Romeo and Juliet has fared less well with scholars and critics, who have generally judged it inferior to the great tragedies that followed. Instead of the later tragedies of character Romeo and Juliet has been downgraded as a tragedy of chance, and, in the words of critic James Calderwood, the star-crossed lovers are “insufficiently endowed with complexity” to become tragic heroes. Instead “they become a study of victimage and sacrifice, not tragedy.” What is too often missing in a consideration of the shortcomings of Romeo and Juliet by contrast with the later tragedies is the radical departure the play represented when compared to what preceded it. Having relied on Senecan horror for his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare located his next in the world of comedy and romance. Romeo and Juliet is set not in antiquity, as Elizabethan convention dictated for a tragic subject, but in 16th-century Verona, Italy. His tragic protagonists are neither royal nor noble, as Aristotle advised, but two teenagers caught up in the petty disputes of their families. The plight of young lovers pitted against parental or societal opposition was the expected subject, since Roman times, of comedy, not tragedy. By showing not the eventual triumph but the death of the two young lovers Shakespeare violated comic conventions, while making a case that love and its consequences could be treated with an unprecedented tragic seriousness. As critic Harry Levin has observed, Shakespeare’s contemporaries “would have been surprised, and possibly shocked at seeing lovers taken so seriously. Legend, it had been hereto-fore taken for granted, was the proper matter for serious drama; romance was the stuff of the comic stage.”
Shakespeare’s innovations are further evident in comparison to his source material. The plot was a well-known story in Italian, French, and English versions. Shakespeare’s direct source was Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562). This moralistic work was intended as a warning to youth against “dishonest desire” and disobeying parental authority. Shakespeare, by contrast, purifies and ennobles the lovers’ passion, intensifies the pathos, and underscores the injustice of the lovers’ destruction. Compressing the action from Brooke’s many months into a five-day crescendo, Shakespeare also expands the roles of secondary characters such as Mercutio and Juliet’s nurse into vivid portraits that contrast the lovers’ elevated lyricism with a bawdy earthiness and worldly cynicism. Shakespeare transforms Brooke’s plodding verse into a tour de force verbal display that is supremely witty, if at times over elaborate, and, at its best, movingly expressive. If the poet and the dramatist are not yet seamlessly joined in Romeo and Juliet, the play still displays a considerable advance in Shakespeare’s orchestration of verse, image, and incident that would become the hallmark of his greatest achievements.
The play’s theme and outcome are announced in the Prologue:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
Suspense over the lovers’ fate is eliminated at the outset as Shakespeare emphasizes the forces that will destroy them. The initial scene makes this clear as a public brawl between servants of the feuding Montagues and Capulets escalates to involve kinsmen and the patriarchs on both sides, ended only when the Prince of Verona enforces a cease-fire under penalty of death for future offenders of the peace. Romeo, Montague’s young son, does not participate in the scuffle since he is totally absorbed by a hopeless passion for a young, unresponsive beauty named Rosaline. Initially Romeo appears as a figure of mockery, the embodiment of the hypersensitive, melancholy adolescent lover, who is urged by his kinsman Benvolio to resist sinking “under love’s heavy burden” and seek another more worthy of his affection. Another kinsman, Mercutio, for whom love is more a game of easy conquest, urges Romeo to “be rough with love” and master his circumstances. When by chance it is learned that Rosaline is to attend a party at the Capulets, Benvolio suggests that they should go as well for Romeo to compare Rosaline’s charms with the other beauties at the party and thereby cure his infatuation. There Romeo sees Juliet, Capulet’s not-yet 14-year-old daughter. Her parents are encouraging her to accept a match with Count Paris for the social benefit of the family. Love as affectation and love as advantage are transformed into love as all-consuming, mutual passion at first sight. Romeo claims that he “ne’er saw true beauty till this night,” and by the force of that beauty, he casts off his former melancholic self-absorption. Juliet is no less smitten. Sending her nurse to learn the stranger’s identity, she worries, “If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” Both are shocked to learn that they are on either side of the family feud, and their risk is underscored when the Capulet kinsman, Tybalt, recognizes Romeo and, though prevented by Capulet from violence at the party, swears future vengeance. Tybalt’s threat underscores that this is a play as much about hate as about love, in which Romeo and Juliet’s passion is increasingly challenged by the public and family forces that deny love’s authority.
