Romeo and Juliet Summary

William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet Summary

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Dating from early in the Shakespeare canon, Romeo and Juliet has become the quintessential literary work, perhaps even the template, for tales of tragic “star-crossed” lovers and of deep-rooted family feuds. Shakespeare likely wrote the play between 1591 and 1595. Although significantly expanded, his plot was influenced by two earlier works from the 1560s stemming from an ancient Italian story translated into the English poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” by Arthur Brooke and into story form as “Palace of Pleasure” by William Painter.

The play is set in Verona, Italy and begins with an introduction to the depth of the divide between the House of Capulet and the House of Montague as their servants, mortal enemies just as their master are, brawl in the streets. Prince Escalus of Verona makes it known that should the peace be interrupted again, the resulting punishment will be death. Later, Count Paris of the Ruling House of Verona approaches Lord Capulet about marrying his daughter Juliet. Capulet asks Paris to wait two years. Juliet’s nurse, who is her closest confidante, and her mother, Lady Capulet, support the proposed marriage and encourage Juliet to embrace the idea as well.

Romeo of the House of Montague is depressed that his love for Rosaline, a Capulet niece, is unrequited. Romeo’s cousin Benvolio and  friend Mercutio, convince Romeo to attend a ball at the Capulet residence to meet Rosaline. Instead, Romeo meets and falls in love with Juliet, whose cousin Tybalt wants to kill Romeo for sneaking into the ball. Lord Capulet, who does not want bloodshed in his house, thwarts him. The most famous scene from Romeo and Juliet, the balcony scene, follows the ball. From his vantage point in the Capulet orchard, Romeo hears Juliet professing her love for him without regard for her family’s disapproval. Romeo reveals himself to her and they are married in secret the following day by Friar Laurence who believes the union will serve to mend relations between the two families.

Tybalt has not left his hatred for Romeo behind and challenges him to a duel, which Romeo declines, feeling his is now kin to Tybalt. Mercutio, out of disdain for Tybalt and over what he perceives as Romeo’s cowardice, agrees to duel in Romeo’s place. In spite of Romeo’s attempt to intervene, Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio, leaving Romeo filled with guilt and grief. Romeo then avenges Mercutio’s death, killing Tybalt. Lord Montague believes the killing of Tybalt to be a justified act. The prince however does not, and Romeo is banished from Verona with the knowledge that if he returns, the penalty will be death. Romeo sneaks into Juliet’s bedchamber and spends the night, during which the marriage is consummated. Lord Capulet has agreed to give his daughter to Count Paris in marriage and vows to disown her if she refuses. Further, when she implores her mother to delay the union, she, too, rejects Juliet.

Juliet seeks the advice of Friar Laurence, who gives her a potion that he explains will put her in a coma resembling death for forty-two hours. He tells her he will send a message to Romeo to inform him of the plan and have him be with her when she wakes. She takes the tonic on the night before the wedding. She is discovered, presumably dead, and is placed in the Capulet family crypt. As fate would have it, the messenger dispatched by the friar does not reach Romeo, who is told of Juliet’s apparent death by Balthasar, his servant. The distraught Romeo visits an apothecary, purchases poison, and travels to the Capulet crypt. Upon arriving, he is mistaken for a vandal by Paris, whom he kills when they scuffle. Still unaware that Juliet is not truly dead, Romeo drinks the poison. When Juliet awakes and finds the dead Romeo, she takes her own life with a dagger.

Friar Laurence tells the story of the “star-crossed lovers,” at which point the Capulets and the Montagues agree to end their long violent feud. Ending the play the Prince offers, “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Several themes emerge from the often told, and as often, retold tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. From the onset of the play, it is known that the tale will end tragically due to fate, not through the faults of the lovers. Neither logic nor societal norms support the intersection of their lives. Fate intervenes. Love is, naturally, a significant theme, but not just the romantic connection that ignites between Romeo and Juliet. There is the physical love with its sensuality that the nurse proposes. There is also the type of love that is meant to follow “protocol” exemplified by the suggested union of Paris and Juliet. Ambiguity thematically drives the plot. The friar hurts Romeo and Juliet in his efforts to help them. Medicines and poisons play similar roles. Ambiguity seems fitting as what is seen as one of the greatest romances in literary history also ranks as one of the great tales of tragedy.