Detailed Synopsis of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Act One: In the Prologue to Act One, the Chorus tells of two families in Verona, Italy, who have hated and fought with each other for many years.  The son of one family and the daughter of the other fall in love and kill themselves.  Their suicide ends the families’ fighting, and their story is “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”  The Chorus then begs the patience of the audience for any imperfections in his synopsis of the play, promises that the actors will fill in any details he’s left out, and leaves.  (See my ‘Analysis of R&J’, first quote.)

On the streets of Verona, servants of the Capulet family discuss their hatred of the Montague family.  They meet servants of the Montagues: a Capulet servant bites his thumb at the Montagues to provoke them.  Tybalt, a Capulet, comes, as does Benvolio, a Montague.  Benvolio tries to stop a potential fight, reminding everyone that the prince has expressly forbidden any more fighting on Verona streets.  Benvolio says he only wants to keep the peace.  Tybalt says he hates peace, hell, all Montagues, and Benvolio.

The two families begin a violent brawl right there on the street.  Even Old Capulet and Old Montague call for their swords so they can join the fighting; Lady Montague forbids her husband to fight.  Finally, Prince Escalus and his men arrive, stopping the fighting.  The prince threatens death to the next ones to start another brawl.

After everyone leaves, Benvolio speaks with Old Montague and his wife about their son, Romeo.  Though glad that he wasn’t involved in the brawl, they worry about him, for he is always sad.  They see him coming, and Benvolio goes to talk to his cousin, to see if he can find out what’s troubling him.

After Romeo expresses his annoyance, in a plethora of paradoxes (see my ‘Analysis of R&J’, second quote), at the recent fighting, he tells Benvolio of his unrequited love for a beautiful girl named Rosaline.  She will live a chaste life, so Romeo has no hope of having her.

Meanwhile, in the Capulets’ house, Old Capulet is with Paris, a count, discussing a big party he will have in his house that night.  Paris hopes to marry Capulet’s daughter Juliet.  Capulet invites Paris to the party and encourages him to speak with Juliet, but reminds him that she is still very young, not even 14 years old.  It remains to be seen if she’ll like Paris.

Capulet tells a servant to go about Verona and invite everyone other than the Montagues to his party.  He gives the servant a list of the names of those invited.  Unfortunately, the servant can’t read.  He leaves the house and walks about the streets, confused.

Not knowing Romeo and Benvolio are Montagues, the servant goes up to them and asks if they can read out the names for him.  Romeo reads while the servant memorizes.  When Romeo comes to Rosaline’s name, he is intrigued, asking about the party.  The servant says it’s being held at the Capulets’ house, and as long as they aren’t Montagues, they’re welcome to attend.  The servant leaves.

Romeo wants to go there to see Rosaline.  Benvolio promises Romeo will see other beautiful girls who’ll make him forget all about her.

Back in the Capulets’ house, Lady Capulet has the Nurse fetch Juliet.  After the Nurse jokes about amusing memories of Juliet as an infant, Lady Capulet asks if Juliet thinks she can love Paris.  Both Lady Capulet and the Nurse speak glowingly of the count, but Juliet will have to see if she will like him or not.

That night, Romeo, Benvolio, their witty friend Mercutio (kinsman to the prince), and other friends go down the streets toward the Capulets’ house, merrily chatting.  Romeo stops, having premonitions about the night because of a dream he’s had.  Mercutio insists that dreams are idle nonsense.  Romeo insists they can presage the truth.

Then Mercutio says Queen Mab has been in Romeo’s dreams.  Mercutio describes her as a tiny fairy that could sit on one’s fingertip.  She rides a tiny chariot and goes into men’s noses, reaching their brains as they sleep.  In their dreams, she makes their wishes come true.  Again, Mercutio insists that dreams are idle nonsense.

Benvolio insists that they hurry on to the Capulets’, for they’ll soon be late and miss supper.  As Romeo goes, he prophesies this night will be a fateful one, ultimately leading to his destruction.  Nonetheless, he charges ahead, embracing his fate, whatever it may be.

