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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: Romeo and Juliet (Unabridged)
Romeo and Juliet is the play which, in English literature at least, effectively invented the modern love story. Its charm and its power derive from the romantic setting (Verona, an Italian Renaissance city), the youthful innocence and ardour of the lovers, and (perhaps crucially) the excitement and drama created by the opposition which they have to contend with, an opposition which does not simply stem from the older generation but which is starkly present in the feud between their two families and which seems to be supported by the malignity of Fate. The wit, tenderness, dramatic variety and poetic beauty of this play continue to work their spell: it has proved a perennial favourite inspiring, even in our century, works such as the musical West Side Story.
Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare had already explored tragedy in his history
plays, including Richard III, and in Titus Andronicus. The great series of
tragedies, beginning with Hamlet, dates from four or five years later, and in
many ways Romeo and Juliet does not belong with them. For a start, it is not a
tragedy in the conventional sense because the fate of its protagonists is not a
direct consequence of inherent characteristics or failings—whereas (for
instance) Lear himself, through his own folly, initiates a chain reaction,
which leads to his downfall and death. Romeo and Juliet, by contrast, are much
more the victims of ill fortune than of their own vice or weakness, even if
moralists may seek to suggest that the young lovers are punished for their
intemperate lust or failure to obtain parental consent. This moralistic view is
in any case certainly not Shakespeare’s: in fact he lavishes upon his subjects
extraordinary tenderness of language and feeling.
They are ‘star-crossed lovers’ who ultimately bring good to
Verona because their deaths shock their feuding families into reconciliation.
Shakespeare derived his play almost entirely from The
History of Romeus and Juliet, a poem by Arthur Brooke
published in 1562. Brooke, in turn, found the story in a French version of an
Italian tale whose origins go back at least to the mid-15th century. Brooke,
who writes in clumsy couplets, is keen to stress the moral deficiencies of his
hero and heroine—they are in thrall to ‘dishonest desire’, rely on ‘superstitious
friars’ and thus are suitably punished—whereas Shakespeare, as we have already
noted, is entirely in sympathy with his characters and derives much of his
emotional effect from the acuteness of our identification with a couple who are
romantically defiant, risking all for the sake of their love.
Synopsis of the Plot
Act 1, Scene 1: A quarrel breaks out between servants and
of two rival families, Capulets and Montagues. The Prince
breaks up the fight. Romeo tells Benvolio of his love for Rosaline. Scene 2:
Capulet, encouraging Paris to woo his daughter Juliet, invites him to a party
that night. Romeo hears about the party and decides to go, hoping to see
Rosaline. Scene 3: Lady Capulet finds Juliet apparently indifferent to the idea
of marriage. Scene 4: Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio will gatecrash the masked
ball but feel a sense of foreboding. Mercutio delivers his ‘Queen Mab’ speech.
Scene 5: At the party Tybalt recognizes Romeo and has to be restrained by
Capulet. Romeo sees and falls in love with Juliet, discovering her name from
the Nurse. Juliet dances with Romeo and is equally smitten.
Act 2, Scene 1: Romeo enters Juliet’s garden, while his
friends look for him. Scene 2: Romeo overhears Juliet acknowledge her love for
him. He reveals himself, confesses his love for her, and undertakes to make
arrangements for their marriage the next day. Scene 3: Romeo finds Friar
Lawrence gathering herbs and requests his help in marrying Juliet. Scene 4:
Tybalt has challenged Romeo. The Nurse finds Romeo who sends her back to Juliet
with the message that she is to come to Friar Lawrence’s cell that afternoon
for their marriage. Scene 5: The Nurse returns to the impatient Juliet to tell
her of the arrangements. Scene 6: Romeo and Juliet depart to be married by the
Act 3, Scene 1: Mercutio and Romeo meet Tybalt. Romeo fails
to prevent the others from fighting; Mercutio is killed, and Romeo swiftly
avenges his friend by slaying Tybalt. When the Prince discovers these events,
Romeo is banished from Verona. Scene 2: The Nurse tells Juliet the bad news,
but adds that Romeo will still visit her that night. Scene 3: Romeo hears the
news of his exile from the Friar. The Nurse finds Romeo beside himself with
grief. Scene 4: Capulet promises Juliet to Paris and sets the wedding date
three days hence. Scene 5: Romeo and Juliet part in the morning. Juliet’s
parents threaten to disown her if she will not marry Paris.