The first of the couple’s two great private moments in which love’s redemptive and transformative power works its magic follows in possibly the most famous single scene in all of drama, set in the Capulets’ orchard, over-looked by Juliet’s bedroom window. In some of the most impassioned, lyrical, and famous verses Shakespeare ever wrote, the lovers’ dialogue perfectly captures the ecstasy of love and love’s capacity to remake the world. Seeing Juliet above at her window, Romeo says:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
He overhears Juliet’s declaration of her love for him and the rejection of what is implied if a Capulet should love a Montague:
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. . . .
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
.So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
In a beautifully modulated scene the lovers freely admit their passion and exchange vows of love that become a marriage proposal. As Juliet continues to be called back to her room and all that is implied as Capulet’s daughter, time and space become the barriers to love’s transcendent power to unite.
With the assistance of Friar Lawrence, who regards the union of a Montague and a Capulet as an opportunity “To turn your households’ rancour to pure love,” Romeo and Juliet are secretly married. Before nightfall and the anticipated consummation of their union Romeo is set upon by Tybalt, who is by Romeo’s marriage, his new kinsman. Romeo accordingly refuses his challenge, but it is answered by Mercutio. Romeo tries to separate the two, but in the process Mercutio is mortally wounded. This is the tragic turn of the play as Romeo, enraged, rejects the principle of love forged with Juliet for the claims of reputation, the demand for vengeance, and an identifi cation of masculinity with violent retribution:
My very friend, hath got this mortal hurt
In my behalf; my reputation stain’d
With Tybalt’s slander—Tybalt, that an hour
Hath been my kinsman. O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper soft’ned valour’s steel!
After killing Tybalt, Romeo declares, “O, I am fortune’s fool!” He may blame circumstances for his predicament, but he is clearly culpable in capitulating to the values of society he had challenged in his love for Juliet.
The lovers are given one final moment of privacy before the catastrophe. Juliet, awaiting Romeo’s return, gives one of the play’s most moving speeches, balancing sublimity with an intimation of mortality that increasingly accompanies the lovers:
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.
Learning the terrible news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, Juliet wins her own battle between hate and love and sends word to Romeo to keep their appointed night together before they are parted.
As Romeo is away in Mantua Juliet’s parents push ahead with her wedding to Paris. The solution to Juliet’s predicament is offered by Friar Lawrence who gives her a drug that will make it appear she has died. The Friar is to summon Romeo, who will rescue her when she awakes in the Capulet family tomb. The Friar’s message to Romeo fails to reach him, and Romeo learns of Juliet’s death. Reversing his earlier claim of being “fortune’s fool,” Romeo reacts by declaring, “Then I defy you, stars,” rushing to his wife and breaking society’s rules by acquiring the poison to join her in death. Reaching the tomb Romeo is surprised to find Paris on hand, weeping for his lost bride. Outraged by the intrusion on his grief Paris confronts Romeo. They fight, and after killing Paris, Romeo fi nally recognizes him and mourns him as “Mercutio’s kinsman.” Inside the tomb Romeo sees Tybalt’s corpse and asks forgiveness before taking leave of Juliet with a kiss:
. . . O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.
Juliet awakes to see Romeo dead beside her. Realizing what has happened, she responds by taking his dagger and plunges it into her breast: “This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.”
Montagues, Capulets, and the Prince arrive, and the Friar explains what has happened and why. His account of Romeo and Juliet’s tender passion and devotion shames the two families into ending their feud. The Prince provides the final eulogy:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
The sense of loss Verona and the audience feels at the lovers’ deaths is a direct result of Shakespeare’s remarkable ability to conjure love in all its transcendent power, along with its lethal risks. Set on a collision course with the values bent on denying love’s sway, Romeo and Juliet manage to create a dreamlike, alternative, private world that is so touching because it is so brief and perishable. Shakespeare’s triumph here is to make us care that adolescent romance matters—emotionally, psychologically, and socially—and that the premature and unjust death of lovers rival in profundity and significance the fall of kings.