It is a hot July Sunday in Verona, and we find the servants of the Capulets out looking for trouble. What better way to start something, they figure, than to insult the servants of their master's old enemies, the Montagues? The plan works, and before long servants, friends, relatives and, finally, Lord Capulet and Lord Montague themselves, are at each other's throats. Verona's Prince Escalus has to personally break up the fight, and he is not happy about it. He heavily fines both families and warns them that if they fight in the streets again, they will face the death penalty.
Lord and Lady Montague are glad their son Romeo was not involved in the brawl, but they are worried about him anyway. They ask Benvolio, Romeo's cousin and best friend, why Romeo has been off by himself so much lately, and Benvolio soon finds out; Romeo is in love. But the object of Romeo's affections, a gorgeous girl named Rosaline, could not care less, and Romeo is nursing his grief. To cheer him up, Benvolio suggests that they disguise themselves and secretly attend the Capulets' ball that night. Rosaline will be there, and Benvolio promises to find Romeo a girl who will make Rosaline seem like a crow in comparison. Romeo has a sudden, mysterious feeling of danger, but agrees to go along with Benvolio and their witty friend Mercutio.
Meanwhile, excitement is high at the Capulets' house. Not only are they preparing for a big party, but Count Paris - a relative to the prince, and Verona's most eligible bachelor - has come to ask Lord Capulet if he can marry his only daughter, Juliet. Capulet claims that Juliet is too young to be married yet, but he is obviously thrilled. Thirteen- year-old Juliet is beautiful and full of life. She has never been in love, and she promises to do her best to like Paris when she meets him at the dance. But that night Juliet meets Romeo, and suddenly Paris and Rosaline are forgotten. The two see each other across the room, meet, and by the time they kiss they are madly in love. But all is not well. Tybalt, Juliet's quick-tempered cousin, recognizes Romeo. Tybalt thinks this Montague's gatecrashing is a terrible insult, and he vows revenge. Not until after the evening is over do Romeo and Juliet discover the identity of their new loves.
After the party, Romeo hides from his noisy friends and unexpectedly finds himself in an orchard beneath Juliet's window. In the romantic and sexy balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet joyfully swear their love for each other, and decide to marry in secret. Friar Lawrence, a Franciscan monk and a father figure to Romeo, is very worried about the suddenness of their passion. He finally agrees to marry them, hoping that their wedding will eventually end the bloody fighting between their families. The couples' secret world of love is soon shattered. Fresh from the wedding, Romeo finds Mercutio and Benvolio with Tybalt, who has come to look for revenge. Tybalt calls Romeo a villain and dares him to fight, but Romeo refuses. He calls Tybalt 'cousin' and swears he loves the name of Capulet as much as his own. Everyone is amazed at Romeo's refusal, and the hot-blooded Mercutio takes Tybalt's challenge instead. When Romeo rushes between them to stop the fight, Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo is filled with guilt and outrage at his friend's death, and he runs, furious, to catch Tybalt. It is a battle of life and death, and Romeo wins. But as soon as Tybalt is dead, Romeo realizes the rashness of his act. 'I am a fortune's fool!' he cries as his friends hurry him off the streets into hiding.
Juliet is excitedly getting ready for her wedding night when her nurse brings her the bad news: her cousin Tybalt is dead, and Prince Escalus has banished Romeo from Verona. The girl is overcome by grief for Tybalt, but mostly for her new husband. The nurse finally tells her that Romeo is hiding in the Friar's cell. Some of Juliet's joy returns as they arrange for one stolen night of love before Romeo has to flee Verona. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse. Lord Capulet feels terrible about his family's grief over Tybalt - a nd Juliet seems to be more upset than anyone else. He quickly arranges something he thinks will make everyone feel better - Juliet's marriage, that very week, to Paris. Even as Lady Capulet comes to bring that news to Juliet on Tuesday morning, Juliet and Romeo are saying their heartbroken farewells. What can Juliet do? Her desperate refusal to marry Paris infuriates her parents. Her father threatens to disown her if she does not obey. Even her nurse, who knows the situation, suggests it might be best to marry the Count. With nowhere else to turn, Juliet runs to friar Lawrence.
Their only hope is a risky plan. The friar gives Juliet a drug that will stop her breathing and make her seem death for 42 hours. During this time he will send for Romeo in Mantua, and Romeo and the Friar will be in the tomb when she wakes up. Romeo will take her away with him, and the friar will try to calm everyone down, and announce their marriage so they can come back to live in Verona. Juliet eagerly takes the drink. The next morning, when the nurse comes to prepare Juliet for her wedding, she finds the seemingly lifeless girl. The Capulets' day of joy turns to sorrow, as their only daughter's wedding turns into a funeral instead.
Friar Lawrence has sent a message to Romeo, but unfortunately the message - bearer is quarantined by the plague. Romeo's servant, Balthasar, is the first to reach Romeo, and he tells him the sad news that Juliet is dead. Romeo, beside himself with grief, buys poison and rides full-speed toward the Capulets' tomb. He arrives to find Paris mourning for Juliet, and when Paris refuses to let Romeo pass, the two men fight, and Romeo kills Paris. The Count's last request is to be buried with Juliet, and Romeo grants this wish. Inside the tomb, Romeo begs for forgiveness of the newly dead Tybalt, but his attention is at once arrested by Juliet. He cannot believe how beautiful she still is, and he vows to stay with his new bride eternally. He swallows the poison, and quickly dies. Friar Lawrence hurries to the tomb, to be there when Juliet wakes up. When he arrives, he finds Paris and Romeo dead. Juliet awakens just as Paris' servant is bringing the watchmen. She sees her dead lover, and refuses to leave the tomb; Friar Lawrence panics and runs away. Juliet hears people coming, so she acts quickly: she grabs Romeo's dagger and stabs herself. The tragic deaths of their two children unite the Capulets and Montagues in grief. The prince admonishes that 'heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.' In death, rather than in life, the two lovers have brought peace to their families.