Wearing masks, the boys successfully get in the house and look around.  Looking for Rosaline, Romeo sees Juliet instead, and instantly falls in love with her, saying he “ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Tybalt recognizes Romeo, and calls for a servant to fetch his sword, for he wants to fight Romeo right there.  Old Capulet asks Tybalt why he’s so angry, and he says Romeo has come to spoil their party.  Capulet tells his hot-headed nephew to be patient and endure Romeo.  Tybalt says he won’t endure him; Capulet, now angry, tells him he will.  Tybalt grudgingly endures Romeo, but secretly promises to have his revenge later.

Romeo, meanwhile, takes Juliet by the hand and compares it to a holy shrine; and though his own hand has profaned hers, his lips are two pilgrims, who will atone for the sin with a kiss.  She, now as in love with him as he is with her, accepts his kisses.

Later, Romeo learns from the Nurse that she, to his dismay, is a Capulet.  As he is leaving the house, Juliet has the Nurse go up to Tybalt and find out who Romeo is.  The Nurse tells Juliet what Tybalt knows: that Romeo is a Montague.  (See my ‘Analysis of R&J’, third quote.)

Act Two:  The Chorus recites another narrative sonnet, about Romeo no longer being in love with Rosaline, but this time being in love with a girl who returns his love.

As Romeo’s friends return home, he goes back to the Capulets’ house, jumping over the orchard walls.  Mercutio taunts him, thinking he’s still in love with Rosaline.

In the orchard, Romeo sees a light from one of the windows (see my ‘Analysis of R&J’, fourth quote).  Juliet emerges: thinking she’s alone, she declares her love for Romeo (quotes five and six).  Romeo is delighted to hear of her love for him.  He reveals himself, surprising her.  They declare their love for each other, then make plans to get married. As dawn approaches and Juliet is being nagged by the Nurse to come to bed, the young lovers say good bye and Romeo leaves (see the sixth quote).

He goes to the humble abode (‘cell’) of Friar Laurence, who’s been contemplating all the medicinal properties of herbs.  Romeo tells the friar he no longer loves Rosaline, but the Capulet Juliet instead.  Laurence chides him for his inconstancy in love, but agrees to marry him to Juliet, hoping to end the family feud.

The next day, on the streets of Verona, Romeo meets with Benvolio and Mercutio, who wonder why he didn’t go home with them the night before.  The Nurse comes to speak with Romeo, but Mercutio taunts and angers her first.  She reluctantly agrees to have Juliet meet with him in Friar Laurence’s cell to be married.

The Nurse goes back to the Capulets’ house, where Juliet is impatiently waiting for an answer from Romeo.  Still reluctant to help Juliet in marrying him, the Nurse delays giving her his answer, using her aches and fatigue as excuses.  Finally, after Juliet gets angry, the Nurse says that if Juliet is free to go to Friar Laurence’s cell that day, he’ll marry her to Romeo.

She goes there, and she and Romeo get married.  Friar Laurence, however, advises them to love moderately.

Act Three: On the streets of Verona during that very hot afternoon, Benvolio worries about getting into a fight with Tybalt, who’s challenged Romeo.  Mercutio would welcome a fight with Tybalt, who arrives with other Capulets.

They ask about the whereabouts of Romeo, who then arrives.  Tybalt calls him a villain, but Romeo, now secretly his kinsman, won’t fight him.  Angrier, Tybalt attacks Romeo, who still won’t fight back.

Furious about Romeo’s “vile submission”, Mercutio fights Tybalt in Romeo’s stead.  Romeo wants to stop the fight and comes between them, but Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio, who, dying, curses both families (quote eight).  He’s taken away, and he dies offstage.

Enraged, Romeo wants to avenge his friend’s death.  He fights Tybalt, killing him.  He flees before the prince and his men can arrest him.  When the two families and the prince learn of what’s happened, Lady Capulet complains that Romeo must die for killing Tybalt; Old Montague reasons that, in killing Tybalt, Romeo merely did what the prince would have done anyway, as punishment for killing Mercutio, the prince’s kinsman.  Therefore, instead of using the death penalty to punish Romeo, the prince banishes him from Verona, threatening death if he ever returns.

