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Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare

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In Romeo and Juliet, the characters strive to express the purity of their love, but the play constantly links opposed terms to show that even the most powerful experience is shadowed by its own opposite. When Romeo tries to describe the brightness of Juliet’s beauty, he instead describes the darkness which makes her stand out: “she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” (1.5). Juliet returns the compliment by making a similar contrast: “thou wilt lie upon the wings of night / Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back” (3.2). In Romeo and Juliet, brightness can never be entirely free of darkness, just as the heroes’ love can never be entirely free of their families’ hatred. Every moment of their relationship is shadowed by its opposite. Their wedding night is also their last moment together. The place where they finally come together is not a first home but a tomb. In the world of Romeo and Juliet, “all things change them to the contrary” (4.5). Romeo and Juliet are doomed to fail in their goal of achieving a pure love not just by their social roles, but by the nature of life itself.

Romeo and Juliet has the third-highest number of rhymed lines amongst Shakespeare’s plays. Because rhyming involves pairs of words, rhyme points to the importance of pairs and couples. Rhyme also places limits on how lines can end, which resonates in a play about characters whose own choices are limited by fate and social rules. In the play, many of these rhymes appear in fourteen line rhyming poems called sonnets. Both the prologue and the lovers’ first meeting are written as sonnets. As Romeo and Juliet flirt and banter about exchanging kisses, they trade rhymes: When Romeo says “My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough tough with a tender kiss,” Juliet answers, “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, / which mannerly devotion shows in this,” (1.4.) In Shakespeare's time, most sonnets were about idealized romantic love, so the sonnets in Romeo and Juliet emphasize that this is a play about romantic ideals. But by allowing Juliet to share the poem with Romeo, rhyming her words to his, Shakespeare updates the form, giving each member of the relationship equal value. In this way the style of the play both elevates the love between the two characters, and modernizes a traditional form of poetry.

Romeo and Juliet use the imagery of stars, moons and suns to emphasize that their love is not earthbound or ordinary, but the play always reminds us that in fact the stars are not on the lovers’ side. For Romeo, “Juliet is the sun” (2.2.). Her eyes are “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven” (2.2.). Juliet imagines Romeo “cut […] out in little stars” (3.2.). However, these heavenly bodies have another, more sinister meaning. The play’s tragic ending is astrologically fated—“star-crossed” (1.1.)—from the beginning. As the play progresses, the language of stars, moons and suns refers less to the heroes’ love and more to their tragic fate. In the play’s final speech, “The sun for sorrow will not show his head” (5.3.). Romeo and Juliet are so trapped by their fate that even the language they use to celebrate their love points toward the fact that they are doomed.

The language the lovers use contrasts sharply with the language used by Mercutio and the play’s other young men, including Romeo when he is with them. However, the young men are also undermined and trapped by their own language. Mercutio and Romeo exchange jokes in a back-and-forth struggle, each trying to turn the other’s joke against him. Many of these jokes, and Mercutio’s in particular, are sexual: “’Twould anger him / To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle” (2.1.). This verbal aggression with sexual overtones directly results in Mercutio’s death. Mercutio is offended by Tybalt’s use of the word “consort,” which he takes as a punning accusation of homosexuality (3.1.). Mercutio responds with an aggressive joke of his own, and the result is a duel in which Mercutio dies. The humor and wordplay which make Mercutio such a free-spirited character also trap him into his tragic fate.

Prose and Verse

One-sentence summaries of every single Shakespeare play!

Like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Romeo and Juliet is written mostly in blank verse. Shakespeare preferred to use verse when he was tackling serious themes, like the themes in Romeo and Juliet of doomed love, feuding, suicide, and death. Because verse is more structured and rule-bound than prose, verse also suits a play about characters who are trapped by fate and social rules. The other reason Shakespeare uses verse in Romeo and Juliet is that he generally uses verse for the speech of high-status characters. Most of the characters in Romeo and Juliet are nobles, so they address each other in verse. However, even low-status characters speak verse when the topic is serious enough. The Apothecary speaks verse as he sells Romeo poison, and the Nurse speaks verse when she recounts Juliet’s childhood, with its omens of Juliet’s tragic fate.

Prose in Romeo and Juliet usually marks either comic speech or the speech of low-status characters. The Nurse, Peter and the Musicians usually speak in prose, because they are comic and low-status characters. Mercutio and Romeo mostly use verse, but they often use prose when they are exchanging jokes. Prose can also mark reckless speech, and Mercutio sometimes uses prose when he is being especially provocative. Benvolio begins Act Three, scene one speaking in verse, because he is making the serious point that it’s dangerous for him and Mercutio to be in a place where “the Capels are abroad” (3.1.). Mercutio argues back in prose, which shows us that he is being reckless. As his encounter with Tybalt escalates, Mercutio switches between verse and prose.

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