/students/features/shakespeare/romeo-and-juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Star-cross'd and starry-eyed

The Story

From the opening lines of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows what lies in store for the tragedy’s title teens: that these two “star-crossed lovers” are doomed to die. By the end of the play, an “ancient grudge” and “their parents’ rage” will lead Romeo and Juliet to a terrible fate—they will kill themselves.

Yes, a bloody feud and dual suicides, and yet Romeo and Juliet is one of the great, classic love stories. In fact, according to scholar Harold Bloom, it is “the most persuasive celebration of romantic love in Western literature.”

And we’ll show you why.

We’ll talk about what makes this play so popular, and later, we’ll review the play’s famed balcony scene, where Romeo hides in the garden under Juliet’s room and calls to her, after which romance blossoms. For now, though, let’s review the basics of the play.

Romeo and Juliet is not just the story of two lovesick teenagers. It is the story of two lovesick teenagers whose relationship is—here’s the source of the tension—forbidden. Both Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet come from wealthy families in the kingdom of Verona (in our Italy), but the families have been fighting bitterly for years. In fact, the play begins with members of the two families brawling in the streets.

When Romeo sneaks into the Capulet family’s ball, he meets and dances with the lovely Juliet. Due to this meeting and another encounter in the “balcony scene,” the two fall in love. Despite having known each other only a short time, they even discuss marriage.

But here’s the catch—actually, here are several catches:

  1. Juliet’s family wants her to marry Paris, a count. 
  2. Because of the feud, Romeo and Juliet’s families would never approve of their relationship. 
  3. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt finds out that Romeo attended the ball and wants to fight him.

Now, the two do a decent job of avoiding problems 1 and 2. It turns out the marriage to Paris won’t happen for a little while. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet sneak around their families and find Friar Lawrence, who’s willing to help the pair marry in secret.

They almost avoid problem 3 as well. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt. All’s well? Not quite. Romeo’s friend Mercutio decides to fight Tybalt in Romeo’s place. It’s a bloody mess. Romeo tries to break up the fight, but he’s too late. Tybalt has killed Mercutio. And in response, Romeo kills Tybalt.

So now, not only is Romeo off limits to Juliet because he’s a Montague, he’s also forbidden because he’s a cousin-killer. Oh, and he’s not just forbidden. He’s officially exiled.

Remarkably, this doesn’t stop Friar Lawrence from devising a scheme to help Romeo and Juliet reunite.

Friar Lawrence’s plan is untraditional, to say the least: It involves drugging Juliet so that she looks dead, leaving her in a crypt, and leading Romeo to her so that he can be there when (and if) Juliet wakes up.

Naturally, since this is a tragedy, Romeo only hears about part of the plan, misunderstandings lead to additional deaths, and—in a strange twist—the Montagues and Capulets make up at the end, though it’s too late for our young lovers.

The Appeal

More than four hundred years after its premiere, why does the story of Romeo and Juliet endure? To answer that question, ask yourself a few others.

Have you or your friends ever:

  • Faced obstacles or bad luck? 
  • Been trapped in a life that feels out of your control? 
  • Had to live by your parents’ rules—and disobeyed them? 
  • Experienced love at first sight?

If so, then, though separated by four centuries, you’ve encountered some of the same challenges as Romeo and Juliet.

Perhaps you’ve seen relationships that take on the same passionate importance as in this tragedy. Family name alone is enough to separate Romeo and Juliet and create tension with life-or-death significance. For couples you know, age, income, race, and religion may also have destructive consequences.

Most of us can relate to the tragedy of coming so close to something—a friend, an academic success, a romantic relationship—and then failing. The story of Romeo and Juliet is particularly poignant in that its lead characters learn their lesson moments too late. And the audience knows the characters’ fate from the very start of the play but those watching, of course, are powerless to change the outcome.

