Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy to date is invariably, Romeo and Juliet. Believed to be written between 1591 and 1595, the play explores various elements ranging from the attraction between the young lovers to the feud between their families and life in the sixteenth century. Set in the city of Verona, Romeo and Juliet contains a variety of literary devices that portray the play as vividly as possible. In fact, immense importance has been given to seemingly unimportant characters and events. And this is where Shakespeare’s genius lies. They play is thus embellished with several characters, each of a different temperament.
Romeo and Juliet begins in the streets of ‘fair Verona ’ where the servants of the Capulets and the Montagues are having a brawl. Fed up with the constant warring between the families, the Prince announces that if there is another such brawl, death shall be the final penalty. But in the midst of this hostility is the melancholy son of the Montagues, Romeo, pining for his unrequited love Rosaline. Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin persuades him to go a ball at the Capulet home where he might get a chance to meet not only Rosaline, but also other ‘beauties of Verona .’
At the ball though, young Romeo falls in instant love with the beautiful Juliet. Later, the two discover they belong to families that loath each other, yet they decide to marry in secret. In the events that ensue are more fights and duels. Tybalt, a conniving and head-strong Capulet, and Mercutio, Romeo’s friend battle till Mercutio is killed. Incensed, Romeo kills Tybalt. Romeo is then banished from Verona. And Juliet is now due to marry Paris, a kinsman of the Prince within three days.
In desperation Juliet seeks help from Friar Lawarence, who gives her a potion that will make her appear dead for two days. On the wedding day, believed to be dead, she is entombed in the Capulet vault – this where the tragedy happens. The messenger who is to inform Romeo about the potion and Juliet’s transient ‘death’ does not reach Romeo in time. Romeo hears of Juliet’s supposed death and is stricken with grief. He takes poison, goes to her tomb where he finds Paris, whom he kills. In despair Romeo drinks the poison and dies by Juliet’s side. Juliet though, a while later, awakens, but to her horror, her love is lying dead next to her. She then stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger. The families enter and realize what their fruitless feuding and fighting had done, and decide to reconcile their differences.
Shakespeare employs many different literary elements and dramatic skills to make the play captivating and also entertaining. One of the most prominent of these is the sudden shift between comedy and tragedy. Consequently, the readers, or the audience is in a state of constant suspense, not knowing what to expect. For example, before Mercutio’s death, the scene is largely comic. But suddenly, one of the most prominent of characters dies.
Shakespeare also uses the aid of several different sub-plots. These sub-plots provide support to the main plot of the play. In fact, without these plots, the play would lose much of its charm. An interesting little plot is Romeo’s interest in Rosaline, at the beginning. This also reveals the immature side of Romeo. His love for Rosaline lacks depth and passion; in fact, often he seems to be infatuated with the idea of love rather than Rosaline.
Later though, one can compare how his feelings change when he actually falls in love with Juliet. This too develops slowly. His first feelings for her too are not particularly deep. But later the two develop more of a mature relationship. Other dramatic devices used by Shakespeare include the punning typical of most of Shakespeare’s plays. But the one dramatic plot that dominates the play is that of hostility and hate. The play begins with the servants of the two families squabbling. The affair between Romeo and Juliet is thus set in a background of extreme enmity. Shakespeare also uses poetic language as a powerful tool to convey especially, the romance of the two lovers.
Most of the play though is in blank verse, which does not follow a rhythm. On analyzing the play, one can also come across many themes. Most important and obvious is that of love. The love between Romeo and Juliet is classic. Shakespeare depicts their love as a very powerful force. The emotions described depict feelings of intensity and force. There is Romeo and his poetry where he compares his love to the sun. And then there is Romeo, violent, and brash. Another important theme in the play is that of light and darkness, depicted in the form of day and night. Romeo compares his love to the ‘bright sun ,’ ‘a lamp ,’ ‘bright angel ’ and that she is like ‘a jewel sparkling in the night .’ Juliet compares their love to lightening. Even in the vault, Romeo exclaims that her presence had made the vault ‘full of light .’ The morning after the death of the lovers, the Prince says that the morning is ‘gloomy,’ and that ‘the sun, for sorrow, will not show his head .’ The theme of light and darkness describes how their love, like light was opposed by the outside world of darkness.
The passage of time is also important in the play, and is closely related to the theme of light and darkness. In the beginning, time seems to be passing leisurely when young Romeo is pining for his supposed love Rosaline. Suddenly though, time starts moving quite fast, changing the course of events. In fact, had there been even a little more time, the play might have ended with the lovers uniting. Juliet claims that her affair with Romeo is moving too fast, ‘too rash and sudden .’
Later Lord Capulet insists on Juliet marrying Paris within three days. This sets another time frame. And it eventually leads to the tragedy. Shakespeare also uses fate and the power of destiny in the play. In fact, fate and destiny are cardinal themes of most Shakespearean plays. In the opening chorus the reader is told the lovers are ‘star cross’d .’Later both Romeo and Juliet make references to stars, implying predestination and fate. When Romeo learns of Juliet’s death, he is unwilling to believe it. ‘Then I am willing to defy you stars .’ Another theme in the play is that of family values.
The backdrop of the play is about the Capulets and the Montagues. When Romeo and Juliet learn of each others identity, they know their love is ‘forbidden.’ The feud between the two families appears to be well known, but without obvious reason. Their disputes and their pride did not allow them to realize that their differences were petty. And this is what the families realize when they see their children dead. ‘In fact, one mark of the play’s greatness lies in the way different characters respond to the family pressures which alternately define, nourish, and sometimes suffocate them .’
Over time, Romeo and Juliet has been performed all over the world, in many different languages. One reason for its success can also be the fact that even though it is set in Verona, in the sixteenth century, its story is by no means limited. In fact, it is relatable in all cultures and all times. The other reasons for its success are of course, because of Shakespeare and his amazing style. Romeo and Juliet has also been adapted in various movies over time. ‘In our own time, the Zefferelli motion picture and the Broadway production of West Side Story are well established .’ ‘Coincidence, chance, unawareness: fate weaves its inexorable pattern against the background of a bitter and deadly feud, working through persons who would never knowingly harm the lovers, but who do so nonetheless .’
‘Shakespeare wrote almost no original plots. He used an English poetic retelling of an old Italian tale: Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet .’ But even with the plot in mind, the play Shakepeare wrote is remarkable. Even though Romeo and Juliet was written over four hundred years ago, it remains, till today, one of the most popular and adored tragedy’s of English literature. ‘Eventually, their (Romeo’s and Juliet’s) misfortunes and their loves have healed the enmities of which they were the victims .’
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
- Flachmann, Michael. Romeo and Juliet: Family Matters. Midsummer Magazine. 1998
- Romeo and Juliet: A Tragedy of Pity and Pathos. Utah Shakespearean Festival.
(Also available at http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/romeoandjuliet/romeotragedy.html)
- Study Guide for Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (1591?). 2000, February 2. (http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/love-in-the-arts/romeo.html)
- Bates, Alfred. Romeo and Juliet. The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization. 1906 (pp. 6-13) (Also available at http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/romeoandjuliet001.html)