Not knowing what’s happened, Juliet is at home in her room, thinking loving thoughts about Romeo.  The Nurse enters, telling her that Romeo killed Tybalt.  Juliet is torn between her loyalty to her husband, requiring her loving words, and her loyalty to her cousin, requiring her curses on Romeo.

Romeo is hiding in Friar Laurence’s cell, preferring death to banishment, since there is no life outside of Verona, without Juliet.  The Nurse visits, telling Romeo of Juliet’s tears over Tybalt’s murder.  Guilt-laden Romeo wants to kill himself; the friar chides him for his “womanish” tears.  Then Friar Laurence reminds Romeo of how lucky he is: he killed Tybalt, instead of vice versa; Prince Escalus could have had Romeo executed, but he’s had Romeo banished instead.

Next, the friar devises a plan to help Romeo and Juliet.  Romeo will go to Mantua.  Friar Laurence will plead for the prince’s forgiveness for Romeo, and in time, Romeo will be allowed to return and be reunited with Juliet.  This gives Romeo hope.  Romeo will go to Juliet’s bedroom, lie with her that night and comfort her before he has to leave the next day.

In the Capulets’ house, the sadness of the family makes it a bad time for Paris to woo Juliet.  Nonetheless, Old Capulet wants Paris to marry his daughter.

That night, in Juliet’s bed, she and Romeo have made love, and dawn is coming: Romeo must leave.  Juliet doesn’t want to admit that morning has come, and insists that it’s still night.  But he must go.  The Nurse comes in and tells them Lady Capulet is coming.  Romeo leaves, going down from her window into the orchard: Juliet has a premonition she’ll look down on him again one day, but he’ll be dead.

Her mother comes in, and after speaking of having someone hunt down Romeo in Mantua and kill him, she mentions Old Capulet’s plan for Paris to marry Juliet.  Juliet refuses to marry him, and when Old Capulet hears of her disobedience, he angrily threatens to disown her.

A tearful Juliet asks for words of comfort from her mother and the Nurse, neither of whom give her any.  Instead, the Nurse says she should forget Romeo and marry Paris.  After the Nurse leaves, Juliet no longer regards her as a friend or confidante.  She goes to Friar Laurence’s cell.

Act Four: At the friar’s cell, he and Paris discuss Paris’s marriage plans with Juliet.  When Juliet arrives, she and the friar find a private place to speak after Paris leaves.

Desperate to prevent this wedding, Juliet wants to die.  Friar Laurence has another idea to prevent it: if she would drink a medicine of his creation, it would make her seem dead in every way–no breath, no heartbeat, no movement from her body–but she’d really be fast asleep for 42 hours.  Her funeral would be held, and she’d be buried in the family tomb.

Romeo would receive letters from the friar, explaining the plan.  Romeo would sneak back into Verona and to the tomb, get reviving Juliet, and escape with her to Mantua.  She eagerly takes the vial of medicine.

Back at home, Juliet apologizes to her father and agrees to marry Paris.  After saying goodnight to her mother and the Nurse, Juliet is alone in her bedroom, holding the vial and fearing any possibility that the plan may not work.  Fearing marriage with Paris even more, she drinks the drug.

The next morning, with musicians and servants getting the wedding party ready, the Nurse goes to wake up Juliet, but finds her apparently dead.  She hysterically calls for Juliet’s parents, who rush to see her and mourn with the Nurse.  The wedding party has now become a funeral.

Act Five: On a street in Mantua, Romeo speaks of a dream he’s had of Juliet finding him dead, then of him reviving and being an emperor.

Balthasar, a servant to Romeo who knows nothing of Friar Laurence’s plan, tells him Juliet has died.  A mourning Romeo is determined to go back to Verona, to kill himself in her tomb so they’ll be together in death.

He finds a poor apothecary, and wants to buy poison from him.  The apothecary reluctantly takes Romeo’s money and gives him a powerful poison.