Romeo and Juliet’s story has also endured in that there’s a long tradition of other artistic creations that it has inspired. Romeo and Juliet, when published in the late 16th century, was itself based on an older poem. The tradition of adapting the story has continued. Over the past 400 years, the richness of this tragedy has inspired dance, film, theatrical parodies, orchestral interpretations, and even a rock musical.

Here’s a listing of some of the most well-known adaptations of the play.

BALLET

Romeo and Juliet – A Russian theater commissioned the composer Sergei Prokofiev to turn the play into a ballet, which opened in 1938. Later filmed productions are available to view today, including versions with choreography by Rudolf Nureyev, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, and Leonid Lavrovsky.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Roméo et Juliette – Inspired by a stage production of Romeo and Juliet, the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz wrote this three-part “symphonie dramatique” for orchestra and voice. It was first performed in 1839, in Paris.

Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy – Russian Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky developed this orchestral work in the 1870s and 1880s. Still popular today, the piece is often known by its “love theme,” which has been featured in films and television shows.

MOVIES

West Side Story (1961): With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this 1957 Broadway play became a popular movie. It stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer and replaces the feuding families with racially divided urban gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Audiences can see how violent gang warfare shatters the dreams of star-crossed lovers Maria (Juliet) and Tony (Romeo).

Romeo and Juliet (1968): Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, this movie adaptation starred the teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. It is still acclaimed as the definitive film version of the tragedy.

Romeo + Juliet (1996): Baz Lurhmann directed this modernization of the play, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. It takes place in the suburb of Verona and trades swords and feuds for guns and street warfare.

OPERAS

Roméo et Juliette – Frenchman Charles Gounod composed this five-act opera, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, and it debuted in 1867. While other opera versions of the play exist, Gounod’s remains the most well-known.

PAINTINGS

For centuries, artists have depicted scenes from Romeo and Juliet in their artwork. Besides depicting the love between the young couple, painters have also illustrated the play’s other instrumental characters, including Friar Lawrence and the Nurse.

Balcony Scene

Action: ACT II, Scene III

After meeting Juliet at her family’s ball, Romeo is so enamored of her beauty that he sneaks into the family’s garden so he can look up at her balcony, where Juliet stands.

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” he asks himself of Juliet’s bright beauty. “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.”

Juliet stands right above him, but Romeo decides not to let his presence be known. He admires how Juliet’s star-like eyes “twinkle in their spheres.” He watches her movements closely. “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,” he yearns, “That I might touch that cheek!” Likewise, he marvels at her voice. “O, speak again, bright angel,” he implores.

And she does—about him!

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Juliet asks. (“Wherefore” means “why,” so Juliet is not asking where Romeo is but why he is who he is.) So here it is—the sticking point: “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” she says. Romeo is a Montague and, therefore, an enemy of the Capulet family. A relationship between the two teenagers would never be accepted by their families.

But Juliet opposes the feud. “What’s in a name?” she asks. “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.”

Her interest in Romeo is clear and, at last, he speaks from the darkness.

Juliet is not nearly as freaked out you might expect, given that Romeo has scaled walls and risked his life to linger under her balcony.

As Romeo puts it, “stony limits cannot hold love out.”

As the more practical Juliet puts it, “If [my kinsmen] do see thee, they will murder thee.”

The two teens flirt and talk of romance. But given how little they know of each other, Juliet expresses concern about their connection. “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,” she worries.

Romeo presses Juliet for a deeper pledge—and she admits her feelings for him are “as boundless as the sea.”

Then, her nurse calling for her, she must leave Romeo. But she can barely stand to leave Romeo. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she laments.

They will not be separated for long. Romeo and Juliet arrange that a secret communication will take place the next day—if he truly loves Juliet, Romeo will send her a message asking for her hand in marriage.

Credits

Writers

Marina Ruben
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

© 1996-2014 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center

with the support of

Department of Education



The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2014 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions

Close

You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:
http://absoluteshakespeare.com

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.

Cancel

Close