In Juliet, we watch something fascinating: a girl blossoming into a woman in the space of five days. Before we watch this progression, let us look at some aspects of her personality that stay the same.
In the Italian version of the story, Juliet was 18; in Brooke’s poem - the first English version - she was 16. Why does Shakespeare make her so young: ‘not yet fourteen’? In those days it was legal for girls to marry at twelve, but such marriages were rare. Two possible reasons are: Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was about 13 when he wrote the play, and moreover, the English thought that Italian girls matured early. Anyhow, Juliet’s age is a key to her character. She is innocent and full of hope; we feel intense sympathy for her because she is so young.
Both Romeo and Paris fall in love with her on sight alone. Before they are even introduced Paris asks to marry her, and Romeo is bewitched by the charms of her looks. Her beauty inspires some of Romeo’s famous poetry:
Romeo is romantic, whereas Juliet is practical. We can see this contrast in the balcony scene. Romeo is content to speak poetic words of love, while Juliet sets up the marriage and the time and means of communication. She prefers short statements to flowery promises, and her practical nature leads her to worry about the suddenness of their passion:
Juliet grows. We first see her like a child, surrounded by her nurse and her mother. She does not say much, and obediently promises to like the man her parents wish her to marry. She has not seriously thought about her life as an adult. But that night she meets Romeo and falls in love. Everything changes. She begins to think and act for herself. By the end of the evening she has taken her future into her own hands, and has become engaged.
We see at this point that she is practical but idealistic. She knows there are problems in the world, but she is confident that love can overcome them. For Juliet, marriage and sexual awakening are the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Before her wedding night she sees herself standing between the married woman she is to become and the impatient child she still feels like. The best mark of Juliet’s maturity is that she is strong enough to be true to herself and to Romeo, even though everyone is against it, and the cost is very high. She is no longer an obedient little girl, but a young woman who has taken charge of her own life. She feels she even holds the final card: ‘if all else fail, myself have power to die.’ (III, v, 343 – 345). By the end of the play she has come full circle from innocence to experience. Before she drinks the friar’s potion, we see she understands that the evil in the world can hurt her. She realizes the friar that the friar could have given her poison to hide the fact that he has secretly married them; she realizes she could wake up in the tomb and suffocate, or go crazy. Yet, she chooses to have faith. She believes that the friar means her no harm, and she ultimately believes that her love for Romeo is strong enough to withstand death.
Like Juliet, Romeo grows up, too. Before we look at how he changes, let us look at the parts of his personality that remain constant.
Everyone likes Romeo. Mercutio and Benvolio want his attention, the nurse thinks he is honest, courteous, kind and handsome. His mother loves him so much that she dies of grief when he is banished; even Lord Capulet calls him ‘a virtuous and well-governed youth’ and refuses to let Tybalt bother him. Friar Lawrence loves Romeo so much that he will do almost anything to secure his happiness. The only exception to Romeo’s admirers is Tybalt, and Romeo himself tells Tybalt: ‘Villain I am none ……….. see thou knowest me not.’ (III, I, 65 – 66).
Romeo has the blessing and the curse of feeling things deeply. At the beginning of the play he is despairing over his unrequited love for Rosaline. He is able to give himself completely to his love for Juliet, and his only trouble comes when he gives in to ‘fire-eyed fury’ after Mercutio is killed.
He is virtuous, honest, charming, and well-mannered. He charms Juliet by reverently kissing her hand and calling her a saint; his manners win over the nurse when she is upset by Mercutio. He is a gentleman to the end; he grants his rival’s request to be buried with Juliet.
Language is very important to Romeo. He talks while he thinks, verbally exploring the world. Because of this, we can use Romeo’s growing skill with words to chart his progress throughout the play. When we first see Romeo, he is in love with love. He has chosen a girl who will never return his affection, and he spends more time groaning about how depressed he is than he does praising Rosaline. When he talks he uses a lot of clichés, and repeats himself. Of Rosaline he says:
His moaning leaves him unable to act. Instead, he spends time wandering through trees or locked up in his room. This is not like him, and his family is worried. He even says, rather proudly:
Then he meets Juliet and discovers his true self. Their love is so right that Romeo’s speech is transformed into poetry. The first time they talk together, their conversation effortlessly forms a sonnet. This new love makes him sure of himself straight through his wedding, and makes him strong enough to fight with Tybalt. Was it mature and honourable for him to avenge Tybalt’s death, or was it rash and foolish? It can be argued both ways, and you will need to look at the evidence to see which view you agree with. In either case, by the time Romeo gets to Friar Lawrence’s cell, he has lost himself, his maturity and his ability to act. He thinks he has also lost Juliet by killing her cousin.
Again his speech becomes repetitive. He is beyond comfort, which resembles the way he was at the beginning of the play. But when he hears that Juliet still loves him and wants him to come to her that night, he springs back to action. After his wedding night, he is more mature and more himself than before. We see that he has accepted his banishment and is willing to act on it. He has become a man of action, and for the rest of the play does not hesitate to act. It is a sad irony that Romeo is most himself in the tomb.
At the time of his death, his words and his actions fit together perfectly. He tells us what has brought him to this point; he tells us what he is going to do and why his love for Juliet has transformed him from a boy who talks in clichés into a man with a powerful command of speech. It is tragic that when his love is deepest, there will be no earthly use for it. When his speech is most mature, it will soon be silenced. He has found himself only to kill himself. In his death the world loses a noble young man.