This is considered to be the greatest love story. Ever. Written about 1594, it has been immeasurably popular ever since, and it’s a safe bet to state everyone has heard of this story. Two young, star-crossed lovers from rival families fight immense odds and difficulties in order to be together.
Set in Verona, the play opens with a duel between two powerful rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets, with a lot of insults being exchanged, as well as sword blows. The Prince of Verona arrives, and threatens to kill the next person caught fighting.
Romeo, a Montague, has heard that there is to be a masked ball at the Capulet’s, and decides to go there to woo Rosaline, at the urging of his cousin Benvolio and friend Mercutio. Juliet, a Capulet, has been told by her mother that she is intended in marriage to Paris, who will be at the ball, and intends to meet him there. She is thirteen, by the way.
Given it is a masked ball, no-one is certain who is whom, but Romeo meets Juliet, and instantly thoughts of all others are long forgotten. They have eyes only for each other. The course of true love does not run smooth, as we know, and they discover the other hails from the families of their mortal enemies. Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, rushes upon Romeo, and is only prevented from killing him by the intervention of Juliet’s father.
This leads to the famous balcony scene, where Romeo overhears Juliet pledging her love for him, in spite of their families’ enmity. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks”. Romeo speaks with her, and the two eventually agree to get married. “Deny thy father and refuse thy name”…. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This exchange summarises the essential tragedy of the play, as their families will not accept them as a couple.
Romeo hurries to Friar Laurence, who seizes upon this chance at getting the feuding families to reconcile, and Juliet uses her nurse as a go-between. Juliet is successfully smuggled to the Friar, and the two are secretly married.
Tybalt is still seething with rage over Romeo’s disrespectful crashing of the ball, and challenges him to a duel. Romeo refuses, as he now thinks of Tybalt as a family member. Mercutio is disgusted by both of them, and accepts the duel instead. However, as Romeo intervenes to try and stop them, Tybalt fatally injures him (“a plague on both your houses!”) and flees. Romeo comforts the dying Mercutio, then enraged kills Tybalt when he returns to the scene of the murder. Romeo is then banished to Mantua by the Prince from Verona, under threat of death.
Before he leaves, he spends the night with Juliet. The nurse agrees to smuggle him in and out, and Friar Laurence tries to work a solution that will enable Romeo to return, without fear of death.
Things take a decided turn for the worse when Juliet’s father agrees to marry her off to Paris. Her rejection of this proposal causes both her father and mother to threaten to disown her.
She goes to meet with the Friar, who gives her a potion that will cause her to appear as if dead. The effects will last 42 hours, whereupon she will awake. He also sends a messenger to Romeo, to inform him of the plan.
However, the messenger does not reach Romeo, who hears of Juliet’s death from his servant. Grief-stricken, he goes privately to the Capulet tomb, having purchased lethal poison along the way. While there, Paris arrives, and attacks Romeo as he believes him to be vandalising the crypt. Romeo kills Paris in the fight.
Romeo then drinks the poison, and falls dead. Juliet then wakes up, and sees her fallen husband. She grabs the his dagger, and kills herself with it. Both families, the friar and the Prince of Verona all now meet at the tomb, and find the three dead bodies. The Friar relates the full story of the “star-cross’d lovers”, and the two families agree to end the feud. As the Prince declaims at the end, For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.
Romeo: His name has become a byword for a smooth-talking seducer. However, he (I think) is just a teen [could be older – no-one is really sure] who is driven by powerful teenage passions, as transitory as they are heartfelt. He does show some maturity when refusing to fight Tybalt, but eventually kills him in a rage. However, he does face a lot of pressure as young men do, not to lose face and be seen as tough and strong, and this drives a lot of is decisions.
Juliet: She is a strong, and self-reliant young (very young) woman, who seems to know exactly what she does and doesn’t want. She does not want her honour compromised, so tells Romeo to either marry her or forget about it. She has almost as many lines as Romeo. She is loyal, once she has pledged her love (supporting Romeo rather than her family over Tybalt’s death), but is rapidly and effectively isolated by her family, when she goes against their decisions.
Mercutio: Romeo’s wingman, a mercurial character, with a huge personality. He values Romeo’s friendship over everything, and literally is willing to die for him. He likes talking and telling dirty jokes about sex, and various parts of the human body.
Tybalt: Hot-headed, a little out of control, he has a hair-trigger temper and knows of only one way to resolve an argument.
Friar Laurence: Like the Nurse, he is a go-between who tries to bring peace to the families. He does preach moderation, and talks about love, but then agrees to marry the kids, and also puts Juliet to sleep in a half-baked plan that spectacularly backfires. While he does reconcile the warring families, it is a an enormous cost.
Love: This is a difficult one. Despite having some of the most beautiful lines ever written, these are literally just immature kids, hormone-crazy, swearing eternal love after just two days. Love to the kids is different to how the Friar or the Nurse talk about it. Would it have lasted, or is it the allure of the forbidden fruit that makes it so exciting, because it’s dangerous? If the families HAD accepted them, would it have lasted? Romeo forgot about Rosaline pretty quickly, after all.
Youth vs Adults: The kids are generally misbehaving, fighting in the streets, and disobeying their parents about who they should have as friends. Like teens everywhere, they think they know best, and their first-love passion seems to triumph over everything. However, the whirlwind romance leaves destruction and devastation in its wake, and within the space of a few days, the lovers have gone from meeting, to marrying, to suicide. However, it is the mature adults who perpetuate the feud, who did not compromise in time, and who taught their children their values. So who is right?
- More than 27 operas have been based on this play, along with movies, musicals, ballets, etc. They are even given their own verse in Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, and Dire Straits may have had a tune as well! It is also considered to be the most filmed of all his works.
- Samuel Pepys wrote “it is a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life” .
- Mary Saunderson  was reputedly the first woman to play Juliet.
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“Parting is such sweet sorrow”
“Violent delights have violent ends”