The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, commonly referred to as Romeo and Juliet, is a play by William Shakespeare concerning the fate of two very young lovers who would do anything to be together. It is perhaps the most famous of his plays and is thought to be the most famous love story in Western history.
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Romeo and Juliet
The play begins with a 14-line prologue in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. The chorus explains to the audience that the story concerns two noble families of Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues, that have feuded for generations. The chorus also tells how the tragic suicide of the lovers "[buries] their parents' strife," ending the conflict.
The action starts with a street-battle between the two families, started by their servants and put down by the Prince of Verona, Escalus. The Prince declares that the heads of the two families (known simply as "Montague" and "Capulet") will be held personally accountable (with their lives) for any further breach of the peace, and disperses the crowd.
Count Paris, a young nobleman, talks to Capulet about marrying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Juliet. Capulet demurs, citing the girl's tender age, and invites him to attract the attention of Juliet during a ball that the family is to hold that night. Meanwhile Juliet's mother tries to persuade her young daughter to accept Paris' wooing during their coming ball. Juliet is not inspired by the idea of marrying Paris — in fact, she admits to not really having considered marriage at all. But, being a dutiful daughter, she accedes to her mother's wishes. This scene also introduces Juliet's nurse, the comic relief of the play, who recounts a bawdy anecdote about Juliet at great length and with much repetition.
In the meantime, Montague and his wife fret to their nephew Benvolio about their son Romeo, who has long been moping for reasons unknown to them. Benvolio promises Montague that he will try to determine the cause. Benvolio queries Romeo and finds that his melancholy has its roots in his unrequited love for a girl named Rosaline (an unseen character). Romeo is infatuated but laments that she will not "ope her lap to saint-seducing gold." Perhaps most frustrating to Romeo is the fact that Rosaline "will not be hit with Cupid's arrow/ She hath Diane's wit". In other words, it's not that she finds Romeo himself objectionable, but that she has foresworn to marry at all (she has vowed not to fall in love, and to die a virgin). Benvolio tries to snap Romeo out of his dark mood, to no avail: despite the good-natured taunts of his fellows, including the witty nobleman Mercutio (who gives his well known Queen Mab speech), Romeo resolves to attend the masquerade at the Capulet house, relying on not being spotted in his costume, in the hopes of meeting up with Rosaline.
Romeo attends the ball as planned, but falls for Juliet as soon as he sees her and quickly forgets Rosaline. Juliet is instantly taken by Romeo, and the two youth proclaim their love for one another with their "love sonnet" in which Romeo compares himself to a pilgrim and Juliet to the saint which is the object of his pilgrimage.
Tybalt, Juliet's hot-blooded cousin, recognizes Romeo under his disguise and calls for his sword. Capulet, however, speaks kindly of Romeo and, having resolved that his family will not be first to violate the Prince's decree, sternly forbids Tybalt from confronting Romeo. Tybalt stalks off in a huff. Before the ball ends, the Nurse identifies Juliet for Romeo, and (separately) identifies Romeo for Juliet.
Emboldened, Romeo risks his life by remaining on the Capulet estate after the party breaks up, to catch another glimpse of Juliet at her room, and in the famous balcony scene, the two eloquently declare their love for each other. This scene contains arguably the most famous line of Romeo and Juliet, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" spoken by Juliet to the darkness (wherefore here means why – Juliet is lamenting that Romeo is a Montague, and so her enemy). The young lovers decide to marry without informing their parents, because they would undoubtedly disallow it due to the planned union between Paris and Juliet.
Juliet sends the nurse to find Romeo. Accompanied by one Peter, who carries her fan, the nurse exchanges some spicy raillery with the bawdy Mercutio.
With the help of Juliet's Nurse and the Franciscan Friar Lawrence (Friar Laurence), the two are wedded the next day. The Friar performs the ceremony, hoping to bring the two families to peace with each other through their mutual union.
Events take a darker turn. Tybalt, still smarting from the incident at the Capulets' ball, had previously sent a letter to the Montagues challenging Romeo to a duel. Meeting Romeo by happenstance, he attempts to provoke a fight. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because they are now kinsmen – although Tybalt doesn't know it, as he doesn't yet know that Romeo has married Juliet. Mercutio, who is also unaware of the marriage, is angered by Tybalt's insolence – and Romeo's seeming indifference – and takes up the challenge himself. In the ensuing swordplay, Romeo attempts to allay Mercutio's anger, momentarily placing his arm around him. By doing so, however, Romeo inadvertently pulls Mercutio into Tybalt's rapier, fatally wounding him. Mercutio dies, wishing "a plague a'both your houses," before he passes. Romeo, in his anger, pursues and slays Tybalt. Although under the Prince of Verona's proclamation Romeo (and Montague and Capulet, as well) would be subject to the death penalty, the Prince instead fines the head of each house, and reduces Romeo's punishment to exile in recognition that Tybalt had killed Mercutio, who had not only been Romeo's friend but a kinsman of the Prince. Romeo flees to Mantua after attempting to see Juliet one last time.