In Friar Laurence’s cell, Friar John comes to see him, after trying to deliver Laurence’s letters to Romeo in Mantua.  Laurence asks John if he received any letters from Romeo.  Friar John tells Laurence that he wasn’t able to get to Mantua, for he was detained in the house of a sick man believed to have an “infectious pestilence”.  He hasn’t given Romeo Laurence’s letters.  Friar Laurence must now hurry to the Capulets’ tomb.

That night, at the tomb, Paris goes to pay his last respects to Juliet.  Romeo and Balthasar also arrive.  Romeo tells Balthasar to leave; Balthasar does, but he hides nearby, worrying about Romeo.  Romeo comes to the tomb and confronts Paris, who assumes Romeo wants to do shame to the bodies.  They fight, and Romeo mortally wounds Paris.  Dying, Paris asks to be lain near Juliet.  Respecting his wish, Romeo brings his body near where Juliet lies.

During the fight, a page has called the watch, so a mob of people will soon come.

In the tomb, Romeo sees the bodies of Juliet and Tybalt.  He repents killing Tybalt, then looks on Juliet, amazed that, even though dead, she hasn’t lost any of her beauty.  He imagines personified Death is in love with her, and keeps her beautiful to be His lover.  Sobbing Romeo hugs and kisses her one last time, then drinks the poison, which kills him within seconds.

Friar Laurence arrives and sees dead Romeo, while Juliet is reviving.  The friar tells her the sad news and, saying he’ll make her a nun, begs her to leave with him, for a mob of people can be heard approaching the tomb.  Too afraid to be found there, the friar runs off.

Juliet notes that Romeo’s drunk poison, but left none for her.  She hopes to taste some on his lips; she kisses him, and feeling his lips’ warmth, knows he’s only just died.  This adds to her heartbreak.

Hearing the mob coming nearer and nearer, she knows she must act quickly if she is to die with him. She takes his “happy dagger” and stabs herself, falling dead on his body.

The mob arrives, along with Capulet, Lady Capulet, the prince, and Old Montague, who says that Lady Montague has died of grief because of Romeo’s banishment.  The friar also returns, explaining how Romeo and Juliet were secretly in love, and that he married them.

Once all has been revealed, the prince rebukes Old Montague and Old Capulet for the “scourge” caused by their hate; and because the prince has been too lenient with them, he himself has lost two kinsmen, Paris and Mercutio (quote nine).  The families repent of their hate, and the two grieving fathers promise to have monuments built in honour of each other’s child.

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Analysis of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s first great tragedy (his very first being Titus Andronicus), was probably written around the early to mid-1590s.  Its plot was based on an Italian tale, translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562.  Shakespeare expanded the plot by developing supporting characters, particularly Mercutio and Paris.

The archetypal young lovers have the bad luck of being born into two powerful families, the Montagues and the Capulets, who have hated and fought with each other for as long as can be remembered.  Romeo’s and Juliet’s love for each other is as passionate as their families’ hatred for each other is virulent.  Fate seems to conspire against the lovers.  Romeo is banished from Verona for killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, who’s killed Romeo’s friend, Mercutio.  (The latter victim is kinsman to Paris and the Prince of Verona, who’s tried unsuccessfully to stop all the fighting.)  The lovers’ misfortune continues with Juliet’s seeming suicide–misinterpreted as actual by Romeo, who poisons himself in her tomb–and her actual suicide on seeing his body.  With the lovers’ deaths at the end of the play, Old Montague and Old Capulet finally end their hatred.  The tragedy seems to be heaven’s only way of stopping the feud.

