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.