Just after Romeo leaves Juliet's bedroom unseen, Capulet enters to tell the news to his daughter that he has arranged for her to marry Paris in three days' time, to console her perceived mourning for Tybalt, although it is in fact Romeo's exile that she mourns. Juliet is unwilling to enter this arranged marriage, telling her parents that she will not marry, and when she does, "it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate." Capulet flies into a rage and threatens to disown her if she refuses the marriage.
Juliet visits Friar Lawrence and tells him to either find a solution to her problem or she will commit suicide. Friar Lawrence, being a dabbler in herbal medicines and potions, gives Juliet a potion and a plan: the potion will put her into a death-like coma for "two and forty hours" (Act IV. Scene I); she is to take it before her marriage day, and when discovered apparently dead, she will be laid in the family crypt.Meanwhile, the Friar will send a messenger to inform Romeo, so that he can rejoin her when she awakes. The two can then leave for Mantua and live happily ever after. Juliet is at first suspicious of the potion, thinking the Friar may be trying to kill her, but eventually takes it and falls 'asleep'.
The messenger of Friar Lawrence does not reach Romeo, due to a quarantine. Instead, Romeo learns of Juliet's supposed "death" from his manservant Balthasar. Grief-stricken, he buys strong poison, returns to Verona in secret, and goes to the crypt, determined to join Juliet in death. There he encounters Paris, who has also come to mourn privately for his lost love. Paris assumes that Romeo has come to defile the Capulets' crypt and challenges him to a duel. Romeo kills Paris, and then drinks the poison after seeing Juliet one last time, exclaiming: "Thus with a kiss I die."
At this point Juliet awakes and, seeing the dead, seeks answers. Friar Lawrence arrives, and tries to convince Juliet to come with him, but she refuses. He is frightened by a noise, and leaves Juliet alone in the crypt. The pain and shock of Romeo's death is too much for Juliet, and she stabs herself with his dagger. The two lovers lie dead together.
The two feuding families (except Lady Montague, who had died of grief over her son's banishment) and the Prince converge upon the tomb and are horrified to find Romeo, Juliet, and Paris all lying dead. Friar Lawrence reveals the love and secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet. The families are reconciled by their children's deaths and agree to end their violent feud, as foretold by the prologue. The play ends with the Prince's elegaic lamentation:
There have been over forty movie versions of the tale, with the first made in France in 1900. Some of the more notable adaptations include:
The film West Side Story set in 1960s New York City was loosely based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, with the Montagues becoming the Jets and the Capulets becoming the Sharks.
The film Shakespeare in Love is a fictional account of how Shakespeare writes the play against the clock inspired by his love for a noble woman. The movie also describes the start of Twelfth Night, inspired by the same woman's ultimate fate.
References in popular culture
A common misconception is that the plot of Romeo and Juliet was invented by Shakespeare. In fact, his play is a dramatisation of Arthur Brooke's narrative poem The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare followed Brooke's poem fairly closely but enriched its texture by adding extra detail to both major and minor characters, in particular the Nurse and Mercutio.
Brooke's poem was not original either, being a translation and adaptation of Giuletta e Romeo, by Matteo Bandello, included in his Novelle of 1554. This was in turn an adaptation of Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo, included in his Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due Nobili Amanti (c. 1530). This was the version that gave the story much of its modern form, including the names of the lovers, naming the rival families to the Montecchi and the Cappelletti, and shifting the action to Verona.
The earliest known version of the tale is the 1476 story of Mariotto and Gianozza of Siena by Masuccio Salernitano, in Il Novelino' (Novella XXXIII).
Bandello's story was the most famous one, being translated into French (and English, by Brooke). It was also adapted by Italian theatrical troupes, some of whom performed in London at the time that Shakespeare was writing his plays. This may have been an alternate or additional inspiration to Shakespeare in his version of Romeo and Juliet.
More generally, the story of the ill-fated lovers has parallels with many similar tales told throughout history, including Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, Floris and Blanchefleur, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Layla and Majnun, Tristan and Iseult and Hagbard and Signy. One could say that these were the "Romeo and Juliet"s of their time periods.