Act 4, Scene 1: Paris tells the Friar that he must officiate
at his and Juliet’s wedding on Thursday—two days away. Juliet asks the Friar
for help and he outlines a plan involving a sleeping draught whereby the
marriage with Paris may be avoided and she may join Romeo. Scene 2: Juliet
makes no apparent difficulty when her father arranges the wedding with Paris.
Scene 3: Juliet, not without anxiety, drinks off the potion provided by the
Friar. Scene 4: At dawn Capulet oversees preparations for the wedding-party.
Scene 5: Juliet appears to be dead. The Friar advises her family to make ready
for her funeral.
Act 5, Scene 1: Romeo, in exile at Mantua, hears that Juliet
is dead in the family vault. He buys poison from an apothecary and determines
to join her. Scene 2: The Friar hears from a colleague that his message never
reached Romeo and thus decides to be with Juliet when she wakes from the
effects of the potion. Scene 3: Romeo, arriving at the tomb so that he may die
with her, finds Paris (who has brought flowers for the seemingly dead Juliet)
and kills him. He takes the poison. Now the Friar comes, discovers the dead
Romeo and Paris and begs Juliet, now awake, to flee the place. She, finding
Romeo dead, kisses him and then kills herself with his dagger. When the Prince
and the fathers of the dead lovers arrive, reconciliation between the warring
families is at last achieved.
Romeo and Juliet is the play, which, in English literature
at least, effectively invented the modern love story. Its charm and its power
derive from the romantic setting (Verona, an Italian Renaissance city). The
youthful innocence and ardor of the lovers, and (perhaps crucially) the
excitement and drama created by the opposition (which they have to contend
with)— an opposition which does not simply stem from the older generation but
which is starkly present in the feud between their two families, and which
seems to be supported by the malignity of Fate. The richly realized context of
their love is additionally enhanced by (for example) the superbly concrete
character of Juliet’s old Nurse, who fondly encourages the pair, until the
‘better’ offer of Paris’ love comes along. The Nurse’s sentimentality and
materialism are all too convincing, and are symptomatic of the way in which
Shakespeare suggests that none of the other characters can match the lovers for
sincerity and steadfastness, especially once the brilliant and impulsive
Mercutio has gone. Youthful as they are, we see that they are the people who
grow and mature as the play progresses: Romeo, as sensitive and intelligent as
the later Hamlet, realizes that his ‘love’ for Rosaline is no such thing but
merely infatuation: however instant the development of his love for Juliet may
be, it is ‘the real thing’, as is Juliet’s for him. The imagery of light and
religion which Shakespeare consistently bestows upon the lovers is suggestive
of the truth and value of their feelings: at the masked ball where they first
meet, Romeo’s immediate reaction to Juliet is that ‘she doth teach the torches
to burn bright’, and their first words to each other are all built on the
conceit that he is a ‘pilgrim’ and she a ‘saint’. The wit, tenderness, dramatic
variety and poetic beauty of this play continue to work their spell: it has
proved a perennial favorite inspiring, even in our century, works such as the
musical West Side Story.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Cast of Romeo and Juliet
Juliet Kate Beckinsale
Prince Norman Rodway
Montague Edward de Souza
Nurse Fiona Shaw
Tybalt Jasper Britton
Paris Ronan Vibert
John/Apothecary/Cousin Capulet Peter
Balthasar/Servant John Paul Connolly
Peter/Abram Jason Cheater
MICHAEL SHEEN (Romeo) has worked in the West End and across
the UK in Look Back In Anger, Romeo and Juliet, Ninagawa’s Peer Gynt, Moonlight
and the Royal National Theatre’s Ends of The Earth and The Homecoming. He is
increasingly active as a director (The Dresser, Badfinger) and has appeared in
the films Mary Reilly and Wilde.
