Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

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, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. 
[Act I, scene I]

So begins William Shakespeare's Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, one of his earlier plays written around 1595 and published in 1597. It was inspired by The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 (front-piece pictured on the right), and the prose version Palace of Pleasure by William Painter (1567), but the tale is much older than that. In 1496 Masuccio Salernitano wrote Mariotto and Gianozza (very similar to Romeo and Juliet), and older still, in Canto VI of Purgatorio Dante writes, "Come see the Capulets and Montagues": Purgatorio was written in the early part of the 14th Century, over two hundred years before Romeo and Juliet, Romeus and Juliet, and Palace of Pleasure. There is evidence to suggest that these versions may have origin in 'Pyramus and Thisbe' from Ovid's Metamorphoses - they too were "a pair of star-cross'd lovers" whose end is comparable to Romeo and Juliet's.

Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard
Dicksee (1884)
In my mind, Romeo and Juliet is an excellent example of a classic that should be read with no preconceptions. Like Wuthering Heights, we've been prepared for an epic love story, a great romance that has survived through the centuries. Romeo has become an idealised lover: the Oxford English Dictionary defines "a Romeo" as "An attractive, passionate male seducer or lover", and Romeo and Juliet's love for each other is so intense that they're prepared not only to leave their families, but ultimately die. But is this the case? This is not a romance and this is not love: Romeo and Juliet is a frightening tale of obsession and lust. I don't say this to devalue it, far from it: as a tale of an intense crush, it is more powerful and moving than many of its kind. I loved Romeo and Juliet.

In the beginning, we see Romeo in love not with Juliet but Rosaline, the niece of Juliet's father Capulet (from the first scene of the first act we know the Montagues and Capulets are at war; they have hated each other for generations), and she has chosen to be celibate ("She hath forsworn to love"), and so we meet Romeo in a very dark, depressed state. He is, as he was with Juliet, full of violent and passionate declarations of love: "One fairer that my love! The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." His family are concerned - Benvolio tells Lady Montague he has seen Romeo pining "underneath the grove of sycamore" (a sycamore can represent eternity, though in Ancient Egypt it stood on the threshold between life and death: as with Hamlet, the symbolism of flowers and trees are an important part of Shakespeare's poetry and plays). She urges Benvolio to speak with Romeo, and it is in this scene where he reveals his love for Rosaline. Benvolio tells him to forget her and find another ("Examine other beauties"), which, as we know, he does.

Juliet and her nurse, by John Roddam Spencer
Stanhope, 1863.
Seeing Juliet for the first time, Romeo says,
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear -
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
On discovering Juliet is a Capulet, he exclaims, "O dear account! My life is my foe's debt". Rosaline (a Capulet) and her "exquisite" beauty have disappeared from his mind, all within an afternoon. The following events are yet faster: it's easy to forget that within less than a week of meeting, Romeo and Juliet would be dead. Later that evening after their first kiss (and words exchanged, so full of religious significance) they decide to get married, which they do the next day. The following day, having learned of her betrothal to Count Paris, Juliet plans with the Friar to take a drug that will make her appear to be dead:
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilléd liquor drink thou off,
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest...
Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, 1996.
She takes the potion that evening, and the next morning is found apparently dead. Romeo, who is banished for killing Juliet's cousin Tybalt, hears she is dead but has not received the message from the Friar. He buys poison to kill himself, and the next day, the final day, Romeo sees her in the crypt. He drinks the poison, Juliet wakes up finding him dead and, like Thisbe, stabs herself with her lover's sword.

This is a tragedy, there is no doubt of that. They were star-crossed lovers, and the portents of doom were seen early with references to stars ("Then I defy you, stars!", "I fear, too early: for my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars", and " O, here / Will I set up my everlasting rest, / And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars / From this world-wearied flesh"), as well as words such as "fatal", and "fortune's fool". Also, Mercutio's mention of Dido, Cleopatra, Hero, and Thisbe too: in the Aeneid, Dido killed herself after she was deserted by Aeneas; Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake after Anthony, who has stabbed himself, believing her to be dead; Hero drowned herself after her lover drowned, and Thisbe, as I've said, stabbed herself on finding her lover had killed himself.

As for love, this I do question. A five day old love, and a man (we can guess he's in his mid to late teens; Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years") whose all-consuming eternal love for one shifted within the space of a few hours to another. It was too short to be enduring, and too quick to be deep. It was lust, as I said, and obsession. It is the crush of two teenagers that would result in their death, and the death of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and Lady Montague. If it is love, then it is a destructive love. Furthermore, I do not see it as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, only the tragedy of Juliet. Romeo is too mercurial, it is too obvious that had they have lived, he would have been lusting after the next "pretty piece of flesh" soon after. This is perhaps unkind of me: he was young and passionate, and as much a victim of it as Juliet was, but as I pitied Hamlet's Ophelia, so too I pity Romeo's Juliet.

I'm glad to have re-read this play. When I first read it many years ago I was full of preconceptions and ideas of how I thought it played out, and I missed what a whirlwind of events it was. It is exceptionally high-paced, and truly it is so very beautiful. I think in revisiting Shakespeare I may be warming to him a little more!

Further Reading


  1. I pity Juliet, too, and I think she's the one who really shows strenght, and a kind of passion that is, strangely, more "adult" and truer than Romeo's - maybe because she's a little bit hesitant, at first; like she knew it wasn't going to end well, and was pondering if that feeling was worth her sacrifice. I may be wrong, though - I've read it some time ago.

    Anyway, I agree with you, it isn't a tale of romantic love, as many seems to believe nowadays.

    1. Agreed. In a way, I think Romeo's just as bad as Hamlet! Poor Juliet.

    2. Well, I think Romeo is definitely a lot worse than Hamlet! I may be biased, tho - I've always thought Hamlet was a great character, maybe Shakespeare's best (for what I've read till now).

    3. Hamlet is one of the best for sure. And there is a sense of purpose to it all with Hamlet, Romeo is simply a bit of an idiot, but with catastrophic results. Which makes him worse, of course!

  2. I'm so glad to hear your thoughts on this. I really dislike Romeo & Juliet exactly *because* I don't find it a tragic love story. These were two teenagers who barely knew each other. Even though you hold the play in much higher regard than I do, I feel quite validated hearing you describe it the way you do.

    1. I can see why you don't like it - I don't think the Romeo and Juliet myth has done it any favours at all. It's a very frustrating read because, as you say, it is two teenagers who barely know each other. I'm glad to have read it carefully to truly understand it.

  3. I haven't read Romeo and Juliet yet, kind of from the fear of what you've mentioned in your review. However, when I led a discussion of The Tempest, a long time ago, I noticed that the older commentaries had a completely different perception of the play than the modern commentaries did. If you can find them, it's worth getting commentaries from Hazlitt, Oliphant, Johnson, Coleridge, etc. I think they would have seen the quickness and intensity of Romeo and Juliet's love as akin to spiritual insight, and it wouldn't have seemed odd. And I guess you have to accept their love in order to appreciate the play. I still have an apprehension of reading it but you have made me more interested. :-)

    1. I'll look them up - I think I have Johnson's Major Works, wonder if there's anything in there... Thanks for that.

      The Tempest... that never stayed with me. Might need a re-read :)


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