The play is set mostly in Verona, Italy, and briefly in Mantua.  Here are some famous quotes:

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./The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,/And the continuance of their parents’ rage,/Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,/Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;… (Chorus, Prologue, lines 1-12)

Why then, O brawling love!  O loving hate!/O any thing, of nothing first create!/O heavy lightness!  Serious vanity!/Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms! (Romeo, I, i, lines 174-177)

My only love sprung from my only hate!/Too early seen unknown, and known too late! (Juliet, I, v, 136-137)

But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?/It is the east, and Juliet is the sun! (Romeo, II, ii, lines 2-3)

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?  (Juliet, II, ii, line 33)

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose,/By any other name would smell as sweet. (Juliet, II, ii, lines 43-44)

Good-night, good-night!  Parting is such sweet sorrow/That I shall say good-night till it be morrow. (Juliet, II, ii, lines 185-186)

A plague o’ both your houses! (Mercutio, III, i, line 103)

All are punish’d!  (Prince, V, iii, line 294)

Apart from the theme of fate, the most important themes of this play are those of dualism and duality.  The words in boldface in the above quotes give some of the many references to dualism, or opposites that either complement or do battle with each other, or duality, groups of two.

Significantly, the very first word of the play is ‘Two’, and the Chorus’ opening sonnet in the Prologue to Act One is riddled with references to ‘two, ‘both’, ‘pair’, and juxtaposed opposites, as well the doubled ‘civil’ in line four.  This emphatic reference to duality and dualism clearly establishes these central themes, right at the beginning of the play.  (Incidentally, there are two narrative sonnets that the Chorus recites; the second one, in the Prologue beginning Act Two, is usually omitted in productions of the play.)

Other examples of duality are, of course, the boy and girl who are in love, but from two families that hate.  Indeed, this is as much a hate story as it is a love story, the hate giving paradoxical intensity to the love.

Two other opposites, given shortly after the Chorus’ first narrative sonnet, are Benvolio (literally, ‘good will’), who is Romeo’s well-meaning, peace-loving cousin and friend; and Tybalt (the ‘prince’ or ‘king of cats’: I wonder, is his name, its spelling at least, a pun on ‘tyrant’?), Juliet’s fierce, belligerent cousin.  The cousins’ opposition is again highlighted in the opening fight scene, further establishing the dualism theme at the beginning of the play.

Other opposites are Friar Laurence, Romeo’s ‘surrogate father’, as it were, and the Nurse, Juliet’s ‘surrogate mother’, since their actual parents seem to show little interest in their lives.  The friar would have Romeo and Juliet married, for he sees in their union an end to the families’ fighting; whereas the nurse is reluctant to match the lovers throughout the play, fearing the ill consequences of their most unlikely match-making.

Of especial importance to the play’s symbolism is the opposition of night and day, of light and dark.  Interestingly, most of the wooing and love-making is at night, and most of the fighting in the day; this suggests a yin and yang-like intermingling of opposites.  The perfect mingling of opposites is in all of the many references to stars throughout the play, for stars are lights in darkness.  To a lesser extent, this mix of light and dark is also seen in the references to the moon.

The intermingling of opposites is also apparent in the many paradoxes heard in the play, such as the plethora Romeo gushes out in front of Benvolio when we first see them together (some of those paradoxes were seen in the second quote above).  Other paradoxes come from Juliet, when she reacts to Romeo’s killing of Tybalt: ‘Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!/Dove-feather’d raven! wolfish-ravening lamb!’  Indeed, she goes back and forth between cursing and praising Romeo in that scene.

The first two acts of the play are mostly happy, and could almost even be part of a comedy; the remainder is essentially sad and tragic–more dualism.  At the beginning of this ‘sad half’, we have two killings, the accidental one of Mercutio and the deliberate murder of Tybalt.  The play also deals with two marriages: the planned marriage of Paris and Juliet, and her real marriage with Romeo.  Juliet commits suicide two times, a fake suicide with Friar Laurence’s drugs, then her real suicide by stabbing herself with Romeo’s dagger.

As for duality, groups of two, there are two friars, Laurence, and Friar John, who was unsuccessful in delivering Laurence’s letters to Romeo in Mantua.  Indeed, there are two cities that the play is set in: Verona and Mantua.  Romeo has two romantic interests, Rosaline and Juliet.  There are two Capulet parties, the actual one in which Romeo meets Juliet, and the planned party for her marriage to Paris.  There are two drugs: Juliet’s, from Friar Laurence, fakes death; Romeo’s, from the Apothecary, causes real death.