KATE BECKINSALE (Juliet) made her screen debut in Kenneth
Branagh’s film Much Ado About Nothing, which was followed by other films
including Cold Comfort Farm and Haunted. She played the lead in television’s
Emma and her theater credits include The Seagull and Faithless.
PHILIP MADOC’s (Chorus) extensive theater work includes the
roles of Othello, Iago, Faust, and Macbeth and, with the Royal Shakespeare
Company, The Duke in Measure for Measure and Professor Raat in The Blue Angel.
Television roles include Lloyd George and Magua in The Last of the Mohicans. He
also stars in his own detective series, A Mind to Kill.
NORMAN RODWAY (Prince) is an Associate Artist of the Royal
Shakespeare Company, where his many roles have included Richard III, Mercutio
in Romeo and Juliet and Gloucester in King Lear. He has also worked for the
Royal National Theatre in The Seagull and Hedda Gabler, and other major
theaters nationwide. His television credits include Rumpole of the Bailey and A
Month in the Country.
DAVID BRADLEY (Capulet) won an Olivier Award for Best
Supporting Actor for the role of The Fool in King Lear and other awards for his
extensive work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has included roles such
as Cassius in Julius Caesar, Polonius in Hamlet and Mephistopheles in Dr.
Faustus. He has been seen on television in Our Friends in the North, Cracker,
Band of Gold and Reckless.
EDWARD DE SOUZA (Montague) is one of the Britain’s leading
classical actors and has worked many seasons for the Royal Shakespeare Company,
Royal National Theatre and Old Vic. His film credits include The Thirty Nine
The Spy Who Loved Me.
FRANCES BARBER (Lady Capulet) is well known for her roles in
films such as Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Young Soul
Rebels. Her television performances include Inspector Morse, Hancock and The
Ice House. After an Olivier Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1984, she went
on to win acclaim for many theatrical roles including leading roles in
Pygmalion and Insignificance.
JUDY LOE (Lady Montague) has appeared on stage across the UK
and on television in The Gentle Touch, The Home Front and Life After Death. Her
film credits include Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
FIONA SHAW (Nurse) has won the Olivier Award for Best Actress
four times, as well as a clutch of other awards, for her roles in As You Like
It, Electra, The Good Person of Sechuan, Hedda Gabler and Machinal. Her
of Richard II was widely acclaimed, as is her work in films
such as My Left Foot, Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina.
HEATHCOTE WILLIAMS (Friar Lawrence) is a poet, playwright
and actor, best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects: Whale
Nation, Sacred Elephant and Autogeddon. As an actor he has taken memorable
roles in Orlando, Wish You Were Here, The Odyssey and Derek Jarman’s The
Tempest. Whale Nation and Sacred Elephant are also available on Naxos
AudioBooks, read by Heathcote Williams.
ANTON LESSER (Mercutio) has played many of the principal
Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Petruchio,
Romeo and Richard III. His other theater credits include Wild Oats and Art.
Appearances in major television drama productions include The Mill on the Floss
and The Politician’s Wife.
JASPER BRITTON (Tybalt) took the lead in the Regents Park
Open Air Theatre production of Richard III and has also worked for the Royal
National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in The Wind in the Willows,
Unfinished Business, The Beggar’s Opera and Anthony and Cleopatra. His television
appearances include The Bill, The Upper Hand and Peak Practice.
RONAN VIBERT (Paris) has worked for the Royal National
Theatre in A Matter of Life and Death and The Mother, and across the UK in
plays as varied as Secret Rapture and Ninagawa’s Peer Gynt. He has been seen on
The Cloning of Joanna May, Jeeves and Wooster and The
and his film credits include Empire State and Queen of
SIMON HARRIS (Benvolio) has appeared on stage across the UK
in numerous plays including Hamlet, Coriolanus, Macbeth and The Dresser. He is
also a playwright and his debut play Badfinger opened the Donmar Warehouse
“Four Corners” season in 1997.
PETER YAPP (Friar John/Apothecary/Cousin Capulet) has
appeared in plays and theaters across Britain and in the West End including
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Black Prince. His television
credits include House of Elliot, Martin Chuzzlewit and Poirot.
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SHAKESPEARE, W.: Romeo and Juliet (Unabridged)