TYPE OF WORK Romantic tragedy
SETTING Verona, Italy; 15th century
Romeo Son of the house of Montague
Juliet Daughter of the Capulet household
Benvolio Romeo’s cousin
Mercutio Romeo’s friend
Tybalt Juliet’s cousin
Lady Montague The clan’s matriarch
Lady Capulet Juliet’s mother
Juliet’s ribald nurse
Friar Lawrence A Franciscan Monk
For a very long time the Capulets and the Montagues had been feuding. Harsh words often led to violence between the two houses, who were sworn as deadly enemies. Prince Escalus of Verona happened upon one such bloody brawl and angrily pronounced, “If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.”
Shortly after this, Romeo and his cousin Benvolio met on the street, and Romeo sadly confessed his unrequited love for an aloof and indifferent young woman. “[Give] liberty unto thine eyes; Examine other beauties,” was Benvolio’s curative. But Romeo was unmoved: “Thou canst not teach me to forget.”
Meanwhile, as Lord Capulet arranged for the marriage of Juliet, his 14-year-old daughter, to Paris, a kinsman of the Prince, he advised Paris to woo the girl gently. That night Capulet was to give a party so Paris could meet Juliet. He called a servant to deliver the invitations.
Now the servant could not read, so as he walked along he petitioned Romeo and Benvolio to read the guest list to him. In thanks, he told Romeo, “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray come and crush a cup a wine.” Since Romeo’s unreceptive Rosaline was named among the guests, Benvolio urged Romeo to go and find out for himself that Rosaline was a “crow.”
As Romeo and his friend Mercutio, both wearing masks, searched for Rosaline among the gathering, Romeo’s eyes fell upon the exquisite Juliet – and Romeo remembered Rosaline no more. “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!… Did my heart love till now?” he chimed. However, fiery Tybalt, Capulet’s nephew, overheard Romeo pouring out his heart and reported to his uncle that a Montague had invaded their festivity. But Capulet was not alarmed and would have no bloodshed; besides, Romeo seemed to be “a virtuous and well-governed youth.”
Romeo approached Juliet offering “my lips, two blushing pilgrims,” to which Juliet replied, “Ay, pilgrim, lips that thou must use in prayer.” But Romeo at last convinced her to press her lips to his – just before Juliet’s Capulet mother called her away. Romeo was stunned by this revelation that the girl was a daughter of his father’s enemy, but vowed that not even death would keep him from his true love.
The party ended, leaving Romeo outside the Capulet house, gazing up in lovesick rapture at Juliet’s window. Just then, to his joy, Juliet leaned from her balcony. Romeo whispered: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” As he debated within himself whether to speak to her, she, thinking herself alone, began to pour out her heart: “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
Unable to contain himself, Romeo stepped out of the shadows. Though ashamed at her overheard declaration, Juliet reconfirmed her passion, but warned him that if her family discovered him there, he would be killed. Romeo was not alarmed, “For stony limits cannot hold love out.” As he swore of his love by the moon, and by his heart, Juliet begged him not to swear at all. Things were happening too fast; the world seemed suddenly brilliant and fragile “like the lightening which doth cease to be.” So, the fragile lovers exchanged vows and agreed to meet the next morning.
On his way home, Romeo stopped by the monastery to visit Friar Lawrence. “Our Romeo hath not been in bed tonight,” the Franciscan observed. “I have been feasting with mine enemy,” replied the young man. “… Plainly know my heart’s dear love is set on the fair daughter of rich Capulet … what thou must combine by holy marriage.” The Friar teased Romeo for his fickle nature (only yesterday he had professed undying love for Rosaline), but agreed to perform the marriage, in the hope that “this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.”