Romeo and Juliet is a play about the conflict between the main characters’ love, with its transformative power, and the darkness, hatred, and selfishness represented by their families’ feud. The two teenaged lovers, Romeo and Juliet, fall in love the first time they see each other, but their families’ feud requires they remain enemies. Over the course of the play the lovers’ powerful desires directly clash with their families’ equally powerful hatred of each other. Initially, we may expect that the lovers will prove the unifying force that unites the families. Were the play a comedy, the families would see the light of reason and resolve their feud, Romeo and Juliet would have a public wedding, and everyone would live happily ever after. But the Montague-Capulet feud is too powerful for the lovers to overcome. The world of the play is an imperfect place, where freedom from everything except pure love is an unrealistic goal. Ultimately, the characters love does resolve the feud, but at the price of their lives.
Romeo and Juliet begin the play trapped by their social roles. Romeo is a young man who is expected to chase women, but he has chosen Rosaline, who has sworn to remain a virgin. The way Romeo speaks about Rosaline suggests he is playing a role rather than feeling true, overpowering emotion. He expresses his frustration in clichés that make his cousin Benvolio laugh at him. Romeo is also expected to be excited by the feud with the Capulets, but Romeo finds the feud as miserable as his love: “O brawling love, O loving hate” (1.1.). When we meet Juliet she is in her bedroom, physically trapped between her Nurse and her mother. As a young woman her role is to obediently wait for her parents to marry her to someone. When her mother announces that Paris will be Juliet’s future husband, Juliet’s response is obedient, but unenthusiastic: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.” (1.3). These early scenes reveal Romeo and Juliet’s characters, and introduce the themes of love, sex, and marriage that dominate the remainder of the play.
The incident which sets the plot in motion is Romeo’s decision to attend the Capulets’ party. This decision is Romeo’s first attempt to free himself from the role that confines him. Benvolio has advised him to get over Rosaline by checking out other women. By going to the Capulets’ home, Romeo is also temporarily ignoring his social role as a Montague who must feud with the Capulets. Unfortunately, Tybalt sees Romeo’s presence as an “intrusion” and swears revenge: “this intrusion shall, / Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt’rest gall” (1.5.). Tybalt’s anger raises the stakes for Romeo’s presence at the party, and foreshadows their eventual duel. In the very next line after Tybalt’s exit, Romeo and Juliet meet. Now Romeo has equally high stakes for staying at the party as for leaving. If he stays he risks Tybalt’s further wrath, but if he leaves, he won’t get to spend more time with Juliet. He risks his life for love, establishing the high stakes of the lovers’ relationship. When Romeo and Juliet talk, they reinforce the extraordinariness of their new love by using the religious language of “pilgrims,” “saints,” and “prayers,” suggesting their love will escapes earthly limitations.
After the party, Romeo returns to find Juliet. Their love gives both lovers a sense of freedom. Romeo feels like he is flying with “love’s light wings” (2.2). Juliet feels that her love is “as boundless as the sea” (2.2). She believes that love can liberate them both from their families: “be but sworn my love / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (2.2.). In the next scene we meet Friar Lawrence, who reminds us that however good something seems, it can never be entirely untainted by evil: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied” (2.3). By the end of the scene, however, even Friar Lawrence is swept up in the lovers’ excitement. He believes their love can end the Montague-Capulet feud, and he agrees to marry them. The next few scenes are more like a Shakespearean comedy than a tragedy. Mercutio and the Nurse make bawdy jokes. Romeo and Juliet come up with a cunning plan to get married under their parents’ noses. It seems as if the feud between their families really might end. At the end of Act Two, the lovers marry.
No sooner are the lovers happily married than the play shifts from comedy to tragedy. Tybalt still seeks revenge for Romeo’s decision to attend the Capulets’ ball. Romeo, believing himself freed from the feud by his secret marriage to Juliet, refuses to fight Tybalt. But Romeo’s freedom is an illusion. Tybalt provokes Mercutio and Mercutio challenges him. They fight, and Mercutio dies. Now Romeo’s duty to his new in-laws, the Capulets, comes in conflict with his duty to avenge his friend’s death. Romeo kills Tybalt. Although he was provoked into the murder, and would have been killed had he not killed first, he is no longer an innocent, blameless character. It now seems unlikely that Romeo and Juliet will be able to live happily together. Romeo is banished from Verona. Before he leaves, he and Juliet spend their first—and last—night together. The scene is bittersweet and moving because they know they will soon be parted, and the audience understands this may be the last moment the lovers see each other alive. At dawn, both Romeo and Juliet try to believe that morning hasn’t come, since the new day brings nothing but grief: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3.5).
In the final scenes, Romeo and Juliet are more trapped than ever. Neither character can go back to who they were before they met, but the possibility of them being together is very slim. The situation feels impossible, and reality intrudes on all sides. For Romeo, reality takes the form of his banishment to Mantua. For Juliet, reality is her impending marriage Paris. The two lovers’ separate fates close in on them. In a desperate attempt to escape her marriage to Paris, Juliet fakes her own death, using a sleeping potion given to her by Friar Lawrence. Reality intrudes once more in an outbreak of plague in Mantua, which prevents Romeo from getting the news that Juliet’s only asleep. Romeo rushes to Juliet’s tomb, where he finds Paris. Romeo, surrendering to the circumstances that have trapped him in his tragic role, kills Paris, then enters Juliet’s tomb and kills himself moments before she wakes. When Juliet finds Romeo dead, she stabs herself with his dagger. By killing themselves, the lovers accept that they are trapped by their fate. At the same time, they escape from the world that has kept them apart.
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